To Russia with love toys

Girls, dildos and arrest by the KGB, ROGER TAVENER remembers an eventful trip to the Soviet Union in the 1980s

moscow airport


AN agitated security man brandishes a throbbing dildo in the air and barks something at me in Russian which sounds more than a little threatening…

I have no idea why he’s poking me in the chest with the pulsing vibrator. The sex toy wasn’t in my bag. But I can’t make him understand.

I’m not sure he even knows what it is. Maybe he thinks it’s a mini inter-ballistic missile. It’s the right shape. 

Hundreds of travellers are looking at us. Turn the thing off for fuck’s sake. The huge arrivals hall is silent apart from a deafening chainsaw-like buzz echoing off the marble walls.

It’s even louder now he’s put it into top gear. The fucking thing’s going crazy.

Hundreds of travellers are motionless, eyes bulging in disbelief. More than a few women can’t hold back a slight knowing smile. 

Suddenly the pretty blonde next to me in the queue owns up. “Sorry, It’s mine. I forgot it was in my case. I didn’t know it was illegal.” 

This is the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Everything is fucking illegal.

She’s trying desperately to communicate with them through sign language. Random hand gestures. Fuck me, if I’m not mistaken, that’s international for “Wanker.”

And we were supposed to arrive here undercover. We’ve all lied on our visa applications. Now she’s blown it already.

I’m allowed through as my baggage has gone, but the rest of the party are going to be stopped and their cases taken apart.

In DJ John Peel’s case they find hundreds of compact discs. Confiscated. Signed publicity photos are ignored.

sheila ravenscroft

Peel’s wife (The Pig, his pre-PC pet-name for Sheila), pictured left, has a radio. Confiscated. 

Radio One boss Johnny Beerling’s bag contains half-a-dozen bottles of scotch.

The security guys are all smiles now. They might not know what to do with a dildo, but they certainly know what Johnnie Walker red label is and how much it’ll fetch on the black market. Confiscated.

Peel’s producer, Dave, an earnest, humourless geeky-type from BBC World Service, isn’t with us. He’s taking photos of Aeroflot death-traps on the runway so escapes the heavy search. A few cds and a couple of bottles make it through. I didn’t ask if he had packed a Rampant Rabbit. His tape recorder survives.

The Monroe-esque blonde, so demure and innocent-looking when we were introduced back at Heathrow, has a whole cache of naughty underwear as well as sex aids. Suspenders, basques, negligees, stockings. The works. Confiscated.

I didn’t catch her name. Not fucking Ann Summers is it?

Looks like old Beerling was in for a bit of seeing to… she’s his personal assistant. I’m bloody sure she is. 

And he’s already regretting inviting a hack on the trip. 

JB to RT: “Please don’t write that …” 

I agree. But that doesn’t mean anything.

Rock music is banned in Russia, but tens of thousands illicitly listen to Peel’s slot on BBC World Service. He’s idolised by Soviet youth. 

It’s supposed to be a To Russia with Love-type feature for the Express and a Beeb radio documentary. 

Taxi from the hotel to a snowy Red Square to see the tomb. I make a crack about John Lenin on the way. Peel doesn’t find it funny. Nothing is funny or interesting unless he says it.

The socialist peacenik has an aversion to journalists, especially  those from Tory-backing tabloids. Maybe it stems from revelations that he married his first wife when she was 15 ? 

It’s the punk era and we trudge through a maze of miserable frozen Muscovite streets to an underground dive to meet some of Moscow’s poverty-stricken musicians staging an illegal gig. They’d get life in Siberia if caught.

As a gesture of goodwill and Glasnost, Peel gives our only surviving bottle of scotch to the band’s frontman, more Sid Snot than Sid Vicious.

Believing it to be the way punks behave in Britain, he begins necking it. It’s all going down in one. We try to prise it from his lips which, in a few minutes, will turn a morbid shade of blue. But this boy has more suction than a fucking octopus. He’s not letting go.

He collapses in minutes. No such thing as ambulances. His mates cart him away, presumably to die.

john peel

Fuck me. John Peel, pictured right, has just killed a Russian. I joke about the British Bereavement Corporation. Radio Blunder. Licence fee payers’ cash being spent on topping Ruskie kids. Over some late night vodkas I agree not to write it. Well …

We’re travelling from Moscow to Leningrad by rail on the Soviet version of the Orient Express. While we wait for the severely delayed service in -30 degrees we take refuge in the Leningradsky station bog.

Disgusting as it sounds, the steam rising from hundreds of men’s body-temp urine is the only way of avoiding frost-bite. Even The Pig came in, disguised in layers of clothes and hoods and scarves.

Belatedly the train turns up. Predictably the “Orient Express” has been replaced by some 100-year-old heap with icy six-bunk cabins and cracked windows. No food for the 450-mile overnight sleeper trip. And one fucking samovar and about a dozen tea bags for the whole train herding hundreds across the Tundra.

We’ve been split into two compartments and must each share with three mentally handicapped Germans. That’s going to be a bunch of fun. The Pig grunts her dissatisfaction.

I try to say it’s much better if all the Germans go in one cabin and the British in another.

“Oh you fucking British. You hate the Germans. You can never forget the war. “

“No it’s not that (well, a bit of it is true). We really don’t want to spend the night with a bunch of retarded Germans.”

An international incident is brewing over the samovar. But somehow we get our way.

On the top bunk I fear for my life as there is no restraining rail. I’m not going to sleep. The fucking thing is lurching round corners, stopping sharply at road crossings. And there are the mad Germans next door, seething with anger that they have been beaten once again.

Strains of Deutschland Deutschland Uber Alles penetrate the plywood walls. Twats.

We talk loudly about the 1966 World Cup final and laugh like nutters about THAT Russian linesman. Bad move.

leningrad stn

Some people might have thought it was all over, but it wasn’t.

In the dead of night our lockless door slides opens a few inches and, as yellowy 20 watt corridor lighting seeps in, I can make out arms curling through the crack towards adjoining coat pegs and feeling for pockets. We’re being robbed. And it’s the revenge-seeking retards.

Fritz has gone over the top. My feet are at that end so I shout to alert the others and start booting German heads and arms. They scream in teutonic pain.  “Gott in fucking Himmel.” 

After a sound thrashing, a bloodied and battered Jerry returns behind enemy lines. Four nil. Four nil. (World Cup, two world wars and the Siege of the Leningrad train).

Train guards arrive and we’re placed under cabin arrest for the remaining five hours. 

The Pig averts her eyes as I piss through urgent necessity out of the window. The pure-bred English fluid catches the wind and splatters the length of the following carriage. I only hope the Germans had their window open …  

Our hotel in old Leningrad has a cellar disco. Hundreds of crazy Finns are staying because it’s just over the border and booze is dirt cheap. They always get absolutely slaughtered and behave like total lunatics. 

Peel, who I make spin a few discs for photos, is recognised and modestly signs autographs. He’s slightly miffed the strapping blonde six-footers are far more interested in Ann Summers. So they join the Radio One roadshow and are plied with copious amounts of corporate hospitality.

At 4.30 am there’s a knock at my door. A female says it’s an important matter. Turns out to be a girl who got into the cab we exited outside the Hermitage museum.

“I am an English student and want to improve my skills.” I bet you do love.

Overnight the curse of John Peel has struck again. One of the Finns we’ve befriended has plunged to his death from the roof. A couple of others are suffering alcoholic poisoning and are touch and go.

Another rap on the door. In steps Ann Summers. All fur coat (or bath robe) and no knickers.

Moments later it’s The Pig who’s knocking. As an Earth Mother she’s worried about all the police sirens and wonders if I’m safe. Then she sees the two women and nearly vomits in distaste. “That’s fucking disgusting,” she oinks, imagining a threesome.

Overnight the curse of John Peel has struck again. One of the Finns we’ve befriended has plunged to his death from the roof. A couple of others are suffering alcoholic poisoning and are touch and go.

Jibes that he is now a Death Jockey don’t go down well. Peel stomps off for breakfast in a very dark mood. Not only because he’s a vegan and starving to death on this trip. 

Minutes later I’m in the cafeteria queue and I see peace-loving hippie Peel smashing a man several times over the head with his food tray. Kasha (traditional grain porridge) is spilling all over the floor. Which is actually the best fucking place for it.

The victim is on the ground and it looks like Peel is going in for the kill. He’s still hitting the fucker. Maybe he wants to make it a hat-trick of deaths ?

Peel is arrested. He’s thrown into a cop car and taken downtown to Leningrad’s Lubyanka, the KGB HQ and main police station.

The top BBC man and global icon of peace and love, is facing serious GBH charges for attacking one of the KGB’s own men, who had the BBC team under surveillance.

I get my “language student”, now my gofer, to check it out for a few US bucks. Peel apparently went mental when the KGB agent serially ‘goosed’ The Pig. DJ gets the needle when his wife is touched-up. How fucking heroic..  

Peel is facing life in some god-forsaken Gulag.

The men from the British Embassy turn up. Stony-faced chinless wonders liaise with Dave who is obviously a kindred spirit.

I’m slapped with a Government top-level embargo. No publication as it could jeopardise diplomatic discussions and the UK’s relations with the Soviets. We’ll see.


Beerling, left, is allowed to visit his star in jail. Its enough to drive a top BBC executive to drink.

He collapses, paralytic, in full public view — along with a legs-akimbo Ann Summers (it’s now clear ALL her underwear was confiscated) — and, worried about drunk and disorderly charges, Dave and I carry them to a taxi.

Ok Dave, I won’t write about it…

Peel is released — I’ve always wondered if a palm or two was greased — but only after we agree to be deported on the first available flight.

I just have time to pack and file.

We land about 6am. There’s a rush to the newsstand. It’s an ‘exclusive’ tease on the front and centre spread.

Fortunately I’ve already bid a not-so-fond farewell and found a bar.

I forgot to warn them: “You know that stuff you said not to write …”

© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre