Monday, 31 March 2008

Week in review: St Petersburg; Russia Today and Roman Abramovich

On Monday night I took, for the first time, the newish Grand Express train to St Petersburg. A first-class-only service, it underlines that, for the best in business class train travel, Russia is streets ahead of the rest of the world. It offers suites (with their own shower and bathroom) and even the more modest premium cabins (which I took) have their own washbasins, 50% larger than normal and very comfortable beds and satellite TV: and superb waiter-to-cabin service.

For St Pete’s I had packed the full furs, guessing the weather could be inclement. And, boy, was it? Perhaps the worse weather I have experienced in four years of living in Russia swiftly descended on Tuesday afternoon. Visiting a client located in Arsenalnaya I thought it might be a pleasant hour or so’s walk back to Winter Palace Square (close to where my hotel was located). So I am strolling along the Neva when suddenly this extraordinary wind sweeps down from the Gulf of Finland and – despite the knee-length black leather, fur-lined coat (with the luxuriant mink collar and matching mink hat) it feels like the talons of an Arabian falcon are slicing through my bones.

So I turn right and, fortuitously, am right by Finlyansky Station (the setting for so many Cold War tales, both fictional and very real). I negotiate a sensible taxi fare to Winter Palace Square and, as I arrive, so do the depths of mid-winter. The snow starts to fall horizontally

Having missed lunch – and knowing I had an evening at the opera – I took High Tea and watched the snow fall and fall: about 12cms in just 4 hours. And, indeed, as I left the opera later that night, the weather was staggeringly bad.

My guest for business lunch the next day – in response to “please suggest somewhere where they can cook” – took me to the newish Terrassa restaurant. It was quite superb and almost as good as the best elitny restaurants in Moscow. Lunch was, of course, ‘dry’, but had it not been, I think it would have been almost as expensive as Moscow too. I had taken half day’s leave and spent it in annual pilgrimage to the Hermitage. Having Russian residency meant I was allowed to buy a ticket for just 100 RUR, which was very pleasing.

Lots of the rooms are closed for restorations until spring (Mid-April), but I really go for the Renaissance and Baroque Italian collection; including some excellent Titians and a favourite Bronzino. The Palace does have, BTW, a superb collection of Van Dycks; including several bought after the English Royal Collection was broken up after our civil war, which ended up in the Romanov collections.

Blogging was mostly absent this week, as it was rather busier even than usual. Saturday morning a car from the station comes to take me to Russia Today, where they wanted me to do a studio interview on British investment in Russia. The entrance to Russia Today is located in the vast RIA Novosti complex (just by the dustbins actually, which I think is surely a political sideswipe at the state media TV outlet employing so many foreigners).

Actually, I was crap. No, really, I was. I have done, in various countries, over a hundred bits of telly and radio and this was my worst ever. I have since seen the tape and, while not a train wreck, as such, it is just too ragged a performance; my ‘punch points’ were off and in one sentence I seem to lose the ability to conjugate in my first language. It is not what Exile promises broadcasters: to give great headline. On the other hand, I keep my answers within a nicely sound-bitey 15 seconds each or so. But, most unforgiveably of all, I am dull.

Being driven home, I pondered having Driver drop me off for lunch in Kamergersky. Thank God I didn’t!! Before my interview I went into make-up and, as they do things with my hair (a gallon of lacquer) and stick on some slap, I am distracted by the producer’s briefing. And although you can’t see this on the tape – no I am not giving you the link! – when I later walk in my apartment, having been driven back, I catch myself in the mirror. I am ORANGE. Orange I tell you, with the hair swept en bouffant like a Soviet '80s crooner. I look like a paedophile from Paphos. If I had walked into Café Des Artistes like that I would never have heard the end of it!

Having scrubbed my face, I switched on a new opera CD I have (Anna Netrebko arias); pour a glass of Montrachet; kick off the Guccis and try, just try, to clear myself of a most unsettling feeling of ineptitude and ennui.

Back at the office on Monday, I shall, Stalin-like, issue a приказ to staff and have this TV appearance declared un-history; never to be referred to again…

Saturday evening, I took a dearly beloved friend to Nedal’nij Vostok; where the selection of crustacea on offer is prepared in some of the finest ways available in the world. While there, the vast room is suddenly overcome by a nearly static charge of excitement. A moment later and I see Roman Abramovich walk past my table. Two noteworthy things.

The first is he really does have the most startlingly clear blue eyes, lit like lamps; and I can see why women, caught in their ice-blue gaze, are entranced by him. Secondly, he was body-guard free. If you hang out in Moscow’s elitny restaurants, you will see plenty of household name billionaires, but I like the fact that Abramovich doesn’t ponce about with heavy personal security, inside. Outside, as I was later to discover, it is rather different. Abramovich doesn’t go for flash cars, but the huge Chrysler limo, flanked by four 4x4s was clearly his. The nest of antennae on them, each bulging with OMON, clearly gave it away. He is entitled to OMON protection, of course, as regional Governor of Chukotka.

Tonight, I expected to see Nabucco at the Bolshoi, but discovered at home I should have been there Saturday night. Not a great end to an otherwise diverting week.

1 comment:

Jeff said...

We stayed on Kamergersky Pr. when we were in Moscow. The apartment was no great shakes, but the location was excellent. Coffee and croissants most mornings from the nearby Five Stars joint (which is suspiciously a lot like Prêt-à-Manger).

Perhaps Mr. Abramovitch was in town to finalize the new tunnel I read about in yesterday's Moscow Times! Note the date of the article :-)