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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Diary of a Tsar-in-Waiting
By Michael Romanov

With autumn now galloping gloomily on, it is perhaps time to relive some of the memories of high summer with its glorious days of sport.

In my capacity as Tsar-in-Waiting (until the next election, after which I hope to be simply “Tsar”), I attended many exotic events, like the elephant polo out at the Slonskaya Country Club, and the exhibition of kick-boxing given by a pair of giraffes at the Moscow zoo in aid of the Save the Warthog Fund. But the strangest event this year, the one that came closest to real Russkaya ekzotika, was the hippo racing at Begovaya.

I’d seen hippo racing before, during my younger days as a district officer in what was then Northern Rhodesia. The procedure was to fence off an especially rich pumpkin plantation near one of the larger rivers just as the plants were ripening and the nostrils of every hippo in the vicinity were beginning to twitch. Then one evening, an hour after nightfall, the starter would open a gate and let the animals into the enclosure. The passion with which a fully-grown hippo will hurtle in the direction of free pumpkin makes for exciting racing.

We, the sahibs, used to take our pink gins up into a high viewing stand, safely above the tumult, and watch the stampede by searchlight, while betting on different animals, much as one might do at Ascot or The Curragh.

It was enormously good sport, so I accepted without hesitation the invitation issued in late summer by a Russian friend, Ivan, to an evening of what he called “Africa-themed racing” at the Moscow “gippodrome”. I have been studying Russian long enough to know that, because the alphabet has no “h”, gippodrome actually means hippodrome, just as gomosexual means homosexual, and a roll in the gay is a roll in the hay.

I really wanted to see a herd of wide-bodied water-cows (as hippos are called by the amaKaunda) thundering round a Russian race course towards a heap of pumpkins freshly flown in from Tajikistan.

Our party foregathered in the early afternoon at Dingaan’s, a restaurant just off Tverskaya, where we drank ice-cold beer while waiting for the limousines kindly provided by the sponsoring brewery to take us out to the hippodrome, which is situated close to Begovaya metro station.

I said to Ivan that I hoped the transport would not come too soon as hippos have very sensitive skin, which is why they live in water and forage only after dark. It would be cruel to race such animals in strong sunlight. Laughing rather strangely, he appeared to interpret this as a request for more drink which, trying to be polite, I accepted.

Proceedings at the race course began with lunch in a private dining room behind our box. Looking at the menu of pseudo-African exotica, I asked Ivan if I could just have plain pumpkin. When he said it was not on the menu I asked if this was to prevent the hippos being distracted by the scent and bounding up to our box for a quick pit-stop half-way through the race.

Once again, he looked at me rather strangely. So I plumped for the most conventional item I could see, which was snakefingers casseroled with cloud-seed and trunk-water, and served on a bed of Limpupu leaves. It came accompanied by a South African vodka which was served so cold I almost had to eat it.

As the lunch progressed, life seemed to get jollier and jollier. It might have been the vodka. But to be fair, I had never tried trunk-water before, even though I lived with elephants for years. Whatever the cause, the result was that when we finally made our way from the table out onto the balcony, the hippos seemed to have assumed a peculiar shape.

For a start, they looked much thinner and more agile than any I had ever seen in Africa, and their legs were longer and more slender, with funny little hoof-like things fixed to the ends. But odder still, the animals all had riders sitting on top of them, dressed in colourful shirts and caps.

Now if there is one thing I learned in the Dark Continent, it is that you never get close to a hungry hippo unless you have a strong steel fence separating you from it. A mere saddle is no use. They are powerful and dangerous animals. Yet here in Russia brave young men, completely unarmed except for riding crops, were apparently prepared to get up on their backs and try to steer these huge beasts towards their dinner. Russkaya ekzotika indeed!

I put my thousand roubles on Mine Dump, and dump he did, coming last by a mile from Witch Doctor and Big Hole. I’ve seen babushkas without a bus to catch, or even a jockey on top, move faster than Mine Dump did. Maybe he’d been on the trunk-water too.

Strangest of all was that at the end of the race, the animals simply drew up and milled around, apparently indifferent to the demands of their stomachs. I asked Ivan where the pumpkins were. He looked at me strangely for a third time, then said with a laugh, “You’ll find out if you stay here much longer. At midnight our limousines all turn into pumpkins.”

That seemed the right time to leave, before the hippos discovered the secret and we had to make our way home on the metro.

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