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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

The Way It Was

Red Wedding, part 2
A three-part series by Helen Womack

One evening in December 1985, when the snow was falling in thick flakes on Strastnoi (Passion) Boulevard, I bumped into the tall, dark and devastatingly handsome Konstantin Gagarin. The street name referred to the Passion of Christ, there being an old monastery nearby, but for us there would always be the other meaning.

I had gone out in need of fresh air after working late in the Reuters office, translating a newspaper article about how Mikhail Gorbachev was cracking down on alcohol abuse. Vodka prices were going up to curb consumption and new penalties were coming in for “hooligans” caught drinking in public places.

At the same time, walking towards me from the other end of the deserted boulevard was Kostya, who had left a party where the vodka was running out. He told me afterwards that he had been hoping to find a taxi driver who would sell him black-market liquor from the boot of his cab. But meanwhile, mistaking me for a Russian girl in my fake fur coat, and being a cheeky lad, Kostya decided to try his luck.

“You don’t by any chance have a bottle, do you?” he asked.

“You leave me alone. I am a British correspondent,” I replied in broken Russian, fearing a KGB provocation to get me drunk in a public place.

We stood staring at each other like two animals in the forest. Luckily Kostya was joined at that moment by another party guest, Nikita, whose English was slightly better than my Russian. He explained the situation, calmed me down and invited me to the party. It was madness for me to follow two strange men to an unknown apartment at nearly midnight but I felt instinctively that they were not going to hurt me.

We had nothing to drink except diluted eau de cologne or tea. I chose tea

They took me through a dark yard into a doorway reeking of urine and up in a creaking lift to a small fifth-floor flat. The narrow living room was furnished with a green velvet sofa spewing its stuffing and two or three wooden chairs. On the table were a few mandarins and a dish of sukhariki (nibbles of dried bread). The party had broken up for lack of lubrication and the host and hostess had gone to bed, but Kostya roused them again to greet me. They turned out to be Seriozha, who was following his famous father into the world of literature, and Lyuba, a doctor.

Seriozha spoke French, which was also my best foreign language at that time. The two of us got carried away, talking about art, politics and everything under the sun. We had nothing to drink except diluted eau de cologne or tea. I chose tea but was inebriated by the discussion. Nikita got bored and left, Lyuba went back to bed and Kostya sat in uncomprehending silence throughout the night.

Although I was talking to Seriozha, it was Kostya I really liked and judging from his body language, he was attracted to me too. He asked me to go out with him and we agreed to meet the following evening outside a furniture shop on the boulevard. I took a pocket dictionary with me on the date. Kostya’s English was extremely limited, although he managed to express quite complicated ideas in the primitive language at his disposal.

“Kostya no like now house,” he said, meaning that he was not keen on contemporary architecture.

“Soviet Union covered in prick trail,” was his description of a land under dictatorship and barbed wire.

On our first outing, he took me to see the “Forever Fire”, the Eternal Flame down by Red Square.

Because of the language barrier, we learnt about each other slowly. It was nearly two weeks before I understood that Kostya did not live in Moscow but was extending his stay so that he could see me. He was from Kirovsk, a town in the Leningrad region strictly closed to foreigners because it had a factory that produced parts for submarines.

As a boy, Kostya lived in a wooden house overlooking the Kirovsk cemetrey. His father worked in the timber industry. His mother, who had a degree in history, taught diamat (dialectical materialism) in a workers’ night school. Since his mother was busy teaching, he was effectively brought up by his grandmother. She had lost 17 years of her life in one of Stalin’s labour camps because in the 1930s, she had given a night’s shelter to a priest.

The Soviet Union was still an atheist state when Kostya was born in 1959. His grandmother, released from labour camp, baptized him secretly at home in a washing up bowl. In his youth, Kostya rebelled against the status quo by declaring himself a Christian whereas I, growing up in the West, had rejected Establishment values by briefly toying with communism.

At 16, Kostya left Kirovsk and took a place at a technical college in Leningrad. From this springboard, he tried to jump into theatre school but was rejected because he could not produce a satisfactory political essay. Asked to write on the subject of the war-time victory of the Soviet Union, Kostya wrote: “The Soviet Union had a great victory, full stop.” Nevertheless, he’d made it out of dreary old Kirovsk and now had a colourful bohemian life in Leningrad.

We were both nervous of the secret police. There were days when I was so paranoid, I used to think my rabbit-fur hat was bugged

To avoid prosecution as a “social parasite”, he had a state job on paper. In reality, he lived like a bear, gathering food in summer and hibernating in winter. When the weather was warm and the days long, he would build dachas for private clients, strictly speaking an illegal business. When the frosts came, he would sleep by day and party by night. He had friends all over the Soviet Union and travelled to visit them, taking his guitar wherever he went. He wasn’t an anti- Soviet dissident as such but his hippy lifestyle was subversive in its way.

The fact that he travelled protected us for a long time. Kostya would come to Moscow to see me and then go away again, so the KGB never had time to latch onto us. We were both nervous of the secret police. There were days when I was so paranoid, I used to think my rabbit-fur hat was bugged and the KGB were listening to my thoughts. Kostya was more relaxed but he took the precaution of never visiting or telephoning me in “Sad Sam”, the foreigners’ compound where the walls and phones were almost certainly riddled with eavesdropping devices. Instead, like spies, we used to meet on the street and agree the venue for the next date before we parted.

At the start of our courtship, we met several times outside the furniture store, then we decided to change the place of rendezvous to Mayakovsky Square. I remembered that we had a new arrangement but Kostya forgot, so while I was waiting at the square, he was standing outside the furniture shop. I waited for an hour in the cold before giving up in despair. There were no mobile phones then, of course, and I didn’t have an address or telephone number for Kostya. All I knew was that he stayed with friends, somewhere in the general area of Belorussky Station.

The situation seemed hopeless. I went back to “Sad Sam”, lay on the sofa and stared at the ceiling. After about an hour, I had an urge to go to Belorussky Station. I took a taxi and among the thousands of people milling about at the station, I spotted Kostya in the rush-hour crowd. It was as unlikely as finding a needle in a haystack. After that, we were careful to exchange telephone numbers and addresses.

Kostya continued to visit me in Moscow but we also started to meet in other Soviet cities. Naturally, I went to Leningrad and we also had little holidays together in the Baltic States. On each trip, I would check into the local Intourist hotel but in actual fact stay with Kostya and his friends.

In Moscow, Kostya and I tramped the streets, stealing kisses in doorways like teenagers. Friends were kind and took us in but we needed a place of our own. In those days, it was illegal to rent an apartment but Kostya managed to borrow one. One warm May evening, in a worker’s flat near a meat processing plant in the grimy suburb of Kuzminki, he asked me to marry him. He went down on his knees to make the proposal. Not lilacs but an aroma of boiled bones floated in through the open fortochka (little window). Yet for me, nothing could have been more romantic.

In Moscow, Kostya and I tramped the streets, stealing kisses in doorways like teenagers

When I was engaged, I thought I should inform my employers at Reuters. Both Kostya and I expected trouble from the KGB, which we were to get in full measure in due course, but I failed to foresee that my bosses were going to be less than sympathetic to our little East-West union. At first, the editors wanted to withdraw me to London for “losing my objectivity”. I didn’t blame them. They were only doing their jobs. Fortunately, the intervention of one progressive-minded German editor saved my bacon and Reuters decided not to cancel my Moscow posting.

Soon Kostya and I had other problems. I got an early warning of this from a friend called Mikhail Butov, who was a poet. Misha and I sang together in a choir. At one of the rehearsals, he took me aside and told me that he had been called in by the KGB, who wanted to know the identity of my Russian fiancé. It was incredible but that vast, supposedly all-powerful organization couldn’t work out to whom I was engaged. Misha refused to inform on me and as a result, lost the place he was hoping to get at film school. But the gods rewarded his loyalty as a friend because in the 1990s, he went on to win the Russian Booker Prize for his novel, Freedom.

As for the KGB, they didn’t manage to find Kostya until October 1986, when our marriage banns went up at the British Embassy, a necessary formality before we could book a ceremony at the Palace of Weddings. In the banns, Kostya’s address became public knowledge: 4A Reidovy Peryulok, Kirovsk, Leningrad Region.

Armed with this information, the KGB sent army recruiters to Kostya’s home. No doubt they thought he would make excellent cannon fodder for the war in Afghanistan.

To be continued in the next issue…

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