Russia (USSR) - Moscow Anecdotes, by Jim Mackison (1970)
I received a Russian phone call in our airport office overlooking the Sheremetievo apron:
Me: British air company
She: Ahh... Angliiskaya
Me: Would you like to come round for some tea?
She: (pause) … Niet…I only drink champagne. (click, end of call)
Was it that girl I’d noticed on the transfer desk?
In cold war times social mixing was not encouraged either way. Person to person, however, ordinary Russians are warm, lovely people. Official relations were often prickly. Speaking Russian was useful, but not essential for doing my job. I demonstrated to my nervous successor that I could do the handover using English only.
I’d already been to Moscow as a student in 1966. By the time I joined BOAC as a trainee in 1968, I had studied Russian for 6 years. I went as a Russian speaker on negotiating trips to Moscow, culminating in the 2-week Air Service Agreement talks with the USSR in 1969.
Studying Russian doesn’t make you fluent, and certainly not a simultaneous interpreter. The Board of Trade had a real professional. BEA’s Mike Tomkins (later of BOAC) was extremely good. Then there was me. I managed to do what was required in sub-groups. At the crunch cocktail party, the BOAC lead, Basil Bampfylde, called me over to interpret a private chat with Mr Besedin, the USSR lead. It concerned limiting our pool payments to Aeroflot for the privilege of flying 2 round trips a week over Siberia. There were lots of zeros in the numbers going to and fro. Mustn’t get this wrong, I thought.
Over the middle weekend the UK delegation were treated to an excursion to Tashkent and Samarkand. We left Domodiedovo in a giant Tu-114: Mach 0.71, 8 contra-rotating propellers, wood-panelling, curtains, fold-down bunks in the front cabin. Through the darkness, ice and snow we shivered towards the steps. A small jet engine mounted on a truck was de-icing our wings. I was last up. The others filled the front cabin. I went through the curtain to find 100% seat factor apart from 2 aisle seats at the front for me and our security escort. I sat down self-consciously, knowing that 200 soldiers, workers, peasants and several live chickens were staring at the back of my head.
London – Moscow – Tokyo started in June 1970. I was sent out to help our man in Moscow, Roger Moulding, for the inaugural east- and west-bound transits. At the party the night before, Roger shared his worry that no positioning cabin crew had turned up for Moscow/Tokyo the next day. Mid-party we took a phone call from Sheremetievo. ‘5 cabin crew have arrived via Zurich without visas. We’re locking them up!’ The airport was used to ‘no visa’ arrivals, and had accommodation (not really prison cells) across from the front of the terminal. ‘There’s nothing we can do from here. We’ll see you tomorrow.’ I went out to see them. Livid but professional, they operated as if nothing had gone wrong.
Some weeks later at the end of the 2-year traineeship, I was told to join the Station Officer pool, and ‘your first posting is Moscow.’ The Station Officer role was ops, flight planning, crew admin and whatever else Roger wanted me to do. (BEA, Aeroflot and Air India looked after other functions.)
Natasha was my contact at the Sheremetievo met office. For eastbounds she used to give me first the 200 and 300mb weather charts up to Khanty Mansiisk in western Siberia, then an hour later just the 200mb chart on to Tokyo. That day I looked at the first chart, and my stomach sank. The Highs and Lows were in the wrong place. The Lows should be north of the track, giving me anti-clockwise winds and positive wind components. On this occasion it was all reversed. I knew at once that I would fall off the edge of the pre-computed flight plan. The Boeing 707-336 was already near the limit of its range. We had blank fuel flight plans in the office, operating manuals and a Dalton computer. I pulled out the flight manual showing pressure levels, temperatures, weights at start of leg, fuel flows per hour and so on. I’d never done it since the training school. ‘Of course, you’ll never have to do this for real. It will always be a pre-computed flight plan, and/or your staff will do it.’ Another nervous bite of the caviar sandwich and a swig of Riga beer I had bought before knowing the problem. Luckily the Cranebank training worked.
It was during my Moscow posting that Dawson’s Field happened. The Peoples' Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) had hijacked a TWA 707, a Swissair DC8 and later a BOAC VC10 to a remote Jordanian airfield demanding prisoner releases. The subsequent blowing up of the 3 empty aircraft was on (nearly) every front page around the world. Every BOAC airport was instructed to frisk joining passengers and search hand baggage. Moscow’s Border Guards were having none of it. We were stopped in the terminal. ‘We’ll do it on the steps.’ On the steps we were physically stopped again in a robust way. I went to the flight deck and asked for newspapers to show the guards. They were completely stunned to see pictures of the 3 blown up airliners. Nothing had been announced to the Russian public. Objections were dropped.
Weekends were for relaxing. Our Irish catering attachee from Cabin Services, inspired us to take a taxi to the Hippodrome, Moscow’s horse-racing centre. The course was packed full of cheering crowds to watch the horse- and trotting-races. ‘We can’t come here and not bet on something.’ ‘I don’t know how. I ...’ ‘Go on. You’re the Russian speaker. Just ask someone.’ I reached the front of the queue at a line of betting kiosks. ‘Vam shto?’ Pause. ‘What’s going to win?’ ‘Put it on No.6,’ whispered a voice behind me. ‘5 roubles on No.6 to win!’ The horse won, much to our surprise. We lost the winnings later, but that first bet felt like we had beaten the system in some way.
One Sunday lunchtime I walked from the Metropole Hotel, along the Arbat for a beer at the British Embassy club near the Ukraina Hotel. The bar was empty. Jack, the barman, poured me a pint. 10 minutes later 2 attractive young Russian ladies came in from the park outside. ‘No Russkies, out, out,’ shouted Jack. I asked the girls what they wanted. I explained, ‘Niet, eto nyie restoran; eto Britanskoye Posolstvo.’ They looked shocked. They wanted a glass of water on this hot day. We gave them a glass of water and they left. When I left later on, they approached me. ‘We are students from Kiev. We came to visit our friend. There was no answer at his door, and we have nowhere to stay tonight.’ Alarm bells went off. I wished them luck and moved on. 2 nights later, I came across one of the young ladies in the foreign currency bar at the New National Hotel. ‘Oh, it’s you. Where have you been? Why haven’t we been out?’ My Russian struggled, but I did agree to meet her the next evening. After the next day’s flight had departed, I consulted a trusted Russian contact at Sheremetievo. On hearing the story, I was told, ‘No, no, Jimmy. You don’t go there.’ I didn’t.
In those days you didn’t play games with any authorities. You couldn’t challenge the system, but you could make it work for you through personal interaction. I have never felt safer in a city. The rigid system brought perks. I stayed at the Metropole in a ‘Luxe’ room, the top category. Whether you used the extras or not, they were available: the use of a car and English-speaking guide for 3 hours a day; a daily breakfast voucher. I didn’t need the guide, but the car, yes. That nice Intourist lady would even allocate me a Chaika limousine, if I needed transport for a special occasion. One day the National Hotel phoned BEA to alert us that Intourist HQ was holding a pile of breakfast vouchers allocated to the crew rooms unoccupied every weekend. I collected the vouchers to test my theory that we could use these 1 rouble vouchers to buy champagne, beer, caviar etc. Our social life began to improve.
I still wear the fur hat with ear flaps, which I bought in 1966.
One of Samarkand's Main Square Madrassahs
The Ancient Observatory of Ulugbek (observable are Mike Tomkins, Frank Waters, Dusty Doust and Basil Bampfylde)