Tuesday 24 September

With the prospect of even less walking than yesterday, we set off by car to Izmailovo Park – but not to be at one with nature. This was a kind of theme park, with Disney-like examples of traditional Russian buildings, a market and the famous (according to the brochure) Vodka Museum.

Tourist markets are the same around the world, with a tsunami of stuff repeated ad nauseum down long rows of stands. There you can buy gifts for people back home who will say they love them and then quietly store them in a cupboard to be given to somebody else who will do the same thing. That applied here, with the exception of chilblain saving hats, one of which Michelle bought after the usual price tussle with the storekeeper. Lately I’ve noticed the appearance in markets of remarkably low-priced cashmere scarves. They feel as soft and smooth as a baby’s bottom, but they are made from bamboo, not cashmere as stated on the label. They fit in well with the other scarf deception, printed silk which is actually polyester microfibre. 

It was not hard to tear ourselves away from the market to keep our appointment with the vodka museum curator, a hugely tall man with a barrel belly and legs that seemed part of an independent machine. It was as though his legs decided where he would go, as he strode around tidying his museum’s exhibition of bygone vodkabilia. He set up three tasting stops as he delivered his lines in Russian which, sometimes after a loud argument, were translated by Oleg into heavy English. The history of vodka was therefore hard to follow, as was the exhibition which featured a very unlifelike waxwork of Catherine the Great (she could take on the blokes in vodka drinking, we were told) with a pageboy thrown in for good measure. There were early metal utensils for distilling and storing vodka, and hundreds of old bottles bearing vodka labels, some of them proudly claiming the contents to be 96% alcohol. These were not intended for drinking but for hardware tasks like cleaning or lighting fires. However, that didn’t stop people from drinking the stuff. It may have encouraged a period of prohibition in Russia from 1914 to 1924. From examples like Boris Yeltsin, I had the impression that Russia was a country of alcoholics, but that is far from the case. Today there is a zero tolerance for driving and a growing disinterest in drinking among upcoming youth. They are going in for health, fitness and religion.

Back at the museum, our first sample drink was honey mead (5% alcohol), the forerunner of vodka, then raspberry vodka (25% alcohol) and finally, sitting down by this time, straight vodka (40% alcohol). Since Michelle doesn’t drink, I polished off her shot glasses and felt extremely partial to a lie down at the end. Speaking of which, there was a static display set up in a room to represent a 1930s special hospital for alcoholism recovery. The two drunks in the beds looked authentic enough but the exotic blonde nurse gave the impression that getting blotto could have a happy ending – as it were.

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The happy ending nurse with prone patient

On religion again, Oleg told me that there were two divisions of Russian Orthodox – old and new. The old sticks to the biblical texts that have gone through multiple language translations and are now accepted as inaccurate, but not wanting to change them for reasons of tradition. The new has taken the original texts and translated them straight into modern Russian. The two divisions don’t get on, don’t mingle and many of their rituals are different. While congregations in both must stand for the two plus hours of a service (some much longer) the old have to get up and down for kneeling. Painful, yes, but the more pain you suffer the more respect you are showing to God. Only the patriarch is permitted to sit during a service.  

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Stand up or what you believe in

After visiting the Moscow State University, a magnificent, typically Russian building, and where Oleg did his post graduate degree – he pointed out the window of his old room – it was time to part. I loved his intellect, staggering knowledge and good humour. Many of his ideas will stay with me. For instance, the fact that man’s technology has disrupted the course of nature, eventually with disastrous consequences. And that the realisation of nuclear fusion providing infinite, free energy will probably send civilisation out of control because it will circumvent natural process. And one of his lines: ‘each step is determined by the one before’.