The Real Russian Welcome
I was tear-gassed in Siberia once.
The story goes like this: I'd been hanging out in Novosiribisk, capital of Siberia, for a couple of days with two Red Army drop-outs (one from St Petersburg, the other from the Ukraine). Travelling on trams so packed that people had to pass their money along to one another to buy their tickets, going to the State Circus where men in shiny disposable uniforms baited the fuck out of large bears and small dogs. It was Mayday (back then, before the Iron Curtain was lifted, the USSR's only national holiday).
Afterwards we felt thirsty, so we found ourselves a coffee shop - only to be greeted with the depressingly familiar sight of no coffee, no juice, nothing except a rank-looking purple liquid which probably could've doubled as lavatory cleaner... but the new Madonna CD was blaring out loud and clear. ('Justify My Love', I recall - her finest moment. Not very Russky, though.) So we found ourselves a local market - where the local locals sold empty bottles and the odd shoe (literally), or, if one chose, one could obtain a complete collection of Red Army valor medals for about seven cents. Anyway, it'd been a good day... although perhaps we could've done without the student accommodation in Moscow the night before where electricity was intermittent at best and the water supply was simply non-existent. The only way to wash down the 95 per cent proof vodka my companions produced was with 40 per cent proof vodka - leading to an unbelievably loud jackhammer in the head the following morning, but still, it was an experience.
I was there as part of a Cultural Exchange Program, accompanying the first Western bands to ever play Siberia - warped Captain Beefheart acolytes Mecca and pre-dance, psychedelic Scotsmen The Shamen - in my official capacity as Melody Maker Staff Writer. We'd been having a blast, one and all - except the wanker from English style mag The Face who whined continually about having to share his bed sheets with cockroaches and rats, and didn't appreciate the amorphous lumps of grey matter which were presented to us under the heading 'meat'. His loss.
Disappointingly, it didn't snow the whole time we were in Siberia (it was spring) - instead we were confronted with a continual grey drizzle, much like Seattle on a good day. This was more than compensated for by the astonishing unsullied beauty of Siberian girls, however (ever seen Dr Zhivago? It doesn't exaggerate) - a fact that was reinforced the following year when a Maker journalist on the same trip ended up taking home a Siberian bride. (Never mind the fact that once she got to England they argued constantly and split extremely acrimoniously a few years later. It's the action that counts.)
Anyhow, myself and the singer from Mecca had been wandering the unlit streets which circled the college where the bands were due to play that night - a fraction late and emotional perhaps, due to a couple of vodka black market deals which had gone against us earlier. Following directions given in bad English hours before, we eventually stumbled across the venue - only to find its doors barred (the show had sold out months - possibly years - before) and a great heaving throng desperate to gain access within. There was nothing for it, but to press forward.
Just as we were girding our loins, a great shout went up from the windows above and simultaneously the downstairs doors flew open and those at the front of the crowd started to fall back. A phalanx of riot police spread out in front of us, holding nozzles and gas tanks. What the fu...?
Before we had time to think, the crowd was being very effectively dispersed by dint of tear gas being fired full on into their faces - and we had to go forward! Jesus! Screaming "English, English" at the top of our voice, we pushed our way towards the police, to be grabbed at the last moment by some friendly pairs of hands. Once inside, eyes streaming with tears and more than a little shaken up, we were confronted with the sight of our Russian saviours in hysterics, tears streaming down their eyes - tears of laughter. "What's up?" we not unnaturally asked.
"Russian welcome! Russian welcome!" they gasped out between uncontrollable bursts of laughter. "Now you have experienced the real Russian welcome!"
I never went back there again.
For the record, the show that night was astonishing: both bands being treated like royalty by a crowd who'd clearly never heard of either Beefheart nor Spacemen 3 (whom The Shamen, with their multifarious light show, most resembled that night). Heads were shaken, voices were raised, much vodka was drunk in celebration. I don't believe I've witnessed quite a fervent reaction before or since. I returned to England elated. Fuck, I had a story to write. It was not to be, however.
A week later, Will - one half of The Shamen - died in a swimming accident. I never filed the story.
© Everett True 1999