|by Hepzibah Sessa
Diplomatic relations between Russia and the UK are not in a particularly
healthy state these days. For those of you who haven't been watching
the news, our relationship has cooled somewhat following the death of former
Russian spy and Putin-detractor Alexander Litvinenko in a London hospital
this time last year. Apparently, after meeting an old KGB colleague
and an Italian agent in a West End hotel, Litvinenko was struck down by
a mystery illness. This was ultimately attributed to acute radioactive
poisoning caused by a rather disagreeable substance called Polonium 210
(seems more sinister with the addition of a number, suggesting it's 210
times nastier than just plain old Polonium). Someone, it seemed,
had deliberately 'spiked' Litvinenko's cup of tea and consequently contaminated
various public buildings in the process. The country was of course
outraged; not just that such a Bond-esque assassination could take place
in 21st Century London but more importantly that it had involved our national
drink, the very symbol of good old fashioned decency and fair play. The
dead man's widow insisted the conspiracy went 'right to the top', the Russian
government issued threats, the British government complained that it just
wasn't on to tamper with a gentleman's cuppa, and the hotel where the incident
took place was thoroughly scrubbed down but will be radioactive for 1000
I mention this purely because Alan and I were not convinced we would
be granted the visas required for our much-anticipated trip to Moscow.
However, after wrestling with Russian bureaucracy and sending off forms
in triplicate, official invites, photographs, our vital statistics, the
birth weight of our children, our top 10 all-time favourite records, a
list of preferred sexual positions and a plethora of other requirements,
we did eventually receive the necessary paperwork.
This white knuckle game of 'chicken' through the Moscow streets was
apparently "how ve do it in Russia" and assurances were made about us reaching
our destination in one piece - albeit with slightly soiled underwear. Our
residence for the next few days was the excellent 5 star Swissotel.
For once, we got it spot on. I mentioned in my Prague report that
our preference is for more contemporary decor but this often means smaller,
more intimate design hotels that don't always offer the best facilities.
By contrast, everything about this hotel was perfect, right down to the
Espresso machine in our room, ensuring that the early morning coffee debacle
that marred our trip to Prague could be pleasantly avoided. High
up on the top floors of the hotel, our aptly named 'Panorama Suite' offered
superb views of the city and its architecture.
For those of you who have not had the pleasure of visiting Moscow, I
really do recommend you go through the visa rigmarole and make the effort.
To Alan and myself (and probably many of us in the West), Russia has always
held great mystery and is often imagined as grey and bleak. How wrong
that is. Their "cheap electricity" (as I was reliably informed) means
the whole place is lit up like a Christmas tree in a riot of gaudy neon,
advertising everything from casinos to office buildings. Even the
roads and fly-overs are illuminated. The light pollution is phenomenal
and together with its choking city streets and the citizens penchant for
donning (and eating) every conceivable animal known to man, there seems
to be a general indifference towards 'green' issues. Now, I'm sorry
to upset all you eco-warriors out there and I'm aware that I may incur
the wrath of Peta but frankly, I find this attitude rather refreshing.
I'm not afraid to admit that I'm getting a little tired of being continually
told not to boil a kettle unless I'm wearing shoes made of celery.
And try telling a Muscovite or Berliner not to wear a fur coat in -15 degrees
for that matter. Anyway, I digress. The architecture is spectacular;
strangely unfamiliar with an Eastern slant in the form of multi-coloured
or gilded minarets (onion-shaped domes to the uninitiated) and I don't
even know where to start with the language. The Cyrillic alphabet
is a complete enigma to us but the fonts look fantastic.
During the meal we were joined by Misha Kozirev who would be conducting a two hour radio special with Alan for 'Silver Rain' the following day. Traditional music accompanied a menu of reliably Russian fayre (caviar, beet-root and cabbage) and one or two surprises (pony and bear for example), with each dish described with it's time-honoured cooking instructions so that an innocuous 'Leg of Lamb' read thus:
Skin baby sheep, keeping legs and head for later. It is good
for to remove sinew and membranes. Throw head in pot for to flavour
stock etc., etc.....
I am being restrained in my descriptions so as to spare the more squeamish
but again, I can't help admiring this no-nonsense approach. With
our newly acquired 'Hedonists Guide to Moscow', we were warned that wine
was extortionately priced so in respect for our host's pockets and in true
tourist spirit, we opted for the only real choice when it came to beverages.
One word - simple and elegant. Vodka. But to drink it neat,
with the meal? Unfortunately for my poor liver, I could easily acquire
a taste for the really good stuff which has the added bonus of producing
minimal ill effects the following morning.
We awoke on Friday not with pounding heads but, considering the amount we'd knocked back, feeling remarkably alive. After a delicious cup of coffee, the two of us ambitiously headed for the gym to sweat out the previous evenings' over-indulgence. As I pounded the treadmill, I scanned a Moscow daily (English version) which included the bizarre account of a domesticated crocodile who'd been on the run for the past 6 months only to die once re-captured, along with a report about two Ukrainians arrested for smuggling Uranium in the back of an old van. Only in Russia.
In the early afternoon, Alexander drove us through the icy streets at
breakneck speed to The Kremlin and Red Square. True to form, it proved
as evocative as expected although we refrained from visiting Lenin's tomb
in deference to the poor chap. According to our guide book, both
the deceased and his distraught widow had demanded a simple and private
burial but Stalin had gone against his wishes and insisted his pickled
remains be available for tourists to ogle like some kind of Victorian freak
show. After a visit to the eccentric but very beautiful St. Basil's
Cathedral, Alan and I took a turn around the salubrious GUM shopping arcade,
stocking designer labels galore and resplendent with the seriously wealthy
side of Russian society (not our cup of tea I might add). I tried
to get the boss to buy me a fur coat for $30,000 but I was met with the
'look' which I am all too familiar with....
Later, at the radio station, the inimitable Misha ushered us into his green room and to our great amazement (and amusement) produced a plate of specially marinated fish (carp) which he had lovingly prepared following my comments the previous evening concerning my love of cooking. Suffice it to say, the dish was delicious and quite the most surreal pre-interview snack Alan has ever received.
The interview itself was quite relaxed covering the usual chit-chat
about the album as well as more universal subjects such as England's collective
tittering when Russia knocked themselves out of Euro 2008 (by losing to
Israel), only to be followed by acute embarrassment when we sent ourselves
packing instead (by losing to Croatia), tail between legs. When asked
about his relationship with the other members of DM, Alan explained that
Dave's e-mailing skills were somewhat limited which meant that Mr Gahan
tended to get in touch out of the blue, then disappear for years at a time.
For some reason this was hilarious to our host who laughed uncontrollably
for the next 5 minutes. Not so amusing for his Lordship though when
Dave contacted him a few days later with a perfectly composed and assured
e-mail singing the praises of 'subHuman' (Al had to write back and tell
him he'd been slagging him off on Russian radio).
Saturday saw a visit to the Soyuz record store to sign autographs for
anyone who could be bothered to forgo their usual weekend lie-in and brave
-10 degrees. As we pulled up, the streets were deserted. "Great,"
said the boss, "they'll be two blokes and a dog inside and I'll look like
a complete twat".
Luckily he was quite wrong. Not only did over 1000 people make
the effort but the predicted 2 hour session turned into almost 4.
The never-ending line of fans were shunted through the building as store
security men kept the peace and the police were recruited to ensure nothing
Oh yes, there were some absolute crackers - anyone remember Alan circa.
1982 with orange hair, sporting a very fetching purple leather jacket?!
More surprising was the number of young children who had clearly been indoctrinated
into the fold after years of forced exposure in the womb to 'Black Celebration'.
And, an unusually high proportion of pregnant women. Perhaps Recoil
is the music of choice when it comes to procreative 'ows yer father!?
I know Alan was disappointed not to be able to supply autographs to
everyone who waited but time was against him as he was due at 'Echo of
Moscow' radio. This previously state-run station is a throwback to
the old USSR and contains some truly magnificent super-kitsch cold war
furniture. The interview proceeded along the usual lines but took
a strange turn when Alan started to explain about his multiple personalities.
I suspect the interviewers (and listeners) were slightly perplexed to hear
about the two 'tour' personas, Ron and Stan Fellini. The self-confident
and hedonistic Ron is a contradiction in himself, being a combination of
a down-to-earth 'lad' (Ron) but with pretensions to be more learned and
'arty', (Fellini). His twin brother Stan, rarely seen, is extremely
unpleasant and aggressive. Alan made it clear in the interview that
luckily, he spends most of his time on the 'inside'. Interview over,
we returned to our hotel to prepare for the evening's entertainment.
From Russia with love.
You can now download an exclusive booklet featuring video stills, 'subHuman' art and commentary from Alan Wilder, Hepzibah Sessa and Dmitry Semenov. This is available now as a high quality downloadable PDF file (4.7MB).