PUTIN THE BOOT IN... - December 2007
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 years. 

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.

Upon arrival at Moscow's Domodedovo airport, promoter Kate Nikolaeva and Strangel Club owners Alexey Shelpov and Bator Bogdanov greeted us armed with flowers and smiles.  We were whisked away by our driver Alexander and set off unhindered through the snowy countryside only to encounter the city’s famous rush hour traffic once we hit the suburbs.  Unlike Paris or Rome, where the disgruntled motorist leans permanently on his horn, the prospect of sitting in gridlock for half an hour was met with dull resignation by our Russian friends.  Finally though, Alexander simply abandoned all adherence to any form of highway code, switched on his hazards and literally crossed over into the opposing lane of traffic to jump the queue of cars. 


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.
And so, after a quick unpack and change of clothes, we headed towards the executive lounge to meet with some local hacks. 

Organised by the very efficient and charming Oksana Strizhakova (our representative from EMI's Russian partner Gala Records), promo included talking to various newspapers, radio and an interview with the lovely Masha Albova for MTV. 

We met later with our hosts, their respective spouses and Katya Belenko (translator) to dine at Sudar, a famous Moscow restaurant whose decor resembles a wealthy 19th century country home. 

Masha Albova (MTV)


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). 
Misha also explained that the 'phones were buzzing with fans attempting to speak to Alan - and a gaggle had gathered outside the gates of the station to await his exit.  When we did eventually emerge, the poor souls had been standing in the freezing cold for 2 hours but had obviously kept themselves warm with a drop or two of the local brew.  "I to ask you pleess, does your children like Gary Potter" (try saying it in the style of Borat for full effect) has to be one of the strangest questions we've ever been asked.  We rounded off the evening not by drinking ourselves stupid and collapsing into a comatose state at 8:am (we would save that for Saturday night) but rather, visiting the 360 degree Space Bar in our hotel to eye up the multitude of beautiful Russian girls who had gathered like Wildebeest at a Savannah watering hole. We drank a few vodkas before I cleaned the dribble off boss's chin, peeled his eyes off the waitresses arse, and retired to bed.



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 'kicked off'. 
I wanted to take a photo of them - looking so imposing in their uniforms - but there is a palatable air of authority and control in Moscow and I imagined this might be misconstrued as some kind of security infringement.  I didn't fancy doing 5 years hard labour in a Siberian gulag - or worse, ending up like Litvinenko.  Of course all this was unnecessary as DM/Recoil fans are always perfectly behaved and polite.  I was pleased to note a high proportion of Recoil CDs and a staggering array of enlarged photographs from over the years. 


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.

Echo of Moscow Interview
We reached the Strangel Club at around 10pm where we were met by Alexey and Bator and introduced to the club's general manager, Roman Larionov.  The team had arranged a spread of gargantuan proportions with plenty of vodka supplied by Bator's family distillery.  Our only disappointment was that our itinerary clearly promised us 'hot snakes' but sadly they never materialised.  Alan then took to the stage to conduct a Q + A session, aided by Katya, whilst being blinded by a white spotlight and photographed from the mosh pit 6 feet below, chins a-plenty (flattering- NOT!).  He answered various questions ranging from his favourite studio equipment to more on England's disastrous exit from Euro 2008 (now the Ruskies were having the last laugh) and then spent the next few hours moving around the club signing autographs and chatting with fans. 

True to form, I drunk vast quantities of vodka and the evening rushed by all too quickly.  However, I was pleased to see Ron Fellini appear around 2am and as a result, we didn't leave the club until after 6am.  He was on excellent form and the evening conjured up memorable nights from the Devotional tour.  Thank you to all the fans who attended the party and also to Masha who brought her camera crew from MTV.  We had a great night.


As you can imagine, Sunday was something of a white-out (in our room and outside).  We had planned to go shopping but having only got to sleep at about 8am this was wishful thinking.  Besides, the thermometer was reading -10, with a chill factor of -17 and by contrast, our hotel room was warm and toasty.  Most Muscovites on the other hand, were forced out into the cold (literally) to ensure Putin won a landslide victory in the elections.  I agree that it was rather pathetic of us not to do more sight-seeing but it makes a very good excuse to return to Russia someday.

The following morning, with heavy hearts, Alan and I checked out and endured our final journey with Stirling Moss (Google it) to the airport.   We said our last goodbyes to our wonderful hosts - Kate, Bator and Alexey and Alan signed various objects for the club.  The only thing that ruined an otherwise fabulous trip was the flight home which we were obliged to spend with a group of horribly loud, posh, obnoxious English students who were returning from studying in Moscow.  "I say Tarquin, do you think mummy will serve swan for Christmas lunch again, ha, ha, ha, snort, snort".   I wish I'd been carrying some Polonium 210... anyone for a nice cup of English tea? 

Thank you to everyone who made our Russian adventure so memorable.  As a result of its success, Gala Records have decided to release 'Prey' as a physical CD as well as cyrillic versions of the entire Recoil catalogue.  The message forums too have been alive with some very lovely comments about Alan and Recoil: "Alan is the nicest and cutiest man in the world".  Although "greatest living Englishman" is perhaps taking things a little too far.

From Russia with love.
Hepzibah Sessa


Prey/Allelujah Booklet

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).