With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine being so much in the news, I thought the time was right to tell the tale of Phil Miller and Fred Baker’s British Council sponsored trip to Russia.
The idea was the brainchild of the much travelled Dutchman Henk Weltevreden (see above with Phil) Explorer, author, travel writer and broadcaster, Henk has been arranging tours for Phil in various lineups since the early seventies. The following is an example of his methodology:
In 1991 Phil took his band In Cahoots to Japan. This tour was brought about by Henk who had journeyed to Burma with his father to unveil a statue of a distant ancestor of his, who had been a merchant traveller in the era of Marco Polo, and had, in the course of his travels, been shipwrecked and washed ashore in Burma. He had been captured and thrown into prison, and left to languish. But because he was a very intelligent man he learned the language, was freed from prison and became an advisor to the King of Burma. He rose to high office to become the most famous person in Burma although he was never allowed to return to Holland. After the unveiling of the statue, which was well covered by the Burmese press, Henk carried on his way to South Korea via Japan where he got Phil a record deal with Virgin Japan. Phil’s 1991 tour came about as a result of this record deal plus an offer of some gigs in Tokyo and Osaka from Akimittso Toki from Music Wonder. Henk was in Australia by then and went back to Japan to tie up all the loose ends.
Then he set off on his travels again to Hong Kong and China where he delivered some lectures in Shanghai and Beijing. After that he went on to Moscow, by way of Mongolia, where he conceived the idea of bringing Phil and his music to Russia.
In the early nineties Russia was such a different place compared to how we know it today. In total contrast to Vladimir Putin, President Gorbechov was in power. He had lifted the Iron Curtain and opened up Russia to the West. Peristroika, Glaznost and photos of Mrs Thatcher posing for the press on Russian tanks were the order of the day. The Berlin Wall between the East and the West had come tumbling down.
Going to Russia in those days was a complicated procedure. It wasn’t a simple matter of making travel arrangements and setting off. Before we could make any plans to travel we had to be sponsored by a Russian organisation in order to gain entry into the country. This was something Henk took care of and he worked through several educational bodies and organised concerts for Phil and Fred in various music colleges in Lithuania and Russia.
Phil applied successfully for a grant from the British Council and, with Henk’s help, arranged a tour as a duo with Fred Baker. Applying for the Grant was one of Phil’s first tasks and it was a long process. He was awarded a grant to help with the expenses because Russia was recognised as being a relatively poor country and the proceeds of the gigs would not be enough to cover the costs of such a tour. Unfortunately, in the time it took between receiving the grant and actually going to Russia, the exchange rate had gone through the roof and by the time we left the grant was nowhere near the amount we needed. Our brilliant and resourceful friend Henk managed to solve this problem by persuading some of the contacts he had made on his previous visits to agree to put us up in their various flats. Thus saving the costs we would have otherwise have had to find for hotels. These arrangements gave us a unique insight into the lives of the Russian people and the way they lived.
Henk, Fred and Phil and I stayed separately in quite a few flats as guests. The housing situation there is so different to our own. In the West we are used to a certain amount of choice as to where we live and there are many different ways of finding somewhere to live. When we leave our parent’s home there are all kinds of choices we can make. As students we often end up far away from the area we grew up in. We flat-share, living with groups of friends. Sometimes accommodation goes with a job. Often we move to be near a new job. In every city there are different areas with different vibes and sometimes we look to move to a particular cultural part of town. There are any amount of reasons and a huge diversity of homes.
We only had gigs in two Russian cities: St Petersberg and Moscow, but they both had the same housing format. The system worked like this: There are no privately owned homes. All the housing is government owned and operated. From birth you live with your parents in their flat. This flat is their official residence and their home for life. When you grow up you carry on living with your parents. Even when you get married you can’t get a flat of your own. You and your spouse have to go on living with one of your parents, but when you have a child and that child reaches the age of 10 you are offered a flat of your own. This will then be your permanent home. Your address will be written in your passport. Imagine that!
In both St Petersburg and Moscow the housing areas are situated outside the city in vast forests of blocks of flats. Miles and miles and miles of of blocks of flats all looking exactly the same. All the flats are very much the same. All the ones we stayed in consisted of 2 rooms, a tiny kitchen and a very small bathroom with a water heater on the wall that had a moveable tap that enabled one to direct the flow into the bath or into the hand basin next to the bath. The toilet took up the rest of the space leaving just enough space to stand up in.
The couple Phil and I stayed with in Moscow put us up in the living room on a click clack – a kind of armless sofa which folds down into to make a bed. This was the room our hosts usually slept in. Their daughter slept in the other room along with an aunt who also lived there. While Phil and I were there our hosts slept on a click clack in the kitchen, which turned into seating alongside the kitchen table during the day. Our hosts were a professional couple, not poor, and their living conditions were considered normal. Their flat was the same as all the other people who hosted us.
The population in the blocks of flats contained people from all walks of life, from doctors to dustmen, and were allotted to tenants in a completely random way, so there was no such thing as ghettos. No artists quarters such as you might find in any European city. No run down areas or wealthy areas, just a complete mix of every sort of person with no way of changing your address. It made for a kind of anonymity. All the blocks of flats looked the same on the outside and they all looked very similar on the inside. The furniture was the same, the cookers in the kitchens were all the same, the same crockery, the same flooring – everything. It was as if there was only one shop in Russia.
Our trip was in the New Year period and there was a film on the television that apparently was always shown at this time of year – a bit like we have The Sound of Music at Christmas. We watched it with our hosts. It was a comedy about a man who was coming home drunk. He was so drunk that he got off the Metro at the wrong station – they all look exactly the same – and he made his way to what he thought was his block of flats – they all look exactly the same too. He lets himself into what he thinks is his flat (apparently there are only three different keys in Russia) goes into the bedroom, still looks the same and gets into bed with what he thinks is his wife etc. etc. etc. Apparently everybody in Russia thinks this is hilarious.
All our hosts were very welcoming and always offered us tea. This was never made with tea bags. A pot of tea was always on the go, often kept warm on top of a samova. It didn’t seem the custom to make a fresh pot of tea – instead more tea leaves were added to the pot which was topped up with hot water, usually from the samova. The tea is not served with milk but there is always a saucer of runny jam with a spoon if you want it sweetened. Our hosts all talked of their Dachas which they spent time in during the summer. We saw photos of them – quite primitive little shed-like dwellings on small plots of land where they grew fruit and vegetables. These were bottled to preserve them and used throughout the winter months.
My Mother used to bottle fruit when I was a child in the years after the Second World War so I was familiar with this process. My Mother’s fruit was lovely in delicious syrup. In Russia the process is different: the fruit is not cooked and the water it is bottled with has only a teaspoonful of sugar or vinegar per bottle. It was mostly gherkins or wrinkled, under-ripe, uncooked apples. Gherkins seemed to be served with every meal and we got the impression that fresh fruit and vegetables were not available to buy in the winter. I guess it was all really nutritious but not delicious.
We didn’t see much in the way of shops in Russia. I did manage to buy bread once when I was prompted to join a bread queue. It was a long, slow moving queue, starting outside in the street and gradually working its way inside. At the end, when it was my turn, I was able to buy a ticket. Then I had to join another equally long queue where I was finally able to exchange my ticket for a loaf of bread. In Russia there is absolutely no concept of “Retail Therapy”!
In my next chapter I’ll tell you about the gigs that Phil and Fred played.