Russian Artworks Literature Agatha Christie in the Soviet Union

Agatha Christie in the Soviet Union

We were ushered on to the infecté Russian boat feeling rather nervous. Everything was as different as could be from Persia and Iraq. First, the boat was scrupulously clean; as clean as a hospital, indeed rather like a hospital. Its little cabins had high iron beds, hard straw palliasses, clean coarse-cotton sheets, and a simple tin jug and basin. The crew of the boat were like robots; they seemed all to be six foot high, with fair hair and impassive faces. They treated us politely, but as though we were not really there. Max and I felt exactly like the suicide couple in the play, Outward Bound – the husband and wife who move about the boat like ghosts. Nobody spoke to us, looked at us, or paid the least attention to us.

Presently, however, we saw that food was being served in the saloon. We went hopefully to the door and looked in. Nobody made any sign to us or appeared to see us. Finally, Max took his courage in both hands and asked if we could have some food. The demand was clearly not understood.

Max tried French, Arabic, and such Persian as he knew, but with no effect. Finally he pointed his finger firmly down his throat in that age-old gesture which cannot fail to be recognised. Immediately the man pulled forward two seats at the table, we sat down, and the food was brought to us. It was quite good, though very plain, and it cost an incredible amount.

Then we arrived at Baku. Here we were met by an Intourist agent. He was charming, full of information, and spoke French fluently. He thought, he said, that we might like to go to a performance of Faust at the Opera. This, however, I did not want to do. I felt I had not come all the way to Russia to see Faust performed. So he said he would arrange some other entertainment for us. Instead of Faust we were forced to go and look at various building sites and half-built blocks of flats.

When getting off the boat, the procedure was simple. Six robot-like porters advanced in order of seniority. The charge, said the Intourist man, was one rouble for each piece. They advanced upon us, and each porter took one piece. An unlucky one had Max’s heavy suitcase full of books; the luckiest one had only an umbrella – but they both had to be paid the same.

The hotel we went to was curious also. It was a relic of more luxurious days, I should imagine, and the furniture was grand but old-fashioned. It had been painted white, and was carved with roses and cherubs. For some reason it was all standing in the middle of the room, rather as though furniture movers had just pushed a wardrobe, a table, and a chest of drawers in and left them. Even the beds were not against the wall. These last were magnificently handsome in style, and most comfortable, but they had on them coarse cotton sheets, too small to cover the mattress.

Max asked for hot water for shaving the next morning, but had not much luck. Hot water were the only words he knew in Russian – apart from the words for “please” and “thank you”. The woman he asked shook her head vigorously and brought us along a large jug of cold water. Max used the word for hot several times hopefully, explaining, as he put his razor to his chin, what he needed it for. She shook her head and looked shocked and disapproving.

“I think,” I said, “that you are being a luxurious aristocrat by asking for hot water to shave in. You’d better stop.”

Everything in Baku seemed like a Scottish Sunday. There was no pleasure in the streets; most of the shops were shut; the one or two that were open had long queues, and people were standing waiting patiently for unattractive articles.

Our Intourist friend saw us off at the train. The queue for tickets was enormous. “I will just see about some reserved seats,” he said, and moved away. We edged slowly forward in the queue.

Suddenly someone patted us on the arm. It was a woman from the front of the queue. She was smiling broadly. In fact all these people seemed ready to smile if there was anything to smile at. They were kindliness itself. Then, with a good deal of pantomime, the woman urged us to step up to the top of the queue. We didn’t like to do this, and hung back, but the whole of the queue insisted. They patted us on the arm and on the shoulder, nodded and beckoned, and finally one man took us up by the arm and moved us forcibly forward, and the woman at the front stepped aside and bowed and smiled. We purchased our tickets at the Surchet.

The Intourist man came back. “Ah, you are ready,” he said.

“These kind people gave us their places,” said Max rather doubtfully. “I wish you would explain that we didn’t want to take them.” “But they always do that,” said he. “In fact, they enjoy going to the back of the queue. It is a great occupation standing in a queue, you know. They like to make it as long as possible. They are always very polite to strangers.”

They were indeed. They nodded and waved at us as we left for the train. The platform was crowded; we discovered later, however, that practically nobody was going by train except ourselves. They had just come to see the fun and enjoy their afternoon there. We finally got into our carriage. The Intourist man said goodbye to us and assured us that we would be met at Batum in three days’ time, and that everything would go well.

“You have not a teapot with you, I see,” he said. “But one of the women will doubtless lend you one.”

I discovered what this meant when the train made its first stop after about two hours’ run. Then an old woman in our compartment patted me violently on the shoulder, showed me her teapot, and explained, with the help of a boy in the corner who spoke German, that the thing to do was to put a pinch of tea in your teapot and take it along to the engine where the driver would supply hot water. We had cups with us, and the woman assured us she would do the rest. She returned with two steaming cups of tea, and we unpacked our provisions. We offered some to our new friends and our journey was well on its way.

Our food held out moderately well – that is to say we got through the ducks, fortunately before they went bad, and ate some bread which grew staler and staler. We had hoped to be able to buy bread on the way, but that did not seem to be possible. We had, of course, got down to the caviare as soon as possible. Our last day brought semi-starvation because we had nothing left but the wing of a duck and two pots of pineapple marmalade. There is something rather sickly in eating a whole pot of pineapple marmalade neat, but it assuaged the pangs of hunger.

We arrived at Batum at midnight, in pouring rain. We had, of course, no hotel booking. We passed out of the station into the night with our baggage. No signs of anyone from Intourist to meet us. There was a droshky waiting, a dilapidated horse-cab rather like an old-fashioned Victoria. Obliging as always, the driver helped us to get in, and piled our baggage over and upon us. We then said we wanted a hotel. He nodded encouragingly, cracked his whip, and we set off at a ramshackle trot through the wet streets.

Soon we came to a hotel, and the driver made signs for us to go in first. We soon saw why. As soon as we got inside we were told there were no rooms. We asked where else we should go, but the man merely shook his head uncomprehendingly. We went out and the driver started off once more. We went to about seven hotels; every one was full up.

At the eighth Max said we would have to take sterner measures, we had got to find somewhere to sleep. On arrival we plonked ourselves down on the plush couch in the hall, and looked half-wittedly uncomprehending when we were told that there was no room. In the end, the receptionists and clerks threw up their hands and looked at us in despair. We continued to look uncomprehending, and to say at intervals in such languages as we thought might possibly be understood that we wanted a room for the night. Finally they left us. The driver came in, put our bags down by us, and went off, waving a cheerful farewell.

“Don’t you think we have rather burnt our boats now?” I asked dolefully.

“It’s the only hope,” said Max. “Once we haven’t got any transport to take us away, and our luggage is here, I think they will do something about us.”

Twenty minutes passed, and suddenly an angel of succour arrived in the form of a vast man over six foot high, with a terrific black moustache, wearing riding boots and looking exactly like a figure out of a Russian ballet. I gazed at him in admiration. He smiled at us, patted us on the shoulder in a friendly fashion, and beckoned us to follow him. He went up two flights of stairs to the top floor, then pushed up a trapdoor in the roof and hung a ladder to it. It seemed unconventional, but there was nothing for it; Max pulled me up after him, and we came out upon the roof. Still beckoning and smiling, our host led us across the roof on to the roof of the next house, and finally down through another trapdoor. We were shown into a large attic room, quite nicely furnished, with two beds in it. He patted the beds, pointed to us, disappeared, and shortly afterwards our luggage arrived. Luckily we had not much luggage with us by this time; it had been taken from us at Baku and we had been told by the Intourist man that we should find it waiting at Batum. We hoped that that would happen next day, in the meantime the only thing we wanted was bed and sleep.

Next morning we wanted to find our way to the French boat which was sailing that day to Stamboul, and on which we had tickets booked. Though we tried to explain this to our host, he did not understand, and there appeared to be nobody there who did. We went out and searched the streets ourselves. I never realised before how difficult it was to find the sea if you can get no view from any kind of hill. We walked one way, then another, then a third at intervals asking for things like “boat” in as many languages as we knew – “harbour”, “quay”: nobody understood French or German or English. In the end we managed to find our way back to the hotel.

Max drew a picture of a boat on a piece of paper, and our host expressed immediate comprehension. He took us up to a sitting-room on the first floor, sat us down on a sofa, and explained in dumb show that we were to wait there. At the end of half an hour he reappeared with a very old man in a peaked blue cap who spoke to us in French. This ancient had apparently been a porter in a hotel in former days and still dealt with visitors. He expressed immediate readiness to lead us to our boat, and to carry our luggage there.

First of all we had to reclaim the luggage which should have arrived from Baku. The old man took us straight to what was clearly a prison, and we were led into a heavily barred cell with our luggage, sitting demurely in the middle of it. The old man collected it, and led us off to the harbour. He grumbled the whole way, and we became rather nervous, as the last thing we wished to do was to criticise the government in a country where we had no consul to get us out of a mess.

We tried to hush the old man down, but it was no good. “Ah, things are not what they used to be,” he said. “Why, what do you think? Do you see this coat I have now? It is a good coat, yes, but does it belong to me?

“No, it belongs to the government. In the old days I had not one coat – I had four coats. Perhaps they were not as good as this coat, but they were my coats. Four coats – a winter coat, a summer coat, a rain-coat and a smart coat. Four coats I had!”

Finally he lowered his voice slightly and said: “It is strictly forbidden to give any tips to the service here, so if you were thinking of giving me anything it would be as well to do it while we walk down this little street here.” Such a plain hint could not be ignored, and as his services had been invaluable we hastily parted with a generous sum of money to him. He expressed approbation, grumbled about the government some more, and finally gestured proudly to the docks, where a smart Messageries Maritimes boat was waiting by the quay.

We had a lovely trip down the Black Sea, The thing I remember best was putting in to the port of Inebolu, where they took on board eight or ten darling little brown bears. They were going, I heard, to a zoo at Marseilles, and I felt sad about them: they were so completely teddy-bearish. Still they might have had a worse fate – shot perhaps, and stuffed, or something equally disagreeable. As it was they had at least a pleasant voyage on the Black Sea. It makes me laugh still to remember a rugged French sailor solemnly feeding one little bear after another with milk from a feeding bottle.

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