On the morning of the 11th July we walked to the Museum of the October Revolution in Leningrad and spent the afternoon, by way of a contrast, at the summer residence of the Tsars. Our plan was then to set off towards Moscow with an overnight stop at Novgorod.
As we headed out of Leningrad we got lost in amongst the crisscross roads of the older suburbs. We stopped to ask people directions. Very few people spoke English so we used the Russian travel dictionary as best we could. Some people refused to stop, hurrying past us, eyes averted, afraid to be seen talking to Westerners. Others stopped and tried to help and eventually with sign language and drawings in the dust on the pavement we had a map out of the city.
To leave Leningrad we drove around a vast roundabout. We caught a glimpse of a tall obelisk and grand Soviet-style statues of heroic soldiers, workers and peasants lining a pathway leading to the centre. This was the Victory Monument or to give it its full title, the “Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad” commemorating the city’s survival of the 900 day siege of during World War 2. The monument was completed only the year before in 1975. In our eagerness to be on our way and to reach our scheduled destination on time, we ignored it.
Aerial view of the Victors’ Monument
About an hour or so after having left Leningrad we heard tooting behind us. There was an old, small red car following us. Leaning out of the passenger window was a uniformed man waving a baton with a red disc fixed to it at the top. Presumably, he wanted our attention! We slowed down and the car came up beside us indicating we should pull over.
Two men stepped out of the car. The driver was in civilian clothes and looked rather nervous. The other man was an official of some sort. My guess was that the local had had his car acquired by the official for the chase.
The official demanded our passports. We refused. A ruckus ensued in English, Russian and gesticulation. Eventually we were shown official identification (how would we know it was genuine?) and we gave in, reluctantly handing over our passports. We were instructed to follow their car. Well, of course! Where our passports went, we went too.
The two cars drove a few kilometers and then pulled up. The official demanded that Norm get out of the car. He did and followed him into a small red brick building on the other side of the road. A huge old tree shaded the building, the blinds in both windows were drawn and Norm disappeared inside, the door slamming closed behind him.
I stood by the road staring intently at the building but could see nothing, not even shadows in the windows. The driver hovered about for a while and then decided he wasn’t needed and hurried into his car and drove off. He glanced at me briefly, looked sympathetic and then did a U-turn blowing up dust, dead leaves and gravel and sped off back towards Leningrad.
I got back into the van and waited watching a few people walk by and the occasional truck rumble past. About 40 minutes went by. I became very worried. I was helpless just sitting there. I got out of the car and walked its length, too scared to go any further. I looked at the building watching for any movements behind the blinds. I got back into the car, fidgeted and finally as a way of distracting myself, started cleaning. Norm could be in there being tortured and here I was polishing windows!
Eventually Norm came out with the passports in his hand. His interrogation had clearly frightened him, but he had managed to explain to the Russians in broken schoolboy German what had happened and that we had meant no harm. Apparently we had come down the wrong road and were heading to Kiev and not Moscow. We now had to go back to Leningrad and take the correct exit from the roundabout. We were tired. Norm was shaken. I was weeping. We had to drive all that way back. This meant of course that we would be late getting to Novgorod.
We drove as fast as possible back through the countryside to the roundabout and the Victory Monument intent on finding the correct exit. This time there were crowds of people standing on the pavements surrounding the monument and they were waving. We noticed a black glossy limousine in front of us, the back seat of which was tightly packed with big men in dark suits squashed shoulder to shoulder. On the bonnet of the car the Soviet flag fluttered. In front of the limousine was another similarly stuffed car and there was one behind us, too. Good god! We had inadvertently joined some sort of procession.
So there we were in our rather scruffy red kombi van in amongst a parade of VIPs with crowds of people waving. The enthusiasm of the crowd definitely increased as we came into their view. We drove around to the clearly visible and readable Moscow exit. How we missed it before I do not know.
It was at this point however that I momentarily lost my presence of mind.
“Let’s go round again”, I said. Norm ginned somewhat maniacally and agreed.
And so around we went again, to the great delight of the crowd, some of whom cheered. The usually dour Russians had a sense of humour after all! We did not test our luck for a third time and drove off onto the road to Moscow heading for Novgorod.