22 Jun Sleepless in Russia – Planes, Trains and Automobiles
A week of travelling around Russia during the World Cup
By Milos Stankovic MBE MCIArb, Principal High Risk Advisor at 1st Option Safety Group.
If you think or already know that working in health and safety is a fun and rewarding experience then there’s no need to read on. If you think it’s dull and uninteresting, read on.
So, by now you’ve probably worked out that I’m over in Russia supporting Fox Sport’s coverage of the World Cup working with their Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) team. It’s a very big deal for everyone involved. If you want to know the background, go and read my previous blog.
One of the benefits of also having a security background is that I can be of service both to security and EHS folk alike. In fact, there is some crossover between these two worlds. Both are, in their different ways, focussed on keeping everyone safe and getting them back home in good shape. Previous trips around all the venue cities were jointly conducted by Sergey Grabovets from Fox security and myself on the EHS side. We focussed primarily on checking out all the Broadcast Compounds (BC) at each stadium and the security and safety of the hotels that Fox Sports had or were going to book for their traveling tech teams.
Fox are fastidious in doing the best due diligence they can to keep their people as safe as possible. Inevitably, as the June 14thmatch day approached we still had some BCs and newly booked hotels to check over. So, Fox launched me solo out of Moscow on a crazy seven-day slingshot around Western Russia. Here’s what happened.
Tuesday 12th June M –2: St. Petersburg
It’s Russia Day! A national holiday. A big event going on in Red Square. Heaps of Russian security and large crowds clogging up the streets. But, I miss all that. I have a 5am pick up and drop off at Moscow’s Leningrad station to catch the Sapsan high speed bullet train up to St. Petersburg 445 miles to the north. 1st class – what a treat!
I experienced this marvel of German (Siemens) engineering last year during the Confederations Cup and again during Sergey’s and my joint slingshot round the venue cities in September and October. Sapsan is Russian for Peregrine Falcon – the fastest animal on earth. It can reach speeds of 200 kmh. And so does the train, maintaining it for four hours between Moscow and St. Petersburg. It’s actually faster to take the Sapsan between the two cities than it is to fly, although the flight is only about an hour. Sapsan takes you city centre to city centre without the hassle of traffic and airport security. The service is pretty regular, sometimes with a gap of only 10 minutes between trains. The whole experience is airline-like without the altitude or attitude – reclining seats, excellent food served with a smile. The scenery is almost exclusively green. But, we’ll get onto trees later. The downside to 1stclass is that people don’t talk to each other. They’re all too important. More on that later as well.
The other thing that’s particularly Germanic about the Russians is the way in which their transport systems run to the precise minute and second. I’m not joking. Our Sapsan was due to arrive in St. Pete at 11am. To the British mind, that would be give or take several minutes or tens of minutes, or hours even. No! We were still rolling slowly at 10.59:59 and stopped dead at 11.00:00. In your face, Southern Rail!
Fortunately, both hotels I’m checking out are walking distance from the Moscow railway station. FYI – Russian train stations are named for the places their trains are going to rather than the city they’re in. So, the Moscow railway station in St. Petersburg is logical, in an Asiatic sort of way. Anyway, checking out fire alarms, sprinkler systems, fire doors, fire signage, extinguishers, primary and secondary evacuation routes and rally points can be a little dull, so I won’t bore you further with that. Suffice it to say, it’s a methodical and time-consuming process.
That said, I managed to struggle two miles down Nevsky Prospect through heaving crowds of tourists ambling along St. Pete’s main drag. I’m being unfair. It’s anything but a drag, this city. Its architecture is stunning, if you like Italian Renaissance architecture. Western Europeans, and others, love the city. If you like Venice or Florence, you’ll love St. Petersburg.
Personally, I prefer the Asiatic part of Russia. I don’t mean geographically, I mean psychologically. When I described Russia in my previous blog as a true Eurasian country, I didn’t just mean that the geography stretches across both Europe and Asia. Russians are schizophrenic (in a nice way). Ever since Peter the great forced them to shave off their beards and open a window on the West by building St. Petersburg, Russian intellectual circles have debated the central question about identity – whither Russia? Are they Westerners? Are they Easterners? I’d say, they’re both. Their western heritage flows from the Viking traders who used Russia’s rivers to trade north to south, while their eastern heritage dates back to the invasions of the Golden Horde and subjugation under the Mongols, which they threw off. So, with six pints of Serbian blood in me, St. Petersburg doesn’t really do it for me. Moscow is a curious blend of both psychologies. They say you go to St. Petersburg to find love and to Moscow to make money. That said, I’ve become quite attached to the cities on the Volga to the east of Moscow. I’ve noticed that the further east one goes that aspect of Asiatic Russianness is more tangible, at least to me.
Every French tourist should visit the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg to find out where the keys to six of their cities are kept. Just off Nevsky Prospect, the cathedral is where the famous Marshal Kutuzov is entombed. He saw off Napoleon in 1812 and pursued him to Paris, capturing French cities along the way and quartering his army in 1814 along the Champs Elysees. On either side of his tomb hang three sets of keys to the six cities he captured en route to Paris. I light a couple of candles to the dead and living and pray for Fox’s success and a safe return of our people back home, before struggling back up Nevsky Prospect to the station to catch the 1700 Sapsan back to Moscow. A 900-mile round trip of eight hours for six hours on the ground. In fact, the train I return on pushes through to Nizhny Novgorod pausing briefly in Moscow. I should stay on it, because that’s where I’m going the next day. But, we’d planned in a hurry and missed the fact that only this particular Sapsan goes to Nizhny.
Wednesday 13th June M –1: Nizhny Novgorod
Another 5am start to pick up a train at Moscow’s Kursk Station for Nizhny Novgorod 250 miles to the east and slightly north. Formally known as Gorky during Soviet times, when it was a city closed to Westerners, Nizhny Novgorod is the most northerly of the four FIFA World Cup cities on the Volga.
I’m expecting something fast and luxurious that would cover the distance quickly. But, the clue is in the name of the train, Lastochka – a swallow. Not exactly a fast mover like the Peregrine Falcon. It’s more Fleet to Waterloo South West Trains with slightly harder seats. That’s the problem with tasting a little 1stClass luxury. One gets spoilt – expectations have to be self-managed. But, the upside is that you are among normal people one of whom is sitting opposite me quietly reading a book. They’re very bookish here in Russia. It’s not unusual to see a number of people in the same Metro carriage with their noses in a book rather than a mobile device.
I’m just putting my laptop away, having dashed off an email, when my travelling companion leans forward and begins an unsolicited conversation in Russian, ‘I notice you’re typing with all your fingers, and quickly. Are you a journalist?’
Mavis Beacon had taught me to type years ago. ‘No. I work for Fox Sports.’ That was a mistake. He thinks I’m a sports journalist. I try to explain that I’m a health and safety bod. But, he’s so impressed with my typing skills he won’t accept my version of the truth.
‘You know, even our administrators in the Kremlin can only type with two fingers. Are you going to Nizhny Novgorod to write an article?’ He’s not letting go of the journalist idea. I guess he finds it more compelling than my health and safety cover story – a concept that is enshrined in Russian law, but seldom adhered to, far less enforced. So, on the basis that he thinks that I’m a foreign journalist my companion proceeds to unload his secrets, presumably in the hope that I’ll alert the West to the reality of things in Russia.
Now, the thing about Russia is that government failure can’t just be ascribed to the lack of talent in politics and self-serving mediocrity as it is in the West. No, in Russia it has to be wrapped up in elaborate and fantastical conspiracy theories. Life is dull without one. According to my travelling companion, Yuri Andropov, a former head of the KGB and then Soviet leader, had in fact been a Mossad spy. Worse still, the only reason Putin hasn’t moved against the last of the oligarchs, Roman Abramovich, is that they’re actually related. The subtle inferential subtext to this is that Putin is also Jewish! And so on.
Despite these lurid revelations, to which I respond, ‘Oh, I never! How interesting!’ I realise that I’m only egging him on. My eyelids are starting to droop. I’ve been getting up at 04.30 each morning and I’m finding the Russian hard to comprehend, not because it’s difficult, but because my hearing was shot to pieces in 1993 during a particularly intense artillery bombardment in Bosnia that came far too close for comfort. My lip reading in Russian isn’t up to much, so I inevitably end up smiling, nodding and saying ‘Da’. It’s a cop out, but easier than trying to process the visual data.
The first time I’d been to Nizhny Novgorod with Sergey the previous September I hadn’t liked it much. We weren’t there for long and I suppose I’d been coloured against it by the fact that it had been a closed city in Soviet times to which Alexander Solzhenitsyn had been exiled. Grim. But, it has its own charm. At the confluence of the Oka and Volga there stands Nizhny’s old Kremlin on the south bank of the Oka and a shiny new stadium on the north bank.
As with Samara further to the south, it hadn’t suffered Nazi occupation during the Second World War. Consequently, some of its houses are original wooden structures dating back to Tsarist times. Slightly wonky, they have a peculiar charm. But, to my mind Nizhny Novgorod’s crowing glory is an elevated and long promenade lined with splendid architecture high above the Volga offering long views over the river and big skies to the east. I tramp nearly ten miles around Nizhny that night and decide I quite like the place after all.
Thursday 14th June M Day: Nizhny Novgorod-Moscow
Today is Match Day. On the train back to Moscow. I have to say, the platform numbering and signage at Nizhny Novgorod’s very smart new station is completely illogical and either designed by a five-year-old or it’s a clever FSB (KGB successor) plan to confuse foreigners. If you don’t have your wits about you, you could easily miss your train, trapped in the station’s labyrinthine passageways. Crazily, the departures board stated that this train would depart on platform 6/17. 6 turned out to be the trick platform, designed to lure the unwary out to Siberia. But, with a clear head and iron will, I made it to platform 17 with time to spare. I guess the Russians know the secret codes to platforms and are less likely to find themselves on their way to Irkutsk by accident.
I like the train I’m on. It’s not Sapsan, but it’s still clipping along at 155kmh – 3 hours 45 minutes to Moscow. I hadn’t liked it on the way to Nizhny yesterday because I’d been spoiled by the superfast and comfortable 1stclass experience up to St. Petersburg the day before. But, now I like it. Fast and rugged. More Audi than Ferrari. It’s a bit like the Fleet to Waterloo commuter, but without the commuter suffering.
As we clatter along, I remember that a friend on Facebook, asked me to take lots of pictures of the countryside on the return journey. Whaaaaat! This is Russia, dude! Unless you have a thing about silver birches, you’re clean out of luck. There are billions of them in Russia. They are all you see either side of the tracks, mile after mile. Just a green blur. It reminds me of patrolling in the jungles of Belize in 1984, up in the Vacca mountains. Endless green. Eventually it drives you mad.
I’m back into Moscow and catch the Metro over to the IBC in time to shoot down to Luzhniki stadium with Chad Ross, Fox Sport EHS’s point man in Moscow. Russia is playing Saudi Arabia here in the opening match at 6pm. The Metro down to Luzhniki is crammed with people making their way to the match. Huge crowds of fans, not just Russian and Saudi but from all over, are crowding noisily towards Moscow’s iconic 1980s Olympic stadium, recently refurbished to a high standard. The atmosphere is electric. We’re not here to watch the match but to verify the emergency evacuation route out for our tech teams in the event of a serious incident.
At 6pm the blow of the referee’s whistle signals the beginning of 32 days and 64 matches across 11 Russian cities, marking for us the transition from preparation to coverage. Russia wins 5-0.
Friday 15th June M +1: Kazan
Up at 3.30am for a 4am pick up. I have a 7am flight from Moscow’s southern airport – Domodyedovo – out to Kazan for the day. At this time of year, as the summer solstice approaches, it’s already quite light at 4am and the sun’s bathing the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in golden light as we cross over the Bol’shoi Kamyenniy bridge. There are some rewards to yet another early start, and this is one of them.
Kazan is the second most northerly venue city on the Volga. It is the capital of Tartarstan. It was here in 1552 that Russian expansionist history began when Tsar Ivan IV (Grozny/The Terrible) and his Muscovite forces stormed and captured the Tartar Kremlin and gained control of the Volga – a vast river which has its source between Moscow and St. Petersburg and flows into the Caspian Sea at Astrakhan in the south. Within 175 years the Russians had pushed north to the Baltic, south to the Black Sea and east into the endless Siberian vastness.
S7 is a Siberian airline that flies predominantly out of Domodyedovo. With a lime green livery (it’s not as bad as it sounds) it’s easily on a par with Aeroflot. So, out to Kazan on S7 and back on Aeroflot into Vnukovo. Couldn’t be better. Flights out to the Volga cities are not long and usually take an hour and a bit which allows for a good day’s work to be done and an early evening return to Moscow. Neither Sergey nor I had been particularly thrilled flying on Rossiya Airways in September. It’s Aeroflot’s budget partner with inflight catering that reflects that. But, S7 and Aeroflot are great.
So, anticipating a good feed on the Aeroflot flight back to Moscow I skip lunch in Kazan as a hotel and the broadcast compound needed checking out. This is a huge mistake. Aeroflot and Rossiya Airways share the same flight prefix of SU, tricking the unwary into thinking they are flying on Aeroflot, which normally operates out of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo. The Vnukovo destination should have been a tip of that the flight back was in fact Rossiya. It’s a great airline if you are on a diet. But, if your ravenous, the food is almost Gulag-like. Yum, yum. Check it out:
Saturday 16th June M +2: St. Petersburg
No rest for the wicked. Yet another 4.30am alarm call. Back up to St. Petersburg by Sapsan. 8 hours of high speed train rides for 6 hours on the ground. The broadcast compound needs to be checked out. Saving grace – 1stclass catering again, which makes up for yesterday’s meagre rations on Rossiya. After checking out the broadcast compound at the St. Petersburg stadium, I have my driver drop me off at the Hermitage Winter Palace. I have a few hours to kill so plan wander down Nevsky Prospect to the Moscow railway station, a distance of two miles. But, I haven’t figured on the heat and vast crowds of tourists mixed in with Moroccan and Iranian fans. Movement is slow and hot. Fortunately, Kazan Cathedral proves to be a welcome pit stop en route. By now the early mornings and almost endless travelling and walking are starting to take their toll. I need some holy water to revive me before struggling on down Nevsky Prospect towards the station.
The Iranian fans are quite interesting – not a veil or hijab in sight. They must leave them behind in Iran when they follow their national team to Russia. They look like Western women – shorts, Lycra, tank tops in Iranian colours. I guess the religious police weren’t given visas by the Russians.
Sunday 17th June M +2: Samara & Volgograd
The Aeroflot Airbus out of Sheremetyevo bound for Samara is crammed full of Serbian and Costa Rican fans heading out for their match at Samara’s brand-new stadium. When on the FIFA venue tour in March, this was the stadium that was the least ready. It had been hard to imagine how this freezing building site could ever be ready by June. But, the Russians have an extraordinary capacity to throw resources and in particular, manpower, at a problem. At Sochi in 2014 a very large labour force remained in the area. After the Olympics concluded someone asked them why they were still there and hadn’t gone back to Uzbekistan. The answer was always the same – the venues still have to be completed. And so it probably is with some of these stadia.
There’s no real evidence of that at the Samara stadium, though there’s a hint of some last-minute-dot-com decorating as fans started to pour into the outer stadium draped in Costa Rican and Serbian flags. The latter flood in from the Serbian diaspora scattered throughout the world. Like Jews and Israelis, there are more Serbs in the diaspora in the UK, Europe, America, S. America, Australia etc. than live in Serbia itself. Samara Arena acts as a magnet, drawing these scattered clans together. Under a cloudless hot Samaran sky, the atmosphere is infectious and good-humoured between rival fans.
I’m tempted to go AWOL and stay and watch the match, but at 4pm I drag myself away and head back to airport to catch a flight back to Domodyedovo and a two-hour layover before taking a connecting flight down to Volgograd. At Domodyedovo I join a crowd watching the Germany-Mexico match and the latter’s unexpected 0-1 win. As I make my way to gate 52 to board the flight to Volgograd I hear that Serbia has beaten Costa Rica 1-0. What could possibly spoil my day? Not much, except the unexpected horror of being confronted by the Pride of Brexit – beered-up English fans doing what they do best: making a disgrace of themselves, their country and frightening small children with their primitive, boorish behaviour. Russian civilians and other travelling fans from Tunisia, Nigeria and a number of other countries can’t quite believe this display of British yobbery. I hang my head in shame. Judge for yourselves:
The fear has always persisted that this particular group of people would lack the cultural sensitivity to behave with respect and decorum in a city in which a million Soviet troops died to turn the tide of war in favour of the Allies over the winter of 1942/43. The new stadium at Volgograd lies in the shadow of the Mamayev Kurgan bluff, which Soviet troops held during the siege of the city. It’s now a mass grave containing the bodies of nearly 35,000 Soviet soldiers. Made of concrete, the Mother Russia statue is the highest in Europe and dominates the skyline above the stadium. The entire complex is a moving memorial to the dead. The guard at the eternal flame is changed hourly. Men are told to remove their hats and caps out of respect for the dead. So, I’m slightly peeved that I have to fly down to Volgograd with these yobs, who are scaring Russian children with their primitive behaviour. Fortunately, they’re so drunk they fall asleep, sparing us all their terrible singing.
The hotel I’ve been sent down to check out is far too dangerous for Fox to put their news crews in. The fire exits are locked at night. The only way out is via the lobby. If that’s on fire, then everyone dies. In Russia, security trumps safety, despite the tragedy at Kemerovo in Siberia in March in which over sixty people, many of them children, perished because the fire alarms had been disabled and fire exits locked. Since then a decree by Putin had ordered a review and tightening up of fire regulations. These had clearly not reached this particular hotel.
Monday 18th June M +3: Volgograd
Volgograd is a pretty hostile environment, as the German 6thArmy found out in 1942/43. As you fly in over the endless flat brown steppe that ends with this city on the west bank of the Volga you’re is left with one overriding question – what on earth did the Germans think they were doing? It makes and made no military sense whatsoever. You have to see it to fully understand Hitler’s folly.
But that was then. Now the treat comes from swarms of midges – millions of them. You literally have to keep moving faster than they can fly to avoid being overwhelmed by them. The closer to the river you are, the worse they become, and the stadium is on the river – easy pickings for the midges once it fills up with fans.
High above the midge-infested low ground the war memorial is high enough to escape the threat. Amazingly, our worst fears of beered-up hooligans rampaging around Murmayev Kurgan are unrealised. British fans behave respectfully. In fact, it’s the Tunisian fans who seem oblivious to the need for quiet solemnity and respect. The BBC’s deputy head of High Risk, Tim Moffat, a former fellow British paratrooper, and I even had to intervene to tell a group of them to stop blowing their vuvuzelas and waving their flags. Maybe they thought it was a kind of theme park.
At the airport I noticed that no alcohol was on sale. I asked the various outlets why. It turns out that the authorities had decided to avoid a repeat of the previous evening’s British entertainment at Domodyedovo airport and depower the potential for more ugly scenes by simply banning the sale of alcohol on this day and the following day. Smart move! Try that in Britain and some snowflake would complain that their human rights had been violated.
I land back in Moscow to discover the England had beaten Tunisia 2-1. That’ll teach them to blow their vuvuzelas at a sacred site. So, with a Serbian win at Samara and an English win at Volgograd my exhausting week-long schlep of six train rides and six flights ends on a pleasant and rewarding high, topped off the following evening with even more satisfaction when Russia beats Egypt convincingly.
So, if you think health and safety is boring, think again. And the football has been fun too!
The views expressed in this piece are entirely the author’s.