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Letter from St Petersburg

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Gordon detects glimpses of cricket and footy on the way to St Petersbur.

Two trains operate between Moscow and Saint Petersburg, a fast train and a slow train. The high-speed train is most popular, taking only four hours on the 649km route opened in 1851.

My client’s European sales manager is accompanying us. In order to maintain anonymity I shall name him ‘Laggard’. That fits!

Laggard organised tickets to Saint Petersburg where we plan to sign an agreement with the district government. At Moscow’s Leningradsky Railway Station a modern train stood on one side of the platform and an older version whose departure was imminent, on the other. I re-checked my ticket and confirmed the wrong train stood at the platform from which we are scheduled to depart.

“Surely we are taking the express?” I asked Laggard with a hint of incredulity in my voice. Alas, the conductor answered my question as we are hustled onto the 1930’s train.

On board, we assembled in the lounge car for a nightcap. Laggard asked for the menu. Client pulled back the heavy red velvet curtains. Upon seeing this, the female conductor, with a grim face and earnest endeavour, charged down the aisle demanding the curtains be closed.

“Zakryt’, zakryt’, zakryt’,” she yelled before realising our blank faces meant no postigat’ [comprehend]. The command was repeated. “Close, close, close!”

We all looked at each other in stunned disbelief before I broke the silence. “Stalin’s sister is unaware the Cold War is over.”

Travelling at 250 kph the express train takes four hours. The famous 1931 Red Arrow departed at midnight and arrived at 8am. As our train pulled into Moskovsky Station my client questioned Laggard about our mode of transport.

“I thought we would appreciate the scenery,” he replied.

“Sure, in the dead of the night and with Stalin’s sister standing guard at the windows,” I exclaimed.

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Laggard did not appreciate my sense of humour. The rest of us did not appreciate the uncomfortable bunks, frequent stops and standard of the ‘breakfast’. Boarding the train we were each given a small box containing a juice, a light brown cricket ball and two pieces of ham left over from Rosa Klebb’s Christmas lunch four years earlier. Rosa was the diminutive lady in the movie From Russia With Love.

“I didn’t know they played cricket in Russia,” I opine.

“That’s a bun you idiot,” said Laggard.

He doesn’t understand my humour.

St Petersburg, often called the ‘Venice of the North’ acknowledging the canals, was founded on 16 May 1703. Peter the Great had defeated the Swedish army and took control of the city of Nyen, renaming it after his patron saint.

The Tsar rebuilt St Petersburg through conscription and declared it the capital of Russia. It remained so until a year after the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace in 1917. During the First World War its name was changed to Petrograd and was changed again to Leningrad after the death of Lenin in 1924.

Vladimir Putin hailed from St Petersburg and not unexpectedly poured money into the city in the early years of his Presidency. Putin wanted the second largest city in Russia to become a mecca for tourists. It is indeed.

After checking into our hotel in the heart of the city we gathered in the dining area for coffee. My client inspected the buffet breakfast, gathered up a bun, tossed it a few inches into the air and winked in my direction. I smiled. Laggard inspected and shuffled his shoes on the carpet.

Soon after, the officials arrived and suggested we walk to the Mayoral office two blocks away. We meandered a circuitous route past some of the historical sights including the Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood. The church commemorated Emperor Alexander II who was assassinated in 1881.

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As we strolled leisurely along the canal banks the most senior official noticed the door to a bar was ajar. Although clearly not open for business, he nevertheless ushered our group inside and summonsed the owner.

“Dringk to stop cold,” he barked as he reached for a bottle of vodka.

But one is not permitted to have just one vodka. Two vodkas later – I think it is something about having an odd number – we ambled on to the government offices. Inside, apparently in the tradition of Russian governance, “We must “dringk more wodka before zign contract.”

After signing the agreement, wouldn’t you believe it, “Must zelebrate we zign contract.”


Any visit to St Petersburg should include a visit to the summer palace of Catherine the Great. Our driver is a former member of Spetsnaz, the Special Forces unit in the Russian military. His name was ‘Little Sasha’. Clearly Russians have adopted the characteristically Australian use of understatement. Little Sasha is little in name only – he stood 195 cms and his shoulders were about the same width! I sat behind him in the car and his neck alone blocked my view.

Spetsnaz soldiers are accustomed to taking a twenty second catnap whenever possible because they never knew whether their operation might preclude sleep for long periods. That might explain why Little Sasha nodded off to sleep whilst we were stopped at a red traffic signal, second car in line.

Sasha’s foot slipped from the brake pedal and the large Mercedes lurched forward hitting the car in front. He awoke with a jolt. The driver in front jumped from his car and walked briskly to our driver’s door with what looked like aggressive and evil intent. Sasha didn’t move, merely lowered his window.

Upon seeing Sasha’s size the innocent driver said, “С Рождеством Христовым,” smiled nervously and walked back to his car. At the green light he drove away in haste presumably lest Sasha object to the car blocking his view of the intersection.

Sasha translated for us: “he said ‘Merry Christmas’.”

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“I want Sasha for centre-half-back of my footy team!” I told the others.

The next day we departed from the Pulkovo International Airport. As we said our farewells to my surprise an emotional Little Sasha grabbed me in a bear hug with tears running down his cheeks. Perhaps he understood English better than I thought and relished the idea of an AFL career!

Gordon d’Venables has been, inter alia, a teacher, soldier, farmhand, lawyer and businessman. As a lawyer he travelled extensively for international clients. His letters from various times and places around the globe (PNG, England, Ireland, France, USA, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Iran and others) refer to some of his experiences. Gordon’s recently published book, The Medusa Image, can be obtained from Pegasus at, ISBN: 9781784658939 or


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Source: Tasmanian Times

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