Nellie and John – Mum and Dad – loved getting away from the city and heading for the hills. I have no doubt that once John retired, with the family flown the nest they would have extended their horizons and started taking longer trips across the Channel and beyond. But it was not to be; John hadn’t even reached retirement age when he died, aged 60, in 1981 and whatever dreams they may have had were never fulfilled. But much though she missed her “poor dear John”, Nellie, or Ellen as she preferred, was not one to sit around moping and it wasn’t long before she was signing up for adult education classes at Glasgow University, namely Art and Architecture, and she also trained as a Guide in the Kelvingrove Art Galleries.
So, by 1983, the year she turned 60, Ellen’s diary shows a packed schedule encompassing work (Ultrasound Assistant in the Western Infirmary), classes, guiding, babysitting (daughter Grace and grand-daughter Tia had come to live at number 8), visits to and from family members, rambles with her walking group, concerts, reminders to write letters, make phone calls, send birthday cards. And, in the May, she signed up for a two week cultural exchange visit to Russia, an extension of her University class. Ellen brought back photos, but even better than that, she kept a journal (6,000 words), which conjures up the trip and her impressions of it perfectly – lets just say she was a much better writer than a photographer! I’d like to think she might be intrigued and delighted to know that edited highlights from that travel diary are now going to feature in this post. So, in her own words:
The Russian Trip
Sat 14 May ’83. Moscow.
My Dear Ones. It is 11.37 pm and I have just got into bed. I am so tired and my neck is stiff from looking from side to side. I can’t really believe I am here in the Belgrad II Hotel. It is in the Smolensk Square and is not far from the Kremlin. I am on the 15th floor, room 18 – we got single rooms after all.
Ellen had been due to share with one Mary Chapman, whom, she reports, she had met up with at the bus station in Glasgow at the start of their journey. This is a notable meeting because it marks the beginning of what would become a lifelong friendship. Ellen and Mary hit it off from the start and they not only buddied up on further cultural exchanges and trips to historical places in Scotland, but were more or less continuously in touch and would meet up for lunch or a cuppa whenever they could. In 1985, when that year’s trip to Florence was cancelled, the pair of them booked up for a Cotter’s Tour of Ireland, with Ellen visiting her home country as if she was a tourist, which I suppose was something she’d never done before.
But, let’s get back to 1983…
It is very warm in Moscow – in the 70’s in fact, and my room is sweltering. It is small and compact with a bay window – double glazed – but you can open it, it looks out over the River Moscova and a bridge. I can see the Red Star lit over the Kremlin. I am just looking out over the city and there are millions of lights. There are 8.8 million people in Moscow! And it stands on 240,000 acres.
The drive from the Airport was something I won’t forget. Huge blocks of flats as far as the eye can see, and it was amazing to see a small boy playing with a dog on the banks of a canal – might be Glasgow! Or a woman hanging out clothes on a balcony. Everywhere there seem to be huge cranes looming into the sky and things being built. The Highway was wide and fast into Moscow from the Airport – there were fields and open spaces – and a little group of black wooden sort of little cottages. I saw a woman in a little garden and I think I saw a cow – or was it a dream?
As we lost height to refuel at Riga in Latvia I could see out the window and the country is completely flat. Roads stretch for miles as straight as a die and there are many canals. Nothing is curved – everything has straight angles. There are forests. The country is quite remarkable. And vast. I could see small groups of houses and houses on their own and some cars on a road – but usually rivers and in the distance the sea. We flew for an hour and the landscape did not vary. Rivers, canals, roads, what looked like fields and even the forests were all squared up as straight as a ribbon – quite extraordinary and fascinating. Could hardly believe I was looking down on Russia!
Another aside – immersed in reading this diary, I’d find myself, on the bus, looking at the passing vista with new eyes, as if I was Mum. For example, on the approach to Kilmarnock: “And here we have a row of ordinary looking pebble dashed council houses, rather run down and with unkempt gardens, some with rusty old cars in various states of disrepair”.
A bus without seats meets passengers out on the tarmac and squeezes twice the legal amount of bodies in and rushes back to the Reception. The building was very nice really. We were met by our Guide Tanya and an Intourist Bus. Slim young girl who chain smokes …
At the Airport – customs turnstiles manned behind glass cubicles by young lads in military looking uniforms, peaked caps, green coloured, short back and sides! – unsmiling, completely unsmiling. / There were women about – cleaners – very drab, small, squat, shapeless, fat and not very well dressed, no stockings, flat shoes, raw kind of faces, and amazingly all looked dressed the same – all unsmiling. And then at the Hotel – one of the Porters is nice – he smiles, at least when I smiled at him he smiled back.
Sunday May 15th. Moscow.
Did not sleep much because of the heat. I opened the window, and the roar of the traffic was deafening but better than the heat. Went with Guide and our Bus to tour Moscow. It is an unbelievable place, massive buildings, full of décor, statues, palaces, buildings with marble colonades. The shops look nothing like ours. They just have posters and very little goods in the windows – and some do not have big windows like ours. There are giant blocks of flats and there are always shops in the ground floor. The highways and boulevards are so wide – 12 or 14 lanes – all straight, lots of lovely bridges over the rivers.
We went to the Kremlin to see the Changing of the Guard on Lenin’s Tomb. There is a high red wall with towers at the angles – beautiful architecture. Each tower has a special name – one is Trinity Tower, with an icon of the Trinity painted on it. There are lovely white and yellow buildings and palaces inside and five monasteries. There were hundreds of people – tourists with guides taking photographs. Guards – young lads, short back and sides, goosestepped out of a courtyard at 10 a.m. and made their way to Lenin’s Tomb while the three on duty goosestepped back the way. I was right beside them and they had a sort of unseeing look on their faces. I kind of felt sorry for them.
I went inside St Basil’s but had no kopecs to go through the turnstyles. Then the bus took us all round Moscow – to the Lenin Hills to see the University, a palace. The Olympic Stadium, Bolshoi Ballet, Theatres, Museums – all of which we hope to visit. By the way, the Lenin Hills is not really hills. Then back to the Hotel for lunch.
And indeed, over the next few days the group DID visit all of those places, and more – The Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, The Palace of Congress, the Kremlin Cathedrals, the Convent of the New Maidens, The Tchaikovsky Conservatoire, the Tretyakov Museum and Art Gallery, each place seemingly more gorgeous than the last, with frescoes, gold ceilings, angels and cherubs, chandeliers, statues. They viewed beautiful works of art and marvelous furniture inlaid with gold and ivory, and attended Il Trovatore in Russian, a Symphony concert, a concert of excerpts from classical ballets.
Everywhere she went, Ellen was able to indulge her inexhaustible appetite for more knowledge, more information, more culture. When they went to the Tretyakov Gallery she wrote Lovely, lovely place, chandeliers with statues, gorgeous floors, paintings by famous Russian Painters. I enjoyed it as I had read a lot about it.
And always with her unique – not to say subversive! – angle on everything. Here are her impressions of the Palace of Congresses where they went to the opera: … an enormous place with marble columns and marble stairs and floors. Could use the stairs 20 abreast. Enjoyed it very much. Sat beside a smiling dark lady. She spoke to me and said she was Czeck. Seemed anxious I knew she was not Russian. You know, sign language is great – we became quite friends… It holds thousands and the seats are wired for microphones. I have been looking around my room for bugs and there is a wire and a switch under my bedside table that I can’t account for – it’s very exciting! Hey you, Jimmy!
Monday 16 May. Moscow.
Went in bus to Kremlin to see the Cathedrals – out of this world – frescoes all over the walls, lovely painted ceilings, gold and icons on the east walls. Not used as Churches nowadays but I have never heard so much about Christian things, Angels, the Virgin Mary, God the Father, etc. I was pleased to hear these holy names on our guide’s lips, and she certainly knew her stuff. I put one of my miraculous medals in a drain inside the Kremlin and another outside the walls. There is the Convent of the New Maidens where the daughters and womenfolk of the aristocracy took the veil – just outside the Kremlin Wall. It is the oldest, most massive, most beautiful place I have ever seen – that is where I put the second medal. We got a talk on history and architecture of all the buildings – most interesting.I know! Miraculous medals in the Kremlin! It’s for the conversion of Russia, you see. Mum took five of these medals with her – tune in to the next episode to find out what she did with the other three!
Later that day, they went to the Andrei Rubliov Museum, which was a particular favourite. I can do no better than to show you the actual diary page where Ellen has made a sketch of the layout.
That last sentence reads I think that must be the highlight for me – I seem to like icons.
Tue 17 May. Moscow.
After lunch went to the Botanical Gardens with Alma and Margaret in a taxi. Huge place. Different to ours. Met lovely Russian woman at main gate who gave us tickets. When we thanked her she said “Don’t mention it”!! We were so surprised and told her where we came from. She knew of Scotland. She said her name was Eleana and said we have the same name. Then she put her hand on my shoulder and said “God bless you”. I gave her a hug. She was lovely: wonderful when you make contact.
After supper we went to the Tchaikovsky Conservatory for a Symphony Concert by the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra. Lovely Building on three sides of square, trees in front. We could hear young musicians in the various buildings practicing. Enjoyed the concert, great orchestra, then hotel and pack for Kiev in the morning.
to be continued…