Hugh Gatenby

Moscow’s surrounding towns are admirably well-served by a massive network of ‘elekrichki’, an electric train suburban service, which, while it might not be the last word in customer comfort, does at least deliver the goods. Or the passengers, rather. 

It was on one of these that I booked a very cheap ticket to Mozhaisk, a small, ancient town some 100 kilometres to the west of Moscow. The railway station is situated a small distance from the town centre, but the advantage of having booked into a Soviet-era hotel just opposite the station was soon offset by the atmosphere in the hotel itself. I was seemingly the only guest in a hotel that boasted miles of creepy, dimly-lit corridors and antediluvian showers. In terms of cinematic references, it lay somewhere between the hotel of ‘The Shining’ and the Hitchcock’s Bates’ Motel. Mercifully, no maniacal would-be axe-murderers tried to break my door down. And a shower-scene Psycho killer would have had to bend down do any slashing, because the hot-water pressure was so low I had to lay down on the tiles with the shower hose. I was wrong about being the only guest, though. I was woken in the morning but by a cock crowing from the adjacent farm, but by a group of hawking, expectorating, thick-set males having a smoke and clearing their throats volubly and in unison. 

Thus enriched, I went on to the town. The town of Mozhaisk itself comprises, as do many Russian small towns, a veritable mish-mash of styles. Much of the town was razed during World War II, lying as it did on the path of the German advance on Moscow. Incredibility, its two fine cathedrals survived both the ravages of the war the Soviet period of neglect and misuse. Many of the very picturesque, brightly-painted wooden houses also survive and have been well restored. The ubiquitous Soviet-era housing blocks are also present in most towns and cities of a certain size – war damage or not. The slower pace life in a large rural town was in sharp contrast to the the omnipresent buzz of Moscow. People were friendly and hospitable. I quickly warmed to the place and had soon made friends amongst the staff of the restaurant ‘Shokolad’, whose the head chef, a genial, balding forty-something, was happy to point out their Russian national awards, and to tell me of his time working in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Cannes. He appeared to have picked up remarkably little French, however.

I take a trip out the Borodino field. The nearby village of Borodino was the site of a massive set-piece battle, a stand-off by the Russians against Napoleon’s advance on Moscow. Both sides claim victory; the French, because their advance was not stemmed and they went on to occupy Moscow, and by the Russians, because in the carnage they inflicted greater losses on the French. Indeed, the Borodino memorial, a massive, ornate obelisk on the site of the battlefield, lists the losses on both sides like some grim scorecard. The subsequent events are less controversial. Napoleon’s occupation of Moscow was short-lived, the Russians abandoned their own capital and torched it. The Grande Armée, numbering initially over half a million men-at-arms, ill-equipped against the Russian winter and harried by the Russians, limped back to France, with the loss, it is thought, of over 90% of their initial strength.

The undulating farmland looks very peaceful now. I too limped back, maybe not in snow and sub-zero temperatures, but in driving rain, to the bus-stop, and then back to town. After a last feed and a farewell at my Franco-Russian restaurant, the I got on the electrical back to Moscow. 

It had all turned out well. A fine little town, Mozhaisk

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