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Friday, March 3rd

March 3, 2017

With all this talk in the news about Russians (dear lord, please let them be, at a minimum, the downfall of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III), I thought today I might share my own Russian story.

Back in my days as the news editor of a shipping magazine, I attended a conference in Brussels about EU shipping policy. (Not as tedious as it sounds and far, far less tedious than the ro-ro conference in Hamburg.)

The special lunchtime speaker the first day of this conference was Igor Averin, the Soviet Minister of Mercantile Marine. I have absolutely no idea what he said, but I do remember thinking it would be great to bag him for an interview for my magazine. We had a weekly column headlined ‘Man of the Week’ and this would be a damned sight more interesting – and relevant – than most of the profiles we scrambled to find most weeks.

I approached Averin after lunch and he agreed. An empty room was found for us and I did the interview. (If I had a scanner I could actually include a photo of this interview, taken by the conference’s wandering photographer.) Again, I have no recollection of what was actually discussed during this interview.

I went off to my room to write up the interview and ring the magazine so I could dictate the piece to our secretary. She then passed me over to the editor, who informed me he already had someone lined up for that week’s man of the week. We could, he said, use Averin in the following issue. I pointed out, trying not to yell or sound too sarcastic, that the profile he had lined up wasn’t particularly time sensitive (as many weren’t) and that waiting a week to run the Averin piece would make him ‘Man of Last Week’. Eventually he agreed with me.

Back I went to the conference, where I discovered that John Prescott, at the time Labour’s shipping bloke, who had spent the entire morning in the audience popping up and down like a Jack-in-the-box, had been added to the panel. (Clearly the only way to shut him up.)

In the early evening, the conference organisers laid on a drinks party, complete with an ice swan. (Funny the things you remember decades later.) As I was leaving said party I bumped into Averin at the lifts. He asked me if I knew of anywhere decent to eat near the hotel. As it happened I did. The previous evening a couple of the other delegates and I had come across a very good restaurant nearby. I told Averin that I did indeed know of such a hostelry and that it would be my pleasure to buy him dinner. (I was, after all, on expenses, and my editor didn’t need to know that my interview with Averin hadn’t been over a meal.) He accepted and we agreed to meet in the lobby in half an hour.

When I got to the lobby Averin was waiting, along with two blokes I can only describe as the Blues Brothers – hats and sunglasses included. Averin did not introduce us, nor did he in any way acknowledge their presence. The four of us walked to the restaurant – Averin and I in front, the Blues Brothers behind. We were seated at a table for four. Neither of the Blues Brothers looked at the menus placed in front of them. Averin ordered a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Whether this was because he was particularly fond of said wine or because it was the most expensive bottle offered on the wine list I could not say. A waiter took Averin’s food order and mine. Then he looked questioningly at the Blues Brothers, who said nothing, simply sat there. I finally turned to Averin and said, “Anything for your – ” (oh, hell, what was I supposed to call them?) “ – comrades?” Averin said something to them in Russian and one of them said the only words I heard either of them speak all evening: “Coca cola.”

The soft drinks arrived. Our food arrived. The bizarre evening unfolded with Averin and I chatting as if we were the only people at the table. Occasionally one of the Blues Brothers would lift his glass to his lips and take a sip. Otherwise they were like statues. The meal was completed, the bill paid. The four of us walked back to the hotel. The lift came. Averin and the Blues Brothers got off at the fourth floor. I continued on to the seventh.

I assume, of course, the Blues Brothers must have been Averin’s KGB minders. They had not been in evidence at all during the conference. (Trust me, I would have noticed them.) Presumably they only had to be with him if he left the hotel. Why it was necessary to have two minders is beyond me. But I had a fantastic story to go with the very large restaurant receipt, which softened the blow for my editor when he signed off on it.

Flash forward several months.


There is to be a press conference at the Russian embassy in Kensington featuring my old comrade Averin. Off I go. At one point I raised my hand to ask a question. “Yes, my friend from Marine Week,” said Averin. I asked my question. Others asked theirs. The press conference ended. Averin left. As I was pulling on my coat, someone from the embassy approached me and said the Minister would be delighted to offer me some hospitality. I looked around the room. No one else was being invited. I said I would be delighted to accept.

I was led into a very grand reception room: Crystal chandelier, polished marble fireplace, gilt galore. (The phrase “going for baroque” springs to mind.) I was introduced to some embassy staff. I wish I could say I remember any of the conversation that followed, but it turned out the “hospitality” on offer was a bit of caviar and a lot of vodka. The vodka was served in crystal shot glasses. Toasts were offered, vodka knocked back. After possibly the fourth such toast I said I had an inexplicable urge to throw my glass into the fireplace. I have no idea why this struck me as a Russian thing to do, but everyone, Averin included, thought this was a great idea. Amidst cries of “Da! Da!” (or, more accurately, “Да! Да!”), everyone, including me, threw their crystal shot glasses into the marble fireplace. More shot glasses were handed out, more vodka poured, more toasts made, more glasses thrown into the fireplace. I’m guessing hundreds of pounds worth of glassware was smashed that evening.

At some point, not surprisingly, the room started to spin. I told a very nice bloke from the embassy that I thought perhaps I needed to find a taxi. He dispatched an underling to the bottom of Embassy Row (otherwise known as Kensington Palace Gardens) to find one. There was a bear hug from Averin, hand shaking and back slapping from the other members of the party, then I was spirited home in a black cab. The driver had to wake me up when we got to Finchley Road.

Fortunately this happened on a Friday evening, so I had the weekend to recover – which I needed.

I never saw Averin again. I never set foot in the Russian embassy again. I never found out who the Blues Brothers were.

And that’s my Russian story.

One Comment
  1. Mariam permalink

    Love it! And I must find a way to use going for baroque – with proper accreditation, of course!

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