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Russian around Moscow: Summer 2013

For many holidaymakers, bringing back a memento from a foreign country would possibly result in the acquisition of a fridge magnet, a Christmas tree decoration, or perhaps an inappropriate set of Greek coasters. For me it’s a football shirt. Occasionally multiple football shirts, depending on how many teams a visited city or town possess. Over time it has become an all-encompassing – and possibly unhealthy – obsession.

One city which is home to a multitude of football teams is Moscow. A vast, sprawling metropolis that is part modern and part museum. The architecture of the old Soviet regime’s brutalist concrete tower blocks contrast sharply with the technicolour splendour of the ‘onion’-topped domes of St Basil’s in Red Square. But underneath the streets lies a subterranean communal art gallery of ornate beauty, where the walls and ceilings are resplendent in historical socialist political propaganda: the Moscow Metro system. Featuring 170 stations and 280km of track, there is no finer aesthetically satisfying transport system in the world. Chandeliers, mosaics, frescoes, sculptures and stained glass pictures decorate many of the stops. It makes the London Underground look colourless and functional in comparison.

It was in these stunning surroundings that we started our quest, as the locations for the desired jerseys were on the other side of the city. I’d pinpointed their whereabouts with military precision. The two shirts we were hunting down for my collection today? CSKA Moscow and Dynamo Moscow. My shirt-scouting assignments were usually solo affairs, but today my partner had decided to accompany me on this particular mission.

First on the agenda was the Dynamo Moscow shirt. This was the easier acquisition of the two as we would go directly to the stadium and find the club shop. Except there was no club shop. In fact there was technically no stadium. As we got closer to the ground it became clear that there was major demolition or rebuilding work in progress. When we eventually reached the perimeter wire fencing, it was obvious there was no way I was going to be walking away with an addition to my collection. But we’d not come all this way to give up without a more forensic investigation. My partner adopted a more cautious approach and stayed behind the fencing, so if my search were to continue, I’d be doing it on my own. Much to my better judgment.

The warning signs on the fences should have been enough to warn me off. Even though my grasp of the Cyrillic alphabet was at best rudimentary, I’d interpreted that I shouldn’t be entering past that point, but in true undeterred Scooby Doo style, I ventured inside the perimeter, negotiating gingerly past the mounds of rubble, whilst deftly sidestepping the thick black mud.

Up until this point we’d been unchallenged. There wasn’t a soul to be seen. But as I got deeper into the building site, I could see a man ahead of me. As I got closer to him I smiled, to let him know I came in peace and didn’t want any trouble. Once I’d safely negotiated him, I carried on with my quest until I came to a rusty-looking shipping container. I walked gingerly up to the entrance, which was dark and resembled the doorway to the worst, most forbidding nightclub or drinking den you could imagine. A surly, brick outhouse of a man was sitting at a desk on the way in. It was dimly lit and from what I could make out in the gloom, this certainly wasn’t a canteen for the builders. I didn’t want to hang around to find out and I began to feel a little vulnerable and unnerved, so I started to walk backwards, quickly, acknowledging to the doorman that I was in the wrong place. I later discovered that it was being knocked down to make way for the new VTB Arena.

So the first leg of the escapade ended in failure. Next up, CSKA Moscow, and the stadium was in walking distance. Just as I was getting over the disappointment of a failed mission, the heavens opened with biblical proportions. By the time we’d walked 100 yards, we were both drenched. So on we sloshed, with nowhere to shelter, as the pavement felt wider than an airport runway. After what seemed an age, I saw the stadium ahead, like an oasis through the torrential downpour. Perspective made it seem nearer but we eventually reached the stairs to the main entrance... of the CSKA ice hockey stadium. I was just about to climb the stairs to go into the reception when the doors opened and hundreds of people began to file out towards us. This escapade wasn’t going too well.

So, with head bowed and dejected we started to follow the crowd towards the main highway back to the metro station. I was totally despondent at our fruitless journey (though not the first or the last time). Just as we’d got near to the end of another nondescript boulevard, I spotted what can only be described as a shed. This hut had CSKA football scarves, flags and more importantly, footballs outside. And it was open! So with trepidation and a defeatist attitude because of how the search had gone so far, we entered my version of Santa’s Grotto. Once inside I nervously surveyed the walls and shelves, my eyes systematically discarding the pennants and key rings and pens. Just as I was about to fall into my second depressive state within as many hours, I spotted it behind the head of the unsmiling proprietor who, from her position behind a low counter at the back of the shack, had been eyeing us with suspicion ever since we had wandered in.

My heartbeat quickened and after another round of international gesticulating, I pointed to the red shirt behind her. I was gripped with more defeatism as I noticed it was a medium size. I’m by no means the sort of chap who spends his dinner hours in the local Greggs, but a medium size was, literally, stretching it. But despondence was substituted for elation as she produced a brand new replica shirt in the desired size. The relief I felt was felt ten-fold by my partner, who was beginning to visualise the misery of a silent trudge back to the hotel with a very irritable, inconsolable other half. Instead it would be with mixed emotions that I travelled back to our lodgings, after a mission resulting in only partial success, a thoroughly intense soaking, but another prized addition to my collection. Result.

Copyright Gareth Ashton 2021

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