|Looking down Nevsky Prospekt, St Petersburg, on a cloudless late summer evening.
So I went to Russia, and it was great.
I was invited to be a guest at the Saint Petersburg Science Fiction Assembly, a small but friendly gathering of fans taking place in mid August. It came at the end of an exceptionally busy summer for me, the culmination of a year in which, at one point at least, I had been working on three novels at the same time. By August I had thinned that down to just the one novel, but I was still far from done with it and I left for Russia with considerable trepidation, aware of the work ahead of me between then and the end of September. I took a laptop and vowed to come back with ten thousand words of new material by the end of the trip.
My wife travelled with me to Saint Petersburg and we were both made very welcome by the Russian fans. Nataly and Nikolay met us at the airport on a glorious sunny afternoon, and I felt immediately at ease as soon as were in their company. The gathering actually took place a long way from the city itself, but we had been told as much and it wasn't any surprise when we ended up taking a lengthy car journey into the beautiful wooded countryside, both of us seeing Russia for the first time. My wife had passed through Moscow airport on her way to Mongolia once, but I'd never set foot within the borders of Russia, despite very nearly going on a school trip to the USSR in the late 1970s. Here we were, decades later. Our venue was the "Raivola", a kind of holiday camp, with huge chalets and a very impressive central building where we ate and did all the talks and panels.
|Your author ponders a particularly searching question from the audience. Look, you can tell it's Russia.
The Raivola (which my brain kept insisting on translating as "ravioli") had a great buffet meal set-up which meant that we were never in any danger of starving. In fact the main problem was eating too much, and despite the many paths winding around the grounds of the camp, I only managed one rather pathetic run during the whole trip. During our meals we were always made welcome by the Russian fans and the whole atmosphere was exceedingly relaxed and convivial. I did a few discussions and interviews, a reading (for which translated text had been made available ahead of time - a very good idea) and also sat in on one or two other discussions, not being shy of sticking my oar in when I recognised a book title or authour name amid the stream of Russian. My hosts took all this very graciously.
|Your author makes a shameless bid for attention with one of his shiny Russian editions.
The Raivola trip had been in my thoughts for at least a year, but it was over all too soon, and before long we were on our way back to Saint Petersburg. Again we were very well taken care by our drivers Tina and (on the way back to the airport) Elena. The trip wasn't over for my wife and I, though, as we'd booked some extra days in the heart of the city, a destination we'd wanted to visit for many years, and as well as spending some extra time with Nikolay, a resident of Saint Petersburg, it was also a chance to meet my Russian editor Alexander Guzman.
My wife and I are big on art, and we'd long wanted to visit the Hermitage. I can safely say that it was everything we'd hoped it would be, times about ten, and although we went back for a second day, you could cheerfully spend a month in the place and not see enough.
|Looking through an arch to the main building of the Hermitage
|The General Staff Building is part of the Hermitage, located opposite the main museum.
|Detail of Renoir's Young Woman With Fan.
We also visited the Russian museum, which was equally phenomenal. You couldn't do justice to it in a week, let alone a day. Oddly, though - and this also applied to the General Staff Building - once you were in, you couldn't get a coffee! Personally, as much as I love art, I need a sit down and a break after an hour or two of wandering galleries. Never mind, though, as Saint Petersburg was hardly lacking in cafes:
|Contemplating the selection of cakes in a nicely understated establishment.
|Another cake. So good to look at I hardly dared start eating it. But with a massive effort of will, I succeeded.
Beer was also on my mind when I met the SF Assembly fans again in a British-style pub not too far from the main railway station. It was really enjoyable. My wife and I also hooked up with Nikolay again for a lovely evening, and on another evening I spent a very enjoyable few hours with Alexander, who introduced me to the editorial offices where my Russian editions are published. After that, we went on something of a pub crawl, which was great fun. Thank you to Alexander, Nikolay and all who made our stay so pleasant.
With a couple of spare hours one afternoon, we took our chances with the Saint Petersburg metro system and went to visit "Grand Maket Rossiya", supposedly one of the top tourist attractions in the city. It's a huge version of Russia in miniature, with model trains and cars zipping around everywhere. It was crowded, and seemed very popular. Unfortunately we didn't have a chance to see it all but what we managed to look at was fantastically entertaining and I could have gladly spent a day there.
I risked a shot of this Russian military facility:
|Russian Bear taxiing.
I've really only scratched the surface of our trip, but it was a really illuminating experience and we enjoyed every minute of it. I consider myself very fortunate to be in a position where I am invited to places like this, and treated so well. Thank you, SF Assembly, and thank you, SF fandom in general.
|Poster for a stage version of The Master & Margarita.
ps - and what about those 10,000 words I promised myself? Not a chance!