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Pole to Pole

Day 30: Leningrad to Novgorod

Michael Palin - Pole to PoleThe weather feels continental, hot and humid, still and muggy. Combined with the unevenness of the road and the miasma of truck exhaust fumes, it doesn't make for a good introduction to Novgorod. I'm just jotting in my notebook that everything, as far as the eye can see, is filthy, when a mirage appears in the distance. Rising between a screen of blackened roofs and smokestacks, are four shining domes, one gold, the others silver. It's my first sight of the historic heart of Novgorod, squeezed and surrounded by unrestricted industrial expansion, a jewel on a rubbish tip.

We are staying at the Party Committee Hotel, which looks like a seventies police station on an Essex housing estate. I have been allotted a suite, very grand and shining with freshly varnished wood. It comprises a hallway, reception-room complete with glass cabinet full of crockery, a small sitting-room with a television and a sideboard, a bedroom and a bathroom with two lavatories, but no soap and only twelve sheets of toilet paper, which I think might not be toilet paper at all, but a notepad. In the lobby of the hotel are bound copies of Pravda and Isvestia, the two party newspapers. Both are very thin - eight closely printed pages each. I'm told that Pravda's readership has fallen from ten million to three million in the five years of perestroika.

A local photographer drives me and Basil out a little way from the city onto the flood plain of the river Volkhov. The flat countryside is dotted about with churches, and once again I'm struck by the paradox of an atheist state going to such lengths to keep them standing. I think perhaps the key lies in the other monuments amongst these low watery fields - war memorials. The impact of the war on this part of Russia was so savage that the restoration of the churches, like the memorials of tanks and aeroplanes, is an act of defiance and pride - to show that the soul and spirit of Mother Russia can never be defeated.
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  • Series: Pole to Pole
  • Day: 30
  • Country/sea: USSR
  • Place: Novgorod
  • Book page no: 66

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