I have come to the conclusion that the problem with Moscow is that it is in Russia. The problem with Moscow’s south-city international aviation child is that it is just a pit. I first used this airport in 1992, at a time when Russia was still a very strange place for ‘foreigners’. Actually, it hasn’t really got that much better over the years, but at least in the centre of the city you can now lose yourself in the sprawl of a large hotel or a decent restaurant and just for a moment pretend that you are not really there. You can’t at the airport. You may think this sounds terribly jingoistic and you are probably right. The older I get the more I marvel at the enthusiasm we once had for exploring the spirit of the countries that we visited and the cities we inevitably played in. Now I just want to shut myself off from the awfulness of some of the places that I go to and dream of that house that we are going to have one day, remote and silent, halfway up a mountainside in Switzerland.
It is true that I may be a little out of date with the statistics, but I am fairly sure that when I first used Domodedovo to travel to remote parts in Siberia, I read somewhere at the time that it was the world’s largest airport. I think Heathrow was always the busiest, but Domodedovo was the largest. I recall once taking off in a rattling Tupolev and doing a quick scan of the airframes on the ground as we climbed upwards, counting more than eighty scattered around the airfield. Landing this week in a dramatically changed airport it was as though a giant pair of hands had scooped up an assortment of aircraft and dropped them in haphazard piles around the runways. It’s a marshaling yard for famous Russian names from the past few decades – Antonovs, Tupolevs, Yakovlevs and Ilyushins. Now replaced by their modern counterparts – Boeings and Airbusses of all descriptions – but still elegant even though subdued and abandoned to the elements and the intransigence of the aviation regulators.
Here I am in danger of becoming a sentimental old dogmatist (that’s a type of old tortoise) reminiscing about the good old days. But it’s quite sad to think of their decline and how once they represented all that was modern and glamorous and hopeful and how quickly they have been overtaken by the march of technology. I am sure that these overtly inanimate objects contain a heart and secretly harbour a soul that should be cherished rather than abandoned and forgotten. That’s all very well you might say, but what I really set out to do was to rant about Domodedovo.
I recently wrote about Wroclaw and its claim to being the world’s worst airport. But I cannot imagine what I was thinking about and how I could possibly have forgotten to single out security control at Domodedovo. There is no doubt that the whole Russian airport experience has improved over the last twenty years. The snaking passport queues entering the country have almost, only almost I must emphasise, become a distant memory. The customs officials, who barely able to read would scan your currency forms for the number of zeroes as a guide to whether they should call ahead to alert their underworld mates waiting out in the arrivals hall, no longer have the opportunity to do so. They have surely moved on to some other form of petty crime. The occasional impounding of your laptop pending a small cash inducement to elicit its release no longer occurs. But to be honest no longer is there the need to smuggle large quantities of dollars to pay local staff.
But what has not changed is the overt disregard for anything other than the convenience of airport officialdom. Where else in the world would you be expected to walk to a stack of plastic trays, unload all the usual paraphernalia of travel – coats, pockets, watches, belts, laptops, coins, toiletries – into one or more trays and carry them, along with your bags, to the scanning machine, load them, unload them again and then re-stack the trays? An unusually communicative German man sat next to me as he replaced his shoes and in reply to my rueful comment ‘welcome to Russia’ he replied with the uncharacteristically dry retort ‘only in Russia’. We exchanged smiles and went our separate ways as though we were Cold War emissaries imparting coded signals.
Russia is a country of anachronisms and nowhere more so than in the Moscow airports, the gateways to the real country that has remained unchanged for the last forty years or so.