Joanna Lumley on returning to Russia 50 years after vowing never to return

As a 19-year-old model, Lumley went to Moscow and was appalled by what she found. In her new ITV series, she discovers things have changed - but not everything...

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When 19-year-old Joanna Lumley was booked by the glossy magazine Vanity Fair for a fashion shoot in Moscow in 1966, she was, she recalls, “unbelievably excited”. 

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A successful model at the time, she’d already travelled extensively throughout Europe, but the USSR was a more tantalising prospect. “Russia was in the grip of the Cold War, the Iron Curtain was firmly in place, and suddenly I was going to get a glimpse behind it. Flying in to Moscow my heart was beating so fast,” she recalls.

She was soon brought down to earth with a bump: whatever she had anticipated, it wasn’t what she found. “It was depressing and sad and people were morose and afraid. I hated it.”

The signs were inauspicious from the start. After a four-month battle to get a visa – “Waiting for hours and hours at a time at the Russian Embassy where they were completely hostile and ghastly” – Joanna and the celebrated photographer Roy Round arrived in Moscow to find that the concept Vanity Fair had in mind wasn’t going to work.

“The shoot was fake fur coats, which they thought would be lovely to do in snowy Russia. Except they obviously didn’t check what the weather was like because it wasn’t snowy at all when we got there. Just rather grey.”

It was to prove the first in a long line of thwarted expectations. “We stayed in a hotel called the National, a fin de siècle hotel built in the Tsar’s time. It was very grand, with big shallow staircases and enormous rooms.

“From my room you could just see the back of Red Square and the Kremlin and I remember standing at my window at night time, telling myself, ‘I’m looking at the red stars on the top of the Kremlin, I’m in Moscow, I’m in Moscow…’

“Yet when you looked around the reality was that the room was carpeted in brown, painted grey and there was a little old lady sitting on each floor to check you into your room and out of your room. 

So wherever you went you were monitored down in the book – literally: ‘Number 33 come in again. Number 33 go out again, with a man.’ Everything you did was watched.”

To make matters worse, nothing worked. “I remember one day asking why there were wasn’t a bath plug. But the woman I was speaking to couldn’t understand why this was a problem. I was trying to explain that I couldn’t make the water stay in the bath and she just shrugged, ‘Is not important. What is matter with you?’”

The visitors’ status as guests of the tourist board, Intourist – the USSR’s official state travel agency – meant little when it came to hospitality. “We had to report to them every single day with what we had done, what we hoped to do and everything we did had to be sanctioned,” Lumley recalls.

“To eat in any restaurant – well, it took one hour to get a menu, one hour to give your order and one hour to be served, so you virtually never ate. Instead, we ate black bread. We ate it so much that to this day I can still say, in 

Russian, ‘Please may I have some black bread? (Pozhalsta, mozhna mnye chyorny khleb?)’. But even for that you had to queue to get a token, you then had to queue to pay for it, then get another token to say you’d paid for it. Then you had to queue to get the bread. It was grim.”

The inequality, meanwhile, appalled her. “There were little grannies, little babushkas whose job was to sweep the pavements, but they only had hand brushes. They were bent double on these vast avenues, hand brushing the pavements. Government officials drove past them in immense black cars and everybody else cowered in shabby clothes and didn’t look at you. And the shops were empty, there was nothing to buy.”

In such constrained circumstances, Lumley’s jeans – a potent symbol of the freedoms of the West – were a sought-after prize. “Students would press into me in an underpass, clutching a bundle of contraband notes and asking to buy my jeans. For them this was the most dreamed of item, and they were offering me the equivalent in Russian money of £100. I couldn’t believe it.”

By the time she left Moscow, six days later, she vowed never to return. “I never wanted to go back, I hated it so much. I developed a loathing of the way the people were treated, of the way everything was suspicious, that our kindest motives were misunderstood, and that we were followed.”

It would be 50 years before she returned, this time with an TV crew. “I wanted to see whether I’d been narrow-minded or too hard. I remember feeling ashamed of how I hated it.”

By complete coincidence, she found herself booked into the same hotel she’d stayed in half a century earlier, now transformed into an opulent five-star haven.

“This time it was fantastically beautiful and well appointed – delicious food, an orchestra playing downstairs, but I knew it was the same place, I could feel it.”

Lumley also dropped in on a modelling shoot to observe the new wave of leggy Russian beauties. “It was so different from my day. You took care of all your own things. You did your own hair, your own make-up, you took along your own accessories, your own underwear, you had to take along shoes and bags and gloves. You even took along wigs and hair pieces and do them all yourself.

But these girls just come in and they sit there like little sweet teenagers with their faces. And I said, ‘What do you want on your face, how do you want it?’, and she said, ‘They don’t talk to me, they make me how they want’. So the girls are just cyphers…”

It wasn’t the only thing that had changed. “Moscow was a completely different place. Everybody was smiling, everybody was welcoming and amusing. We could look people in the eye, they were dressed in fantastic, lovely clothes. Nobody was watching you. Nobody cared where you were going. It had so much energy.”

One thing was largely unchanged though: the Moscow metro station where, 50 years earlier, her Vanity Fair shoot had eventually taken place, and which she revisited with her film crew, re-creating some of her modelling poses. “And standing there and realising that I had last been here 50 years ago and it seems the blink of an eye. It was quite something.” 

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Joanna Lumley’s Trans-Siberian Adventure begins tonight (Sunday 12th July) at 9pm on ITV