Don's Diary

December 1, 1995

Day one. Picnic breakfast in Moscow's Belgrad Hotel, en route to Crimea '95 conference on libraries in a transient world, with generous support from British Council. Join ten other delegates from the west in a ramshackle minibus to Vnukovo Domestic Airport. Ten miles from the airport brakes fail as we career towards queue at red lights. Yanking handbrake to no avail, driver saves the day by wrenching us into adjacent lane (mercifully traffic-free) and "braking" tyres along the kerb. As we grind into Vnukovo in first gear, a foot through hole in floor brings us to a final stop.

Fighting our way through the ruck and maul of security, check-in and passport control, we are offered instant life assurance: a blessing-and-kiss-the-icon for $3 to guarantee safe travel; refusal elicits a finger drawn across the salesman's throat. Reassuring to see someone else on the same flight investing in this policy.

As we climb the steps of our TU154M, resplendent in the colours of Vnukovo Airlines, engine exhaust from passing plane sends sunhats and specs flying, skirts billowing. Good service and comfortable flight to Simferopol in centre of Crimean peninsula. Elderly Intourist buses to Eupatoria, where conference is based in converted sanatorium.

Day two. All-day cultural tour to Southern Crimea in six Intourist buses with fussy police escort, blue lights flashing. Following the longest trolleybus route in the world from Simferopol to Yalta, we pass spectacular mountain scenery, but wilt from heat and lack of water. Visit Livadia, where Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met in Nicholas II's White Palace to sign the Yalta Agreement. Churchill stayed nearby at Count Vorontsov's Palace, designed by Sir Walter Scott's architect, Edward Blore. Return to Eupatoria for evening barbecue, or shashlik. Local Glen Miller Youth Orchestra makes excellent job of String of Pearls and Little Brown Jug.

Day three. Opening sessions of conference start with official welcomes from ministries of culture, library associations and sponsoring organisations. Of 600 delegates, some 550 are from FSU countries, the balance from Western Europe and the United States. Interpreters excellent, but hampered by poor equipment. Spend afternoon preparing my paper for tomorrow. Walk to beach for evening swim - 15 minutes to fine sand, clear water and caressing breezes.

Day four. My paper on Sheffield University's special agreements with The British Library and The Russian State (ex-Lenin) Library well received - pleased it is to be published in a Russian language library journal. My session chaired by Ekaterina Genieva, director of the Russian State Library for Foreign Literature, and Joycean scholar. Evening trip to Simferopol for Crimean Cultural Evening in civic theatre: excellent hospitality accompanies amazing variety of local talent, with Crimea's answer to Come Dancing, Sacha Distel, Samantha Fox, Fry and Laurie, and Shirley Temple. Hugely enjoyed by all, evening ends with inauguration of the Crimean Library Association - much speechifying, toasting and general congratulation.

Day five. Interesting papers on the development within FSU countries of library automation, retrospective conversion of card catalogues to electronic format, and the forthcoming Russian edition of Dewey. Great disappointment when local power failure in Eupatoria cuts off online computer link via Cosmos satellite to US bibliographical database. Evening trip to Lake Donuzlav; Intourist bus gets lost and takes us past hovercraft naval base and space communications/ tracking station - surely we are in a restricted area, or have times changed so much?

Day six. Final conference sessions, exchanges of cards and promises to meet again next year. In retrospect, a remarkable conference, well run in difficult circumstances: emerging professionalism, openness to new ideas, great warmth and splendid hospitality. Last visit to beach and final shashlik, with local champagne and Sauvignon; and was it 17 farewell speeches? Growing anxiety about visas for return journey via Moscow.

Day seven. Dismay that flight from Simferopol is cancelled, with four-hour wait until last flight to Moscow. Scramble for seats on another TU154M. I take my seat beside rear emergency exit, but access blocked by excess baggage and boxes of Crimean cherries. Two extra passengers sit on deck chairs between lavatories. Engines screaming and heavily overloaded, we scramble into the sky, giving thanks for the long runway. Two nail-biting, vodka-swilling hours later, on our final approach to Vnukovo, a ceiling panel falls into my neighbour's lap, revealing wiring and insulation but not the stars.

On terra firma we make swift progress through immigration until the last minute when four of our party are detained (for 12 hours, we learned later) - the dreaded visa problem. We bid them anxious farewells and head for Moscow in that minibus, with brakes fixed but lights on the blink. Next morning whisked by Intourist limo to Sheremetyevo-2 Airport. Straight through security, customs and passport control to the delights of Moscow Duty free (well run by the Irish) and, in the airport's "Irish Pub", two pints of the best Guinness ever tasted . . .

University librarian at the University of Sheffield.

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