Having actually made it into Ufa airport a couple of us were sent to the person who would process the visa paperwork, which sounded like a routine task. However, the man into whose office we were ushered was the Aeroflot manager. His job was to represent the FSB (formerly the KGB). He explained to us that the piece of paper we had brought was simply a statement by a friendly businessman in another Russian city saying that he thought it would be a good idea for us to visit Ufa. The legal requirement was a piece of paper from some notable person in Ufa inviting us to come and visit them. Now that I think of it, he was very gracious, speaking to us clearly, slowly, no malice.
After meditating on the blankness on our faces for a while he said, “You can stay, but bring me the right visa next time.” Then he stamped our papers and went off to interrogate somebody more interesting. We set off downtown for the imaginatively entitled “Hotel Tourist”.
We were feeling jazzed, having “escaped” the FSB and wanted to see what this town was all about. It wasn’t hard to wake up in the morning with the promise of a tantalising feast of lessons to learn about Bashkir life and culture. We decided to put a bit of shape on our reconnaissance of Ufa so after breakfast we read together the first story in the Bible about a missionary journey (which was to Cyprus). The journey is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles in which the missionaries, Paul and Barnabas, ended up talking to the governor, Sergius Paulus. The text points out that Sergius was “an intelligent man” and he soon became a believer in Jesus.
Thus fortified, and also sure that Ufa had many intelligent leaders, we divided the various national institutions between us. I went to call on the Minister of Education only to be told by his secretary that it was impossible to see him. I thought, “Oops, it looks like I’d need an introduction and there’s a three-month waiting list”. But the Minister’s inaccessibility had a simpler explanation. He was having his lunch.
Rod and I went to visit “School 35” on Gafuri Street – a school which taught through the medium of English, for the children of elites, making it a national institution all on its own. The director, Grigori Simeonovich, a veteran of the “Great Patriotic War”, had built up the school from scratch 40 years before. He received us cordially and showed us the wonders of “School 35” with understandable pride. These wonders included a clinic which could address the more common maladies and perform simple operations. He noticed that I had a little mole on my eyelid and he was more than happy for me to go downstairs to the clinic to have it removed. I found the politest way I could to show how keen I was to stay upstairs.
Nothing daunted, the director then invited us to an early lunch, which we accepted. We were assured we would have the same menu as the rest of the school, although the three of us were served on our own in long room with low lighting. The main course was brought in – two catering-size stainless-steel trays of liver and onions. Now I happen to like liver and onions but I know I’m in a national minority (a minority in our family certainly) so we admired the director’s embrace of risk.
But the visit wasn’t to finish quite so easily. The director said, “You have to meet the music teacher and hear her star pupil sing”. By this time we would have agreed to anything (that didn’t involve surgery) so we arrived in the Music Room – which had no other pupils in it because school was now over for the day. The music teacher sashayed in with the star pupil in tow.
After an animated chat she gave the star his cue so he could launch into “that famous English song – ‘My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean’”. Rod and I looked at each other with carefully concealed eye-rolls. The star sang the first verse and we wondered if he would go on to the second. It was not to be. As soon as the first verse ended, the music teacher rallied us to the cause with, “Let’s all join in singing the chorus!”
Eventually, punch-drunk on culture, Rod and I staggered back to the hotel.