As I stepped onto the Aeroflot plane at the start of my journey I told myself “Now I’m in Russia”. This was slightly premature on my behalf – Aeroflot is one of the world’s largest airlines and all of the announcements were in both English and Russian and the crew were all fluent in both languages. As the wing dipped on our approach to land at Sheremetyevo Airport, I caught my first glimpse of the real Russia. Below I could see houses and dachas with brightly coloured roofs – red, green, yellow and even purple. Although some of the older wooden buildings were quite drab in comparison, the view was totally different to what I’m used.
Touchdown in a new land
When we left the airport, we drove to central Moscow via a series of connecting motorways. I was staying at the Metropol Hotel, one of the only hotels that foreign visitors were allowed to stay at during the Soviet era. This fabulous Art Nouveau style building was built before the Russian Revolution by a unique alliance of architects and still retains an air of days gone by – there is even a girl who plays the harp in the restaurant at breakfast time every day.
From the Metropol, it’s only a few minutes’ walk to Red Square whose name was not derived from the red brickwork – the Russian word which now means “red” originally meant “beautiful” so the square was named for its stunning beauty. Although Red Square looks big when you see it on the TV or in images, you really do have to be there to appreciate just how colossal this historic space is. The walls of the adjoining Kremlin tower above Red Square (as high as 19 metres in places) while the other side of the square is bordered by the famous “ГУМ” (State Universal) department store. “ГУМ” (known as GUM in English) is still the most famous shop in Russia, originally commissioned by Catherine II of Russia as a huge trading centre. Several architects collaborated on the design of “ГУМ” which combines elements of Russian medieval architecture with a steel framework and glass roof, similar in style to the great 19th Century railway stations in London.
Imagine my surprise when I came across Stalin while exploring Red Square with my colleague. There is a Stalin look-alike who spends every day in Red Square where tourists and sight-seers can pay a small fee to have their photo taken with him. A bit further on, we came across a Lenin double too!
The Moscow Metro is very different to the London Underground – it’s much deeper underground to start, with some sections 243 feet down. The differences don’t stop there – the Moscow Metro is cheaper by far and for a paltry 41p you can buy a ticket that will let you travel anywhere. In contrast to the functional appearance of the London Underground, the Moscow Metro is one of the most stylish in the world with architecturally magnificent stations, many of which feature beautiful decorations and works of art lending the journey an ambience that just cannot be beaten. It’s almost impossible to describe the feeling and appreciate the grandeur of the Moscow Metro without experiencing it for yourself.
The Lowdown on Locks
My visit to Moscow was sponsored by APECS, one of the world’s leading lock and door furniture companies. APECS has two offices in Moscow, one in the city centre that deals with local customers and the main office on the outskirts of the city. Some readers may remember the main lock companies’ offices when the British lock industry in Willenhall was in full swing. Well, the APECS office is of the same calibre. It is large, very clean and very efficient.
APECS places great emphasis on training and this commitment is demonstrated by the large, fully equipped learning centres where staff are trained. Lectures, seminars and training workshops take place on the latest selling and marketing techniques, time management and business studies. APECS takes great pride in working closely with its partners and distributors to ensure that their staff are fully trained in selling and analysis of which products are most likely to sell successfully in their regional market.
The APECS complex also incorporates a warehouse that deals with the distribution of local orders. About thirty kilometres outside of Moscow we arrived at the APECS main warehouse, a towering building stacked with shelving eight storeys high full of APECS products ready for distribution around the world.
In the Country
The next morning we were back at Sheremetyevo Airport for a flight to Kazan, Russia’s eighth largest city and the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan. Kazan lies at the confluence of the Volga and Kazanka Rivers in European Russia and it too boasts a Kremlin. The word “kremlin” means fortress and the Kazan Kremlin is older than Moscow’s – it’s a World Heritage Site that is famous for Muslims and Christians living side by side in peace. Kazan is a major scientific centre in Russia and hosts the Kazan Science Centre of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Tatarstan Academy of Sciences.
Kazan has enjoyed some quite radical regeneration over the past three years or so as it’s been a venue for the Youth Olympic Games and other international sports events. This has led to an influx of tourists and the magnificent changes that have taken place there have been welcomed by the local population. Our reason for travelling to Kazan is that’s it’s a central location for visiting two lock factories in the towns of Vyatskie-Polyany and Yoshkar-Ola.
When Word War 2 broke out the ‘Molot’ arms factory near Moscow and its workforce were relocated to Vyatskie-Polyany to preserve it from the advancing Nazi forces. Production continued in relative safety in this small town which lies about 110 miles from Kazan.
An Englishman Abroad
Back to the arms factory at Vyatskie-Polyany – following the breakup of the Soviet Union, part of this factory was privatised and its name was changed from ‘Molot’ to ‘Mettɜm’. Don’t be put off by the Russian alphabet – you simply pronounce this as ‘Mettem’. This part of the factory started to design and manufacture a large range of locks. I was the first Englishman ever to visit this town and felt like an intrepid explorer as we were met at the factory gate by the management team who treated us to a tour of the manufacturing facilities. We were amazed at the quality, security and size of a standard Russian lock. Mettɜm has designed and produced an incredibly unique concept with their ‘Leader’ lock which is based on eight levers throwing four bolts four times.
Following our tour of the factory we were treated to a banquet in one of the local restaurants. With ten of us seated around the table, each one proposed a toast to Russian and English friendship with shots of Vodka to celebrate! There then followed a second round of toasts which meant more shots before embarking on the journey back to Kazan a little the worse for wear.
The following morning we decided to treat ourselves to a pre-breakfast tour to see the Kazan Kremlin and other sights in this ancient city despite the rain. Then, after a hearty breakfast we set off on another long journey – this time to Yoshkar-Ola. Five years ago the Soviet-built central area of Yoshkar-Ola was bulldozed to make way for a magnificent new square. The phenomenal architecture was stunning with its beautiful decorative brickwork – if you do a Google image search, you’ll see exactly what I mean.
Kazan is surrounded by a vast forest of pine and silver birch trees which have grown to dizzying heights – it really does make the New Forest look like a small woodland! To my surprise and, contrary to western propaganda, the Russians take the protection of their wildlife and the environment very seriously. We saw signs asking people not only to be aware of bears, lynx, elk and other forest creatures, but also to protect their environment in order to guarantee their survival.
After a fabulous lunch in the new castle-like building we were off to the Guardian lock factory, a modern facility that produces high quality, high security locks for the Russian market. At the Mettɜm factory we’d missed out on viewing the production process as the workforce have the whole of July off for their summer holiday. However, at the Guardian factory production was in full swing and, unlike the Chinese lock factories I’ve visited, it was much more mechanised. Despite this mechanisation, the Guardian factory has a large workforce due to the sheer scale of operations.
As well as producing locks, 25 years ago the Guardian factory branched out to begin producing some of the most high end doors available on today’s market. The folks at the Guardian factory take great pride in the way in which they produce steel, heavy duty doors that are substantially insulated to keep out the cold during the severe Russian winters. The door production process is a well-kept secret and nobody is ever allowed to visit the factory and view the production process until an exception was recently made for the owner of APECS to visit and view the production of these high quality doors.
The lock production side of the factory is highly mechanised and equipped with high end machinery from all over the world – Italy, the UK, Germany, Switzerland and Taiwan. The Guardian factory has also produced its own unique high tech production machines.
Moreover, the Guardian factory sports its own timber processing site in order to ensure top quality production at all times.
Russian Locks Unravelled
Russian lock standards differ considerably to those used in the UK. Russian locks are large – very large and rely heavily on lever locks that use a lever mechanism operated by double-bitted keys which can throw the bolts four times. The Russian voluntary GOST Standard is a set of technical standards maintained by the Euro-Asian Council for Standardization, Metrology and Certification (EASC) and allows the tester 30 minutes to try to defeat a lock by picking, drilling and other forceful attack methods. APECS always tests locks to this specification and the company is proud of the quality of its products.
King Arthur in Russia
For our evening meal we were taken to a King Arthur themed restaurant that we entered by crossing a drawbridge and passing a huge stone with Excalibur embedded in it. During the meal there were more toasts of friendship between Russia and England – this time with a delicious Cognac rather than Vodka.
The next morning it was time to fly back to Moscow and then on to St. Petersburg. As always, the Aeroflot flights provided us with excellent service. So many people in Russia speak English that getting around and making yourself understood is surprisingly easy. St. Petersburg is a fabulous city with its churches sporting golden onion-shaped domes and spires.
A Legend Among Locksmiths
We were in St. Petersburg to meet Vladimir Kutylovsky, the Russian agent for Silca, the world’s biggest manufacturer of key blanks and key cutting machines. Now not only is Vladimir an extraordinary and innovative guy, he’s designed a machine that can cut any type of key and profile any blank. The main purpose of our visit was to view his impressive lock collection. Vladimir has been collecting locks and keys for many years and it was surprising to see how many Bramah locks he had. The Bramah lock is a lock design created by Joseph Bramah in 1784 and is the first known high security lock design. Vladimir even had a Bramah lock (rather than a Cotterill) fitted to a large safe pan.
Vladimir also has a large collection of safe components, including handles, plaques and nameplates and his ability to copy these means that he has been able to restore many vintage safes to their original condition. The meeting with Vladimir was an awesome way to round off our visit to Russia.
Initial Impressions – From Russia with Love
Having now visited four Russian cities and passed through numerous towns and villages, I was surprised to only see one wall daubed with graffiti and hardly any litter anywhere. The western media tells us about the amount of pollution Russia pumps into the atmosphere, but during the whole visit (which included tours in industrialised areas) I only saw two chimneys emitting smoke.
I was struck by how friendly and welcoming the Russian people were and the fact that in the larger cities, so many people speak English so well. In most of the restaurants, the menus are in both Russian and English which makes ordering easy. At first, the use of the Cyrillic alphabet was a little confusing, but if you take a moment to think about it you’ll see it’s quite logical. For instance if you see a sign on a shop that says ‘Kaɸe’ and the people inside are eating and drinking, it’s pretty obvious that it’s a café. Another handy word for visitors to know is the word for ‘Toilet’ which is ‘Tyaлeт’ – it may look difficult to pronounce, but the translation into English is simply ‘toilet’. It’s actually quite surprising how many words overlap between the two languages.
If you ever get the opportunity to visit Russia, I would strongly recommend that you go. I can guarantee that you’ll receive a warm welcome and many pleasant surprises while you’re there. Yes, there are some Soviet-era concrete blocks of apartments but nowadays they stand alongside modern developments and even some traditional British style housing estates.
If you are interested in visiting Russia or have any questions you would like answered, then please feel free to email us for advice at email@example.com. We would love to hear from you and would be only too happy to give you any help and advice that we can.