Now, you see, at the start of this year it didn't seem like such a big deal. "Fancy working for a week in Moscow?" they asked me in January. "It won't be for a couple of months yet, we'll need to sort out visas and everything." It'd be my first time visiting Russia, so how could I possibly turn down that opportunity?
It took nearly three months to complete all the paperwork, by which time we'd had that whole awkward business where the Russians allegedly tried to whack a couple of their own people in the Salisbury branch of Zizzi. Diplomatic relations between Britain and Russia were at a post-Cold War low. Arsenal had just beaten CSKA Moscow 4-1 in the first leg of the Europa League quarter-final. And I was going to be in Moscow the same week that the city was hosting the second leg.
Spoiler alert: I got out alive. Arsenal, meanwhile, won 6-3 on aggregate, only to bottle it in the semis.
So, while we're on the subject of football... If any of you are going to be in Russia for the World Cup over the next month - hey, look, an actual excuse for publishing this two months after the fact - here are some travel tips for you, along with two of my inevitable reviews of unsubtitled local films I didn't have a hope in hell of understanding.
To start off with, how do you persuade the Russians to let you into their country in the first place? If you're going there on legitimate business, the process - and I can't deny that this song was going through my head for most of it - is at least comprehensively documented. Not in the slightest bit easy, but comprehensively documented. In brief, you need to obtain a couple of bits of official correspondence from the people you're working for at both ends: then there's a massive online form that you fill in, print out, and take to your local visa application centre along with your passport, your fingerprints, some recent bank statements and a large sum of money. For me, the most alarming bit of the form was suddenly being asked to document every overseas trip I'd made for the last ten years, given that this map only covers six of those years. (Good news: once you've added ten trips to the form, it kind of gives up asking you for any more.)
With this amount of bureaucracy involved, you spend most of the time assuming that you've messed up something in the application process and will have to start again from scratch. Happily, I didn't. Once I'd got the visa safely inside my passport, I could book the Aeroflot flight to Moscow and five nights at the Renaissance Moscow Monarch Centre hotel. The former was unremarkable, and short enough that the lack of in-flight entertainment wasn't much of an issue: getting from Sheremetyevo airport to the centre of the city was a doddle thanks to the Aeroexpress train. The latter, on the other hand, was a bit more fancy than I tend to expect for my usual price range: an unexpected consequence of going for an international chain hotel to get round any potential language and cultural difficulties I could expect from a more local establishment.
I ventured out of the hotel on three of those five nights, mostly to do the usual tourist stuff. On the first of those nights, I made the obvious trip out to Red Square and its environs, taking pictures of all your favourite Soviet monuments and finishing off with dinner at the Bon App cafe (the one meal of the week that I had somewhere other than the office or the hotel). On the second - which happened to be on Cosmonautics Day, the annual celebration of the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's first earth orbit - I went off in search of the great man's memorial statue, only to be failed by the GPS map on my phone (which annoyingly has half of Moscow's key landmarks listed only in Russian). A second attempt the following day, in daylight, with better directions, led to the breathtaking moment when I turned a corner and encountered that image you see at the top of the page. Good, innit? The best low-budget fun I had involved buying a single Metro ticket and following this route around some of the city's prettiest stations - getting off at each stop listed, taking a photo, and immediately getting on the train to the next one. All for a bargain price of 55 roubles, or about 65p. Here are the photos, if you're interested.
But let's move onto the movies. I only saw one Russian film while I was over there, although I did have two on my shortlist. Both of them were showing at the Karo Sky 17 cinema in the Aviapark shopping mall, close to the CSKA Moscow stadium. One of them was a one-night-only affair, a screening of a year-old small-scale movie that had just picked up a couple of awards. Its title was magnificent: How Viktor "The Garlic" Took Alexey "The Stud" To The Nursing Home. Sadly, the one night in question was - and you may be ahead of me here - the very night that Arsenal were playing CSKA at the stadium, and I felt a little bit nervous about being an English person in that particular vicinity at that particular time. (It has to be said, though, that a) I didn't see any evidence of Gooners on the streets, and b) nobody I dealt with in person that week mentioned anything about the current state of Angl0-Russian relations, either out of politeness or anything else. So maybe my nervousness was misplaced.)
So I didn't get to see HVTGTATSTTNH (or as some of the cool kids are calling it, huvtugtatstern!) in a cinema that week. However, Russian attitudes to intellectual property being what they are, when I got back home again I easily found the whole damn thing on YouTube.
The trailer, it has to be said, is a bit misleading: it makes the film look more like a Guy Ritchiesque romp full of rat-faced gangsters in tracky bottoms, rather than the downbeat road movie it actually is (though by the end it gets a little closer to the former). Coming to it without English subtitles as is my wont, it quickly becomes apparent that the title is as flat-out literal as it seems, so you find yourself second-guessing the plot at every turn. Viktor (Yevgeny Tkachuk) is a young man in a dead-end job, who spends his nights getting into bar fights and failing to keep his girlfriend a secret from his wife and kid. For some reason, possibly involving money, he takes on the job of transporting old Alexey (Alexey Serebryakov) in the back of his knackered van to the nursing home of the title. But there'll be a couple of unscheduled stops on the way, mainly due to Alexey, who is less incapacitated than he seems. Also, he has a gun.
Inevitably, it's all about the journey, and the change in the relationship between The Garlic and The Stud that happens along the way. Equally inevitably, it's hard to grasp exactly how that relationship changes when you don't understand any of the dialogue: you just see it happening. Nevertheless, when I did a little bit of research into the film after seeing it, I had two surprises - firstly, that the film had played in London just two weeks earlier: secondly, that Alexey is actually the estranged father of Viktor. Curiously, that revelation doesn't have any retrospective impact on the story for me one way or the other: it's still just two people of different generations spending time together. The generic sweep of that story gets you from one end to the other, and director Alexander Hant throws in a few other things to keep you entertained - a beautifully oversaturated colour palette, plus a few other quirks in camera angles and speeds to keep those Guy Ritchie comparisons fresh in your mind. On top of all that, HVTGTATSTTNH is also responsible for me hearing more Russian rap music in the space of 90 minutes than in the entirety of my life before it.
I learned a bit more about Russian trailers during the one cinema trip I did make when I was in Moscow, at the previously mentioned Karo Sky 17 multiplex. (Hooray for their credit-card operated bilingual ticket machines, by the way.) Based on the ones included in the supporting programme, it would appear that every trailer opens with an age rating designed in the style of the film's title logo, which is a nice touch. Other than that, they're prone to the same cliches as Hollywood trailers, with gratuitous ramping up and down of speeds, and honking dubstep noises plastered over all the most exciting bits. This even applies to the best trailer I saw that evening, for a film about the development of the tanks Russia used in the Second World War. Magnificently, it's called Tanks, and its trailer also falls victim to the currently popular trope of editing every action beat directly to the rhythm of the score, like a shit Baby Driver (i.e., like Baby Driver). Still, can you resist the appeal of vintage tanks pulling handbrake turns in the middle of Red Square? Of course you can't.
And so we come to Gogol. Viy, the awkwardly-punctuated film that came after these trailers. We're in olden times, and a small village is being threatened by something that reduces young girls to literal puddles of guts. Luckily, Nikolai Gogol is on the case. Yes, that one. This film attempts to persuade you that the stories of Gogol (played by Alexander Petrov) stem from his secret existence as some sort of demon hunter. He's helped in this task by his frequent visions of the future, depicted here using the technique that the great film writer Vern once described as 'Avid farts': digitally-edited flash-frame montages of footage that we'll get to see in full later on.
I went into Gogol. Viy knowing it was a sequel to the previous year's Gogol. The Beginning, and so accepted that I'd be thrown in at the deep end from the word go. As this film opens, Gogol already has a Scooby Gang of his own: a permanently nervous looking guy, a big fighty bloke, and a drunk doctor, aided and abetted by the Martin Freeman-looking boss of the town. Gogol also has a hot girlfriend, and a bit on the side involving a sexy ghost, which is the only part of all this glorious nonsense that anyone in the Russian audience appeared to find funny. I could take all that as read, no problem: what I didn't understand was why the second part of a film franchise started with a title caption that began with the number 3.
I found out eventually. Around the fifty minute mark, the story builds to a sort of climax, stops, and then begins again with a different set of supporting characters – this time with a title caption starting with the number 4. I had my suspicions at this point, and a subsequent peek on Wikipedia confirmed them: Gogol is a six part TV series that's been reconfigured as three feature-length movies, for release in cinemas prior to broadcast. (There were warning signs earlier than the episode break, notably some dog-rough artifact-riddled photography that probably looks fine on a telly screen but breaks up alarmingly at cinema size.) So halfway through we start a whole new story involving Gogol's dealings with a mysterious young woman and a man who's following her around with a pointy stick.
This broken-backed structure makes Gogol. Viy an awkward proposition as a standalone film. There's a wildly apocalyptic climax (using so much strobe lighting that most countries would preface it with an epilepsy trigger warning) which sort of ties the two halves together with the introduction of a common foe. But this is the point also where you realise that this is going to be a trilogy of movies, and Viy is its Empire Strikes Back, leading to an astonishingly downbeat ending involving a whole Curry's warehouse of refrigerated women. Just before the credits roll we even get the trailer for Gogol. Terrible Revenge, the third part coming later in 2018. (Or fifth and sixth parts, if you're going to be picky.)
Talking to my temporary work colleagues about my plans to see Gogol. Viy, one of them suggested that Russians aren't really that interested in going to the cinema any more, and they're all downloading and streaming at home instead. And, to be honest, the people in the cinema didn't seem that enthralled by the film, with several of them talking all the way through it. Despite all that, Egor Baranov's direction has such brazen confidence in this story, despite its utter ridiculousness, that even without dialogue it feels like a fun watch for a Friday night - possibly something that Nikolai Gogol has never been accused of before. For the record, it was the highest grossing Russian film the week I was in town, but the highest grossing film overall was Rampage. As long as you don't automatically assume that a Russian movie is going to be more serious-minded than one featuring The Rock and a giant monkey, you should get along with this one just fine.
So that was Russia. What with this and my trip to Saudi Arabia last year, I've now visited two of the world's most problematic regimes in the space of twelve months. Which raises the awkward question: which one do I root for when they play each other this afternoon?