David Bowie Was Almost Arrested at a Train Station in Sverdlovsk

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Translated by Ollie Richardson for Fort Russ

11th January, 2016


Sad news spread on January 11th across the whole world. At 69 years old, the iconic British musician David Bowie died from cancer. On this topic, we recall how 43 years ago, the artist happened to be in Sverdlovsk.

The Artist Sang

It happened in 1973, when the rock musician was returning to Europe from a tour in Japan. After a quick and comfortable flight, the musician was rather full of exotic experiences from traveling the USSR on the Trans-Siberian Express. Bowie and his group left Japan via the port in Yokohama. The ship “Feliks Dzerzhinskiy” took the group to Nakhodka. There, the travellers boarded a train, from which David was so excited about that he even wrote about it to his Manager Cherry Vanilla.

“An old French train from the beginning of the century, which had a nice wood trim found inside cars, velvet seats and an old, oval mirror”, wrote Bowie. “It was like being in a romantic novel or an old movie… It was the best train I’ve seen on my travels”

But the next day in Khabarovsk the star’s delight diminished, when he was moved onto a modern, practical Soviet train. However, the sadness of the musician from parting with rarity was smoothed out thanks to the company of two of the conductors – Tanya and Nadia.

“The tea they served us all day was very tasty”, recalled the musician. “Conductors have always been friendly. We soon fell in love with them. I even sang them songs in the evenings. They did not understand English and could not know any of my words. But for hours they sat, listened and clapped! I was very pleased to sing for them”

Bought yogurt from the babushka on the platform

The conductors introduced the rock star to an old Russian tradition – to buy food at the stations from local grandmothers. So, David Bowie was very pleased with the Soviet Kefir, which he bought on the platform. However, the rocker called it yogurt.

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“Bowie drank a few liters of local yogurt and said it  was excellent”, later remembered the journalist Robert Musel, who was also a musician.  “At the station old ladies were everywhere peddling potatoes, fried chicken and donuts with meat. They also sold boiled eggs at 20 cents each, fish canned food, fruit drinks… All at prices that would be considered very high even in London. The products themselves looked pretty unappetizing, but apparently they are very tasty and useful”

Almost fought the KGB officers

On the 29th of April, the train was in Sverdlovsk. The photographer who went with David Bowie, asked David to take a little walk for the camera on the platform of the city where the last Russian Emperor Nicholas II and his family were shot. The singer readily agreed. And then the unexpected happened.

“The Russians explained that we can use cameras, only if we do not photograph military objects”, said the journalist Robert Musel accompanying David Bowie. “When we took pictures at the station in Sverdlovsk, we were approached by a men in dark glasses and a leather jackets who demanded our camera. We refused. I had decided that we about to start trouble, but then the train started, and we jumped in the cart. I think it was a man from the KGB”.

Drummer Jeffrey McCormack recalled this incident slightly differently:

“David gladly stepped out of the train in the dark city of Sverdlovsk. Photographer Childers playfully pointed the camera in front of the gloomy environment. Suddenly, two guards dressed in uniform appeared from the shadows and viciously dragged the trembling photographer somewhere. Our guy, distraught, pulled out his own camera and started to shoot all of this. Two women on duty on the railway, who were sympathetic to Bowie, literally dragged Childers to the security of the train, fighting off the angry men in uniform. Two fragile girls heroically blocked the door to the train until it gathered speed and left the station”.

However, the general impression of Russia from David Bowie was not spoiled because of this incident. Soon he was in Moscow, where he witnessed a colorful parade in honor of May 1st.

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