THE BLOG
24/08/2011 04:50 BST | Updated 24/10/2011 06:12 BST

Bringing Down The Iron Curtain

During the 80s, with artists I managed, I visited most of Eastern Europe's capitals. All of them smelt of decay. Buildings were dilapidated and hotels grubby. You could be arrested for taking a photograph where you shouldn't, or walking down the wrong street. In Moscow, the hotel staff were indistinguishable from police. "Your flight is cancel. You will delay 48 hours. We will retain your passport. Eat in the designated place."

Last week's Guardian interview with Mikhail Gorbachev made me realise how much I miss the Iron Curtain. It made the world so simple - good on one side, bad on the other.

My first glimpse of it was in the mid-1970s when I went to West Berlin, a flagship of Western consumerism stuck behind enemy lines. People usually flew. I took the train.

It left from Hamburg in West Germany and ran through East Germany hemmed in by electric fences. Inside you were in the comfortable warmth of capitalism; outside was communism.

An hour from Berlin the outside invaded. The train screeched to a halt and we were boarded by East German police. They came stamping down the corridors clattering their pistols against the windows and yelling at passengers. The woman they were looking for was hauled away.

During the 80s, with artists I managed, I visited most of Eastern Europe's capitals. All of them smelt of decay. Buildings were dilapidated and hotels grubby. You could be arrested for taking a photograph where you shouldn't, or walking down the wrong street. In Moscow, the hotel staff were indistinguishable from police. "Your flight is cancel. You will delay 48 hours. We will retain your passport. Eat in the designated place."

They'd give you vouchers for six identical meals - stale fish, boiled chicken, black bread, grey margarine. If you didn't eat it, there was nothing else. The shops were empty.

And with nothing to do and nothing worth eating, visiting businessmen were often entrapped by KGB hookers or people selling black-market caviar. And then sometimes blackmailed.

In the early 1990s I managed CC Catch, a German girl who's cheerful style of Europop clicked with Muscovites. Hits and a pretty face got us into illicit nightclubs that catered to a privileged cabal - ballet dancers, film stars, politburo members, and mafia chiefs. You'd be safe talking to one; in trouble speaking with another. But you never knew which - like an incomprehensible game.

I made a wrong move and got inveigled into judging a singing contest in Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan. There were six judges, five from non-communist countries and one from Cuba. For three consecutive nights twenty contestants had to perform a song each. The fourth night was for awards.

The first evening's show dragged on till 11, then it was dinner with the mayor. He plied us with vodka, toasted everyone lavishly, and announced, "You will be making the North Korean singer win."

We said maybe we wouldn't.

Undeterred, he poured us more drink and praised the North Korean's qualities - "his fine tone, his range, his sensitivity" - none of which he actually had.

When someone said it was time for bed the mayor proposed more toasts. There were no taxis and we had no idea where we were. We were stuck. It was 5am before we were taken to the hotel and three hours later we were woken for a tour of the city.

Next night was the same. After the show we were whisked off to dinner where the mayor again said the North Korean must win. We were tired. Two of us said OK; three said we didn't care. The Cuban judge held out, so we were kept up late again. And woken early.

That's how the Soviet Union operated - intimidation and coercion. This was the gentle version - for foreign visitors.

After the third evening's show the mayor wanted to know our final choice, ready for the next night's awards. The Cuban had developed a cold. All he wanted was to go back to the hotel. Us too! So we told the mayor, "OK - North Korea wins."

But the following evening we did the West proud. When it came time to announce our decision we voted unanimously for the Filipino. The mayor glowered. It was as if we'd undermined everything the Soviet Union stood for. And perhaps we had.

A week later there was a coup. Gorbachev was put under house arrest, Yeltsin took power in the Russian parliament, and four months later the Soviet Union was dissolved.

At the time it felt good to have helped destroy communism, but later I regretted it. A trip behind behind the Iron Curtain was an irreplaceable experience - a trip to the other side of life - and now it's gone.

These days you check into the Moscow Marriott or the Hilton and they're the same as 5-star hotels everywhere. You shop at Next or Armani, and eat at any of a hundred good restaurants. Moscow is as pleasant and prosperous as Paris or London.

Which is a pity! Because when it was communist, getting back home always felt so incredibly good.

Especially with a kilo of black-market caviar.