MOSCOW'S Sheremetevo Airport, in the heart of the former 'Evil Empire'. This dim arrivals hall was the foyer to John Le Carre's city of Karla and Moscow Centre. What assignations had been kept in those forests we had just flown over? What agents had waited, hearts pumping, at these immigration booths while, by the light of sallow bulbs, officers (this officer?) stared at their visas? People were speaking Russian. In films you only heard Russian when you needed to know that someone belonged to ''the other side''. There were signs in Cyrillic script, another of the film-makers' unambiguous signals of menace. So suddenly surrounded by all the icons of the old demonology, one was hardly conscious of the illuminated hoardings for Visa cards and the advertisement for Moscow's first American restaurant. I had chosen not to spend my weekend in a hotel but with a Russian family. It is now possible to arrange bed and breakfast in homes in Moscow and St Petersburg through some travel agents. The agent's representative, Igor, met me, and we pushed through the crowds to his car, a pale Lada, rusting and dented, its wiper blades removed to prevent them from being stolen. It took an hour to reach the apartment, along a six-lane highway on which the lanes were hardly marked, passing monolithic apartment blocks which rise in plantations on the outskirts of the city. My family's apartment was in a quiet street in the south of the city, across the river from Red Square. It was a building without any adornment or decoration. A brick porch led into a narrow hallway lit by a single unshaded bulb and panelled with metal lockers for the mail. On the seventh floor Igor pressed the bell for Flat 46. Zoya was in her mid-thirties, slim, pretty and with Caroline locks of chestnut hair falling around her small face. She wore an olive green T-shirt with Gucci on it, and a pair of matching cords. Hereyes were dark and wary. Denis was her 13-year-old son. A handsome boy, with freshly brushed short hair, he reminded me of the ideal child who used to appear on packets of fruit gums. Of a husband there was neither sign nor reference. Igor departed promising to pick me up for a tour of the city the next morning. The three of us were left to make our halting introductions. Zoya was a chemical engineer, Denis was on holiday from school. They had waited for an apartment for ten years. The apartment had one bedroom, which Zoya gave to me, a sitting room where Denis slept, a bathroom, a lavatory and a minute kitchen in which Zoya seemed to have made herself a bed on not much more than a bench. The brown wallpaper in my room made it rather like waking up in a cigar box. There were no curtains, but reflecting film had been stuck on the windows to dim the morning sun. Yet the room was furnished with a brand-new bed-head comprising shelves, cupboards and reading lights. As we turned in that night and Zoya bade me good night, she asked if I wanted to change money. Igor's tour the following day was an introduction to both the beauty and the brutishness of Moscow. Its scale inspired awe, as it was intended to. Moscow State University, the largest of the seven tower blocks Stalin built in the early 50s, is a monstrous piece of architecture, all vertical lines and spikes, Gothic in its certainties but stripped of the wonder. Igor believed it accommodated 150,000 students; the guidebooks quote a figure of 30,000. Not far from the university is one of the city's most beautiful buildings, the 16th-century Noveodevichy convent. A white-washed wall topped by rose-red turrets contains the onion-domed Smolensk cathedral and the convent itself. Tsar Boris Godunov had hiscoronation here; Peter the Great had his ambitious sister Sophia imprisoned in the convent. Novodevichy is in need of paint and attention, like everything else in Moscow outside the Kremlin. Eventually we came to Red Square. It is the only square I have seen which has a horizon. At one end is St Basil's Cathedral, whose preposterous multi-coloured domes look like surrealist pin-cushions, at the other end the historical museum, whose bricks are as red and as dark as a bloodstain. Between them lies a curving brick plain. But the dominant feature of Red Square is a wall; the wall of the Kremlin, some 400 metres long and 20 metres high, behind which the green roofs and yellow plaster of the Senate and Praesidium buildings are just visible. In front of the wall is Lenin's tomb. The old Bolshevik, pickled and stuffed, still lies in his glass sarcophagus suffused in a tangerine glow and guarded by four glum soldiers with bayonets fixed. He looks a grumpy little man, no longer, as in his statues, scanning the horizons of destiny, but peering irritably at his toes. Sunday was the last full day of my weekend, and in many ways the best. I had mastered the underground railway, but only by cheating. I employed a guide - Gregory, an 18-year-old student who caught me in a weak moment outside the Hotel Metropol. On my own I had to convert the station names, all in Cyrillic, into roughly what they looked like in English. Russian signs are as baffling as Scrabble played by dyslexics in mirrors. Gregory was the answer. Now we were sightseeing in earnest. We whistled through the Kremlin and the little community of churches, we marvelled at the treasures of the tsars in the Kremlin armoury, and we joined the throng in the Victorian arcades of GUM, the former state-run store. We went to the market on Arbat street, where serving soldiers have the peculiar experience of seeing identical uniforms to the ones they are wearing being bought by tourists, and on to the bigger and cheaper market in Izmaylovsky Park. We zoomed through the Tretyakov Gallery where the Russian soul is bared on canvas. The works are all Russian, from sumptuously coloured icons to the stark landscapes and stoic faces of the Russian countryside. That night the underground was packed, children with balloons, a woman with a cat on her lap, another with a dog under each arm; everyone was carrying something. A man was playing an accordion on the platform - he was not a busker - and continued to play as he entered the train. At the apartment Denis had made me an apple flan for my last night. Zoya gave me half a bottle of vodka and a packet of Aeroflot postcards. At Sheremetevo I approached the customs barrier feeling confident that I no longer had any misconceptions to declare. ''What is this?'' demanded the officer. ''It's a samovar. I paid US$7 for it in the flea market and I think it was made yesterday.'' ''For this you need a permit from the Ministry of Culture.'' And with that he took it away.