The author shares his observations about the people he met, and the places he visited in Russia five years before the end of the communist era. Hot links in blue lead to the author's photos. To return to the correct location in the text, always use the back button on your web browser.
We experienced Europe up close and personal while traveling ten-thousand miles of freeways, highways, and byways through seventeen nations. This is the story of that portion of our journey which took us through the Soviet Union. Our tour director Rudolph Meyer was a young German. Rudolph was fluent in several languages including English, Swedish, Danish, and Russian. Wim Boll, our Dutch bus driver, was fluent in German, and English. The two made a good team. We traveled in the company of twenty-seven other adventurers on a bus leased to Globus Gateway Tours.
Rudolph had never been to Russia before, and Wim had driven in the Soviet Union for only a short distance on one other occasion. The two were very business-like in their approach to their work, and especially so in the Soviet Union.
We crossed the Baltic Sea from Stockholm to Helsinki aboard the Sylvia Regina, a very large and modern ship of the Swedish Silja Line. We thoroughly enjoyed our short stay in Helsinki, Finland. The evening prior to our departure for the Soviet Union, I met a young Finnish couple who appeared to be in their early thirties. Yan and Ula had recently been to Russia on a visit, and they shared some observations with me about what a tourist might safely do there. Yan was a camera buff, and suggested some ways to get pictures of people when they didn't know they were being photographed. I used the technique quite effectively and emerged with a good collection of photos of the Russian people, including military personnel.
Tuesday morning, June 26, 1984, our group boarded the bus in front of the Intercontinental Hotel in Helsinki and headed eastward along the coastal highway toward the Soviet border. There were a few small villages along the way, some farms, and country homes, but as we neared the frontier, the number and frequency of houses diminished. In mid-morning we made a rest stop at a Shell station just one hundred feet from the Finnish-Soviet frontier. Wim checked the bus over very thoroughly for fluid levels, oil, water, and diesel fuel. The number of service stations in Russia is no where near what one encounters in the capitalist western countries. The group was lively as we had coffee, snacks, bought souvenirs, and visited the rest rooms. Rudolph warned us that good rest rooms are in short supply in Russia. He told us to expect to make "bush stops" along our route and to use the rest room facility on the bus whenever necessary. We all bought a personal supply of bottled mineral water to drink in Leningrad, and some of the smaller Russian towns where we were to stay. Leningrad water is properly treated with chlorine, and is safe for Soviet citizens to drink, but mysteriously effects the intestinal tract of westerners for some unexplained reason. It also has a very objectionable odor which we decided was caused by heavy traces of iron and sulfur.
On the bus once again, we fell silent as we stopped for a few minutes to show our passports to Finnish border officials. With that formality out of the way, a red and white striped wooden barrier was raised and the bus rolled slowly forward. There was nothing but dense green forest for the next two hundred yards, but we knew we were in the edge of the Soviet Union. The road made a gentle turn to the right and there in front of us was a small sentry post with another red and white striped road barrier. The young Soviet soldier looked at the front of the bus for a moment, and then raised the barrier waving us to move on. Another hundred yards and we passed through a very high fence of heavy-gauge wire mesh, and topped with several strands of barbed wire. On the Soviet side of the fence there was a trail wide enough for foot patrols, or perhaps a jeep-type vehicle. The fence penetrated the forest as far as the eye could see in both directions along the frontier. Another hundred yards brought us to a customs and immigration building. Our bus was waved to a stop on the main road, and Wim was given hand signals to proceed through what amounted to a dipping trough for the tires of all vehicles entering the country. We maneuvered slowly through the water to disinfect the tires, and then turned left into a long curving driveway up to a large wooden building. Ours seemed to be the only vehicle present for the moment. We were signaled to stop short of the unloading area. Two Soviet women health officials boarded our bus and began asking Rudolph questions about the group. The conversation was all in English, and they pursued the matter of whether any one on the bus might seem to be ill, or have any coughs or fevers. Rudolph assured the two women that the group was healthy, but they returned a second time, and repeated the previous conversation.
Rudolph went inside and brought out a stack of customs forms for us fill out while we remained aboard the bus. We filled in all the blanks, listing any valuables, cameras, rings, watches, jewelry, and itemized all currency and travelers checks. Rudolph made a point to tell us that if we made a mistake in filling out the form, we would have to get a clean copy and start over again. I decided that I would like to have one of the forms for a souvenir, so I went forward and got another blank copy from Rudolph. Later, inside the building we discovered why no mistakes and cross outs are permitted. The customs official carefully drew a line around all statements made on the form, and then crossed out any blank spaces left over. He put a stamp of approval on the form and gave it back to each person.
If a tourist wanted to add some item which they might acquire in the country, including additional currency, there would be no place to write the item on a previously approved form. Each time we cashed a travelers check, we had to present the customs form, and have a receipt for the transaction stapled to it. Soviet officials used this method to curtail black market currency transactions. When a traveler leaves the Soviet Union, the customs declaration form must be turned in at the border, and all currency still carried by the tourist must agree with the amount shown expended on the form.
We were instructed to exit the bus. Each person claimed their suitcase as Wim unloaded the baggage. We filed inside the customs and immigration building and lined up. A narrow space forced us to move single file in front of a plywood booth. A young Soviet soldier sat inside. He checked each passport thoroughly, looking up from the document several times to make sure that the photo truly depicted the person standing in front of him. A few feet further on we placed our suitcase on a counter for inspection. Surprisingly, only six people out of the entire group of twenty-eight were asked to open their luggage. We were not asked to open our suitcases. Maybe we looked trustworthy. We will never know.
Frank and Donna had been to the Soviet Union three times previously. Frank spoke a little Russian, and had been to Moscow on business at least once. For some perverse reason, the Russians chose to give Frank a thorough inspection. They looked into all of his luggage, and made him open his wallet and count his money carefully. Roy and Olga had been to Russia once before to visit Olga's relatives in the Ukraine, and Olga could also speak a little Russian. They seemed to escape the careful scrutiny which had delayed Frank's passage through customs.
Outside, standing in the cool morning air, we watched in amazement as four Soviet officials checked over the bus. Two men in blue coveralls and black, short-billed mechanic's caps were walking in a narrow concrete pit under the bus. They shined powerful flashlights up into the chassis and poked inspection mirrors around and into areas that could not be seen directly.
Wim accompanied two officials in brown uniforms through the interior of the bus, opening any and all compartments when directed to do so. The men on the inside poked their hands into every one of the seat-back pockets, and removed magazines, newspapers, or anything found there. These items were dropped unceremoniously onto the seats after a quick look. The rear seat was pulled forward and the area behind it inspected thoroughly. Nothing missed the gaze of these fellows. They opened the engine compartment used their lights and mirrors there to see into every dark corner.
While our bus was getting so much attention, we noticed a car with a camper trailer attached roll in for inspection. The family of three opened up the camper and stood aside. The inspection was brief, but thorough. In a few minutes the family was on its way into the Soviet Union either returning from a holiday in Finland, or on its way to a Russian holiday.
Three or four Scandinavian trucks stopped along the roadway and Soviet inspectors looked them over carefully. All around the customs building and down along the main roadway we noticed about a dozen individual dog houses with German Shepherds chained to them. The inspectors looking over the trucks made good use of the dogs to sniff inside the trucks for possible contraband. The scene could just as easily have been on the U. S. border with Mexico.
Eventually, perhaps after an hour and a half, we boarded the bus and drove slowly out onto the main road. This was a rural place with no houses or farms in sight. About a half mile from the customs building on the right-hand side of the road there were a few barracks-style buildings. One building had a tall, skinny stove pipe which emitted a thin column of black smoke into the bright morning air. As we neared the buildings we saw the two women who had first boarded our bus. They were walking toward what was probably a barracks for the entire border staff of customs, immigration, and military personnel serving at this frontier crossing point.
Wim carefully observed the 90 kilometer speed limit. That translates to approximately 55 miles per hour. About ten miles into the Soviet Union, a small white Lada sedan passed our bus traveling somewhat faster than the speed limit. Ten minutes later our bus rounded a curve to the left, and there was the Lada pulled over on the shoulder. A blue and gold Lada was parked along side with its blue dome lights flashing. The driver of the white car was standing on the shoulder of the highway talking to one officer, while a second officer stood beside the patrol car, a radar gun in hand. I couldn't help but think of a wry bit of humor, this was a Russian bear. Smokies are everywhere.
We arrived in Vyborg, and rolled up to the very modern Hotel Druzhba, or Friendship. The hotel is surrounded by flowers in a park-like setting and is situated on the banks of a lovely small river which empties into the Gulf of Finland. Nellie Melnikova would be our Intourist guide for the next eight days. Nellie was waiting for us in front of the Hotel. She ushered us into the dining room where we were served a typical Russian lunch. We began with a salad plate of sliced cucumbers. Little did we know how many sliced cucumbers we would eat during our stay in the Soviet Union. Every meal, breakfast, lunch, and dinner began with sliced cucumbers.
The next course was soup, and then a course of "mystery meat" covered with gravy and accompanied by fried potatoes. We encountered it often. Our group sometimes debated its origin, but we were seldom sure if it was beef or pork. On some occasions we could identify it as beef, but not often. The Russians serve too much meat to western tourists. The Soviet Union was not raising enough beef to satisfy the demands of its own people but wanted to impress foreign visitors. We often left some of the "mystery meat" on our plates as the quantity was just too great to consume. Soviet meats were often much tougher than those we ate at home.
Our first meal in Russia introduced us to Soviet Pepsi Cola. The Pepsi Company, at the invitation of the Soviet government, established a bottling plant in Russia several years before our visit. We remembered reading about it in the pages of Business Week, but hadn't thought much about it since. Pepsi is very popular in the Soviet Union. The familiar colors of red white and blue are on the label, but the logo is in Russian. I managed to bring home one empty bottle, and one unopened bottle.
Our dining tables in Russian hotels were usually set with bottles of Pepsi Cola, mineral water, weak lemonade, and beer. The water, lemonade and beer were in identical bottles of either brown or green glass with no labels. The water was quite good, but the beer drinkers in our group said the beer was very bland, and weak. We all agreed that it would be hard to tell the beer from the lemonade or water.
Russian serving people came around the table putting out and collecting the various dishes in a set pattern. If a diner was too slow, and was still eating a salad, or soup, the dish was left on the table to the end of the meal. It also meant a long delay in serving the slow diner the next course. This was not terribly unlike some restaurants in the west. Waiters and waitresses received a fixed salary and tipping was not part of the socialist economy. There was simply no economic incentive to improve service to diners in a restaurant.
Frank placed a package of Marlboro cigarettes, and a disposable lighter on the serving cart for the young man who was distributing our desserts. The young Russian waiter quickly placed a dinner napkin over the booty to keep it out of sight until he could pocket it later. We had packed a supply of disposable ball point pens to use as gratuities. Western products were popular with serving personnel in all establishments in the Soviet Union. It is more of a gesture of good will, than an economic device to speed up service, as it seemed to have no appreciable effect on service.
We drove away from the Hotel after lunch and found our way to downtown Vyborg. Wim parked our bus in a large parking area at a bus terminal across the street from the Soviet agency which handles insurance for foreign motorists. Wim and Nellie went across the street to arrange for an insurance policy covering the Dutch-owned bus and its passengers for the remainder of our time in the U.S.S.R.
Our group stayed aboard the bus and observed the surrounding community. The neighborhood was one of light industry. There were repair shops for trucks and machinery in several nearby buildings. Men in mechanics coveralls came and went across the parking area.
Travelers with suitcases entered and exited the bus terminal. A few private cars were parked nearby, and we could observe them at close range. One small, rear-engine Lada was giving its owner a hard time. The rear door would not open. After working on it for some time, he gave up and ushered his passengers around to the other side of the car. The whole scene; peeling paint; cracked stucco over concrete walls; the appearance of the vehicles; the diesel fumes; very few functioning mufflers on trucks and busses; reminded us very much of similar scenes in Mexico.
On the open road again, we drove through a thickly forested region on our way to Leningrad. The woods in this part of Russia are composed of many evergreens with only a sprinkling of deciduous trees. In addition, the country we traversed throughout our journey was very flat. There were very minor changes of elevation, but the distances involved are simply too great to realize that the road rises or falls. One could look in vain for a hill or a mountain.
Russia possesses twenty-five percent of the world's forests. We occasionally saw small patches of trees cut for what appeared to be pulp wood. The trees were clear cut from a few acres near the highway and reduced to what appeared to be pulp-wood length. The practice of clear cutting seemed common in the Soviet Union. Sometimes we saw Soviet citizens camped out in the edge of the forest. Many times we saw families with a picnic spread out right beside of the road. The forest is a great source of recreational enjoyment for the Russian people.
Nearing Leningrad (St. Petersburg) we passed through several villages and towns. We saw what appeared to be a young Pioneer encampment draped with red flags and bunting. We asked Nellie if the group might visit a Young Pioneer camp, and she promised to look into the possibility. Nothing ever came of our request. We were on a schedule which didn't permit flexibility.
Nellie Melnikova was a personable young woman of about twenty seven. During the school year she teaches English in a secondary school in her native Leningrad. She graduated from the Philological Faculty of Leningrad University. She expressed her pride in having been educated where the great Vladimir Lenin was an external law student. She was pleased that she and the great revolutionary theoretician were alumni of the same university. I am still curious as to why the Russians call Lenin by his given first name, and by his alias last name. Nellie was our national guide, and also served as our guide to Leningrad.
We arrived at Hotel Leningrad on the banks of the River Neva at about eight in the evening. Entering the lobby we had an excellent view of the Cruiser Aurora about five hundred yards away at its permanent mooring. The old warship was designed and built for the Tsarist Navy, well before the 1917 revolutions.
Cruiser Aurora took part in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War. It was one of the few vessels to escape the disaster which befell the Tsar's Baltic Sea Fleet in a decisive battle in the Straits of Tsushima that lie between Japan and Korea. The Imperial Japanese Navy met the Russian fleet and quickly sent most of the ships to the bottom.
Aurora enjoyed a brilliant record of voyages, but her chief claim to fame was the role her sailors played in the Bolshevik uprising in October 1917. Aurora was brought up the Neva River from the Baltic Sea to place the Winter Palace and the Provisional Government under the threat of its guns. The only shot it fired in the coup which brought the Bolsheviks and Lenin to power was a blank round from her forward gun which signaled the storming of the Winter Palace.
Our hotel room was on the third floor looking directly across the river to the Aurora. The ship was framed by our large window. Aurora was used as a Soviet naval training school ship. Every morning there was a short ceremony on the stern with bugles, the raising of the colors, and assembly of a company of smartly-uniformed young Soviet mid-shipmen. We enjoyed this from our window each morning before breakfast.
In front of the Hotel Leningrad there is a large wrought iron model of an eighteenth-century sailing ship. The model is about seven feet in length, and is executed in very fine detail. The ship is the symbol of the city of Leningrad, and is to be found on most objects and books connected with the city. This city has had three names since its founding as St. Petersburg by Peter the Great. It was here that Peter the Great pushed the building of the Russian navy in a shipyard in what is now the heart of the city. Leningrad played a prominent role in Soviet naval strategy. Several naval schools for officers and enlisted personnel were in evidence on the Neva River and its tributaries. Naval uniforms were in evidence throughout the city.
The Hotel Leningrad was a very large and imposing structure making use of large quantities of white marble and medium blue carpeting in its spacious lobby. Information and service counters were placed around the perimeter of the reception area. The most prominent counter, the one for English speaking guests was in the center of the lobby..
Above this desk were some familiar credit card emblems for Visa, Master Card, and American Express. The same emblems were displayed on huge glass doors leading into the dining room. Hotel Leningrad was considered by the Soviets to be an international-class hotel, and lodged guests from all over the world.
We saw many people there from east and west alike. There were western business people, military and civilian personnel from the third world countries, Africans in military uniforms speaking every imaginable language, and several Cubans in civilian clothing. I had the advantage of listening to the Cubans speaking Spanish and understanding at least portions of their conversations. They seemed to be technical people, possibly engineers.
Our room lacked a great deal of the quality one looks for in a true international-class hotel. The floors were concrete with a thin layer of carpeting and virtually no padding beneath. The carpet was worn out and needed replacing. The hotel opened about 1970, and the carpet in our room had seen some real hard wear and abuse. The plumbing fixtures were typical of Eastern Europe, with the commode on the Scandinavian design, with its slightly rounded tank and conical-shaped top. Drain pipes, as well as water pipes were exposed. No attempt had been made to conceal pipes in walls where possible. Fixtures were not sealed to the walls. Large gaps were left between the edge of the bathtub, and the wash basin, and the adjacent walls. Formica shelves and counter top had been manufactured with defective glue, and almost every Formica edge was loose and beginning to peel. I killed two small roaches in the bathroom. We guessed that pest control firms were non-existent in Leningrad.
Food service at the Hotel Leningrad was quite good. The tables were covered with white linen table clothes and set with linen napkins and high-quality stainless flat ware. Breakfast consisted of sliced cucumbers, marinated raw fish, a small mound of black caviar, rye bread, and yogurt which was about the consistency of butter milk. Breakfasts throughout the Soviet Union were nearly the same, with an occasional baked egg dish and sausage in addition to fish and cucumbers. No matter what else was on the table, we could always count on fish and cucumbers. Caviar was not always present. Lunch and dinner menus varied somewhat, but they always seemed to begin with fish and cucumbers. We seldom ever saw lettuce or tomatoes.
When one observed the condition of the highways and the trucks in the Soviet Union the reason for this lack of delicate vegetables on the tables became apparent. There were few covered trucks in the entire country. The enclosed tractor-trailer rigs we saw were from Scandinavia, and were not engaged in internal freight hauling, but in international trade.
Soviet roads suffered from winter damage much worse than anything we experienced at home in Colorado. The soil is very spongy in much of the country and makes the work of road building and road maintenance infinitely more difficult than anything we know in our country. The road surfaces were uneven causing our bus to rock from side to side making the passenger aware of the situation, but not too uncomfortable. This was true for the most part along highways in the north. West of Moscow to the Polish border, the roads were considerably smoother. Much of that portion of the journey was made on limited access freeways little different from those in the United States.
The Soviet Union was working hard to increase its truck fleet. Several years earlier the largest truck factory in the world had been constructed on the Kama River between Moscow and the Ural Mountains. A visitor to the Soviet Union saw the results of a decade of production coming out of the Kama River plant.
The large diesel-powered KAMA3 pronounced KAMAZ, was seen everywhere. The cab was pure Fiat, identical to the Fiat trucks we saw in Italy. Small wonder; Fiat built the Kamaz factory and furnished tooling under contract to the Soviet Union.
Another truck model was the TATRA or Tartar in English. The TATRA looked for all the world like an International or a Dodge from the early 1960's. A much older looking truck on the roads seemed to be a good replica of the World War II vintage American Army, Dodge, Ford, and G.M. built deuce and a half, all wheel drive vehicles.
The U. S. sent many of those to Russia via the Murmansk and Vladivostok convoy routes on lend-lease. I was quite surprised to see one of the genuine articles, a Dodge power wagon on the street in Leningrad one afternoon. Most of the older trucks of this type are still wearing an olive drab paint job. The entire truck fleet is considered to be on call for military duty at any moment.
Road construction problems dictated truck design. Most of the truck fleet consisted of straight chassis units with shallow, open beds. It would seem that the weight hauling capacity of most Soviet trucks was moderate at best. This in turn dictated construction decisions. On the freeways we traveled, the overpass bridge spans showed an obvious lack of capacity of the Soviet economy to pour and haul long, pre-stressed concrete beams. The overpasses were fabricated from short pre-stressed concrete beams, welded in mid-span.
This phenomenon was most likely caused by the inability of the existing truck fleet to haul long and very heavy loads. This presented the Russians with a catch twenty-two. Roads would not support heavy trucks, trucks were then designed to haul moderate loads, and therefore roads and bridges could not be built to support heavy trucks. The vicious cycle continued. In addition, the energy input to the truck fleet was inefficiently used. Far too much fuel was expended for a moderate amount of freight hauled. We saw many trucks hauling freight in cardboard boxes open to the weather. Many cargoes had obvious rain damage.
Truck drivers carried one or two spare inner tubes thrown loosely over the neck of the engine air intake tube which extends upward past the rear window of the truck cab. Tires are not of the tubeless variety. A high frequency of on-the-road tire repairs warranted carrying spare tubes in so handy a spot. Gaskets for engine cylinder heads were frequently seen stuck up behind the driver's seat in the rear window.
Since all trucks belonged to the government, even though they are assigned to haul for various state enterprises, the Soviets had a roving fleet of repair trucks on their highways to keep the whole fleet mobile. We saw more than one engine change being made beside the road. A truck loaded with replacement diesel engines, and equipped with a hydraulic crane arm, would make an engine swap right beside the highway. The truck with the disabled engine was put back into service without being towed to a shop. Engines were then returned for repair and recycled back into the fleet.
The life of a Soviet truck driver appeared to be arduous even at the height of summer. The noise, dust, and diesel fumes made the job a grimy one. Soviet trucks were not air-conditioned. Drivers stripped down to their undershirts for comfort. Several drivers had a woman in the cab with them, we could only assume a girl friend or a wife not wishing to be left behind for days or weeks on end.
There was a definite lack of motels in the Soviet Union, although there were some, and they were plainly marked with the English word "motel." Trucks had no sleeper cabs. Drivers and their wives found few places to spend the night. Highway restaurant facilities were few, and of only moderate quality at best. Restrooms in these places were often atrocious, reminding us of some of our own bad facilities. Our tour group made several "bush stops." The ladies using the woods on the right side of the road, and the men crossing the highway and entering the woods on the left side. Having few choices in places to stop for meals or an overnight stay, the Soviet citizen or trucker contended with conditions much worse than those encountered in the west. The overall quality of highway travel in Russia reminded us of our own country about mid-twentieth century or earlier.
One English word has become universal. The word "stop" has been adopted by all nations in Europe including Russia for its stop signs. The familiar red and white, octagonal stop sign is seen in all nations on the continent. The internationalization of highway markers, and symbols is almost complete. Russian highway signs are just like our own with the international symbols for services, exits, and entry ramps. Names of cities are posted in the Cyrillic alphabet for Russians and in the Roman alphabet for foreigners. Big blue and white freeway signs were standard size and shape.
The construction crane should have been declared the national bird of the Soviet Union. Everywhere one looked in the cities, new construction of high-rise apartment and office buildings was under way.
Russia suffered the loss of so much floor space in World War II, that their figures show they were set back seventeen years. Emerging in 1945 from the war with Germany, the country had a level of development equal to that of 1924. The Nazis invaded in 1941, and for the next four years proceeded to devastate the country.
Much has been said in the western press about shoddy construction methods, and drab appearance of Soviet architecture. While that may have been true in the past, the country was making great strides to erase that image. The majority of new construction we saw, buildings less than ten years old, seemed to be attractive, and well built. Construction, like every other phase of the Soviet economy suffered a lack of power tools and specialized equipment. Every truck we saw hauling construction materials had been loaded by hand. Bricks were hauled in loose piles in open trucks. There was no sign of the use of steel-banded pallet loads for material handling. This is one clear indication of a very labor-intensive economy.
The main highlights of our stay in Leningrad were visits to the Cruiser Aurora, the Winter Palace, the Hermitage Museum which includes the Winter Palace. We visited Smolney Institute where the Bolsheviks met and debated endlessly from March to November of 1917, and where they virtually set up a shadow government between the fall of the Tsar and their seizure of power from the Provisional Government.
We went on a city tour featuring many of the parks, canals, and monuments. On board the Aurora, I was able to take some excellent photos of the ship, including highly detailed pictures of the breach of the forward gun which fired the famous blank round. I was able to pose with the gun for a couple of photos. I had been told that tourists are not allowed to take pictures of any of the guns. No sailors were present when we took the first batch of pictures.
Later a Soviet sailor came forward with a group of Young Pioneers and began to show them the famous gun. I motioned to them that I would like to take a picture of the group gathered around the gun mount. The sailor wagged his finger and said "nyet, nyet." I turned to walk away. Looking back over my shoulder, I noticed the entire group had its attention on the open breach of the big deck gun. I turned and snapped a picture and walked slowly away. Nobody noticed this act of defiance. It seemed too colorful a scene to pass up.
The Soviet government preserved the great art and architectural treasures from the Tsarist past and placed them on public display. They took great pride that these things belonged to all of the Soviet people, not just the rich and the aristocracy. This psychological lesson was a little like the Irish who have cleverly preserved the ruins of the churches Cromwell and his Puritan army burned with their congregations inside. It was easy to point out the excesses of past generations to the present generation.
An especially glaring example of the Tsar's wealth was the Summer Palace at Petrodvorets a few miles east of Leningrad. If there was ever any doubt in the minds of the Russian people that the Tsar needed to be removed, this ostentatious layout should have been evidence enough for the most skeptical.
While the peasantry lived in abject poverty, the Tsar personally owned twenty million acres of forests, farms, and estates, including Petrodvorets. The Summer Palace included many acres of formal gardens with impressive fountains and statuary covered in gold leaf. The day we visited Petrodvorets, the grounds were crowded with Soviet citizens enjoying an outing in the country. Families posed for snapshots in the gardens formerly accessible only to the nobility.
Nellie Melnikova was very much at
home in her native Leningrad. She spent the nights there with her
family rather than with our group at the hotel. Nellie
needed no script to describe the
great art collection in the Hermitage Museum.
Nellie also took us to see the home of Peter the Great, a small log house in which he planned his magnificent new capitol designed to supplant Moscow as the political center of Russia.
Nellie pointed out views of the Peter and Paul Fortress along the River Neva, and explained how this fortress was the primary military defense for the city in Peter's time. Much later the Kronstadt Fortress was built on an island in the Gulf of Finland to give the city better defense from naval attack. The Peter and Paul Fortress became a prison for the Tsar's political enemies awaiting trial or execution.
Nellie told us, with a note of patriotic pride in her voice, about the nine hundred day siege of Leningrad by Hitler's fascist armies, and how the people of this Hero City endured the horrors of war. Machine operators in factories tied themselves to their work stations to avoid falling over from fatigue and starvation. Public transport broke down completely, people moved into the factories to live and work there. No one could commute through the rubble to shattered apartment buildings. Workers were better off in their workshops for the duration of the siege. Leningrad came under incessant Nazi bombing and artillery attacks which destroyed the majority of buildings in the city. Over one million people died in the siege, either from the shelling or starvation. Leningrad had a pre-war population of just over three million people. Hitler told an incredulous world that he "had no interest in seeing Leningrad, a village on the Baltic, continue to exist."
An incident involving Nellie is worth mentioning. The first evening we were in Leningrad, Nellie visited for about an hour with Wim, and Rudolph. The three of them were seated in the front of the bus in plain view in the hotel parking lot. They shared soft drinks and talked. Wim gave Nellie two audio tapes from his large collection. When the three of them exited the bus, two police officers in uniform approached them and talked for a while. The officers had Nellie accompany them into the hotel and took her into a room off the lobby for about a half hour. When Nellie emerged from her interview with the police officers, she was subdued, and unsmiling. No one asked what had transpired, and Nellie offered no explanations. This was one of those times Soviet citizens endured police harassment resulting from contact with foreigners. We learned later that she was compelled to surrender the audio tapes to the police.
We took midnight walks beside the River Neva in Leningrad. The city is on a parallel of latitude with Anchorage, Alaska. For this reason Leningrad has very long days in mid-summer. The residents of Leningrad call this season the white nights. The quality of the light is about the same as a half hour after sunset.
We saw quite a few people fishing along the Neva embankment. The river seems to be reasonably clean, and the fish here are probably as safe to consume as would be the case anywhere. The Neva River was a major mass-transit commuting route for thousands of suburbanites and boasted a fleet of long, sleek, hydrofoil boats which picked up and dropped passengers at numerous docks along the river.
The last night in Leningrad, we had dinner at the Sadko Restaurant and were entertained by a folk dance troupe. They were good, but they didn't perform the traditional Cossack dances. During dinner, we were both splashed with butter when the lady on our right cut into her chicken Kiev. I bring this up to set the stage for a story of confusion and misunderstanding which took place in Moscow a few days later. More on that when it comes up.
After dinner, I left the restaurant and took a solo walk to a park some distance away. I stood motionless looking at a statue for about five minutes. A policeman walked slowly across the park toward me, I wondered how close he would come. It was about midnight, and I was the sole occupant of the park. The officer came directly toward me from my left. He passed so close behind me I could feel his breath on the back of my neck as he turned and looked me over. I said nothing. I kept my face perfectly expressionless and stared straight ahead. He continued on, said nothing, and disappeared at the other end of the park. The slow even cadence, the crunch of the footsteps in the gravel, the unfamiliar surroundings, produced a surrealism straight out of a Russian novel.
The second day in Leningrad, Nellie emerged wearing Levi Strauss jeans, and from then until the end of our tour she wore them almost continuously. Soviet citizens were wearing Levis in every city, town, and village. About half of all of the younger generation was attired in Levis. Many were made in Russia by a factory built by Levi Strauss under license to the Soviet Union, an arrangement much like that with Pepsi Cola. The Soviet people appear to be reasonably well-dressed, clean and neat.
Russian adults appeared to be overweight by western standards. This was a function of their diet. Potatoes, gravy, and bread were very big staples. The government subsidized the cost of bread to consumers for so long that the price was lower than the cost of production. While this practice made bread cheap for the family dinner table, it encouraged excess starch consumption.
Soviet families were very small, most limited themselves to one child and seldom more than two. This was a function of living space. A Soviet family of two could rent or buy a two-room apartment. With three people, the family could get a three-room flat, but usually not much more space. Children were indulged by their parents and seemed to receive a great deal of love and affection. This phenomenon was noticeable in public. Soviet youngsters were dressed in bright colors, with little girls almost universally sporting very large hair ribbons and bows. Children seemed to be well behaved. We witnessed only one tantrum by a very small child, and that was subdued very quickly by a few words from the parents. No physical force was applied in that case.
One of the most noteworthy features of Russian urban life seemed to be an almost total lack of litter. Old women were everywhere with brooms and scoops to make sure none accumulated. In addition, people took a very serious attitude toward shaming any person they saw dropping something on the ground. Russians picked up litter when they saw it and deposited it in the nearest waste can.
In a park I noticed a very small child peel a banana and drop the peeling at the intersection of two paved walkways. The parents were walking ahead of the child and didn't see this careless act. A few moments later an adult seeing the peeling, quickly picked it up and discarded it in a trash can a few feet away. It only occurred to me much later to wonder where the child got the banana in the first place. Fresh imported fruit was definitely in short supply in the Soviet Union.
People in Russia spent a lot of time standing in lines to buy things. At noon, large crowds formed around stores in downtown Leningrad. People came out to shop on their lunch hour. Westerners thought this phenomenon indicated acute shortages in everything in the market place. From our observations the problem may have been caused by a lack of effective organization. There seemed to be a sufficient quantity of goods in the stores at least in Moscow. Russians could buy clothing and food, albeit at higher prices for an hour worked, than in our own country, but there were goods in the stores. We looked over the price tags of clothing and decided that at an average of three hundred and fifty rubles a month, the average Russian wage earner and his wife would be paying about twice as much for their clothing in terms of hours on the job when compared to time spent to earn the same clothing in the U. S.
Nellie told us that government wage statistics showed the average to be 350 rubles per month for a factory worker. Apartment rents and certain food items are heavily subsidized by the government, and medical treatment costs the worker no cash payment of any kind. There was no such thing as a medical or life insurance premium in the Soviet Union. The socialist state tried to cover all contingencies from cradle to grave. When these things were factored into the family budget, the Soviet worker came out not very far behind the average American worker in take home pay. This was where any similarity ended however, as the average Soviet worker did not have the broad range of consumer goods to choose from in the market place.
The Soviet ruble could not be converted freely into any other currency. A visitor had to exchange dollars, pounds, marks, guilders, or other hard currencies into rubles at official exchange desks in hotels or at any bank. The Soviet Union did not earn enough hard currency in international trade to pay for all of the wheat and other goods which they needed to buy. Soviet citizens were forbidden to hold any hard currency from the west.
While the government sold the ruble to Americans at about one dollar and thirty cents, the head waiter in a hotel, or a kid on the street offered a much more favorable price for dollars. Soviet citizens wanted to acquire foreign currency in order to be able to buy western goods such as American cigarettes, Dutch beer, and Swiss chocolates, not available outside of the Beriozka, or hard currency shops. The Beriozka shops were available in the lobbies of all hotels, and plainly marked for convertible currencies only. Signs were in English, French, German, and other languages of the west.
Currency problems were the reason given for a low level of Soviet tourism in the west. I was sure that this was a legitimate and compelling reason for refusing to allow very many Soviet citizens to travel abroad. I asked Nellie if she had ever been outside of her country. She said she had visited a friend in East Germany once.
In order to visit a friend in a capitalist country, the host would have to sign an agreement making themselves responsible to supply the Soviet visitor with round trip transportation, and to be liable for any medical costs incurred by sickness or injury while the Soviet citizen was outside their country. This was understandable from a purely economic point of view, given the conditions of hard currency shortages, and socialized medicine, but these economic conditions then became a not-so-subtle form of incarceration inside one's own country.
After lunch on Thursday, June 28, we left Leningrad and drove to Novgorod. Just outside Leningrad we saw our first Sovkhoz, or State Farm. There were high-rise apartment buildings and some lower sheds and machinery storage and repair shops spread around nearby. Seen from the main road, it looked quite impressive. The outskirts of Leningrad looked like those of almost any major city giving way to the countryside, with one exception. A huge victory monument marked the siege line at the closest point the Nazis came to Leningrad. The monument is made up of a granite pedestal topped by larger-than-life bronze figures of Red Army soldiers hoisting their automatic weapons toward the sky. It is a fitting tribute to the heroism of the Red Army. Let no one detract from the bravery of Russian soldiers defending their soil.
Rural people in Russia historically have not shared in the economic well being of the urban population. The government was making efforts to correct the imbalance, but the situation reminded the visitor of our own countryside perhaps forty to fifty years earlier. Russian country homes were simple to modest frame or log houses of a monotonous architectural style. Some were painted with a fair touch of color, and many had the traditional scalloped shutters and window boxes one associates with Russia and Europe in general.
Most lanes leading off the main highway were unpaved with all that suggests for the rainy period of the year. The people working in the fields appeared to have only short handled tools requiring a great deal of what we refer to in the U. S. as "stoop labor." The body must be bent over from the waist parallel to the ground to dig, hoe, or cut with a scythe. Rakes seemed to be the only hand tool we saw with a longer handle. There was almost a total absence of any small powered tool. We saw no gasoline-powered garden tractors, or any other material handling equipment fitted with an engine or electric motor.
Twenty-five percent of the Soviet people worked in agriculture compared to about five percent of Americans so employed. With the lack of power tools one quickly saw why this is true. Hard work shows up in the physical build of the Russian people. Women in skirts almost universally revealed very well-developed calf muscles. They looked like runners or athletes, but western habits of conditioning, that is jogging, have not yet taken hold in Russia. The calves of Russian women are not the soft, smooth legs seen in the west, but were hardened by great exertion. The same was true of the arms of both men and women.
Russian Kolkhozniki, or collective farmers, were required to work on the common fields first, and then they could put in their own time on the one half hectare of land they were assigned as a private family plot. The Soviet government gave up trying to take all private land away from the peasant farmers. The family plot is one and one tenth acre in size, and produces about thirty percent of all fresh produce sold in the Soviet Union. We saw farmer's markets in several towns with produce spread out for public sale. The Kolkhozniki can keep any and all income from such plots. The economic incentive was immediately apparent.
Several years ago, the government found that the collective farmers were enlarging their plots by plowing just one more row each spring, until little by little the plot grew larger. A big crackdown took place, with violators fined heavily. We saw a strange phenomenon which suggests that the campaign to crush this capitalistic behavior has not been completely successful. Near, but not directly on, the collective farms are little plots of garden produce situated between the woods and the highway. The isolated gardens seem to be in addition to the standard-sized plots which appear beside each house. It would appear that there just aren't enough enforcers to catch all of the brazen pirate farmers.
We crossed the Volkhoz River into Novgorod and toured the old town center. Our bus was greeted unofficially by two young boys. A local guide joined us, a young woman about the age of Nellie. We got a good look at the exteriors of the dozens of "merchant churches" that occupy the center of this medieval walled town. The term "merchant church" arises from the practice of the wealthy merchants of ancient Novgorod building a church, dedicating it to a patron saint, and then storing their trade goods inside special store rooms built for the purpose. The theory was that even a hardened thief would refrain from stealing from the house of God. These churches were clustered so close together, they were but a half block apart at most. They served only a nominal religious purpose at best.
At Hotel Intourist , we encountered small town Russian facilities. This hotel, owned by Intourist like almost all Soviet hotels, was definitely second rate by anyone's standards. The food was all right, but the rooms and bathrooms would lose customers for any motel chain in the west. We decided to take a long walk after supper and stretch our legs. About a quarter mile from the hotel we found the earthworks which had been thrown up by one of the opposing armies in the siege of that city. A very high dirt embankment cuts right through the city, and provides a place for kids to play the kind of games that kids everywhere can imagine for such a mound. There were walking paths on the top of the ridge. It was strangely out of place in so flat a country. The Germans occupied Novgorod for almost three and a half years, and the Red Army lost three hundred thousand soldiers in the liberation of this city. When one considers that the United States lost two hundred and ninety-two thousand service personnel in all theaters of World War II, Soviet losses in retaking Novgorod assume a significance of their own. The Soviet Union lost over twenty million people in the Second World War, or as it is known in Russia, The Great Patriotic War.
Returning to the hotel from our walk through the neighborhood, we saw Wim and Rudolph washing our bus beside the building. Several teenagers were hovering about the area watching. Later we learned that while Wim and Rudolph were on the opposite side, some one entered the bus and took seventy-two audio tapes and two cartons of Marlboro cigarettes. Seems I read somewhere that socialism had cured avarice and greed and that theft was a thing of the past. So much for theory. In this same neighborhood we had seen a group of three or four "red guards," young men wearing red arm bands with the hammer and sickle on their civilian suits. I inquired about the significance of this and learned that these young men are what we would think of as vigilantes. They were volunteers who helped the police patrol the town.
On the front steps or our hotel we met and conversed for a while with the manager, a man in his early forties named Nicholas. He spoke excellent English, read the foreign press, listened to B.B.C., Radio Free Europe, and the Voice of America. We stood outside for about half an hour in a cold biting wind, and then retreated to the lounge to continue our conversation over cognac.
Nicholas introduced a blonde lady who was celebrating her tenth anniversary as an employee of Intourist. She spoke very little English and remained on the periphery of the conversation most of the time. Sometimes Nicholas included her through translation. We discussed every range of Soviet-U.S. relationships from 1917 to the present. While Nicholas was very well informed, and knows his history, he revealed the Soviet view of the American past which we found to be quite prevalent among Russians with whom we had a chance to talk.
Soviet citizens believed that the U. S. invasion of the Soviet Union which took place in 1918 was for the purpose of supporting the White Russian armies then fighting to retake the government from the Reds. I tried to explain President Wilson's stance on the issues of preventing allied war materials from falling into German hands and keeping open the Siberian railway in order to get the Czech Legion out of Russia and transport the Czechs to the western front in France. I am sure my explanations were received with skepticism.
Nicholas expressed a commonly held Russian belief that the real reason for the American and British D-Day landings, June 6, 1944 on the beaches of Normandy, and the opening of the western front against Hitler's Nazi forces was for the purpose of preventing the victorious Red Army from overrunning all of Western Europe, thereby "liberating" the Europeans and establishing socialism as was done in Eastern Europe. The existence of a divided Berlin was viewed by the Russians as a problem thrust upon the world by an unrealistic attitude on the part of the western allies. Berlin was a Red Army prize, and the Russians believed that it should not have been shared with their western allies.
The whole episode of Lend-Lease has been ignored by Soviet history books. Nicholas had barely heard of it, and others knew nothing on the subject. I raised some Soviet eyebrows when I told the story of how our courageous merchant seamen made the Murmansk run to bring American trucks, tanks, airplanes, and supplies to our Soviet allies through the gauntlet of Nazi submarine attacks. How they braved air attacks from Nazi airfields in occupied Norway. How my family when I was a kid, contributed to the bundles-for-Russia clothing collections. These tidbits of history tended to get lost in the cold war rhetoric between the super powers. The cognac and good conversation may have revived a tiny bit of the old camaraderie our two countries felt for each other when we were both the victims of Nazi tyranny. I sincerely hoped so. Our history discussion ended abruptly as the blonde woman pulled me to my feet and said, "I'm woman, you dance with me." It was not a request, it was an imperative. I obliged.
The reader may notice that all through these pages I have chosen to use the Russian method of referring to "the Hitlerite armies" or the Nazi or fascist forces. You will notice very quickly when talking to the Russians that they carefully differentiate between a nation, in effect, the Germans, who are a people, and Nazis or fascists, who were a political expression of a class within Germany. They referred to American people, and to the "ruling classes" in America. By the latter they meant the "wall street bankers" , "arms merchants" and other members of the group know as "oppressors of the working class." Words were heavily weighted with class consciousness. This phenomenon once understood, cleared the way for some level of communication, but was fraught with peril if not handled well.
From Novgorod we drove most of the day to MOCKBA, pronounced in Russia as Moskva, and in English Moscow. We stopped to have lunch in Kalinin and entered the outskirts of Moscow in the early afternoon.
We stopped at the hedgehog monument commemorating the defense of Moscow. Very close to the city on the northwest, a huge replica of the famous hedgehog tank traps has been erected to mark the closest approach made by the Nazi invaders. A Soviet tank from that period is poised on a concrete pedestal beside the road.
There was a light drizzle falling which made the scene all the more somber. As we unloaded from the bus, and snapped a couple of photos, a car pulled up with a wedding party. It was common practice in Russia for a bride and groom to go to the nearest war memorial and leave the bridal bouquet. As I was so often to do in the Soviet Union, I used a smile and a wave of the hand to indicate that I wanted to take their picture. The bride and groom, best man and bride's maid all obliged and posed with the Red Army tank.
Arriving in Moscow, we drove directly to the Hotel Ukraine, which is one of seven buildings all nearly identical. They are known as Stalinesque architecture. Each had a tall spire fashioned not unlike the Empire State or Chrysler buildings in New York. We went into the lobby to await room assignments. We were very pleased with the general appearance. This was a really plush place. I shopped the Beriozka for something to drink, and found a pretty good quality orange soda bottled in Finland. Mary and I shared a couple of those, and then we bought a tourist map of Moscow. When we rejoined the rest of the group in the lobby, Rudolph explained that we could not be placed in this hotel, but would have to go across town.
We grumbled a bit, because we liked the ambiance of the Hotel Ukraine. It was so much nicer than Hotel Intourist in Novgorod, and promised to be better than the Hotel Leningrad, if the first impression would carry as far as the guest rooms. Across town we went, and found that our room assignments had been made in Hotel Rossiya, or Hotel Russia in English. We were very pleased with the location. The hotel sits directly on Red Square across from the Kremlin wall, St. Basil's Cathedral, the clock tower, and Lenin's tomb.
We received our luggage in our room, joined our group for dinner, and then went out for a walk in Red Square. At ten in the evening we joined some friends for a view of the hourly change of the guard at Lenin's tomb. We returned with better light the next afternoon for a series of photos of this ceremony. Two Soviet KGB uniformed troops as sharp as any West Pointer stand a one-hour guard stint in front of the door to the tomb. Each hour a corporal of the guard marches out from the Kremlin entry with a fresh pair of sentries to relieve the two on post. The cadence, the high goose step, the movement of the rifles, the pop of the hand on the weapon, all conjure up images of elite military units throughout history.
Red Square was seldom without a military uniform in sight. The Russians were still doing what Europeans have done for centuries. They had an army barracks right in the middle of town. We saw young Russian soldiers ranging from raw recruits to more mature young non-coms all living in a large building adjacent to Red Square. We couldn't help but think that some of these young men would have to serve in the war in Afghanistan. (The author on Red Square) (The author's wife on Red Square)
We discussed Afghanistan with Nellie. She had previously mentioned having been married, as though it were in the past tense. She had a son about seven, who lives with her family in Leningrad. When we talked of Russia's involvement there, she told us that some young men with whom she had grown up were returning from Afghanistan in coffins. Tears welled up in her eyes and she said nothing more. We didn't pursue the conversation. No one brought up the subject again.
We made all of the standard tourist stops in Moscow. We toured the Kremlin grounds and the interior of Assumption Cathedral. We took lots of photos, looked at the world's largest bell which never rang. The bell has a big chunk out of one side where it cracked during casting. We looked at the world's largest canon which was never fired. The huge medieval canon was cast for psychological purposes, to scare the wits out of any potential enemy. If fired, it would have exploded and killed its crew and probably everyone else for hundreds of yards around. We wondered aloud if two or three hundred years from now, tourists in the east and the west will be shown the great empty missile silos which once were poised to threaten the very existence of the human race. We certainly hoped so.
In Moscow we visited the 1980 Olympic Stadium, and the site of the 1984 "Friendship Games." We saw the building where John Reed and his wife lived when they were in Russia in the revolutionary period. The movie Reds depicted the life of John Reed an American journalist who became infatuated with the Red revolution. John Reed is buried in the Kremlin wall behind a bronze marker located just behind Lenin's tomb.
We were shown the Arbat Restaurant, one of the largest restaurants in the world, and we were guests in Hotel Rossiya, the largest hotel in the world. The Russians had an almost national obsession with claiming the largest of whatever was under discussion. We passed the U.S. Embassy and drove up to the Lenin Hills for a look back across Moscow River to the city, and on our way passed by the Moscow State University, another of those awful Stalinesque towers. Stalin believed that Moscow needed to raise its skyline, and his seven towers, all identical, were built to raise the visual impact of the city.
After the war, Stalin ordered one of these buildings erected in Warsaw, Poland as a gift from the Soviet Union to their Polish socialist brothers and sisters. The Poles hated the very image of it, and the standard joke in Warsaw was that it was the ideal place to go to see the city. If you took the elevator to the observation platform, you could see Warsaw without looking at the monstrosity on which you are standing. The Poles were lucky, they only had one. In Moscow, if you stood on one you had to look at six more.
We visited GUM, the world famous state owned department store. GUM is one of those acronyms, the meaning of which has to do with the initials, in Russian of course. By western standards, GUM was not a true department store, but a series of little shops and boutiques somewhat like an oriental bazaar. We wandered freely through the place looking for something to buy just to have a souvenir from GUM. Our suitcases were already growing heavy with books; post cards; magazines; maps; and heaven only knows what else. We saw nothing that really caught our fancy. We didn't need any clothes. I considered a Soviet tie, they were a bit drab looking, not very bright in color, and I decided against it. Finally we happened upon a little souvenir shop near the entrance, and I bought a three inch medallion, cast in a light metal, probably aluminum, and anodized to look like bronze. It depicts the Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) War Memorial. It cost the horrendous price of 6 rubles, 30 kopecks, or as the Russians say, "kopeek." That translated to about 8 dollars and 20 cents U. S. currency at the official exchange rate. A bit steep. In the west such an item would have been priced at about a dollar at most.
GUM has a number of stalls which appeared to be stocked with exotic foodstuffs; imported and domestic fish; caviar; preserves; almost anything one could want to eat. There were house wares of moderate to good quality. The interior was two stories high with walkways on both levels along a covered arcade. A large fountain decorated the junction of the main walkways in the center of the building. People relaxed around the fountain while taking a break from shopping. Young Soviet soldiers congregated near the fountain doing what soldiers do the world over, trying to pick up girls. The building was erected by capitalists before the revolution for the very purpose it now serves. It is archaic and quaint, and except for its age, it could have been any suburban shopping mall in the U. S.
At Hotel Rossiya we read the brochure which described hotel services available to guests and decided to have our laundry and cleaning done. We still had the butter on our suits from the mishap at Sadko Restaurant in Leningrad. Through a rather lengthy series of events including poor communication, and non-communication, the hotel maid ended up washing our laundry in the bathtub, ironing part of it dry, hanging up some items wet inside the closet, and pressing the suits with the dirt and butter still in the fabric.
I went downstairs to inquire about the possibility of sending the two suits out to a cleaning shop, I was informed that it was after all Saturday, and there would be no cleaning shops open until Monday. We had paid fifteen rubles or almost twenty dollars directly to the hotel maid and our suits were in worse shape than ever. When I inquired downstairs I set in motion a chain of events which caused trouble for the maid. It seems that the maid was "living nalevo" as Hedrick Smith described it in his book The Russians. She had spent part of her working day doing our laundry, and pressing our suits, all for private income while on the hotel's payroll. I am not sure what consequences she suffered as a result of my disclosure. I meant the lady no harm. She was very subdued when I saw her later in the hallway. There had been a lively phone call between the lady to whom I spoke at the reception desk and the maid's supervisor on the eighth floor.
Russian hotels functioned as an agency of the local police. When a foreign guest checked in, Soviet law required that the person's passport be filed with the hotel. This act fulfills the requirement that every foreigner check in with the local police within twenty-four hours of arrival in each city or town. At the Hotel Rossiya, I saw two women in the passport office just off the lobby registering the names, passport numbers, and nationalities of guests in a huge old-fashioned ledger book. It is hard to tell where the role of the police begins and ends. For all practical purposes, this small office in the hotel was but an extension of the local police station.
I wanted to know if the stories I had heard about trying to make a phone call from the Soviet Union to another country were true. It had often been reported that the Russians made it virtually impossible to call outside their country. The hotel brochure told guests that if they dialed a certain two-digit number, the international operator would answer, and a call could be placed. I tried three times to use the direct method to get an international operator. Each time, a recorded message was repeated twice in Russian, just one long word, and then silence. I tried the hotel reception number, and there was no answer. If this test was valid, then the answer was obvious. You could not make an international call from the Soviet Union. You couldn't even make an outgoing call from your hotel room. At least not from the Hotel Rossiya.
To put this into perspective, I tried the same test in Warsaw, Poland, and was told in polite English that my call could probably be completed in six to twelve hours. Poland only had six circuits to the west, and they stayed pretty busy. In West Berlin, a part of capitalist Germany, I picked up the phone, and dialed my Mother's number. In about thirty seconds I heard the familiar ring, and in a few more seconds I was talking to family members in the U.S.A. This in contrast to my Russian experience. One final note on Soviet telecommunications, the city of Moscow with its population of over eight million has printed only two issues of a phone directory in the last twenty-five years. The telephone authorities printed just twenty thousand copies and sold them all in one day for fifteen rubles each. The Soviet citizen was trapped inside a narrow spectrum of possible telephone communications. Muscovites had to know all numbers to be called from their respective telephones. They could not look them up.
The guest rooms in Hotel Rossiya were really very nice. The bathrooms were quite well finished, and everything worked. We saw no insects there. The water in Moscow was clean and clear, and good for drinking. This was the first place in Russia where we did not dependent upon bottled mineral water to stay healthy. The hotel was not one belonging to the Intourist agency. There are other agencies of the Soviet government which owned and operated hotels. Hotel Rossiya was a showplace designed to impress foreign visitors. Diplomats from all over the world stayed there while visiting the Kremlin. People from non-western nations frequented the hotel, and their eating habits caused a major problem for westerners. There were little tea and snack shops on every fourth floor of the building which served plates of sliced cucumbers and marinated raw fish. Many guests bought these plates and took them to their rooms. As a result, the hotel corridors were permeated with the odor of fish.
The Hotel Rossiya made an excellent camera platform. I gave my Nikon's two zoom lenses a workout. Making use of an open window on the fourteenth floor I was able to work through a continuous range of lens magnifications from a wide 35 m.m. to a long telephoto 300 m.m. This meant great compositions of the Kremlin and St. Basil's church.
All of our photos taken in Russia came through with no problems. We mailed all of our film exposed in Russia to the main Kodak lab in Rochester, New York after we returned to London. I had mailed a large parcel addressed to myself, to be held for our return to the Post House Hotel in West Drayton near Heathrow. It contained fifty rolls of film which we were holding in reserve for the latter portion of our European journey. The Scandinavian and Russian journey consumed a total of thirty three rolls of film, with thirty six photos on each. Eighteen rolls were shot in the Soviet Union. We mailed film exposed prior to entering Russia, from Sweden and Finland. We did not mail film from Russia for fear that it would somehow get lost in the mail.
We took several long walks in downtown Moscow. Once we were accosted by two young lads who wanted us to change currency or sell them items of clothing, particularly any made by Levi Strauss. I told the boys they were asking me to break the laws of their country. They soon broke off their pitch and went looking for another, perhaps more pliable tourist. A young lady who appeared to be in her mid twenties overheard our conversation and said, "Mister, I like the way you told them off." We walked along together for a while and stopped to talk in an area of taxis and busses in front of our hotel. Mary and I had a long conversation with this young Russian. We talked about world affairs, and about our two countries. She appeared to be well educated and had a good grasp on current events in all parts of the world. When we said goodbye and took a few steps toward our hotel, a taxi driver who had been sitting on the hood of his Lada hopped down and came briskly over to us. He got between us and took each of us by an elbow and held on. He appeared to be from Central Asia. He spoke in serious tones directing his remarks mostly to Mary. He said, "Mrs., don't let your husband talk to strange women in cities like Moscow." He repeated this several times. We thanked him for his concern and made our exit. Later we learned that hookers will actually try to pry a husband or boy friend away from his wife or girl friend right on the streets of the larger cities in Russia.
On a long walk around the neighborhood of our hotel in Moscow, we saw and photographed a phenomenon which Hedrick Smith talked about in his book The Russians. Many Russians found it necessary to remove their windshield wipers from their cars and lock them in the trunk or glove compartment. They placed a piece of paper or cardboard under the wiper arm to prevent it from scratching the windshield. Russian motorists were unable to buy replacement parts in any reasonable length of time. A new wiper blade required a wait of several months. In the meantime, a car owner needing wipers would be sorely tempted to take a set from a parked car. Some motorists were brave enough to ignore the problem, and leave their wiper blades in the open, but they were the exception. It has often been said about Moscow, that there are few gasoline stations in the city. In fact, there were none according to Larisa our local guide. All gasoline stations, and there were a few, are located beyond the city limits in the nearby suburbs. They are considered environmentally undesirable for the capitol city.
Russians owned quite a few private automobiles. There were not as many as in Western Europe to be sure, but their numbers were increasing and almost any Soviet city could produce a pretty good sized traffic problem at rush hour. Taxis were numerous and an occasional Zil limousine which looked like an old Mercury or Lincoln could be seen parked near our hotel. Traffic related problems, such as pollution, and parking were rapidly becoming a feature of Soviet life. One could see a Soviet family, their car loaded with camping gear, heading for seashore or forest campground.
One outstanding feature of the Soviet planned economy was its willingness to use western technology whenever it was convenient. In the 1930's when the U. S. first recognized the Soviet Union and began commercial relations, Henry Ford sold a complete automobile factory to the Russians. For many years, they built the 1932 Ford Model B, and labeled it the Volga.
World War II deprived the Soviet Union of that factory. More recently, the Soviet government hired Fiat of Italy to build an auto plant and help them try to satisfy consumer demand for cars. The Lada was mass produced and sold to Russian consumers for a price of about forty-five hundred rubles. Lada is but the Russian name for several Fiat models including the very popular 124 sedan. The car received some Russian modifications, including better winterization, and a stiffer suspension for tough road conditions.
The Soviet Union was engaged in what I personally considered to be unfair competition with Italy's Fiat company. They were exporting the Lada version of Fiat's model 124sedan to several western countries. This car could be bought in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, and even in Britain, for much less than its Italian counterpart, and far less than the Russian buyer paid at home. The Soviets were using this method to raise much needed foreign currency to meet their balance of payments problems with the west.
On our walk around Moscow, we gained a different perspective on the subject of the famous "padlocked churches." Yes they did exist. There were quite a few medieval "merchant churches" in downtown Moscow. Like the churches in Novgorod, they served as warehouses for goods and only incidentally as churches. They were considered architectural works deserving preservation, but there were too many of them to restore and open to visitors. This was just a small sampling of the closed churches in the Soviet Union. There are abandoned churches in the United States in neighborhoods that have suffered population losses. This should not be interpreted by a foreign visitor as indicative of a government effort to close and lock churches. I do not believe that the Soviet government made it easy to practice one's religion, but these padlocked old buildings were not in and of themselves sufficient evidence upon which to judge the whole country. More on religion later.
The last morning in Moscow we spent at the Permanent Exhibition of Soviet Economic Achievements. The Soviets constructed what amounted to a national park on the edge of Moscow. Visitors could see almost any outstanding development of their science, agriculture, or industry. Not having enough time to see everything we decided to concentrate on KOCMOC, pronounced cosmos.
This pavilion showed off space hardware which had been released for public display. In front of KOCMOC a Vostok rocket lies on a rocket transporter placed on a very high pedestal. A Yak 42 airliner and a Tupelov airliner are parked in front and open to visitors. Inside a long barrel-vault shaped building the first thing a visitor sees is a gigantic portrait of Yuri A. Gagarin holding a white dove on his hand. You may remember Yuri Gagarin was the world's first man to go into space on April 12, 196l. Yuri was killed in a plane crash in 1965.
All of Russia's other cosmonauts were shown in a huge display of photos near the portrait of Yuri Gagarin. In the hall were satellites, rockets, and all manner of space hardware, including the American Apollo and the Soviet Soyuz space craft which linked up in 1975. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington and the KOCMOC display in Moscow each have the two space ships connected as they were upon their docking in orbit. The historic event occurred directly above our heads while we visited the Republic of Ireland nine years before we stood here and viewed the craft in Moscow. The Soviets gave a Soyuz space craft to the United States for the Smithsonian display, and the U. S. presented the Soviets an Apollo space craft for KOCMOC.
The park setting for the Permanent Pavilion of Economic Achievements featured a series of very wide walkways through beautifully planted flower gardens, pools, and fountains. The park was crowded with people, the majority of whom were probably Muscovites. Mary and I were walking in the company of our tour group when I spotted an ice cream vendor. I stopped for a moment to get an ice cream sandwich, and when I looked around the group had moved on.
I decided to take a series of pictures of people. A group of teenagers moved in around the ice cream vendor, and I snapped them. I took several good shots of children and babies with their mothers and grandmothers. Next I spotted a marching band coming into the park and moved over to where they were entering a grandstand area. The band was made up of young naval cadets, behind them came a group of naval officers, some local Moscow media people with cameras and notebooks, and the next group was composed of a dance troupe of young ladies in bright colored costumes.
This was a camera buff's dream. I shot all of this group as they came in, and then moved around shooting some individual and group shots. I was able to get one of the naval officers being interviewed by the print media, and later persuaded the dance troupe to pose for me in a semicircle near the stage. I did this with hand motions signifying that I wanted them to form up in a group for a photo. I smiled and said nothing until I had taken several pictures. Then with the best pronunciation I could muster, I bade them a hearty "bolshoi spaciba" and departed. Translation: "Thank you very much."
I arrived back at the parking lot ahead of the rest of our tour group and stood some distance from our locked bus. I did this for a very good reason. I wanted to observe the behavior of the Muscovites who gathered around the front of the bus. Several men were having an animated conversation about the Belgian-built bus with its huge windshield area, plush seats, and above all, a closed circuit television mounted up against the ceiling in the front. They kept looking through the driver's side window at that feature, plus the dash controls. It seems that they had never seen anything quite like it. Russian coaches seemed a bit plain, and even the best vehicles in their Intourist bus fleet were not equipped with some of the luxuries of our Van Hool coach.
While I was standing in the parking lot, a man somewhat under thirty walked up to me. He had his little daughter by the hand. She was a darling little girl of about four or five. He asked me in pretty good English if I had any chewing gum. We had been approached by young teenagers often for chewing gum. It seems Russia didn't have any and it was very popular there. I realized that he probably wanted it for the child, so I gave him my last pack of Juicy Fruit which I had purchased in Helsinki. He gave his daughter one stick to chew, and pocketed the rest. I wondered as he walked away if he was aware of the strong economic lesson he had just taught his little girl. Chances are, he doesn't care. Later, they came back through the area and I got a picture of them.
When our tour group began to gather at the bus, one of the members expressed surprise to see me. I asked why he was surprised and he told me that my wife Mary, and Rudolph our tour director were inside the park searching everywhere for me. It seems that in the time I had been separated from the group, Mary, whom I knew to be safe with the rest of our people, had decided that either I had defected to the Soviet Union, or the KGB had dragged me off, and in either case she would probably never see me again. I assured the small group assembling around the bus, that neither terrible thing had happened as they could plainly see.
Her fears were not entirely groundless, as I had lingered on board the Cruiser Aurora in Leningrad, and had wandered deep inside the ship from one compartment to another looking it over and taking pictures. Eventually the search was called off inside the park, and Rudolph accompanied by a much-relieved Mary, and other searchers from our group returned to the bus to find that I had been there for some time. The reunion was a happy one. We rolled away to the hotel for lunch, and an early afternoon departure for Smolensk.
The road to Smolensk was a great surprise to us. This was our big introduction to the Soviet freeway system which we have already described in some detail. For all practical purposes, you couldn't tell that you were not driving through Arkansas or Tennessee. There are of course no hills as has been previously noted. The woods look almost exactly like the American South land.
At Smolensk we crossed the River Dnieper which flows southwest at this point, and then southward to Kiev and eventually to the Black Sea near the great seaport of Odessa. We saw barges and towboats coming upriver here. I couldn't help but think back to the day in April when my Mother and I were aboard the Steamboat Natchez at New Orleans, and passing us, going downstream on the mighty Mississippi, a Soviet grain ship out of Odessa was headed home with its hold filled with American wheat. I wondered if some of that grain was now making its way up the Dnieper in these covered barges. The world is so interdependent, and the lines of commerce are so intertwined, it makes one stop and think.
In Smolensk we visited the Cathedral, Monastery, and School of Theology. We were told by our local guide that it was impossible to tell how many "believers" there were in Smolensk, as the Soviet Constitution guarantees religious freedom, and this means that the government census takers cannot ask a person about their religious beliefs. That was not the case back in Moscow. Larisa had reeled off statistics about how many churches and synagogues were in operation there, and the total numbers of active members. One of our local guides didn't have their act together. A priest of the Orthodox Church, a man of about fifty, passed through the courtyard twice while we stood outside the Cathedral. Several seminary students, young men in their twenties, came and went between the living quarters and some of the school buildings. Inside the Cathedral, our local guide explained to us that religion was mainly a concern of a dwindling population of older people. Even as he spoke, two young women who appeared to be in their late teens or early twenties, entered the Cathedral, lighted votive candles, and knelt in prayer.
We visited the monument commemorating the defeat of Napoleon's Grand Army here in Smolensk. Two Russian eagles, the Tsar had appropriated the Roman/Byzantine twin eagles centuries ago, were depicted in larger-than-life bronze, guarding their nest on top of a stone "mountain" from the depredations of a bronze Roman-style soldier trying to climb up the mountain to rob the nest.
At the wall of heroes we visited the grave of Mikhail Yagarov. Mikhail was the Red Army soldier who raised the Soviet flag on top of the Reichstag building in Berlin in 1945. An eternal flame burns beside his resting place. He was a local lad from Smolensk, and lived here upon returning from the assault on Berlin. My life and that of Mikhail Yagarov had crossed once before in a sense. I vividly remember seeing his photo on the front page of the Fort Lauderdale Daily News as I yelled the headline "Russians enter Berlin." Standing here at his grave in Smolensk, that seemed like "long, long, ago, in a galaxy, far, far away."
On our way out of Smolensk we passed the Yak aircraft factory. I yielded to a temptation which upon sober reflection was just a bit stupid. I spotted a Soviet jet fighter doing touch-and-go landings as we were approaching the airfield. I quickly took up a position between two of the rearmost seats of the bus, and realizing that we were well out in the countryside, no one could see what I was about to do. Nellie was up front watching the road. As the delta-winged fighter came back around the pattern I took two pictures in the space of about two seconds. The images are pretty good, but I had just broken Soviet law about ten times over. No military equipment or facilities were to be photographed. We had been briefed by Rudolph. Nellie had told us that we could take pictures from the bus, and had never qualified her statement in any way. I marked the role of film upon removal from the camera so that I could destroy it instantly if the need arose. The same psychology which propels a kid to steal a water melon had seized me, but I knew that Soviet authorities would view the situation very differently.
Every hotel we stayed in had a dance floor with a loud band. In Leningrad and Moscow civilians as well as military officers in colorful uniforms whirled around the dance floors with their smartly-dressed ladies. Bands played American rock music accompanied by flashing strobe lights. The little hotel outside Smolensk was no different. The dancers were mostly young people here.
We got a lesson in one of Russia's most chronic problems. We retired to our room and had gone to bed about eleven. Sometime just after midnight we heard loud voices just under our second story window. I got out of bed to see what was going on, and below me I witnessed one of the human race's oldest stories. The young people had consumed too much vodka in the bar and dining room. Almost all of them showed signs of being drunk.
Two young men traded punches. One fellow, in a dramatic and macho gesture, threw away his jacket and shirt, and waded into the other young man. It became apparent that the two were fighting over the attentions of one of the young women. A classic love triangle was contested on the field of honor. The dust-up lasted only a few minutes, and soon the local cops were in the act. Everybody scattered.
The cops corralled one youth and escorted him to a patrol car. The young man kept turning to talk to them over his shoulder. He was obviously "bad mouthing" the two cops, but they seemed calm and took it in stride. The officers used no visible force, and the youth was too drunk to exercise good sense. This scene could have been played out in any small town in America on any Saturday night. Russia's youth were often obviously drunk in public places. This was the chronic problem which I mentioned earlier. We saw drunken young people, barely able to walk, present in almost every hotel dining room we visited. Vodka was the abusers drug of choice in the Soviet Union.
The next city on our tour was Minsk, the capitol of the Belorussian Socialist Republic. There we visited a small house just across the street from a police station. This was the birthplace of the first Marxist political party in Russia. Marxist revolutionaries reasoned that if they rented a house right under the noses of the Tsarist police they would likely be overlooked. The ploy worked for a while, but eventually the Marxists were rounded up and exiled to Siberia.
Minsk was decorated with red flags, bunting, banners, and portraits marking the fortieth anniversary of liberation from Nazi occupation. Outside the city a few miles in the direction of Moscow, the Soviets had constructed the "Glory Mound" to mark the spot on which two retreating Nazi armies were caught and annihilated in 1944. The mound was dramatic in that the countryside is flat in all directions, and as the traveler approaches on the freeway, the mound stands starkly against the sky. It rises over one hundred meters to the top. A pair of slender stylized wings reaches heavenward from the top of the conical hill. Soil from each Soviet Republic was imported to form the mound.
The city of Minsk was virtually destroyed during the Second World War. In other Soviet cities, the people reclaimed their pre-war heritage of art and architecture by rebuilding nearly like their original city as possible. In Minsk, the city planners decided to build anew. This may well be the most modern and esthetically pleasing city in the Soviet Union.
Apartment buildings were not only modern and well built, but they were spaced nicely with green belts and flower beds separating sections and neighborhoods. Building heights were staggered to enhance the skyline. The architects of Minsk carefully avoided constructing huge monolithic apartment blocks which have caused so much negative commentary about Moscow's suburbs.
There were beautiful fountains and pleasing works of modern sculpture strategically placed along walkways in a gigantic shopping mall connecting newer apartment areas with the few older surviving sections of the city. A light rail mass transit system runs regularly in all parts of the city.
As we approached Minsk we caught sight of six skydivers exiting from a biplane. Their colorful square sport parachutes made a fitting addition to the bright and lovely scene which comprises this Phoenix-like community.
On our last day in the Soviet Union we drove to Brest near the Polish border and stopped at the Intourist Hotel for lunch. At the currency exchange desk several of us received a hard lesson in East-West cold war currency strategy. A traveler was supposedly allowed to exchange rubles for his own hard western currency provided he could prove that he acquired the rubles legally. It was illegal to remove paper rubles from the Soviet Union. Coins were an exception and could be kept as souvenirs.
We were advised by the lady at the hotel money exchange desk that we could only change our currency at the border which was about ten miles away. She could not make the exchange. Someone in the group learned that the border exchange desk was always "just out" of western hard currency. We were in a catch 22 bind. We couldn't remove rubles from the country, but couldn't exchange them either. I had very few rubles left, and spent some on postcards, stamps and commemorative coins in the hotel lobby. One member of our group went to a bottle shop next door and spent thirty-five rubles for wine. With wine selling for about a ruble and thirty kopecks he could barely carry his booty. We all accused him of turning his rubles into "liquid assets."
Most of the group found a satisfactory way of disposing of the paper currency before we left Brest. I decided that if the authorities were so uptight about paper money leaving the country, I would get out with at least a couple of bills. I didn't tell Mary about my plan. After my photos on the Cruiser Aurora and the pictures I snapped of the jet fighter, I figured what she didn't know would not worry her. When we boarded the bus, I entered the rest room and used my Swiss Army knife to loosen two screws which held the bottom corners of a stainless steel mirror on the inside of the door. I carefully pushed some five and one ruble notes up behind the mirror and tightened the screws. I reasoned that the Soviet authorities would not look there, and even if they did, the notes would not be associated with any individual. I retrieved the notes after we passed into West Germany, many miles away, and in non-communist territory.
Driving to the border we saw a stark reminder of World War II. A burned-out German panzer tank sits beside the highway its hulk appearing to stare mindlessly into a dark forest. It was destroyed while German units retreated westward ahead of Marshall Rokosovsky's victorious Red Army.
Soviet customs and immigration procedures leaving the country were just as thorough as those we encountered upon entering. Our group was ushered off the bus and into a building much like the one on the Finnish border. Several people had to open their luggage. For some unexplained reason we escaped that requirement just as we had before.
Frank was singled out again, and this time the Soviets made him sweat through about ninety minutes of just pure harassment. He had to go through his luggage, and count his money repeatedly. It was obvious that when he entered the country they marked his Visa for special scrutiny. There was no special mark that he could see on the document, but there was a code mark on it somewhere which caught the eye of the border officials here.
Frank had moved into a line along with everyone else to be checked. The lady who looked at his papers closed the check line. She took about five minutes to go and get a man to replace her in the line where Frank stood. She then motioned everyone else to move over to another line where the entire group was cleared in about thirty minutes. Frank was detained fully an hour longer than the rest of us, and what made matters worse, he was around a corner out of view of the waiting room we occupied. Frank's wife was consoled by the rest of the group as we all paced around waiting for him to emerge. Nellie Melnikova seemed embarrassed by all of this. Finally Frank came into the room, a bit flushed, but smiling. He joked with us that when you have clean hands and a pure heart even the Soviets can't nail you.
Outside once again we said our farewells to Nellie. Rudolph tried to give Nellie a large gratuity into which everyone had contributed. She adamantly refused to accept anything. We had not intended just to give her money. That was crass. What the group intended, was to have Rudolph buy her a fine present of some sort. In the rush of the last few days, he had found nothing appropriate. I am sure that the cash offended her socialist sensibilities. For that, I was sorry the effort was made. In the west it would not have been a problem. Any Western European tour guide would have accepted the money without hesitation. Nellie would have laid her job, her career, and her future, on the line had she touched any of that money. What a vast distance separated our capitalist world from her communist world.
Perhaps the greatest surprise of all lay just ahead on the banks of the River Bug forming the border between the Soviet Union and Poland. A half mile from the customs and immigration building we rolled out onto a bridge between the two countries. Looking back to the Soviet side of the river, we could view one of the most fortified frontiers imaginable. In both directions, barbed wire; high fences; parked armored vehicles; machine gun emplacements; men patrolling on foot; all spoke of military preparedness focused in the direction of the west.
The question uppermost in our minds, was why here? Poland was a neighboring socialist state and a member of the Warsaw Pact. The answer is in the history of Europe. Russia has been invaded and devastated from the west three times in this century; World War I; the Russo-Polish War of the 1920's; and World War II. They didn’t intend to be caught by surprise. In addition Poland was having its time of turmoil with the Solidarity movement.
We learned that the Soviet Union had barred all cross border Polish-Russian travel in both directions. When one looked at Poland's reliability as an ally of the Soviet Union, it was easy to understand why they were guarding their own borders from the threat of invasion by NATO forces.
The only reliable partner standing between the Soviet Union and NATO, was Communist East Germany. Looking at the world through Soviet eyes, the history of the west had been one of intervention, and counter revolution ever since the establishment of the Bolshevik regime in 1917.
The rhetoric of western politicians had seldom ever been very friendly. The Soviets had a siege mentality. Those who would establish peaceful relations with the Soviet Union needed to study history, and come to understand the mind set of the Russians. This helped to explain why, even with a shortage of hard currency, and the promotion of tourism by Intourist, K.G.B. border officials still hassled people like Frank. Russia's paranoia about potential enemies outweighed its desire to address the currency problem through tourist travel.
Our entry into Poland was very easy, and a profound relief from the tensions we experienced leaving the Soviet Union. Poland is a country which has bravely maintained some of the fabric of its western heritage while living between the Soviet Union and Communist East Germany. Not an enviable geographic position for any people.