Holidays and Travel: Soviet Union 1977

As a young man, I had read all the classic books of Russian literature, as well as newer works, by Mikhail Sholokhov, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I had watched the films of Eisenstein over and over, and seen countless war documentaries. Russia was a mythical place to me; enemy in the ‘Cold War’, ally when it mattered most. The Russian Revolution was fifty years old in 1967, and the western allies still regarded this country as the greatest threat to world peace. I had always considered myself politically on the Left, and I really wanted to visit The Soviet Union, and to see all the wonders for myself. I had to wait though, as it was not that easy to travel there in the 1960’s.

By the start of 1977, I had a fiancee willing to travel with me, and enough money to finance a short trip. More importantly, some minor tour companies were beginning to offer reasonably priced packages, all escorted, and excursions included. I could hardly contain my excitement, when we booked a holiday to include Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev. We would fly direct to Leningrad, spend two more days there, on to Moscow for two more days, and then down to the Ukraine, before returning for another stay in Leningrad, then home. As it was going to be in late February, we had to prepare for weather we had never experienced. I borrowed an enormous sheepskin coat, and bought thermal underwear, and new ski mittens. We had been advised to take large amounts of chewing gum, women’s tights, and ballpoint pens. Apparently, they were hard to get there, and would be valued as tips, or gifts. We received visas in the post, and were informed that they would be stamped on arrival, and retained on departure, so we would never have the desired CCCP stamp on our passports. We would also have to exchange our money for Rubles over there, as it was not a traded currency.

We had to travel by the state airline, Aeroflot. This was not a prospect we relished, as their terrible safety record was well-known. It soon became apparent that customer service was also unknown, with the grumpiest flight attendants I have ever seen, as well as no announcements in English. The aircraft had basic seating, no-frills catering, and nothing by way of in-flight entertainment. We were later informed, that at this time, all the pilots doubled as military pilots, and the aircraft could be stripped out for use by the armed forces, at short notice. This went some way to explaining the unusual flying style, reminiscent of bombing raids, and totally disregarding passenger comfort (and panic). Despite feeling ill during the flight (and on all subsequent Aeroflot flights), it was all forgiven on arrival in Leningrad. Although the daytime temperature of -20 that greeted us almost froze my ears off, I could not have been more excited. We were ushered to one side in the airport terminal, and dealt with quickly, helped by our guide. It was obvious from the looks and stares, that they were not used to western tourists, and we stood out dramatically, in clothes that were totally different. I just wanted to get to see The Winter Palace, and to retrace the films of my youth, so gave this attention little regard.

Once in the coach on the way into the city, I was a little disappointed to see endless rows of large blocks of flats, flanking each side of the road, and stretching into the horizon. However, I soon recalled that the view from Heathrow Airport into Central London is not a great deal better. Many of the blocks also had huge painted symbols on the sides, my first ever view of the iconography of the Soviet Union; something that I was to get to know, and to admire greatly. Arriving at the hotel, on the banks of the River Neva, looking across to the Gulf of Finland, I was amazed at how luxurious it was. Our room overlooked the water, and we had an oblique view of the famous Cruiser Aurora, the museum ship that fired the signal shot to begin the October Revolution (as legend has it). I was keen to get out and about, but it was already beginning to get dark, and the biting cold made it impossible to be out for much more than thirty minutes at a time; even the river was frozen.

Since its early construction as a Russian city in the 18th Century, the architecture and open planning of the old city has rightly been regarded as an example of some of the best ever seen in Europe. The grand squares, and the canal system, even gave rise to its common description as ‘The Venice of The North’. With the coastal location, and marvellous buildings such as The Hermitage Museum, the Peter and Paul Fortress, and the Kazan Cathedral, it really is a touristic gem. We walked along the wide avenue called Nevsky Prospekt, home to the elegant shops, restaurants, and nightlife. This thoroughfare has been mentioned in the works of Dostoevsky, and Gogol, and here I was, strolling along it. We went to look at the famous gates of The Winter Palace, seemingly unchanged since they were stormed by the Bolsheviks, in 1917. Inside The Hermitage, too large to ever see in one lifetime, we managed to marvel at Faberge Eggs, lavish costumes worn by Catherine The Great, and rows of magnificent coaches, once used by the Tzars. There was so much to see, and so little time to see it. In bitter cold, yet bright sunny weather the next day, we went to The Peter and Paul Fortress. Originally built to defend against Swedish attacks, this large area has served as a garrison and prison, as well as being home to a Cathedral, with its distinctive bell tower and gilded cupola. It is also the burial place of all Russian royalty, and even houses the remains of Nicholas II and his family, killed by revolutionaries, in 1918. I was enamoured with this city, and even now, would urge anyone to visit it.

The next day, we flew to Moscow; capital and largest city of the USSR, and famous for so many reasons. Who has not seen Red Square on the news, with its Mayday parades, the multi-coloured onion domes of St Basil’s Cathedral at one corner? The Kremlin, The famous Metro system, the monolithic Art Deco constructions of the University, and some grand hotels. I wanted to take it all in. I did my best. Despite continuing cold (but not as as cold as Leningrad) we toured as much as possible, in the short time we were there. The Sparrow Hills, giving a wonderful view of the city, full of newlyweds, traditionally having their photos taken. The huge stadium, later home to the 1980 Olympics, and the breathtaking sight of the banks of the Moskva River, illuminated at night. We went to the incredible galleried department store, GUM, and experienced the strange style of shopping there. You chose an item, went to another desk to pay for it, then took the receipt back to the original counter to collect it. It was time-consuming, yet fascinating, in its own way, and seemed to apply in every shop, whatever you bought. Once burned by Napoleon, and later bombed and shelled by the Germans, the city has endured through history, and is a great place to visit. We enjoyed a trip to see The Bolshoi Ballet, at that time housed in the enormous Palace of Congresses, inside the Kremlin. I am no huge fan of Ballet, but really enjoyed it. We also went to see the famous Moscow State Circus, a dazzling display, inside a purpose built arena. The Metro stations are worth the trip alone; with their amazing architecture and chandeliers, statues in alcoves, and tiled graphic images, they really are a wonder. We watched the changing of the guard at Lenin’s Tomb, queuing for an eternity to file past the embalmed body later. Despite the sights of Moscow, I was harbouring a soft spot for Leningrad, and looking forward to returning there.

The next stage of the trip took us west to the Ukraine, and the city of Kiev, on the River Dnieper. This is one of the oldest cities in Europe, and was once part of the Khazar Empire. It was traditionally independent, and despite incorporation in the Soviet Union, retained its own Ukrainian language, and a degree of self-government. We were taken on a tour of the sights, including the St Sophia Cathedral, the Golden Gate, and the Monastery of The Caves. This was a somewhat hurried part of the trip, and after just two days, we were soon on our way again, back to the airport, to return to Leningrad. We had just one more day there, before returning to the UK, and I pledged to return another time. And I did just that.

So, what of the real Russia, the people, everyday life, and the experience of the tourist? There was little time for this, to be truthful, but we did what we could. The first thing we noticed, after changing our money into Rubles, was that it didn’t buy much. This was due to the entirely artificial exchange rate of one Ruble to one Pound. In the ‘real world’ it would have been more like twenty rubles, but we had no alternatives, and could not shop around for better rates. As a result, we were ‘ruble-poor’ and everything seemed ridiculously expensive. We knew that this could not be the case, as ordinary Russians only got around £25 a month salary, so they would never afford to live. No, it was simply the exchange rate. We were approached in the streets, mostly by youngsters, who wanted chewing gum, coca-cola, and any western logo items. Denim jeans were very popular, and they would happily wait while you took them off in a secluded spot, (presuming you had brought something to change into) offering high-value items in return. Cameras and watches were offered, and for the smaller items, we were given badges, belt-buckles, and small Russian souvenirs, like Matryoshka dolls, or carved boxes. Almost nobody spoke English, or at least not to us directly, and this bartering was all done using sign language. Normal shops seemed to sell only one thing. Some shops would be completely full of milk, others of bread, yet another sold only cakes. Supermarkets were not apparent, and the larger stores were like department stores, with different goods on each level of the shop.

We did see some people queuing, a very long queue indeed, all around a city block. We later saw what it was they were waiting for, when a truck loaded with oranges arrived, and they all went in to buy them. Getting around was not that easy, mainly due to language difficulties. I only knew the Russian for ‘Please’, ‘Thanks’ and ‘Comrade’, so not much use. There is also the fact that they use the Cyrillic alphabet, which makes looking at signs and directions almost impossible. I did manage to buy a fur hat, in a department store in Kiev.  This was the three-stage process, all done with sign language, and pointing. They seemed to be implying that the hat I had chosen was too expensive, and were amazed when I casually handed over the equivalent of £17 for it, which would have been a bargain in London. There were lots of people in uniform everywhere. There were City police, State police, Militia police, KGB, (in uniform) as well as the numerous soldiers and sailors, on and off duty. Young people were sometimes dressed in uniform too, as members of the Komsomol, the Young Communist League. They often acted as honour guards, around famous monuments and buildings. They were approachable, and one gave me his belt, with brass Hammer and Sickle buckle, for six packs of Wrigley’s chewing gum. I still have it, to this day.

For tourists who wanted to buy things, we were directed to the Beryozka shops. These shops contained most Russian consumer goods that were not widely available outside. Large items, like cameras and lenses, telescopes, and binoculars, as well as general souvenirs, and the exotic lacquered boxes famously made in Russia. In these shops, only foreign currency was permitted, and no Rubles could be spent. Outside one of them, we were approached by a well-dressed man, who explained, in good English, that he would like us to buy an umbrella for him, as he couldn’t get one anywhere else. In a country with so much snow, it seemed crazy, but he offered us fifty Rubles, for a £10 umbrella. I felt sorry for him, but had to decline, as exchanging money unofficially, in any form, was strictly forbidden, and we didn’t want to fall foul of the authorities. So, our interaction with ordinary people was limited, but you have to recall the mood of the time. I did make up for this, later, getting to see something of real life. But that is for another post.

My first visit to the Soviet Union was all that I had expected, and more, and whetted my appetite for a longer trip, which I will describe another time.

30 thoughts on “Holidays and Travel: Soviet Union 1977

      1. I’m sure it has, Pete we noticed the changes in Thailand over the years as it was quite a few years ago when we first visited way before we moved here…a shame in some ways but in others changes are for the best 🙂 x

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  1. I come from Bulgaria but it was interesting to follow your trip in Russia. I have not been there yet. Your style of writing is different from most I have read as you write in a negative way while explaining excitement which is unique and I really enjoy it. I find this similar to my attitude when I am extremely happy but you cannot say so by my face. I do not know if it is coming natural from you but you have to keep it!
    Best, Valentina.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is the only style I know, Valentina, so it must be natural. 🙂
      I am sorry to have confused Bulgaria and Russia, it was your name that I based it on. I have also been to Bulgaria, but only to Sozopol, Burgas, and Nessebar. I haven’t written about that trip yet.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful post! Fascinating to read about Russia before the fall of communism. Fantastic! You might already have read it but Fitzroy MacLean’s ‘Eastern Approaches’ which includes his pre war adventures in Russia gives a great insight to Russia during that period also. Really enjoyable post, thank you, Jane

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    1. Thanks so much for your kind words Jane. There is going to be another post in the future, about a trip to the Central Asian republics, also during the time of the Soviets.
      I have not read the book you mention, but I will happily check it out.
      Regards from Norfolk, Pete.

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      1. Really look forward to that post, Pete! Hope Eastern Approaches is of interest, Fitzroy Maclean travels across USSR to Central Asia to Samarkand pre war, it’s fascinating! I’ll look out for your post. Jane

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  3. Now this is one country I haven’t been too, but would like to. I was also fascinated by Solzhenitsyn in my youth and often wondered what life in a communist country was like. The nearest I got to it was a visit to Yugoslavia in 1971. I studied Russian for a few months in 1993, just for fun, and we used St Petersburg to learn the vocab for visiting a city – I was determined to go there one day. I even mastered the Cyrillic alphabet, but unfortunately that skill was short-lived. I look forward to more travels with you.
    Jude xx

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    1. Never been a ‘better’ time to go, or easier to get there, so don’t rule it out.
      I used the simple method of working out some words with the Cyrillic alphabet. I remember ‘Pectopah’ was a restaurant (actually pronounced restaurant by the Russians). C was an S, P was an R, like that. Didn’t get me very far, as you might imagine!
      Always fancied Yugoslavia when Tito was in charge, but never got there.x

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  4. How nice to read about your trip! I too share your excitement for St. Petersburg. I got to visit the city for the first time when I was sixteen with my Russian language study group from school. I had no expectations for the trip and was really pleasantly surprised. St. Petersburg was such a beautiful and yet bizarre city, and so I returned a few years later. Even in the 1990’s there weren’t many tourists, and at night it felt like the city was mine alone. Moscow has never intrigued me that much, but maybe one day I’ll visit. Looking forward to read about your second trip as well!

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    1. Thanks Mari, I am so glad that you enjoyed the post, and that you share my enthusiasm for the place that I will always think of as Leningrad. It is true that Moscow is less appealing, but the Kremlin, Red Square, and the Metro, are worth a weekend at least. Perhaps when you are next back in the Baltic!
      Best wishes from England as always, Pete.

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  5. Hi Pete.
    Remember when we first met and I was very sceptical and critical of the USSR. Surprise, surprise, when I started to read between the lines of the clap-trap fed to us by the media and better informed, I began to move away from the Centre-Right Wing views.

    A few years ago, I walked the same streets as you. Well, almost; I never went to Moscow or Kiev. I did go to St Petersburg. Wound up there after a Baltic Cruise. I was stunned by the Hermitage Museum, Peterhof Palace, St Peter/Paul’s Cathedral and the Church of the Spilt Blood.

    Perestroika probably changed attitudes since you were there and I had an easier time with ‘westernised’ guides. Wonderful city though and I bought a fur hat too!

    Regards
    Jim

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  6. A great read Pete, as ever. I had to laugh at the process for buying things, having to choose the item, go to a cashier and then return with the receipt; this is still common in local council offices when you need to gather paperwork for planning permission. A throwback to the communist era when everyone had a job, and if they didn’t they made one for you!
    All the best, Eddy

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    1. Cheers Eddy mate. That sort of thing still existed in some shops here when I was a child. Sales staff would write a docket, add your cash, place it in a tube, and send it off to the cashier, on a system of tubes and pipes that always fascinated me.
      Hope all’s well with you and Gosia, best wishes as always, Pete.

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  7. Pete, it would be interesting to read about how things have changed in Russia and Ukraine since your trip there in 1977. I don’t know if the populace has any more rubles in its pocket than before, but I imagine the people are a lot more open, and that money flows more freely.

    I’ve always wanted to visit Saint Petersburg, a city which has undergone several name changes (Saint Petersburg was the original name of the city, but it was changed to Petrograd in 1914, then renamed Leningrad in 1924, a name that stuck until 1991). I suppose the main draw for me would be the Hermitage Museum, which is reputed to be among the world’s finest. Of course, I would also want to see the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, the Stroganov Palace,,and the many other historic sites for which the city is known. In addition to Saint Petersburg’s many architectural treasures, I would certainly also include in my visit a handful of modern attractions, such as the Lakhta Center,(the tallest skyscraper in Europe).

    Although Saint Petersburg would qualify as my number one destination of choice in the former U.S.S.R., I would certainly not want to miss out on Moscow (Russia) or Kiev (Ukraine). I have it from a very close source (ahem!) that all of the cities you visited are definitely places that are not to be missed.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your detailed account, and look forward to reading about your more recent trip to the country which ferries our astronauts to and from the ISS. .

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    1. Thanks David.
      I perhaps implied that I have been there since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but I haven’t been back since1987, with a short trip in between the two holidays.
      In ’87, I did a much bigger trip, taking in many central asian republics, as well as re-visiting Leningrad, for the last time. I read a lot about the country still, and despite having some of the richest people in Europe, it continues to have a huge Communist following, with many older citizens who yearn for a return to what they see as better times, without Mafia, other gangsters, foreign intervention financially, and blatant corruption.
      I suppose that is what we in the West regard as a successful return to Capitalism? It is easy to forget that Putin is still in charge, and he is still very much a Communist.

      I look back on it in a nostalgic sense, and see it from a time in my life, when the whole world was very different.
      Regards from England as always, Pete.

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      1. “I can see Russia from my house!” (Tina Fey, SNL, parodying remarks made by Sarah Palin). Well, I have never seen Russia…. However, back in 1994, a German friend drove me to Berlin from the small town of Detmold. Once we ventured past the Elbe River into former East Germany, we saw Russian tanks retreating…. (Berlin, by the way, was breathtaking. I would dearly love to return. I’m sure there have been many changes in the past 20 years.)

        As for Capitalism, Communism, Socialism, and the like, every system of government has its sparkles and warts. People demand their basic needs be met: food, water, clothing, shelter. Of course, they also yearn for some candy (non-essentials). Finally, they want freedom and dignity, a stable and law abiding society, and access to health care. Whatever system is perceived as offering the best alignment (regardless of flaws) with their needs and wants will be the one people will favor.

        It will be interesting to see how Russia continues to transform itself over the next few decades. At least, the country is taking it slowly–as opposed to China, where change has been perhaps too swift and dramatic.

        .

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        1. I would also be happy to go back to Berlin. My stepson tells me that it is a great place, especially for the young. I would mainly like to see it ‘whole’ once again, to see what difference unification has made.
          If we are to believe reports here, those formerly living in the East have been marginalised, and are once more turning to the extreme Right, to vent their frustrations.
          Regards from England, Pete.

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  8. Very interesting trip described in great detail. Coming from and growing up in a former Soviet satellite (namely, Romania), I always wondered what the USSR was actually like at the time I was growing up. I also wondered if the restrictions and attitudes of the Soviets mimicked the Romanian ones. Now, through you, I have taken a virtual trip there and found out that they were pretty much similar. Communist Romania had a love-hate relationship with the USSR, as it were. We were forced into respecting them, not out of reverence, but out of fear. Secretly, many Romanians despised the Soviets for all the atrocities they committed against my native country and its citizens and for stealing valuable pieces of land (modern-day Moldova). It’s a story for perhaps a lengthy post of my own sometime in the future. Suffice it to say that I thank you for sharing this great insight. It helps to have a Western European perspective on the former Soviet Union.

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    1. Thanks Andreea, it is nice to get an insight from someone who lived in the former Soviet Bloc. Of course, Romania had its own issues, with Ceausescu, but that is a whole other story, and I would be very interested to hear your experiences. I also posted about a later trip to the DDR (East Germany) you might like to read about that here;
      https://beetleypete.wordpress.com/2013/08/12/holiday-and-travel-east-germany-1979/
      Best wishes from England, Pete.

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  9. Brilliant, I can sense and share your excitement especially as I am a fan of Russian literature, like you.
    Вы, возможно, был одним из ведущих членов Политбюро

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