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.