Home Map of the Soviet Union

A Trip to the Soviet Union

During the winter of 1984-5, my Dad took me on a trip to the Soviet Union.  Dad had been several times; he worked out deals with travel agencies.  He would organize and lead a tour of China or the USSR, and he'd get to go for free if a certain number of people signed up for it; Mom could come too if he got a certain additional number of people to go.  Eventually he took me on a (not free) trip there--he had been wanting to see the country in the winter, and of course that's not when most people want to go, so organizing a big tour for that time of year was kind of out.  So one day he had asked me, if I could go anywhere in the world this coming winter, where it would be.  Luckily for him my answer was the Soviet Union (my brother had gone the past summer, so I was the only one in the family who hadn't been and I was eager to go), so he organized a trip for the two of us, plus my friend David and his mom.  This doubled, of course, as an awesome educational opportunity for me.  I'm certainly glad I went--it was a lot of fun, and you can't go any more.  Not to the Soviet Union, anyway--modern Russia is very different.

People have expressed surprise that I enjoyed that trip so much.  Truth is, the Soviet Union was a great place to travel: they treated you like kings and it was safe to walk the streets at night.  The Soviets needed hard currency pretty bad, so they had to encourage tourism, and they were motivated to treat you well and show off the good things in their society.  Sure there were restrictions, but they were reasonable or easy to circumvent--you just had to know which rules they were serious about.  The Soviet authorities rationed practically everything in the economy; the best of everything went to the ruling elite, important intellectuals and celebrities, and so forth.  There were different levels of privilege, and the more important you were the better privilege you had: more access to meat and luxuries, ability to purchase ballet or theater tickets, better clothes, and so on.  In the end, very little of high quality filtered down to ordinary people.  But tourists were fairly high up the ladder--to encourage tourism, they effectively granted you privileges: they put you up in high-grade hotels (comparable to Best Western or Holiday Inn here), you could buy tickets to things ordinary people couldn't, and most glaringly (to us), they boarded you on planes before they let the ordinary passengers on.

Others I talked to who traveled there claimed (in a melodramatic tone of voice) they were followed by the secret police, which is silly.  It reflects typical American paranoias about the country...the secret police had better things to do than shadow every tourist who came through--they were plenty busy watching their own people.  If you were seen getting too chummy with a local, he was likely to have a problem, not you.  If you didn't go there looking for trouble, and generally avoided doing the things they told you not to do, the officials were happy to leave you alone and let you spend your hard currency.

I mentioned restrictions on tourists. You were expected to exchange money at the highly inflated official rate of $1.17 to the ruble, you weren't supposed to take rubles out of the country or multiple Bibles in, you were absolutely forbidden from taking icons home, and of course you weren't supposed to trade on the black market--sort of by definition.  Of course everyone did trade on the black market and exchange money with the locals; it was unofficially tolerated because the government knew its economy needed the commerce that provided.  You just didn't do it openly.


Finland   

Helsinki

Outside Helsinki International Airport A Rolls Royce fire truck We flew first to Helsinki, then caught a connecting flight to Leningrad.  While still in our plane, we noticed that the driver of one of the vehicles hauling luggage around on the tarmac was wearing no gloves--Yikes!  We were laid over long enough to have a walk around outside the airport.  Like most international airports, it's a ways from the city so there wasn't a lot to see.  But here are two of the outrageously blurry pictures I took on the first half of this trip.  I was borrowing Mom's 35mm camera (I'd never used one before), and it took some time to get the hang of taking decent pictures with it (remember this was before digital, so I couldn't check the camera's LCD to see how I was doing).  Anyhow, I took the picture on the right because I thought it was remarkable to see a fire truck made by Rolls Royce.


USSR   

Leningrad

Peter and Paul Fortress First stop in the USSR was Leningrad, founded in 1703.  It's now St. Petersburg, of course.  There's a common misconception that Leningrad used to be named Stalingrad.  It's so common, in fact, that years later in college (1987-88) I met someone from the Soviet Union who insisted it was true.  It's not, though: Volgograd holds that dubious distinction.  Leningrad has had other names, but not Stalingrad.  Here's a timeline for the two cities:

  Tsarist Russia              1589-
     1925 
 Tsaritsyn
 1703-1914  St. Petersburg 
  World War I  1914-1924 Petrograd
  Early Soviet period   1924-1991 Leningrad  1925-1961  Stalingrad
  Later Soviet period   1961- Volgograd 
  Post-Soviet period  1991- St. Petersburg

Wax figure of Peter I My memories of the first couple days are a little hazy, since we were so heavily jet-lagged.  We were 12 hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time, so our body clocks were exactly reversed.  I recall we went on a tour of Peter and Paul's Fortress, and I could hardly stay awake--but I did take several blurry pictures (see one of Peter I on the right).

One morning Dad and I were out on the street, and there was a guy selling ice cream!  Not only that, but people lined up to buy it; apparently ice cream was a big thing in the country, never mind the temperature.  These were like long, narrow eskimo pies and cost 5 kopecks (5¢*), if I remember right.  We got some too--why not?  They were really good--4% butterfat, I'm told.  One of us (I can't remember which) couldn't hold the stick wearing those bulky gloves, so there we were walking down the street eating ice cream with a glove off, in -7°C (19°F) weather.

People from warm climates may wonder, as we did, why it's illegal to spit on the sidewalk in New York.  Well here we figured out why--the sidewalks were covered with slippery white circles of ice.  As we walked along enjoying our eskimo pies, Dad found one of them the hard way--his feet slipped out from him sideways and he landed shoulder-first on the curb.  The next morning we were to go on a tour of the city.  Dad was still hurting quite a bit from his fall, and he'd been on the tour already--so he took the opportunity to see the inside of a Soviet hospital (in this case, one for tourists and the middling elite--that privilege thing again).  Apparently the doctor was quite a character.  He couldn't pronounce our last name (which is challenging for Americans too), so he called him in from the waiting room with "L-YON: Cahleeforrnia!  What kind wodka they have in Cahleeforrnia?"  Dad was caught off guard by the question, but the doctor continued with a knowing smile, holding up a finger: "Smirnoff!"

Now Dad doesn't speak Russian, and the doctor's knowledge of English was very limited, but they made do mostly with signs and gestures.  The doc had him show where it hurt, and started prepping him there.  He took a cotton ball soaked in rubbing alcohol, waved it under Dad's nose, saying "Rah-shun wodka!", prepped the spot, and gave him an injection.  Suddenly the pain was gone, just like that, and for a moment Dad marveled at the wonders of Soviet medicine!--then thought "Waaaait a minute, was that novacaine...?"  The nurse confirmed his suspicion: "Novacanya."

Soviet Ruble An important part of traveling in the Soviet Union was trading on the black market, as hinted above.  We're not talking about running a big commercial operation here--it's just that the official exchange rate was so heavily inflated that travelers always got rubles in other ways.  First, instead of paying $1.17 per ruble, you could get 3 rubles (or more) to the dollar in a private exchange.  Also, travelers would bring Western goods--jeans, tape recorders (no CDs back then), chewing gum, that sort of thing--and sell it to locals for a surprising amount.  Soviet citizens just couldn't buy those things at all, so they were happy to fork over lots of rubles for them...and since you hauled them halfway across the globe taking up precious suitcase space, you didn't feel too guilty selling high.

We offloaded our goods on a bridge here in Leningrad: that is, Dad made the transaction with a local while I "stood watch" (which I think was mostly to keep me out of the way).  While I was "keeping watch", a soldier passed by.  This is typical: contrary to what Americans would expect, he didn't arrest us, or interfere, or even pay us any attention--he just walked past.  These sorts of things were a normal undercurrent of daily life in the USSR; people did some technically illegal things to get by a little better than their station in employment permitted, and the authorities turned a blind eye because they understood that the black market (as long as it didn't go too far) was a necessary supplement to the official economy.

Early in our stay here, we went to a department store where I bought one of those Russian fur hats (called an ushanka).  It seems to be surprisingly well made for Soviet manufacture, though it's fake fur (it's still in good shape today, 26 years later).  The quality of this item makes me think it was probably produced early in the month: Soviet factories were held to a monthly quota of output.  Typically, for the first two or three weeks everyone would goof off, come to work drunk, whatever--then they would work like crazy in the last week or two to meet their quota, so items made late in the month were typically shoddy.  Soviet shoppers knew to check an item's tag for the date of manufacture so they could get better made items--so apparently I lucked out, considering we bought these at a regular Soviet department store and I had no idea at the time about checking the date of manufacture.

So I stuck my hat on my head, turned around and found myself face to face with a militiaman (what the regular Soviet police were called), saying something and making some kind of turning-around gesture.  Yikes, what'd I do?  Turned out I had put it on backward and he was helpfully letting me know.  This was a nation of busibodies, as my Dad often pointed out--largely because there was so little to do in day-to-day Soviet life.

On this trip, Dad and I brought two heavy coats each, but we found we didn't need to wear more than one at a time.  In Helsinki I wore my new parka, but here in Leningrad I gave that up for the old green peacoat Dad had worn on his first trip to Europe back in the 60s.  With that and my new fur hat, I found I blended in somewhat--enough at least that the hotel guards would stop me entering the hotel.  The tourist hotels had doorkeepers who would keep the locals out; this was part of maintaining the privilege structure of society.  If they didn't watch the doors, locals would come into the hotels and take advantage of some of the better things in life which were available there--better food, etc.--and might anyway just crash the place and cause trouble.  I was remarkably pleased that I blended in well enough to pass for a local!  I've always hated sticking out as an obvious tourist--in fact years later on my honeymoon I was pleased to see that we more or less blended as French travelers (in France) and French tourists (in Germany and the Low Countries), as we were about the right height for French people and drove a car with an F sticker.

But I digress.  We found that, if I came into the hotel alone, or first, the guard would stop me and ask to see my hotel card.  If Dad or one of the other two came in first the guard would assume I was with them.  The other option was for me to come in saying something in English: "Ah, it's cold out there!" or something.  I also learned that people there (the youth at least) showed their defiance of the cold by never putting the ear flaps down on their ushankas, regardless of the temperature.  Well then of course I had to do the same--I stopped putting my ear flaps down too (it helped that you had to really wrestle my my hat to get the flaps down, but still).  Later, in Antarctica, I wasn't so proud--I wore a balaclava and everything; I think I bundled up more than most everyone on our boat.

* When I give price equivalents, they will be at the official exchange rate--not because it's what the money was really worth, but because the actual value of rubles was so variable, depending who you traded with, that the official rate is the only real standard available.


Latvia   

Riga

Medieval warehouse Next was Riga, capital of Latvia.  This was the warmest place we visited: the temperature stayed around 3°C (37°F) during the day, and it seemed even warmer since it was very humid, being right on the Baltic Sea.  Riga was my favorite of the places we visited: it has (or at least had at the time) a beautiful Old Town of about 87 acres, studded with two dozen medieval warehouses (see right).  If I could go back to one place we visited on this trip, it would be here.  The city was apparently founded in 1201 and participated in the Hanseatic League.

The ''Cat House'' in Riga Part of that history with the Hanseatic League concerns the Cat House, which our tour guide pointed out to us.  Well, sort of: as I recall, the story she told was that the man who had it built was a wealthy merchant, and the Hanseatic League wouldn't accept him as a member because he was ethnic Latvian, not German.  So he had feline statues placed at the top with their hind ends facing the League headquarters.  It seems our guide (probably like everyone else there) conflated the city's Large Guild with the Hanseatic League.  The story as told couldn't be true, since the house was built in 1909 and the last remnants of the League had died out in 1862.  Of course, it's also possible that I misunderstood some of what she was saying and that I'm the one who confused the Guild with the League--this was many years ago, and my grasp of history was less clear back then.

Something Dad and I tried here was to refrigerate some sodas.  We bought a couple bottles of it to drink later (I don't think canned soda was available in the country), but our room didn't have a refrigerator.  Personal refrigerators in hotel rooms were a luxury that none but the upper elites were afforded; even tourists didn't get those.  So we thought we'd do what the locals would--hang them out the window to let the cold winter air refrigerate them.  We pulled them in next morning only to find it worked much too well: the soda froze overnight and broke the bottles.  Oops!

We spent a day or two exploring the old city, and I've always felt I could happily spend a few more days looking around there.  However, we also took a tour of the Riga Ethnographic Open Air Museum.  This place consists of several old traditional Latvian cottages and churches, all done up with traditional furniture and other items of daily life inside.  Here are some pictures:
Approaching the Open Air Museum A cottage at the Open Air Museum Roof of a cottage Pulpit in a church
On the left is a shot of the first building as we approached the complex.  As I recall, it seemed to be some sort of community building, a place for the villagers to gather for meetings--the equivalent of a town hall.  The middle close-ups of one of the houses; note the nordic style rooftop--historically, Latvia had ties to Sweden, even being part it for a while, back in Sweden's heyday when it made itself a small empire (and tried its hand at settling the Americas).  The righthand picture is taken inside one of the churches--notice that the candle holder at the pulpit is shaped like an outstretched arm holding up the candle!  (Well, I thought it was funny at the time.)

Soviet video games! Also in Riga, I had my first (and only) look at Soviet video games.  They had some of these in our hotel lobby.  Like most kids back then, I loved arcade games--they were a new and exciting thing back in the early 80s, and now I got to see Soviet ones.  Somehow it felt silly to look too interested in them--it felt kind of childish (not a feeling any young adult enjoys!), so I never did get a close look.  There would have been little point to trying to play them anyhow, since I couldn't read the instructions, or so I figured.  I did get one picture of them--yet another blurry photo, sorry.  Of all the out-of-focus pictures I took on this trip, this is the one I most regret.  The only thing I can make out on any of them is the one next to the man there: it says "ОХОТА", meaning "hunt", and is obviously some kind of hunting (target-shooting) game.  However, someone has since put together a museum of Soviet arcade games, which is worth a look.  It includes a video of a similar game, "Зимняя охота" (Winter Hunt)--here's the direct link to the video.

Cuban ushanka French has a reputation as an international language, but I didn't get to use my French on this trip.  Oddly enough though, I did get to use my Spanish once.  In our hotel one day, Dad came over to me with someone who was dressed in some kind of military uniform, complete with an ushanka (possibly like the one to the left).  He had asked if the guy spoke French, but he indicated no, just Spanish.  I had taken Spanish in school, so Dad brought him to me and had me ask about the insignia on the guy's hat--he was familiar with Soviet military insignias, but had never seen one like it before.  I asked him in my high-school Spanish, and the guy answered that he was from Cuba.  Sort of a head-slapping moment there--yes of course, that would make sense.

Also at one point I was standing around alone in the hotel lobby, and a group of drunken Finns came by and harrassed me.  Nothing serious, just obnoxious: they pushed me around a little, tipped the hat off my head, that kind of thing.  Idiots.


Lithuania   

Vilnius

Tower of Vilnius Cathedral

Next it was on to Vilnius, capital of Lithuania.  Oddly enough, it wasn't the capital of independent interwar Lithuania (for most of its history) because the city was annexed by Poland.  Contrary to what we were led to believe in high school, Poland--not Russia--was the big aggressor throwing its weight around that part of Europe after World War I.

Truth be told we weren't all that excited by Vilnius--it wasn't all that pretty, and didn't have the deep-historical feel you get in Riga.  That may be partly because the city is perhaps a century younger than Riga, but largely it just felt more modern, with less old-fashioned charm.  Ah well, every city's different.

Primitive statue near cathedral tower

First we visited Vilnius Cathedral, with its distinctive tower (see right).  Just outside, we saw a primitive-looking stone sculpture; it looked very old, and pagan in appearance, which wasn't too surprising since this area was one of the last pagan regions of Europe.  We couldn't find any information about it, but I found one reference saying (if he's talking about this statue) that it may have been a recent work by a student in the 1970s which has since been removed.  (I haven't been able to register on that site to download the attached pic and confirm that this is the statue that was talked about--if anyone manages that, or has any other information about this statue, please let me know!)

Gediminas Tower from the bottom of the hill

The center of historic Vilnius is the castle complex.  Most of it is ruined or destroyed; of the original three towers, only one remains, Gediminas Castle--which is almost an icon of the city itself, and had been made into a small museum.  After visiting the cathedral, we split up; Dad and David's mom went off one way, while David and I climbed the hill to check out the castle (see right).  The cost of admission was 20 kopecks (23)--luckily I had just learned "twenty" in Russian, so we could give them correct change instead of standing there looking clueless.  We checked out the first couple floors, which held displays of medieval armor and weapons, then continued up the spiral staircase; the next floor must have been storage or something, as it was behind a locked door.  We followed the stairs up even higher, and found a sliding metal door.  "I wonder if this thing opens..."

A good pull on the handle and the door slid back, and we found ourselves with access to the roof! (see 1. below)  Now that didn't really seem right, but surely, if they didn't want us to come up here, they'd have locked it, right?  So we did the only thing two teenage kids can do under the circumstances: crawl through the opening and look around!  We had a great view of the Vilnius skyline (2.), then we turned to take pictures of each other (3.).  There were some winches up there (4.), and we had a good view of the old castle keep (5.).  Judging by pictures I've seen online in recent years, the roof has been opened to the public since that time, and has been changed quite a bit.  The winches are gone now, for instance.

1.Sliding door to roof of Gediminas Tower 2.Skyline of Vilnius from Gediminas Tower 3.David and me taking pictures of each other up there 4.Winches at top of Gediminas Tower 5.Ruins of the keep at Gediminas Castle

Now, at one point I had looked down and noticed two men down there.  One saw me, pointed up, said something to his companion, and they headed toward the tower.  Yikes!  We finished taking pictures and came down the stairs, closing the door behind us (which was loud!), and got to the locked door on third floor when a bunch of people came upstairs with the two guys in front.  We tried to look inconspicuous, pretending we were checking out the door, and--somehow--they passed us by.  We got out of there as quick as we could and walked off trying to look nonchalant, and deliberately headed in a different direction than our hotel.  I glanced back and saw the two guys up on the roof watching us...but they didn't come after us or anything.  I always figured they probably said some equivalent of "damn kids!" and left it at that.

When we got back to our hotel, as if to prove we hadn't learned anything from what might have turned into an uncomfortable brush with the authorities, we decided to try something new in the elevator.  The elevators we used only went up 20 stories, but we had heard the hotel was taller than that.  So once on the 20th floor we went to the back of the building, and there we found two more elevators.  These went to the 21st floor, so we got in and went up.  Well, the doors opened to what I recall looking like a big kitchen or laundry area.  A uniformed babushka who had been waiting for the elevator strode on board, pulling me back in as I tried to exit, and punched the ground floor button.  She proceeded to lecture us all the way down.  As David later put it, "I don't know what she was saying, but she sure wanted us to hear it."

At least the rest of our time here passed uneventfully.


USSR   

Moscow

The Tsar Bell

Next was Moscow.  Gotta visit the capital, after all.  This was the most inland of our destinations, so it was also the coldest.  When we got into town, I'd had enough of the cold, so I stayed in the hotel while the other three took a walk outside.  There they encountered the lowest temperature of our trip, 0°F (-18°C).  Yikes!  I know people who live in white-winter parts of this country are used to those temperatures, but for us that was scary cold.  Dad tells me the wind chill one night in Leningrad was -30°, but this 0°F was the closest standing temperature I recall.

The Tsar Cannon The Tsar Bell

We spent a good deal of time visiting the Kremlin, a fortress (hence the name) which has historically dominated Moscow and Russia.  There we saw the Tsar Bell and Tsar Cannon.  You can see these massive objects here to the right and left (respectively).  The Russians have traditionally had a borderline inferiority complex, since their civilization began later than Western Europe's: Russia, as we know it, didn't really exist until the 15th or 16th century, so the Russians always felt like they were playing catch-up to the West.  As a result, they've tended to build things on a large scale, partly to impress outsiders.  These certainly impressed me.  To give you an idea of scale, on the far right you can see a piece that broke off the Tsar Bell when it was cast.

Of course we also had to visit Red Square.  I recall we went there more than once; it was neat to see this big famous place that not too many Americans had set foot in--certainly not the conservative, mindlessly anti-commie kids I went to school with in Southern California.

Red Square, looking north Red Square, looking south

The photos to the left and right are Red Square looking north and south, respectively.  On the right you can see St. Basil's Cathedral in the background, and the low building sticking out into the square in both photos is Lenin's Tomb.  People really did line up to visit his tomb, and pay their respects to the founder of the Soviet Union.  So of course we had to go see it too!

Now there had always been speculation in the West as to whether that really was Lenin's corpse, or whether it was a lifelike wax dummy.  The authorities' own actions encouraged the rumors, since, in typical Soviet fashion, they insisted he was real but made it forbidden to take pictures of him.  We knew this, and made sure we left our cameras back at the hotel for our trip to the Tomb.  I was really glad I did, because before we entered, a guard noticed a lump in my pocket and had me pull my wallet out to make sure it wasn't a camera.

So we went inside; as I recall, the line of people shuffling through the building formed a sort of U shape, going in the front left of the building and coming out the front right.  The head of the casket was close to the front wall, and the line went past his left side, around the foot of the casket, and around the right side, then out the building.  He was behind glass, some distance from the walkway (you couldn't have reached out and touched the glass).  Here's somewhat of a floor plan for the building: http://lenin.ru/mas_e.htm.

So, now that the Soviet system no longer exists, we've been able to discover the truth--and, as in many other cases, the truth is less creepy than the rumors.  Yep, that was the real Lenin all along; apparently the state supported a team of embalmers to keep the mummy in pristine condition.  So where is he now?  Not surprisingly, the Russian government has stopped supporting Lenin's preservation, but apparently the work continues thanks to private donations.  Want to see pictures?  I don't have any guarantee this is genuine, but it looks right. A Soviet factory A Soviet factory

Oh yes.  It wouldn't do to leave Moscow without paying tribute to that overarching symbol of the USSR, the Soviet factory!  Here are a couple pics, complete with belching smokestacks and hammer & sickle.  Of course, to be fair this was the dead of winter so it looks extra-dreary, and that could just as well be steam rising into the frigid air as smoke, but it seems almost stereotypical (and fitting) to me.  Great stuff.  Glad I don't have to work there.

The Moscow subway is a marvelous public transit system, and back then it only cost 5 kopecks (5) to take it, however far you wanted to go.  So one day Dad and I decided to get on it and follow it to the end.  We looked at the map and picked an end point, on the east side of town if I remember right.  We found ourselves right on the edge of town, and it was very stark, as you might expect for a centrally controlled metropolitan area.  One side of the road was city, and the other side was almost country--there were few buildings, mostly empty space, and of course, few vehicles on the road.  That was worth having a look.

Customs officials checked our bags when we left the country.  They didn't look too closely, except at one point.  I had picked up a souvenir of Zagorsk for my mom, who'd been there on a previous trip.  It was a painted wooden board, about 8x11, and wrapped in paper--a good candidate for an icon.  When the officer saw that in my bag, he had me tear off a bit of the wrapping to make sure it wasn't in fact an icon.  Of course it was plainly modern so there was no trouble--but I sure was glad I hadn't been tempted to flout that rule.


Finland   

Helsinki Again

So after Moscow, we flew back to Leningrad and caught a connecting flight to Helsinki.  We stayed there longer this time, actually getting into the city a bit.  One thing we noticed right away was how expensive everything was in the stores--which, it turned out, is true all over Scandinavia, but we didn't know that at the time.  We flagged a taxi at one point, and apparently the driver was especially pleased to have us.  He decided to take us the long way around, showing us stuff all over town that he thought was important--even driving us past his house!  The guy was a real character--he didn't speak much English, but he sure made the most the most of what he had.  He pointed out one car, said "Volvo--Good!", then he'd point out Finnish-made cars, and tell us the manufacturer, followed by "No good!"  We didn't pay much extra for this impromptu tour, because once the meter reached the amount the driver had quoted us, he switched it off.

The rest of our trip was pretty typical.  We boarded our flight, endured a scheduled layover, and came home.  Of course we were as badly jetlagged as we had been our first days in Leningrad.  I recall Dad and me sitting in the living room at 2:30 in the morning reading, because we just couldn't get to sleep.  A few days later, Christmas break ended and I went back to 11th grade with an awesome travel destination under my belt.



Please mail me if you have questions or comments (or information on that statue in Vilnius).