Remembering the old days of the USSR

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Europe » Russia
May 24th 1974
Published: September 19th 2021
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We were up early for what was for me to be hopefully the highlight of the trip, our visit to the USSR, as the main reason I chose this particular Sundowner’s itinerary was because most of them bypassed the communist countries and made it straight from Athens to London. We made it the 30kms to the Romania-USSR border by around 8am. Discharge from Romania took around 30 minutes and was no hassle. However, we weren’t so lucky on the Russian Immigration side, although that was not unexpected. Each person was individually searched, with the two main items of interest of Customs being a check of money and searching for subversive literature. I could have given them some grief on both counts, what with my substantial collection of Asian banknotes and about 8 Newsweeks that had been my base reading material. However, by the time they got to my suitcase, fortunately they had lost interest in me. We finally got away from the border just before midday after just over 3 hours, which Gary claimed was a record short stop for him.

Our clocks went forward an hour, and we took a couple of hours to reach Kishinev, the capital of Moldova SSR. The countryside continued to be primarily heavy communal farming with little interest. At Kishinev, we picked up our Intourist guide who was to accompany us for the next 11 days, the lovely Nina, a tall, dark-haired, attractive girl in her late twenties. We made it to the Hotel Strugurash, our only first-class hotel of the stay. We were pleased to get twin rooms with hot showers, but giant hassles over our request for a late lunch were the order of the afternoon.

We had a night out at the restaurant attached to the hotel, with the meal taking a long time to arrive, but it was worth the wait. It comprised beef steak and veges, apple cider and chocolate ice cream, all for less than 2 roubles (Editor’s Note - A rouble was worth just a little less than a buck in those days. There are now over 70 roubles to the dollar!). Half a bottle of wine added another rouble to the tally. There was quite a good band in place there keeping the place alive, and it was a surprisingly sociable night till the late Soviet hour of 11.30pm.

Our tour of the highlights of Kishinev next morning took about 30 minutes, which roughly coincides with the time it takes to drive through the city! Apart from the Arch of Victory, the only items of any real interest to us were the colourful propaganda notices that seem to adorn almost every building, which were otherwise pretty drab in appearance.

The drive through to Odessa took some 4 hours, and a further hour was lost with Intourist officials frigging us around when we got there. The countryside was par for the course – farming, with a particular specialty in vineyards. We passed the Moldova-Ukraine SSR border late in the trip. Odessa, which is situated on the Black Sea, looked a rather industrial city and similarly rather drab. The campsite Delphin was a bit out of town, and an hour spent walking along the gravelly beach and the road gave us nothing to get excited about. Heavy rain and lightning set in late afternoon, putting paid to any night activities.

We had a very late breakfast next morning due to our inability to get access to the tea room (another Communist plot?). The trip into Odessa city started, as always, with an intro to our local guide for the day, Natasha. We first made it down to the ferry wharf for a walk along the Black Sea promenade. Further items on the itinerary were the Opera and Ballet Theatre, the War Memorial to the Russians persecuted by the Nazis in WW2, several churches (most of which had been converted to museums, gymnasiums, planetariums etc) and monuments. But the absolute highlight of the tour for us was the visit to the top seaside resort, Arcadia Beach – this was an incredible sight, with masses of middle-aged women baring an absolute abundance of flubbery gut, best described by one writer as a collection of ‘white whales’. As if that wasn’t enough, they generally wore 1930 style two-piece costumes, with even a few on show in bra and petticoat. Is there no shame!

We chatted to the guide about Communist life, and while she was prepared to divulge some facts, she kept very clear of any discussions on politics. She advised that generally wages ranged from 80-200 Rbls/month, but of this, only about 5% went on accommodation and rent, with education, hospitals, medicine etc all free. She claimed that they had very little incentive to earn extra money as there were few rewards, and as such they generally spent what they earned. And this wouldn’t be hard to do with pullovers costing 40 Rbls!

We had on and off showers in the afternoon, which slowed activities down, but I did manage to fit in a quick dip in the Black Sea. Dip might be a slight exaggeration, given that it was murky and freezing cold, so I was almost in and out of the water in the one action, but at least it was one for the records. Dinner was an interesting combo of mince, spuds and ‘grass’ – a type of green vege that closely resembles leaves. After dinner, we had a half-hearted party to celebrate Nina’s birthday, but I spent most of the night reading.

The next day was a long drive to Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine SSR, through flat repetitive farming country. The road was bordered most of the way by trees, which were pretty, but not really conducive to good photography. The soil looked incredibly dark and rich, as though it was permanently wet. The USSR seemed to offer very little in the way of variety along the way, with a minimum of bridges, churches etc, and while the little villages looked picturesque, they all looked very much the same. The weather was really inconsistent, with alternating sun and showers, with a large downpour just as we reached Kiev around 5.30pm. Once again, we noticed a plethora of state-owned multi-storied apartment buildings which abound in every direction as you move around the districts of Kiev. It is hard to describe or even photograph the absolute scale of these buildings.

We reached the campsite, which was adjacent to the local Intourist Hotel, and had a most welcome hot shower. The weather cleared up after dinner to render a magnificent sky before it got dark around 10pm. A few quiet wines and a general chat filled in the evening hours.

I wore shorts for our tour next day of Kiev city, and this raised reactions ranging from mere curiosity to downright hysteria. Our guide for the day was one Alexander, a trendy young guy with a distinct Yankee twang (too much television?) as well as a very cynical tongue. He was by far the most informative of the guides so far, as he was even prepared to touch on the ‘ticklish’ questions.

He discussed marriage, divorce (alimony 30% of pay), birth control (free abortions), education, history (especially wars), political views, and outside travel (only in groups at present). He spoke freely of money and salaries. The average wage was 137 Rbls/month, with professionals earning up to 500 Rbls, but doctors didn’t earn much more than 300 Rbls. Rental on an apartment was around 12-15 Rbls/month, about 5% of the family budget. To buy an apartment, it cost anywhere from 4-12,000 Rbls, with a deposit required and a 15 year pay off period. Everything in the USSR could be purchased on time payment, except cars which were around 3-10,000 Rbls cash. The guide also spoke of the 5-year plan and membership of the Communist party in general, comprising some 15 million people out of a total population of 250 million, for which they get few privileges but lots of responsibilities.

Our tour took in a view over the Dnieper River towards the Left Bank with all its many apartment blocks. The city had heaps of monuments and memorials, the main one being the Obelisk of Glory, with its eternal flame, and the young guards in the Park of Eternal Glory. The main part of the city was quite modern, rebuilt during the war, and Kreshchalik, the main street, was very picturesque. In this street were the Post Office, the Party Headquarters, St Sophia Cathedral, and the Shevchenko Opera and Ballet Theatre. A late wander around one of the department stores showed up a row of two-piece bathing costumes at the princely sum of 1.50 Rbls!

After a meal at the adjoining motel (and the usual hour’s wait for the meal), about half the bus made it back into town for the ballet performance of Melokov’s “Legend of a Lost Love”, performed by a Leningrad Ballet Company (but not the LBC!) at the Shevchenko Theatre. For a very moderate 1.30 Rbls, I shared a box on the second floor with three others from the bus, and we got a great view. We even commandeered a pair of opera glasses through a special deal with a cloakroom attendant. I enjoyed the show, with the music far better than that in Sofia, and more lively dancing, even if technically it was probably not as proficient. The Aussie contingent certainly raised some eyebrows with their appearance in a number of boxes around the theatre.

Despite an early start towards Oryol next day, we took over 4 hours to cover 100kms due to a wrong turning trying to exit Kiev, followed by a holdup by a Soviet Army convoy of trucks. From then on, we had a good run, with the only items of real interest being a border change into Russian FSSR and the backsides of a couple of groups of cows blocking the road.

It was a long drive, well over 500kms, and we reached Oryol around 8pm, fortunately while it was still very light, and booked into the Motel Shipka, just out of town. We dined well on a meal of Borsh, Beefsteak & chips, bread and ice cream, washing it down with a bottle of local white wine, followed by animated conversation and party games, with even some locals joining the fray.

The following day’s drive into Moscow was a shorter trip than the previous day, but on a road that was surprisingly poor for one leading up to such an important city. The scenery was less agricultural than previously, with many trees close to the road. Our lunch stop was about 200kms short of the capital at the Yasnaya Polyana Estate Museum, where the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy was born and lived for most of his years. At his wish, he was buried in the forest on the estate. Time constraints did not allow us to make a full tour, but what little we saw was pretty interesting.

We finally reached our hotel, the Mozhaiski, which is around 20kms out of town, at around 6pm. Our promised tickets to the folk dancing did not eventuate (Intourist strikes again!), so it was a quiet night of washing clothes and dining, with the usual accompaniments of a bottle of vino, some ice cream, and an hour’s wait for our food.

The following day was a full day of touring the city. We picked up local guide Mila at the Hotel Metropol at about 10am, and from there we visited the Bolshoi Theatre, the Lenin Library (with statues on top), Red Square (unfortunately closed for renovations, which was hugely disappointing), St Basil’s Cathedral, GUM Department store, the Walls of the Kremlin, Historical Museum, City Hall, Museum of the Revolution, Tchaikovsky’s Concert Hall, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Lenin’s Sports Complex, Moscow University, and the Triumphal Arch.

The city itself was a delight. It comprised some magnificent buildings, most of them in the old Russian architecture, but some like the Hotel Russia were very modern and large. There were seven buildings in all built in the style of the University, what were termed Stalinesque (‘wedding cake’) architecture, not unlike the Empire State Building. The roads were wide, and the squares were huge, and the traffic surprisingly light for the sixth largest city in the world.

Lunch was an outrageous 20Rbls for some pastries and oranges, and I had no luck with Poste Restante. In the afternoon, we took in a couple of hours inside the Kremlin, where the most notable features were the giant Bell, the Tsar’s Cannon, the giant statue of Lenin, and the beautifully kept gardens in full bloom. My luck was also out that night with only limited tickets available for the Moscow State Circus and the Folk Concert, and my name didn’t come out of the hat for either. Instead, I just had an early night writing postcards (with my punchline ‘Midnight in Moscow is Magnificent’) after a meal that took the inevitable 2+ hours to be served up and almost resulted in a punch-up with an incredibly ignorant waiter.

Next day was yet another day in which the weather oscillated between brilliant sunshine and rain. Our group tour (no individual touring allowed!) started out at the USSR Exhibition of Economic Achievement, up the northern end of the city, via the Space Obelisk and the TV Tower which contained the revolving restaurant, Seventh Heaven. The exhibition was quite outstanding, as were the gardens, which contained a number of very impressive fountains. We saw through the space exploration area, where there were a number of life size models of sputniks and other space vehicles. We also checked out a film on life in Russia, projected onto a 360-degree screen, which was great.

The afternoon provided a hike around the world-renowned Moscow metro circuit, in which we checked out eight stations in all, taking in a full sector of their radial layout. These were an absolute treat in themselves, with the cleanliness and ventilation of each outstanding, and with each station further boasting its own characteristic pillars, statues, marble walls, chandeliers etc. New York subway, eat your heart out!

Rather than have dinner with all the others back at the hotel, one of the guys on the bus, Steve and I were naughty and skulked out on our own and decided to check out the National Hotel for a meal, in order to blow off some of our excess black market money that we had swapped earlier. We got some unexpected extra value on the way there in the form of a real live demonstration. Seven Jewish people, complete with placards, had set themselves up outside the Hotel Intourist. Within 4 minutes (as timed by the Reuters correspondent we chatted to at dinner), they were quietly overpowered and let away into a side door of the hotel by some dozen or so ‘concerned citizens’ (some were likely KGB, we were advised), dressed in civilian clothing. The whole dispersion process was so efficient, you would swear it had been rehearsed. The ‘concerned citizens’ included guys in jeans, some in slick suits, and even two chicks. Suspecting further action, we discretely moved around the back of the hotel, sitting inconspicuously in the shadows. Sure enough, about 30 minutes later, some 2 dozen communist police arrived in an unmarked wagon (all very quietly) and the demonstrators were discretely loaded into cars and taken away. We found out later that it was their fourth, and longest lasting, demo of the week, protesting at the lack of personal freedoms for Soviet Jews.

The evening provided further culture, this time a performance by the famed Bolshoi Ballet (the real one this time) of “Giselle” at the Palace of Congresses, inside the Kremlin grounds. The stage was enormous (as wide as a football ground) and the seating could accommodate 6,000 people. The show was magnificent, the coordination of the chorus being outstanding. We came out at 9.45pm to still daylight and a great sunset. After a full day, and a bottle of wine for dinner, sleep was not too long in coming.

Unfortunately, that was it for Moscow and the following morning we were off to Smolensk, where we got a good run and made it in about 6 hours, making it in time for a late lunch. The countryside was again flat and repetitive and since we didn't make any stops en route, my chances of getting a good photo of collective farming seemed to be diminishing. We set up the tents in the campsite next to the Phoenix Hotel – it was nice to set up in dry conditions for a change and get the mildew out of the tents and cooking equipment.

Late in the afternoon, we had a brief tour of the city, under the watchful eye this time of local Intourist guide, Svetlana. Apart from a couple of old buildings and the city walls, there was little of interest. Once again, we had a full showing of war memorials and monuments, an apparent obsession of the Soviets, but these started to become as repetitive as ruins and temples in some previous destinations. Highlight of the tour was the 6pm service of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Assumption Cathedral. This was absolutely magnificent inside, and the 30-minute service was likewise fascinating, with a standing and roaming congregation of “old women, cynics and tourists”. The former were very peasanty in appearance, with long coats, woollen stockings and scarves over their heads.

We were late back to dinner, which was nothing memorable since we had all virtually exhausted our supply of roubles. However, I took the opportunity to try my first taste of Kvass, made from fermented black bread, which I would describe as ‘fair’ at best, but it was incredibly cheap.

Our final stop in the USSR was at Minsk, the capital of Belarus SSR, at which point we had then clocked up 15,000kms in the bus. Despite a pretty bumpy run, we arrived relatively early by around 1pm. The monotony of the trip was only broken by a ‘drag’ with the turbo-jet propelled Excelsior bus, with its suave suit-attired driver. We stopped at Minsk to do some shopping and get lunch, a chance to spend the last of our roubles. We reached the campsite at 4pm for an early meal and a game of cards was our great excitement for our last night in the USSR.

Additional photos below
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20th September 2021

Moscow and More
I understand they have an interesting May Day celebration. I would like to be there. for that some day. The architecture is amazing.
22nd September 2021
Orthodox Churches in Kiev

USSR in 1974
What a wonderful time to travel to the old USSR, Neil. Russia in 2019 captured our souls such that we would love to go back. The beauty of your trip is you must have seen and experienced so much in an era now long past and can look back with pride you took the opportunity then rather than waited until it was too late. Bravo!!!
23rd September 2021
Orthodox Churches in Kiev

Great to hear from you, David. I hope you and the family are doing okay in these difficult times. You are right in that it's interesting to revisit countries like Russia and Iran some 30 years on when both them and myself have changed significantly. I had to make a business trip to these two countries around 2005 and Joan and I did a Moscow to St Petersburg cruise a few years back, so obviously a lot of differences, not the least being that we weren't required to be kept on a lead by an Intourist guide for the whole trip!

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