Time Out in the USSR

When I found out that my English friend, Ian Davies, whom you have already met in his post  Austerity Today, visited the USSR back in a day, I got very excited. I wanted to hear all about his experience and asked him to write another guest post. Imagine my excitement when Ian agreed! You can read more in Ian’s book Gorbachev: The Rise and Fall of a Hero.

My most interesting travel experience was a visit to the then Soviet Union – Gobachev’s Russia. Having been advised already not to take any photographs at Moscow airport, I disembarked the plane to walk with the other passengers through a line of machine gun weilding Soviet troops to the airport terminal.

On arrival we were greated by a large Eastern Bloc character (looking like an olympic weight lifter from East Germany of days gone by), who then proceeded to scan us and ask many questions about why we were here. ‘Vacation’ I replied, trying not to smile as you would normally at the joy of having some holiday time. She did not manage a smile, nor did anyone in the airport. Somehow we managed to escape the confines of the airport terminal without getting arrested.

From a personal perspective, my vacation was enjoyed greatly. The hotel for this visit to Moscow was the Cosmos hotel built originally for the Russian Olympic Games. The hotel itself was very clean and back in the day, despite shortages of food and services outside in the city, there was very little to complain about. The only shortage at the time I found was coffee, so black tea was the choice I settled for. Strangely, caviar and beef seemed in good supply, though I think this may have been a ‘tourism’ benefit’.

From the window at night I watched the young people skating on the ice, and by this I mean with blade skates on the natural ice on the ground outside. On every floor of the hotel by the lift, was another of those large ladies sitting on a chair, looking like clones of those working at the airport. They never spoke or acknowledged my presence, but I did wonder if they had some weapon tucked away just in case their tranquil duties were interupted by some anti-social activity.

During the day I would often notice a queue of people would slowly build at a street corner. The first time I saw this I wondered what they would do. But after a few had arrived, a truck would pull up and these people would buy whatever was on the truck. It could be apples, coats or shoes.

The roads were very quiet despite their size (width) as not many people would have the luxury of owning a car. Even so, there was still a lane dedicated for use only by official vehicles. Little old ladies would work away at areas of the road surface on the surrounding streets, chipping away at the frozen ice. This appeared commonplace, though I was unsure whether this was a job they were paid to do, a penance or voluntary.

Most people would use the underground railway system. These train stations are a great sight. As you decend the steps to the platforms you are greeted with chandeliers lighting these bright spaces. If this was London, it would probably be spoiled by vandals, but here it was an ornate and welcoming affair.

I would recommend the overnight train from Moscow to St .Petersburg just for the experience of travelling on a train with a stove burning in the corridor to heat the carriage, and with the door slid wide open to smoke a cigarette looking out on hundreds of miles of snow glowing from the lights of the train.

The architecture in St. Petersburg was beautiful: so many shades of colour, and wonderful design. Venice of the north? …and some. There was a bar at the hotel here, where pretty much anything was available, though they did always asked ‘do you have dollars ?’ when offering the local currency to them…still no coffee though!

Apart from the scenery, the memories that mean the most to me have to be the ice flowing down the river, the midnight ice skaters in Moscow and getting to see Tchaikovsky’s burial place ( being the fan that I am ) and that magical overnight train journey. Nothing could ever replace that. Many things have changed since my visit during the last years of the Communist ‘regime’ but this country is worth the visit.

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