“Where the people fear the government, you have tyranny. Where the government fears the people you have liberty.” – Thomas Jefferson
NOTE: May, 2013 – The following travel report about Leningrad (having returned now to its pre-Soviet name of St. Petersburg) and the previous report about Moscow, were written just after my first visit to Russia when it was still the dominant power in the former Soviet Union (see map below). This report is a snapshot of a dysfunctional political and economic system on the verge of collapse. The Soviet border guards would make today’s TSA airport screeners look like choirboys. As I mentioned in the Moscow report, whether they are willing to admit it or not, ordinary Russians have been well-served by moving closer to a market economy and opening up the political system. Although they still have a long way to go on both accounts, the economic progress over the last three decades is undeniable. Some say Russia today is looking more like the US and with the massive growth of Federal government regulation since 9/11, we are looking more like them.
June, 1981 – They say you don’t enjoy the Soviet Union; you experience it. For Americans of my generation, Russia was an enigma. In the 50’s we were taught in school to duck and cover in the event of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. In October of 1962, while working for the Air Force, I experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis. We came very close to mutual annihilation. I had formed strong opinions and stereotypes about what to expect. Some stereotypes were confirmed, but also my eyes were opened in many other ways. This is the beauty of travel.
My experience began when I bought a copy of Newsweek Magazine in Helsinki’s Central station just before boarding the train to Leningrad. The magazine featured an article about Afghanistan. The Russians were in the process of getting their rear ends kicked at that time. I tucked the Newsweek into the inside breast pocket of my jacket for reading on the five-hour train ride to Leningrad.
I rarely take group tours, but this time it was by far the easiest way to see the Soviet Union. Independent travel took a mountain of paperwork. The tour guide was a young blond Finnish woman named Lisa. The tour group consisted of an assortment of nationalities; two or three from Holland, several from Colombia, a few Canadians, a Mexican civil servant named Joaquin and his wife, and several other Americans including a football player from Michigan State named Glenn and a recent college graduate named Steve. Steve was a Jewish-American and had been working as an aide for a U.S. congressman from Philadelphia (as mentioned in the Moscow chapter, we learned later that he was on covert mission to communicate with Jewish dissidents). We sat four persons to a compartment on the Russian-built train. The fact that the train was allowed to enter Finland and pick up passengers at Helsinki was another example of the extraordinary relationship that Finland has had with the USSR. As soon as the train left the station, heavy-set Russian women served us tea in glasses encased with an antique-looking silver holder. Soon spirits were high and friendship began to bloom.
As the train made its three-hour ride to the Finnish/Soviet border, I removed my jacket and hung it on a hook inside the compartment. I looked out of the window at the brightly painted buildings as the train inched its way across Finland’s Karelian region. I marveled again at the Finnish work ethic and cleanliness. Remarkable for a people who have had the misfortune of living in a country that by some accident of nature was put too far north.
When we arrived at the Finnish City of Vainikla on the Soviet Border, the atmosphere changed abruptly. Forty-five thugish-looking Soviet border police instantly scrambled onto the train. We had been told to fill out customs and currency declarations and to have them ready. But we were not ready for what followed.
The border police went to every compartment, unscrewed every air conditioning vent, overturned every cushion in every compartment in the train. They had all the occupants vacate each compartment and stand at the passageway. Then one at a time we were called into the compartment alone for interrogation about our customs and currency declaration. We had to show all the money in our possession and count out each bill one by one. Every penny had to match what was declared. Each suitcase was checked thoroughly. When it was my turn, they called me in to present my currency declaration and I counted each bill and fortunately this matched with my declaration. I showed them my luggage. They went through it thoroughly. Fortunately, I was traveling very light so that was no problem. Then the guard saw my jacket hanging on the hook in the compartment and pulled out the magazine protruding from its pocket. He opened the Newsweek and found the article about Afghanistan.
“What is this? One moment, I want to see my superior about this,” he said and stepped out of the compartment and called down the hallway in Russian. One moment later, his superior entered, looked over the magazine, looked at me and said, “Why are you bringing this into our country?” I looked hard at him and said, “Are you joking? I read this every week. I just bought it in Helsinki.” They weren’t joking. He gave me an icy stare and replied, “This is verboten in our country. You may not leave the train until you surrender this to us. I will have necessary forms prepared.”
“Okay, take it. No big thing.”
A few minutes later, a man appeared with a clipboard and document in Russian. I signed the document and away went my Newsweek. Since we were in the last compartment, we were the last to be inspected and the soldiers then left the train and we continued on our journey until our first station stop, the Vyborg station.
I found out later from the staff at the U.S. Embassy that the confiscation of such reading material was a violation of the Helsinki Accords on the free flow of information. Being very curious to find out what experiences the other passengers had with the Border police, I put my head in the next compartment. Everyone was sitting in stunned silence. They, too, had been subjected to the intimidating barrage.
“Does anybody have anything to read?” I asked.
After the laughter died down, I found out that they had confiscated not only my Newsweek, but also a book on the Berlin Wall and a current issue of Playboy magazine which undoubtedly would become good reading in the barracks that night.
The train eventually stopped in Vyborg. All of this region used to belong to Finland and was taken away by Stalin at the end of World War II. One could notice the contrast between the clean, well-painted buildings on the Finnish side of the border and the dilapidated conditions of the buildings that were now under Soviet control. We all left the train and stood on the platform to stretch and to get ready for the two-hour ride to Leningrad. One young woman in the party took a photograph of the train station and immediately had a tap on her shoulder. A soldier took away her camera, opened it up, jerked out the film and ripped it up. The shocked and surprised young woman learned the hard way that train stations are considered military facilities and no photography is allowed.
We did not know at that time that during the border crossing, the stage was set up for a final drama on our way back out again. Joaquin, the Mexican bureaucrat, wore a leather belt that had a zipper in the back and into it he had concealed, quite innocently, eight one hundred dollar bills as his emergency money. In the currency declaration procedure, he had neglected to declare those eight one hundred dollar bills zipped into the belt. Two weeks later, when we were back at the same crossing on the overnight train from Moscow, a sharp-eyed border policeman ordered him to turn his belt over and discovered the zipper. Joaquin was immediately put under arrest and taken out of the compartment to some kind of interrogation room at the end of the train. Lisa, our tour guide, accompanied him. For the entire time that our train was at Vyborg station, until we reached the crossing at Vainikla, Joaquin was under intense questioning by the Soviet police. They accused him of playing the black market during the two weeks he was in the Soviet Union and then trying to conceal his profits in the belt. Joaquin pointed out to them why would he be taking dollars out? If he was playing the black market, he would bring dollars in and exchange them for gold or other valuables at three or four times the unrealistic rate that the Soviets place on the ruble. He would be bringing out gold or others valuables, but not dollars. But they would have none of this and they confiscated all of the money. They told him that when they had conducted” further investigation”, he could place a claim for the money at the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City. I really doubt if he ever got the money back. But on this occasion, Joaquin was fortunate that he was able to leave the country, with or without the money. For nearly an hour, we all sat worrying whether they were going to let him come back with us at all. Intimidation was a highly practiced art.
When the train finally arrived in Leningrad, we were bussed to the Leningrad Hotel, a very unattractive structure of glass and concrete. Most of the common areas, the public areas, were clean. But, if you should step into the service areas, you would see that most of the walls had not been painted and the areas looked untidy.
I was asked to share a room with Glen, the football player from the Michigan State. He and I became quite good friends. He said, “let’s take a look at this town.” One of the first things we were told on the bus from the train station was, “do not drink the water.” Leningrad had some kind of amoeba in the water that seriously affected the digestive system of foreigners. Of course, my first thought was: “Here, we have a country that presumes to have the answers to all of the world’s problems and they can’t even provide clean water in their second largest city”. So with this warning in mind, Glen and I set off to explore the town. Our organized sightseeing would not begin until the next day, but we had an evening on our own in Leningrad. We were also warned that if we get on the other side of the Neva River past two o’clock in the morning, the draw bridge is raised and no return is possible until six o’clock in the morning.
One’s first impression of Leningrad was that of a beautiful city. It’s been called the Venice of the North and was probably the most European of all Russian cities until the time to the revolution. With broad expanses of rivers and waters, the ornate buildings were set on canals like Venice. I must say, however, that anything I saw that was impressive in Leningrad was put there before the 1918 revolution.
So, Glen and I walked out of the hotel, and in the space of fifteen minutes, we were accosted three times by people wanting to change money with us at more than the official rate or someone wanting to buy jeans. A pair of new Levi’s jeans would fetch US$100.00. Glenn had a pair of white ladies jeans up in the room in his suitcase and he’d heard about this big market for denim wear. He was planning to use this as a means of financing further travel. But I said, “leave me out of that one”, and suggested he take care of it later when I wasn’t around.
After extricating ourselves from these free-market types, we walked down the canal and across the drawbridge into the center of Leningrad. There were many people gathered along the banks of the river leaning against the wall, drinking some kind of alcoholic beverage. A couple of them motioned us to come over and offered us a drink from the bottles.
I must say that my first impression was that the average Russian citizen was very friendly and gregarious. Many of my old stereotypes started to be wiped away. Russian mothers love their babies every bit as much as American mothers do and the Russian family is probably even closer to each other than the American family.
While walking along one of these canal streets, we bumped into a fellow Velodian. We tried to ask him directions. He had a limited vocabulary in English, not as limited as our vocabulary in Russian, however. Velodian said, “Americans?” “Yes, Yes,” we nodded our head. “Ah! Ah! “he said. “Americanski gooood” and he came up and gave each of us a hug. He then pointed to himself, and he said, “Russki, Russki, gooood.” We nodded our heads and yes, that’s right. He said, “Come, come, come my house,” indicating he wanted us to visit him at his apartment. So the three of us walked down the canal a few blocks. During all of this, I noticed there was a man in a trench coat following us and I turned around and nodded my headed toward the man. I said to Velodian “KGB?” and Velodian began laughing a raucous laughter and said “nyet! Kay Gay Bay nyet!, come, come.” So we continued on and the man in the trench coat passed by as we turned into the doorway of Velodian’s apartment. Just some paranoia on my part.
The first impression I had of Velodian’s apartment building was the stench of urine in the doorway. Generally, throughout the Soviet Union, what you find is that common areas, areas that don’t belong to anyone, are not well take care of. So, we went inside his apartment, a modest place on the ground floor. We met his mother, who looked just like the ladies who served us the tea on the train. And we met his sister, a charming young woman. She was very shy and was in her robe, so she immediately left for another part of the apartment. We never saw her again. After meeting his family, Velodian brought us to his living room and showed us his books and his phonograph which looked like a 1950 model. I perused his library. He had a book shelf about six feet wide and six feet high at one end of the room. As I looked through the books, I found one thin book of English. About two thirds of the other of the books were, in some way or another, the works of Lenin. He explained that he finished his military service and was now a student at Leningrad University.
He asked us to be seated on the sofa and as I sat, I noticed that there was an electric cord behind the sofa. It was a fabric cord that came from behind the sofa, up the wall, out to the center of the ceiling of the living room and down to a bare light bulb. It served as the only light source for the living room. As I sat down the sofa, the light went out. I had to reposition myself on the sofa so that the light came back on. Meanwhile, Velodian was repeating his oft-used phrase “Americanski, good, Americanski strong, Russki good, Russki strong.”
Then, at this point, with Glenn and I sitting on the sofa, avoiding movement so that the light would stay on, our host brought out one of his treasures, a plain, unlabelled jug of a libation he called ‘spiritu’. It was some kind of a home-made vodka of much higher proof than a normal vodka. He also had a kettle full of water. Apparently, he didn’t have any glasses for us to drink from so he showed us his method of partaking. He took a swig of the spiritu from the jug. Then, he would pick up the kettle and drink straight from the spout to chase it with water. He croaked “spiritu gooood!”. He then brought it over to Glenn. “Drink, drink” he said. So Glenn took a belt, gasped and said “No, no, no water, can’t drink the water, no good for tourist”, remembering the earlier admonition. My turn came. I took a swig of spiritu. Instant flames shot down my throat. I gasped, I coughed, I choked, I sputtered. All I could hear was Velodian saying “spiritu good, spiritu good.” It was my only drink of spiritu. For the next week, I had a rasp in my throat and was afraid that somehow, I had injured it. I thought after the fact that I probably should have taken the water because I was certain whatever proof that spiritu was, it could have killed anything.
By this time, after visiting Velodian, enjoying his hospitality and exchanging addresses, we looked at our watches. It was thirty minutes past one o’clock in the morning. In summertime, with long daylight at this latitude, it begins getting dark around eleven o-clock at night. The evening slipped by without us even noticing how late it was. We had just a few minutes to cross back over the bridge to the Leningrad Hotel before the bridge was drawn. If we didn’t make it, we had to spend the remainder of the night on the other side, God know where. So, with Velodian showing us the way, sometimes jogging, sometimes running, we made it to the bridge with time to spare, and bade goodbye as we crossed. That was the last time I saw Velodian.
The next morning, we met our tour guide, Natasha. She was to take us on a city tour of Leningrad or St. Petersburg as it used to be called. Natasha was a tall, young woman with sandy colored hair. The entire three days we saw her, she wore the same dress, a kind of yellow and brown plaid. When asked what she thought about the United States, she replied that she had no love whatsoever for Ronald Reagan and was certain he was going to plunge the world into nuclear war.
The highlight of the the tour was Le Hermitage, a palace where the Czar and the Czarina had collected the finest works from Europe before their demise in the 1918 revolution. I saw fifteen paintings by Mattise, for example; more than I had seen in the Jeu de Paume in Paris or anywhere else.
After spending a couple of days in Leningrad, we took a flight from Leningrad Airport to the Moscow Airport. In the Soviet Union, when a tour group takes a flight, it is not at a time of their choosing, the government tells you when you take a flight. Intourist, the government agency decides. As a result, we had to get up at four o’clock in the morning to catch a six o’clock flight to Moscow. We arrived at the airport and we were boarding the plane when Glenn thought he would take a picture of the Aeroflot plane. Immediately, a stewardess at the top of the ladder started screaming at him to stop and threatened to take away his camera. When we had boarded the plane, we were surprised about how Spartan, how bare was the interior. It looked like a military troop transport. In fact, the seats were very thin and made of plastic, unlike the cushions that we’re accustomed to. (See my earlier report, Moribund Moscow).
After Moscow and the overnight train ride back to Helsinki, I was so delighted to hear the staccato accent of Finish being spoken and to see clean, wonderful Finland again.