Russia, The Prelude: Moscow and Leningrad, 1985

3 in Red SquareIn July 1985 our family traveled to the Soviet Union, Leningrad and Moscow.  This was our first exposure to Soviet life and, while we had not intended this, it provided a baseline against which to judge our later experiences.  These entries are from a travel diary that I wrote for our two sons, who were 8 and 12 at the time.


On the train between Helsinki and Leningrad the Soviet custom’s office quickly lets you know who is the boss.  It isn’t you.  You stop in an open field just over the border while a great number of uniformed customs agents get on board.  They take your passport and lock you into your compartment.  First soldiers come in and look under the seats and in the racks for hidden people.  They also make a thorough inspection of the rods and break beams of the train, in case any hobo might want to experience life in the reformed worker’s state.  They return and go through each compartment more thoroughly.

In our compartment they asked Suzi and the boys to wait in the hall, under the watchful eyes of other agents, and three agents dealt with me.  First I was frisked, and then they started going through each piece of luggage.

The agents’ primary interest was to ferret out literature which may be damaging to the Soviet State, and to make sure that we had the amount of money coming into the country which we claimed on the customs form.

Each book and pamphlet was inspected.  Copies of “Time” and “Newsweek” were checked against a master date sheet to see if that issue was banned.  When they ran across a book they didn’t recognize, and could not readily understand by reading a few random pages, they took it.  “The Hobbit” completely baffled them, so they took it, much to Brian’s distress (It was a birthday gift.)

Another officer came into the compartment with a copy of a Swedish language tourist brochure that had been in the literature rack in the vestibule.  Across the brochure was scrawled, in English and Swedish, “Stop Soviet aggression in Afghanistan.”  The guard showed it to me, and asked if I understood Swedish.  I said no, and he then proceeded to pull out of Suzi’s pack a Swedish language magazine that she had taken from the hotel room in Stockholm.  They made me sweat until I convinced them that Suzi saved it for the one English language article about Pippi Longstocking, saved for the boys.

Finally thy pulled out my cassette recorder and asked to see all the tapes.  I showed them the tapes and one officer sat with the headphones and listened.  The English language tapes were spot checked but then they found a tape in Russian, they viewed it with suspicion, and decided to listen to the whole thing.  It was a Berlitz Russian Language instruction tape, and one poor guy had to sit there with “Privet Nina…..Privet Nina—–PRIVET NINA.”  I pulled out the language text so he could see what was on the tape.  Privet Alexander…..Privet Alexander—–PRIVET ALEXANDER.”  He continued to listen, even though he could see the tape was just following the text.  So, while the senior guy went through the bag examining an aerosol can of shaving cream, studying tampons, and analyzing synthetic fabrics, junior partner was hearing “do svedanya……do svedanya——DO SVEDANYA.”

After about an hour, they just gave up, the clock ran out.  With one bag left to be inspected, the head guy said.  “Good By.   Do svedanya.”  He pointed to the tape recorder and smiled.  I asked about our passports he smiled again and left.  Perhaps customs is a Soviet make-work project.

The train arrived at Vyborg and we were told we could change dollars for rubles.  After we got back on the train we got back our passports.  Just as the train pulled into Leningrad the matron, who provided hot tea, came to the compartment with Brian’s copy of “The Hobbit”.  Welcome to the Soviet Union.



Intourist is the agency that handles all tourists in the Soviet Union. You have to make arrangements with a travel agency dealing with Intourist before you get into the Soviet Union.  You do not get a visa until Intourist provides an approved itinerary number.

We booked our hotel reservations in advance as “independent” tourists.  This means that we are free to travel within the itinerary as we wish, as long as we planned it in advance (with pre-arranged and pre-paid accommodations.)  The itinerary starts in the first city where you spend the evening, and ends with the last city where you spend the evening.  You get hotel, at least two meals, and a tour in each city you visit.  The tour is “independent” because you decide when to start the trip and when to end it, which cities you will visit, and how long you will spend in each city.  You cannot change your mind once you have started.  You arrange your own transportation between your point of departure and the first city in the Soviet Union.  Therefore we did not tell Intourist how we would arrive in Leningrad, by plane, or train, or what time on the day of arrival.  They knew.

When we arrived in Leningrad, a man approached me right outside the door of our railway coach and asked “Mr. McClear?”  He had a card with our coach and compartment number, and told us that he would arrange our cars to the hotel.  “Cars?”  Yes, since there were four of us, we should have two.  We opted to travel together in one car.  But the other Intourist car followed.  Two were booked, and two were going to the hotel.

At the hotel, the Intourist travel Bureau tried to answer all of our questions and arrange tickets.  It was difficult to establish a relationship with any Intourist desk staff, however, because there were different people there each of the three days in Leningrad.

In Moscow our Intourist guide was very political, in Leningrad the guides more subtle. They wanted us to know of the Soviet “desire” for peace.  (There is a preoccupation with the second world war, in which 20 million people were killed.)  In Moscow the Intourist guide not only talked of peace but pushed the Gorbachov line on a Nuclear Test Ban, portrayed Reagan as a madman, and took some real knocks at religion.  We visited a former convent, and the guide lectured us on the evils of nunnery.  I could not resist telling her about the nuns in Nicaragua who stood, against the American backed Contra, and for the Sandinista revolution.  She stopped just for a second, and said something that can best be translated as “useful idiots.”

Leaving the Soviet Union was more difficult than I could have imagined.  Air India’s flight on which we were booked was going to be a day late, and Intourist told me that our visa was good only to the day of our planned departure.  They would arrange for an extension, but we would have to buy a hotel and meal package.  “And I am afraid it will cost you more than what you paid your travel agency for the first nights.”  That was an understatement.  It may be a Socialist Republic, but to them business is business.



Nuclear War:

In Leningrad as we looked at the wonders of the Hermitage Museum, and the glory of this Baroque city which survived a 900 day siege in the Second World War, I realized that the greatest danger to these treasures in the future will come from nuclear devices launched by my country.  In Moscow we stayed at the Metropole hotel, one block off Red Square.  I kept thinking if it went up now we would be among the first cooked, by our own tax dollars.  God help us all.


The World’s First Socialist State:

You can’t help but hear the phrase “The World’s First Socialist State” in the Soviet Union.  Those words are exciting.  Socialism stands for human liberation from exploitation, for people gaining control over their own workplace.  In the ideal, it stands for security and freedom from want and worry.  Marx’s philosophy has always been appealing to me from the first time I read the Communist Manifesto as a sophomore in high school.

The Russian Revolution is also exciting.  I have read the stirring accounts from eyewitnesses John Reed and Leon Trotski.  I have read about it from a more critical viewpoint by Harrison Sailsbury and Emma Goldman.  Every November throughout grade and high school Channel 11 broadcast the film “The Russian Revolution.”  I watched the storming of the winter palace in the film “Reds,” the scenes of brotherhood and hope in “Dr. Zhivago,” the wickedness of the Tsar in “Nicholas and Alexandra.”  Standing on the square in front of the Winter Palace you feel history.  Standing at the Kremlin wall near the graves of Lenin and John Reed you feel somehow closer to one of the most important events in modern history.

I wanted to find some redemption of all the hope placed in the Soviet Union and socialism by generations of radicals.  In spite of our hard time getting into the country, and my own dismay at the paranoia and fear the customs men saw in literature they did not understand, I wanted to find something inspiring to take away from the world’s first socialist state.  It didn’t happen.

But rips in socialism’s fabric started appearing immediately.  The shoddy workmanship at the hotel in Leningrad, Intourist’s showplace, was dismaying.  Brian’s observation about the people, “walking around like zombies” did not escape me.  You could not go far without having people approach you with “change money?” or “what will you sell me?”

On the Leningrad subway someone approached Suzi and asked to buy anything, her watch, calculator, camera, anything.  Suzi said that the watch was cheap, and not very good.  The man said that nothing made in the Soviet Union was very good.  “What will you sell me?”  Near the Hotel Leningrad someone approached me and wanted to buy my Rocksport shoes.  I said they wouldn’t fit.  “Doesn’t matter.”  I said I needed to walk and therefore needed my shoes.  “You are near to the hotel.”  I walked away.

Outside the winter Palace along the River Neva a group of women and children dressed in Central Asian garb approached Kevin, begging.  Kevin had been walking along the river and was frightened, and came back to Suzi and me waiting on line for lunch at an outdoor café.  We did not understand his fear until we saw the women.  They told us they were hungry and needed money to feed their children.  They were drinking out of a bottle hidden in a paper bag.  This was Leningrad, in the world’s first Socialist State.

Finally there was the propaganda.  At first it seemed exotic to see the big billboards of Lenin and heroic worker posters everywhere, but the problem is that they were everywhere, and were such bad art.  At parks and recreation areas in Moscow, in train compartments, at Gorky Park, in the exhibit halls, loudspeakers blare out the party line.  How much of this can people take before they throw it up?  Where is the promise of 1917?


Life Scenes:

In Leningrad and Moscow a great deal of courtship takes place on the subways.  There are long escalators and the girl usually stands on a step above the boy.  They face each other at eye level and carryon on earnest conversations, sometimes holding hands.  At the bottom of the escalator an old lady with a red arm band, a whistle and a bullhorn monitors traffic.  If she sees any public display of affection she blows a whistle.  I had a Norwegian Lutheran dorm mother as St. Olaf College who did exactly the same thing. As the couples approach the bottom they face forward and go to their trains, or just ride up the escalator again.  All over Leningrad and Moscow the old ladies sit as guards — and guardians of public morality; at museums, at the end of escalators, and in parks.

People on the streets of Leningrad, and to a lesser extent Moscow, rarely smile.  Their faces are set, but the eyes are so expressive when talking to each other, eye to eye, on the escalator, or making fleeting contact with me on the street.

Stained Glass Metropole Hotel
Stained Glass Metropole Hotel

Everyday, all day, in the area outside the kitchen of the Metorpole Hotel in Moscow men sat around a table playing dominos.  Brian noticed them and decided that the next day he would take their picture.  I told him he better do it now, they would not be there the next day because it would be Saturday, their day off.  He didn’t believe me, when I told him they were at work.  The next day they were not there.

The Second World War, or as the Soviets call it, the Great Patriotic War, is still very real here.  In Leningrad there is a lone red carnation next to a plaque on a bridge commemorating some lonely death.  In the Kremlin Wall there is soil from the hero cities of the war, Leningrad, Kiev, Volga (Stalin) grad, and fresh flowers.  Young couples, just married, make a pilgrimage, with the wedding party to the tomb of the unknown soldier in Moscow at the start of their married life.  It passes for something religious in their ceremony.

Throughout Moscow the newlyweds parade, at the University in the Lenin Hills, at the tomb of the unknown and in the long lines at Lenin’s tomb.  Religion is not dead in the Soviet Union.  Thousands make the pilgrimage to Lenin’s tomb in Red Square.  The line can be three kilometers ling.  It is the communist Kabba.

Guards denied us entrance at the Kremlin.  A soldier just stopped us and pointed to Brian and said “It is not possible.”  “Why?”  “I don’t know, it is not possible.”  The Intourist host at the hotel said we probably went to the wrong gate, but I read enough Russian to know we were at the right gate.  According to another Intourist aid sometimes guards are just arbitrary.

We were deposited far away from our hotel by a tour boat on the Moscow River that just stopped working at 9 PM.  As we were heading for the nearest subway station a group of Russians approached us.  I thought they were trying to buy my camera, but they were telling me that the cover had fallen off the camera two blocks back and they wanted to be sure I got it back.

Dinner in Soviet restaurants takes a long time.  It is the way to kill an entire evening.  Tipping is considered anti-social, or at least anti socialist, so it is customary for the waiter to miss-add the bill, and it is not polite to correct him.

Summer Palace
Summer Palace

The summer palace outside Leningrad is opulent.  I wonder how the people must have felt when they were first allowed to see the quarters which had been built of their toil and which they were always denied.  So much of the Romanovs remain in Leningrad. The crosses are still on the steeples and the double headed eagles.  People are still proud of the statue of Peter the Great and the accomplishments of the Tsars.  The new Soviet Man has not replaced the old Russian man.



I liked Moscow better than Leningrad.  There was a pulse and a drive there that I did not feel in the beautiful Baltic city.  Moscow is big and dirty, and the cradle of a particular blight called Socialist Realism.

The Moscow State University in the Lenin Hills is truly ugly with its gilded steeple.  Heroic statues of Lenin and Marx abound, and the funniest example of Socialist Realism is the statue at the exhibition area.  There a young man and a young woman are running together.  He is a worker, she a peasant, hand and hand.  He holds aloft a hammer ;she, a sickle.  Their angle of forward progress makes it look like they are going to trip and cause a double impalement and concussion.

The most modern bit of this type of art is the thirty story space monument.  It is gleaming titanium and is really quite beautiful, but along the base is a relief of Lenin pointing to the stars followed by cosmonauts, scientists and workers.


Hard Currency Stores:

Soviet Currency is worthless outside the USSR.  Soviets crave hard western currency, which includes US, Canadian, Western European and Japanese money.  Westerners get better prices at the so called dollar stores.  Every sort of currency is traded in these stores.  In one transaction I paid in dollars, but since the shopkeeper did not have enough change in dollars I received it in nine different currencies, US, Canadian, French, British, Finnish, Norwegian, Danish, West German and Japanese.  You almost need a computer mind to keep up with the different exchange rates.  In another transaction the clerk couldn’t make change with the currency available so got a fist full of coins rounded out by two cartons of pineapple juice.

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