With Russia on top of the news these days, I thought I would share my first and last trip to Russia 52 years ago this month way back when it was the USSR.
The voyage from Yokahama to Nakhodka was a couple of days. Passengers were a combination of Japanese and a few westerners. The crew was Russian and put on a little Russian style entertainment for us on the way – singing and dancing. I made friends with a couple of Swiss guys and some Japanese girls. One in particular, Toshiko Yamamoto, I ran into again in Vienna. We didn’t waste much time getting on the train. Most of the people who had come on the boat were going to go by train all the way to Moscow, about a week’s journey.
Figure 1 - Aboard the ship "Khabarovsk" in Nakhadka harbor
Figure 2 - On the Trans-Siberian Railway
In Khabarovsk, it was cold and snowy.
Strategically located on the hills overlooking the Amur River, Khabarovsk was founded as a military outpost in 1651, during the first wave of Russian colonization. The town gained importance during the nineteenth century as a trading outpost, and today it is one of the most important and promising cities of the Russian Far East. Khabarovsk is a pleasant city, with wide, tree-lined boulevards, a popular beach, and an interesting museum of ethnography and local history.
I boarded a plane for Moscow. I think it must have been a Tupolev TU-114, a very large propeller-driven plane, very old-fashioned looking, like something from the 1950s. I sat in one of two opposing seats with table in between with three high-ranking Russian military officers. They found it interesting that just a month before I was part of the U.S. Army in Vietnam in a war in which the USSR was not only sympathetic to but assisting the other side.
Moscow was also cold and snowy. I had only two days there. I stayed in the Hotel Metropol. I visited the Kremlin, Red Square and just walked around a lot. I remember there were stores that were off limits to everyone but tourists and communist officials, including “supermarket” where all the labels were just black print on white – no graphics and no advertising. In fact, advertising of any kind seemed to be forbidden. The stores the ordinary people could go to were bare bones – literally. I went to meat market, and there was nothing left but bones. The protocol in all stores was to stand in line to pay first, then stand in line again to collect the merchandise. The only thing I bought were some records. On the night before I was schedule to take a train to Leningrad, I met a girl, partied late and missed my 7:30 AM train the next morning. I thought Intourist was going to arrest me. Apparently, deviating from a schedule was a big deal.
Leningrad had a distinctly different feeling than Moscow, more liberal. Some shops and cafes had graphic signage that looked like advertising. I visited the Winter Palace and the Hermitage Museum, both excellently cared for, only 25 years after Leningrad was virtually destroyed in WWII.
There was a nightclub in my hotel that was of limits to all but tourists and communist party officials. The night I was there, I had dinner with some well-dressed “Young Communists,” children of communist officials.
On more than one occasion, I was propositioned to sell my blue jeans for attractive sums. But I resisted.
The whole trip through the USSR, April 11-16, 1970, arranged by Intourist, including transportation and lodging only cost about $260.
On the final day, I took a train back to Moscow and took a plane to Vienna.
I wrote the following to my parents:
My trip to Russia ended much too quickly. There are so many strange things going on that I wanted to know more about – but no time!
I’ll try to give you some impressions of the trip while they are still fresh on my mind, in more or less chronological sequence. We left Yokohama on a passenger ship with about 10-odd people – mostly Japanese with a few Australians and Europeans thrown in – and maybe 2 or 3 other Americans. The crew was all Russian – and a very friendly and talented bunch (I think musical talent was a prerequisite for employment). It was a two-day trip to Nakhodha – during which time I met a good many of the Japanese folks – and became good friends with several (mostly female type). Nakhodka is quite near Vladivostok but is used as a tourist port of entry because the navy is at Vladivostok – a much larger city.
The bleakness of Siberia is absolutely appalling! Not so much the land – but the city – which typically sprawls over a tremendous area with no apparent center or cohesiveness – kind of like an infinite college campus. There are few cars – lots of streets – and the next most immediately striking thing is the complete lack of commercial retail outlets, as we know them. Almost every residential building has a store of some sort on the lower floor – but you wouldn’t know it until you walk in and look around for it. Within the system, however, the people seem to be in not so bad shape – the basic essentials of life are available, and the Russians appear to be well dressed (perhaps better than people in many pats of the U.S.), and there are no starvation cases readily noticeable. Luxuries, as we know them, are just not available (which I will elaborate on later). From Nakhodka all the way through the trip, there was absolutely no restraint applied to any of us as to where we could wander, whom we could talk to, or what we could photograph – although written instructions were distributed that forbade photos of airports or bridges.
We then took an overnight train trip north to Khabarovsk – and boarded a plane for a nine-hour trip to Moscow. The train was almost in the luxurious category – but it was especially laid on for the boatload of people coming in – it’s hard to judge how it would compare to what is available normally. The plane was a mixture of Russians and the same group from the boat – a large turbo-prop with considerably more room than an American plane would have. Everyone seemed to get along famously with the Russians on the plane – including a number of armed forces personnel.
Moscow was rainy and cold like nothing I’ve ever seen before – and after one soaking walking tour through the Kremlin, I gave up touristing as much as possible. The outskirts of Moscow have much the same appearance as the towns in Siberia – but with a little more finesse – and the newer apartment complexes have a standard of design that would show up many similar projects in the U.S., but that isn’t saying a whole lot. Downtown Moscow has preserved enough of the historical heritage, which leaned so heavily on French and European ideals for a couple of hundred years – principally in the reigns of Catherine and Peter. The Kremlin is huge and impressive in the center of town, and two thousand people stand in the most miserable weather to look at Lenin’s waxen face. I wouldn’t have stood ten minutes in that stuff to see anyone or anything! In Moscow, there are plenty of cars (though not anything like in the west), ad they are all the same brand. There are more shops – more variety – and some of the newer complexes are just like shopping centers anywhere – though a little sparse – like they are anticipating a big shipment of merchandise to arrive any minute.
The hotels are all big in the grand style but a little Spartan, and the food is terrible and expensive. Better to eat outside where the Russians do – but there is always a line, and service is not up to the standards one would expect elsewhere. Here again, the people are well dressed and seem to be provided with everything they really need, but no luxuries. Moscow has a subway that looks like a palace and is spotlessly clean, fast and efficient, probably the best in the world – and other items of public transportation seem to be well planned and executed. I stayed an extra night in Moscow under the rationalization that the weather would clear, but it was actually due to a Japanese girl that I had taken a fancy to – and a group of jolly Russians who insisted we join them for vodka – which they chugged just like water – or maybe faster. Intourist takes it as a personal affront if you change your itinerary in the slightest, but I managed to get things worked out somehow.
Leningrad was a little chilly, but clear and spring-timey – and is probably the most liberal, European and prettiest city in Russia. Here again, the stores were a little better recognized than anywhere I had been previously – and there were actually window displays, neon lights, etc. – and even in profusion on a recognizable city center and main drag. Leningrad is full of history art and architecture – and is a very pleasant place. New – and the food was good. I was the only American I think in Leningrad at the time, and one of the few foreign tourists, who usually come in great profusion later in the year.
A few interesting points – the older Russians are generally suspicious and cold to visitors unless they are thrown together is a situation like the airplane – hotel, etc. But the younger ones are friendly and outgoing, and if they are in or graduated from college have a varying knowledge of English. There is a black market on western goods and western money – about 3-4 times the legal exchange rate for dollars – and any luxury item (radios, records, American cigarettes, chewing gum, etc.) brings a premium in rubles. I didn’t indulge – but I was approached constantly by students and younger Russians. Most of the things they wanted were things we take for granted – but for one reason or another are not available. Caviar, for instance, is not available in the Russian stores – but can be bought by foreigners with foreign currency in special stores – usually located in hotels.
All in all, its really difficult for me to really draw up an opinion without studying the facts more, but unquestionably, the Russian people have been forced to give up the normality of life as most people in the world know it in order to pursue and industrial might and military power that are no joke. Whether they would be where they are today, as a primary world power if the Revolution of 1917 and subsequent communist dictatorship set up afterwards had not taken place is a question no one can answer – nor can one answer as to whether it was all worth it. But at any rate, the Russian people seem to be – for all their problems – a very proud bunch, cognizant of their history, patriotic and dedicated to the heroes of the Revolution (witness the crowds in Red Square to view Lenin). They all are ready to admit – and some did to me – that there have been problems and mistakes made in the past, but I think look to the future with kind of a resigned confidence. The excessively luxurious living standards of the Russian aristocracy have been arduously preserved everywhere, which is a great boon to art, but I suspect there is a more subtle reason – because they all figure in a quite realistic and encompassing “propaganda” campaign to glorify the accomplishments of the Revolution. Everywhere that tourists are apt to congregate in Russia, a tremendous amount of literature is available on every subject giving views of Lenin or contemporary communist thought. Being able to read only the French or English translations, it was difficult to say what the Russians are actually given to ingest for journalism of current events and history, but everything I could read never just said “United States” or “American.” It was always [refaced by “imperialistic” or “warmongering” or something. But other than that, the substance was surprisingly candid, biased of course, but not so much as much of what one reads in the U.S.
From what conversation I was able to have with them on the subject, a number of Russians had remarkably similar views to my own on the state of world affairs – vis a vis the war in southeast Asia (you can no longer confine it to Vietnam) and the war in the Middle East. They were personally unhappy that the leaders of their country had involved them to the extent they were – and had absolutely no wish to confront with the Americans or anyone else in these places, but they were not, of course, protesting, on much the same grounds that most Americans blindly follow our foreign policy under the dubious and ephemeral justification called “patriotism.” I am firmly convinced that although the Russians want to be perhaps the most powerful country on earth – and want to protect their national interests to the extent that anyone does – that they are not interested in “burying” America – or anyone else. The only danger lies in the seemingly inevitable parade of tyrants which history knows so well – that, like Hitler, were able to capture he imagination of and achieve mastery of the people and their destiny. And I’m not so sure that the American people are any better able to resist the advances of such men and their policies – even though we have theoretically set up the machinery of government to prevent it.