Russia Then & Now: A Tale of Two Visits

In 1985 I spent 13 days in Russia — then officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), but which I will call Russia for reader convenience. I traveled with 100 others, under the august auspices of the Smithsonian Institution. After 32 years and countless tectonic intervening events, I recently returned to what — no surprise — is a very different Russia, along with three dozen capitalist comrades, under the equally august auspices of the National Symphony Orchestra. This article is the first of two reports about the visits.

My 1985 visit, May 15–27, came on the heels of the 40th anniversary of Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany, in what it celebrates annually as the Great Patriotic War, three months after Mikhail Gorbachev was elevated by his Politburo peers to General Secretary of the Communist Party, the former Soviet Union’s then-equivalent of prime minister. Upon my return I committed to paper my daily diary of the trip. From this, aided by my photo album, my recollections follow.

May 15: Leningrad. Our Finnair flight lands at Leningrad Airport. There are about ten airplanes on the ground, this for a city of nearly five million. The single baggage conveyor belt topples bags on top of each other. At our lodging, the Moscow Hotel, it takes over an hour to check in our party despite multiple clerks. We thus are introduced to Russia’s national pastime: waiting in line. That night, informed that a local parasite swims contentedly in Leningrad’s water supply, I brush my teeth in Soviet soda water. It is so vile that the parasite seems a viable alternate option.

May 16: Leningrad. We visit a Soviet elementary school, and watch 12-year-olds put on a Huckleberry Finn skit. They are good — too good. Somehow I do not think this is regular fare in Soviet education. But kids are kids, and little Masha and Natasha are most engaging. They seem no different from their counterparts in the West — at least, that we can see in public. Growing up in a totalitarian society, children learn to take certain precautions at an early age. We depart by train that evening for Tallinn, Estonia (then a Soviet republic). We were apparently forced to vacate our Leningrad digs because Gorbachev was making his first visit to Russia’s second city, since his becoming Soviet leader. Alas, he wanted his party to stay at our hotel. Not needing to curry voter favor, he booted us out. We get an object lesson in the realities of living in a dictatorship.

May 17: Talinn. Our local Intourist guide for today’s walking tour is Tanya, a smiling mother of one. She informs us with a perfectly straight face that each of the 15 Soviet republics has a legal right to secede, per the 1977 Soviet Constitution. Reminding myself that counterrevolutionary activity is beyond my trip charter, I pass up suggesting a plebiscite in Estonia. Little did I know that Tanya would be proven right, come annus mirabilis 1989, when a Soviet press flack announced that the regime’s new policy for its satellite states in Eastern Europe was the “Frank Sinatra ‘My Way’ Doctrine.” In the final week of 1991 the “Evil Empire” itself went out of business. That evening several of us attend a brass band concert, and are treated to a little Russian music and lots of American music — including “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Dixie.” We finish at the night hotel bar, where I drink Viru vodka neat, and remove a layer of stomach lining. The bar is populated with drunken Finns, who cross the Gulf of Finland to imbibe quantities that the Finnish authorities don’t tolerate but Russia does — despite Gorbachev having banned alcohol sales before 2 PM and his campaign against excess vodka consumption.

May 18: Talinn. We meet with seven local bureaucrats — in political parlance, apparatchiki — who proceed to dump on President Reagan over (a) his visit to the Bitburg cemetery in West Germany, where SS officers are buried; and (b) his proposed missile defense system, derided in Russia and by domestic critics as “Star Wars.” This is to be a “friendship meeting” but our hosts clearly have a different cultural conception of friendship. We answer with a chorus of diverse views, all couched as gently as possible, as befits polite guests. None of our hosts attacks Gorbachev. The event ends with a local pianist playing, after which I reciprocate with personal piano diplomacy, offering Chopin’s sublimely mellifluous “Aeolian Harp” Etude.

May 19: Leningrad. We return to Leningrad, the Politburo Gods having been served. The overnight train ride is memorable chiefly because the privy was in such sad shape that the window seemed a better option. Sunday is ballet night, and by lot I and a fellow attendee receive a ticket all the way to one side, Dress Circle, obstructed view. From that vantage point we will see far more of the audience than of goings on the stage. I feel a tap on my shoulder as the curtain rises. It is the usherette, a kindly looking grandmotherly lady — Russians call them babushki. Believing she wants to verify our seating I gently shoo her away, to no avail. Finally we step into the far aisle, and she leads us to a pair of empty seats with full stage view. Moral: never argue with babushki.

May 20: Leningrad. I walk the city’s most famous street, appearing in many classic Russian stories: Nevsky Prospect (the photo is similar to what I recall seeing in 1985). Spanning four kilometers (2.5 miles) from our hotel down to the stunning Admiralty building with its majestic spire, I see maybe ten cars, not many more people; the shops are a dismal succession of minimal quality goods, and few at that. The street is named after Russia’s greatest 13th century hero, Alexander Nevsky. His honorific nickname means “of the Neva,” which is the name of the river that bisects the city. It was there in 1240 AD that Alexander, prince of Novgorod (“new city”), defeated the Swedes in the Battle of the Ice; hence Alexander of the Neva. We attend another friendship meeting that evening — this time, it is friendly. It’s an education forum, and we meet 13-year-old Alyosha. Very poised, he too, worries, so he tells us, about Star Wars. I introduce myself to him not as John, but as Vanya, the Russian diminutive for Ivan, my Russian first name.

May 21: Leningrad. We visit Palace Square, celebrating the triumph of Alexander I over Napoleon in 1812. We marvel at the Scythian Gold collection at the fabled Hermitage Museum. We see St. Isaac’s Cathedral, third largest domed church in the world, after St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London. I pose under a dramatic statue of Peter the Great on horseback, his horse rearing on its hind legs. In Peter’s massive shadow I am barely visible. Later, we attend a 17th century Russian opera, Kovanschina. Our chief Intourist guide, Vera, tells us its convoluted plot resembles the American soap opera Dallas, about which she knows more than pretty much everyone on the bus. Set in the time of Peter the Great as a child, it chronicles various intriguers seeking to usurp the young Peter’s throne. They fail, and young Peter goes on to greater things — most notably, starting in 1703, ordering the building of St. Petersburg on marshland. (The city retained its name until 1914, when it became Petrograd. But in 1918 the Bolsheviks renamed it Leningrad. In 1991 it was given back its original name, but landmarks in and around the city, such as its largest train station, remain named after Lenin.)

May 22: Leningrad. We travel to Pavlovsk and Pushkin, to see the countryside palaces of Catherine the Great and the later Romanovs. They are all under renovation. Five of us dine that eve at Sadko, a recommended restaurant. We get so-so food, and are bombarded with American rock music. I am unsuccessful in asking the band to play Russian songs, pleading that we came 5,000 miles to hear the native stuff. Alas, they don’t play Russian music; rock conquers all.

May 23: Leningrad. A group of us use our free day to visit, with one of our Smithsonian Russia experts, Peterhof, the summer palace of Peter. We do so on a day that starts sunny, then turns briefly stormy with snow flurries. We return to Leningrad, and two of us split off to try Troika, a nightclub recommended by a fellow tour member. His story of dancing girls, costume changes, and strobe lights is everything advertised. We are joined at our table by a Russian girl and two Germans. Helena is 24, a graduate student in political economy at Leningrad University. We chat, but Helena asks us not to talk when the waiter is around. She informs us that there is a sign at the door, “Foreigners Only.” She and other Russians in the audience must pay black market rates to get in. After the show, I leave her with my Washington, D.C. address, and invite her to look me up if she visits. She laughs and tells her naive Western interlocutor that such is impossible. I may as well have invited her to spend a private evening at Peterhof. We return to the hotel in a black market taxi called by our waiter, to whom I give $5 (about $20 today) to get him to call a reliable one. Our driver is impatient upon encountering evening traffic near the club, so he runs up on the sidewalk for a few blocks, then returns to the street.

May 24: Moscow. After a third overnight train ride, no ritzier than the others, we catch the great Russian painters at the Tretyakov State Gallery. I see my favorite Russian painting, Ilya Repin’s 1891 canvas, Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire. (N.B., Read the 1764 exchange of letters shown at this link and savor how Repin’s painting captures what the Cossacks were writing.) After lunch we take an afternoon bus tour of the city. We see the statue of Yuri Dolgoruky, credited with founding Moscow in 1147. But as we circle Dzerzhinsky Square, a caramel colored building, No. 2, is not pointed out; it is the building housing the headquarters of the KGB, and also the infamous Lubyanka Prison, site of countless torture sessions and mass killings during the Stalin purges of the late 1930s. It is egregiously misnamed, as “Lubyanka” is Russian for “flowers.” In the center of the circle stands a statue identified by our guide as that of Felix Dzerzhinsky, “revolutionary and patriot.” In fact, the man known as “Iron Feliks” was the fanatical head of the first Bolshevik secret police organization, the Vecheka (an acronym for “All Russian Extraordinary Commission”); six reorganizations later, in 1954, it became the KGB (Committee for State Security). We visit the famed overlook on the Lenin Hills, where stands Moscow University. A married couple and wedding party are snapping photos, a local custom. The Moscow Metro is spectacular, with ceiling frescoes, stained glass windows, and marble pillars. And no graffiti! I wonder if the KGB could clean up New York City’s subways. (As it happened, during Rudy Giuliani’s two terms he managed this the job, aided by anti-graffiti technology.) At last we walk into Red Square — not, incidentally, named for the Bolshevik Revolution, but rather “Red” in Old Russian meant “beautiful,” a name given the iconic square in the 15th century. I see party bigwigs exit Spassky Gate in black limos, going at least 60 mph. I find Moscow residents rude, in contrast to those of Leningrad and Talinn. A sign in the lobby of our hotel, the storied National near Red Square, neatly captures the true value of Russian currency. It labels various local watering holes “rouble bars” and “hard currency bars.”

May 25: Moscow. We visit the Cathedral Courtyard in the heart of the Kremlin. The view, and the Assumption Cathedral, and the famed 16th century St. Basil’s with its multicolor onion cupolas, is breathtaking. That afternoon we depart by bus for two medieval towns on the Golden Ring, a ride of 250 kilometers northeast (150 miles): Vladimir (13th century) and Suzdal (12th century). On the way our group is invited to talk politics with our charming Intourist guide, Vera. Several New England peaceniks surprise me by asking her about all those terrible things Russia is doing in Afghanistan. Vera smoothly slides into Soviet officialese and parries, but for once our more idealistic members are not mollified. Enough video has reached American TV screens, and they are simply not buying Vera’s party line. We stay over in Suzdal. At night one of our tour leaders takes us for a stroll, and we visit a site where a made-for-TV film about Peter the Great was recently shot; it will air in 1986.

May 26: Suzdal. I pass my 38th birthday at the Convent of the Intercession in Suzdal. Cake is served in the Refectory of the Conception. But after the celebratory lunch there is an off-key moment. One of our group gives trinkets to two boys. Two plainclothesmen chase them, catching one — a theme echoing those old Hollywood films where one guy goes free and becomes a cop or a priest, and the other is caught, and becomes a gangster. But this, alas, is real life. The cops drag the boy and his bike off, a harrowing reminder that we are guests in the shadow of the Gulag Archipelago.

May 27: Vladimir. In the morning we take a final tour, and then have a last chance to buy souvenirs. We visit a beryozka, a shop for foreigners only. There is one cashier for 100 of us, and I wait 90 minutes. While in line I pick up an additional $200 worth of goods; Soviet economics of endless waiting sometimes pays off. That night we board the Finnair plane to Helsinki. As we take off many of our group break into spontaneous applause. We check into our hotel, and enjoy a sumptuous supper.

Russia 1985: Observations. Hotels were way below Western standards, with beds barely adequate for those of average size. Food, even in good establishments, was marginal, with poor produce; beer and wine were dismal. We had hot/cold water for bath, but public restrooms were hideous. We were free to walk around, though few people would look at us — except kids, let alone talk to us. Best vodka was Stolichnaya in bottles, of those we tasted. Few in the hotels spoke English. Our guides and others we met were understandably cautious, given the society they live in.

I left Russia with affection for the ordinary Soviet citizen that I had not imagined likely, as Americans are unpopular in many foreign lands, and there was nothing for them to gain by talking to us. Ivan Q. Public has every reason to envy us our freedom; he endures with grace and stoicism the oppression of a police mega-state, and manages to survive. What a tragedy that Ivan has been for so long denied the chance to realize his full potential — and Ivanka hers.

If one can survive the culture shock, Mother Russia has much to offer the visitor.

John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and London Center for Policy Research, author of Sleepwalking With the Bomb, and founder of the issues blog Letter From the Capitol.

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