A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
(Thirtieth in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)
In my early twenties, I was gripped by an interest in all things Russian. Significantly, this evolving infatuation was primarily bookish, not to be directly linked to the usual cultural suspects, like potent vodka, Slavic women, winter sports or taboo Communism.
Both hard liquor and girls were intimidating, and what’s more, they could be a dangerous temptation for an overly shy guy perpetually in search of liquid courage. This I'd learned the hard way. As for ice, snow, and frozen tundra, moderation is key; once in a while suffices, not six solid months. Small wonder the Russians drank so much.
To be fair, Communism was a demonstrable aspect of the attraction, albeit in a strictly voyeuristic sense, best assayed from afar, and not to be confused with any desire to live it. The Scandinavian socialist model struck me as a viable alternative. Just the same, I wanted to be able to say that I’d been there and seen the other kind. Professor Thackeray’s lectures on history had found a sweet spot, indeed. I was hooked.
What was it about the Tsarist Russia that managed to produce Lenin, Stalin and seven decades of so-called dialectical materialism, when even the Marxist revolutionaries themselves had been schooled to reject the possibility of it happening in such a backward place?
Yet, for all the poverty and reactionary tendencies, Tsarist times also gave the world Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Tchaikovsky and Borodin; many were the nights I struggled drunkenly through passages of obscure Russian literature (in translation) while playing and replaying Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture.
Then came the biggest question of all: After Russia’s catastrophe in the Great War – society’s meltdown, the Tsar’s murder, the bloody creation of the USSR – how did the country survive Stalin’s famines, purges and gulags, and still rally to bludgeon the Nazi dragon?
This was my father’s constant fascination, and I came to share it.
These many years later, it is impossible to point to a single epiphany, that one moment when the bulb was illuminated and the possibility of dipping behind the Iron Curtain as a tourist first took hold.
It took two years to save enough money to visit Europe, allowing plenty of time to plan, so it’s probably the same old story: I must have read about it somewhere.
Given that one of my essential texts was Let’s Go: Europe, a quick glance at the 1984 edition reveals a reference to the Travela agency in the chapter on Helsinki. That’s surely it, as Travela was highly recommended as an organizer of budget youth and student tours to Leningrad, the once and future St. Petersburg. I dimly recall sending for the brochure and pricing.
If memory serves, there were several longer guided Travela jaunts planned for 1985. There wouldn’t be enough time and money for any of those, and Moscow, Kiev and the Trans-Siberian railway would have to wait. However, one of several Leningrad motor coach excursions looked to fit my projected summer’s itinerary.
The only firm memories I have of Helsinki on the morning of departure involve all-consuming nervous apprehension. Tour documents listed the meeting place at Travela’s office in downtown Helsinki, easily reached by public transportation from the youth hostel. I got there early, and gradually, my fellow travelers trickled in.
It galls me to remember so little about them. Names and addresses from 1985 were lost forever in 1987, when the little blue book tumbled from my pocket in Vienna. Only broad outlines remain.
There were around 25 of us on the tour, which was expressly designed to be for English speakers. Many were Americans, but not all. The Finnish tour guide’s name was Ari. He was blonde, urbane and multi-lingual. I recall being surprised that a Mexican family was with us. Dad was a corporate executive on the cheap, just like the rest of us. They were charming.
A balding Swiss schoolteacher soon would have his star turn at the Peter & Paul Fortress. An Australian my age named Mark, who had been away from home for a year and a half, working his way across the globe, tried mightily to get me into trouble throughout our stay -- and almost succeeded.
The bus eventually loaded, and away we went. I experienced a thinly suppressed panic, borne of too many Cold War movies, upon arrival at the Finno-Soviet border, where several uniformed guards came aboard to examine passports and visas. The latter were procured by Travela, this being a prime selling point of such a tour; otherwise, the process was said to be exhausting.
Several pieces of luggage were removed and searched, but overall, it was slightly less of a hassle than I’d expected, although within eyesight was a VW van with West German license plates. It was parked over what looked like a grease pit, and seemingly was being disassembled bolt by bolt.
We made good time until the outskirts of Leningrad. Few cars were using the highway, and the landscape was rural and wooded, reminiscent of Michigan. There was a rest stop in the middle of a dreary town by the main road near Vyborg, in a region that once belonged to Finland before being extracted by Uncle Joe in WWII.
Our stopover offered a first glimpse at the bizarre institution of the Beriozka shop, albeit a poorly stocked example compared with the ones about to be plundered in Leningrad. At the Beriozka, only foreign currency was legal tender. Rubles weren’t accepted at all.
The reason we’d been discouraged from indulging in black market currency transactions on the street wasn’t so much their illegality (small-scale trading posed far greater dangers for Soviets than foreigners) as the plain fact that having amassed a fortune in rubles, there’d be absolutely nothing of quality upon which to spend them.
By design, the quality goods went to the Beriozka, because the hard currency spent in the Beriozka went straight to the government, without grubby middlemen – capitalists, and all that.
When departing the USSR, you were not allowed to cash rubles back into hard currency without a receipt (which black market traders obviously didn’t give), and it wasn’t legal to export rubles.
This is the reason why foreigners indulging in black market currency swaps inevitably wound up splurging at better restaurants. At least there one could eat, drink and be exceedingly sloppy – and invite half the tour group along for the ride for what it would cost (in dollars) to dine at McDonald’s back home.
Whatever this place near Vyborg was called, it was a thoroughly depressing locale. Older buildings were chipped and faded, and newer ones built with pre-fabricated concrete sections that looked nothing like similar structures in Western Europe. It was my first good look at the “rabbit hutches,” as the Czech dissident Vaclav Havel described these ubiquitous housing towers.
There weren’t many people on the street, and the ones I saw didn’t hustle and bustle. They drooped and shuffled. My memory isn’t a perfect snapshot, but it’s a reliable recollection of moroseness. It was a shock.
However, there’s an important corollary, because these people surely were flesh and blood humans like us, not the ideological automatons depicted by the hardcore patriots back home. This counted for something, didn't it?
On the outskirts of Leningrad, the rabbit hutches began multiplying, appearing like M.C. Escher mazes viewed from afar. Near the waterway, industrial complexes squatted, their messy dishevelment punctuated by clusters of heavy work cranes.
Impenetrable propaganda displays appeared on billboards and buildings. Eventually, I’d learn the Cyrillic alphabet. In the interim, many of us aboard the bus practiced simple words and phrases: Please, thank you, beer and toilet.
Perhaps seven hours after leaving Helskini, maybe a bit longer, the bus finally stopped at the Hotel Sovetskaya. I found a more recent description of the hotel, which still exists under a different name.
The Sovetskaya Hotel is located on the south edge of the historical center of St. Petersburg, near the intersection of Lermontovsky Prospekt and the Fontanka River. Rooms on the upper floors of the hotel feature fantastic views of the city center with the domes of St. Isaac's Cathedral, the Trinity Cathedral and St. Nicholas' Cathedral dominating the skyline.
The hotel was reasonably modern, of 1960s vintage, and from the window of Room 1031 (exactly how did I merit a single room?), there was indeed a commanding view of downtown. St. Isaac’s Cathedral’s gold dome looked so close as to be just up the block, but as my feet were about to learn, it was two-to-three miles away by foot, as was Nevsky Prospekt and the other main historic sites.
The room was musty and bedraggled. Well, I’d seen worse. An old radio occupied much of a worn tabletop. It had two knobs, one to turn it on and off, and the other to adjust the volume. The radio dial was tuned to a single frequency. The channel could not be changed.
I clicked the button. Knowledge of Russian was not required to glean that these two men were talking about Lenin, primarily because after every couple dozen words, “V.I. Lenin” would be repeated. It was like listening to the Communist Gospel Hour, hypnotizing and metronomic.
There it was. I’d finally crossed a border too far, and was being brainwashed right there, in my hotel room. Would I become part of a secret cell, whispering passwords?
What if I wasn’t even allowed to leave the USSR?
Was my room phone bugged?
It didn’t matter. I never learned how to use the damn thing, anyway.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 29 … Helsinki beneath my feet, but Leningrad on my mind.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 28 … A Finnish detour to Tampere for beer and sausages.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 27 … Stockholm's blonde ambition, with or without mead-balls.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 26 … The Hansa brewery tour, and a farewell to Norway.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 25 … Frantic pickled Norway.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 24 … An aspiring “beer hunter” amid Carlsberg’s considerable charms.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 23 … A fleeting first glimpse of Copenhagen.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 22 … It's how the tulips were relegated.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 21 … A long day in Normandy, though not "The Longest Day."
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 20 … War stories, from neutral Ireland to Omaha Beach.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 19 … Sligo, Knocknarea, Guinness and Freddie.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 18 … Irish history with a musical chaser.
The PC: Euro '85, Part 17 ... A first glimpse of Ireland.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 16 … Lizard King in the City of Light.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 15 … The traveler at 55, and a strange interlude.
The PC: We pause Euro '85 to remember the Mathäser Bierstadt in Munich.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 14 … Beers and breakfast in Munich.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 13 … Tears of overdue joy at Salzburg's Augustiner.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 12 … Stefan Zweig and his world of yesterday.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 11: My Franz Ferdinand obsession takes root.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 10: Habsburgs, history and sausages in Vienna.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 9 … Milan, Venice and a farewell to Northern Italy.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 8 … Pecetto idyll, with a Parisian chaser.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 7 … An eventful detour to Pecetto.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 6 … When in Rome, critical mass.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 5 … From Istanbul to Rome, with Greece in between.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.
The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … Where it all began.