Monday, May 05, 2008

Soviet Union, 1983, Part I

Often these days i'm reminded of something that took place so long ago that it seems like an artificial memory, like something from a movie or a particularly vivid dream. For example, it is twenty-five years ago this month that i traveled to the Soviet Union, a place that doesn't even exist anymore as a political entity. In reality, i suspect it doesn't exist at all beyond memory, since that place bears little resemblance to modern Russia. I wrote about this a few years ago, but i promised i'd revisit it some day.

In 1983 I was finishing up my freshman year in college and therefore also my first year as a student of the Russian language. The head of the Russian department at U. of Arizona organized an annual trip to the Soviet Union, ostensibly to provide students with an opportunity to encounter the language and culture first-hand. In truth, i think he just loved the place. I'd been fascinated with the Soviet Union for years, in part because of a translator that my mother's company employed who traveled there frequently and would bring me posters and other souvenirs from his trips. Although it was expensive by the standards of my family, I felt that i couldn't pass up the opportunity to go.

I was 19 years old and essentially a hick from the sticks. My only international travel to that point was Mexico and Canada, and i'd never had a passport. The entire process was exciting and a bit daunting. I'd flown quite a few times, but the flight from New York City to Helsinki, Finland on Finnair might as well have been a spaceship to Mars. I remember very little about the trip, except that there was a small area near the back of the plane where one could stand and look out a window at the ocean below. It was the first time in my life that i'd been to a place where i couldn't see even a glimpse of civilization.

I do remember Helsinki, if a bit vaguely after all these years. I can't remember the hotel or the airport, and i only dimly recall my roomate, who i believe was a veterinarian. I remember walking around the city and seeing numerous graveyards (i'd been raised in the Lutheran church and Finland is historically a Lutheran country, so many of the churches and church grounds seemed familiar to me). I ran into some of my fellow travelers while out on a walk and we stopped at a cafe and had a beer. While not an entirely new experience for me, the fact that it was normal and unremarkable was cool. I exchanged money for the first time in my life, from dollars into the Finnish marks in use at that time. I sat in a round chapel in a park where a man played violin, probably Bach given the place. I experienced my first jet lag, and since the sun sets so late i was frequently unsure of what time of day it was. It was all very strange and melancholy and civilized. It suited me well.

We flew from Helsinki to Moscow. My first taste of Soviet bureaucracy was the long wait in the customs line at the airport, which was not much different than the modern security checkpoint at any post 9/11 airport. At that time, most foreigners could not travel inside the USSR without an escort. Officially, the escort was a sort of tour guide who worked for the Intourist agency. Ours was a young blond lady whose name i regrettably can't recall.

We stayed at a hotel called the Orlyonok, which was affiliated with the Soviet youth organization. It was close to Moscow State University, which was exciting for me because МГУ was frequently featured in my Russian language textbook. My room was relatively comfortable, but i was a bit taken aback by the shower, which was just a shower head coming out of the wall near the sink and a drain in the middle of the floor. Having my own shower was a luxury though. According to some of my trip mates, all of our rooms were bugged and an entire floor of the hotel was dedicated to monitoring guests. I was also told that if i left my passport unattended i should not be surprised if it disappeared temporarily. We had our first experience of the Russian black market here when a couple of men approached us in a stairwell to see if we'd be interested in selling our jeans.

That first night we went to the Moscow circus. During a break i got separated from my group, and for some reason i decided to walk back to the hotel alone. It was still fairly light out, but the thing i remember most distinctly is how quiet it was. If you know that Moscow even then had a population similar to New York city, you can understand why this was remarkable. Personal cars were still a rarity then, and the people in the city were unusually subdued. As i walked through the park near the river, you could have heard a pin drop.

Of course, as a mid-western kid i'd been raised to believe that the Soviet Union was evil, and communism was synonymous with a pernicious style of autocracy. I certainly can't defend the pre-glasnost politics of that time, but the truth was obviously far more subtle. As i walked back to my hotel, i saw a policeman approaching (militsia). He stopped, turned, and picked up a nearby public telephone. I have no idea if he was concerned with me, or if his actions were prompted by seeing a lone foreigner wandering along near the university. But for a few moments i was terrified and uncertain. Suddenly i realized that this was how it worked. You weren't scared because of easily identifiable monsters, but because of the monsters you imagined.

In Moscow we visited many tourist attractions, including the Kremlin of course and all of the Red Square landmarks. I remember the waxy corpse of Lenin at his tomb, and my suspicion that it was fake. We visited the beryozka, the state-sanctioned shops run just for tourists, where you could buy souvenirs and things like vodka that were virtually unattainable to the average Soviet citizen. We exchanged our dollars for the colorful ruble notes at the unfavorable exchange rate enforced by the government. We went to the ГУМ, the official state department store, and we rode the ornately decorated metro. One of my fellow travelers traded a bottle of vodka for a full day of taxi service. We began collecting znachok (znachki in plural), which are basically souvenir badges or pins. I had a long conversation with a bell-man at the hotel, which i'm sure he still relates to his friends whenever he needs a good laugh.

The next stage of our trip was the real highlight: a 96 hour train trip from Moscow to Irkutsk in Siberia. We would travel continuously for nearly 4 days, across the Russian countryside, over the Urals and into Asia; and across the vast territory of Siberia. It would impress me with the size of the country and the distance of the horizon, but i'd be disingenuous to say that it was either fun or exciting. Four days on a train is four days on a train, no matter where the train might be going. The most memorable part of the trip was holding up signs reading "Mir Y Drujba" (peace and friendship) as we passed through the stations. It was on the train that i developed my hatred of local beverages. In Moscow, you could buy Pepsi, although it was formulated a bit differently. But on the train we had only Soviet-made drinks, most notably a horrid concoction called Buxaro, which tasted like Dr. Pepper infused with sweaty shoe leather.

It will probably not surprise you to hear that Siberia is cold, even in May. It was snowing at times as we approached Irkutsk. The city itself was cold, but it felt good after so many days of stale train air. We took a walk around the town, a KGB officer following us at about 100 paces, making no attempt at all to be inconspicuous. Many of the people in the city were of obvious Asian extraction, a very distinctive appearance that i associate with Mongolia and the steppes in general. I also recall the key clerk who worked on my floor of the hotel (all Soviet hotels required you to surrender your room key before leaving). She was a lovely young Russian lady who spoke five languages. I tried both Russian and Spanish on her, but i suspect that even in English she was probably more fluent than i.

The key feature of Irkutsk is Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake. It is known especially for a variety of fish that is so adapted to the high pressures at the bottom of the lake that it will dissolve into a puddle if brought rapidly to the surface. I remember little of the surroundings, and i guess it stands to reason that the world's deepest lake will disappoint somewhat when viewed only from the surface.

Coming in Part II: Siberia to Central Asia

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