From August 15-26, 1990, we (Anna, Dick, and Jill) visited the USSR: Leningrad, Minsk, and Moscow. We couldn’t have picked a more interesting time to go: we observed firsthand and lived through perestroika and glasnost. Following are some of our impressions.
Little Fagins and Big-time Operators
Black market activities, mostly exchange of rubles or selling of goods for hard currency, affected us everywhere. Entrepreneurs ranged from little boys asking for chewing gum to a sinister crowd in Leningrad obviously engaged in bigger stuff (money exchange? cigarettes? drugs? – we never figured it out, but it made us very uncomfortable to be near them). In several places the police were obviously part of the gang. We were accosted every time we left or entered the tour bus: military watches, money, lacquer boxes matrioshka (wooden nested) dolls, icons, Russian flags. The waiters carried tins of caviar under the towels over their arms; the maids had scarves and dolls hidden under the sheets in the linen closets. Enterprising young men kept cartons of vodka in the trunks of their cars parked in front of the hotel.
It was hard to judge either how much something was really worth or know how much we were paying for it. The exchange rate in hard currency shops was .6(ruble)/1(dollar), but that was only when we were actually buying goods. If we exchanged dollars for rubles at the official rate, it was 6/1. Black market exchange was often 14/1 or up to 20/1. Goods in the hard currency shops were the best quality, but they were also generally the most expensive. On the other hand, items in Russian stores seemed very cheap. We got books for 15 or 20 cents, and phonograph records for about 50 cents.
One of the signs of progress in the current economic crisis is joint ventures. The road from the airport in to Moscow is lined with companies formed between foreign concerns and Russian cooperatives. We ate dinner in a club that was a British-Russian joint venture. The building was in good repair and freshly painted; plants decorated the dining room; a band played during dinner. The food was good, and china and crystal beautiful, and the waiters attentive.
Q: Is Totalitarianism Really Over? A: Absolutely!
The Russians we had the most contact with were very open about their current political and economic situation. No propaganda. We couldn’t help but contrast it with our 1973 visit to East Germany when we paid for a tour of a new school building by having to endure the worst possible chauvinistic drivel.
There is surprising interest in the Tsarist period of history, and very little evidence of former Communist leaders. All statues and portraits of Stalin have been eliminated, and I believe Lenin is not far behind. One way they poke a little fun at themselves and their present and former leaders is with “Gorby” dolls, a political version of the traditional Russian nested wooden dolls. Gorbachev is on the outside with Brezhnev, Khrushchev, Stalin, and Lenin on the inside, each doll smaller than the last.
The most prominent monuments don’t celebrate party leaders, but the heroes and victims of World War II. Leningrad (will it revert to “St. Petersburg” soon?) still remembers its “900 days” of German siege, and the wide streets and new buildings in Minsk are constant reminders that 85% of its structures were destroyed and one in four people were killed.
We were invited to a discussion by a professor of political science at one of the local colleges – an expert on perestroika. He made several key points:
- The disappearance of the old order has left a void; the lack of authority makes people nervous at best and threatens to deteriorate into anarchy at worst.
- People are suffering a crisis of identity: “We used to be building the first Communist state, but now, who are we?” People are alternately hopeful and pessimistic about their future.
- The USSR must join the rest of the world to survive, and that means accepting Western ways. The renewed interest in religion seems to be welcomed, but the shadier sides of a free society such as an underground activities and pornography are not.
Q (to the professor): “What really started the move away from Communism?” A: “We knew we couldn’t go on like this.”
Q: “What do you think about the republics seceding from the Union?” A: “Why not? Most of them don’t speak very good Russian anyway.”
Ties with other Socialist countries have been broken. He showed us the last issue of a newspaper published by Socialist groups around the world, and then pulled out of his briefcase dozens of papers taking its place; they advocated everything from theocracy to anarchy.
We got bread at every meal – both white and rye – and it was of uniform quality and pretty good. (Almost the day we left that situation changed: there is now a severe bread shortage, and even tourists get only one slice per meal.)
For breakfast they usually gave us cheese and a cold sausage, as well as an egg dish or cooked rice cereal. Several times it was fried eggs; a couple of times a custard-like rice pudding. I couldn’t even look at the sardines and anchovies that early in the morning!
Lunch and Dinner
Lunch and dinner were pretty much alike. We often started with a salad, heavy on the mayonnaise, containing either cucumber or cabbage or both. Second course was a soup: borscht was good and so was chicken. The main course was either beef or chicken, always tough and stringy unless they made it into something like a stroganoff. Several times we got the previous meal’s meat or egg, ground and breaded and then fried. It might not sound terrific, but it was very edible, and tender! Accompanying the meat was rice (sticky) and boiled potato. Rarely did we get any vegetable except cabbage, which was always raw and unseasoned. In Leningrad we got a plate of apples, which were a little overripe, but at least fresh! Irina (our guide) told us Russians eat “like savages”: that is, lots of meat and potatoes.
In the morning and at noon we got either juice or a sugar drink like Kool-Aid, and we could always ask for either tea or coffee. The mineral water was a tour joke: it was salty and tasted very strongly of chlorine and other chemicals. Each table got several bottles, and most went untouched. We called it “swamp water.” You must have to grow up with it: a little boy on one of our Aeroflot flights went back to the flight attendant for three refills, and obviously relished every swallow. Beer was plentiful and powerful: 11%! We were served vodka for the special dinners. Natives swallowed a shot glass full in one gulp, but nobody on our tour could do it in less than two!
Cold Climate and Inefficient Distribution
We were told that all they can grow around Leningrad, where there are only three frost-free months, is potatoes, carrots, and cabbage. They have a whole complex of greenhouses near the city where they produce a few more vegetables, like tomatoes. Other vegetables are shipped from the South, but shipping is very inefficient, and many crops spoil in getting to their destinations.
One thing the Russians are efficient at is taking care of tourists. The buses were always on time, the drivers were pleasant and drove safely, and (with one exception) the guides were good. One we will never forget: Irina, the guide who was with us the whole tour. Her English was flawless, her sense of humor was delightful, and she was a master at anticipating problems and heading them off before they affected us.
Red Square at Night
The lights at night create a warm and almost romantic atmosphere.
Lack of Traffic
With cars as scarce as they are, traffic is not the problem it is in our large cities. In Minsk during “rush hour” there was hardly a car to be seen.
Post-Cold War Warmth
Two cousins in our tour group were visiting family members they had never before met. The greetings and departures, which we all witnessed, were touching. The story of their visit to the home village was even more so: the entire village turned out to greet them and stand outside the relatives’ house the whole time they were there.
Yes, they’re technically breaking the law, but we liked their spirit. My favorite was the one who bought my Bart Simpson T-shirt for 100 rubles: his plaintive “Please!” in English clinched the deal for him.
Annoyances and Disappointments
- Two-week-old English-language newspapers
- Lack of towels, soap, toilet paper
- General shabbiness of carpets, drapes, and furniture
- Buildings that need paint
- Aeroflot: rude attendants, “swamp water” to drink, chaos in the airports
- Store- and hotel fronts with three or four doors, only one of which is open
- Salespeople who don’t care
We all had tales to tell about cash registers suddenly shut down and services withdrawn during regular working hours. Or of half a store closed so the goods YOU wanted to buy were inaccessible. No estimate on when they’d be available again. No explanation or apology for the inconvenience.
Observing the daily life of another culture is not the same as living it, but we are sure characterizing the average Russian’s life as “very difficult” would not be inaccurate. Buying the essentials of life, especially food and clothes, occupies a lot of people’s free time, and cuts into working hours, as well. We were amazed at the number of people out on the streets during the day. They queue up for the scarcest items early in the morning, and the line doesn’t shrink during the day.
During our visit tobacco was probably the worst. Russians are heavy smokers, and the cigarette strike hit them hard. Lines often reached a block or two long. The only line longer was at McDonalds: imagine having to wait four hours for “fast food”!
When Russians are not on queue they’re “cruising” for many different kinds of hard-to-find items. Deliveries of goods to stores are not made on any kind of regular schedule, and when scarce goods arrive, they’re sold out almost immediately. When Russian shoppers do find what they want, the quality is often poor. Shoes and clothes are the worst. Western goods are available only at hard-currency shops, where most Russians can’t buy.
“Service” is practically an unknown concept. A typical purchase involves stepping up to a counter and asking to see an item that is out of the shopper’s reach; competition for the clerk’s attention, of course, results in delays. You can see only one item at a time. After you’ve decided what you want, the clerk must write up a slip with the price, which you take to a cashier in another part of the store. After you’ve paid, you return to pick up your goods, which may have, by this time, been returned to the shelf.
Our tour group’s most common “war stories” were about trying to buy goods or services:
- “After I waited in line to 30 minutes, they announced they were going on a 45-minute break!”
- “Three clerks were sitting at cash registers gossiping. They had closed down half the store so they wouldn’t have to get up off their stools. When I asked for a glass vase in the closed half of the store, they refused!”
- “Even though it was during their scheduled break, they served drinks to three people in a row. When we asked for two Pepsis, though, they turned us down!”
There is a resurgence of interest in religion, and both the traditional Russian Orthodox Church and other sects new to Russia are benefiting. Interesting to observe are the differences in level of understanding between the generations. Only the old people seemed to be comfortable with the rituals in the church service we observed; the younger folks looked on in awe. We wondered how many of the younger congregations put up with the tradition of 3-4 hour services and no pews!
A Difficult Transition
Although many Russians seem to be confused and frightened about the changes they must undergo, we also observed a strong sense of optimism and will to survive. We suffered through some of the difficulties, as well, but the USSR is a fascinating country, and we hope to go back some day!