Monday, June 22, 2015

Russia in 1973

My blogging fell by the wayside while I was home visiting friends and family for the last few weeks. While I was in Bellingham, I asked my mom to write a guest post for my blog about her time in Russia. Though she’s not quite the Russophile I am, she went to St. Petersburg back when it was still known as Leningrad. So without further ado, my mom’s impressions of Soviet Russia... 

Mother and daughter at Petergof (from opposite angles and 40 years apart)

In my early twenties, I traveled all over Europe with my friend D’Anne. We bought a Volkswagen Variant in Belgium, and backpacked across the continent on a $5.00 a day budget. We had originally planned to drive to Russia, but when it came time to apply for the visa, we realized it would not be so easy. Tourists were required to follow an itinerary and stay at hotels assigned to them by the Russian authorities, so we abandoned our original idea and joined a 3-day tour from Helsinki to Leningrad.

My mom’s photos of Leningrad

We arrived on September 12 and checked in at Hotel Leningrad, which had just opened in 1970. It was quite nice and very large, but the lobby was freezing. On each floor, there was a big, unfriendly Russian woman who kept an eye on things—a veritable Soviet security force.

One of our guides, a young college student named Alla, strongly discouraged us from sightseeing on our own and gave party line answers to our questions. She told us that people were too busy working and studying to frequent bars, and that there were no department stores because it was better to sew your own clothes. I asked if foreign clothes were sold in Russia anyway, to which she replied, “Of course! All the clothes I’m wearing are foreign!” Our second guide, Mike, proved especially interesting when he shared his version of why the Berlin Wall had been built. According to him, the West Berliners were carting off East German farm products and selling them to the West, which was killing the East German economy. Hence the need for a wall.

At the hotel bar, we met foreigners from all over the world, but no local citizens. The hotel was hosting a small Communist convention, attended by men from the Eastern Communist countries. I chatted with a medical student from Algiers who complained about how boring it was as a student in Leningrad. He hated it there—he had no social life, the bars closed at midnight, his school had a curfew, he couldn’t buy clothes, and his dorm was tiny. I also drank vodka with the East German delegation, who continued buying drinks for D’Anne and me until we decided we needed to escape. We excused ourselves for the ladies room, then made sure our new acquaintances didn’t see us make a beeline for the stairs up to our room.

I could have had a Russian father if my mom had played her cards right...увы!

Life in Leningrad looked pretty grim to me. People lined up at fruit stands, at newspaper stands, and at bus stops. There were few young people in the streets, and many women working as street cleaners. People wore dark colored clothing, and adults even stopped me in the street to offer me 150-250 rubles for my jeans (the exchange rate then was $1 to 1.20 rubles, and regular Soviet pants cost 10 to 20 rubles).

My mom opted to keep  her pants

As a history major who had studied Imperial Russia, and especially the time of the Romanovs, I was thrilled to see Leningrad and to get a glimpse of the Soviet Union (our so-called “enemy”). I was a little apprehensive before visiting, but in the end, they were not so different from us.