George and Sadie’s Tour of the Soviet Union

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Note by Doug Pincock

This was written by Sadie during their tour of the Soviet Union in 1981. I believe they were used for a speech in Tweed.

It is interesting to read from the perspective of a time when we though the Soviet Union would last forever and, it disappeared less than a decade later. A number of cities mentioned are no longer in Russia – Samarkand is in Tajikistan; Tashkent in Uzbekistan and Kiev in the Ukraine. Sochi is still in Russia but very near Georgia and was a base in the strife between Russia and Georgia as well as the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

I have added some pictures from Dad’s slide collection. Quality is not always great as some of them were scorched in the fire they had. You can view a large version of any photo by clicking on it.

Sadie’s Narrative

“Getting there is half the fun” is certainly not true of transatlantic flights. We left Tweed shortly after lunch, drove to Toronto where we left the car with our friends, Don and Fran. Don drove us to the airport the usual hour ahead of the flight and I believe we were seventeen hours from Toronto to Moscow and had a 45-minute stop in Montreal, two hours in Zurich, 45 minutes in Warsaw, and finally, on to Moscow. Swiss Air look after you very well but it doesn’t change the fact that you are exhausted at the end of the flight.

In this exhausted and dazed condition you have to handle your own luggage (not a porter or cart in sight) and cope with Russian immigration and customs. Immigration was especially nerve racking. You push your passport and visa through a glass window to a very young man who looks mean and vicious (he reminded me of Norman Cann, a former neighbour whom I hadn’t thought of for years). He seems to sneer at you through his window and a mirror over your head gives him a two-dimensional view of you. He stares at you and then looks down at your passport. This seems to go on for ages and as you never feel that your passport photo bears the slightest resemblance to you, you begin to want to babble such inane things as “I was thinner in July or I’ve just had my hair cut.” Finally he stamps your passport and the sound of the seal striking your passport is a welcome relief. On leaving the Soviet Union you go through the same procedure but it is even more frightening as you start to think, “My God! Maybe they wont let me leave.” I should add that it was the only time on our whole trip that we felt any apprehension.

The custom’s officer was quite casual but we were warned that you had to declare your money and jewellery – even your rings and watches. Some people have omitted doing this and have had their personal jewellery confiscated on leaving.

Needless to say, we were very glad to get to our hotel, The Cosmos. It is a modern hotel (1,600 rooms) on the outskirts of Moscow, built In 1980 for the Olympics. There was the usual delay in registering our tour (only 15 as half had canceled when the tour was postponed). The lobby is huge, beautiful marble and granite but in that whole expanse there is not a chair, bench or even an ashtray. I couldn’t understand such stupidity until we passed through the lobby on our way to breakfast the next morning. You couldn’t move for people. It reminded me of the railway stations years ago when you literally had to work your way through the crowd. I had never thought of Russia as a great tourist place but they come in by the busloads from Finland, Germany, France and even the United States.

In Russia you have an Intourist guide who travels with you throughout your whole visit. She makes all the arrangements for your domestic plane tickets, hotels, meals, theatre tickets and generally takes care of all your travel problems. In each city you pick up a local guide for that particular area. Therefore, you get to know one guide very well and five or six other guides reasonably well. Our guides were all young wome,n (under 30, I should imagine) college graduates, and they speak English very well. They are earnest and patriotic to the very core. They see absolutely no fault with their political or social system. I told our guide that I found it really strange and unnatural that there was no criticism of government policies. This idea was quite foreign to her way of thinking.

After traveling In the Soviet Union for three weeks you begin to understand their viewpoint. It is a huge country isolated from Europe both by geography and history. They just don’t know a great deal about the rest of the world. In a relatively short period of time (since 1917) they have made tremendous strides. In 1918 about 85-95% of the population was illiterate and now that figure is reversed. I imagine that the most of the grandparents of our guides couldn’t read or write. We saw no obvious poverty, no beggars and the people look to be warmly if not fashionably dressed. The older people seem rather drab but the young people had just the same variety as you would see in Canada. The children looked especially well dressed. In Italy, France, Greece and Mexico you see people who look hungry and are almost in rags. Nowhere in the Soviet Union did we see this and I don’t believe you can hide this aspect of a national life.

In most cities there were miles and miles of apartment blocks. Most Canadians would not like to live in such apartments but I suppose it depends on what you had before. In the country, the guide pointed out summer cottages where people escape from the life of the city. These looked pretty shabby but it must be a relief to flee from mass housing and have a small garden where you can grow a few vegetables and flowers. In fairness, very few countries are able to afford the luxury of suburbs as we know them in Canada.

Everyone asks if we were free to go where we wanted. There was no restriction on our movements. We were told not to take pictures of airplanes, airports and railways. Near the end of our tour we were talking about our impressions of the country and all agreed that we had no fear or apprehension about going out alone day or night. You certainly can’t say that about American cities or some Canadian cities.

In Moscow we saw huge line-ups in front of the food stores. Our guide insisted that there were no shortages but as nearly all women worked, everyone had to shop before or after work. Once we saw a real mob scene as a man was selling what looked like ordinary summer shoes right on the sidewalk. Our guide’s explanation was that some people just wanted to buy imported shoes (rather silly people in her estimation). You can believe these explanations or not. They are probably partially true as we saw jewellery stores just crammed with customers and it is hard to believe that the merchandise was essential.

Despite the obvious progress that they have made there are things you can hardly believe. Our hotel in Moscow was very comfortable. The rooms were not large but very well designed and in every respect it was a first-class hotel. However for at least two days the phones were not working and it was a real problem getting up and down the elevators – the whole bank seemed to be out of order most of the time. Many things were not well finished or in need of repair. It is perhaps indicative of a society which has progressed too fast and lacks sufficient skilled workmen.

Cathedral inside Kremlin

We spent four days in Moscow. It is not a beautiful city – rather drab and has what 1 call ”instant warehouse” architecture. Window displays are rare which adds to the drabness of the city. A culture which has no competitive commercialism has no need to have attractive displays of merchandise. Our first stop was the Kremlin which is a walled city built by the Tsars. It contains the Tsar’s palace, about four churches and a modern government building. The churches are not large as they were intended for the royal family (I am not certain why they needed four) but they are fantastic inside. There is no use trying to describe them but they are filled with priceless icons, beautiful chandeliers and richly decorated – much more colourful than European churches. They are beautifully maintained and crowded with tourists.

We visited museums, art galleries and of course the subway. As you have probably heard, the subway is one of the wonders of the world. Not only are the trains clean and fast but each station is like an art gallery. Each one is different. The one near our hotel had chandeliers worthy of a royal palace. We thought we might try traveling on it on our own one day but we couldn’t figure out how you knew whether you were going north or south. We asked our guide and her answer was “We don’t discriminate between north and south.” She made this statement as if it was a virtue on a par with no racial discrimination. I’ve decided not to try it on our own.

Large bell at Kremlin
Large Bell at Kremli

We couldn’t get tickets for the Bolshoi but we saw a ballet from Uzbekistan and it was excellent. Ballet is not George’s favourite thing but he agreed that the chorus was excellent. The last scene was spectacular. The young couple die, the curtain descends but it is a lacy, gossamer curtain and you see the lovers slowly being re-united in death.

In the Soviet Union it is just not done to keep your coat in restaurants, theatres or museums. In the theatre you have great difficult getting by an usher with a coat. One of our tour members fought a real battle with an usher to keep a thin plastic rain coat. The first performance we attended we groaned at the thought of the long wait at the end of the ballet. The audiences are huge – not a vacant seat and one theatre contained 6,000 seats. We didn’t need to worry. The cloakrooms are masterpieces of efficiency. They are not pokey little rooms but long rooms divided into numerical sections. When you check your coat (free of change) you are given a disc with a number on it. At the end of the performance, you take your disc to the correct section and in a few minutes you have your coat. Of course, there are no tips included anywhere In Russia. The maids in the hotel are very happy to receive small gifts such as candy or cigarettes but would be offended if offered money.

Many boys and some adults collect national pins. We had taken quite a few maple leaf pins with us. They would point to your pin and, most of the time, offer you a Russian pin in return. We have quite a few pins with Lenin on them. One boy who wanted a pin didn’t show any sign of recognition when we said ‘‘Canada’’ but his face lit up when one of our tour members said ”Wayne Gretsky”. That name he knew.

We also visited the Palaces of Economic Achievement. These are permanent exhibitions and are found in almost every city. They contain exhibitions devoted to agriculture, industry, engineering, fine arts, etc. We saw very interesting displays of regional handicrafts, embroidery, ceramics, woodcarving, weaving, and so on.

We visited the Pushkin art gallery where they have an outstanding collection of French impressionists and Rembrandts. They had belonged to a wealthy Russian and had been nationalized after the ”GREAT OCTOBER REVOLUTION.” All the guides talk in capital letters about the revolution and the last war which they call the GREAT PATRIOTIC WAR.

Mausoleums

Outside of Moscow we visited Tsar’s summer residence. It has a beautiful location but unfortunately the palace his disappeared. There is a lovely church and several buildings which date from the 18th century.

As we prepared to leave Moscow, one of our tour members solved in ”the case of the missing key.” In the Soviet Union the keys are not kept at the registration desk but by a lady on your floor. She or her replacement is on duty 24 hours a day and she looks after everything on that floor. She keeps the room keys, supervises the cleaning staff, gets mineral water and generally looks after room service. Our tour member insisted that she had turned in her key but the ”key lady” said she had not. She was so upset that you felt that if we did not find the key she might be sent to Siberia. At the last moment our tour member found the key in her purse. A bit embarrassing but the key lady seemed to be happy. Another time the key lady accused a couple in our tour of taking the towels. To say the least, they were highly insulted. It turned out that a maid had removed the towels immediately after they had left the room. On another occasion we asked for an extra tumbler. This caused great consternation until she realized that we had not broken one but just wanted an extra one. They must be responsible for every single item on the floor.

After four days in Moscow we flew to Sanarkand. Russian planes are not luxurious and fairly cramped. They are always crowded and boarding is chaotic. The luggage check only takes place as everyone is boarding so it seems to take ages. There is no seat selection and it’s bedlam until everyone gets settled. It is a little embarrassing but tourists have priority. There will be a great mob at the foot of the gang plank but your guide will barge ahead. The crowd parts and you board ahead of the local people. No one seems to show any resentment – perhaps they believe that tourists are a little simpleminded and helpless.

Outside Hotel in Samarkand

Our hotel in Samarkand was not as modern as in Moscow but the rooms were well designed and had very good beds. As a matter of fact the beds were good in every hotel, which is wonderful for people with back problems. The bathroom was a disaster area – old chipped tiles which looked dirty. There was a shower but would you believe no shower stall. When you had a shower, water swirled over the whole bathroom. Incidentally only in about half the hotels were there plugs for the bath or basin. We had read about this and carried plugs. Samarkand.

Samarkand was oasis on the ancient silk route from China to Europe. The people are very different from the Muscovites. They are of Persian stock and of the Muslem faith. Many women still wear native dress which is a multi-striped silk with Turkish-type trousers. Many men and women wear a little embroidered skull cap. Some of the old men look like biblical shepherds just down from the hills.

Samarand is dry and dusty but they grow beautiful roses and cana lilies which are more beautiful from a distance as they don’t seem to weed or cultivate the flower beds. The mosques and mausoleums are wonderful – beautiful blue domes with intricate mosaic tiles and lacy stonework.

Like the churches, they are now museums but the government is doing a tremendous amount of stork to restore them to their former glory.

Market in Samarkand

Samarand is steeped in history. There was a civilization here 2500 B.C. Alexander the Great conquered it. Genghis Khan destroyed it and Tamerlane made it the capital of his empire which stretched from Delhi to Baghdad and Damascus. Tamerlane’s grandson Ulugbek built an observatory, made accurate star charts and calculated the length of the year within thirty seconds. You can see the ruins of his observatory a short distance outside the city.

Nursery School

Our next stopping place was Dushanbe, a very new city. Are had a delightful morning at a nursery school. Young mothers in Canada would be envious of the facilities and staff of these schools. The teachers are very kind and gentle but they train the children to do very good handiwork. Parents can bring the children as early 7:30 am and pick them up as late as 7 pm. The cost is nominal and I believe it depends somewhat on the income of the parents. The children are fed and have lovely dormitories for afternoon naps. At the end of the morning they put on a delightful concert of songs and folkdances. The oldest child would be about six and the youngest about two years of age.

Varsob River Gorge

We took a drive out in the country and it was fascinating to see the bare rocky hills. You can begin to appreciate what an oasis meant to travellers in the Middle Ages.

Our next stop (an hour’s flight) was Tashkent. The city was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake in the l960s. They have achieved wonders of reconstruction after such devastation. All parts of the Soviet Union contributed in the re-building and the different quarters of the city are now named after the other republics.

We went to the opera in the evening and saw ”Madam Butterfly.“ The American Consul looked like Frankenstein and the wife of the naval officer, like a blowsy bar girl. We wondered if it was deliberate or if they thought Americans looked like that. However, the singing was very good, especially Butterfly and the opera house was magnificent. Like every performance we attended, it was packed. Perhaps when you live in those drab apartment buildings, you welcome every opportunity to go to the theatre to hear music, enjoy colourful stage sets and costumes. Despite the beautiful opera house, the bathroom was a horrid smelly little room with four cubicles. There was not a huge line-up so perhaps they have better control than Canadians. Our guide would never admit that there were any flaws in the Soviet Union but she did smile when I said that I had an idea for a great cultural exchange – kindergarten specialists for our plumbers.

In this region you see people with solid gold teeth. Our guide said that the old people had gold fillings because enamel fillings were unknown when they were young. However, we were also told that many young people consider this a fine investment and secure life savings. (How would you feel if you inherited your mother’s gold teeth? Probably quite content if the price of gold was high.) I believe this story rather than our guide’s version because we sew many young people with a solid gold smile.

Tashkent is a city of two million and the majority of them are Muslims. Despite this, there is only one functioning mosque and that only on pledges. They say they do not persecute religious convictions but certainly it is not encouraged. Of course, the Communists view religious belief of any kind, Christian, Muslim or Jewish, as simply a primitive superstition that will die when people are educated. It seems ironic that our churches are often half empty and the congregation is very elderly while Russian churches are filled with tourists.

From Tashkent we flew to Sochi on the Black Sea which is much like the Riviera. At has a beautiful coastline with the hills behind dotted with palm and cypress trees. I went in swimming every day – the water was quite cold but invigorating. Up in the hills there are many sanatoriums where people go to convalesce after an illness or just to rest and relax. With a voucher from the union the cost is minimal. There are also spas where they drink the mineral water which they believe cures many ills from arthritis to high blood pressure. Many Europeans have this faith in spas but it is not shared by many Canadians.

Our hotel was lovely but the first night we discovered that our wash basin was not properly connected to the drain pipe and the water just ran out on the floor. The first night we managed to catch the water in a plastic container and fortunately got a plumber the next day. Another little note about plumbing – often the pressure was not sufficiently strong to carry away the toilet paper. We think perhaps they put the paper in a waste basket which is why so many public toilets smell so awful.

A real mystery occurred in Sochi. One day our hall was filled with new beds so could hardly reach the elevators. When we returned from dinner we discovered that in every room, one bed had been removed and a new bed moved in. As the old beds were practically brand new, it didn’t seem to make sense. In addition the old bed was now on the balcony which made it a little difficult to sit and enjoy the evening breeze. We thought perhaps some factory had simply turned out more beds than needed but then noted that the new beds cane from Finland. Perhaps they have a commercial treaty with Finland and simply must accept more beds whether they need them or not. We also wondered if they would ever move the old bed from the balcony or would it just stay out there in the wind and rain.

The most fantastic sight in Sochi was to watch the Finns and Germans working out on the beach before breakfast – they jogged or did exercises. It was like watching dozens of football teams stretching and pulling every muscle in their body. Despite the fact that the women are fat with simply rolls of excess flesh ground the middle, they all wear bikinis. I saw one fat woman in her bikini sitting on the beach blowing up an air mattress. I began to wonder if she was getting fatter or the mattress.

Garden in Sochi

The Moscow Circus was in Sochi and we managed to get tickets. Much to our surprise it was on ice and it is fantastic what they can get the animals and birds lo do. Doves, a hawk and a vulture work together in one act and their wings are not clipped. The bears played a hockey game and it was a riot. I always feel thought I shouldn’t be amused by such acts as I don’t think the animals are really happy but you couldn’t help laughing as the bears stick-handled across the ice.

We visited a State tea plantation and afterwards had tea in an inn built in the style of the last century and were entertained by folk songs and Balalaika  players. We saw a great collection of samovars. I thought they made tea in the samovar but they just boil the water in them. A tea infusion is made in a small pot and then water added from the samovar. Almost without exception you get good, hot tea in Russia. The samovars are all electric now but they used to be heated by charcoal.

From Sochi we flew to Kiev the principal city of the Ukraine – the landscape reminds you of the prairies.  It is a very attractive city. We visited a number of beautiful churches and a very old monastery. The monastery is on the banks of the Dneiperr and in the banks there are caves which were used by prehistoric man. The monks used these caves to bury their dead and due to the particular quality of the soil and climate, the bodies mummified. In the Middle Ages, this was deemed a miracle and proof of sainthood. The monastery became wealthy from the donations of the pilgrims.

The Germans used some of the buildings during the last war, stole a lot of the treasures and blew up the actual Monastery before they left. However, the church and some other buildings remain and have been restored. We went down into the catacombs and it was an eerie experience.

We saw a modern ballet in Kiev, ”Olga”, and thoroughly enjoyed it. There was a little boy in it who looked about four. He didn’t dance but played his part beautifully.

In Kiev we saw an exhibition of Ukrainian handicrafts – weaving, embroidery, ceramics, wood-working, etc. We didn’t see anything in the shops which came anywhere close to this work.

Photos in Kiev From Left to Right: Monastery, St Sofia, War Memorial

Our guide in Kiev told us about her family during the war. Two of her aunts were hung by the Nazis, two uncles killed and another Just disappeared. By the end of the war they were living in an underground shelter. They had one pair of boots between twelve people and her mother said her only clothing was one skirt and one jacket. We forget the terribly suffering of the Russian people during the last war – 20 million killed and countless villages and cities destroyed. You can begin to appreciate why they feel so threatened.

There is a very moving war memorial in Kiev – a huge stainless statue dominates a hill. Underground there are larger than life bronze figures representing the soldiers, the resistance fighters and the some front. Unfortunately we couldn’t get a picture as George didn’t have a flash. I don’t think I have ever seen a war memorial that moved me so much.

From Kiev we flew to Leningrad and our hotel was beautiful – it was built by the Swedes. Unfortunately they had a smorgasbord instead of a dining room. The food was terrible and the room was crowded and noisy.

Our guide in Leningrad was very pretty dark girl who made the history of the city come alive. In 1905 the peasants marched in the thousands carrying ikons and pictures of the Tsar. They were starving and innocently believed that the Tsar would help them if he only knew of their plight. The cops fired on them and many died in the snow that December day and most historians believe that was the beginning of the revolution and the end of “Holy Russia.”

There is no use trying to describe Leningrad as the churches and castles are fantastic. The Peter and Paul Fortress which was always used as a political prison is a gloomy depressing place which just have been horrible in the winter. We spent three hours in the hermitage and walked the three kilometres and of course didn’t begin to see even half of it. Like the Louvre, you would have to spend weeks to have any idea of its contents. The most remarkable palace is that of Catharine the Great. The Germans used it in the last war (the Russians never say Germans but always “Nazis”) and before they retreated they blew it up. In every room there is a photo of the destruction – the building was just a shell and the roof was gone. They have restored it completely – the floors are mosaics of many different woofs and each room has a different design. They have restored all the gold, marble and paintings and murals of the original 18th century castle. It really is an incredible undertaking and they say it will take another twenty years before it is finished.

Revolutionary Square Leningrad

In Leningrad we had a gala dinner. The dinner was terrific but the entertainment left much to be desired. It was the first time I had tasted red caviar and I could develop a taste for it. It got so noisy and hot in the room that George and I retreated to the lobby. Evelyn joined us and insisted that we come back for a time and much to my astonishment they brought in a birthday cake for me. Everyone in the restaurant ended up by singing Happy Birthday’ and I shared my cake with Germans, Japanese and Americans. My birthday was actually the next day but we were going to be leaving Leningrad early in the morning. I don’t suppose I will ever celebrate a birthday in a stranger place.

The day before our gala dinner we attended a terrific concert of folk dancing and singing. Impossible to describe the colourful costumes end the fabulous dancing but the concert is very fast-paced with a great variety of dancing.

We flew back to Moscow and then departed the next day from our hotel at the ungodly hour of 1 am. As we huddled down in the bus to go to the airport, our guide who had been with us for three weeks chose that moment to give us a lecture on the virtues of the ”peace loving Soviet Union.” I felt it was deliberate propaganda as we had no time or energy to rebut her augment that the whole cause of tension in the World was due to the American Government. However, we did rouse ourselves enough to state energetically that Russia had to accept some of the responsibility for world tension. Ted pointed put that twelve Canadians had been lost in the Korean plane disaster, and their ambassador in Ottawa would not even accept our note or express any regret of the loss of innocent lives. She seemed quite astounded when we told her that we feared the policies of her government. When you are travelling through the Soviet Union you can begin to understand their pride in their achievements and also their fear.

Again we went through the rather unnerving experience of immigration but the custom officials were very casual. Getting on the Swiss Air plane seemed like getting home. We didn’t realize how much we had missed what I would have to call commercial charm. The stewardesses seemed so beautiful and charming. The smiles probably don’t mean a great deal but it gives you a sense of welcome and of course Swiss Air pamper up you to the utmost degree. Everyone in the Soviet Union was very nice to us but they simply lack that graciousness which probably develops in a competitive economy.

At the end of our long journey it was good to see our friend Don waiting for us at the airport. We spent the night with Don and Fran and then rushed home to see our pets. Our cats give us a restrained welcome but Jane was absolutely frantic with excitement.

We got our pictures back and I wish you could see them because they would make my account much more understandable. It was a terrific experience and made me want to read much more about the Soviet Union. When we were in Sochi, Ted held a communion service at 8 am on the Sunday morning. He took as his text ”Render unto Caesar…..” and it brought into focus for me the whole trip. We were visiting a country where everything was given to the state and we were seeing a secular religion. Everywhere there were pictures and statues of Lenin. One Dutch tourist we met said “I have seen Lenin sitting, standing, in paintings and in sculptures. Today I am going to the Kremlin. I want to see him dead.” We were highly amused by this as it perfectly expressed our own weariness of seeing Lenin everywhere and continually being told of his many virtues. But Lenin and his ideas will not die and we became aware that he and this party had changed the country from a backward, poverty-stricken nation to a world power. It is something we will have to live with and we hope and pray that we can live in peace.