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Russia revisited

Published on: May 22, 2014


With all of the attention being given today to the incursion by Russian armed forces into Crimea and possibly the rest of Ukraine, a Kings Point, Sun City Center couple decided to “revisit” the most interesting tour they made of the old Soviet Union back in 1989.

Pennsylvania natives Frank and Jackie Yanacek retired early from satisfying careers to ensure that they would be better fit to withstand the rigors of travel, particularly internationally. This “revisit” turned out to be a rewrite of a series of articles Frank wrote for the Anderson Independent Mail, the newspaper in Anderson, S.C., where they were living when they made their trip to the Soviet Union.

In this latest series, they have updated and incorporated into their new article coverage of their trip that Jackie had included in her memoirs.

With world attention at the time focused on “glasnost” (openness) and “perestroika” (restructuring) introduced in the Soviet Union by President Mikhail Gorbachev, that country was right at the top of the list of places we decided to visit.

We wanted to get a sneak preview of the many widespread ramifications that these movements were sure to have not only on the Soviet Union but also on the rest of the Eastern Bloc and, indeed, the entire world. We wanted to get a better look, up close and personal, of the Soviet “Bear” from whom we had been protected for so long by so many tax dollars.

Before embarking on the trip, we spent many months learning and relearning information about the country, its language and its people. Frank had studied Russian 37 years earlier at the Army Language School in Monterey, Calif., and served as a Russian interpreter with the U.S. Army Security Agency in Germany in 1953. Since he had not used the language for some time, it took some effort to get up to speed. Jackie had also taken a couple of semesters of Russian in college, so she brushed up her skills as well.

The months of preparation really paid off. Being able to speak directly with the people on the street, to get their firsthand thoughts on what was happening, and what they hoped would happen, in their country and the rest of the world was by far the most outstanding aspect of the trip.

Including a day of travel in each direction, our trip to the Soviet Union covered 16 days. We visited five Soviet cities, traveling on a packaged tour with a group of 18 others. But we had plenty of free time in each city to explore on our own. Our flights to and from the USSR were on Pan Am 747s, which operated in conjunction with Aeroflot, the Soviet state airline. The crews of flight attendants consisted of Americans and Soviets alike. Our flights within the Soviet Union were all via Aeroflot.

At the time we made our trip, many Americans mistakenly referred to the country we visited as “Russia,” and to its people as “Russians.” Actually, at that time, Russia was only one of 15 “independent” republics. Some of the other better known were the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and the Armenian, Georgian and Ukrainian republics.

In 1991, two years after our visit, the Soviet Union, broke up in what Vladimir Putin, the current Russian president, recently called the “biggest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th Century!” Today, all 15 former Soviet republics are now, at least for the time being, depending on Putin’s agenda, independent nations. It is interesting to note that the Crimea, recently occupied by Russian armed forces, is a peninsula jutting into the Black Sea. It was mostly a tourist destination for the rest of the Soviet Union, and was part of the Russian Republic until it broke up.  It was “gifted” to the Ukrainian Republic in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader at the time. The “gift” was ostensibly to mark the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s merger with the Russian empire.

As a teenager, Khrushchev worked in Ukraine’s mines. He married a Ukrainian woman and considered the Ukraine “one of his native lands.” Today, Putin is apparently determined to take back that “gift” and possibly more.

The 15 republics were home to a total of 115 different nationalities. The Russian language was the official language of the entire nation, although local languages were used extensively outside the Russian Republic, and several republics made failed efforts to make their native language the official language of their republic.

The initials commonly used to denote the country, USSR, stand for “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” On Soviet maps, this was shown as “CCCP” in the Cyrillic alphabet, or “SSSR” in our alphabet. The first “S” is for the Russian word “Soyuz,” or “Union.” This same name, “Soyuz,” you may recall, was given to one of their initial space stations.

In the course of our journey, we visited five cities in three different republics: Moscow and St. Petersburg (the latter was named “Leningrad” at the time of our visit) in Russia, Yalta and Kiev in the Ukrainian Republic, and Baku in Azerbaijan. In the latter two republics, the independent spirit of the natives was very evident. It would have been most interesting to visit the Baltic republics, or Georgia or Armenia, where widespread but relatively peaceful demonstrations were being held. Our travel and tours within the USSR were coordinated by Intourist, the Soviet state travel bureau. One native guide, Anna, an avowed Communist Party member, accompanied us on the entire tour. We also picked up a local guide in each city we visited. Although our visas provided for travel to only these five cities, we were free to travel on our own anywhere we wished within these broad areas. We are certain that we were not in any way followed, but we noticed that there were two or three policemen on most street corners!


Our memorable trip began on Saturday, August 5, 1989, from JFK airport in New York. While waiting in the lounge before takeoff, we met several fellow travelers who turned out to be ethnic Russians on their way back home, so Frank got his first opportunity to hone his Russian language skills. Also, four Soviet stewardesses were part of the crew, so by the time we reached Moscow, our first destination, Frank’s Russian was pretty well fine-tuned. Every one of the 412 seats on our 747 was filled, primarily by members of various U.S. tour groups, including a group of “Peace Children,” a musical group of youngsters going on a tour of the country with their Soviet counterparts. Another group of youngsters was scheduled to play a series of baseball games in various parts of the country.

Although the nonstop flight to Moscow took “only” 8½ hours, we landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport 16½ hours later, having “lost” eight hours through time-zone changes. Among the first sights that caught our eye as we taxied toward the terminal were the classic Russian birch trees, or “beryozhkas,” which surrounded the airport. The second sight that impressed us was the row after row of Aeroflot aircraft parked on the tarmac. It seemed so strange to see, with the exception of a few Pan Am and other “foreign” planes, only one “brand” of airline. But this “one brand” feature of the USSR was something we soon would become accustomed to. Also, and this was true at the other airports we visited, the number of planes parked gave the impression of preparation for an airlift.
En route to our Moscow hotel, Cosmos, reportedly one of the best in town, we passed a number of local landmarks, including several of the many statues, parks, squares, theaters, streets and buildings named in honor of Vladimir Illich Lenin that we were to see in each city we visited.
Lenin, of course, was the hero of the 1917 Revolution that brought the communists to power, and the founder of the Soviet Union. The late lunch at the hotel was typical of the midday dinners we had during the rest of the trip. In much of the Soviet Union, which is true in much of Europe, lunch is the main meal. Breakfast is also substantial, with the evening meal being the lightest. In general, we found the quality of the meals to range from good to excellent. From what we saw and heard during our visit, however, our menus were not the fare of the typical Soviet citizen. In spite of food shortages and the poor quality of what was available to the average citizen, however, the people we encountered, particularly the children, looked well fed and healthy.


Moscow is one of the oldest cities in the Soviet Union, having been founded in 1147. The city is situated on the banks of the Moscow River and, through a series of canals, is connected to other major rivers and the Baltic Sea to the north and the Black Sea to the south. The city had experienced a remarkable rebuilding, having been largely destroyed during the Napoleonic War of 1812 and again in World War II. At the time, it was home to some 9 million people, and the capital of the Russian Republic as well as of the USSR.

Following lunch on Sunday, August 6, our tour guide, Anna, and Yuri, our congenial bus driver, took us on our first tour, starting with the Kremlin, Red Square and St. Basil Cathedral, with its famed colorful onion-shaped domes. The area of worship in the Cathedral was quite small, and the entire interior was disappointing compared with the ornate outside.

St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow. Frank Yanacek photos

St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow. Frank Yanacek photos

Legend has it that Ivan the Terrible had the architects blinded upon its completion so they could never build a similar structure. In Red Square, we opted out of visiting Lenin’s tomb, primarily because of the long line at the site, stretching out a quarter mile, four abreast, but we did see changing of the guard. Lenin, incidentally, was no less revered at the time than when he was entombed. The Kremlin, which means “the citadel,” is surrounded by 20 towers, and is a complex of ancient Russian palaces, churches and military buildings. It was also the seat of the Soviet government.

One of the Kremlin towers houses the famous Kremlin Clock, which had been running almost continuously since the 17th century. The only time it was out of service was after a shell hit it during the 1917 Revolution. It was considered the most accurate of all tower clocks in the USSR. Its chimes strike every 15 minutes, and twice daily the chimes of the clock were broadcast by radio and TV to all parts of the country. Each day in the Soviet Union began and ended with the chimes of the Kremlin Clock.

On the east side of Red Square stood GUM (pronounced “goom”),    the largest, best stocked and reportedly the most beautiful department store in the USSR. In our opinion, it was no match for the average shopping mall in the U.S.

The Kremlin wall and cathedral domes in Red Square.

The Kremlin wall and cathedral domes in Red Square.

Perhaps the most fascinating attraction in the Kremlin was the Armory, which housed an incredible collection of Fabergé eggs, precious stones, gold and silver objects, richly adorned arms, coronation gowns, beautiful thrones, royal carriages and priceless gifts to the czars from foreign dignitaries of the time. In observing the fabulous wealth of the czars, and reflecting on the dismal conditions in which the peasants and workers lived, it is easy to conclude that a revolution was long in the making.

Some of the other attractions we visited in Moscow were the Bolshoi Theatre, Gorki Street, Olympic Stadium (site of the 1980 summer games, which were boycotted by the U.S. at President Carter’s urging), and Lenin Hills, site of Moscow University, with a striking view of Moscow below. Interestingly, not a single student could be seen on the campus of this or any other university we saw during our visit. They were all closed for the summer.

Statues of Revolutionary War and World War II heroes, artists, writers, cosmonauts, dancers, musicians and prominent political figures populate Moscow. Parks, Squares and just plain streets named after the same folks were found all over the city. The people, or at least their government, liked to worship their heroes. “Peace,” Friendship,” “Brotherhood” and similar terms were also prominent street names.

During the evenings, we attended the Moscow Circus and a Siberian Folk Dance featuring Cossacks, both splendid performances. Free time was devoted to traveling on our own throughout the city, primarily by means of Moscow’s magnificent Metro. For only five kopeks (about eight cents at the time), one could travel just about anywhere in the city. Trains are fast, ultra clean, and well maintained. (The system was completely shut down for maintenance between 1:30 and 4:30 a.m. daily.) Stations are huge and brightly lit, many with ornate chandeliers, and are decorated with elaborate murals and epic sculptures, mosaics and stained glass. Each station had a different theme. The metros in both Moscow and St. Petersburg were about twice as far below the surface (because of groundwater problems) as subways in the U.S., so just a ride on the speedy escalators, which seemed to travel almost vertically, was more than worth the fare.


We found it most interesting to browse through the department stores and other shops. Such things as clothing, linens, toys and other manufactured goods appeared to be in fair supply, but the quality was generally poor and the variety was limited. Most of the clerks were not customer-service oriented, and checkout procedures were very time-consuming. All stores, except the private stands at the open flea markets and sidewalk vendors, were operated by either the government or people’s cooperatives. Prices for a given item were identical not only all over the city but throughout the country, and were normally stamped right onto the product at the factory. Goods of better quality, and of more variety, including U.S. and other Western products, could be found in “Beryoshka” shops, located in most major hotels. Goods in these shops carried the same prices as in regular stores, but purchases could be made only with dollars or other hard currency rather than rubles, at the unrealistic official rate of exchange.

The real “traders” in Moscow, as well as in the other cities we visited, were the young black-marketers on the streets. At the time of our visit, the official rate of exchange was 62 kopeks (100 kopeks per ruble) for one U.S. dollar. All tourists, of course, are strongly urged to refrain from participating in the black money market, and are directed to use only legal outlets for converting to rubles. At the official rate, 50 U.S. dollars converted to 37 Russian rubles. On the street, young black-marketers offered up to 500 rubles for the same $50!

Women selling wares at an open market in Moscow.

Women selling wares at an open market in Moscow.

These independent peddlers also sold the classic Russian “matrioshkas” or stacked wooden dolls, lacquered boxes, paintings and many other souvenirs, all for dollars or other “hard” currency. These transactions were usually conducted out in the open, without regard to nearby police. One day, Frank traded one of his T-shirts and a ballpoint pen for an original painting of St. Basil’s Cathedral. (He didn’t take the shirt off his back. We carried spares of such items with us after we learned how popular they were.) Frank spent many hours talking to the peddlers, all of whom spoke some English, but felt more comfortable speaking Russian. They were very surprised, and happy, to meet an American who spoke Russian fluently. Many of the peddlers were hoping to expand their “businesses” under perestroika (restructuring), pointing out that they were now not being challenged by the authorities as frequently as in the past.


Before our tour began one morning, we also managed to attend services in a Russian Orthodox Church. The services were well attended, particularly for a weekday, although most of those attending were older women with traditional “babushkas” on their heads, and young children. There were no seats in the church. All the faithful stood while three priests said Mass out of view, behind a brightly gilded wall. Many of the women lit candles, some placing wax from the candles on their foreheads, and kissed the icons and even the floor of the church.

There appeared to be a resurgence of religion in the USSR. The Moscow tourist guide listed a total of 16 “working” houses of worship, including one synagogue, one mosque, and one Roman Catholic Church. Many other former churches had been converted into museums, swimming pools and bowling alleys. We saw many people wearing crucifixes, and several of our bus drivers had a crucifix or holy picture on their dashboard, often right next to their American flag!

Communications from the government to the people of the USSR were very intense and political. Official newspapers like Pravda (Truth) and Izvestiya (News) were posted on bulletin boards along the sidewalks, and billboards and huge signs on the tops of buildings implored the citizens to work hard to meet their work goals in order to ensure the success of the Soviet state. Messages urging peace and brotherhood were also frequent, and, from all appearances, were equally sincere. The messages delivered by the limited number of TV and radio stations were the same. Not the slightest hint of anti-American propaganda was observed. Frank either watched TV or listened to the radio each evening until the last of the stations closed for the day. On the contrary, many American movies and entertainers appeared on TV, and many American sources were quoted in programs about science and technology, medicine and the arts.

Much of the international news appearing on TV featured clips of CNN News (Fox News didn’t exist yet!) from the U.S., with a local commentator’s voice dubbed in. Frank also browsed through many bookstores. Among the books he purchased (mostly beautiful children’s books to read to our grandchildren), only one, entitled War and Peace, American Style, was critical of the U.S. The criticism, however, was directed primarily at the U.S. military establishment rather than the American people or its elected government. It was particularly critical of how the Army of the North mistreated civilians in the South during our Civil War, how our army mistreated the Indians, and what it called atrocities committed by our troops in Vietnam.

Overall, we found Moscow, with the exception of the Metro, Red Square, The Kremlin, the restored churches, museums and the more prominent older buildings, to be rather drab. The rows upon rows of unsightly apartment buildings, most without “lifts” or elevators,  were built about 20 years earlier, and were particularly dreary. All of the 9 million residents of Moscow live in apartments. There are no single-family homes. Many people, including Yuri, our bus driver, lived in communal apartments, where two, three or four families share bathrooms and kitchens. Some people had waited up to 15 years for their own apartment.


On the bright side, Soviet citizens paid only three to five percent of their wages for their apartment, plus about 20 rubles per month for utilities. Wages were fixed by the state and ranged from 70 to 500 rubles per month. Teachers and most doctors were at the lower end of the scale. Theoretically, everyone in the USSR was guaranteed a job, but we saw a few gents (but no women) who appeared to be unemployed, begging on the streets. Some of Frank’s “trader” friends explained that such people were usually alcoholics, druggies or other kinds of troublemakers who simply couldn’t hold a job.

We frequently saw women sweeping the streets with what looked like homemade brooms. Among interesting items that occasionally appeared on the evening news were “help wanted” listings, primarily for all sorts of engineers and computer technicians.

Wednesday morning, August 9, we left our hotel for Moscow’s domestic airport Vnukovo (meaning grandson’s) for our flight to Semfiropol, in the Black Sea resort of Crimea. Yalta is nearby.

Our flight from Moscow to Simferopol on the Crimean Peninsula was quite an eye-opener. Although the Aeroflot aircraft appeared to be in good shape, housekeeping was another matter. To make matters worse, every seat was taken, and it was rather hot. Conditions were such that one member of our tour group dug into his carry-on bag for a can of air freshener!

In spite of the discomforts, the two-hour flight was most enjoyable, particularly for Frank, thanks to his most interesting seat companions. Yuri, an engineer, and Vladimir, a tractor factory worker, were returning home from a monthlong government-sponsored vacation, which cost them less than 30 rubles each. Yuri and Vladimir spoke in glowing terms about the crews of the American naval vessels that had visited Sevastopol, a Soviet naval base on the Black Sea just west of Yalta, a few days earlier.

This visit by the American vessels was still making the evening news, and was warmly mentioned by a number of other local folks throughout our visit. These two gentlemen, like so many others we met on our trip, left little doubt about their sincere desire for disarmament and peace, and they professed a close affinity to the American people. They expressed their deep gratitude for the aid provided by the U.S. at the time of their nuclear accident at Chernobyl (which is located in Ukraine), and the recent earthquakes in Armenia.

The Simferopol airport is the closest available to Yalta, which cannot accommodate an airport because of the mountainous terrain. The 60-mile trip over winding mountain roads took about an hour by bus. The entire distance was electrified for trolley-type electric buses. En route to Yalta, we stopped at a roadside club for dinner. Live entertainment at the club featured an “Elvis Presley” and a Western-style rock band.

While we were waiting to reboard our bus after dinner, we were engaged in conversation by a couple of free spirits who were a bit tipsy. A number of their sober friends, however, ushered them off just as a police car rolled up. Police throughout the USSR, we learned, placed a high priority on rounding up drunks in an effort to stamp out the country’s lingering drinking problem. (The lines at liquor stores were normally longer than at any other type store!)


Since we arrived in Yalta late in the evening, we didn’t see much in the way of local scenery when we checked in. But what a sight it was that greeted us on our private balcony overlooking the beach in the morning! To our right was the picturesque Black Sea, and to our left the spectacular mountains. And built into the side of the hills was the city of Yalta, with its many magnificent resorts, castles, bell towers and churches. Our hotel, the Oreanda, was truly first class. One of our guides claimed it was the best in the country.

By Soviet standards, Yalta is a relatively new city. It served primarily as a resort area for the czars and other nobility prior to the 1917 Revolution. Now it is trumpeted as a health resort for workers, where the Communist Party and many factories, schools, collective farms and other worker cooperatives are associated with a specific resort complex to which their members come to rest and recuperate.

Yalta’s climate is ideal the year round, very similar to that of Hilton Head, S.C. The temperature rarely falls below freezing in winter. It really has only two seasons, a cool period of three to four months and a warm period of eight to nine months. The daytime temperature during our stay was in the 80s. Our rooms were not air conditioned, but there was no need, since the evening temperature cooled down to the low 70s to high 60s.

Aside from the Black Sea and the beautiful climate, we found the key attraction in Yalta to be the Livadia Castle complex. Livadia was the summer palace of Czar Nicholas II and Alexandra, who, along with their children, were assassinated during the civil war following the 1917 Revolution. Near the end of World War II, it was the site of the “Big Three” conference between President Franklin D. Roosevelt, England’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. One of the ground rules of that conference was that the attendees were to reside in quarters other than their meeting place. An exception was made for Roosevelt, however, because of his illness. FDR stayed in a room adjacent to the meeting room, which was kept furnished as it had been for that meeting.

Another most impressive attraction was the palace, museum and surrounding park of Count Vorontsov, in Alupka, the second largest resort of the southern coast of Crimea. Count Vorontsov was a close friend of the czars, and reportedly the richest man in imperial Russia. Every bush and tree in the park, which covered many acres, was imported, including cedars from Lebanon, sequoias and redwoods from California, and magnolias from South Carolina. One monkey tree from India reportedly cost the Count 75,000 rubles.

Our trip to Livadia and Alupka was made doubly interesting by our most extraordinary local guide, Maxim, a 6-foot-five-inch Ukrainian who spoke flawless English with a very pronounced Cambridge/English accent. Maxim was rather mild, but very humorous, in his criticism of things Soviet or Russian (as opposed to Ukrainian). Frank tried several times to engage him in a conversation in Russian, but Maxim responded only in English or his native Ukrainian. He just didn’t want any part of the Russian language. Somewhat indirectly, but very convincingly, Max, as he preferred to be called, expressed his desire to someday emigrate to the West.


Swallow's Nest Castle in Yalta.

Swallow’s Nest Castle in Yalta.

One of the other highlights of the Yalta area was the Swallow’s Nest Castle, dramatically perched high above a rock formation rising vertically several hundred feet out of the Black Sea. We stopped to admire the Swallow’s Nest from up in the mountains while on one of our tours with Max, then visited the castle the next day by boat. Also spectacular was the cable car ride to Mt. Ai-Petri, the tallest of the surrounding mountains at 3,700 feet above sea level.

On a more intellectual note, we thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the former home and museum of Anton Chekhov, one of imperial Russia’s favorite playwrights and authors. Chekhov suffered from tuberculosis, and came to Yalta for health reasons in 1899. It was here that he wrote, among many masterpieces, his famous plays The Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, and The Lady With The Dog. At one time or another, the Crimea, and Yalta in particular, also provided inspiration to many other Russian talents, including authors Alexander Pushkin and Maxim Gorky, composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and opera singer Feodor Chaliapin.


To most of the locals, the key attraction in Yalta was the Black Sea and the beach. Compared with the white sandy beaches of the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts, however, to us it was a disappointment. Instead of sand, the “beaches” of Yalta are covered with small, smooth stones. Because of the stones, beachgoers use what looked like wooden pallets or pieces of fence to lie on. The water and beach were reasonably clean, and the water temperature was about 70, on the cold side for most Floridians.

While enjoying our first day at the beach, we met our first and only complete Soviet family. Yuri, his wife Lyudya, and their daughters Ira, 17, and Marta, 7, were as warm and friendly as anyone we have ever met. Yuri was the head of the math department at a university in Lvov, in the western part of the Ukraine. Lyudya was a biologist, but had taken a leave of absence to raise Marta. The older daughter had just completed high school and was scheduled to enter the university as a medical student in September.

Yuri and his family were on a monthlong vacation, and were staying at a local mountainside health resort associated with Yuri’s university. Yuri and Ira understood and spoke English rather well, but little Marta and her mother managed only a few words. Their native language was Ukrainian, which is very similar to Russian, and somewhat like Polish, in which I, and particularly Jackie (whose mother was Polish), can get by. As a result, our conversations were frequently “quad-lingual,” consisting of a mixture of Russian, English, Ukrainian and Polish! Possibly because they felt that they did not know us well enough, neither Yuri nor Lyudya offered many comments or opinions about current developments or prospects for change in the Ukraine or other parts of the Soviet Union.

While in Yalta, we made our usual rounds of local stores and shops, attended a church service, and took in an open-air concert and a rock dance in the park. As in every city we visited, we patronized our fair share of ice cream stands, including one where each cone of “morozhenoye” (ice cream) was weighed, with the price of the cone depending upon its weight. The ice cream, which at the street rate of exchange cost about three cents, was usually very tasty and of high quality.

Yalta had its share of money-changers plying their trade on the streets. Here we met the most colorful trader of all. Kolya, in his late 20s, had just two months earlier completed three years in a Siberian prison for money changing. He wasn’t worried about being sent back, because, as he put it, “the rules are different now.” Kolya, like others who had spent time in prison, proudly sported a couple of religious tattoos. Unlike most other money-changers who worked alone, Kolya operated with a number of other young men and appeared to take great pride in introducing his new Russian-speaking American friend (Frank) to all of them.


Ukrainian children's folk dance, Yalta.

Ukrainian children’s folk dance, Yalta.

During our third and final evening in Yalta, we were treated to a Ukrainian children’s folk dance. The performers, all girls ranging from 3 to 16, were quite accomplished. The performance included audience participation, and Jackie was one of several women asked to compete in a race to make headpieces out of flowers. The contestants, in the role of village maidens, then tossed the completed headpieces into an imaginary pond on the dance floor in an attempt to ring flowers floating on the pond. According to local custom, the winner would be the first to land a husband. Oh well, Jackie already had one anyway!

Our newfound Ukrainian friends, Yuri, Lyudya, Ira and Marta, saw us off as we boarded our bus at the hotel, heading for the airport at Simferopol. We exchanged addresses, as they expressed a genuine interest in visiting the U.S, and invited us to visit them in Lvov. Neither event, unfortunately, ever happened.


On our daylight trip back to the airport, we got to see the spectacular mountain scenery that we missed during our late night trip into Yalta three days earlier. Although most of us were not happy about leaving Yalta, we were looking forward to the adventures of Baku, Kiev and Leningrad (later named St. Petersburg).

Our group cleared the departure gate at the airport in record time, but we made up for it with an extended wait, packed together with about 200 locals in the sun on the tarmac at the stairs to our plane. Frank took advantage of the delay by getting acquainted with a number of the locals, including Alexei, a shirt-sleeved maintenance man who was being dispatched to Baku to work on some malfunctioning machinery at one of the oil refineries. Before his conversation with Frank, Alexei had been elbowing his way to the front of the crowd. After they spoke for a while, however, Alexei held his arms out to block the local passengers, insisting that “the Americans should go to the front of the line.” The others appeared willing to oblige, but Frank thanked them and declined the offer.

We lost Alexei in the shuffle for seats (seats on domestic flights were not reserved), but we met a couple of equally interesting people on board. Vladimir, 73, and his wife Tanya were returning home to Baku after vacationing with relatives in Yalta. Both were ethnic Russians. Neither spoke a word of English. Vladimir sat next to Frank, and Tanya next to Jackie on the other side of the aisle. Vladimir was a decorated World War II veteran, and, like many other decorated men and women we saw on our trip, proudly displayed his medals on his suit jacket. He had been wounded in action four times, and spoke in glowing terms about the “good doctors on the front lines” who had reconstructed his shattered arm.

Vladimir spoke passionately about the need for peace and friendship between the U.S. and USSR. He and his wife had been at Sevastopol to greet the crews of the American naval vessels that had visited there a week or so earlier. Vladimir claimed to be a simple man, and that the politics of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) were too complex for him. He still worked full time as a welder because his pension of 90 rubles per month, which was about 50 percent higher than normal because he was a decorated veteran, just wasn’t enough to live on. His wife also collected a small pension.

Tanya didn’t talk much during the trip, but expressed concern that Jackie wasn’t eating all of the meal served during our flight. Jackie’s appetite wasn’t as sharp as usual because of how the meals were served — one tray of fried chicken and potatoes stacked above the other, with no lid or cover between! This practice no doubt accounted for why the fold-down trays in the seats were so soiled!

Although Vladimir (the name means “at peace”) and Tanya were happy with their apartment and life in Baku, they were hoping to soon move to Yalta to be closer to their relatives. In order to do so, they first had to find someone with whom they could “trade” apartments. They had made tentative arrangements for such an exchange on this latest visit.


Within an hour after we landed at Baku late that night, we could think of a number of reasons why Vladimir and Tanya might want to move out of this area. With the exception of a few magnificent older buildings, we found Baku and the surrounding area to be most unattractive. One of the first sights that greeted us were the bright flames shooting out of the burn-off stacks at the many oil refineries and petrochemical plants that, together with countless oil derricks, dotted the ravaged landscape. We later learned that oil derricks also filled the Caspian seascape in Baku Harbor. It is no wonder that Baku was known as “Oil University” and the “Houston” of the Soviet Union.

The history of Azerbaijan goes back to antiquity. It is an Asian rather than European land. Archeological finds show that man inhabited this area nearly a million years ago. Baku, the capital, had a population of over two million, and was the fifth-largest city in the USSR. The city has a dry, subtropical climate. It was the site of a settlement as early as the second century. Marco Polo and Afanasy Nikitin, the well-known 15th-century Russian explorer, both left their mark here.

We awoke early the next morning to check out the beach on the far side of the park across from our hotel. All we found was a huge bubbling oil slick that had blackened the seawall as far as we could see, and oil derricks all across the horizon. We later learned that the only safe swimming in the area was about 60 miles up the coast. So, instead of a swim after the tour, we settled for a boat ride through the canals of a Venice-style park near the hotel.

Since we stayed in Baku only one full day, we did not have time to visit many of the more prominent attractions such as the Lenin Museum, the Government Building, or the ancient railroad station that we saw on our quick driving tour.


The first stop on the tour with Zoya, our local guide, was the old walled city, where we strolled through the open market examining books, paintings and other items. Since this was a free market, better deals could be made for dollars rather than rubles, and we managed to strike a rather attractive bargain for a beautiful framed painting of one of the local landmarks. We also managed to get a cup of tea in one of the ancient “Kasbahs.”

Old city street in Baku.

Old city street in Baku.

Just outside the walled city we came across a settlement where the homes, with few visible modifications, dated back to the 17th century. Children swarmed around our group looking for gum, balloons, or any sort of American souvenirs. In the middle of the crowd, a young woman stood holding an infant, who, in spite of the mid-day heat, was tightly wrapped like a package, with just its tiny head sticking out. Several people from our group took pictures of the infant, and the young woman gave each of them her name and address, asking that they send her a copy of the photo.

Exhibit at fire temple in Baku.

Exhibit at fire temple in Baku.

Another stop on our tour was the Fireworshipers Temple in the desolate outskirts of town, with the perpetual flame burning in the center of the courtyard. Centuries earlier, this fire was the object of worship, giving rise to the name Azerbaijan, which means “Keeper of the Flame.” Now the flame symbolizes the tremendous oil and gas wealth of the region.

The only houses of worship we saw in the Baku area were Muslim mosques, which we were not even allowed to go into because of our attire (shorts and uncovered heads). We elicited more than a snicker or two from the locals as we walked around town in our shorts. Although the Soviet authorities did away with the traditional veils and other cover for females at the time women were granted equal rights, the traditional conservative Muslim dress code was still very much in evidence in the region.

In the evening before we left Baku, most of our group elected to visit a kasbah just outside the old walled city for an ethnic meal and dancing while the rest of us chose to roam the streets and do some window shopping. Before turning in, we gathered in the outdoor café near our hotel and drank some kvas, a rather tasty Russian drink made from bread. Even though kvas is nonalcoholic, our casual discussion with the locals soon led to a rather heated political discussion (U.S. rather than Soviet politics), which we cut short when we spotted a couple of policemen heading our way.

Early the next morning we left for the airport and our three-hour flight to Kiev, which we were confident would be much more pleasant than our brief stay in Baku. Jackie, in particular, was looking forward to Kiev, as she was to meet cousins from Poland, who were coming to Kiev to meet us.

En route, Frank picked out a seat next to Boris, an army sergeant from the outskirts of Kiev, who was going home on leave. Boris was a communications technician stationed at an army base near Baku. Although Boris had never served in Afganistan, he sounded rather apologetic about the USSR’s role in that war, and was glad that they had pulled out. Boris was not in the service by choice, but had no problem with being drafted. He was looking forward to his discharge next year, and doing some traveling, possibly to the West, before settling down.


Panoramic view of Kiev.

Panoramic view of Kiev.

The first panoramic view we caught of Kiev as our bus from the airport crossed the majestic bridge over the Dnieper River, was truly uplifting. Rising out of the rich green forest on the west side of the river were the golden domes of St. Sophia Church and the 200-foot high Motherland statue. Local literature about the city proudly pointed out that Kiev was one of only a handful of Soviet cities that had been awarded the title of “Hero City,” as a tribute to the heroic role its people played during World War II. With a population of over 2.5 million, it was the third-largest Soviet city and capital of the Ukrainian Republic. Kiev was also known as the “Mother of all Russian Cities,” which is a throwback to the days when much of the territory that made up the Ukrainian Republic had been a part of “Old Russia.”

Without a doubt, Kiev was the most beautiful, charming, vibrant, and pleasant city we visited on our tour. Considering the fact that 40 percent of the city was destroyed during World War II, one can’t help but be impressed with the spectacular rebuilding job that had been accomplished. Even more impressive than the many monuments, parks, cathedrals, wide boulevards and stadiums that we found also in other cities were the many blocks of beautifully restored turn-of-the-century residential apartment and government buildings. Kiev also had its share of the drab-looking newer apartment buildings, but these were primarily across the river in the newer section of town, so they didn’t disturb the elegance of the older downtown area.

Our local guide was Ludmilla, a well-educated native Ukrainian who was obviously very proud of her city. She did an excellent job in giving us a rich history of the city’s attractions. Among the more memorable and moving landmarks were the Square of the October Revolution; the monument at Babi Yar, dedicated to the civilians and military prisoners of war executed by the Nazis; Victory Square; and the Monument and Eternal Flame to the Unknown Soldier. Every place we went we saw old women sweeping the streets and sidewalks with their crude brooms made from tree branches, painting walls, or otherwise scrubbing up the city.


One afternoon, following our tour, we left our bus at the far end of town and decided to browse through the streets and shops on the way back to our hotel. A young man approached us, offering to exchange money. Before long, Kolya and Frank were engrossed in all sorts of discussions, which Kolya frequently interrupted to ask Frank to sell him his sneakers. Frank told him that would be impossible, since he needed the sneakers for the rest of the trip.

But Kolya persisted, confident that any American tourist must have at least one more pair back at the hotel. His initial offer for the sneakers was 100 rubles, which at the street rate of exchange was over $160. Frank told him they were not worth that much, but Kolya, undeterred, increased his offer to 130 rubles, pointing out that his own sneakers were several sizes too big, and were quite dilapidated.

Kolya walked with us for perhaps two miles, went into the shops with us, and even accompanied us on a visit to St. Vladimir Church along the way. This was the first time he had set foot in a church in years. He lived in Tashkent, where he worked at a television station, and was in Kiev visiting his sister. He had been drafted into the army and had served in Afghanistan. His objective was to accumulate enough money to finance a move to the West, eventually to the U.S.

Frank was so impressed with Kolya’s persistence that when we finally reached our hotel, he went up to our room, changed into his other walking shoes, and sold the coveted sneakers to Kolya for the initial offer of 100 rubles! The next day, by sheer coincidence, we ran across Kolya on the other side of town, busy hustling another deal. We didn’t get to talk, but he grinned at us with a big, proud smile as he pointed down to his new American sneakers!

While in Kiev, we met Jackie’s cousin from Poland. Wojtech, his wife Renata, and their 16-year old son Radek were passing through Kiev on their way home from Rostov in the southern part of Russia, where they had been vacationing. Jackie had written to Wojtech prior to our trip, so they arranged their visit to Kiev to coincide with ours. (Jackie had met Wojtech and Renata for the first time three years earlier while she was touring Poland and several other Eastern Bloc countries with her sister.) Our conversations were trilingual. Frank spoke to them in Russian, which they could all understand, while Jackie spoke to them in her sketchy Polish. Unfortunately, their train had stopped in Kiev for only a few hours, but we managed to make the best of it. In keeping with a Polish custom, Wojtech presented Jackie with a bouquet of roses.

Interestingly, two other couples from our tour group also met with local relatives while we were visiting Kiev. Frank served as an interpreter for one of the couples who could not speak Russian and whose relatives spoke no English. On their own, they got by mostly with sign language and pointing to words in a dictionary, with an occasional assist from the little Yiddish they understood in common.

St. Andrew's Cathedral, Kiev.

St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Kiev.

Among the highlights of our second tour day were visits to the Kievo-Pechersky Monastery, St. Sophia and St. Andrew churches, and a number of museums, including our fourth Lenin Museum. The monastery, which overlooked the Dnieper River, was built during the 11th century on the site of some deep caves, which later became underground churches and burial places for the monks.

The better part of one afternoon was spent walking through The Open Air Museum of Applied Art, which was really a collection of cottages and barns with straw thatched roofs depicting a typical 19th-century Ukrainian village. Nearby, as if to show the contrast between prerevolutionary times and conditions existing in the USSR at the time, stood a group of “model homes,” representing current home styles found in villages in the Ukraine. The cost of an average four-room masonry and frame home displayed in the development, with a one-car garage on a plot of about one-quarter acre, was quoted as 75,000 rubles. Although these new homes were considerably more appealing than the older homes in the villages and countryside that we saw on our trip, they appeared to be about 50 years behind U.S. standards. In the USSR, they did not categorize homes by the number of bedrooms, as we do, but simply by the number of rooms, probably because they are accustomed to having the same room serve several purposes. In their room count, they did not include the kitchen or the bathroom, of which there was usually only one.

Our last evening in Kiev was spent at an outstanding Ukrainian Folk Show. As was the case with other performances we viewed on our trip, the spirited group of talented musicians, singers and dancers played to a packed house. As a tribute to the performers, members of the audience frequently went up on the stage to present them with bouquets of flowers. Although we have since seen a number of Ukrainian Folk Shows in the U.S., nothing ever compared to witnessing this splendid performance in its natural home setting!

It was difficult to say “do svidanya” or “goodbye” to the Crimea, Kiev and the Ukraine in general, but as we left our hotel for the airport the next morning, we looked forward to visiting Czar Peter The Great’s “new” city, now temporarily renamed Leningrad (later to be re-renamed St. Petersburg).


The flight of about 2 ½ hours from Kiev to Leningrad on the morning of August 17 was relatively uneventful.  We were seat partners with another woman from our tour group, so there was no Soviet scuttlebutt to be had!
Following lunch at the airport, we took off on a quick overview tour of the city, driving by the many spectacular sites we were to visit during our three-day  stay, then checked in at the Pribaltiskaya (the name means “by the Baltic”) Hotel.  True to its name, our hotel had a commanding view of the Baltic Sea as well as the Port of Leningrad.  The hotel was magnificent, and was the most Western-style hotel we stayed in during our trip.  It was built primarily for the foreign tourist trade, only nine years earlier.

By Soviet standards, Leningrad was a fairly new city. It was founded and named St. Petersburg by Czar Peter The Great, who wanted to provide Russia with a window to the West on the Gulf of Finland.  Peter engaged French and Italian designers and architects to plan and build the city, which was built on swampland in the delta of the Neva River.  The city is built on 101 islands, which are connected with more than 350 bridges spanning the Neva, its branches, and canals.  It rightfully deserved its title as “The Venice of the North.”

Construction of St. Petersburg was started in 1703, and in 1713 Peter moved the capital of Russia from Moscow to his new city.  Lenin eventually moved the capital back to Moscow in 1918 after the Revolution. The city was renamed Petrograd in 1914, then in 1924, after the death of Lenin, it was renamed Leningrad.  It was the Soviet Union’s second-largest city, with a population of over 5 million. The city was renamed St. Petersburg in 1991, following breakup of the Soviet Union.

Leningrad was another of the handful of Soviet cities honored with the title “Hero City” for its valiant role in World War II.  More than half the city was demolished during the 900-day siege by the Nazis, and over 2 million Soviet soldiers and civilians died here during the war. In Leningrad, as was the case in other Soviet cities we visited, many statues and memorials were built to honor their war dead.

Leningrad was the leading industrial and commercial center of the Soviet Union. Its chief industries were shipbuilding and the construction of large turbines and generators. Its food supply was furnished by 190 collective farms that encircled the city.  Because of the area’s short growing season, much of the produce was grown in huge greenhouses.  Because of the city’s northern latitude, days are very short in the winter and very long in the summer. During our visit, the darkness of night lasted only about five hours. For a day or two in mid-June, it is light around the clock.


Olga, our local guide, was the most enthusiastic we had during our trip.  She spoke as if she had lived with the czars in the palaces that she took us through, the most spectacular of which was the blocklong Hermitage Museum, the former Winter Palace of the last six czars. Its 300 ornately decorated rooms were filled with art treasures from all over the world.  It housed the world’s largest collection of paintings by famous artists like Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Picasso, da Vinci and many others.  It was in the Winter Palace that the Revolution of 1917 began.  The signal to storm the Palace was given by a blast from a cannon on the Cruiser Aurora, that now lies nearby at anchor in the Neva River.

Another of the historical landmarks we visited in Leningrad was the Peter and Paul Fortress, which predated the city by a number of years.  Many prerevolutionary political prisoners were incarcerated within its walls, including Lenin, Gorky, Dostoyevski and one of Peter’s sons. The Peter and Paul Cathedral, located within the Fortress, presents an appearance very different from that of the usual Russian Orthodox churches in the country because it was built by a Polish Roman Catholic architect.  It is the burial place of a number of czars, including Peter The Great.

Redemption Church of the Spilled Blood, Leningrad

Redemption Church of the Spilled Blood, Leningrad

Other attractions we visited were The Redemption Church of Spilled Blood, dedicated to Czar Alexander II, who bled to death when assassinated after abolishing serfdom in 1861, and Smolny Institute. Smolny, once a finishing school for the daughters of the nobility, served as Lenin’s headquarters during the Revolution and as the first seat of the new government. We were also impressed with St. Isaac’s Cathedral, which was also built by a Roman Catholic from the West, and differs in appearance from the typical Russian Orthodox church.

The only rain we encountered on our trip was when we traveled by hydrofoil on the Neva River and out into the open waters of the Baltic Sea to Petrodvorets, or Peter’s Castle, the Summer Palace of the Czars. After viewing the lavish furnishings and decorations in the Castle, we emerged to be greeted by the spectacular sight of 64 fountains positioned among 254 bronze sculptures in front of the Castle, an event that was scheduled for 11 each morning. One landmark that we did not find time to visit was the imposing Kazansky Cathedral, which now houses the Museum of Atheism. We have since often wondered what could possibly be put on display in a museum devoted to atheism.

As was true during the rest of our visit, the time we spent on our own in Leningrad was the most interesting. Since we were nearing the end of our stay, we had to get rid of our remaining rubles. The best place to do that was the city’s largest department store, Gostini Dom (which means “House for Guests”), and other shops along Nevsky Prospect, the city’s beautiful main street. But it was at the small shop in our hotel that we located our prize Russian memento, a glittering samovar, or coffee/tea kettle.


A high point of our stay in Leningrad was the time spent with Konstantin, a local resident whom we had met while visiting our son and his family in Michigan a month earlier, while Konstantin was on a business trip to the U.S.  Konstantin was one of the country’s new breed of entrepreneurs, operating a small but profitable business manufacturing and distributing a line of fishing tackle.  Konstantin gave us a beautiful book on the Hermitage Museum and one on old Russian religious paintings. Frank gave Konstantin a new shirt and some shaving articles but he apparently had no trouble buying such items — he was driving around with about a dozen tubes of Colgate toothpaste on the back seat of his car. Regrettably, Konstantin’s wife and son were visiting relatives in Sochi on the Black Sea (site of the future 2014 Winter Olympics), so we didn’t get to meet them. Also, our schedule was such that we did not have time to visit his apartment, which was in a small town about 20 miles out of Leningrad.

Of all the local people we met on our trip, the one who made the most significant impression on us, particularly on Frank, was Nikolai, our tour bus driver. Frank got to know Nikolai rather well, since he often cut short our guided tours to talk with him in the bus. Nikolai spoke no English and literally poured his heart out about life in the Soviet Union. He claimed that products and services were inferior or nonexistent because most workers simply didn’t care. Wages were fixed by the state for each work classification and in no way reflected the quality or quantity of work performed by the individual.  He was particularly distressed about not being able to buy quality food for his family, and by surly clerks who couldn’t care less whether or not anyone bought the goods they were hired to sell.

Nikolai earned 225 rubles per month, but had a hard time making ends meet because he was now paying much more than normal for his apartment. He and his wife and two children had lived in a two-room flat with two other families until a few months earlier, when he was offered the “opportunity” to “buy” a larger private apartment for 75 rubles per month, three times what he had paid earlier. He added that “buying” an apartment really offered no financial advantages, since he could not realize a profit on its sale, and he was not able to sell it to a buyer of his choice.

On one of our last local tours, Nikolai presented us with a beautiful “matrioshka” doll, which he said he had recently received as a gift from his son. He refused to let us pay for it, but when Frank asked what he might like to have in return, he rather timidly acknowledged that his son would be tickled with an American baseball cap. Unfortunately, we did not have one with us, but we were happy to find a New York Yankee cap in the Western-style souvenir shop in our hotel.

The last we saw of Nikolai was his ear-to-ear grin, topped off with a Yankee hat, as he drove his empty bus down the ramp away from the hotel.

That evening, we were treated to a gala farewell dinner at the hotel.  The champagne and dinner were great, but the view from the dining room on the top floor of the 10-story hotel overlooking the river was even better. The next morning we left the hotel to catch a domestic flight to Moscow, where we eventually climbed aboard our Pan Am 747 for New York. After a hectic two weeks, we were ready for quiet rest and relaxation.


As a footnote to our trip, we should add that many of our observations were not associated with any single location. For example, landscaping in the parks and around historic buildings and statues was impressive in terms of flowers, shrubs and other planting, but their lawns were terrible. The grass looked hacked rather than cut, and the lawns seemed to consist of as many weeds as blades of grass.

Another observation was the lack of safety devices and practices.  We saw many workers around construction sites without hardhats, demolition sites that lacked overhead protection from falling debris, many excavations in sidewalks without barricades or flashers, many dark stairways in hotels and apartment buildings, and steep stairs without handrails. Buses, trucks and construction vehicles were not equipped with backup warning devices, and vehicles of all kinds repeatedly crossed the center line in the face of oncoming traffic. We had to conclude that working or living in the Soviet Union could be hazardous to one’s health.

Gas stations were rare. To reduce the frequency of having to wait in line for fuel, many car owners install auxiliary tanks. Our friend Konstantin, for example, added two such tanks, increasing his capacity from 10 gallons to 25 gallons.

It was now Sunday, August 20, and as we landed at JFK at 2 p.m. New York time, having regained the eight hours we “lost” 16 days ago, we were at our home-sweet-home again. And just over two years later, the USSR was no more, and 15 “new” countries, three of which we had visited, came into being. In the case of Ukraine, however, it appears that their status may be in a state of flux.