Articles

Hliday weekend in MOSCOW

IAN SCLANDERS June 18 1960
Articles

Hliday weekend in MOSCOW

IAN SCLANDERS June 18 1960

Hliday weekend in MOSCOW

Articles

Forget those tales of compulsory guides and secret police, says this Maclean’s editor who toured communism’s surprising world capital as freely as he might go sight-seeing anywhere in Canada

IAN SCLANDERS

AS THE BIG Electra left the Baltic Sea behind and headed inland over the USSR. Moscow-bound from Amsterdam, the steward announced on the intercom, in Dutch, English, French and German, that Soviet law prohibits the taking of photographs from a plane. He advised passengers to stow away their cameras.

We looked at what we were not permitted to photograph lakes, streams and forests, three or lour miles below, that were indistinguishable from C anadian lakes, streams and forests. I hen we looked knowingly at one another, for the steward's warning seemed to confirm a feeling most of us had that, in the Soviet Union, wed be constantly running a gantlet of red tape.

"I guess this is w here the restrictions start, ' said the man sitting beside me. I said I guessed it was. for sou can't quite believe, although you have read it and heard it, that the current Soviet police is to permit visitors to see and do what they wish to see and do.

You can't believe it. that is. until you go to the USSR yourself, as ten thousand North Americans did last year, and as an estimated twenty thousand will this year. As one of I 960's visitors. I believe it now. The steward s warning was the first and last nyei we heard on the whole trip.

In a "weekend in Moscow" that stretched from Saturday night to Wednesday morning. I wandered as freely as I could have done in Montreal or Toronto. I rode the subway, talked with strangers who were anxious to test their English on me, ate weird but not very wonderful dishes in a variety of restaurants, and discovered that Russian hospitality gives a foreigner special privileges. I could, for instance, obtain seats for the Bolshoi ballet on short notice — seats most Russians would have to order several weeks in advance.

In stores, clerks tended to serve me first, with the smiling consent of their regular customers. And, had I been so inclined, which I wasn't, I

could have gazed on the embalmed corpses of Lenin and Stalin any afternoon 1 chose. A Russian who seeks this privilege has to wait weeks for permission, then spend hours in the procession that shuffles slowly through the famous tomb in the Red Square.

But. like most travelers from Western countries. I anticipated more hostility than hospitality when I disembarked from the Electra at the Moscow airport with five other Canadians on an inaugural flight by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. The six of us were prepared for the worst. We expected to be bullied by arrogant officials, bombarded with propaganda, herded into interminable queues.

Yet the officials, when we faced them, were soft-spoken and courteous.

If there was propaganda it was hard to discern. True, I met Russians who boasted of the USSR and the achievements of communism, but they sounded curiously like Canadians I've heard

boasting of Canada and the virtues of free enterprise.

The queues at the customs and immigration gates at the Moscow airport were no longer or more infuriating than the queues at Montreal's Dorval airport or Toronto’s Malton airport. And we were soon rescued from them by two brisk business-like little men who identified themselves as representatives of Intourist, the Soviet organization in charge of the tourist trade.

Were we the party of six from Canada? Then come, we w'on't waste time! Signaling, gesturing, dancing up and down excitedly and shouting cheerfully, the Intourist men w'hisked us and our luggage through immigration and customs. We had to sign declarations that our luggage contained no firearms, opium or hashish, but it wasn't opened.

We were loaded, two to a car. into three taxis. They were new' Zims. which resemble elderly Buicks, and two of them

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“We searched our rooms for microphones but sheepishly decided we’d been seeing too many TV shows”

could have transported the six of us with space to spare. The Intourist man said we'd be staying at the Metropole, then he said do svidaniyu (good-by) and vanished back into the airport, leaving us with the drivers.

We were driven fifteen or twenty miles on a paved road. There wasn't much traffic. None of the drivers spoke English so we couldn't ask questions about the landscape. but we passed farms, suburbs in which all the buildings were apartment blocks, and a modest skyscraper which had a sign at its top saying, in Russian. French and English. Atoms for Peace. Then there were spires tipped with red stars, and we were in Moscow, a city of five million which is the capital of the communist world, the capital of Russia itself, and the capital of the fifteen republics of the USSR — fifteen republics with a population of 210 million and an area greater than the combined area of Canada and China.

The Metropole turned out to be ancient, enormous, dimly-lit. gloomy. Since scores of newspaper items in recent years have suggested that Stalin’s memory is not exactly cherished in Russia, we were surprised that an oversized portrait of Stalin dominated the lobby. There was no portrait of Khrushchov in the Metropole — or anywhere else that we saw.

No nightclubs in Moscow

After husky female bellhops took possession of the baggage, the desk clerk directed us to the Intourist office, off the lobby. It. too, was dominated by a kingsized oil painting of Stalin. A plump, dark-eyed girl greeted us in English.

She explained that the room rate, $17.50 a day. included meals. She doled out a dozen meal tickets to each of us and said they'd be honored by all the leading hotels, not just the Metropole.

We asked her what we could do to have fun. Not much, she said with a shrug. It was after nine, too late in the evening for plays or concerts. Night clubs? Not in Moscow. Perhaps we'd like to go walking.

Then we asked whether she could give us rubles for Canadian dollars. Not on Saturday night, she said. Not until Sunday morning. But if we were hungry we had our meal tickets and maybe there were places where these would be accepted for drinks, as well as food. The six of us agreed to meet again in half an hour.

My room was so big that two double beds were practically lost in one corner of it. It had an ornate chandelier, a desk the size of a corporation president’s, an elegant sofa, chairs, an eight-foot-high wooden wardrobe, two full-length mirrors, lamps with fringed silk shades.

The bathroom, too, was of heroic proportions. A card tabic stood beside the metal bathtub — a giant tub on curved legs. Though the plumbing was antique, hot water poured from the taps and. contrary to some reports. Russian hotels do provide a reasonable quantity and quality of soap and toilet paper.

I looked around, as most newly arrived tourists do. for a concealed microphone. So, I learned later, did the others in the group I w'as with. One rolled his rug back and lifted a loose floor board but all that was under it was dust. He admitted

with a sheepish grin that he must have watched too many television plays about communist agents and secret police.

When our party reassembled after our unsuccessful search for hidden mikes, we sallied forth to see the sights of a Mos-

cow Saturday night. The streets, at eleven, were still filled with pedestrians, an extraordinary number of them in uniform.

Young couples strolled slowly, arms wrapped round each other. Occasionally

they paused to kiss. I recalled reading that courting presented problems in Moscow, the housing shortage and overcrowding being so acute that boy could rarely be alone indoors with girl. Maybe this accounts for (he street-corner buss-

¡ng. bul the Russians are naturally demonstrative. Two broad-shouldered naval officers sauntered by. arm in arm. This, in Russia, implied only that they were good friends, but looked odd to our Western eyes.

We. in turn, must have looked odd to the Muscovites, who could immediately and invariably spot us as foreigners.

It may have been the way we were dressed, for. while none of us would have passed muster as a fashion plate. Russian shoes and clothes are not only dít ferent in style from ours but are inferior

notoriously poor, shoddy and expensive. One of my companions was asked by a man at the next table in one of the best restaurants whether he would sell the shoes he was wearing. And all of us were frequently stopped by uilyayi. The term, from the Russian word for style, is applied to youths who wear loudly patterned suits of unconventional cut. They are the Russian equivalent of Britain's Teddy boys and of the zoot suiters once familiar to North Americans.

Srilynyi. who nearly all seem able to speak English fluently, plead with you

to sell them suits, overcoats, shirts, ties, jazz records. It's apparent that they have facilities for reselling these at a profit in the black market. Their chief stock-intrade is money. The official exchange rate is ten rubles for a dollar, but they offered twenty - five, thirty or even thirty - five rubles for a dollar.

But. none of us felt like doing business with the xtilyayi, especially on our first night in Moscow. What we did feel like, after walking miles, absorbing new sights, sounds and smells, and rubbing elbows with the street throngs, was a ride on

the Metro, the world's most magnificent subway system.

We entered an underground station as spacious and as impressive as a palace — white marble, black granite, mosaic, bronze statues, arched ceilings, sparkling chandeliers. There are more than fifty such stations and the hundreds of thousands of Muscovites who pour through them daily grumble occasionally that if they weren't so fancy the Metro fare might be less than half a ruble — five cents at the official rate of exchange, less than two cents at the xtilyaycis rate. The six of us didn't have half a ruble among us — not in Russian money.

There was a fat. motherly looking woman at the wicket. We offered her Canadian money. U. S. money. Dutch money. Nyct, nyct. nyet. She shook her head. But she must have felt sorry for us. for suddenly she stopped shaking her head and nodded and beamed. She informed us. in an improvised sign language, that we were to be her guests. She waved us through the turnstile and we boarded a train.

It was as fast as the trains on Toronto's much-publicized subway, and much cleaner, smoother, quieter and more comfortable. During our free ride I had a completely unintelligible conversation with a Russian whose English I couldn't understand and who couldn't understand mine. I gathered he was one of a vast number of Russians now studying English.

Somehow, we contrived to leave the subway at a station close to the Metropole.

No blue laws here

Sunday, I arose fairly early. Breakfast was disappointingly like breakfast at home. Fruit juice, bacon and eggs, toast, coffee — served to the accompaniment of the Metropole restaurant's weary little fountain, which dribbles into a goldfish pond with a sound like a leaky tap.

But. when I'd finished my coflee — Russian coffee is bad and Russian tea wonderful, just as the tourist guide books say — the money changer was on dut\. I padded my pockets with crisp new rubles, asked the intourist office to try to reserve tickets for me for the ballet, opera and circus, and learned that one of our party, who was up with the birds, had succeeded in engaging a guide-interpreter and cars tor all of us for the afternoon. Then 1 went walking.

Even on Sunday morning the shapeless broad-beamed women with twig brooms, who look like overstaffed rag dolls and keep Moscow's streets cleaner than am other streets I've ever seen, were out in force, sweeping, sweeping, sweeping.

Elderly people were also out in force, dressed in their shabby, spotless, neat, respectable Sunday best, trudging toward Moscow's fifty Russian Orthodox churches. its Roman C atholic church, its Jewish synagogue, its Baptist church, its Moslem mosque.

Those who attend services certainly don't do so because Sunday blue laws have deprived them of other things to do. Russia has no such laws, and Sunday, while a holiday for more than half of Moscow's population, is the big day of the week at the stores, the markets, the race track, the theatres, the sports arenas, the museums, the art galleries.

Gosudarstvenny lJniversalny Magazin, which is called GUM for short, and no wonder, faces Red Square and is Russia's biggest store. GUM was jammed with eager customers when I passed it. window shopping, at noon. It holds two fashion shows on Sunday afternoons and

Russia’s prettiest models display the latest styles. 1 didn’t see the models, but the dresses in the windows looked as smart as Paris or New York dresses. The rub is that they can seldom he bought. At the fashion shows the announcer tells the audience the number of the pattern of the dress a model is wearing and the kind and yardage of fabric needed to make it. A woman who likes the dress can either make it herself or have a government dressmaker make it.

Lunch at the Metropole was excellent — fresh caviar on dark bread thickly spread with unsalted butter, rich cabbage harsch with chunks of savory sausage in it, Georgian wine, sturgeon steak, a salad, fruit, tea in a glass with a silver handle.

But the waiter looked blank when I said I was in a hurry. An hour and a half lapsed between the caviar and the tea. By then Nina, the guide-interpreter, had arrived at the hotel.

Nina is a pleasant young woman who. when not guiding and interpreting, teaches English in Moscow schools. She’s married to a physicist and has one child. And she’s what you might call a serious type. No lipstick, but lots of statistics. She led us up the Lenin Hills to see most of Moscow spread out under us. bristling with towers and minarets. The hills are crowned by Moscow University’s thirtytwo-story sky scraper.

Not far from the university. Nina showed us the Lenin Stadium, which seats 103.000. the Palace of Sports, which scats 17.000. the Children's Lootball Stadium, which seats 2.500. Nina covered so much ground and reeled off so many figures that Sunday afternoon was a whirling blur of museums, art galleries. tennis courts, swimming pools, historic squares, rows of apartment

blocks that reached to the horizon and had crisp curtains at the windows, and playgrounds.

On one street, as Nina and 1 stood talking, half a dozen small boys clustered around me. asking for chewing gum. You can't buy gum in Russia, and the kids there love it. Since I’d been told of this.

I doled out sticks of gum I'd brought from Toronto. One youngster insisted on giving me a badge of some kind in return. As they marched off Nina looked at their caps, which were like soldiers' caps, and the military cut of their school uniforms. She sighed. "1 wish they didn't have to dress like soldiers." she said. "‘We've seen so much of soldiers and war."

Insurance for acrinlists

I was exhausted when Nina dropped us at the Metropole, but, buoyed by a beverage called pepper vodka. I made my way to the Prague restaurant for crab julienne and mushrooms in sour cream. As at the Metropole, the service was appallingly slow. So slow that, although Intourist had got me a seat at the circus. I missed most of it and saw just enough to convince me that it's superb entertainment. At one point in the program. water pounded down a chute with Niagara-like fury while colored lights played on it. I he entire centre of the ring was turned imo a pool in which mermaids swam and trained bears rowed a boat.

Like every thing else in Russia, the circus is run by the state. There’s a government school at which talented boys and girls are taught to be circus performers. And. by government regulation, the aerialists and high-wire performers must wear safety devices, since they are entitled to

“Between acts at the ballet you could eat caviar sandwiches and wash them down with ice-cold beer”

tihe same protection from accidents as ether workers.

The Monday morning after the circus,

I hired a blond vivacious girl named Tanya from Intourist, to guide and interpret. We went shopping at GUM. and for four dollars I got fifteen small dolls ia the native costumes of the Soviet Republics. Other purchases included a threestringed Russian balalaika, also four dollars; and a mandolin, seven dollars. I had to carry the musical instruments as hand luggage and cursed them all the way back to Canada. I still curse them for my two daughters now plink-plunk at them constantly.

Tanya convinced me that the Russians like bigness for its own sake. She took me to the Kremlin, which 1 found to be a fascinating assortment of cathedrals that are now museums, of palaces, of medieval walls and turrets. She proudly showed me the Czar Bell, or King of Bells, and the Czar Cannon. The bell weighs over two hundred tons but was broken before it could ever be rung and sits on a concrete base.

We lunched at the Ararat, which specializes in Armenian dishes, and where we had a soup so thick it was like a stew, and lamb cooked on a spit. I hen we saw more sights — the Children s World, which is a store; the government second-hand shops where you might pick up a rare antique if you were lucky; the markets at which people from collective farms can sell at high prices any produce they are not obligated to deliver to the government.

When we returned to the Metropole and were having a beer, two girls at the next table joined the conversation. They were medical students and w'anted to practise their English. They asked me to supper and I taxied them home to a mean little building in a sea of mud on Moscow's outskirts, where they shared a room. But the talk was lively, the sausage spicy, the vodka strong, the tea hot.

I had a ticket to an opera at the Bolshoi Filial, an annex of the Bolshoi Theatre, but left the students only in time for the last act. Somebody had moved into my empty seat. An amiable usher carried a straight-backed chair to the door of a bal-

cony box for me. opened the door so I could hear, and stood by me as I listened. jiggling his head to the rhythm of the music as he listened too.

Tuesday morning. Tanya called for me. This, she announced, was the day I was going to see all I had missed. She towed me through galleries and museums until my feel were blistered. We took in mile after mile of old masters and French impressionists, jeweled Easter eggs, royal crowns, gold dinner plates, the gowns of bygone czarinas. We even saw the boots of Peter the Great, who was more than seven feet tall. We had a Georgian lunch — warm bread, cold chicken with walnut sauce, cucumbers in sour cream — and a steak dinner. The steak was tough.

Then I hurried to the Bolshoi Theatre, where Intourist had managed to get me a seat for the ballet — a seat in the middle, a few rows from the stage. Just to see the theatre itself was worth the price of admission. $3.50 in Canadian money. It has five gilt-edged tiers of redplush seats, the frescoes on its lofty ceiling are masterpieces, its tremendous hanging chandelier sparkles and flashes. ■'Bolshoi’’ means big. and this is the right word. The auditorium holds more than two thousand and the stage, designed for huge troupes of dancers, incredible leaps, immense scenes, is as large as the auditorium. The ballet, this night, was Cinderella. It was a perfect performance in a perfect setting. Between acts, in the theatre restaurant, you could eat openfaced caviar sandwiches and wash them down with ice cold beer.

In the early morning, I had a last look at the gold, green, yellow and white domes of St. Basil's Cathedral and the red glass stars on the Kremlin towers, sparkling in the sun.

Then to the airport, and as the Electra climbed, circled and pointed toward Amsterdam. I could see scores of silvery planes, mostly jets, lined up on the runways like salmon swimming upstream. And, in the distance, Moscow — capital of Communism, capital of Russia, capital of the Soviet Union, a city whose people are eager to showvisitors that today is better than yesterday and who believe tomorrow will be better than today. ★