Russia without a visa

Queues and culture shock


Russia without a visa

Queues and culture shock


Russia without a visa

Queues and culture shock


At 5 p.m. on a Tuesday in May, 1972, my wife and I boarded the Bore II in Helsinki, Finland. An hour later this Finnish ship of 3,000 tons cast off. We were bound for Leningrad, and a twoday exploration of that historic city.

I can’t say the atmosphere was electric with excitement; most of our 200 or so fellow passengers seemed more interested in getting a last look at Helsinki, or in settling themselves in their cabins, than in discussing what had led them to visit the Soviet Union. Later we found that despite our diverse origins — the passengers were predominantly Finns and other Scandinavians, but there were a number of Germans, British, Dutch and North Americans — the common motivation was curiosity. It was enhanced by the fact that the trip was short, relatively cheap, and that no visa was required. This latter exception to a strict Soviet rule was possible only because we were to sleep on the ship and while in Leningrad were to be shepherded around on supervised tours.

The ship was a pleasant surprise. Twenty years old, it had just been completely renovated, and although our first-class cabin on the main deck was small it had a new bathroom, with shower, toilet and sink, and new furniture including double-decker bunks. The food was very good, with a strong Scandinavian bias, and the buffet style provided a wide freedom of choice as

well as encouraging most of us to overeat. There was a good wine list, too.

Leningrad lies at the eastern tip of the Gulf of Finland; the trip took some 14 hours, and we awoke to find ourselves steaming down a narrow buoy-marked channel, almost a canal. Leningrad is built on the delta of the Neva River, and the trip into the passenger dock took several hours. The most surprising sight as we followed the narrow course was the immense shipbuilding and repairing docks which stretch for miles — apparently half of Soviet shipping is built in Leningrad — and the number of ships of all registries moored along the docks. We knew something about Leningrad and its beautiful architecture; we had only been dimly aware of its industry and shipping.

We docked about 9 a.m. Officials

trooped on board, and the green-clad, humorless soldiers (yes, with automatic rifles) took their posts at the end of the gangplanks. They remained there night and day throughout our stay, and I can’t say that it is a sight to make a tourist relax. Our sense of unease increased when, on leaving the ship and handing over our passport in exchange for a propuska (a numbered plastic card), the soldiers’ eyes went slowly back and forth three and four times between our faces and the not-very-clear passport photos!

The dock was long, wide and open (good field of fire?), but eventually we reached the office where the tour buses were waiting. After exchanging some money at $1.20 to the ruble, we were allowed a few minutes to buy postcards and stamps.

Each bus had a guide who spoke a particular foreign language, including English, and we set out on the first tour — a general go-round of the central area. Impressions flooded over us. Very wide streets and boulevards with little traffic except streetcars and trucks of a style almost prewar by our standards. Architecture largely ornamented neoclassical; few modern buildings of any kind visible throughout the centre town area. No buildings breaking the 100-foot height ceiling, except the occasional church, palace or fortress. Largest building of all was St. Isaac cathedral with 2xh tons of gold leaf on the dome. Most

buildings were painted in some pastel shade — mainly light blues and yellows. Crowds of pedestrians, notably on the main street, the Nevski Prospekt. Surprisingly few bicycles. Much painting of bridges — but then President Nixon was due the next day on his official visit, and this could have been abnormal primping for the occasion.

The overwhelming impression, however, was one of architectural harmony and integrity. The city core is still much as it was laid out more than two centuries ago, with building heights equaling the width of the streets. We kept asking ourselves, how did these Russians manage to do what so few of us westerners have been able to do, preserve an old and beautiful city almost intact? How did they do it, moreover, in the face of the tremendous damage and loss of life caused by Nazi bombing and shelling, and by the blockade of World War II (the Germans got that close to capturing Leningrad)? How did the Soviets avoid inflicting obscene new buildings on the old city, in spite of massive housing needs?

Since almost all of what is being preserved dates from czarist times, and since millions are being spent on rehabilitating old churches, the paradox becomes more difficult to explain. One might conclude that the Russian sense of history and national pride override the denigration of the old regime and the church that has been Soviet policy since the Revolution. Yet the guide went out of her way to emphasize the role of recent Soviet architects in the restoration — and rarely if ever mentioned the original Russian, French and Italian contribution. Here we were, looking for historical and architectural facts and answers to our questions, and it was eerie to hear a story that began mainly in 1917. One beautiful and historic building was notable only because Lenin’s brother had been incarcerated there for a few days or months!

The guide’s naïve propaganda flowed on, a rather irritating note in an otherwise interesting tour. The church steeples, onion shaped, painted and tiled in various bright colors, were particularly beautiful in the setting sun — and with the height limit on other buildings they stood out on the horizon. Among other outstanding buildings was the Hermitage museum, with one of the finest art collections in the world. We were lucky to have two hours in it — but two months would not have been enough to begin to sample its delights.

A jewel of a city — but our impressions were not restricted to the architecture, to the townscape and to historical buildings, nor were they all favorable. It was with some sense of cultural shock that we saw women in tarand paint-stained coveralls doing the

hardest type of physical labor — road mending, pick-and-shovel work, street cleaning. Not that they weren’t up to it — I’ve never seen so many solidly built women in my life. On another dimension was the solemnity of the people one saw in the streets — life seemed very earnest, very dull, and not at all easy. Queues everywhere — even for kvas, a kind of tasteless light beer or fermented grain, which was dispensed from casks pushed around on two-wheeled carts. Queues seemed to materialize anywhere a new shipment of produce of any kind arrived.

Even the children had a solemn look. In the gardens of the Peterhof, the summer palace — a very ornate and beautiful place — there are what are called “joking fountains,” some a century or more old. Stepping on a certain stone would activate the spray, or it could be triggered from outside the fountain area. The kids vied to see who could drench the others — but there was little of the kidding and laughter that would accompany the same thing here.

The food? We had only the two Russian lunches, the rest of our meals being taken on the ship — thank God. Gastronomy has never had pride of place in Russia, and what we were given ranged from poor to abominable. Mind you, it was a package deal — and we saw better food, including fruit, being served at other tables in the hotel restaurant. But service was poor.

In spite of the many things to see, it wasn’t long before we began to chafe over the rather rigidly controlled tour system. We were seized with an awful urge to somehow get off on our own, and we finally did manage two minor escapades. The first occurred when we missed the bus for the Opera House through a misunderstanding about the time. The ship’s purser tried desperately to straighten the matter out with the soldiers on guard, who at first adamantly refused us permission to leave the ship. However, they finally relented and we walked down to the office at the end of the pier. Then we were told that no taxis were available, but were lucky to catch one that dropped off a passenger; we showed him our tickets and we took off.

It was quite an experience. With the wide streets and the absence of competing traffic, the driver wandered freely all over the road, and at maximum speed. We got to the theatre in time for the curtain and paid him off with one ruble — about a half or a third of what the corresponding price would be in Canada. The operetta, Fledermaus, proved to be a great disappointment. Although the dance scenes were well staged, there was an interminable amount of Russian dialogue inserted, presumably supposed to be funny. It was certainly all over our heads, but we noted that the Russian au-

dience didn’t find it very funny either.

The second minor departure from the script came from my desire to see the Leningrad subway, of which I had heard so much. The bus took us from lunch on the second day to one of the Beriozhka shops, where various things not available elsewhere could be bought with hard currency. I slipped away and went down the subway at the main Nevski Prospekt station entrance. It is a very attractive subway indeed, and very deep in order to go under the canals and branches of the Neva River; the escalator taking us down was twice as long as any I had ever seen. The trains were quiet, the cars clean and comfortable, and it is altogether an attractive and well engineered operation. Fare, five kopecks — about six cents at the official rate of exchange, or about four cents in terms of true purchasing power. I got back to the store in time to catch the bus and found that, although there had been few bargains, my wife had been able to buy a beautiful silver fox hat at a price that certainly was very reasonable.

The trip back through the canal was a delight; not only did we get a good view of Leningrad and its famous low profile, but we could spot the various landmarks we had visited. Picture-taking continued. As twilight fell, we approached the fortified island of Kronshtadt, which we had been told it was strictly forbidden to photograph. Nobody did, although I saw no evidence at all that anyone would intervene. Dinner proved to be the best meal of the trip. Some of us had the impression that the Finns were trying to outdo themselves in drawing a comparison between their food and that available in Leningrad.

Exchanging views with other passengers, most of us were surprised to find what a relief it was to depart, particularly from the soldiers on the dock. At the same time, most of us thought that we would go back to Leningrad again if given a chance. Maybe this ambivalence is simply a reflection of the difficulty we westerners always seem to have in trying to understand the great Russian enigma. ■

For Leningrad trip on Bore II apply to Silja Line, Helsinki, or through a travel agent. Cost, including all food: $128 first class, down to $63 cheapest rate; passport but no visa needed. For other travel in Russia go to a tourist agency, apply for visa and pay in advance for transportation and tor intourist package deal covering all costs in Russia excluding personal expenses (drinks, taxis, shopping). On arrival do not convert more than, say, $50, since most shopping is cheaper if payment is made in hard currency. One ruble costs $1.20; this exchange rate tends to overvalue the ruble.