Russia...before

If I were asked today to give advice on what not to do as a tourist in Russia, I’d suggest: join a group, don’t go by yourself; don’t take a car; don’t go in winter, and don’t go expecting to meet the common man/woman.

Thirty-four years ago, when I first and last visited Russia, I did all those things I’d now advise against. So this time, I’m on my bike, not in a car; it’s summer, not winter; and I expect to meet ‘locals’, at least SERVAS hosts. Granted, I am alone but that’s how I travel and I’m hopelessly beyond change in that regard.

Why did it take me 34 years to return here? Well, to understand, just look at my first day in the USSR, described below. All those years ago when, as an idealistic youth, radicalized by college, I had high expectations of seeing an egalitarian society where people advanced on merit, where the poor and unfortunate were automatically provided for, where food, shelter, health, education and general welfare were obligations of the state, bla bla bla. Sure, there was no democracy, free speech and the like, but back then in the late '60s, democracy and free speech were not producing such a great result.

Once upon a time, like many others I had great expectations of communism. As I prepared to drive onto Russian soil, I had just visited (that’s back in 1969 when I graduated a half year early from college so I could hop off North America for the first time) various Soviet satellites, met people who were kind and warm and invited me into their homes, and were themselves eager to meet a representative of capitalist society. I had had thoroughly enjoyable short visits to Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Rumania, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. I thought that if these places could be so good, the people not rich but happy and relatively well-off, and although led by the nose by a government they generally ignored, at least they were not force fed by a consumption-oriented, advertising-based capitalist media...if they were so good, couldn’t mother Russia be all that much better?

In 1969 Volkswagen had a promotion: buy a car, pay for it in the US, pick it up at the German factory, drive it around to your heart’s content for 6 months, ship it to the US (for US $100) and then sell it immediately to a dealer at the original cost (The dealer would then sell it as a new model VW, which it still was). Thus, the cost of the trip’s transportation would be gasoline and insurance. It sounded like a good deal, and I took it. Of course, no one told me that the Russians – the first to put a person in space, giving the world its best chess players, with an educational system that seemed the best – no one told me that these same Russians had not figured out how to fill up a pothole. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Back then the Soviet government, still so intent on control, required all food and accommodation to be paid up front, in the New York office of Intourist, the state-run travel agency, and a fixed itinerary was issued along with these stacks of vouchers. I got my Russian visa in Athens, with the entry point listed as the border Ungheni, Rumania. (Or it may have been the crossing at Hancesti or Cahul; it's hard to recall, and today's maps have a country called Moldova in the area).

In any case on the designated day I somehow ended up at the Rumanian border, but at another border crossing (Cahul, Hancesti or Ungheni no doubt), a long way away from the designated one. My plan was to go south to Odessa in the Ukraine, then drive north through Moldova, Belarus and on to Moscow and Leningrad, and out to Finland. I figured it really didn’t make much difference which border I used; I wasn’t changing countries.

I arrived at the Rumanian side while the frontier was open, but the Russian side kept shorter hours, so I remember having to sleep in the car while we waited for the Russians to show up for work. The Rumanians, who were quite friendly and offered me tea and the use of their typewriter (I had to fill out insurance forms because I had run into a wall trying to pass a truck in Bulgaria) couldn’t have cared less where or when I crossed into Russia. So, once the Russians phoned that they were ready to accept visitors, I was allowed to cross over.

The border included a no-man’s land, which was several kilometers of barbed wire. I thought it peculiar that these socialist brothers had such intimidating security between themselves. Was it designed to keep Russians from fleeing to Rumania, or vice-versa? In any case, I finally arrived at Russia, only to wait for 15 minutes until a border guardsman arrived to open up the gate.

The border guard mimed for me to get out of the car. He opened up a one meter by one meter sunken box in the earth which contained some sort of spongy material and motioned for me to wipe off what I later perceived to be Rumanian capitalist dirt from the soles of my shoes. That task completed, I then reentered the vehicle and drove up to a Quonset hut that was the control facility for the border. What I remember most about the stack of forms I was handed is that everything was in Russian - this apparently was not the designated border crossing for English speakers. I struggled with a few lines of the forms and then did what seemed most reasonable: hand them over with a shrug along with all the documents I had on me. The Russians huddled and, I guess, figured out how to fill out the forms. They particularly appreciated the laminated driver's permit with photo, a technology they were not acquainted with.

The next step was car inspection. I drove the VW over a grease pit and several mechanics expected its underbelly. Another removed the hubcaps and one ran his hand through the convertible top (the VW was a sporty Karman Ghia). Convinced the car was not importing something naughty, I then had my duffle bag searched. The officials found a copy of Time Magazine, which they flipped through until they found a cartoon that downright confused them. I was visiting Russia just after some sort of spy incident in which a foreign diplomat or businessman had been caught on camera by the KGB in bed with his Russian hostess. The cartoon had a camera crew filming a bed scene from behind a wall photo of V.I. Lenin. The Time made the rounds of Immigration, but was eventually returned to me. Another official was worried that I had not properly declared my foreign exchange. He was correct for I had not listed the various souvenir small denomination coins, that amounted to about a kilogram. I was directed to itemize the collection, along with its estimated value in rubles (then 1.05 rubles was worth about $1.00). That done, I was ok’ed to enter Russia. There was a hitch, however, as pointed out to me by an English speaker who had been rounded up. She noted that the entry point on the Athens visa was not the same entry point listed in my Intourist documents. She told me to have this matter sorted out in the closest town (probably Chisnau, on today’s map). No problem. She would phone ahead.

I drove over 25 kms of uninhabited space to get to this city and easily found Intourist which was located in the major hotel. Unfortunately, staff were on lunch break, and the remnants (a young intern who spoke English) suggested that I get along to Odessa, my first stop, where the papers could be rearranged. No problem. She would phone ahead.

Along I went to Odessa. In the next village, I immediately encountered the long arm of the Russian law. Literally, a Russian policeman, his arm extending a baton, motioned for me to pull over. The Intourist material for foreign drivers made it very clear that foreigners were not exempt from Russian traffic police. Uplifted baton equaled “pull over.” So I did.

I handed over all my documents (I had acquired another inch of them at the border) to the policeman in his roadside cabin. It did not take him long to realize that I was driving in the wrong direction, on the wrong road. Was I a spy, perhaps his ticket to promotion to Moscow from his banishment here? At this point, I was basically under arrest, while he attempted to make phone calls. He had trouble getting a phone line, and then trouble getting to the right office, and then trouble getting to the right person. Meanwhile, a gang of school children appeared; out the window, to my horror, I witnessed them testing the suspension of the Karman Ghia. They climbed on the fenders and bumpers and hood and trunk and tried to jump and dive off simultaneously, hoping for the car to rebound, the tires jumping off the ground. It didn’t. It’s as if German engineering was designed against Russian adolescent abuse.

About two hours passed and I guess the policeman connected with someone who authorized him to let me go. He said something to me, which I could only assume to be: No problem. I’ll phone ahead.

I continued on. Every village I passed through I ignored the policeman with raised baton. My new practice: no sidearm, no stopping. I arrived in Odessa that night. The hotel had been receiving phone calls all day and my arrival was greatly anticipated. I could have a brief guided tour of Odessa the next morning, but I’d have to get an early start, as I had a full day of driving ahead. Indeed, for most of my two weeks in Russia, I had full days of driving. The roads were not fast; the winter had been particularly bad, but then the Russia winters are always particularly bad, a lesson I learned, about as well as Napoleon and Hitler.

When I wasn’t on the road, I was eating in restaurants, where the hotel hostess (like the one in the cartoon) would invite herself to join me, or walking around trying to dodge the black-market, which was forever trying to buy my blue jeans. By the time I got to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), my time had run out, so I was unable to visit that city. Hence, I have returned, not in the winter, not in a car and with more cynicism than expectations. I certainly no longer hold the same high hopes for Russian capitalism that I once held for Soviet communism.

28 June 2003

Sanary s/ Mer