May 1970. We were back in London after returning from our trip to South Africa, preparing for our last adventure before returning to Canada. We had 4 days to wash our clothes, catch up with close London friends, communicate with our families in New York and Canada, replenish essential supplies, and repack for our 4-week camping tour. The 4-day interlude flew by and before we knew it we were joining our driver Tony and 10 other travellers in our Mini Trek van, along with our kit bags, tents, sleeping bags, and air mattresses.
As the map shows, we were making a big loop, starting in London, heading east and north through northern Sweden to Lapland in northern Finland, then south and east to Russia, and once in Moscow heading west back to London. Only it wasn’t actually Russia, it was the Soviet Union. Hence the title of this post: our itinerary included 10 countries (Britain, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Poland, and Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic)), plus a surreal time in the Soviet Union. Our experiences during our ten days in the Soviet Union were dramatically different than our time in the other countries, and our observations gave us much pause for thought, especially given the political situation at the time. This was the height of the Cold War.
I kept a journal during these months of travel so long ago. Tellingly, even my writing style changed the day we crossed from Finland to the Soviet Union. I should include some background here. My formative upbringing was in the suburbs of New York during the 50s and early 60s, with air raid drills at school, the ever-present threat of nuclear war, and the political dogma of the evils of communism, even of “creeping socialism”. To be honest, as a teenager, I found a lot of this rhetoric too extreme to believe. Surely, people in the Soviet Union just wanted what was best for their own families; it couldn’t be that different. [I was even more idealistic then than I am now!] I was expecting to find evidence that we were all striving for similar goals and that the boogie man was nonexistent, not to find overwhelming evidence that the political and economic system in place in the Soviet Union was totally dysfunctional. What is so sad is that it was to be more than 20 years before this failed system collapsed. Those intervening years had to have been trying times for most of their citizens.
We had a terrific first leg of our trip, making our way through northern Europe. Driving north in Sweden and throughout Finland was special for us because the landscape reminded us of home, which we had been away from since our two years in Britain. It was also special to be north of the Arctic Circle in June, camping in broad daylight in the middle of the night and sharing the landscape with herds of reindeer! There were some memorable adventures, but I’ll save that for another post.
As we prepared to leave our campsite in Helsinki and head for the border with the U.S.S.R., with our first stop Leningrad (now returned to its original name of St. Petersburg), we talked about some travel advice from our tour company: before you cross into the Soviet Union, buy some food to take with you. Some of our group took this seriously and others didn’t. My own feeling was, “How could this enormous, powerful country not have food.” In the end, I did buy two packets of Knorr soup mix, Cream of Cauliflower to be precise. This soup ended up being the best meal I had for 10 days!
The results of incoherent economic policies became apparent as soon as we crossed the border. We had to line up for gas coupons. Then we had to line up for gas. But gas was dispensed from the pumps in discrete units, kind of like only being able to buy gas in units of $20. Motorcycles, which were very popular, simply couldn’t hold the minimum unit of gas, so the excess just spilled from the hose onto the ground. Nobody paid any attention; when we looked “surprised” they just shrugged. This was a typical approach to retail and service.
We had the requisite visas and approved travel plan and were to meet up with our mandatory Intourist guide the next morning in Leningrad. Meanwhile, we were on our own to find our campsite, or so we thought. The map we had only showed one road from the border to Leningrad, but there were several rural side roads all along the way. Tony decided to get off the main road and find a field for a picnic site. We were in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, but it wasn’t long before a fellow materialized and asked for chewing gum. Then a girl appeared out of the field and asked for a light. Before long a militia man came and told us that we weren’t authorized to leave the main road and we weren’t authorized to stop. After that, there was no doubt that if we didn’t show up at a certain crossing by a certain time, someone in a uniform would come looking. We tested this hypothesis from time to time. They put a lot of resources into making sure we “were safe”!
In Moscow, in order to get food at a “supermarket” you lined up to buy the ticket for what you wanted. Of course, first we had to figure out what was available, what it was called, and how much it cost, because you needed the exact amount. Once you had the ticket, you had to line up for the item. You lined up separately for every item: bread at the bakery station, cheese at the cheese station, etc. Nobody was friendly and nobody was helpful. Most of our group gave up and didn’t eat much that day. I felt I had acquired a real prize when I managed to purchase our bread and cheese, as dry as it was. And this was Moscow, not some remote rural area. Lines of people would form on city streets. If you were a Moscovite you were likely to get on the end of the line because people might be queuing for something useful that had finally arrived from the country to the city. It didn’t matter what it was; you could always use it, sell it, or trade it. One of the lines we passed was someone selling onions from crates. There were stories of produce trucks not making it to the city because nobody was accountable for getting it there. The famed GUM department store in Red Square was an architectural and historic building of note, but the lack of anything to buy was shocking. Utterly shocking. I’ve seen this elsewhere, but this was the premier store in the capital city of the country the rest of the world feared.
We camped in public campgrounds with holidaying Russians. Nobody ever tried to talk to us or smile at us. They lined up at canteens to buy eggs and hot dogs, washed down by beer and kvass. Once, on our way west between Moscow and Smolensk (which is in what is now called Belarus), we stopped at the canteen of a communal farm for lunch. The food was more plentiful on the farm, but the cutlery was made of an aluminum alloy that was too soft, so when you applied any pressure to your knife or fork, the utensil bent, big-time. Quality control was not high on anyone’s agenda at the factory they came from. There was a lot of that.
When we left Russia for Poland, the change was striking. Although Poland was a communist country within the Soviet sphere of influence, it had not collectivized its farms. People owned their own land. There was plenty of fresh food, the people were friendly, and there seemed to be a sense of personal and national pride. After spending 10 short days in the Soviet Union, Poland was nirvana. Everything seemed positive to us. But we were reminded that our perspective was based on travelling west from Russia. In our campsite in Warsaw we met westerners who were travelling in the other direction; they had found Czechoslovakia depressing in contrast to West Germany and Poland seemed like a poor cousin to Czechoslovakia. [This was just two years after the Russians had invaded Czechoslovakia.] Our response to them was, “Just wait until you get to the Soviet Union.”
Don’t get me wrong, we were privileged to see lots of Russia’s many treasures. And we were impressed that a communist authoritarian regime clearly spent plenty of money restoring and maintaining monuments of historic and religious significance. We saw the wonderful Italianate mansions of St. Petersburg, the astounding quantity and quality of art at the Hermitage Museum, and the remarkable Summer Palace of Catherine the Great. We learned of the destruction of entire cities caused by the Nazis, such as Novgorod. We went to a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet at the theatre of the same name and marvelled at the architecturally splendid metro stations in Moscow. And of course we admired the iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square, along with the requisite viewing of an embalmed Lenin.
But what stayed with us was the realization that the Soviet Union was a Potemkin Village. The political system perpetrated by their leaders may have been successful in producing military might and in sending the first satellite into space, but their economic policies had failed its people completely. People were provided with minimal housing and health care, plus great education for the best students, but life was a daily struggle. It was a society without joy. If you obeyed all the rules, as arbitrary as some of them were, you could count on a modicum of stability in your life, but forget creativity, freedom of expression, or even freedom of movement. When one thinks of how Russia went from feudal societies under czars to various flavours of often ruthless communist rule, it is understandable that establishing a truly open society takes time.
Map credit: lib.utexas.edu