I visited the Soviet Union for the first time in the summer of 1966, travelling with my girlfriend in a white Morris Minor convertible which we took aboard the Soviet ship Mariya Ulyanova (named after Lenin’s sister) from London’s Tilbury Docks, via Copenhagen and Helsinki, to Leningrad. I can still remember the contradictory feelings I had when the ship docked at Copenhagen, and we went off to visit some Danish friends whom in other summers we’d also visited, though in rather different circumstances. I was apprehensive about the forthcoming Russian visit – partly, I think, because I inwardly saw it some kind of test, or confirmation, of all the Russia-related material I’d absorbed in one way or the other over the past four years (I'd brought along a 2-volume Soviet edition of The Brothers Karamazov in Russian to read on the journey, though I only got through about a third of it). Yet I was also pleased to be going to Russia at last, and was impatient to get the “Western” part of the journey over with as soon as possible. At Helsinki we hardly left the ship, only making a brief tour of Kauppatori – I remember the prominent display of bananas on many of the stalls – and in the evening strolling up the deserted streets towards Senatintori.
As the ship sailed up the Eastern Baltic towards Leningrad, we gradually became aware that we were entering a different environment and a different thought-space. Watching the aggressive approach of the Soviet border patrol craft, which came right up to the ship at full speed, you realized that this wasn’t the rather sleepy world of Scandinavian navigation any more. After a while, most of the passengers retreated to the bar, or their cabins, and in the morning we awoke to see that we were almost inside Leningrad harbour.
That summer we didn’t stay in hotels, but slept in a tent we’d taken with us, striking camp at official State campsites whose locations were entered on our visas, together with the obligatory time of arrival at each site. We started with a week in Leningrad, then drove to Novgorod and Kalinin, followed by a week in Moscow, then to Kharkov and Kiev, and finally out of the USSR via Vinnitsa and Chernovitsy, into Romania – four weeks in the Soviet Union in all. In general, at first we were surprised at how “normal” everything seemed – the weather was warm and sunny, the streets and thoroughfares of Leningrad looked much like those of any European city, and it was only when we got out of the car and gazed at the actual texture of the place – the strangely rough, unmodernized surfaces of the roads and buildings, the dust that blew everywhere, the absence of commercial advertising, the old-fashioned look of people’s clothes – that we realized we were in another world from the one we were used to. Even so, during those first days I think we were so pleased to have reached our destination that we didn’t really notice much of this – my memories are mainly of visits to the Hermitage and other museums, to the Petergof Palace and park, of walks along the Neva embankment, and so on. For us, it was almost like being back in Vienna or Copenhagen – or even Edinburgh. We stayed at the campsite at Repino, about 40 km from the centre of Leningrad, on the Gulf of Finland – the pre-Soviet name of the place was Kuokkala, and the whole environment had a thoroughly Finnish atmosphere, with birch and fir trees. We travelled to Leningrad by electric train, and returned in the evenings to the campsite, with its two sections – an international one, for Western tourists, and a “Soviet” one, mainly for Russians and a few tourists from the Baltic states. We soon got used to this division, and the way in which towards evening it usually broke down, when the holidaymakers from the “Russian” side of the site – who slept not in tents of their own, but in large, communal marquees provided by the camp, would come and visit the “Western” side, bringing vodka and fruit which they exchanged for Western cigarettes and items of clothing, especially blue jeans. We also got acquainted with some of the other Western tourists – couples from Canada and Australia in large “dormobiles” and trucks, an intrepid American solo traveller in a VW Beetle, groups of French and Germans in cars, hardly any British at all.
The driving was the really arduous part of the trip, and as we had to stick to the timetable stamped on our visas, there was pressure at times. High-octane gas was in short supply, and we had to carry spare cans. Tanking usually took place at or near the campsite, with not much prospect of a refill until the next tourist point. At one point in the journey, somewhere in central Russia, we took the wrong fork and mistakenly left the official route that was prescribed for us, down a road that passed a militia checkpoint – the militiaman came running out with a pistol, waving it at us until we stopped and turned back. One afternoon, after leaving a site, we stopped to take a break from the driving, left the car near a bridge, and walked down to a riverside path. On our return we found a military truck with three soldiers in it, waiting for us. Parking of foreign cars near bridges was illegal, and the soldiers said we would all have to go back to the campsite, where they would contact the local militia. We made a pretence of knowing no Russian at all, with only partial success. Back at the campsite, however, the situation resolved itself in an unexpected fashion, when it was discovered that I did speak Russian after all – the soldiers seemed pleased about this, shook our hands and drove away in their truck. At another site, I was sternly reprimanded by a severe-looking man in plain clothes for having a “Beatles haircut” – chto vy, Bitls takoy? – only to receive an abject, though, I thought, rather sulky apology from him later in the day, in the camp canteen – Prostite, ya, konechno, ne znal (he hadn't known I was a Western tourist – I was wearing a red parka). Sometimes the campsites were located next to military camps, and in the evenings uniformed soldiers would visit, again with vodka and apples, asking for Marlboro cigarettes. On one occasion they brought musical instruments, and sang for us, under the stars.
Engaging as some of these encounters were, we were, I think, glad to leave Soviet territory. At Chernovitsy, after the car had been searched for nearly 2 hours by Soviet border guards, who extracted every single piece of paper from it, we crossed into Romania, where we underwent the ritual of having the car sprayed against foot-and-mouth disease, and washing our hands in disinfectant by the roadside. We were then told by the Romanian personnel that we could pitch our tent “wherever we liked”, as long as it wasn’t in a forestry zone. The year before, Nicolae Ceausescu had been chosen first secretary of the central committee of the Romanian Communist party…
(to be continued)
See also: Going Back and
Going Back - II