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Back in the USSR 1978

On June 6, 1978, after mauling my Leningrad tickets in my backpack all the way from Philadelphia, I finally was able to board my train to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in the early afternoon. I wanted to devour everything with my eyes because for all of my life I had been trying to figure out what the Soviet Union and its people were about. Like all people of my age I had viewed this whole Eastern half of the world through the distorted and darkened glass of Cold War rhetoric, covering the back of my neck and climbing under my desk in elementary school, turning to the two "Conelrad" locations on the radio dial of every radio sold to listen to the instructions to be given in the event that we were attacked by the godless "Reds", and watching the well-off constructing air raid shelters in their back yards so that at least the best of us would survive to repopulate the planet after the nuclear Armageddon.

Now my train was filling up with Finnish businessmen chatting with each other about the items they were carrying in their suitcases to be used for bartering the favors of their Leningrad mistresses. In many ways I had reversed my view of the Soviet Union during four years of a Russian Area Study during college. The literature, the music, the visual arts, and the amazing courage and tenacity of the Russian people had made me want to meet as many of them as I could and I wanted to hone my academic knowledge of the Russian language into a more useful tool for understanding them. Our first stop was in Vyborg on the Karelian Isthmus where there was a great celebration of a shared gauge Vyborg Train Stationbetween the two systems that removed the need to adjust the axles of the cars. The city stands at the head of Vyborg Bay of the Gulf of Finland, 113 km northwest of St. Petersburg. First settled in the 12th century, Vyborg was built as a fortress in 1293 by the Swedes after they had captured Karelia. In 1710 the fortress was captured by Peter I the Great, and Vyborg thenceforth remained under Russian rule. From 1918 to 1940 the city was part of Finland and held the name Viipuri, but it was ceded back to the Soviet Union in 1940 after the Russo-Finnish War. The city was occupied by Finnish and German forces from 1941 to 1944, after which it was permanently ceded to the Soviet Union.

There was much band music and oration going on as I tried to wander around as inconspicuously as possible to talk with people about what was happening. I had an overly heightened sense of being under scrutiny by the officials and feared being rejected from entry into the USSR because of some behavior that I might be exhibiting. Finally we reboarded the train and the contents of my backpack were thoroughly reviewed as we proceeded toward Leningrad. I didn't have any possessions that would potentially offend the customs officials except a paperback collection of Shakespeare's works that I had been slowly reading and using as toilet paper when the standard product was not available for my needs. Finally the customs review was over and I could begin the long process of rolling up my clothing to restore to the appropriate pockets of my backpack.

I was overheated from exertion and overtired from three days without sleep, but greatly relieved at being inside the Leningrad's Finland StationUSSR and very interested in the conversation of my seat-mate who was criticizing the deterioration that he was seeing in the villages that we passed through. As an aging Finn he apparently had direct or indirect awareness of how these villages had been before the war when they were governed by Finland. I would have taken his comments as capitalistic sour grapes had I not just witnessed what the Finns were achieving in the implementation of socialism in their country. Finally after what passes for the beginning of the night in these high latitude places, we arrived in Leningrad's Finlandsky Station where I was surprised to find that an Intourist dispatched car was waiting to take me south across the Neva River to the Hotel Astoria.

I was knocked-out happy to be staying in one of Leningrad's finest hotels even though its interior didn't do very much to convey that fact. The hotel had been built in 1912 and was one of the oldest in the city. It was truly from another time and opened onto Decembrists Square sided by the Neva River with the Monument of Peter the Great founder of St. Petersburg. The granite rock which serves as a pedestal was shaped as a sea-wave. The snake under the hind legs of the horse symbolizes all of Peter's enemies.

Spanning the Neva from Decembrists Square is the famous Palace Bridge, a road and foot traffic bascule bridge spanning the Neva River to Vasilevsky Island. Like every other Neva Bridge it is drawn at night to allow ships to make their passage out to the Gulf of Finland.

Checking in involved the surrender of my passport to a hall resident security person who made me a little uneasy, but my room was spotless and greatly aged in its plumbing and bathroom amenities. If I was to go on and on about deficiencies I would also criticize the thin hardness of the bed, but I loved the room and an upgrade of its features would have spoiled my romantic musings of living in another time. I had jumped through the window of my bourgeois Prudential office where my salary was so far beyond my needs that my paychecks were piling up uncashed, to land in the birthplace of one of the greatest revolutionary events of our time. After a much needed shower and clean clothes I just had to reconnoiter my immediate area before going to sleep. I saw that I was right next door to the Hermitage and decided to make that my morning objective for the next day. Then I walked until after the "White Nights" brightened the Palace Bridge lifting at midnight before returning to my room.

Hotel Astoria Decembrists Square Peter the Great Admiralty Building

In the morning I had breakfast in the hotel and then took a short walk to be at the Hermitage when it opened. With the tsar's Winter Palace as its centerpiece, the six buildings of the Hermitage were assembled over the course of two centuries and a half, and house collections of works of art (over 3,000,000 items) presenting the development of the world culture and art from the Stone Age to the 20th century. That was a lot to take in one day, or in many days, and I had only begun to review its treasures in the three hours that I wandered bedazzled through its vast chambers.

Hermitage Hermitage Grand Stair Hermitage Interior Peacock Clock

But the real museum that I wanted to see was out on the streets in the conversations and behavior of the city's inhabitants so that I could wait no longer to get at it. As I left the Hermitage I turned right to walk along the southern bank of the Neva with the Fortress of Peter and Paul across the river on Vasilevsky Island with a cluster of buildings including the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the burial place of all the Romanov tsars from Peter I to Alexander III, with the exception of Peter II and Ivan VI.

According to the scanty information I had been able to get together the fortress had been founded in 1703 and is the oldest building in Leningrad. Its main use up to 1917 was as a political prison with famous residents including Dostoevsky, Gorky, Trotsky and Lenin's older brother, Alexander. I also got a look at the Cruiser Aurora moored in the Neva River. At 9:40 PM on November 7th 1917, a blank shot from the Aurora's forecastle gun signaled the start of the assault on the Winter Palace to begin the revolution.

I continued to walk along the river and then made a stop in Arts Square admiring the Russian Museum designed by Carlo Rossi and the handsome statue of Alexander Pushkin while I tried to get my bearings for finding the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood (Resurrection Church) and to see if I could find someone to practice my Russian with.

Hermitage Dome Peter and Paul Fortress Battleship Aurora Pushkin in Arts Square

Soon I was chattering away with a man in his twenties named Evgenii who was an English teacher and was happy to have the chance to practice his English with me. His English was better than my Russian but we developed a sort of tutorial way of talking with each other to enable both of us to get some practice. He loved Leningrad and wanted to take me to a number of his favorite places and I was overjoyed to be shown the real city rather that the one being presented by the very limited touring arrangements. First he showed me the Church on the Spilled Blood. The church is situated along the Griboedov Canal. On March 13, 1881 as tsar Alexander's coach passed along the embankment, a grenade thrown by an anarchist conspirator exploded. The tsar, shaken but unhurt, got out of the carraige and started to speak sharply to the culprit. A second conspirator then threw another bomb, killing himself and mortally wounding the tsar. The tsar, bleeding heavily was taken to the Winter Palace where he died a few hours later.

Then Evgenii took me to a tall building near Nevsky Prospect so that I could see its collection of beautiful old buildings from a better angle. Then I mentioned that I had hoped to see the Smolny Cathedral and the Mariinsky Theater but couldn't figure out where they were located and he then introduced me to the use of the streetcar system as he led me to them. He also figured out how to get us into the beautiful c, located near my hotel and one of the finest architectural monuments of the XIX century.

The Cathedral is the fourth greatest cupola cathedral in the world. and is richly decorated with monolithic columns, paintings, mosaics, sculptures, marble and semi-precious stones. St. Isaac's Cathedral was the main cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church until 1917.

Church on Spilled Blood Church on Spilled Blood Battleship Auro Smolny Cathedral
Mariinsky Theater St. Isaac's Cathedral St.Isaac's Interior St. Isaac's Dome

It was well into the evening by the time that we returned to my hotel but Evgenii had been telling me that it was a glorious sight to watch the Neva Bridges open at eleven o'clock so that large ships could make their way into and out of the city during the night. Sure enough, all of the Neva bridges opened in unison at eleven in a giant chorus line along the river. Evgenii and I said "spokoynoy nochi" to each other and agreed to meet at ten the next morning to visit some other areas of the city.

Bolsheokhtinsky Bridge Kamennostrovskiy Bridge Lieutenant Schmidt Bridge Neva Bridge

At ten the next morning we rode a streetcar into the far northern suburbs of the city where we walked through a very modest neighborhood such as I had never seen in the publications about the Soviet Union. The streets were unpaved and unpopulated with automobiles and it was more like a village with everyone greeting each other warmly and no obvious police or military presence. I was taken to a very small apartment crammed in every corner with books. With great pride the owner played a copy of a Beatles Revolver album on his phonograph and the three of us sang the songs together. After we drank tea, the two Russians began to speak to me about my ability to get a manuscript out of the country so that it could be published in the West. I explained that I was going to be traveling across the country for nearly three weeks and was carrying only a backpack that I was sure would be regularly searched along the way as I passed from city to city and hotel to hotel. They easily understood that I could not be the carrier for the manuscript but asked if I would go to the American Consulate and notify someone of the name and location of the author so that sometime in the future a person with diplomatic immunity from search would be able to take the manuscript out of the country. I began to be very wary because I feared the possibility that I was possibly being entrapped by these two people into doing something that would cause me to be arrested or removed from the country. One of my overall purposes in leaving the business world to wander about had been to learn to conquer my fear of the unknown and to be able to use my senses to understand and act correctly in a situation for which I could not prepare myself by reading and rereading a user manual. I looked a lot at the faces of the two men and decided that it was worth the risk to try and help them. The author had the great truth seeking eyes of Sakharov and I couldn't believe that they could hide deceit.

Evgenii then led me to a corner close to the American Consulate and pointed me in its direction. He was not able to prepare me for the gauntlet of Russian police officers that were stationed outside of the consulate and what I thought were very aggressive questions as to my intent in visiting the consulate. I made words about having always wanted to be in the State Department and how this was an opportunity to see how my life would have been if I had been one of the small number of candidates that were accepted each year. I probably overcompensated for my nervousness but then I got a little strength from my indignation at being accosted for going to my own country's consulate. Inside I met a deputy something or other and he took me to an office and added to my nervousness by interrupting my early statements of my intent with a walk to the radio so that he could turn up the volume. It was now getting to be too close to a cold war caricature but I went on with my tale and gave him the slip of paper with the author's information. As I parted from him he warned me that sometimes there could be a reaction from Soviet authorities to visits such as I had made to the consulate. There was never a direct connection with the authorities but somehow they seemed to act through the intermediary of street toughs to provide a warning against what someone might have perceived as counter-revolutionary behavior. Then and now many of us were making fun of the Soviet paranoia or tendency to see counter-revolutionaries behind every tree or strategic cow.. .

I left the consulate at about 2:00 PM and for the rest of the day Evgenii relaxed me by walking me along the Nevskiy Prospect, visiting the Pushkin Museum, and going on a canal boat ride through this "Venice of the North" with over 500 bridges ranging from the very narrow chain bridges to the unique Bolsheokhtinsky Bridge . Evgenii told me that, contrary to all of the official guidebook warnings about not taking pictures of bridges that were considered strategic by the Soviet authorities, I could use my Super 8 camera to capture this flowing movement of the canal boat through the city. Members of the boat crew held my legs as I leaned out over the side of the boat to capture reflections of the buildings and bridges in our curving boat wake. There was much laughter and I again found my admiration for the qualities of the Russian people.
Canal Boat Ride Near Nevsky Prospect Moyka Canal Canal Boat Ride

Toward evening Evgenii told me that I needed to have the experience of going to a Leningrad discothèque and we took another streetcar to a place near his university on the other side of the Neva. Over a period of about three hours I got to meet many of Evgenii's friends and as a group we were dancing together and having a great time. Finally we very reluctantly left because it was after ten and the bridges would be opening at eleven and I would not be able to get back across the Neva to my hotel. There were many hugs, kisses, and best wishes from the assembled group as we left and started walking along the riverbank toward the bridge. About ten minutes away from the discothèque we were walking along singing "Yesterday" together when a group of young men suddenly ran up to us and began hitting us with their fists. I went down with the first punch in my face and was then kicked several times in the sides and head before our attackers ran off down a street. As a combination, the drinking at the discothèque and the punch in the face left me unable to make much sense of the next few minutes, but soon we were surrounded by people trying to help us and explaining to us that they had seen the attack and that we had in no way provoked it. I thought that perhaps some young men had been angered by our dancing with their girlfriends but the general opinion was that the attack could not be explained and was a great embarrassment to these citizens who loved their city and didn't want me to think of it in terms of these badly behaved ruffians. Someone took us to a house where our wounds were tended to, and then I was escorted by a group of about twenty people of all ages as I returned to my hotel.

When I woke the next morning, the left side of my face was badly swollen so that I could see with only one eye. I was fearful that some official inquiry would be launched and I would be delayed in getting to the train station from where I was to leave for Moscow at 11:00 AM. I put on sun glasses in the hope of covering the wounds and was driven by an Intourist person to the train station without being asked any questions about my appearance. While waiting for the train I watched a father placing his daughter in the care of a stranger for the ride to Moscow and idealized a country in which children belonged to and were the hope of a whole generation rather than being the displayable possessions of their parents. My seat-mate on the train turned out to be a professor at Moscow State University who was returning there after a weekend in Leningrad and the train ride went very quickly with his interesting conversation. After we arrived in Moscow he invited me to come to dinner the next evening so that I could meet his wife and some other teachers at the university.

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