Tourism in the Last Days
I made my first and last trip to the USSR in August 1990. I went with my brother to Moscow, Leningrad and the Baltic Republics of Latvia and Estonia as tourists. At that time, Russia was still part of the Soviet Union, although it had changed dramatically from the Brezhnev years. The one party state was crumbling - the USSR had a parliament that was elected in 1989 and was filled with former dissidents such Andrei Sakharov. Fear and isolation were fading fast - coal miners were striking and the Berlin Wall had fallen. Just a month earlier, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union held its last party congress. Boris Yeltsin had torn up his membership card and stormed out - and gotten away with it. After 70 years, the state and party were going their separate ways. Alas, not everything was peaceful. Tanks had just stormed Baku, Azerbaijan. Lithuania was closed to tourists because of their illegal declaration of independence. Gorbachev’s perestroika (reconstruction) and the glasnost (openness) had released forces he could not control. Gorbachev was in way over his head. The USSR had already started coming apart. The end was near.
Some things seemingly did not change since the Cold War, such as my first welcome to Moscow. The grim Sheremetevo II airport was oddly decorated with dark copper colored tubing hanging down from the ceiling. It looked like something out of a bad science fiction movie. When I got to immigration, the dark green uniformed border guard glowered at me from behind the cramped window like I was in a criminal line up. She scowled and said, "What are you doing here?"
I responded naively, "I want to see your interesting and beautiful country and spend a lot of money here."
After a 30 second wait that felt like 30 minutes, she huffed and stamped my visa violently with an attitude that said, "OK, I'll let you in this time, but don't expect this honor again."
Back then, it was hard to travel to the USSR without being part of a group tour. Individual visas were very difficult to come by and the “business visa” system that allowed (mostly) free movement really hadn’t gotten off the ground yet. The Soviet system was still in place but lacked teeth, except for visas. Eventually, we all made it though passport control and were off on a tour bus filled with fascinated first time visitors and the constant company of “La Lambada”. Outside, the streets were austere and empty, except for the impossibly crowded ancient busses. Everything was so exciting - the roads, the Cyrillic signs, odd looking cars and the hulking neo-classical architecture of the city. We eventually reached our hotel, itself a colorful and odd sight.
The Hotel Leningrad was one of Stalin's knife-shaped gothic "Seven Sisters" that still dominate the Moscow skyline. These Stalin Gothic buildings possessed an odd and imposing magnificence, which added to city's unique atmosphere. One look at the towering Seven Sisters, and you knew this was the capital of a vast empire. In fact, this kind of architecture became so emblematic of Soviet power and influence, that the USSR built similar buildings in other “fraternal” Socialist countries all the way from China to Romania.
Inside, the lobby was dark and somewhat menacing, almost like something out of a bad horror film. I almost expected to see Dracula do a cameo and felt like singing the theme from the “Addams Family.” The ceiling was very high and service was glacial, even when moving at top speed. The restaurant smelled of stale cabbage and my room had a splintery wood floor that encouraged me not to drag my feet. We were also blessed with a black and white Rubin TV that would start smoking and screeching whenever we'd turn it on. We heard about the explosive tendencies of Russian TV and left ours off. If we came in late at night, we'd have to ring a deep bell and wait for several minutes while the drunken guard got up to open the door. It was almost painful hearing him drag himself out of his chair as he drifted in the netherworld between inebriation and hangover. The nearby train stations were full of colorful characters from all over the former USSR. My favorite was the disintegrating Kazan Station. There were blondes with Asian features, people in all sorts of wildly exotic clothing carrying massive bags full of god knows what.
Right after I arrived in at the hotel, I ran off to see Red Square, something I had dreamt about for ten years. I raced through the gilded metro and climbed out of the underground passages. I was greeted by the sight of huge red oddly crenellated Kremlin walls, massive round bell towers, the huge expanse of Red Square, and the exotic domed fantasy of St. Basil’s Cathedral. I stood awed in front of mini-ziggurat shaped Lenin’s Mausoleum taking in the vast sweep of history. I finally made it!!!