Washington – Time to recall a trip to the Soviet Union in April, 1971. I was living in Stuttgart, Germany, and joined with a dozen Germans and two other Americans for a fortnight's visit to Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev. The Soviets were eager for hard currency and open to limited tourism.
We flew on Aeroflot from Frankfurt to Moscow, where we were assigned an Intourist guide and put up in the Bucharest, an old, musty hotel opposite Red Square, two to a room. The guide advised us not to drink the water, as Moscow water was not safe. Meals were served in a cavernous, mostly empty dining room, where we were not allowed to mix with a vacationing Communist group from East Germany. I liked the food, especially the breakfasts of fish, black bread, and clabbered milk.
Our Intourist guide was a Russian man of about thirty-five who moved us around the city adeptly, often via the impressive new subways. His German was excellent (according to the native speakers), as was his appreciation of the difficult historical relationship between the two countries. Our German companions were impressed with his frankness and his thorough knowledge of what he showed us. A highlight was his detailed tour of the Kremlin.
Although this was the height of the Cold War and much was off-limits, our guide did not try to keep track of us. At the end of each day he let us loose on our own, asking us only to gather for him the next morning after breakfast at the hotel. He knew I was an American, but told me to go wherever I wanted and to take pictures, too. Intourist guides wanted to present the Soviet Union positively, although doubtless we were under some kind of surveillance.
In Leningrad (once and again St. Petersburg) we were met at the airport by another Intourist guide, put up in another threadbare hotel, the Astoria, but again given excellent tours and explanations of the city's history. The Hermitage and the palace square in front of it, the center of the Russian Revolution, drew our fascination, as did the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Admiralty, and the storied cruiser Aurora. Our guide took us to the magnificent palaces of the czars outside the city at Tsarskoye Selo. I caught a city bus to the bridge over the Neva, behind the Winter Palace, to see where Rasputin was drowned, then traveled up and down Nevsky Prospekt toward the Finland Station and back, thinking about what the wide boulevard looked like in 1917 and during the WWII siege of 900 days.
When we flew to Kiev, another American in our group made the point, before we met with our third Intourist guide, that Ukraine is not Russia. Aline Naschansky, of Parma, Ohio, grew up proudly speaking Ukrainian and not-so-proudly Russian; she was studying German that year in Salzburg, Austria, so she served as translator and often made evening arrangements, getting us into many out-of-the way places but never into trouble. She was particularly good at retrieving lost luggage from Soviet lost-and-found offices.
In Kiev we encountered a different atmosphere on the streets. People came up to us and wanted to trade – currency, clothes, anything Western. At an agricultural fairgrounds, I was surprised to see a statue of the pseudo-scientist Lysenko still standing. He had been a favorite of Stalin and responsible for devastating famines. I caught a bus to see the Great Gate of Kiev. It is great only in the drawings of Hartmann and in the music of Mussorgsky; in reality it is small and in ruins.
In the old photos below: cathedrals within the Kremlin walls; our Intourist guide (facing) in Moscow; a painter rendering St. Basil's Cathedral at Red Square; two of our party on the Leningrad quay; the cruiser Aurora, which fired on the Winter Palace to start the Russian Revolution; the Hermitage at a washed-down Palace Square, with the Admiralty building's spire at left; Nevsky Prospekt; a memorial to the Siege of Leningrad; the palace of Catherine the Great at Tsarskoye Selo; a Leningrad canal, evidence of how Peter the Great built the city from a swamp to provide Russia with its window on the west; Kiev under Leninism; a Kiev street in early Spring; the "Great Gate of Kiev"; the Dnieper River at Kiev.