If you have a travel blog but cannot travel, what is the answer?
One is to look back.
My second big travel adventure came along in July 1968, with an educational visit to the Soviet Union. I was a few months short of turning 16. We were a party of high school students from several Scottish schools who were all studying Russian.
We sailed on the MS Mikhail Kalinin from London to Rīga in the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, from where we transferred by bus to the airport and flew with Aeroflot to Moscow in Russia.
After 3 or 4 days in the capital, we took the overnight train to Leningrad (now St Petersburg).
Again we had 3 or 4 days in the city, and then it was back onto the MS Mikhail Kalinin at St Petersburg to travel back to Leith (Edinburgh’s port).
It was quite an experience for a 15 year old.
Travel was very tightly controlled within the USSR back then, for nationals and for foreigners. We were warned that our hotel rooms would be bugged, and to make sure we did not say anything critical of the regime. Each floor of our hotels had a “supervisor” stationed at a desk beside the lifts and stairs, to monitor guests’ movements. You could not leave the hotel just to walk around – everything had to be done as part of an Intourist controlled excursion. It was not possible to speak to locals – they would be reported and face sanctions.
My knowledge of the language was quite basic at that time but one thing we all noticed was that on every radio news programme Czechoslovakia was the only story. The Red Army invaded a few weeks later.
Looking back, we took in a huge amount in just a week. Many things are still vivid memories – going inside the Kremlin, seeing Lenin’s embalmed body in its mausoleum, the splendour of the Summer Palace outside Leningrad, the cruiser Aurora, the Winter Palace and the Hermitage.
The voyages were fun too. We crossed the North Sea in a force 8 gale on the outward trip. I enjoyed it. I found a vodka with Orangina (not the real thing – a Soviet version) calmed my stomach nicely. I remember sailing through the Øresund on the return voyage, with Copenhagen on the port side and Malmö to starboard.
Approaching Rīga on the outward journey was special. A party of Latvian exiles was among the passengers. They gathered on deck for the first sight of their homeland on the horizon, and then burst into song.
That may have been my introduction to the “nationalities question” which helped to bring the USSR to an end 25 years later.
© iain taylor, 2020
Footnotes:- (1) Aside from being 50 years old and taken on a Kodak Brownie, the images were scanned from transparencies.
(2) I have only been back to Russian once since 1968, on a brief business trip to St Petersburg. I am privileged to have re-visited Latvia many times.
Again, like your 1966 entry, absolutely fascinating! Your description of the restrictions on tourists in the USSR at the time sounds pretty much like present-day North Korea, although we didn’t have supervisors on each floor of the hotel (I guess with the advent of CCTV they are nowadays unnecessary). I missed the chance to go to the Soviet Union with my school – when I asked my parents if I could go (I studied Russian in the VIth form) they said no, as I’d already done the French exchange and a three week camping trip to Canada and they thought that was enough (my sister had done no foreign trips, but then she didn’t want to – and still doesn’t!) But my husband and I did go in 1984 so I got to see it under the Communist regime, eventually!
Thanks. Having seen several other parts of the former USSR since it broke up, I was really looking forward to spending time in Russia next month. Even resumed Russian on Duolingo! Hopefully it will just be a postponement.