Communist Hotels

12 Jan

We arrived in the Soviet Union with all sorts of preconceptions about our accommodation.

As I have mentioned previously, we were convinced that our rooms were going to be bugged – and, in all honesty, were quite disappointed when they weren’t. Not that they would have heard anything of any interest: unless you include the sounds of my room-mate vomiting into the washbasin one night after a little too much vodka, which was both plentiful and cheap.

Obviously the American students who shared our Leningrad hotel had no concerns about being bugged: they cheerfully waved around a large lump of cannabis resin and invited us all back to one of their rooms for a smoke. Now you know why it’s called ‘dope’!

We’d been told that we’d be lucky to have plugs in the washbasins. One explanation for this was that ‘the Commies’ were too disorganised to produce them in sufficient numbers: another was that Russians prefer to wash in running water. Both offerings seem equally unlikely to me! And we had plugs wherever we went.

We’d also been told we’d need to take our own toilet paper as the Commies couldn’t produce enough of that either. (What? In spite of thousands of square miles of forest?) I’m not the most organised traveller at the best of times so I can happily report that we were provided with ample toilet paper  – and it wasn’t that stiff, shiny stuff either!.

The only thing that ever concerned me in the lavatorial department was the small doors on the toilet cubicles.  So small, indeed, that it seemed almost pointless having them as they performed a very limited screening function.

What took us all by surprise was the grandness of our Moscow and Leningrad hotels. I have already mentioned the double sweeping staircase in our Moscow hotel and, from memory, I think Leningrad was very similar. And all this for a bunch of hard-up students!

In Moscow, dinner was taken with other guests in a grand ballroom where, somewhat bizarrely, a Russian band entertained us with a selection of Western numbers including (I kid you not) ABBA’s ‘Money, Money, Money’.  In Leningrad we had our own private dining room. This turned out to be smart thinking on the part of hotel management as we spent most of our last dinner getting exceedingly drunk on vodka (when in Rome and all that!).

As far as I can remember, the staff were all polite (or at least tolerated our excesses such as those on our last night). The only exception would be the large matrons who sat at a desk on every floor of the hotel, keeping an eye on who went in and out of each room. Not that they ever said anything – but they did have a good line in disapproving looks if they felt that some form of moral code had been breached!

And the heating was over the top; almost to the point of suffocation.

But, other than that, it was many years before I stayed in anything quite as nice again (and, even then, those occasions have been few and far between!).  I guess I’ll have to give them five (red) stars!


Soviet Propaganda Posters

11 Jan

This post has now moved to here

Toy Soldiers

10 Jan

Young teens goose-stepping towards the grave of the Unknown Soldier

Here’s a depressing scene. Young (and I mean school-age) kids mounting the honour guard at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Leningrad.

Some people may see this as a re-assuring example of social responsibility in young people. I’m afraid I see it as one of all too many examples of the militarisation of young people – not just 34 years ago in Leningrad but globally today.

My guess is the authorities would have been appalled at the notion of talking to these kids about sex. But it was alright to teach them how to handle a gun. An interesting set of priorities!

Goose-stepping then grimly standing to attention for hours: the joys of being a teenager!

One shot and the workers are revolting!

9 Jan

This is the gun that fired the shot that started the revolution that changed history

Aeroflot brochure – ‘Leningrad: What. Where.’

“The legendary cruiser Aurora has been for ever moored at the Petrogradskaya embankment of the Bolshaya Nevka River. On October 25th 1917, the cruiser fired a history-making shot, which signalled the beginning of the assault of the Winter Palace. This shot heralded the birth of a new, socialist world.”

I don’t know if it’s my experience of event management but I do struggle with this notion that the whole communist revolution hinged on one single shot from a battleship. It just conjures up so many ‘what ifs’ in my mind.

What if the gun hadn’t been fired? Would the thousands of workers and soldiers who had assembled in the city have just gone home? What if the gun had been fired and no one had stormed the Winter Palace? Would the sailors have sent someone up the road to see what had happened?

I have this Monty Python-esque vision of a sailor standing sternly in front of thousands of reluctant revolutionaries in Palace Square saying, “Alright. I’m going to go back to the boat now and we’ll give it one more shot. But if you don’t rise up this time then it’s off! Ammunition doesn’t come cheap you know!”

Obviously the reality would have been far different to this ‘one shot and that was the death of Capitalism’ view.  There must have been immense tensions beforehand. The Tsar’s forces must have known something was going off: you can’t hide thousands of armed insurgents around a few street corners.  And there must have been a contingency plan in case the Aurora was nobbled before they had a chance to fire their gun. We shall never know, which is a shame – especially for anyone planning an armed insurrection today (although these days it would all be done on Twitter!).

I certainly don’t mean to undermine the significance of the event nor, especially, the bravery of the insurgents. It would have been an extraordinarily difficult and dangerous time.

But my mind goes back to the time that I did this tour. At that point in my life I was fraternising with ‘comrades’ on the far-Left in the UK and I was always struck by their belief that the workers were ready to take to the barricades at any second. Of course, the social conditions in the UK were never anything like those in pre-revolutionary Russia so it was never going to happen.

But I wonder if their view was influenced by this ‘one shot from a ship and it’s global communism all round’ notion.

Leningrad: Revolutions R Us

8 Jan

From the Aeroflot brochure “Leningrad: What. Where.”

“Leningrad (formerly Petersburg and Petrograd) is more than two and a half centuries old. But there are few cities on the planet that have seen such historic events or contributed so greatly to the development of world history, science and culture.

Leningrad is a city where the representatives of the three generations of Russian revolutionaries – Decembrists, revolutionary democrats, and Leninist proletarian revolutionaries – were living and fighting for their cause.

The city on the Neva River which bears the name of Great Lenin is the cradle of the Great October Socialist Revolution. In 1917 Soviet power was proclaimed there and the working people for the first time became the masters of their land.

It was there that the first ever government of workers and peasants, headed by Lenin, was formed and the first decrees, on peace and land, were issued.”

Well if you’re going to have a revolution, you couldn’t find a nicer spot for it.  Also known as ‘The Venice of the North’, Leningrad/Petersburg/Petrograd/St Peterburg is a beautiful city, with spectacular architecture such as that above in Palace Square.

But, of course, that’s essentially the reason the revolutions occurred in the first place: while the Tsar and his chums were busy building palatial homes for themselves, the working people were starving to death. And when a peaceful demonstration of workers and their families were shot down in this very square in 1905, that didn’t go down too well either. The rest, as they say, is history.Interestingly enough, however, all of this bourgeois opulence was actually restored to its former glory following the extensive damage inflicted during the 900-day Nazi siege during the Second World War. It was a concept we struggled with when we visited; the people of Leningrad suffered massive privation and hardship during the siege, with over a million of them dying. Even when the Nazis finally went away there must have been a huge humanitarian crisis, so it’s hard to believe that restoring bourgeois monuments could really qualify as a top priority.

The Summer Palace at Petrodvorets. Completely destroyed by the Nazis: completely restored by the Communists.

Nonetheless, that’s what they did and it probably comes and no surprise to learn that Stalin was in charge during this period: proletarian government obviously had to take a back seat to national – sorry, ‘Soviet’ – pride. Internationalism was well and truly on the slippery slope now!

After 900 days of extreme deprivation and -30 degree winters, bet this one went down well with the starving masses.

At least it did make for some nice photographs, such as the one below of the Peter and Paul Fortress, where political prisoners were incarcerated and often tortured to death.  Nice gold-plated spire!What seems to be a large plain in front of the Fortress is, in fact, the frozen River Neva. The ice was so solid on that day that trucks could be (and were being) driven across it. Nonetheless, I still wasn’t game to stand on it because, knowing my luck, my puny 8 stone frame would find the only weak spot in that huge expanse of ice!

I don’t think I would have made much of a revolutionary!

Getting cold feet (and other parts)

7 Jan

Thirty-four years on, I’m only just beginning to wonder why we visited the USSR in the middle of winter.  To say it’s cold at that time of the year would be a bit like saying the Sahara Desert can be a bit warm in summer. January is the coldest month and the average temperature is -7 degrees.

I’ve never been so cold in my life, even after wearing multiple layers of clothing – including thermal underwear. Ironically, hotel rooms were so over-heated that you could barely sleep at night, so the temperature difference between outside and inside was even more noticeable.

During a break from visiting churches in Novgorod we were taken to an area close to the river to get a good view of their old Kremlin (above). Amongst other things, it’s notable for the statue of the man on a rearing horse, just visible in the distant left of the photograph, as the entire weight of the statue is supported only by the horse’s two rear legs.

The other reason for visiting this point was that it gave us a view across the partially frozen river to the old town and the Yaraslov Palace.And so it was that, as we stood and shivered upon on our viewing platform, we noticed a little shed further down the riverbank. And the thing that had drawn our attention to it was the fact that the door had just opened and a man wearing nothing more than a pair of swimming shorts had stepped out of it.

It’s amazing how much a sight like that can actually intensify your own shivering!And as we watched in frozen amazement, he walked over the snow to a hole in the ice, from which the top of a ladder was protruding. Then he climbed on the ladder and, without a moment’s hesitation, descended into the water and splashed about energetically.

We were now numb from both the cold and disbelief! Yet he seemed completely unaffected by it: once he’d finished his Arctic ablutions he simply climbed out and walked back to the hut, giving us a cheery wave as he did so.

I don’t think I’ll ever complain about the cold again!

Novgorod: City of churches, churches and more bloody churches!

6 Jan

From Moscow we took the night train to Novgorod. I’m still not sure why we went there; I’ve even Googled Novgorod to try and establish what the attraction was (I’m still none the wiser). Perhaps it was just a convenient stopping off point on the way to our final destination of Leningrad.

Whatever the real purpose of our visit, I  have one particular (and not necessarily good) memory of Novgorod – it’s churches.

It was explained to us that, at some point in the city’s history, wealthy merchants used to show off their wealth by having a church built at the end of their street. Over time, just about every street had a church, many of which seem to have outlasted the streets they were built on.

And that’s how Novgorod acquired its ubiquitous churches.

But what I could never understand was why they had all survived so far into the atheist, communist era. Indeed, not only survived but actually been maintained and used on a daily basis.  What was even more puzzling was the pride with which our guide showed us round these (many) churches. 

On the other hand, this pride seemed to be tempered with a complete disregard for those using the churches. On many occasions we were led into and around churches while services were obviously in full swing. On one particularly bizarre occasion, while listening to our guide pointing our the various features of the church I suddenly became aware that I was leaning against a tressle table. Or, more to the point, a tressle table supporting an open coffin – complete with deceased occupant. We were in the middle of a funeral!

I have to admit that I’m not one for churches at the best of times – organised religion of any kind does nothing for me  – so this was not one of the highlights of my trip. That being the case, I very nearly put my foot in it at that night’s ‘Meet Soviet Youth’ disco when one of our young hosts politely enquired what I thought of Novgorod.

“It’s very nice,” I offered in polite response and was just about to add words to the effect of, “But I could have done without all the churches.” when she whipped out a little cardboard folder that she proudly presented to me as a memento of my visit.

It was a set of twelve postcards. No prizes for guessing that each one featured a different Novgorodian church. (You don’t actually think I took all these photos of churches myself do you!).

The subject matter of this little presentation wasn’t the only reason it took me by surprise: I was completely unprepared and had brought nothing to offer in return.

In my mad scramble for ideas I could come up with only one thing – my lapel badge, which featured a photograph of comedian Groucho Marx. (And yes, I am aware of the dangers of presenting a young Communist with a badge of ‘a comedian named Marx’. And no, I didn’t explain it that way!)