Thursday, 7 March 2013

My first trip to Russia

25 years ago today I first went to Russia - March 1988.

Me & Steve boarding the Ilyushin 76
The trip was advertised in the old Soviet Weekly newspaper, who arranged it through Progressive Tours, using the Soviet Trade Union tourist agency.

Of course, it was still the USSR at this time, and the reforms under Gorbachev's policies of Glasnost and Perestroika were slowly gathering pace. Although there was a greater degree of openness, more freedoms permitted, it remained a totalitarian socialist state; the sort of individual freedoms enjoyed by citizens of western democracies were still absent from Soviet society.

Me outside Central Tourist House
I went with my friend Steve, flying by Aeroflot from Heathrow to Moscow on an Ilyushin 76 aeroplane. In Moscow, we stayed in the Central Tourist House hotel - a Soviet trade union hotel - which isn't central at all.  The Tsentralny Dom Turista (as it is still called, I think) is  located on what was then the outskirts of south west Moscow, in the Tropareva district, about a 20 minute walk from Yugo Zapadnaya metro station. 
Tropareva district Moscow.  View from 22nd floor of Central Tourist House. Looking towards YugoZapadnaya metro

We stopped one night on Moscow. Next day we were ferried, by an Intourist coach, to one of the so-called "Golden Ring" cities surrounding Moscow: Vladimir. We stayed for a few nights here at the Klyasma hotel - just outside of Vladimir town centre.

While we were there, we visited the ancient churches of Vladimir and other historic buildings such as the Golden Gate.  We also visited the nearby ancient town of Suzdal where were taken to a monastery for lunch and shown around the Museum of Wooden Architecture - a fantastic collection of well preserved wooden churches.

Oksana and Olya outside the school entrance
Vladimir School No. 23 - Children's performance
A highlight of our time in Vladimir was a visit to a local school.  This was no ordinary school - it was Vladimir School No. 23 -  a special English language school, for children who excelled in languages.  We were treated to a performance by some of the children, and were given a tour of the school by some of the pupils.  
I was shown around by two girls: Oksana and Olya.

Me, Glyn & Steve 
Back in Moscow, we visited the Kremlin, went to the Circus (the newer one) on Vernadsky Prospekt, visited Progress publishers - book shop, and to Novosti Press Agency - for political discussion on glasnost perestroika, peace and socialism - riveting stuff!?!  We had a bus tour of the city which took in sites such Lenin Hills (now Sparrow hills) next to Moscow University (MGU), Gorky 
Park, Economic Achievements Park (VDNkh), a metro station tour, and of course, Red Square.

On the trip, I had the privilege to meet a veteran of the WW2 Arctic Convoys,  Glyn Williams, who was on our tour group.  The Arctic Convoys provided vital supplies to the Soviet Union during the war and sailed from the UK, Iceland and North America to Northern ports of the USSR such as Archangel and Murmansk.  There were 78 convoys in all which comprised 150 merchant vessels escorted by the Royal Navy and the navies of the US and Canada.

Glyn, pictured here, wore his wartime medals which included one issued by the Soviet Government in recognition of his participation of the Arctic convoys.  Wherever he went, ordinary Russians -young and old, would stop him in the street to admire his medals and to talk to him.   

My first impressions of the country?

A Moscow based journalist once said: go to Russia for a few days and you could write a book, stay any longer and you will be hard pressed to write a few words.    I certainly felt that I could write a book of my experiences, impressions and observations.  But now, if asked about my opinion on Russia, I can barely string a sentence together on the subject.  

Last night in Moscow

Drab, queues for everything, nothing in the shops, KGB surveillance, cold, impressive monuments and Metro system.

Me and Steve - Guarding the Supreme Soviet in the Kremlin
Impressions: not as drab as expected - beautiful in the snow; more neon lights than I was led to believe, single product shops - e.g.Moloko (milk); the size of Moscow; endless rows of apartment blocks; widespread construction activity; friendly people, sometimes self-less, unhelpful / unfriendly service staff (although friendly when not serving); touts / black market traders; hard currency economy; surprising availability of goods - but old-fashioned shops, products, styles and methods of buying stuff (eg the 3 queue system queue to choose, queue to pay, then queue to collect); importance of the Great Patriotic War (WW2)/ respect for military.

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