Back in the USSR: Recollections and pictures of six weeks in the Soviet Union, fifty years on

Jeremy Poynton describes his school trip across Russia, Georgia and Ukraine at the peak of Soviet power.

 Red Square, Moscow, 1968. All photos courtesy of the author

Red Square, Moscow, 1968. All photos courtesy of the author

I have always felt very fortunate that I had the opportunity to visit the USSR. This happened as the school I was at, The Leys School in Cambridge, was one of only a few to have a Russian teacher; Mr. Armstrong was so fluent in Russian that he twice turned down offers from the UN to work for them as an interpreter. Happily he remained a language teacher – his vocation.

He had visited the USSR before – and been arrested. He took a picture of an old lady with a basket of mushrooms, not noticing that in the background there was a watchtower belonging to some sort of military installation. Within minutes he was surrounded – luckily he managed to persuade the police he was not a spy!

So in July of 1968, Mr. Armstrong, along with another teacher, an ex-pupil and eleven current pupils including myself, set off for the Soviet Union in a Bedford Dormobile van (shown below, being loaded onto the ship), and a Morris Minor Convertible. We embarked at Tilbury and a three day voyage across a very stormy North Sea saw us land in Leningrad, to start a trip that would take us through Novgorod, Moscow, Kursk, Kharkov, Pyatigorsk, the Caucasus, Tbilisi, Sochi, back up through Rostov-on-Don and finally Odessa.

Of course, at this time the Prague Spring was coming to its end. As a 16 year old, I had no interest in politics, other than knowing that the Cold War was at its fiercest. I still recall the Cuban Missile crisis and the fear that gripped everyone at the time. At the same time, I was fascinated to take a look behind the Iron Curtain. I was by no means a teenage Marxist, though there were a few at school (and even a token Maoist!).

 The Bedford being loaded onto the ship at Tilbury

The Bedford being loaded onto the ship at Tilbury

Leningrad I loved; waterways everywhere, extraordinary Orthodox churches, so ornate and resplendent. We spent much of one day in the Hermitage; again, as a 16 year old I had little awareness of fine art, but was still awestruck at the extraordinary collection there – in truth, one would need much of a lifetime to take it all in.

On to Novgorod – I can still recall the wonderful old City walls there, and buying kvas, a rather revolting fizzy drink! Moscow I think was a disappointment after Leningrad and Novgorod; huge, hot and dusty; the Red Square and St. Basil’s of course impressed, as did a visit to the Kremlin, where I remember being staggered by the collection of Romanov Fabergé eggs. And the metro was magnificent, making the London Underground look very paltry and shabby indeed.

In both Leningrad and Moscow we had strangers come up to us and show us some of the magnificent cemeteries there. One in particular I remember had a photo of a pilot, and on the obelisk above his grave was attached a full size propeller! It was in one of the cemeteries in Moscow where we ran into the state, so to speak. A student came up to us to talk to us, and it turned out he was a Czech at Moscow University; he wanted to know if we knew what was happening in Prague. We didn’t, but very rapidly we had two plain-clothes policemen with us, one with his gun out.

The student was marched off at gunpoint, and we were told in no uncertain terms not to talk to strangers. This was hard, as people came up to us all the time when they saw we were from the West (wearing jeans was a good sign – I was offered ridiculous sums for my Levis!), they wanted to know what was going on beyond the Iron Curtain. Nowhere did we meet with any hostility. Another Czech student who approached us elsewhere was arrested – this time by soldiers, at rifle point – before we could warn him away.

 Peterhof (then known as Petrodvorets)

Peterhof (then known as Petrodvorets)

Random memories. Buying vodka in a vodka bar. Go to counter. Hand over money, get a glass, small bottle, and a few slices of salami. And back again. And a truly terrible meal in a cafe, which I think was noodles and gristle. We did have some good meals along the way though, two in railway station restaurants which we were told were generally good; my first Borscht was, I recall to this day, delicious!

My memories from Moscow onto the Caucasus are dim – a lot of road, rolling steppes, and nothing that stood out. One memory – stopping in a very poor village where a funeral was about to take place at the little church in the middle; the dead man was laid in an open coffin, with pennies on his eyes. I knew this was a tradition in some parts of the world – nevertheless, it was odd to see it. The evident poverty of the village was plain to see.

Pyatigorsk is the next stop that I remember, near the splendidly named Mineralnye Vody. Pyatigorsk, on the approach to the Caucasus with the mountains ahead, was lovely. There was a lake which we swam in, and got shouted at when a couple of us decided to swim right across it!

Driving into the Caucasus the scenery became spectacular. We stopped at one place where pipes came out of the mountain side, with carbonated water pouring out of them, and people refreshing themselves there. Also, a gaggle of wild and woolly men, who had just slaughtered a sheep, invited us to share the truly delicious kebabs they were cooking over their fire.

We were told that the Trans-Caucasian highway was one of the marvels of Soviet road building. Well, maybe 400 yards were tarmacked – then it might as well have been river bed! Winter floods destroyed the road. Every winter! So our drivers had to pick their way carefully along the “road”, avoiding potholes and boulders. The scenery was spectacular – by one rushing river, we stopped for lunch, and a few of us climbed the steep side of the hills to explore caves which had clearly been used as homes or places of refuge.

 Novgorod kremlin

Novgorod kremlin

Setting off from our campsite we decided we would go up into Chechnya a little way to take a look see. (By the way, our whole trip and every stop had to be pre-documented for approval before we came. We had an Intourist guide with us all the way, though we got rid of one as he was a drunk!) Chechnya was extraordinary – we stopped at a village, with small stone homes, that had the most curious beehive shaped stone buildings clustered a little way off. Speaking to the locals – who were clad in furs, and all the males were bearing ancient rifles – we found that the buildings were plague homes; whenever somebody in the village got the plague, they were put in these buildings and left to die. If you were “rich”, you got one to yourself or family. The others were jam-packed with bones and skeletons.

The locals did know of Manchester United. Thanks to Mr. Armstrong, by the time we left, they also knew of the new football league champions, my team, Manchester City!

Returning to our agreed route, we were hauled in by the local police, and charged with trying to destroy the Five Year Plan. I am not jesting. Quite how we got out of it, I don’t recall – I suspect after due deliberation, the officers decided that arresting 14 Brits in the middle of nowhere might not be the best thing to do!

And thence to Georgia. Lovely Georgia. It was like emerging into a Mediterranean country; cafes with tables on the streets, edible (gorgeous) flat bread, kebabs, lovely wine and some grape derived spirit we had at one vineyard, which left my eyes spinning for a few hours. Small and very old Orthodox churches here, there and everywhere, almost all abandoned, almost all covered with wonderful frescoes. Three, I think, great days based in Tbilisi, where, each night at 6pm on the dot, the heavens exploded and a monumental electrical and rain storm pounded us and the nearby mountains, finishing on the dot at 6.15pm!

We were heading for Odessa, from where we would leave the USSR, taking a ferry to Istanbul; our first stop after Tbilisi was of course Gori, to visit the Josef Stalin museum. (I would add that whilst we were driving through the Caucasus, painted in 20 ft high letters on the side of a cliff was “Long Live Stalin”!) I don’t remember a lot about it, bar that the house was within a marble shell to protect it, and there were many Stalin era, somewhat kitsch in hindsight, paintings of the great men and various people. Lenin we think had been “paintshopped” out of many of the pictures, although there were a couple in which you could see him peeping out from behind a crowd of people. Slightly surreal!

 Church in Georgia

Church in Georgia

Thence, travelling inland of the coast, through some lovely hilly and forested countryside, to Sochi, were we slept on the beach; behind us a Soviet style “holiday” camp. Sochi was then the prime holiday place for those who could take them in the USSR. Sea and sand, a promenade by the beach, and at table after table, people playing chess. From Sochi we went through Batumi, to Odessa, where we embarked early, got the vehicles loaded and spent the day in Odessa, visiting of course the Potemkin Stairs, and in the evening, going to the Opera House to watch Boris Godunov.

До свидания СССР!

I feel very lucky to have experience this. We were aware of great hardship all around us, worse as you got away from urban areas, and it did seem that people’s spirits were, if not crushed, subdued. Regardless, I remember great friendliness and many loca happy to show us around wherever simply to be able to talk from people from the West and to practice their English. And I still have my passport, stamped with entry at Leningrad, and exit at Odessa.