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If Big Brother was Watching, This is What he Saw: Russia, 1984 (a really late trip report)

If Big Brother was Watching, This is What he Saw: Russia, 1984 (a really late trip report)

Old Nov 3rd, 2011, 03:04 PM
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Thanks for the trip down memory lane. My first trip to Moscow was a business trip in September 1989. I remember arriving at the massive Sheremetyevo airport with that misty grey covering the city. Stayed at the Intourist Hotel on Tverskaya Street (which was still Gorky St at the time). The hotel was a drafty, dingy rathole, and had the requisite surly key lady on each floor. I remember a slight bit of panic when they took my US passport upon check-in and told me I would get it back when I departed - I thought I'd never see it again! The hotel also had a particular odor that to this day reminds me of Moscow, and which you can occasionally still find somewhere in that city or airport -- must be some kind of acrid Soviet-era disinfectant.

I remember going out for a late dinner the night I arrived, and there was a massive, hour-long fireworks show going on over the Kremlin. This was late September and I still don't know what they were celebrating -- it was a bit too early for the October Revolution events. I did manage to get some good photos of fireworks over an illuminated St. Basil's Cathedral which I still have somewhere.

I wandered up Gorky St to Pushkin Square, marveling at the sight of the Tass "News" Agency, which spewed out such inventive US-bashing propaganda for 70 years, and ironically came upon Russia's first McDonald's, which had recently opened. As I was a little intimidated by navigating a Russian restaurant menu that first night, I got in the long, long queue for McDonald's -- it stretched out of the restaurant and wound around Pushkin Square, at least 200 people in line, mostly teenagers and young adults. Much to my surprise and embarrassment, the others in line virtually insisted I went to the front of the line, because I was a foreigner. In this land of often brutal contrasts, I never forgot that strange bit of Russian etiquette.

Even in the twilight of the Soviet empire, some of the old tips came in handy. I didn't bring any spare jeans to barter, but I did bring a bunch of rock music cassette tapes, as well as a few cartons of Marlboro cigarettes. These were efficiently swapped for some cool Soviet military watches, medals, etc. -- some of which you still see in markets or Russian memorabilia shops in western Europe, but some which I've never seen again. I still had a carton of Marlboros in my checked luggage when I flew to St. Petersburg. As was typical, my bag was opened and pilfered. The thoughtful airport employee/thief took the carton, but left two packs in my bag, maybe thinking I was a smoker and he didn't want my anger exacerbated by a nicotine fit!

I have made many visits since then, practically living there in 1992-93, then visiting at least a few times per year on business ever since. You wouldn't believe the place now; the changes wrought by the end of the USSR and the 1990s Wild-West privatization orgy (as wealth-non-distributing as it was) are hard to reconcile with the place I first saw in 1989, even with perestroika already well underway. The hulking Hotel Rossiya next to St. Basil's - gone. The dreary interior of GUM, where I bought the fur hat I still use for Moscow winter trips - and where of course they had dozens of hats but only one slightly too-small size -- now is a luxury goods paradise for the comely young wives and girlfriends of the oligarchs. Wall to wall Prada, Gucci and the like. The Soviet-standard Intourist Hotel, with that horrible post-war modernist architecture that still survives, shabbily and age-stained, in many parts of London? Now a swanky Ritz Carlton that will set you back well over a grand a night.

But you can still wander into Red Square at night, when GUM and the Kremlin walls and the historical museum (with its appropriately symbolic blood-red brick hue) and, most magnificently, the architectural riot of St. Basil's are all bathed in light -- it is hard to imagine a more stunning vista created by man. For all of the hassles and headaches, it is one fascinating place to visit.

Thanks for your recollections!
ClarkB is offline  
Old Jun 22nd, 2016, 02:56 PM
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I was looking this up for a friend of mine, and realized I hadn't updated when I did return to Russia! Unfortunately, it was only for a few days, but I had a marvelous time. Here's the link to that trip report: http://www.fodors.com/community/euro...-to-moscow.cfm

And the pictures to go with it:
Amy is offline  
Old Aug 31st, 2016, 01:07 PM
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Brings back some memories, which might be forgotten ever existed if one visited now as the first time. Several mentions of poor food, what a change. Leningrad(St Petersburg now) just since I have been here 15 years with only a 6 month break used to have only a couple dozen restaurants of good quality as recently as 1999 but now has 11,000 inventive, stylish, experimental restaurants and gastropubs or wide cafes, most are cheap, fresh and novel dishes freely mixing ethnic cuisines of a hundred countries. Randomly dropping into just about any of them will result in a great meal. It is easier to discover a good restaurant in St Petersburg now than say, San Francisco. It is very social, it always was but now more than ever, very easy to meet people and safe even for walking into any neighborhood at 3am.
The strangest aspect is, since easy access, 3 year visas and universal on-line communications, the stories and beliefs in the west are more distorted into unrecognizability than ever during the first cold war. Every thing printed for years in US and UK press seems to be intentional disinformation.
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Old Aug 31st, 2016, 06:58 PM
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Thanks for bringing this to the top, Amy, very interesting!
Saraho is offline  
Old Sep 1st, 2016, 08:31 AM
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so much fun to read!

I was there in August 1987 (a few months before panecott) and had many similar experiences...

still on my list to get back to, but life and kids have gotten in the way -
surfmom is offline  
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