Tom and Sally, my friends who live in London and love to travel, invited me and my boyfriend Eddie to join them and a group they had assembled for a trip to the Soviet Union — long before it became popular or easy to do. In fact, the rules were strict and travelers were required to arrive and depart in groups. Because there were two families with young children, as well as Sally’s distinguished uncle (who gained fame for playing Batman’s butler on television) participating in the tour, I invited my mother to join us for what would be her first trip to Europe and beyond. We planned to stop in London on the way over and visit Paris on the return, so that if the Soviet adventure proved to be a bust, at least we would enjoy an excellent beginning and end to the trip.
We all congregated in London at the airport and travelled together, first to Moscow for a few days, St. Petersburg for another few days, then to Sochi on the Black Sea for three days, and lastly to Kiev, in the Ukraine, before returning to Europe. The flight to Moscow on Aeroflot was uneventful, but not promising. The service and meals were erratic and uninteresting. Our arrival in Moscow was at night, we were bussed to our hotel around 10 p.m., where we were met by Svetlana, a beautiful young woman who spoke English surprisingly well. She explained she would be our guide for the entire trip. The families with children and the older folks decided to remain in the hotel, and the rest of us were eager to see Red Square and St. Basil’s church at night.
We asked Svetlana for directions to the subway, and she told us it was impossible for us to go there, because it wasn’t part of the tour itinerary. We repaired to the hotel bar for a drink and waited until she left, then went outside, figured out where the subway was located and arrived at Red Square in less then a half-hour. Our initial fondness for Svetlana evaporated almost instantly and was never regained.
Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral were spectacular in the bright Summer evening, and we all agreed the enormous scale of the square and the onion domes and spires of the cathedral provide the most phantasmagorical urban sight imaginable. Delighted with our success, we returned to the hotel to rest for the morrow’s tour, which was comprised of a series of government buildings, devoid of design or charm, and Svetlana’s endless Communist drone and propaganda, which only served to aggravate our dislike of her.
The food in the hotel was so bad, that by the second night a group of us got together and went out to a local restaurant, where it was no better. In fact, it seemed that all the meals had been prepared in some monstrous central kitchen and transported to the entire country. Soups were thin and watery, fowl was tough and stringy; meat was almost unobtainable and when it was available, totally unpalatable.
Because I had enjoyed fresh caviar several times in New York and Boston, I expected to find it almost everywhere, but, sadly, there was a blight in the Caspian Sea that Summer, and fresh caviar was unavailable. It was a huge disappointment, and we had to make do with large quantities of vodka without caviar.
Before our departure, a friend at Harvard who taught Russian and had lived in Moscow, had suggested that Eddie and I take along flight bags filled with American bits of clothing, because those items were extremely popular with Russian youths. I packed my PanAm flight bag with a few brightly colored shirts, Levi blue jeans, a fringed leather cowboy vest, and a few gaudy t-shirts and flashy ties. Our friend also told us that if we wanted to meet guys in Moscow, there was only one way to do it, which was to go to the park directly across from the Bolshoi Ballet and wait until midnight.
We spent the first evening at the Moscow Circus and the second at the Bolshoi Ballet. Following the ballet, which ended around eleven p.m., most of our group returned to the hotel, however Eddie and I decided to stay out and try our luck in the park. We sat down on a park bench and no one was in sight, and we almost left. At the stroke of midnight, however, the lights went out, and instantly the park was alive with men cruising. We went our separate ways and both scored, not meeting until early the next morning at the hotel. I encountered a fair-haired young man who spoke some English as well as French. He invited me back to his room, exhorting utmost silence as we entered, given there were other occupants of the building who were not to be disturbed. I noticed that people generally were fearful and suspicious in Russia. Someone always seemed to be watching or listening. When we arrived in his room, I was startled to see an enormous poster on one wall portraying Richard Nixon. Checking my desire to explain how distasteful I found the image, I realized it was his way of showing his admiration for the U.S. He offered me a drink, put a Pergolesi recording on his player, and we spent the night together, happily improving international relations and heating up the cold war.
The trip to Leningrad, which I insisted on calling “St. Petersburg”, was chillier than Moscow in every way. The city is beautiful, and far more European than Moscow. It was a thrill to visit the Hermitage Museum, even though the halls were dim, the lighting poor, the paintings badly lit, and the antique silver had not been polished for more than a century. Almost all the guards were asleep at their posts, and there were few visitors, other than our group. Once again, however, the cuisine in St. Petersburg was beyond disappointing. It was awful.
The high point of the trip for me was our visit to Sochi, a popular resort town on the Black Sea. At the beach there were literally thousands of Russians, mostly heavy set, in bathing costumes, standing in the water, deployed in rows. No one seemed to be swimming — evidently they preferred just standing in the water. On the walk back to the hotel from the beach, two boys approached us. We had no common language, however it became clear that they wanted to sell an icon. Eddie left in dismay, and I stayed. We sat on a bench, and they furtively pulled the “icon” out of a bag and showed it off. In the first place, I told them, it was far too dangerous for us as Americans to buy anything or for them to sell it, given that the government requires visitors to list every ruble or dollar brought in and account for every expenditure upon departure. I didn’t tell them what a miserable piece of art it was, because they were cute and friendly. In fact, I suggested we meet the following day, and perhaps we could effect a trade. The dark-haired boy was Ivan, and his blond pal Pyotr.
In the morning, Svetlana, Eddie and the group embarked for a lengthy bus trip to set foot in Asia, which I thought was a stupid idea, and I refused to go, causing Svetlana great anxiety, to my immense delight. After they left, I packed the flight bag with all my subversive American gear and met the boys in the afternoon. We undressed, swam and lay on the beach. Pyotr was an athlete and swimmer, with a beautiful smooth body and a tiny tattoo on his left shoulder that resembled a hyphen. I queried him about its meaning, and he quietly explained that it referred to the central bar in the letter H. That seemed odd to me, so he explained further that it meant he was a Hippie, but it would be too dangerous for him to have a complete H tattooed on his arm because Russia was still an extremely repressed country at the time. I appreciated the irony of this clean-cut, short haired, handsome, athletic young guy thinking of himself as a Hippie. Hippies in San Francisco and New York didn’t look like that.
After the swim they took me on a long bus ride to a bar which served warm Georgian sparkling wine, which they call “Georgian Champagne.” It was not only warm, it was sweet, sticky and tasteless, however the boys were nonetheless cute and friendly. After we had drunk far too much, we found a café serving totally forgettable food and no décor, and afterwards they invited me back to their digs, in this case a room on the top floor of an ancient building, where they lived with three other boys. It was about 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the room, and as soon as we arrived, they all stripped down to their underwear. I couldn’t have asked for a better welcome! They served more cheap “Georgian Champagne” and unveiled the icon again, which I pretended to appreciate. Then I opened my flight bag and pulled out the array of flashy American clothing, and each one of them tried on all the clothes, one piece at a time. It was a splendid spectacle in any language — and in this case, no language at all, and I couldn’t have been happier, except for wishing I had photographs of all the boys in underwear trying on all the American frippery. At about two in the morning, the boys had decided which one would keep which shirt, tie, jeans, fringed jacket or whatever, and I announced it was time for me to go.
They laughed uproariously and informed me that it was too late for the bus. I explained it didn’t matter — I would take a taxi. They laughed even harder and told me there were no taxis in Sochi, and I would have to spend the night there. That made me nervous, and I told them I absolutely had to be back at the hotel by 8 a.m., otherwise the bus for the plane would leave without me. Besides, I knew that Eddie and my mother would be upset if I weren’t there for breakfast. The boys promised me they’d get me back in time, and I had no choice but to remain.
They talked amongst themselves, pointed to one of the cots, and said I could sleep there. I said it wasn’t fair for any one of them to give up his space, then I pointed to Pyotr and announced that I would sleep with him. They found that vastly amusing, and so it was. We all crashed, and after a suitable delay, Pyotr and I managed to have very quiet, furtive sex in the midst of that heat and youthful testosterone. It was delicious, and the next morning, we were up at dawn and they took me on the bus back to the hotel.
Not surprisingly, Eddie was furious. He told me he could hardly sleep and was imagining my mutilated corpse in some remote Russian ditch where it couldn’t be found. I told him it was the best night of the trip so far and reminded him that he had been invited along but chose not to. He informed me, with some asperity, that my mother had knocked on the door fifteen minutes before, and he’d had to lie and tell her we’d be down shortly. And, in fact, we were.
The adventure continued, we flew to the Ukraine, where the food was slightly better, but not much. We heard “Eugene Onegin” at the Kirov Opera House, and the stout, chorus women’s costumes looked as if they were the original gowns which had been let out repeatedly since 1879. That’s all I recall from the performance.
I was too tired from the previous Sochi night, which was infinitely more memorable.