visiting the USSR wasn’t the big deal it used to be  in fact, I knew a couple guys in college who had gone to Moscow on some kind of student exchange program for five or six months. Gorbachev had announced the perestroika and glasnost reforms three years earlier, and everything had opened up since then. All the same, it was still a communist planned economy, so to travel there you needed to go through the state-run tourism bureau, known as Intourist. The easiest and by far the cheapest way to do this was through one of the many tours out of neighboring Finland, so in mid October, I made my way to Helsinki on my Eurail pass (a month of unlimited train travel throughout Western Europe) and signed up for two days and three nights in Leningrad, the once and future Saint Petersburg. The boat over was the M/S Konstanin Siminov, which had a huge red stripe with a gold hammer and sickle on its funnel. Since I didn’t speak Finnish, I planned to just explore the city on my own, though I did buy a ticket from the tour operator to visit the Leningrad Circus. The Russians were supposedly famous for their circuses, with some of the clowns becoming household-name celebrities in the old Soviet Union. As soon as we disembarked, there was a receiving line of money changers waiting at the dock, offering to sell us rubles at black-market rates. In the imagination of the Russian government (or really, the Soviet government  people always said “Russia” back then, but our high school teachers would always tell us, “There’s no such country as Russia. It’s called the Soviet Union.”), one ruble was worth about $1.25, but these guys were selling 30 rubles to the dollar. I bought what I thought would be enough for shopping and the like, and then grabbed a taxi into town. I visited the Hermitage, the almost endless art museum inside the old tsarist Winter Palace. About half the visitors seemed to be sneaking in the exit, but I waited in line, not minding since the entrance price was low and the gigantic open square was a sight in and of itself, with one side of the Winter Palace draped with a giant red banner sporting portraits of Marx, Engels, and Lenin in profile.  The museum had way more guards than any museum I had ever seen. Mostly they were old ladies who didn't seem to do much but sit and watch the visitors go by. At one point, one of them stopped me and pointed at the raggy old blue jeans I was wearing. "Дырка" (”Hole”) she said, indicating that my jeans had a small hole on one of the knees. I told her I knew about the hole and then shrugged to say it didn't bother me. She wagged her finger and tsk-tsked in disapproval. (I should mention that, at that time, I had a year and a half of college Russian under my belt, but I could only barely hold a conversation  I could really just speak the baby Russian which our instructors had spoken to us. Since then, however, my Russian has gotten a little bit worse.) the museum, I took a walk down the city’s main street, Nevski Prospect. There were electric tram cars prattling by, pedestrians shuffling down the sidewalk in their fur hats, and militiamen (the Soviet equivalent of police officers, but with military uniforms and rifles) decked out in green-gray longcoats. And there were also a surprising number of old women, heads bundled in the stereotypical Russian headscarves, asking for money, especially from the obviously foreign me. Also fitting the Soviet stereotype was the misallocation of resources. I was told it was near impossible to buy fruit anywhere in the city, and certainly I didn’t see any sold, but I did see a very large store devoted entirely to selling men's ties. The name of the store was "Ties" (Галстуки), and its motto, presented proudly on the sign above the entrance, was "Big Selection!" I peaked in the window of Ties and saw rack after rack of extra- wide "goober" ties with loud colors, the kind which had been popular in the US some 15 years earlier. There were no customers. The real commercial activity seemed to be going on outside on the street, where hawkers had set up tables every fifty yards or so, taking advantage of the new Gorbachev policies. They were selling children’s toys or dinner plates or whatever random stuff you might find at a swap meet. The Leningradniks were real keen, and every table had a crowd of people window shopping. For my own shopping, I went over to the bookstore called "Bookstore" (Дом Книги), where I bought some posters. I had been traveling with a saxophone (a straight soprano saxophone  they look like brass clarinets and are about that size), and while I’m not sure how wise a move it was, I found a small pedestrian walkway a few blocks down from Bookstore and started to play, not for money of course but just for the hell of it. But no sooner had I assembled my sax and played a couple bars into Dave Brubeck's "Take Five," than a sizeable crowd of Russians had gathered around to watch me. Maybe street musicians were pretty rare in Leningrad, or maybe they were just bored with browsing the hawkers' tables of plastic toy army tanks and wanted to see me get arrested. They watched me play, with the crowd increasing by the minute, but no one was smiling or showing any sign that they were happy I was there. It made me nervous, and after I had gone through a couple songs, I said thank you and put away the saxophone. The group of onlookers dispersed just as quickly as they had formed, but remaining behind was a pretty Russian girl about my own age who asked in a thick rolling accent if I knew how to play "Stella By Starlight." I told her I didn’t really know that one off hand, but we talked a little about music, and after a couple minutes she asked me if I'd like to visit Leningrad's only jazz club, which was of course called "Jazz Club," and we agreed to meet that evening in front of Bookstore, just up the street.  still have time to catch maybe half of the circus, so I returned to the boat to eat a late lunch, after which a tour bus picked us up and took us to the venue. Typical of most Russian cities, Leningrad had an arena built specially for the local circus troupe. The place was packed, and when the small orchestra started up with a kind of bouncy polka, everyone began clapping along to the beat. Many of the acts consisted solely of animals running around the ring at full speed, but the audience loved it anyway. Look, it's four dromedaries running in a circle! It's pelicans riding on horses! At one point, they brought out some hedgehogs, though the hedgehogs just sort of paraded out and back instead of doing laps like the larger animals. Naturally they had a lion-tamer, and naturally they had trapeze acrobats, but they also had some stuff you wouldn't see back home, such as a Cuban woman dressed in a cat suit, throwing knives at a target and breaking balloons with a bullwhip. Most unique were the clowns. Unlike in American circuses where the clowns do pantomime at the edge of the action, the Russian clowns took center stage to do a series of little skits, complete with dialogue. The words went by way too quickly for me, but I could still make out enough to get the jist. Some of it was a little racy: In one presentation, a clown in drag flirted with a male clown, and the male clown reached into his pocket and began vigorously fishing around as a large bulge appeared in his pants. But the large bulge turned out to be a brass candlestick, which he pulled out with a flourish and presented to the transvestite clown. As much as I was enjoying the show, I didn't want to be late for the jazz club, so about midway through the entertainment, just as a group of hip- hop dressed Russians were spinning and popping their way through a very mediocre American-style breakdancing act, I slipped out the exit and caught a cab back to Nevsky Prospect. I had the car cruise the length of the street until I was sure I had found the little pedestrian walk where I had be playing music earlier that day. I was excited about my date with the Russian girl, but after half an hour wound by, this gave way to disappointment. (Only much later, after my trip to Leningrad was over, would I realize that I had been waiting at the wrong place, and that I was supposed to be blocks away at Bookstore.) I was just about ready to call it a night and head back to the ship, when a chubby American in his 20s came by and asked me in English if I wanted to buy rubles. I told him I was set, and asked him about himself. He was there studying and had been in Leningrad for a few months. He told me it wasn’t safe to be standing around on Nevsky Prospect at night and then invited me to come along with him and his somewhat taller Russian girlfriend to a foreign-currency disco in one of the hotels, which I did. We took a taxi to the hotel, which was in a kind of isolated compound on one of the smaller islands that make up the city. To enter, we had to show our passports to a pissed-off militiaman at the entrance (except for this guy’s girlfriend, who was just waved through for whatever reason.) Inside the disco, there seemed to be a lot of other foreigners, and they were playing house music and occasional euro-pop favorites like the Tom Jones cover of Prince's "Kiss." The American guy and his girlfriend saw some people they knew, and while they chatted, I made a trip to the bar. The alcoholic choices were cognac or vodka. I opted for a cognac, but it turned out that you couldn't just order "a shot" of cognac. You had to specify how many milliliters you wanted. I ended up getting 100 milliliters, which was about two shot glasses’ worth. Also, instead of chasing liquor with a beer, Russians like to eat little snacks called “zakooski” (закуски), usually herring fish or, in the case of the hotel disco, bowls of chocolates. I took a sip of cognac and then ate a chocolate, which tasted a little nasty to me.  out at the disco for about an hour and ended up making friends with a Russian dental student, two British girls who were studying over there, and another Russian friend of theirs. The dental student, a tall guy named Anton who turned out to be a veteran of the Afghan War, invited us all back to his place. We left the club, and on the way out to the car we saw two guys fighting in the parking lot. They were facing off with roundhouse kicks and occasional attempts to flip each other to the ground with a judo sweep of the leg  aparently all Russian guys learned marital arts in the army, where everyone had to serve two years. The fight ended when one of the combatants suddenly decided to take off running off into the night. We dropped by the parking lot of a residential block to buy some bottles of champagne from the trunk of somebody’s car, and then went back to Anton’s flat, which was in an apartment complex of uniform gray-brick towers. Inside, we drank the champagne in jam jars and listened to The Cure and Midnight Oil. We also smoked papyrosi, which was the Soviet version of the cigarette they were basically short unfiltered cigarettes attached to a long paper tube which served as a kind of filter and looked like a smaller, flimsier version of a tampon applicator. Anton’s apartment was cheery enough, with some basic furniture, including a light-brown shaggy couch where he slept. A bedroom off to the side belonged to his roommate, who he told us was visiting relatives that week in another city. Although the floors were concrete, they had some rugs laid out. Holding a special place of honor on the wall above the couch was a Sex Pistols poster, a gift from some foreign student. Anton noted that he and some friends had gone to see Johnny Rotten, who amazingly had played one of the first Western rock concerts in the USSR a year earlier in Estonia. I remember at one point that night, I was talking with one of the English students, and she was saying something about how bad the US was in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Surprisingly, Anton chimed in to side with the US, saying: “No, you do not understand because you do not come from a powerful country.” So I guess that was meant to be a moment of bonding between two guys whose nations had sent dudes into space. I also got a chance to ask Anton what he thought of the perestroika and glasnost reforms. He was dismissive of them, saying things were better back in the Brezhnev days when everyone could be bribed.  crashed there for the night, and the next morning Anton dropped me at the ship so I could shower and change and then meet back up with the gang to go visit a restaurant outside of town, near Vyborg, not far from the Finnish border. After Anton picked me up we went to get gas, which involved driving to a parking lot next to the gas station and buying a few cans of gasoline from some guy. From there we headed west across town, and as we drove along the Neva River, there was a bored-looking militiaman standing at the side of the road. He glanced our way and then casually held up a red-and-white baton. Anton was upset and immediately pulled over it turns out this was how they handed out traffic tickets in the Soviet Union. The militiaman chided him and wrote him up for speeding.  We picked up the British students and headed out of Leningad. Once in the countryside, the scenery turned to pine forests and birch forests and a small village every 20 minutes or so. Along the highway were signs indicating the name of the next town, and then after you had driven past the town, they had signs with the name of the town crossed out in red to show you missed it. We made it to the restaurant and all enjoyed a Russian meal together. There was red beet soup, small sort-of-ripe tomatoes, and mushrooms (Russians love mushrooms, so there were a couple kinds, served cold in vinegar dressing). There was also some stringy beef, but the best thing was the bread, black and fresh from the oven. After the meal, they all kindly rushed me back to town to catch the Konstanin Siminov before it sailed. At the dock, Anton wrote out his lengthy, complicated home address on a scrap of paper, and I think I sent him a postcard a few weeks later. When we had driven over to the restaurant that morning, Anton had joked about going all the way to Finland. It was clear he really wanted to see the world outside of Russia, but at that time you still needed special permission to leave the USSR, even with all that had changed under Gorbachev. Of course, neither of us had any way of knowing that Russians would suddenly be free to travel in just a couple years’ time.
(From June to December 1989, I traveled around Europe, parts of the Mideast, North Africa and North America, spending half the time working and the other half backpacking and bumming around.)
By 1989,
I got to see some cool things traveling in 1989, but like an idiot I didn’t take any photos. I imagined that carrying around one of those rectangular black- plastic Kodak Instamatic cameras that all the tourists had back then would somehow be uncool. As a result, I have nothing to show for my trip other than a diary I kept and some random souvenirs, such as this ticket stub from the Leningrad Municipal Circus. The text on the stub mentions that the circus has been awarded both the Order of the Red Banner of Labor and the Order of Friendship of the Peoples.
By the late 1980s, after Gorbachev had been in power for a couple years or so, it was no longer such a big deal to visit Russia, as you can see from this brochure from 1988 offering tours arranged by an “American Company” through the official Soviet Intourist bureau. The picture on the front, with its cartoon soldiers marching at Lenin’s Tomb, seems a real shift from just five years earlier, when millions of Americans had tuned in to see the television movie “The Day After” about what was then seen as the very real danger of a US-USSR nuclear war.
The ship on this poster flies sails with the flags of all the constiuent republics of the USSR, with the national flag in the middle. Each republic is also represented by a child on deck in traditional costume. A couple years after this poster was published, all those republics would be independent, and none of their flags would have the hammer and sicle. (Mouse over photos for detailed view)