Rubles and Juicy Fruit: Touring Russia During the Cold War and Today

Ava Morrow Russia 1

May 1945, just six months after my husband Hal was born, World War II in Europe ended. However, at the same time, a new war was just beginning. In March of 1946, Winston Churchill warned of the future dangers of Soviet Communism in his “The Sinews of Power” speech, in which he states:

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in some cases, increasing the measure of control from Moscow.[1]

The relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union had begun to deteriorate. This was to become known as the Cold War, and George Kennan‘s so-called “Long Telegram” defined the realities. “World communism is like a malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue,” he wrote, and “the steady advance of uneasy Russian nationalism… in [the] new guise of international Marxism… is more dangerous and insidious than ever before.” For years, it escalated with the establishment of NATO in 1949, the Warsaw Pact in 1955, the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, and numerous other incidents and crises through the years. It lasted until 1991 when it ended with the resignation of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Thus, for the first 46 years of my husband’s life the threat of communism, the arms race with Russia and the risk of nuclear war dominated international affairs and pervaded our American society.

Upon graduating from college, Hal served four years in the United States Army and then went to work for the Department of Defense. It was while working for DoD in Germany, in 1976, that he had an opportunity to take a one-week, three-city tour of Russia, which included Moscow, Kiev, and Leningrad, and to observe, albeit limited, first-hand Russian society under communism.

Seventeen years later, in 1993, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, he returned to one of the cities, Leningrad, renamed St. Petersburg, he had previously visited and was again able to observe Russian society, now out-from-under the throes of communism. And, once again, in 2013, he visited Russia taking a two-week trip on a Trans-Siberian rail journey which crossed Russia from Vladivostok to Moscow. From each of these trips, he obtained items of a Russian military uniform. It is educational and reflective of the times to learn how these things were purchased and to hear some of the associated tales and the similar observations of each trip.

The 1976 trip began in Moscow, where Hal stayed at the Rossiya Hotel, a 21-story building with over 3,000 rooms and suites. Located next to Red Square, it had very few exits to more closely monitor the comings and goings of the guests. On each floor, near the stairways and elevators a “security” guard in military-like uniform was posted behind a desk. The touring was regimented with little free time and minimal contact with the local citizens. One evening my husband was able to venture out on his own to Red Square to photograph Lenin’s Tomb, but did not feel comfortable to wander far or for more than a half-hour. The roads were sparsely used and what cars were observed were usually the Russian made Zhiguli (exported under the brand Lada). It was a very basic, non-luxury car. One joke about them was to ask: “Why does a Lada have heated rear windows?” The answer: “So you can warm your hands while pushing it.”

While most souvenirs were purchased in what were known as “Dollar Stores,” because only foreigners could shop in them, except for politburo officials or top-ranked military officers; Hal did observe shopping conditions in GUM, a major department store. A buyer had to stand in line to see if the seller had the item; and, if so, it was put aside; the buyer then stood in another line to pay for it and once the item was paid for, the buyer had to stand in a third line to pick up the merchandise. The department store itself was big, but rather dreary inside without decorations, advertisements, or stylish architecture.

After Moscow, the tour went to Kiev and then on to Leningrad. While the further one got from Moscow, it seemed the limitations on tourists were a bit more relaxed; yet, there was still little free time and invariably the feeling that you were not genuinely free to ramble. In each of the stops, there was a “mandatory” visit to a state farm to be briefed on the great communist communal system and how productive it was. Each presentation was the same, and my husband says that after a couple more he could probably present the script himself.

While in Moscow, Hal was offered a kilo of caviar for his camera but turned down the offer for obvious reasons. It was in Leningrad that he acquired several Russian military uniform items: an Army belt buckle and belt, a Navy belt buckle, and two military red star cloth insignias. These were acquired, after bargaining with an individual in an isolated park, for a couple of packs of cigarettes and chewing gum. Along with denim jeans, commodities such as cigarettes and chewing gum were the preferred “currency” for such black-market transactions.

There is another poignant story that my husband tells about a waiter at the restaurant in this hotel. All of the meals on the tour were eaten as a group, generally in the restaurant in the hotel. Hal was reading a paperback mystery novel at breakfast one morning, and the waiter asked about it. By dinner that evening, he had finished the book, so he left it on the table. The next morning at breakfast, the waiter gave him a small plastic case with six small pins with different pictures of Lenin on them. Not really expecting anything in return, Hal was quite touched that the waiter had gifted him these pins in return for the book.

In 1993, just two years after the fall of communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union, my husband, this time with me, returned to Russia on a cruise of the Baltic Sea with a two-day port-of-call in St. Petersburg (the name was changed from Leningrad in 1991). This time the purchase of a military uniform item was out in the open. Many street vendors were publicly selling items. It seemed that every item was either five dollars or ten dollars and Hal purchased a military officer’s hat for ten dollars.

Ava Morrow Russia 2

While this visit was short, it was long enough to provide interesting comparisons and contrasts to his observations during his previous trip. There was more traffic on the roads, more openness and interaction with the locals, mainly the younger Russians, and more freedom of movement, as we were left with free time to explore the city on our own. Shopping in stores was easier, and more goods were available to anyone with the money to pay for it.

However, the new way of life was not seen as a better way by everyone. While we were waiting to enter the Hermitage Museum, my husband asked the young guide how she felt about the downfall of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Expecting an enthusiastically positive response, we were mildly surprised at her answer. Our guide said she was very happy with the new state-of-affairs and her new-found freedoms; however, she stated that her parents, who had known nothing but a communistic way of life, were not enamored and were worried about their futures. As she explained, her parents were retired and were expecting the Soviet government to provide for them. Under communism, they did not need to nor could they have put funds aside for their retirement. However, now with a new and more democratic government, there was uncertainty about where their support would come from and, if any, in what form. Thus, our eyes were opened to a dilemma we had not considered.

In response to a question from another tourist concerning restaurants, the same guide said that she could not remember when she or her family had last dined out. Since we were on a cruise, our meals were taken on board the ship. However, we had heard that there were very few quality restaurants and that those that were good were usually connected with a hotel and were relatively expensive, particularly for the locals. But, overall, it did sound seemed as if things were improving compared to 1976.

Hal’s third visit to Russia occurred twenty years later, in 2013. This was a trip across Russia, with stops in several towns and cities, culminating in Moscow. It was obvious that many things had radically changed, while some things had remained the same. For instance, the tour was organized and run by a British company, but the government required that the staff, guides, and all other employees be Russian. Also, the equipment used had to be Russian-made and Russian-owned. Thus, the government was still controlling business and enterprises.

As a result, the service and keeping to the schedule were uneven. The train had to change engines and engineers several times whenever it entered a new  jurisdiction. The last leg of the trip called for an old-fashioned steam engine as part of the experience. However, after waiting over an hour for it to arrive, the tour leaders received word that it was canceled and, thus, arrival in Moscow was over an hour late.

Moscow, in 2013, was a different experience from 1976; the city was bustling, traffic slow and terrible with numerous obviously new and foreign-made cars, modern buildings and new construction, and the freedom to explore the city on your own. GUM Department store was bright, fancily decorated, and each store independently run. It was now like a luxury mall in the United States. At times, however, service was still lacking. One place refused to sell Hal a Coke because the clerk did not have change for a 100 Ruble note ($1.70). There was no effort to get change from another booth; just “nyet.”

On this occasion, Hal purchased a Russian Army-style watch. It was bought in an independently-run store selling a wide range of watches. It was of superior quality, rivaling an average Swiss-made watch. The price was $50.00. Quite a difference from trading for cigarettes and chewing gum.

Ava Morrow Russia 3

Having a full free day before returning home, my husband set out on his own riding the elaborate Moscow subway system to Gorky Park to take pictures and observe Muscovites relaxing with family and at play; then toured the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Churches were not on the itinerary or even mentioned on his 1976 tour. Next, he ventured into the GUM Department store where he made some purchases for me: a silk scarf and an amber and silver brooch. These were purchased in upscale stores using a credit card, an option not available in 1976, and a rare option in 1993.  Both the scarf and brooch are very good quality and show excellent craftsmanship, a far cry from what was offered and available, even to tourists, in 1976.

Ava Morrow Russia 4

There was a world of difference between the Russia Hal visited in 1976 and the Russia he saw in 2013. With the Cold War ended and communist rule over, tourism was flourishing and encouraged. There was no more the suspicion that every taxi driver was a KGB informant and your every word and movement was being monitored. The controlled and restrictive environment experienced on his first trip was gone and replaced by the freedom to explore and travel where he wanted. No more mandatory state farm visits and communist-style hotels, but modern buildings, visits to churches and museums, and hotels with amenities. On the other hand, what took, in 1976, 15 minutes to reach by tour bus, now took 45 minutes to an hour because of traffic. I guess one can argue whether that is good or not, but it indeed shows progress.

One of the most predominant influences during the second half of the Twentieth Century was communism and one of the most significant historical impacts was the Cold War. Many events and their outcomes, during that time, simply come down to the classic struggle of capitalism versus communism. My husband, an ardent student of American history, feels very fortunate to have been able to personally observe the impacts of both communism and the Cold War on the peoples on both sides and to have been able to compare a society during communism, emerging from communism and, then, relatively free of communism.  These objects tell a small part of that story.

Ava Morrow is an undergraduate student at Georgia State University, where she majors in History. This post is part of our Unofficial Archives series.