Friday, April 30, 2010
(URSS is the French abbreviation for the English USSR--I wouldn't want you to think I couldn't spell! This is a page from a small scrapbook/journal I kept of my senior year abroad in Europe)
Linked to my interest in nuclear disasters, was my childhood fascination with the USSR. I wasn't a communist. It was more a "know thy enemy" kind of thing but I was always able to distinguish between political antagonism and fear and hatred of individual members of a country. I read the Russians by Hedrick Smith which come out in 1976 when I was a teen. I read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and as much as I could of the Gulag Archipelago by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. I made it through a smattering of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as well.
I was so impressed with the graphic arts coming out of the Soviet regime that I had a poster of a steely-eyed Lenin hanging in my bedroom for several years. The poster was done in simple brown and white but was so forceful that I feared it would give me nightmares.
My father as a scientist was able to travel to the USSR and was treated like a foreign dignitary, complete, no doubt, with KGB escort. I begged to go on that trip but instead got a decidedly second rate subscription to Soviet Life, a propaganda magazine. That must have been one of my life's biggest disappointments.
I didn't make it to the USSR until 1982 when I managed a 48 hour whirlwind visit to Leningrad. I had been studying abroad for half the year in Paris and decided to spend my winter vacation with some old family friends who were based with the US embassy in Helsinki. By some miracle they managed to get my friend and I last minute visas to Russia and off we went.
It was as strange, trip in the dead of winter. On the train to Russia we chatted for a time with a Finnish worker who was also heading to Leningrad. He drank steadily through a bottle of Vodka telling us that the USSR was so depressing he had to drink to tolerate it.
There was no tourist industry to speak of but I managed to walk the snowy streets of the city by myself (wondering all the while where the spies were), get a brief run through the Hermitage and struggle not to get thoroughly lost on the Leningrad subway system. It was a great adventure although I admit to a certain relief upon returning to Finland that nothing had gone wrong. The postcard and a few enamel buttons were the only souvenirs I have of that trip aside from the memories. It turns out the stories were correct. There really was nothing to buy there. Probably just as well since I could barely afford the train ticket and Intourist Hotel.
For Postcard Friday.