I always imagined that one day I would travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok. Now I am not so sure.
So, I am grateful for having visited Russia (USSR at the time) back in July 1987. It was a rare window of opportunity, during the period of Glasnost when Mikhail Gorbachev was leader of the Soviet Union.
To give it some historical and cultural context, my visit occurred two months after German aviator Mathias Rust famously landed his small civilian Cessna aircraft on Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge close to Red Square; over two years before David Hasselhoff sang on top of the Berlin Wall; and four years before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
God, I was young back then. Young with rather hazy memories, and a set of blurry photographs.
The extent of my visit to the vast expanses of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was limited to Moscow. I stayed in the Rossiya Hotel, adjacent to Red Square and one of the largest hotels in the world. It was a typical Soviet-era hotel. Big and blocky; authoritarian-bleak in a time before authoritarian-chic; with a stereotypically stern-faced, wide-beamed dezhurnaya, sitting behind a desk, guarding both the keys and the morals of the hotel floor.
I could see the colourful domes of St Basil’s Cathedral from the hotel; at the time, it was the one iconic image of Moscow that I could readily identify. On my first evening in the city, I was drawn towards this familiar landmark, attempting to find reassurance in something that was known and recognisable. However, I found my way blocked. Every entrance to Red Square was sealed off; uniformed militiamen held back a growing crowd of bemused onlookers. It was clear that few people knew what was going on. Unable to speak or understand Russian, I could not make out what the local Muscovites were saying, but most seemed as confused as the small gaggle of tourists. Suddenly, I found that I was not alone. A short, middle-aged man had singled me out from amongst the crowd of strangers. He was clearly Russian but spoke good English:
“It is the Crimean Tatars,” he explained. “They are demanding the right to return to their homelands, which were taken from them under Stalin. They are staging a vigil in the middle of Red Square. One of them is threatening to set himself on fire.”
With the selfish single-mindedness of youth, I was not so much interested in the concerns of the Tatars as I was the more practical question of when Red Square would be accessible again. The man shrugged. Here was a question that no one could answer.
We continued to watch the Square companionably for several more minutes and then, as I was preparing to leave, the short man pressed something into my hand.
“Here, for you.”
It had been a rather surreptitious manoeuvre, and I opened my palm, suspicious of what I would see. Something hard and shiny. And heavy. A coin? No. I looked more closely at what appeared to be an Olympic gold medal. It was baffling, and rather frightening. Upon initially entering the USSR, there had been strict customs checks and declarations about the amount of foreign currency that it was permissible to bring in––and out; I had little doubt that an Olympic gold medal would not be something that could be easily explained away upon my exit simply as ‘a gift’. I thanked the man and handed back his present. I explained the problem about taking items across the border. He looked slightly hurt, but we parted as friends, leaving me with a lot of unanswered questions. It had been an interesting first evening in Moscow.
© E. C. Glendenny
E. C. Glendenny looks back to her time in the USSR.