USSR 1991

USSR 1991

USSR 1991


As you have probably gathered, I enjoyed my time in Moscow much more than I had expected.  When I was here in 1987, I left with the memory of a city with a heavy, sultry, over-bearing atmosphere, but I have left this time with a totally different impression.

Perhaps an important component of the difference has been the weather, which has been unseasonably bright and warm.  But there is also a totally different feeling in the air that is more relaxed, and this can only follow from the massive political shifts of last month.  It’s remarkable how much more willing people are to approach us as foreigners and engage in conversation; people are notably warmer and more engaging.  I guess that having the opportunity to get closer to people, such as at the school and the housing estate yesterday, also played a significant role in being able to get closer to Muscovites.

And yet there are interesting paradoxes.  Communism seems to be completely discredited and people spit when they mention Gorbachev’s name.  They blame Mikhail Gorbachev for half-heartedness in implementing reforms, and the result has been the shortages of many goods that they experience on a daily basis.  And yet nothing is being put into place to replace communism.  The people don’t even know if there will be a USSR or whether (as seems increasingly likely) that each of the republics will become its own separate sovereign nation.  The economy is obviously in a bad way; when I was here in 1987, I would have received 9 roubles in exchange for $20 – yesterday I received 630!

Apparently, the government (and the nation) is literally bankrupt.  We were told that traditionally, the government raised 70% of its revenue from arms sales to Eastern Europe and “corrupt Third World nations”.  These sales have now evaporated and nothing has yet replaced the revenue.  There is no income tax, although everyone seems to be expecting its introduction.

It is the little things that seem absurd – take the heating of the school that we visited yesterday for example.  Apparently, Moscow had a cold snap about two to three weeks ago, and the school pleaded with the district authorities to turn on the central heating.  Nothing was done until a couple of days ago, when the heating was finally turned on just as temperatures were climbing into the low 20s (Celsius, of course).  Everyone in the school was sweltering in the stuffiness of a school with central heating that could not be turned off!

Although today’s weather has remained warm, with a temperature of 17 to 18°C, it has been overcast and there have been a few showers.  We left Moscow at a little after 9:00am, our departure having been delayed because I was falsely accused of taking a hand towel from the room, for which the hotel wanted to charge me 3 roubles.

The road eastwards from Moscow to the city of Vladimir is fairly straight, flat and uninteresting.  Most of the drive consists of forest lands in which fires can apparently be quite dangerous because much of the underlying soil is peat, and so underground fires can continue burning for months.

We passed through quite a number of small towns and villages. The architecture of rural Russia is very different to that of the cities, with small free-standing timber houses, often built of logs with the joins sealed for insulation, and with intricately carved and painted facades.  In some ways the houses were reminiscent of the illustrations found in books of fairy tales.

We arrived in Vladimir at about lunch time, and enjoyed a delicious meal of duck soup, tender beef with vegetables and carob flavoured ice cream in a beautiful timber restaurant with a traditionally carved façade.  It was great eating in an all-timber establishment, and its construction probably explains why it is the first eating establishment I have ever seen in Eastern Europe with a “No Smoking” sign.

Our tour of Vladimir this afternoon was a good contrast with “big city” Moscow.  Apparently, Moscow now has nine million people in its 1,000 square kilometre urban area, plus another seven million in its 148,000 square kilometre surrounding region.  In stark contrast, Vladimir has 350,000 people in an area of just 60 square kilometres.  It was the second capital of Russia (after Kiev and before Moscow), and its long history shows. 

We began our tour at the old cathedral, where we learned about its growth and expansion over time.  We were allowed inside but not allowed to take any photos because it is a functioning church.  Suffice to say that being a Russian orthodox church, its interior is very, very elaborate!

We then walked to a lookout overlooking the surrounding countryside, where the view was disappointingly obscured by mist, before moving on to another church, St Dimitrius, which had an unusual, intricately carved interior.  From there we went to the western end of the town to see the Golden gate, which is a large, white structure, together with the remains of the town’s old ramparts.

We also visited an exhibition of lacquer boxes and glassware in a building constructed to be a church, but which was never used or consecrated as such.  After that, we drove the final 30 kilometres to our destination for the day, the town of Suzdal, where we will spend the next two nights.

It is interesting that wherever our group goes, we are discovered by groups of (polite) young men wanting to sell souvenirs from their black attaché cases.  I suppose it’s the first, halting step towards capitalism for them, but if they are to be successful, they might want to stop their prices fluctuating so wildly.

Our accommodation in Suzdal was the GTK Campground, a large, expansive complex that filled most of the inside a large meander of the River Kamenka.  Like everywhere we have stayed in the USSR so far, the phone didn’t work, but GTK took the poor maintenance to a whole new level as the light in my room had no bulb, the television set didn’t work, and the hot water was anything but hot (or even luke-warm) – but that’s all part of the experience.

Day 5

Moscow to Suzdal, Russia, USSR


2 October 1991