USSR 1991

USSR 1991

USSR 1991


The overnight train trip from Moscow was very comfortable and smooth, although somewhat cramped.  As expected, we had four people in each cabin, with only the narrowest of passage between the double-bunk beds.  Perhaps because I was so tired, I slept very well, except for a short time when I woke up because the heating had been turned up a little too warmly.  The bunk was beautifully firm and the carriage ride was very, very smooth.   We were in the same type of carriage that travellers on the Trans-Siberian Railway spend a week.  I was woken up by the guard’s knock on the door at 7:10am for our punctual arrival at 7:30am.

We were greeted with a sign on the platform that read “Welcome to St Petersburg”, surely a sign that things are changing here, although I have no idea whether such a sign has official (i.e. Moscow’s) approval or whether it is a statement by aspirational local officials.

Leningrad gets only 30 sunny days each year.  In that context, we count ourselves as extremely fortunate, as we have had clear, sunny conditions all day.  I was told that it has been raining every day for the past week until this morning!

We came straight to our hotel – the very large, very modern Pribaltiyskaya Hotel – for breakfast, and then set off at 10:00am for a city tour.  This was somewhat similar to a tour I had done in 1987 except that now I have done more reading about the city it was more meaningful for me.  The main difference was that we were no longer able to stop at Palace Square where the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917 (when peasants stormed the tsar’s/ czar’s palace), so we stopped at the cruiser Aurora instead.  The Aurora is a World War I cruiser, immaculately preserved in the River Neva, which fired the first shot in the 1917 Revolution.

Following the city tour, we went straight to the Museum of the History of Leningrad where we saw a superbly presented display on the extraordinary 900-day siege of Leningrad in 1941 to 1943.  The exhibition is housed in a beautiful old building with an ornate interior beside the Neva River.  The exhibition provided good background to understand something of the psyche of the people who live here, as well as being a humbling experience in its own right.

The siege is deeply etched into the psyche of people in Leningrad.  Lasting from September 1941 to January 1944, it began when German forces cut off the last road going into the city, leading to widespread hunger – indeed a shortage of everything – for the city’s population.  The city was then subjected to constant, unrelenting bombardment from the German forces that surrounded most of the city.

Evidence of the siege can still be seen in Leningrad.  For example, on some walls on shop-fronts along south-facing buildings on Nevsky Prospekt (that we were to see later this afternoon), stencilled signs have been preserved that read “Граждане! При артобстреле эта сторона улицы наиболее опасна”, which means “Citizens!  This side of the street is most dangerous during shelling).

Lunch was fairly late at 2:00pm, but tasty if you like liver with gravy and chips.  At 3:00pm we departed for an exhibition at St Isaac’s Cathedral.  While we were there it emerged that our guide is yet another Christian who had to hide her faith for many years because of persecution at work.  In fact, she took her family all the way to Georgia (in the Caucasus) to have her children baptised because of the consequences of doing it here in Leningrad.  She also spoke feelingly of not being able to be present during the three-hour baptism ceremony (which is normal Russian orthodox practice), although she also confessed to climbing a tree nearby to catch a peek.

Our guide also spoke emotionally about the shortages of food and clothing everyone was experiencing, together with the rapid inflation.  Potatoes which cost 1 rouble 80 kopeks last year rose suddenly to 6 roubles early this year, and now cost up to 80 roubles per kilogram.  Other costs, especially meat, have gone up even more, and rationing coupons have been introduced for the first time in living memory.  People are really afraid of where the rapidly rising prices and shortages are heading.

After inspecting St Isaac’s Cathedral, we drove to Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main road, for a look through some typical Soviet stores.  For those things that are in stock the prices are incredibly low, depending on which exchange rate you use.  Astonishingly, official exchange rates seem to give anything from 1 rouble for £1 to 58 roubles for £1 depending on where you look, and black-market rates offer far more (although I didn’t want to appear overly interested in those).

But for all this, Leningrad (or St Petersburg, or whatever its official name is at the moment) is a lovely, elegant city that lacks the heavy feel of Moscow.  It was originally established (in 1703) by Peter the Great as Russia’s window to the West, so it is not surprising that its atmosphere is almost Western.  In fact, we even saw a few Swedish cars and Finnish buses on the streets, breaking the almost universal sea of Ladas, Volgas and Moskviches.  The people seemed relaxed and well-dressed, although whether those characteristics can be sustained into the coldness and shortages of a Leningrad winter only time will tell.

I was thinking of making a phone call home to Australia today, but I found out that these need to be done manually through the overseas telephone operator at the place we are staying, and that she only works at times that would be extremely uncivilised in Sydney (like from about 1am to 5am each day).  I think I’ll continue to reply on my letter writing for communication.

Day 8

Leningrad, Russia, USSR


5 October 1991