USSR 1991

USSR 1991

USSR 1991


There is a palpable sense in which the USSR seems to be on a subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, knife-edge.  At breakfast this morning, we met an Australian couple from Brisbane who are here visiting friends in Leningrad.  They are here now because they have heard rumours that the hard-line conservatives are likely to launch another coup in November this year (that’s next month!) as the cold bites, and so prices skyrocket and food becomes even scarcer.  If that rumour is true, it would be a great political and human tragedy, as people who are now enjoying new freedoms would be unlikely to tolerate a reversion to hard-line communism again lying down.

And there are subtle signs on the ground that the rumours MAY be true – but isn’t that always that way in which rumours are fuelled?  A few days ago, I bought some newspapers in the Moscow Metro which call for a return to law and order, saying that the present authorities have gone too far in pulling away from the past and allowing reforms.  A few public buildings that were flying the Russian tricolour flag a few days ago, or no flag at all, are now flying the red hammer-and-sickle Union flag.  And this afternoon, I saw a small demonstration of people waving red Union flags.  It’s possible that the way events turn out, we may be here in the USSR during a brief glimpse of temporary freedom, although I really hope that does not turn out to be so.

Our itinerary today was much less hectic than yesterday’s, which is good as I think we all needed a slightly easier day.  We set off relatively late today at 10:30am, our first stop being the Kazan Cathedral which houses the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism.  Between 1928 and 1990 it was closed for active worship, but services resumed there on a small scale last year.  However, the museum continues to take up most of the interior space.

The fellow who sowed us through the museum told us that the “and Atheism” part of the museum’s title was officially dropped two weeks ago and the exhibits on atheism were removed because “they were just a few books and were not very interesting”.  Nonetheless, I still saw many of the exhibits promoting atheism intact, such as paintings of people suffering at the hands of what were labelled “traitorous priests”, items of torture used in the name of religion, and “scientific works” written by Voltaire and Copernicus.  The museum does not just deal with Russian Christianity, but also with ancient Egyptian religion, animism in “primitive societies” and Islam.

After lunch we undertook our other visit for the day, which was to the Russian Museum, which is an art gallery housed in one of the city’s old royal palaces.  I must say that I have really enjoyed my two art gallery visits here in Leningrad much more than I would have predicted, although it must be said that I am talking about two of the world’s top art galleries when I say that.  I especially appreciated today’s visit because our guide, who studied art, was able to provide us with some fascinating insights into the paintings and sculptures we were looking at, and of course the sumptuous interiors of these former palaces added further to the experience.

I spent some time this afternoon resting in my room at the Pribaltiyskaya Hotel.  Interestingly, the radio was playing quite a bit of western music, especially various Beatles classics, and then a song came on that I had never before but made me stop everything I was doing and pay attention, because it was a song that perfectly encapsulated my observations of the world I was experiencing.  Although the words were in English, I thought at first it might be a song by a Soviet band, but I learned later that song Winds of Change was by a West German band, the Scorpions.  I sat there in my room in Leningrad listening to the song with tears in my eyes and a rapidly beating heart, just staring out the window and imagining the future.

We have another late night tonight.  Our bags will be collected at 9:00pm and we leave for the railway station at 9:45pm to catch the 11:05pm overnight train (Train No.17) for Tallinn in Estonia, one of the USSR’s three Baltic republics (the others being Latvia and Lithuania).  I hope the bed on this train is as good and firm as the last one.

Day 10

Leningrad, Russia, USSR


7 October 1991