USSR 1991

USSR 1991

USSR 1991


I woke up in Tallinn at 4:15am this morning and turned on the hot water in my room at the Hotel Viru.  By 4:25am the hot water finally arrived in my tap on the 8th floor at the end of the corridor, and so I was able to have a warm shower in time for our departure at 5:00am. 

Our early departure to Tallinn Airport was to enable us to catch an early morning flight to Moscow and then connect to a second flight to Tashkent in Uzbekistan.  We had breakfast at the airport, and looking across the tarmac at the line of Aeroflot jets, I was fascinated to see that the yellow hammer-and-sickle emblems on the red Soviet flags that feature on the tail of every Aeroflot airliner had been painted over in red, the result being that rather than sporting Soviet flags on their tails, each airliner simply had red, sloping rectangles.

We boarded our plane at 6:45am, which I thought was not bad for a flight scheduled to depart at 6:40am.  I was less impressed that we were still sitting in the aircraft until 8:45am, theoretically because of fog but in practice because we were kept waiting by a group of high-ranking officials – we took off at 8:50am as soon as they boarded. 

Our 840-kilometre flight was on an Aeroflot Tupolev Tu-134, registration CCCP-65113 on flight number SU2114.  The Tu-134 is a rear-engined airliner with two engines, roughly similar to the Douglas DC-9 or BAC-111 in the West.  One unusual, and maybe unique, feature of the Tu-134 that I really like is that the toilet at the rear of the cabin features a large, circular overhead skylight which bathes the cubicle in natural light while giving a lovely view of the blue sky (or clouds, depending on the weather) above.

Our guide, Galina, who was travelling with us, was very concerned because we had to transfer between two of Moscow’s airports – Sheremetyevo to Domodedovo – upon arrival. The distance would about 80 kilometres, and with the delayed departure from Tallinn, we had only an hour and a half to complete the transit drive.  The driver of our bus, which was a quite new 18 months old Hungarian-made Ikarus, was great, and he sped (or rather bounced) along the Moscow orbital ring road at a speed we had not experienced anywhere in the Soviet Union since our arrival.  However, the speed seemed to take its toll as we had to stop because of a loud knocking noise in the engine.  Fortunately for us, the driver was able to make a spare part from some scrap wire littering the side of the road.

Then there was an almighty ‘bang’ about ten kilometres from Domodedovo, and the bus began wobbling most suspiciously.  We pulled over once again, the driver disembarked to make an inspection, and returned to declare that the rear offside wheel was kaput.  Still, we hobbled and bounced along the road at a speed of about 25 kilometres per hour, and we eventually arrived at the airport with quite a few minutes to spare.  However, as things turned out, we need not have worried; as I’m now learning to expect, the plane that was scheduled to leave Moscow at 12:45pm did not take off until 1:30pm.

Our 2,771-kilometre flight to Tashkent (SU661) was in an Aeroflot (of course) Ilyushin Il-86, a four-engined wide-body airliner that the Soviets refer to as “an airbus” (no relationship to the Western European manufacturer).  Boarding was done through stairs into the cargo hold.  We carried our large luggage and placed it on one of the shelves available, and then climbed a flight of interior stairs into the passenger cabin.  I was told that Soviet citizens really like this system of carrying your own luggage on board (and off again at the other end) because they know their luggage won’t get lost, and there is no long wait for it be delivered when they arrive at their destination.

The Il-86’s registration was CCCP-86052, and the flight was quite pleasant with the scenery below just visible through the very thick haze most of the way.  However, I did (just) manage to see the Volga River as we flew over it, although it was not spectacular in any way.  Given that we had breakfast at 5:30am this morning (a small breakfast), you can imagine how hungry I was when lunch finally came on the plane at 2:45pm – no meal or snack was served on our morning flight from Tallinn to Moscow, only a plastic glass of soda water.

It was probably fortunate that I was hungry given the nature of the lunch – a half slice of very dry black bread (no butter), one medium-sized tomato, a hard-boiled egg, one lukewarm slice of what I think was beef, a sachet of mustard which I presume was provided to moisten the dry meat (it could not have been for the flavour), three large dry wafer biscuits with icing that tasted like a mix of caramel and pineapple, finishing off with a very tiny square of chocolate and a teabag.  Hot water was brought around for the teabag well after everyone had finished eating (no sugar or milk).  However, I am certainly not complaining; I feel better for having eaten it as I was getting a headache from the lack of food.

I should note that in general the food we have been served here in the USSR has been very good, with lots of coleslaw and much more meat than many local people would ever see, and some of it has even been tender.  It will be interesting to whether the food is any different in Uzbekistan; it is noteworthy that in this one day we are travelling from the richest part of the (former???) USSR to the poorest – Estonia to Uzbekistan.

With that thought in mind, I was not reassured when we were at the airport restaurant in Tallinn this morning, which was opened up especially for our group.  As the cockroach crawled over the tablecloth (and presumably also the food that had been set out for us before our arrival, maybe even last night), our guide looked at it and commented “Oh look, he’s from Tashkent, and he’s come all this way to welcome you.  He has a huge family at home in Central Asia, you know”.

Our flight arrived safely in Tashkent, the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic’s capital city.  We left the plane as had entered it, through the cargo hold.  The smell of kebabs cooking outside the airport terminal was certainly inviting.  Apart from the aroma of kebabs, though, the appearance of Tashkent at night looks very similar to the other Soviet cities we have seen that are made up of extensive areas of large concrete housing blocks.  Perhaps daytime appearances will be different, or maybe it is just that most of the old buildings were destroyed in a massive earthquake in 1966, because I know that much of the city has been entirely re-built since that tragic event.

We drove to our hotel, the Hotel Uzbekistan, but when we arrived, we were kept waiting for almost an hour before we could check-in, just standing in the dimly lit foyer of the hotel.  We could see the reason, though, which was that all the hotel staff were spellbound, gathered around a tiny television set in the office out the back of the reception area, watching something that was obviously compelling.  It was only later after dinner that I was able to find out what they had been watching.

It had been an interview with a very elderly women who we were told was Lenin’s sister (although this was obviously a mistranslation as all of Lenin’s three sisters had been dead for more than five decades, and in one case, for a century).  Whoever the frail old lady was, she had lots of credibility with the staff in the hotel.  I was told that she was making an impassioned plea that “her brother’s” tomb in Red Square should be dismantled so that Lenin’s wish to be buried in Leningrad/ St Petersburg could finally be fulfilled after all these years.  The interview had provoked an animated debate among the hotel staff about the merits of her plea – enough to make us stand around in the foyer waiting for our keys for almost an hour.

The result was a fairly late dinner for us; it finally began soon after we walked into the hotel’s dining room at 10:00pm.

(If you know me well, you will be wondering why there are so few photos of planes at Soviet airports in this travel diary.  The reason is simple – Soviet airports are regarded as military or strategic positions, and photography is “strictly illegal” – which I interpreted as “needs to be surreptitious”).

Day 12

Tallinn to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, USSR


9 October 1991