"How long have you been here?" a young man asked on our last night in Leningrad. (This unusual fellow—without ever having left Russia-spoke perfect idiomatic English, had a sound track of Saturday Night Fever, was reading Looking for Mr. Goodbar, and talked me out of my last issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS.)
"Three weeks," I replied.
"Ah, three weeks!" the youthful cynic exclaimed. "Just enough time to understand ... exactly ... nothing!"
He, of course, was right. No one can learn to "understand" Russia—a vastly beautiful, culturally varied nation—in just three weeks. But 21 days is a sufficient period of time in which to gather a bunch of surprising and delightful impressions of Soviet life. Here are a few of mine:
Nature in the Cities
There is an abundance of trees in the cities, and you're never more than a short walk from flower-filled parks lovingly tended by husky women gardeners. Over one-third of Moscow, for example, is devoted to "green space." In Sukhumi—the "garden city" on the Black Sea—each street is lined with a different species of tree, and in the Persian-seeming, Caspian Sea city of Baku—in addition to miles of parks and trees—grapevines leap up from balcony to balcony and building to building, providing shade and fruit for apartment dwellers.
Everywhere, you'll see people carrying bouquets of blossoms bought at the colorful flower stalls in city markets. And often during our tour of Russia, we were presented with gifts of flowers.
Food that Fills
Breads, pastries, and ice cream in the U.S.S.R. are some of the best you'll find anywhere. (No wonder those ladies are so husky!) Russians eat tons of ice cream even in the (brrr!) winter. And after just one taste you, too, will become a devotee.
Fresh herbs (parsley, tarragon, etc.) are consumed in large quantities and almost as a substitute for salads, particularly in and around the Caucasus. Since herbs figure strongly in the diets of the "long dwellers" (the U.S.S.R.'s famed centenarians) we—feeling a bit rabbitlike—dutifully munched away on the pungent plants and soon came to enjoy and expect herbs with our meals.
Generally speaking—if you like cheese, cucumbers, yogurt, potatoes, borsch, cheese blintzes, chicken Kiev, and great slabs of tender, red meat—you'll enjoy many of your meals in the Soviet Union. (Vegetarians can be accommodated, too.)
Yes, the people of the U.S.S.R. do drink their share of vodka. (Practice up on long, flowery toasts and apologize to your stomach in advance.) And yes, they really do expect you to knock off that shot with a single gulp.
Drinking is, if anything, even easier in the Socialist Republic of Georgia (surely one of the world's most hospitable spots!). Here, they toast you (frequently!) in their native brew: a very decent champagne. (And no one's insulted if you don't gulp champagne!)
No, you can't drink the water, especially not in Leningrad. And except in first-class hotels (where we'll be staying), no one in this egalitarian society seems to like to clean toilets ... at least not often.
On the other hand, most of the city streets in the U.S.S.R. are so immaculate you could almost eat off them, and one thinks twice before tossing aside a cigarette butt. (In fact, I saw Muscovites tuck them into their matchboxes when no ashtrays were handy.)
Public buildings positively sparkle, and it's really nice to observe the devoted care that goes into restoring and preserving Russia's dazzling old palaces and churches.
Which brings to mind ...
Despite word to the contrary and official "discouragement of superstition," religion is still very much alive in the U.S.S.R. At the large Russian Orthodox cathedral we visited one Sunday in Moscow, the wall-to-wall worshipers who were packed shoulder-to-shoulder inside actually spilled out into the street.
These services were not an isolated occurrence. Stopping one weekday afternoon in Mtskheta, an ancient town in the Caucasus, we found a service being held in the side chapel of an old cathedral.
"It's considered quite fashionable now to go to church," a Georgian atheist told us apologetically, as—on yet another occasion—we watched young women light candles under the icons of their favorite saints in a downtown church in Tbilisi.
Moscow—the powerful heart of this gigantic country—does have its share of police and soldiers, particularly in and around the Kremlin. In other parts of the country, though, the police keep a very low profile. And when you do see them they seldom wear guns. Yet you'll feel remarkably safe on city streets, day and night.
If anyone ever "follows" you, it's because he wants to buy your jeans ... but don't be tempted by that huge sum of rubles he'll offer you. Dealing with the black market is a definite "no-no"!
Russians in Love
The evening we arrived in Pyatigorsk (a picturesque health resort once popular with the czarist nobility and the setting for Mikhail Lermontov's romantic tale, A Hero of our Time) there was an impromptu party and dance going on in our hotel's restaurant.
Nick, the young manager of a local grocery, insisted on plying us with wine and chocolate (a not uncommon combination in Russia), and soon became understandably enamored of the youngest member of our group: a lovely, 22-year-old blonde.
Four delightful days later, as we left Pyatigorsk and headed for the high mountains, a taxi passed our bus some distance out of town and the car's driver honked and waved for us to pull over. We were then all astounded and very impressed to see Nick jump out of the cab with an armload of roses and an expensive, chased-copper plaque as a farewell gift to his blushing American friend.
But that wasn't the end of it. Imagine our further astonishment some ten days later, when we stopped to take pictures on the River Neva and found that same young man waiting for us, this time with carnations and a friendship ring!
In order to get one last look at his pretty blonde, Nick had called in too (love?) sick to work and had hopped a plane to Leningrad. This incident alone forced us to alter our concepts of the Russians' freedom to move about their country, and also to acknowledge that the citizens of the U.S.S.R. are as romantic as ever.
(You, too, will be perfectly free to go off exploring on your own while we're in Russia. In U.S.S.R. cities—even the small ones—public transportation is fast, clean, frequent, and cheap. For 7¢ or less in most places, you can see the sights and meet some very nice people along the way.)
People-meeting is the best part of any train trip, and in Russia, overnight journeys are particularly friendly. (The barriers seem to come down when everyone's in his or her pajamas.) Just meander through the corridors from one car to another and someone is sure to try to engage you in conversation, a game of cards, or chess.
On such an excursion during our last journey through the U.S.S.R., one of our group handed a small boy a tiny American flag. And, an hour or so later when we came back through the cars, the child was waiting with a candy for each of us. (Exchange is the name of the game in the U.S.S.R.; chewing gum is often better for barter than rubles are for buying!) So comradely were our train companions that night, in fact, that the mighty lady conductor finally had enough. "Go to bed! Go to bed!" she scolded.
People who paint the Soviet Union in blacks and grays with unsmiling faces and heavy vibrations obviously never left the airports while in the country! Because it's at the airfields that soldiers guard the planes and everyone seems very serious. (You're not even allowed to disembark until the crew leaves the aircraft.)
And if the flights are cheap, so is the service. (A glass of warm mineral water was our sole refreshment on a three-hour flight from Sukhumi to Leningrad.) But what can you expect when the state-owned company, Aeroflot, has a monopoly on all domestic flights?
Adventures by Bus
A seemingly well-run bus system blankets the country, and pretty mosaic-tiled bus shelters are scattered along many of the country roads. We used modern and comfortable Intourist buses, and the drivers (with a couple of exceptions) were some of the best I've ever ridden with.
The ride from the airport into Baku, for instance—with a laughing, dark-eyed Azeri at the wheel—was (at best) a thrill of terror! But the dramatic crossing of the Caucasian Mountains (a route described by Strabo, the Greek geographer, and Pliny, the Roman historian)—with its one-way narrows, 7,000-foot precipices, and great herds of fat, woolly sheep—was a picnic thanks to our driver's 25 years of experience with those formidable mountain passes.
Met the "Enemy"
Besides the usual "please," "thank you," "hello," and "goodbye," anyone wandering around the U.S.S.R. should learn to understand and answer the stock question: "Where are you from?" just to see the expression of surprise on the questioner's face.
As an American, you'll be a rarity outside of Moscow and Leningrad and, after the look of shock and disbelief passes, there is a quick mental reevaluation ("I've met the 'enemy' ... and he's just like me!"). Next will come a flood of questions: "Are you happy living under a capitalist system?" "Do you have servants?" "What about the neutron bomb?" "Can I show you my city?" "Would you like to come to my house for dinner?"
And you're always left with enthusiastic handshakes, pledges of peace and friendship, and—sometimes—kisses.
The Trip in a Nutshell
I could go on and on, but why not leave some surprises for you to discover yourself? The fact is, you'll gain enough new knowledge on MOTHER EARTH NEWS' upcoming, nearly 4,000-mile trip within the Soviet Union to fill a book.
You're going to visit health spas, mineral baths, curative mud clinics, apiaries, farms, and health resorts. You'll talk with leading doctors and specialists on nutrition and aging, meet some of the happy, handsome centenarians of the Transcaucasian Republics, and learn much about the lifestyles and eating habits of these remarkable "long dwellers."
Aside from all that, you'll go on hikes and hunt for herbs; enjoy Russia's famous ballets, operas, and folk dancers; visit some of the world's most impressive museums; and much, much more!
Maybe we can even squeeze in a trip to Lake Baikal, the oldest lake in the world. (Lake Baikal is over 400 miles long, the whole of the Baltic Sea could easily be contained in its basin, and its fresh waters are so crystal clear that a white sheet can be seen 90 to 120 feet down. There are 1,200 different species of aquatic life in its 5,200-foot depths, and in the deep green forests that surround those shining blue waters, you can find almost 500 plants that grow nowhere else in the world.)
Get Your Front Row Seat!
This exciting 21-day Health and Nutrition Tour of the U.S.S.R. will run from May 27 through June 16, 1979. It will cost $1,900, which covers all air fares (including New York to Moscow and back), all land transportation, double occupancy in first-class hotels, all meals in the Soviet Union, transfers, scheduled professional and sightseeing trips, gratuities, and the Citizens Exchange Corps registration fee.
(Can you imagine how much fun it's going to be to run around Russia with a bunch of MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers? I can hardly wait!)