About Gail Howard's Russia Travel Adventures in the USSR
Gail Howard travels throughout Communist Russia when the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) had tentacles that reached from Eastern Europe to Northern Asia. From Moscow to Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) to Kiev, and to the ancient cities along the Great Silk Road: Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara in Uzbekistan, Central Asia, Gail Howard explores the heart of the Soviet Union at the height of its power.
Whether meeting with a cultural delegation from Mexico on a Soviet collective farm, exploring the aftermath of the great 1966 earthquake, dancing with an old Uzbecki, or downing vodka with a Polish actress and a Moscow theater impresario, Gail Howard takes it all in with an open mind and a curious heart. She chats with communist poet Sergi Arschak and Mexican poet Hugo Gutierrez Vega, fur traders and a group of young Cuban intellectuals.
Gail Howard has her usual head-on encounters with amazingly diverse and colorful people from Turks to Australians to Japanese businessmen buying gifts for their mistresses, and, even Antonio Gambino, editor of the Italian magazine, L'Espresso, who carries Gail's hand luggage off the plane her first day in Moscow, and later, ever so gallantly, helps her battle her acrophobia (yes, Gail is afraid of at least one thing) in the Moscow subways. Exhausted from her six-week trek across the Russian Empire and its Muslim satellites, Gail Howard at last heads out to Helsinki for a well-deserved rest.
by Gail Howard
SOVIET RUSSIA 1967
A Russian Intourist guide met me as I stepped off the plane in Moscow. She sped me through customs and led me to a grand old black limousine.
The chauffeur cruised the 50 miles to Moscow at an old lady's speed. Thick forests of beautiful birch trees in full autumn color lined both sides of the road for endless miles. As my favorite Soviet Army Chorus music played on the radio, I snuggled back in the seat thinking, I'm going to like it here.
In the lobby of the Berlin Hotel, I was greeted by a huge glassy-eyed stuffed bear. My passport was taken from me at the reception desk where I was ordered to go directly to the hotel's Intourist Office. The clerk gave me a meal coupon and a tour excursion ticket for the next day. She hadn't prepared my itinerary yet and had no time to answer questions.
"Ballet tickets? Not possible." I pestered her so much, she said she would try. Then she dismissed me.
I went to my room, my cell, with its tiny narrow bed. The toilet was a five minute walk down long hallways and the bath was on another floor.
Since there was time for a bit of exploring before dinner, I bundled up and went out into the cold drizzle. Immediately, I found myself on a collision course with crowds of Muscovites intent on getting home -- fast.
As darkness fell, so did the temperature. I passed a queue of people waiting in line to buy hot piroshkis, a steamed dough with meat inside. I wanted to buy one but had no rubles.
Cold, wet and hungry, I returned to the hotel and dressed for dinner. The sumptuous dining room was richly decorated in grand ornate rococo style with gilded mirrors on the ceiling.
Most items on the menu cost more than the 1.50 rubles I was allowed for dinner. I selected a "Salad Berlin" for 1.48 rubles, which consisted of a scoop of potato salad, two thin slices of cucumber and 1/4 of a small tomato.
Still starving, I ate protein tablets in my room. I was wading through a Russian history book that described every small skirmish that ever took place. The 12th century was so dry, it put me to sleep.
Next morning in the cold unheated room, it was difficult to leave my warm bed, but I got up, dressed warmly and went downstairs. Intourist directed me to the Metropol Hotel to catch my Walking Tour, "Go down the street, turn left, under the underpass, up right, left, right, left, right, halt."
After the underpass, I became miserably lost. I felt alone and abandoned. I had thought that in the USSR, you had a guide following you at all times so you wouldn't discover any Soviet secrets.
When I attempted to ask directions, the Muscovites kept right on marching. Their expressions were stern and solemn. Desperately, I grabbed a woman by the arm and shouted in my best Berlitz, "Gd'yeh Hotel Metropol?" She blanched and pointed a shaky finger in a direction which I followed.
Not that Russians aren't helpful and friendly people deep inside, but in public places they have stone faces, are stone deaf, and are busy, very, very busy. They just don't stop marching straight ahead, through you, over you. . .
Finally the lost sheep was in the fold. They weren't joking when they named it the "Walking Tour." We walked for miles, but were rewarded with magnificent sights, a feast for the eyes.
The vast Red Square, scene of so many bloody battles, was now used for exhibitions and parades. I walked past the mile-long line of Russians patiently waiting their turn -- for eight hours -- to pay their respects to the embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin in the Lenin Mausoleum.
In the Kremlin, cathedrals reached toward the sky with golden onion-shaped domes. Inside, the cathedrals had beautiful icons everywhere and were so richly decorated, there was not one unadorned inch.
St. Basil's Cathedral, built by Ivan the Terrible in 1561, had nine chapels, each topped with a uniquely designed multi-colored onion dome of different height, shape, pattern and colors. St. Basil's is probably the most identifiable landmark of Russia.
The Great Kremlin Palace, the Moscow retreat of Russian Tsars, had more than 700 rooms.
The Oruzheinaya Palata Kremlin Armoury Palace Museum put the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul to shame. The oldest museum in Russia, it was loaded with an accumulation of royal gifts and treasures of crowns, thrones, jewels, and golden platters and goblets encrusted with diamonds, emeralds and other precious stones.
On the tour I became chummy with a British missionary who had worked in Madras, India for 16 years. We had lunch together at the hotel and invited an Australian woman at the next table to join us. The missionary had to meet an Indian diplomat after lunch, so the Aussie and I went out together.
We tried getting information about what to see in Moscow and to check on my ballet tickets. Before long, it was dark, dismal and drizzling, and throngs of Russians were stampeding from the factories, so we dashed back to the safety of our hotel.