Back in (What Was) the USSR

Written by Peter Worthington on Friday September 9, 2011

The last time I was in Russia was 1982, communism was a fading but malignant power ... Leonid Brezhnev was near death, and KGB boss Yuri Andropov was about to take over (and would die within a year).

At the time there was widespread, orchestrated paranoia over President Ronald Reagan’s supposed “Neutron bomb” that was depicted as archetypically capitalistic in that it destroyed people but left buildings and material goods intact.

Some 15 years earlier, in the mid-1960s, I’d been the Moscow correspondent for the now-defunct Toronto Telegram, around the time that Nikita Khrushchev was deposed and Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin was installed.

For a couple of years in Moscow I sparred incessantly with the Soviet system, got to know its wiles, and was periodically scolded and threatened with expulsion if I continued to write about topics about which the system disapproved. Like the inherent racism of Soviets, the pervasiveness of the KGB, the inability of the system to produce decent ball point pens or toilet paper, the charade of elections, the deification of  Lenin.

This week I plan to return to Russia – for the first time since it shed the shackles of socialist communism (state capitalism), and became freer, more enterprising, more physically dangerous in some ways, where corruption and easy living take different forms from the past.

The trip will be more of a holiday than anything else.

In 1982 my wife Yvonne and I were part of a small group (about 20) to visit Russia, organized by the Washington Times.

Ironically, we met the important editors of Pravda, Izvestia, Novosti who enlightened us on the dangerous course Reagan was supposedly taking by developing the Neutron bomb.

When I was based in Russia as a reporter, I could no more get an interview with the editor of Pravda than I could get an invitation for tea with Brezhnev.

Our colleagues on the 1982 trip were mostly convinced that the Soviets actually believed the Neutron bomb nonsense while I, knowing the system a bit, felt it was all propaganda and stage-managing. My views were largely dismissed by the Times’ publisher and his underlings.

As if to let me know that they knew I’d been based in Moscow as a journalist, occasionally people from Intourist (the Soviet Union's travel agency) would ask “are you still playing hockey?” Or “What happened to your 007 sweater?”

When I lived in Moscow I played hockey (badly) for the Canadian embassy team that never lost a game in two years. I had copies of the Telegram as shin guards, and wore an 007 sweatshirt, that Russian players were eager to body check, and then be photographed with after the game.

James Bond was a popular villain in Moscow, and the 007 sweater made me a preferred target. “Nothing personal,” the Russians would joke.

This time the trip has been organized by Carleton University Alumni and others, and includes about 90 people who’ll live on a cruise ship, the Volga Dream. We’ll start in St. Petersburg and make our way through rivers and waterways to Moscow, visiting villages and sites along the way.

Nothing political is intended – even though everything about Russia involves politics. Of the participants, 18 are from Carleton. Others are from McMaster, Columbia University, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Duke University, Georgetown University, Georgia Tech, Villanova, University of Arizona, Iowa, and similar institutions. Russian specialists on the tour will presumably enlighten us paying guests.

Although I haven’t paid much attention to Russia since the demise of communism, the country and its people remain a fascinating enigma.

Now that it no longer aspires to take over the world – or at least subvert Western countries and indoctrinate the Third World – Russia is not the threat to peace and world stability that it once was.

Even when I lived in Moscow, true communism was never really practiced. Most Muscovites had clandestine deals going on, where they could manipulate or cheat the system. Survival entailed corruption.

People would bribe the local dentist with a bottle of vodka so (s)he’d use the speed drill. A chocolate bar would get you ahead of the queue. Sewing fake Western labels on a local sweater would triple its value. That sort of thing.

When I first went to Moscow I tried to avoid controversy by avoiding politics, which I assumed were important. I wrote instead about how if I didn’t remove the windshield wipers from my Russian Volga car whenever I parked, they’d be stolen. Replacements weren’t available in Moscow and had to be imported from Finland.

Articles like this drew complaints from the Soviet embassy in Moscow to my publisher that “surely an important newspaper like the Telegram didn’t sent Worthington to Moscow to write about his car.”

The trouble was, writing about the car (in winter, citizens lit small fires under the engine to warm it because there was a shortage of anti-freeze)  interested Telegram readers more than the order in which Soviet leaders stood on Lenin’s tomb, which indicated who was in and who was out of favour.

All that is history. Now we have  oligarchies running the country. To some, the Russian mafia runs the economy.

Where Moscow was once bereft of private automobiles, and gasoline stations were few, today it’s filled with European cars. Moscow’s streets which were generally safe for foreigners under communism, are now more dangerous as crime flourishes.

Where once there were few restaurants with identical menus, today there is McDonalds and many choices.

In my day, the official exchange rate for the ruble was $1. Today, it’s 30 rubles to the dollar. (Will similar devaluation of the American dollar eventually occur so the U.S. can pay off its trillion dollar debt to China?).

Arguably, Vladimir Putin, formerly of the KGB, is one of the world’s more intriguing leaders. A two-time president of Russia, he’s now prime minister but may run again for president. He’s still the boss in Russia.

Putin’s got a macho streak. He likes to challenge himself physically (scuba diving, hunting, chasing whales, is an animal lover), and is as tough as a boot. Ruthless when required, he’s calculating, shrewd, daring – but not homicidal.  Russia has never had a leader quite like him.

Anyway, our ship, Volga Dream, will cross Lake Ladoga (mindful of the 400-day Blockade of Leningrad in WWII), enroute to Mandrogi, Kizhi Island, Goritsky, Yaroslavl, Uglich and Moscow.

It’s something that wouldn’t have been possible under communism, and it’ll be interesting to see how this “new” Russia has adapted to tourism.