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Russia and the Baltic States

Freda Isaksen

Some vacations are enjoyable and relaxing, some are fun and games, others turn out to be adventures, our trip to Eastern Europe belongs in the latter category. Dan and I arrived in Helsinki 7:30 a.m. and had the day to ourselves before meeting our tour group of 22 people at 6:00 p.m. so we explored the city by foot and public transportation. Helsinki is a modern Scandinavian city. Finland was once a part of Sweden and is still very Swedish in character, the second language is compulsory in the schools, every street is marked in both languages. We rode the underground subway and the streetcar to the suburbs. To our surprise we saw a lot of graffiti on the walls of buildings, maybe because there is 18% unemployment there is a lot of idleness amongst the people.

The next morning we were taken on a tour of the city with a Finnish bus and driver who was with us throughout the two weeks. In the afternoon we took a boat ride around the harbor. The Finnish people love saunas, many are built around the water’s edge so after a hot steam bath they jump into the Baltic Sea even on a freezing winter day. At the harbor there was an open air market where very attractive handmade articles of local design were for sale. Everything is very expensive in Scandinavia so we found it unwise to shop there.

Dan and I wanted to have some fun and eat something unusual so we chose an ethnic restaurant and ordered the Lapland Special which was a salad with smoked reindeer meat, very tasty. For the remainder of the trip three meals were provided daily.

The next morning we left for St. Petersburg which was formerly Leningrad. We were warned about the slow progress to complete the formalities at the Russian border where we were required to fill out forms declaring how much money we were carrying upon entry. Everyone in our group went through individually without comment but when I approached the uniformed official he said “Show money!” and he thumbed through it, so I became an instant celebrity.

We had been advised to carry dollar bills in small denominations for spending money as it is difficult to change travelers’ checks because they keep all passports in the hotels and one has no identification. They gladly accept the American dollar but they must be crisp and new or they refuse them.

The water is considered safe to drink but we were advised not to, the bus driver constantly had 5 gallon containers of purified water so we filled our water bottles and there was always bottled water served at meal time.

Our immediate impression of St. Petersburg was that it must have been a beautiful city but as we saw it everything was in need of repair. At one time long ago the buildings were painted in pastel colors of blue, pink, green, and a popular mustard yellow, now they are faded and dirty. This was the home of the great czars, the former winter and summer palaces are huge and extravagantly beautiful with gorgeous gardens. Some of the czarinas such as Catherine and Elisabeth ruled Russia as their husbands were weak and as we know they exploited the people. There was a saying amongst the peasants “one for me, one for you and one for the czar.” The Jewish people would say “God bless the czar and keep him far away from us.”

The whole city of St. Petersburg was under siege for 900 days during 1941 to 1944, the city was defended by its inhabitants and Germany was never able to capture it. There was a narrow break made into the city where meager supplies were brought in secretively and some children taken out under constant enemy fire. A huge impressive monument has been erected to commemorate the three dreadful years, we were shown a film about the suffering and loss of life of over a half million civilians and soldiers during that time, the human suffering was horrendous as people died of starvation and enemy fire. Their daily ration of food was a small piece of bread made of half flour and half sawdust, a few extra grams for those able to walk or fight. Any person who survived that siege receives free food, housing and utilities from the government for the rest of their life, to help compensate for the three years of suffering.

Here is the famous Hermitage Museum exhibiting many famous works by well known artists. We visited Pushkin from where the royal family were taken to be executed, also the home of the famous author. All over Russia are magnificent cathedrals with onion shaped domes of gold. Through the years of communism religion was discouraged, many churches were closed but now that the Soviet Union is dissolved young people are reviving it where they were ignorant of it until about five years ago.

Russian women are mostly quite dowdy looking, they blend in with the shabby surroundings, they wear skirts and blouses, not many slacks are seen on women. Dan had bought new sneakers before we left home, they attracted a lot of attention, his ankle high white shoes were the envy of all the Russian youth. As soon as tourists step off the bus they are surrounded by mosquito boys who swarm around them trying to sell their wares mostly matryoshka dolls and cheap amber jewelry.

Our next major stop was Moscow. The towns are very many miles apart, we spent long hours sitting on the bus driving over bad roads and very flat terrain bordered by forests of tall trees. During the whole trip we never saw a mountain or hill. Our rest stops were in the bushes, men on one side of the road, women on the other. As we approached villages they looked very poor, the buildings in dilapidated condition, houses sagging into the ground. Peasants sit on the side of the road with a small bucket of potatoes, a few apples, maybe a green cabbage or some red beets, trying to sell their home grown edibles or maybe swap them. Water is drawn from wells in the rural villages. There are huts along the way which are public bus stops painted in very bright colorful designs, which indicated to me that the people crave the color.

We drove over the Volga and Dnieper Rivers into the capital city. When we first entered Red Square I was dumbstruck, it is so impressive. The sun was shining on St. Basil’s Cathedral and I thought this should be one of the seven wonders of the world. We waited until sunset when the lights were turned on, then it was truly a memorable sight that I will never forget.

Red Square is very big with the Kremlin like a fortress along one side and more gold domed cathedrals, palaces and towers. Lenin lies in state in his mausoleum. Preserved in wax for all to view, but he is no longer considered to be a hero, his statues are being torn down and his body is going to be removed to his former home.

We walked through the Kremlin Museum and Armory which contain vast treasures of gold, silver and precious jewels which belonged to royalty and viewed the extravagant clothing of the czarinas, some never worn. I wonder why the present day Russians are so proud of this opulence when their ancestors hated them enough to make a bloody revolution. The church at that time tried to outdo royalty with their riches. If the government sold just one case of these exhibits they could repair the whole of Moscow.

The streetcar tracks were dilapidated and looked unsafe as they drove along the torn tracks, but the people trust them, they were crowded. The underground Metro is something they can be proud of. It is built extremely deep into the ground as it is meant to be a shelter in case of enemy attack. Each station is individually artistically beautiful, decorated with crystal chandeliers, painting and decorative tiles. We rode the subway as a group and took off at several different stations to admire the architecture. The trains run every minute, to see this convenience was an amazing experience. Dan went back on his own to see more stations. The train tracks are engineered in such a way that if a person falls at a station the train is high enough that it will avoid the person’s body.

Our modern hotel was built in 1980 for the Olympic Games, from our room we had a view of the monument built to commemorate Sputnik and the first man in space.

All of the hotels were very up to date, the service and plumbing very good. The sheets on the bed were coarse, certainly not percale, the blankets of heavy wool, always enclosed in washable bags which is nice. On each floor there is a key lady who watches everyone’s comings and goings and sees to your every need. She will make arrangements to accommodate the men if desired, and the single men were warned about the knock on the door and the telephone inquiry at night. If you do not tip her upon arrival you might be in for a discontented key lady. After being warned about her we expected a sort of prison warden, but they were quite attractive and pleasant.

In the evening we attended a performance of the Moscow Circus. There are green parks all over the city with colorful flowers and benches to sit and enjoy them. The streets are swept by women wearing aprons and babushkas using brooms made of tree branches and twigs. The salaries are so low it is beyond the comprehension of people like us. For instance our Russian guide told us that her husband, a professional man earns $50 a month, their rent is $8. How can they afford to buy the fresh flowers sold at the many stalls or the soft drinks in cans sold at the kiosks? I hesitated to ask such questions. Vodka is very cheap, it is consumed excessively, it is a necessity for the people.

Everything is collectively owned, the average family shares a communal kitchen and bathroom in their building so no one has an incentive to maintain property that does not belong to them. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union more individual ownership is allowed so an occupant may buy his place of residence, the cost is determined by how long he has resided in it. If they can afford it they can upgrade their living quarters. Private business and industry is allowed but as there is little competition with foreign goods there is no incentive for quality, as supplies are imported production is costly. Throughout the tour I had the impression that we were kept busy to allow a minimum of free time on our own. We had to beg for shopping time, although there were no restrictions.

An extraordinary sight in the major cities was people standing shoulder to shoulder trying to sell a few items such as a plate of apples, a plate of sausage, a nightgown or blouse or knitted items. There is no tax for these peddlers so they try to earn a few extra rubles this way. Dan was wearing an old Dodger baseball cap, he was approached by a mosquito boy selling fur hats. He asked Dan to exchange his cap. For Dan this was a good deal as he lives in Chicago so could use a fur cap with earmuffs attached. Our Russian guide thought the Dodger cap was worth more than the fur, for us this exchange was fun. Another boy asked Dan for his five-cent ballpoint pen which was producing from his shirt pocket, for a Russian boy such a pen is a luxury. We made other boys happy by giving away other cheap pens.

Politically there was much unrest in the country at that time. There were 20 different parties running for election in the near future. Banks were going bankrupt with no insurance, no wonder they were so eager for the dollar, they probably keep them under the mattress. There was galloping inflation as the state-owned factories switched from military to civilian, on a capitalistic style.

The next day we started on another long drive to Minsk which was completely destroyed during World War II then rebuilt as a modern city. Then on to Smolensk passing war memorials and eternal flames where battles were fought. 20 million Russian soldiers died during the war.

As we approached Smolensk we were warned that we should expect minus three accommodations the best available in this area, with ground toilets where we would squat. Actually I liked this hotel because it was ethnic Russian, fortunately they had recently installed modern toilets so we only had to squat at some rest stops along the way which was an improvement to the bushes. Towels at this hotel resembled our striped tea towels. I was glad we had taken along some toilet paper because they only supplied cut newspaper squares.

The meals along the way were not too exciting but plentiful, with four courses for lunch and three for dinner. They served lots of potatoes, very little vegetables or fruits, good tomatoes and cucumbers at every meal. One day we all counted exactly eight peas on our plates, sometimes there was one slice of squash or three or four slices of carrot or beet. Every one liked the beet borscht made by several different recipes. We were told that all portions are carefully weighed to be so many predetermined grams on each plate. Do not go to Russia if you love good food. We saw piles of green watermelon in the streets but we did not get any, unfortunately.

We crossed another border into the country of Belarus. It was here that the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl occurred, there is now a high incidence of cancer in that region. When the country became independent of Russia they printed new currency, because they had become disillusioned with humanity they printed animals on the paper bills.

At the border to enter Lithuania we were ordered to pay a toll of $90 by civil clothed bandits, the uniformed officials stood by and ignored the whole episode. Our guide argued to no avail, pay or stay put. Along the way we were stopped by police and the driver was ticketed for five different traffic violations. He was issued five different tickets which took time to fill out, the total fine was $1. The group gladly bought them as souvenirs for 20 cents each.

At one town the bus driver could not turn into a narrow street so eight men got off the bus and moved a Russian-made car onto the sidewalk, the bus drove on and the men put the car back onto the street.

Lithuania is one of the states that gained back their freedom about 5 years ago after they were part of Russia, Poland or Germany during many changes of borders. Conditions in the Baltics seemed to be better than in Russia, there is some attempt at reconstruction but all the countries are so poor that progress is slow. Not every one is content with their new freedom, some would prefer that old system under communism when the government thought for them, all they had to do was agree. We happened to be there on Black Ribbon Day, the anniversary of the day when von Ribbentrop and Molotov signed the treaty that would make the Baltic States communistic, there were many demonstrations. Some Russians have crossed over to the independent states and they are not welcome, there are signs that say “Russians go home!”

A very interesting stop was at the hill of crosses where tens of thousands of crosses stand in all possible sizes. Originally it was a small area possibly a cemetery, the communists confiscated it but mysteriously it reappeared as it was constantly destroyed, but larger each time. The memorable thing to me is that one Star of David stands there amongst the crosses with an inscription about Auschwitz.

In Vilnius the highlight was the old Jewish quarter, we were six Jewish people on the tour and a visit was not scheduled but we requested it. We walked through the old ghetto streets from where 11,000 Jews were herded into the streets by the Nazis, shot and buried in mass graves. As we know, this was only one of the atrocities that occurred. We went into a 100-year-old synagogue where an old man greeted us in English. Nothing was mentioned about the pogroms and persecutions which took place around the turn of the century and later and caused so many of our ancestors to emigrate to Western Europe and America. Today there are about 4,500 Jews living in Lithuania. At one time this country was the only one in the world that accepted Yiddish as a language and taught at the university. Here and in Moscow the universities were impressive from the outside but when we entered the buildings they were in disrepair and sad looking.

In Latvia we know that the same persecutions took place but the local guides do not know or else do not want to talk about it. They only mentioned that Catholics and Lutherans were sent to Siberia for slave labor. Under the new government property that was confiscated is being returned to former owners. In Riga we went through an enormous food market, every kind in large quantities, but very little produce. Live fish are sold squirming in plastic bags. Cats were running around in the fish market and sleeping on the shelves. Other than here I saw poorly stocked merchandise in the stores.

In Trakai there is a small community of Karaite Jews of Turkish descent, miraculously they were able to convince both the communists and the Germans that they are a singular tribe not related to any other and they survived. The proof of the story is that today there are 260 of them living there and they observe Judaism.

The Baltic States are agricultural, some light industry is being developed but limited because of the shortage of supplies and money. The average person in that region looks and dresses like Western Europeans, they do not look as grim as the Russians. The streets are surprisingly wide for such old established countries.

We drove onwards through the same monotonous flat landscape to Estonia which is the smallest of the States. I think that if the capital city of Tallinn was painted and repaired it would be the most charming of them all, but they are working on it. The main industry there is timber products and fishing.

In Tallinn it rained for the first time on the trip and only seven of our group ventured on the walking tour, this was fortunate for us as the guide spent time quietly telling us of internal affairs then and now. It was enlightening because previously the local guides had been reluctant to do so. The people of Estonia resemble the Nordic people. Here we were served the best meal of the whole two weeks at a resort area in a park by the Baltic Sea where they have cultural events at an outdoor bowl similar to the Hollywood Bowl. There had been a dog show there the previous day and beautiful dogs ranging in size from miniatures to bears accompanied us on the four-hour ferry ride back to Finland. A sumptuous buffet was served on the boat with Scandinavian delicacies.

There are so many more things for Dan and me to remember but I will conclude with this story. A well to do Russian moved to a Baltic State and tried to join a guild in the city. The members did not welcome Russians so they refused him, he joined another group and built them a new meeting place. He stipulated that it must be higher than the building of the guild and that it was to be topped by a figure of a cat with its backside and a raised leg facing the guild nearby. Of course this is a big tourist attraction.

If you have a desire to see these places for yourselves do not wait too long, as the governments change so do the tourist restrictions and the issuance of foreign visas.


Copyright Freda Isaksen 1986–2006. Permission to reuse for non-commercial purposes is granted, provided that the text is unaltered and the original source is acknowledged. For more information, contact isaksen at math.wayne.edu.

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