Back in 1990, when it was the U.S.S.R., my best friend and I traveled with a group to Leningrad, Moscow, and Kyiv. Fast forward nearly three decades. Two friends and I booked a private trip through Travel All Russia. We started in St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), flew to Moscow, and traveled to Beijing via the Trans-Siberian railroad with stops in Yekaterinburg, Irkutsk, and Lake Baikal.
A lot has changed in the interim. I no longer live in New York City or jog in Central Park. I now bike around my neighborhood in The Woodlands, Texas. And 30 pounds showed up from somewhere. It may have to do with three “squares” — a term my dad used for meals — I eat every day. Gone are the on-the-go quick bites I’d have while working as an anesthesiologist, when lunch hours were only 10 minutes. The sometimes 24-hour workdays and caffeine-fueled existence of the good old days have given way to great days, a slower pace, and not quite as much caffeine.
But my transformation pales in comparison to Russia’s. Yes, Catherine the Great’s palace, the Hermitage Museum, St. Basil’s and St. Isaac’s cathedrals are just as spectacular as they were in 1990, but the country has done a 180 in many ways.
It Fell And Rose Again
Mikhail Gorbachev introduced government transparency (glasnost) and restructuring (perestroika) during the 1980s. Transparency showed Soviets their country’s failing standard of living and government corruption. Destabilization followed.
Perestroika meant citizens could open businesses and enter into joint ventures with foreigners. The days of entirely government-run businesses were on their way out and capitalism made inroads. McDonald’s opened near Red Square in January 1990. Lines still wrapped around the block when we visited in May of that year.
Then: The only way to enter the country as a tourist was to be part of a guided tour. We had little exposure to Soviet citizens, and guides couldn’t volunteer information about the status of the country. They presented a rosy picture of the soon-to-fail nation. We were unaware of its perilous position.
The Soviet Union fell on December 26, 1991.
Now: On my second visit, nearly three decades after the first, capitalism was going strong, the standard of living had improved, and individual freedoms existed.
Colorful onion domes topped with golden crosses identified churches as Russian Orthodox and the skyline photograph as Soviet. Nothing changed outwardly in three decades. Inside, it’s a different matter.
Then: Communism didn’t officially ban religion, but policy didn’t make it easy on clergy or believers of any religious group. The Soviet Union promoted atheism starting in government-run grade schools and the finest churches became museums.
Now: In October of 1990, a new law allowed for freedom of religion. Many of the Russian Orthodox churches we had visited as museums became functioning churches once again. Visitors are welcome to view the mosaics, frescos, and iconography that make these churches special.
More Gains In Freedom
Then: We had just a few opportunities to explore on our own because tourist hotels were on the outskirts of town. We had learned the Cyrillic alphabet and a little Russian, so we made our way into Leningrad and Moscow by subway to take full advantage of the free time. Were we followed during our excursions? I’m not sure, but it felt as if someone was always watching.
Now: Visitors are free to wander, attend ballets and operas, and ask their guides questions. We asked Helena, our 60ish-year-old guide, how much better life is now than when she lived under Communist rule. Her candid answer took me by surprise. “It’s not better. Under Communism, everything was taken care of. We had government housing, food, healthcare. We didn’t have to worry about making our own way.”
Food: Not So Glorious To Glorious
Then: Food didn’t seem plentiful for Soviets, and Helena’s answer surprised me. In fact, as the tour bus made its way from one place to another, we’d see babushkas, grandmas, waiting in lines at the bakery and butcher shop. Our guides said multiple generations lived together. Grandma’s job included shopping for food — a time-consuming process because it required a trip to the bakery, butcher, dairy, and produce stand. Each place had a line. When food ran out, the store closed for the day. We saw more shuttered storefronts than open ones.
We saw beer barrel-sized tanks filled with kvass – a fermented drink made from rye bread. Each neighborhood seemed to have a Soky-Vodi or self-serve drink stand, too, selling anything from carbonated water to birch juice. People drank from a drinking glass and put it back for the next person to use. I wasn’t brave enough to try any of it — I just couldn’t get past the unwashed communal glass.
In 1990, we dreaded dining. Lunch and dinner meant potatoes and protein — often oily fish — with vodka to wash it down. Thanks to having U.S. dollars, we supplemented our meals with an occasional hamburger or ice cream cone. Hard currency opened restaurant doors.
In Kiev, an agricultural center for the Soviet Union, meals were a cause for celebration. Fresh vegetables and fruits — and the biggest oranges I’ve ever seen — were the norm. A passing thought that the oranges were oversized because of Chernobyl’s nuclear fallout didn’t stop me from eating one.
Now: Russia provides tourists with a staggering number of dining options, from traditional food to options inspired by cuisines from around the globe. Some must-try Russian foods include borscht, pelmeni (a thin pastry stuffed with meat and served with sour cream or in soup), piroshki (a puff pastry filled with meat, potatoes, cabbage, or cheese), and blini (crepes).
From Bare Shelves To Boutiques
Then: GUM Department Store on Red Square offered very little for sale. Constructed in the 1890s, natural light flooded the conservatory-like store. Shoppers waited in lines but kiosks held almost nothing to buy. I settled on an olive-green toy tank with a red star.
The best souvenirs came from Moscow’s public library. They sold colorful Communist propaganda posters, often with drawings of Lenin. Nearly all had a red sickle and hammer.
Now: GUM is a shopper’s paradise, with each kiosk filled to the brim with designer clothing, jewelry, and cosmetics. You can shop at Coach, Cartier, or the Levi store, plus 130 more designer stores. The glass ceiling and metalwork are the only common links to its past.
The Black Market
Then: My friend and I had read about the black market before we left and packed extra blue jeans just in case we had the opportunity to trade. With no shopping to be done at GUM, this was the next best thing.
We got our chance when a gregarious man about our age introduced himself as Vladimir and struck up a conversation. What seemed to be an English-practicing session turned into a clandestine operation. We met outside the hotel, Vladimir whisked us off to his apartment (as fast as his Lada would go, which wasn’t very fast), and we traded our very desirable Levis and a few dollar bills for contraband — rubles, a Soviet flag, and a KGB sweatshirt.
The cinder block government-owned apartment building was bare-bones; the small apartment Vladimir shared with his parents, wife, and young son was a bleak as the building. A single light bulb hung over us in the combined living and dining room as we sat on the floor. The room doubled as a bedroom. The kitchen was nothing more than an alcove.
We talked about the Soviet way of life, about their shortages and difficulties, and about how the black market contributed to the family’s prosperity and made their lives better. Their apartment was apparently better than most.
Now: I don’t know if Russia still has a black market or not. Even if there is one, I’m no longer inclined to hop in a car with a total stranger to find out. I am glad, though, we took our chances in 1990. It made for a most memorable evening. And memories make the best souvenirs.