I vividly remember the 13 American journalists and two State Department/AYCPL veterans on the ride to the Dallas International Airport for a night departure to London and into the mysterious Soviet Union. We were laughing but nervous about the adventure.
We arrived in London early in the morning. I read countless booklets during the night from my fellow travelers that proved valuable later. I loved the accent of the “Bobby” policeman who told us how to get a “Lift.” Ernie Stallworth, Bangor Maine columnist and my eventual USSR trip roommate and a female African American reporter from the Baltimore Sun, who became a Soviet hit, and I, rented a taxi-lift and we literally sped around London for the entire day. Seeing Shakespeare’s tavern, Westminster Abby and the crows feeding at the London Tower. The fare for the day was around $80 that we all split. The “cockney” taxi/lift driver’s accent was memorable, along with his many stories.
Arriving back at Heathrow airport we were escorted out on the tarmac where there was a Russian jet with two uniformed Soviet soldiers standing guard with the nation’s “Hammer and Sickle” emblazoned on the plane’s tail. We were headed for Moscow.
We arrived late at night and the streets were dark and ominous. It was raining hard in October as we rode a bus to the IN-tourist hotel, a government owned and operated facility. Ernie and I became roommates and we shared a small room with narrow short bunks; both tall, we had our feet extended over the end of our beds. A uniformed lady sat at the floor entrance at a desk supervising the floor. It was pitch black in the room when a Russian voice suddenly came on and woke us up. I thought to myself, “The indoctrination has begun.” What really happened was the last guest left the radio on and the station came on the air very early in the morning.
The hotel was well located, with a restaurant, ball room, and bar open at night, all serving us well as our Moscow home base. We would travel by train to Leningrad, today St. Petersburg, on the “The Red Arrow” express, another nighttime trip. The longest journey was to Siberia where a 1,000 volunteer youth labor crew was constructing a hydroelectric dam and power facility. They had a huge party for us and we were the first Americans that many had ever seen or met. We danced, drank vodka and exchanged presents. It was a great night for American diplomacy. We flew in on an older twin-engine plane. The following day, now in November it started to snow. In Siberia that was big trouble, we could have been stranded for days. But, out of the blue came a small sleek jet that whisked us back to Moscow. They kept good track of us everywhere.
Each day we would all meet for breakfast; coffee was boiled with the grounds, the ham was fatty and it was explained that the pigs in Russia were fattened on garbage, created the poor quality of meat. In America we fatten our pigs/hogs on corn, resulting in fine tasting pork.
Meals were interesting because they came in various courses. We never knew when the meals were completed. My best meal was Borsch soup in Siberia.
In Moscow at night we would gather in the hotel bar that was crowded with German construction workers building an oil pipeline to Germany. Two blonde female bartenders were hard pressed to attend to the crowded barroom so when we finally got a Heineken beer I tipped the barkeeper well. We were told not to tip but that was faulty information, the Russians loved to get tips. After the tip all I had to do was raise my arm and we had more beer. The Germans apparently didn’t know tipping made for better service, then and now.
Each day we would board buses and attend programs, visit schools with indoor firing ranges and MIG cockpits, collective farms and state farms, auto factories and viewed the Russian crown jewels stored within the Kremlin walls. On the entire trip we were always escorted by professional Komsomalia communist interpreters and a KGB suited agent. Over the six week period we became friends with the interpreters. They couldn’t figure out why we wanted to visit Russian churches. Most were boarded up and there was little Christianity in the godless nation. I’m told that it has improved. We visited a synagogue where aging, dignified, long bearded rabbis were still allowed to worship.
Visiting a hydroponic farm, I was given a large red tomato. I gave it to our bus driver and he was thrilled. At a dairy farm they were feeding the milk cows sugar beets because of a lack of hay. Because of the cold climate most of their food comes from root crops, especially potatoes that could be made into vodka that was in abundance. The Russia don’t sip, they chugalugged the whole glass.
I never saw a horse in the entire country and of course there were no fences because the Soviets had done away with private property. The state owned and operated everything and everybody. Everyone had a job rating and pay scale. Highest paid were factory workers and timber jacks, lower paid were doctors and at the bottom were journalists. Top pay was around $600 dollars in equivalent rubles.
Riding with my favorite interpreter on the bus, I saw one person walking a dog, the first dog to be seen. I said, “There’s a dog.” He replied, “We don’t need them.”
To Be Continued – The Red Arrow Express to Leningrad.