Gail Howard's Travel Adventures in the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) Communist Russia 1967 Written by


I did succeed in getting a ticket for the Soviet Army Chorus and Ensemble. The British missionary came with me and easily obtained her ticket from a hawker in front of the Kremlin Palace of Congresses where the performance was being held.

It was a spectacular program of powerful rousing music. The soloists were familiar to me because I recognized their voices from the Soviet Army Chorus record albums I had bought in 1959.

After they sang Kalinka, I went wild with applause as did the rest of the audience. The clapping soon organized itself into a steady beat. The soloist bowed. The chorus bowed. The conductor bowed. A man came out from off stage and bowed. The audience continued its rhythmic clapping.

Everyone bowed again and again. Four or five times. Still the clapping continued. Finally, the soloist walked back to the microphone. The conductor raised his baton and the crowd broke into frenzied applause. They sang Kalinka again. This set a precedent. After that, the audience demanded every song be repeated.

The second half of the program was traditional Cossack style dancing, with jumps and leaps and stomps and kicking out the feet while on bended knees. The audience demanded that even the dancers repeat each of their strenuous routines.

Sunday morning the British missionary and I attended a church service about 20 minutes by taxi from Moscow. The huge church was crammed with people standing. There were no pews. And no children. All the people were old except for three relatively well-dressed young men who looked like curiosity seekers.

An old crone with arthritic fingers busily replaced melted candles with new ones. She removed the stumps and lit new candles with flames from the old ones. With her bare fingers, she extinguished the flames of the stumps. She worked awkwardly but diligently with her stiff deformed fingers as hot wax spilled down her hands. I cringed but she ignored the pain.

Off to one side was a corpse of an old woman. At first glance, I had thought she was a wax saint. Now and then people would pass by and cross themselves over her.

Slowly, we made our way to the front of the church through throngs of people. We never did see the priest but we could hear his voice. When the congregation sang, I singled out several beautiful voices nearby. Wondering which of those exceptional voices belonged to which face, I scanned the crowd.

All were peasants with peasant features, stout and solid-looking, of the earth. Each face was unique, like a 17th century painting. In those faces I saw reflected plodding hard work, suffering and strength. As I gazed at the faces wrapped in babushkas, I felt I was in another century.

After an endless wait for a taxi, I went directly to the Kremlin Palace of Congresses and made it just in time for the ballet. Tickets for the best seats in the house cost only $2.25.

During intermission everyone scrambled out and crushed onto the escalators to the fourth floor cafeteria-style restaurant. There they stood in long lines to buy salami sandwiches and champagne or ice cream, eclairs or fruit. There were no chairs so they ate at stand-up tables or just stood around and ate.

When the bell rang, crowds made a mad dash for the escalators, pushing and crushing to get on. The Russian seated next to me offered me a chocolate bar. We munched contentedly (as if in a movie theater) as we watched the ballet.

In Moscow, children approached tourists, begging for chewing gum, for which in exchange they gave "hero" badges. When I asked the guide why no chewing gum was sold in Russia, she said, "Chewing is not a pleasant habit to watch so the Russian government does not consider it a necessity." Evidently candy was a necessity because Russia had good chocolate and several varieties of hard candies.

When I asked why ball point pens weren't manufactured in Russia, the guide haughtily replied that people could live very well without ball point pens. I asked if she had one. She did. A friend had brought her one from Sweden.

Well anyway, other people can live very well without ballpoint pens.

On the city tour, I was seated next to a Japanese fellow who was returning home to Tokyo that evening. He had a zoom lens on his Nikon for which he had paid $100. When I asked if I might buy it, he offered it to me for $90 because he said it was used.

After the tour he invited me to a fine Chinese restaurant. Then we looked through Beriozka, the foreign currency store across town. Russians were willing to pay four times the value of legal rate for dollars so they could buy items for less money in the foreign currency shops. Fur hats of poor quality were made out of everything from ermine to rat. The Persian lamb coats had no style. I bought some amber necklaces and Russian music. My Japanese friend bought a fox stole with two feet dangling down the front for his mistress -- and nothing for his wife.

When we left Beriozka, it was still raining and there were no taxis. A Russian woman with flaming red hair emerged from Beriozka and climbed into her waiting taxicab. She was dressed most exotically in black lace stockings, a lavender coat, and pink shoes-gloves-hat and scarf.

The woman took pity on us and invited us to share her taxi. We learned she had been traveling around the world as an interpreter for a Russian delegation. She let us drop her off at her destination and keep the cab.

I paid the Japanese fellow $90 for his zoom lens. He gave me not only the lens, but also a skylight filter, a silk scarf from Paris (a gift for someone he didn't have time to see) and his leftover meal coupons. We bowed deeply and said, "Sayonara."

I attended a ballet at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall with an elderly American couple who had traveled all over the world. The three of us were booted out of our seats. Duplicate tickets had been issued. We were occupying seats of Russians who held season tickets. This caused much hand wringing by ushers and management. In fact, they wished we would just kindly leave the theater. We persisted. They brought out kitchen chairs and placed them for us behind the back row of the balcony.

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