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


After we finished a meal of rich meat and vegetable soup, speeches got under way -- in Uzbek, Spanish and Russian. When it was my turn, my awkward speech was obviously improved by the Russian translation because the chief's eyes lit up and there was a round of applause for me.

As we said goodbye, we were presented with huge bouquets of roses. The Mexicans gave me theirs and I staggered into the hotel half hidden by several kilos of roses.

That evening we went to an Uzbek opera. The plot and the music were Middle Eastern but the dancing was quite Russian. The Alisher Navoi Theater, named after the Uzbek poet and philosopher of that name, was imposing and rococo, although newly built.

After the opera we returned to our hotel and had champagne and snacks. No fresh caviar here, only pressed caviar which was sticky and gooey and tasted fishy.

The band played Uzbek music and I danced with each man at our table. The oldest man, Mr. Zevada, was the best dancer. He did something like a Greek style dance and I followed his lead with a modified dignified chifte telle. Together we made a floor show. He returned to the table glowing with success. He said he felt young again. I returned the compliment and told him he made me feel 21.

The Russian-Spanish interpreter from Moscow was a great tango partner, and we also did a wonderful whirling, twirling Viennese waltz. After the band quit for the night, the Mexicans sang Ochi Chernye. (Dark Eyes) and the Russians sang La Cucaracha and we all joined in. Such a wonderful time!

At the airport the next day, word from Samarkand was that they definitely did not have my ticket. When I absolutely refused to pay, they let it be known that I could spend the rest of my life in Tashkent. I gave in and bought another ticket to fly the 3,000 kilometers to Moscow. As in Bukhara, I had difficulty getting a signed receipt for payment. With help from the Spanish interpreter I was finally given the precious receipt.

The Mexicans and I were taking the same flight to Moscow. Hugo sat next to me for the five-hour flight. Again the conversation was cultural -- and also personal.

Hugo wore a wedding band so I assumed he was married. His wife was a ballet dancer with the Mexico City Ballet and worked out eight hours every day. Her entire life was dedicated to ballet, which left little time for Hugo. The photograph of his wife, which he carried in his wallet, was beautiful.

Hugo was soon having another volume of poetry published and would send a copy to my home address. He told me to look for a poem titled "La Pasajera." (The Traveler). He had written it the night before. The poem was about me and our fleeting encounter.

In Moscow we were met by the Mexican Ambassador, who asked where they had found such a charming senorita who spoke Spanish, and what was I doing here.

"Spying, of course," I replied.

At the airport, I was told that my visa had been extended. An Intourist limousine drove me to another airport about two hours away. It was the first sunny day I had seen in Moscow. At a small lake people were busily scrubbing their cars. Hikers were everywhere in the wooded areas.

During the four-hour wait for my flight to Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), I met two fur buyers from Montreal. They had been coming to Leningrad for the fur auctions every year for the past 20 years, and spoke fluent Russian.

Since they were familiar with this part of the world, I told them about being followed by the secret police in Czechoslovakia when I was with my nuclear physicist friend, Josef, though I didn't mention his name. They advised me not to write to him, nor try to get in touch with him, unless I wanted to make his life difficult.

They told me about a friend of theirs from London who was on a cultural exchange program. He hired a Russian instructor through an agency and fell in love with her. A few months later, he went to London for three weeks. When he returned to Russia, he went to her house.

Someone else was living there who had never heard of her. He went to the agency where he had hired the girl. They told him, "You never had a Russian instructor." They suspected she had been transferred to another part of the country because it was feared she would get western ideas being so closely attached to the man.

For 200 years before the Russian Revolution in 1917, Leningrad was known as Saint Petersburg, and at the time was the capital of Russia. Leningrad was beautifully laid out and, in fact, was a planned city with the Neva River running through. It was an architectural jewel, with palaces and mansions built by former aristocrats.

Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) was more interesting to me than Moscow. Except for the Kremlin, Moscow was a big modern bustling city, whereas Leningrad breathed history on every street. I learned more about the Revolution and communism there than during all the rest of my trip in the Soviet Union. Catherine II, Pushkin and Lenin seemed to come to life here. Also, in Leningrad, was the Russian cruiser, Aurora, from which the shot was fired in October 1917, that signaled the start of the Revolution and the storming of the Winter Palace.

The city tour was fascinating and educating. I hated for it to end. The guide was superb. In fact, she was so good -- although she claimed she was terribly hung over from drinking too much vodka the night before -- that I requested her for an afternoon tour of the Hermitage in the Winter Palace.

The Winter Palace of the Russian tsars was three city blocks long and had more than one thousand rooms and three million exhibits. By spending only a few minutes at each exhibit, it would take 11 years to see everything -- and one would have walked more than 14 miles inside the building. The art collections were overwhelming.

Originally, Peter the Great started the art collection with paintings he had purchased while traveling in Europe. Catherine the Great was an avid collector, not only of paintings, but all sorts of objet d'art. No expense was spared in buying private art collections of European aristocracy and royalty. By the time Nicholas II became Emperor of Russia, the Hermitage had the greatest art collection in all of Europe.

Tourists were hustled through only the art galleries, where we were shown entire rooms of Rembrandts, Rubens, French Impressionists, and other masters. Unfortunately, the paintings were badly hung. They covered every inch of wall space up to the ceiling, so that every painting in the collection could be exhibited at once. Some paintings were hung so high, I couldn't make out what they were. The biggest fault was in the lighting and the glass covering the oil paintings. Often, I saw only my own reflection in the glass when looking at these great masterpieces.

The French Impressionists were hung much better -- probably because they had fewer of them. They were well spaced and didn't overwhelm. Also, the lighting in those rooms was much better.

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