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


The guide knew art as well as history. She pointed out various notable paintings as we literally ran through the rooms. I thought this must be the official "Running Tour of Leningrad."

In the evening I went to the Circus, where every act was performed on ice skates, even the high wire acts. I wondered how the man in the bear costume could skate with his legs bent like that. When he opened his mouth and wiped his nose with his tongue, I realized it actually was a bear! A genuine big brown bear was ice skating! Then more bears came out on ice skates, dressed in cute little skirts and hats, and performed a charming skit.

In the second act the bears played ice hockey. They seemed genuinely interested in the game for the game's sake. They got into a few rows over the puck and slapped each other around a bit until the trainer separated them with a whip. They seemed absolutely human. After their act, the audience began a rhythmic clapping and wouldn't let them off the stage. As an encore, the trainer and the biggest bear danced a waltz together in perfect step.

After the Circus, I went back to the Hotel Astoria restaurant looking forward to a nightcap of caviar and toast. All the caviar I ate in Russia was Beluga Malossol from the sturgeon in the Caspian Sea -- the finest caviar there is. Just as I was sinking my teeth into those delicious gray pearls, I was joined at my table by three Russians: a man and two women, both wearing "Red Night" perfume. After that I couldn't taste the caviar. I was eating several rubles worth of "Red Night."

Everywhere in the Soviet Union, you had to surrender your coat to the check room attendant before you would be admitted to a theater, museum, restaurant or any indoor place. When it was warm inside, I didn't mind handing over my coat. But when it was ice cold in a museum or theater, I preferred to keep my coat on for warmth.

Tell that to a Russian. You got a big "Nyet" from the Russian Amazon who blocked the entrance with her forbidding hulk.

The first time it happened, I told my guide to explain that it was a 3/4 suit jacket.

Still "Nyet."

So, this time I said, "I cannot give you my jacket because I am naked underneath."

Her eyes widened and went sanpaku, and I was waved through -- with my suit jacket on.

Before I would be admitted to the Golden Treasury in the Hermitage, I had to check my handbag containing all my papers and money. They weren't taking a chance on visitors stuffing their handbags with golden treasures from inside the locked thick glass cases. My handbag was placed on an open shelf with other bags and I was given a number.

Displays of ancient Scythian hammered gold in animal motifs in the Golden Treasury looked similar to the pre-Colombian gold exhibit at the Banco de la Republica in Bogota, Colombia.

As we moved up in history, a 14th century gold necklace was so intricately detailed that only through a magnifying glass could one see the fine work. Faberge tried to copy it but failed.

I saw the Faberge collection and a dazzling array of jewels and other collectibles of Catherine the Great, including carved gems, cameos, enamels, ivories, miniature paintings, elaborate snuff boxes and a watch made entirely of wood -- even the workings.

When I left the Hermitage, with handbag intact, the sun was trying to shine and it was warmer and less windy. I took the long way back to the hotel through a park and crunched the autumn leaves underfoot as I breathed in the trees. I felt so invigorated that I walked to St. Isaac's Cathedral to have a look inside. The interior of the Cathedral was plastered with pure gold and its gilded dome was covered with more than 200 pounds of pure gold.

A science class was in progress inside St. Isaac's Cathedral. A pendulum hung from the highest dome and swung back and forth across the main room. A marker was set on a box with lines on it. I stood hypnotized, with my head making 180 degree sweeps with the pendulum. It got closer and closer to the marker, then knocked it over. This was meant to prove that the world revolves on its axis.

The next day, I had the entire tour bus, driver and guide to myself. I went to Pushkin to see the palace of Catherine I -- a little gift from Peter I. Tables in the banquet hall were laden with silver platters. During the war, art objects were crated and sent to Siberia for safe keeping. The palace was badly damaged during the war, but was superbly reconstructed as if the original builder, Rastrelli, had done the work himself.

When we came out, the rain had turned to snow. Although the grass was still summer green, I had gotten my wish for snow in Russia. As we neared Leningrad, there was much excitement. The Neva River was overflowing.

I had dinner with five fur buyers, two of whom I previously had met at the airport in Moscow. The others were from Europe. One said he married into the fur business and now wouldn't do anything else.

In many ways, fur dealers are similar to gem dealers. They love their work and live for their work, not just for the money in it. There are greater profits in low grade fur, but more prestige (although less profit) in fine fur. (In the gem trade, there is more profit in low grade gems, but more prestige in dealing in fine quality gems). Fur dealers, though competitors, are like one big family (as are international gems dealers).

They all agreed that the best place to buy fur coats (outside of Hong Kong because of cheap labor) is New York -- wholesale. They said in Russia three or four years ago, karakul (Persian lamb) hats cost $8. Now they cost $45. They think tourists who buy fur in Russia are crazy. Of course, animal skins are a different matter. They invited me to come with them to the fur auction the next morning. I really hated missing the chance of attending a fur auction, but Intourist had other plans for me.

I was taken to the airport and put on a plane for Kiev. From the air, as far as the eye could see, Russia was a great flat expanse of land divided into a patchwork of black and green. On the plane to Kiev, I finished reading an old copy of Time magazine. The stewardess, who had seated herself next to me, picked up the magazine and turned to an article reviewing Svetlana Stalin's book, which was banned in Russia.

"Is this Stalin?" she asked in amazement.

She showed the article to the crew and half the passengers. She was thrilled when I let her keep it.

Arriving in Kiev, I was met by an Intourist guide, my luggage was collected for me, and I was driven to the hotel in the usual grand old black limousine. That part of traveling in Russia was nice. And, as a tourist, I was always the first passenger to board the plane no matter how large the crowd. I wondered what the classless society thought of that!

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