Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, the Kiev Night Train

The night we spent on the Kiev night train was one that I shall never forget until the day I die. It’s kind of hard not to, I was awake for pretty well the whole night. And so was virtually everyone in our car, except the porters.

When our guides finally returned, we had already seen the porters come and take our bags to the train. Then we all piled out with the rest of our junk and headed for our awaiting train. We were headed for the front of the train, cars five, six and seven to be precise. Of course, you’re wondering why I called that the front of the train. The train was twenty three cars long. Being used to GO trains which are never longer than thirteen cars, including two engines and a booster car, this was an experience.

We had already received our bunking arrangements before we arrived. There were four to a room, ten rooms to each car. One person from each room was designated to go in first and make sure everything was okay. Konrad went for Pete, Derek and myself. Then the rest of us charged in. The first step up wasn’t easy, especially with heavy bags. The only thing worse was moving in the narrow halls, and our cabin was right in the middle of the car to boot. There were, as I mentioned, ten cabins, eleven if you counted the crew’s cabin. There were also two bathrooms in all the cars, one at each end. We had only one bathroom in our car for most of the trip, the other was taken out of commission somewhere around two in the morning thanks to a most generous vomit from Jeremy.

As we were boarding, I couldn’t help think of a song that had been doing very well on the charts just before we left, End of the Line, by the Traveling Wilburys. Greg made a point that he had another song in mind for that night, Night Train by Guns ‘n’ Roses. “Chaçun son goût”, I always say.

The rooms were somewhat cramped, measuring four metres by three metres by about three and a half metres (length / width / height), designed mainly to carry a lot of people. If you’re in there for only a little while, it’s not too bad. I personally would not want to be in there very long at all. The rooms were also sparsely decorated, if at all. There was a single table at the window (which folded down for more room) that had a vase of flowers. That was it. The walls, like those on the boat, were made of imitation wood paneling made of plastic. I thought the Big Three car companies were good. You ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen fake Soviet wood paneling. I mean, they’re the masters of the stuff!

Konrad had already commandeered one of the top bunks and Pete got dibs on the other. That left Derek and I with the lower bunks. Beyond bunks, there wasn’t much space to use. Above the door, there was a shelf that set into the wall. That was quickly filled up. The spaces under the lower bunks also went quickly leaving us no choice but to use the aisle for storage. But there wasn’t too much to take up room, fortunately.

Then we went out into the hallway, where it was much cooler. As I recall, the rooms did have a very primitive form of air conditioning but it didn’t work too well. And none of the windows in the rooms opened, they were bolted shut. As a result, the doors to our rooms were kept open to cool them off.

Roughly fifteen minutes later, we were on our way to Kiev. It was a slow start, but soon, we were eating up the rails. The windows were still kept wide open, it was still quite warm. And besides, everyone liked the breeze (I was surprised no-one lost anything through those windows).

Little over an hour later, the porters began serving tea. We were told to expect this as the only form of grub we would get on the trains (that is, edibles we didn’t bring with us). Anything else we had to supply. I thought I would try it, as I had never drank tea before. As far as I could figure it, the tea tasted like wet leaves. Thanks, but no thanks.

Observer’s Log: Supplemental

We are now on the train to Kiev. Everyone is going nuts (beer nuts, the result of drinking or the food by that name, to be exact). Nothing much else about the train however. GUM was HUGE! Greg and Lisa tried “Power Shopping” while the rest of us did some heavy trading. We then had fish (again!) for dinner and promptly moved out for the train all the while Toni was on the verge of puking. Before I forget, in Zagorsk, there was a Cathedral of the Assumption and the monastery (founded in the 1400’s).

Derek had packed a large sack of beer nuts and another full of chocolate wafer cookies. The latter is a deadly with me, especially if it’s warm. A chemical reaction takes place and I get hyper, really wired. I’m talkin’ bouncing-off-the-wall psychotic. And it took me quite a while to calm down. By the time I had calmed down, it was dark out, nearing the time we had been told to go to bed. Yeah, right. Eight of us had become rather bored, so we had all grouped in my cabin, Number Five, to have a bull session.

Finally, Mr. Phillips came around to announce that it was bedtime. Somehow, I think he had been getting at the vodka, he seemed a bit tipsy. But then again, my sugar level was still too high. The only one who left the room was Toni. But ours wasn’t the only unusual cabin. All the others had mutated as well. For example, everyone in Jason’s cabin was already … pissed. Everyone in Jeremy’s cabin was pissed. That was one of the supervisors’s first mistakes, having an entire car full of kids, and no chaperones. The stewards did nothing to stop us either.

Just before Mr. Phillips had come, we had found that our discussions had become rather personal. Because of this, we closed the door. After Toni had left, the lights went out. The discussions continued in the dark. Fifteen minutes later, we got a knock at the door. We didn’t want to open if we didn’t have to, but it was Toni returning to the coop. We slid the door open and blinked steadily until it was closed. The lights were very bright in the hallway.

After the door had closed, I found my eyes quickly adjusted and immediately focused on Toni’s attire. Ever watch those Loony Tunes cartoons with Wile E. Coyote, when the Road Runner shoots off and his jaw drops, his eyes bug out and his tongue unrolls? Any male would have done the same if you had seen Toni.

But you couldn’t have. So let me explain. Toni stood about six feet tall with curly brown, shoulder length hair. Her skin was a light brown, almost an eternal tan, without a freckle or blemish anywhere. And to finish the icing on the cake, she bore the body of a model. That night, she was wearing a pair of very tight longjohns and a cutoff t-shirt that read “Lifeguard”. Be still my beating heart. Now I don’t wish to pick out Toni specifically, but she was the only one who wore anything provocative. Kelly and the Lisas were all beautiful in their own special way. But I think they were a hell of a lot more conservative in their wardrobe than Toni. For better or for worse, that was the way they were.

Toni then crawled to the upper bunk with Pete and yelled “PSYCHE!” at which point all the guys groaned. Why? Beats me. She then began to complain that a bunch of people had criticized her on what she wore. For some reason, she then looked right at me. First thing that came to my mind was: “I didn’t say anything!” Heck, I didn’t have any problems with it.

All but two members of the “Inner Circle” were there. Toni was with Pete on the top bunk across from me, Derek was on the lower bunk across from me, Shaun, Kelly and Lisa V were above me and Lisa P was sprawled out in the aisle. At one point in the night Toni went down to Derek and fell asleep there for a while (hint, hint nudge, nudge, say no more!). Once again, Toni was snapped on celluloid for putting herself in interesting positions with members of the opposite sex (the first of many photos that got me in a heap of trouble).

During the course of the next few hours, gossip that would make the National Inquirer blush was shared (it wouldn’t have done me any benefit in the way of blackmail though, I didn’t know any of the people involved). Then we started a game that teenagers always seem to end up playing when left alone for any given length of time, Truth or Consequences (but we didn’t have any consequences). There’s also the famous Truth or Dare, but for some reason, I’m glad that no-one suggested it.

As you can pretty well guess, we quickly got to the most common popular subject of teens, SEX! It first started out with the question of what your girlfriend/boyfriend was like. Then it was how far you got with them and then if you had broken up, why you did it. I was excluded from these questions though. I hadn’t had a girlfriend before then. I still haven’t. I think I’m going to be a monk.

Then the biggie came: “What is the most sexual fantasy you’ve ever had?” I couldn’t get out of this one. That is a virtual fact of life for any male. I had no choice but to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me Doctor Ruth. But I didn’t give all the details. I just told them “It has to do with really thick, slimy clay.” That got a couple of oohs (and a couple confused looks) from a few people.

I was so curious, I nailed Toni with the same question. She must’ve been expecting it because she had her answer already planned. She said that it took place in an open field during a thunderstorm. A little unusual, but not really sick. Then she mentioned the tinfoil. I didn’t want to know any more. To this day however, I can’t hear a crash of thunder without thinking of Toni doing something bizarre with a roll of Reynolds Wrap.For some unknown reason, somebody brought up the question of how to stop getting sexually aroused to the point of embarrassment when you see someone who is really good looking. Shaun said “Dead puppies.” Someone else (might have been me) replied that what he had said was sick and disgusting. But then he made his point:

“If you see someone that you really what to … you know, you think of dead puppies! The idea is so sickening, it’ll turn you right off.” It would turn off the other person too when you puke all over their shoes.

I would love to go into further detail on the matters that we talked about, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy. When I take a vow with my friends for my friends, I make sure I don’t break it. The last thing I need is ten years down the road, hear a knock on the door and find one of them holding a shotgun to my head saying “Remember me?” To me, it was that vow of secrecy that formed the Inner Circle. It may also have been because Lisa V wanted everyone’s address and phone number before the trip was over.

We had only two interruptions during the night, and both of them were from Konrad. The first time, he wanted to make sure no-one was “killing” anything of his. The second time, Konrad was, well, slightly inebriated. I still wonder if he had really planned to do what he did. He burst into the room claiming, and I quote:

“I have the biggest penis on this trip!” said Konrad. You will never know how much I was tempted to make him prove that! (The embarrassment potential was enormous.)

He then began to mention in what ways he would remember us. He looked at Toni and said “I will remember you by what you are wearing.” That wasn’t too surprising. Then looked at Derek and said “I will remember you because your dick is as big as mine.” He mentioned everyone else, but I don’t remember all that he said. Then he got to me. He said “And I will remember you for showing me your balls.” Everyone laughed. It wasn’t really true. I was wearing shorts, but at the time I was spread-eagled, it was the only way I could get comfortable (those bunks didn’t leave a lot of room to stretch out on).We kept on talking into the wee hours of the morning. At least they did. I was quite tired and fell partially asleep for about an hour and a half. During this time, I do remember a partly filled bottle of vodka being passed around and an unusual game of war being acted out. The rest is still too fuzzy to make out.

Outside in the hall, all hell was breaking loose. But so what else was new? Greg actually managed to keep a little control, not much, but a little. He was the one who saved us from a real burn when Mr. Findlay came into our car to use the bathroom. Greg told him that someone had hurled in there and it was not a pretty sight (or smell for that matter). Little did Greg know that he was right.

The next morning began rather early, about 5:00. It was already fairly bright out, enough to get me out of bed. The others were asleep where they had been during the night. Toni was with Derek, Pete was sprawled out on his bunk, Kelly, Lisa V and Shaun were above me and Lisa P was sound asleep in the aisle.

Suddenly, there was a noise that sounded like sheets slipping off each other. The next thing I heard was a loud WHUMP! and a groaning OOF! Kelly had fallen off the top bunk. The Circle was beginning to wake up. Lisa P woke up and began to chant “Toooooniiiiii!” over and over and over. She wouldn’t shut up either.

I went out into the very cool hall to look at the damage. I had seen worse. I took my toothbrush, toothpaste and brushed the taste of dead things out of my mouth. I went to the bathroom and relieved the pressure in my bladder. By now, several others were doing the same to get the taste out of their mouths too. It was then I noticed that the outflow of the toilet flowed right out onto the railway tracks. I then broke open my box of granola bars and those of us who wanted one munched down until we got into Kiev.

Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Moscow and Zagorsk

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 890703.12

Day 4

We are about to leave the Zagorsk religious complex for a restaurant (I hope!) and then back to Moscow to GUM and then dinner (fish guaranteed) and then to the train. No-one will sleep tonight, partly because almost everyone is buying alcohol. If you haven’t already noticed, you have to be blind.

I will say one thing for Moscow weather … it sucks. The only time we saw the sun while we were in Moscow was when the clouds parted very briefly while I was taking a picture of one of the churches in the Kremlin. Could it be that someone (or something) wanted the picture to be, heavenly? It was raining again that morning, but like the day before, not very heavily. At least that morning Jason got up on time. We had the same routine for breakfast, but we had to eat quickly, as today was going to be busy and we had no time to waste.

We rushed back to our rooms and grabbed our luggage, which we packed the night before, and took it to one of four courtesy rooms, where it would wait for us until we got back. The rooms were needed, we were lucky to get the ones we did! Then we hauled ourselves into the bus and headed for Zagorsk, about an hour to the north of Moscow.

This was when our walkmans came in handy. As I said, it was a crappy morning and there sure as hell wasn’t anything to take pictures of along the way. They don’t grow as much food as the could out there. If it hadn’t been for Stalin taking control of farms and centralizing them, the Soviet Union could be on par with North America, instead of being the Second World country it is.

When we arrived at the Zagorsk complex, it was still raining, only a little harder than in Moscow. We unloaded once more and took some time to look around. Then, after some pictures of the outer wall (yes, this too was a kind of kremlin), we went inside.

The churches there were all still fully functional, unlike those in the Kremlin in Moscow. The main courtyard was the hub of the whole complex, the parts that we saw anyway, and from it, you could access all the churches. Here we also found a fountain that poured out water, which I think the priests considered to be Holy. Konrad tried some, but nothing happened to him (at least, he didn’t seem to change his ways — if anything, he got worse).

We were then taken into a church that stood in front of the fountain. This was another Cathedral of the Assumption. This was just as impressive as the one in Moscow, although there were a few subtle differences, such as it was operational … and packed! There were people everywhere, every one of them devoutly religious. It almost made me a believer. Perhaps the eeriest part of that tour was when they started to sing. In the small church, it seemed almost hypnotic. The sound seemed to come from every direction at once.

A few of us decided to make a quiet exit as we wanted to get outside, where it was cooler and we could get some fresh air. As we exited, we saw a woman standing at the door with a baby. The baby did not move at all. The woman looked like she was looking for help from the priests.

A small group of Pete, Derek, Toni and myself checked out another church, the oldest in Zagorsk. Although the outside was much simpler, the inside was very similar to the others we had already seen, except that most of the paintings had been blackened with soot from over the years. We regrouped back out in the courtyard and began to chat about what had occurred so far. Pete left for a moment to take pictures for a teacher back at our school (Pete and myself’s), Mr. Dunn. During that time, Derek began to crack dead baby jokes. Why? Because the woman was still at the door. Mind you, the baby wasn’t dead, it was just asleep.

We ran into Marina and she showed us a few other things in the monastery, including the former residence of the Romanov family. We also happened to see a monk that had a very familiar appearance. At first I couldn’t place it, but then it hit me … Rasputin! Who knows? Maybe they didn’t kill him after all.

Before we returned to our buses, our guides and KB suggested that we check out the BS store first, as we might want to pick up something to drink during the train trip that night. The store was much smaller than the one in Moscow but it had a large alcohol section. There were only a handful of people who did not get booze (one of whom was me). That was KB’s first big mistake.

We hopped on the bus and headed over to a restaurant less than five minutes away. There we had an awesome lunch that was very reminiscent of the one we had the day before. Soup, beef and diddlydo do do do do do do do do … ICE CREAM! After lunch we went outside and traded with the locals. It was now that I started into pins, and got rid of a lot of the gum that I brought with me. We also managed to teach the local children how to perform the North American obscenity known as “The Finger”, only we showed them the forefinger instead of the third. About half an hour later, we were headed back towards Moscow.

As we had already eaten lunch, we went directly downtown from Zagorsk to Red Square. It was here that we moved as fast as we could. We got pictures of St. Basil’s Cathedral and Red Square the day before so the only thing we had left to look at was GUM, the state department store. That place was obscenely huge! For those of you who have been to the Eaton Centre in Toronto, just picture three Great Halls sidebyside.

Greg and Lisa V wanted to do some serious power shopping and Jason and I thought we would try and tag along. The key word is “try”. As soon as we got in there, we found ourselves literally running just to keep up. We gave up after about five minutes and decided just to check around ourselves. After a while, we ran into Pete, Toni and Derek who were doing their own tour. It was then we found out that Toni doesn’t like heights. We found this out when Pete and Jason leaned over the rails to view the floor fifteen feet below. She panicked every time they leaned over.

We finally found the queues that we had been told about. Some stores were packed. The watch store was jammed and stock was very low. There was also a very long line full of people waiting to get into the store that sold, of all things, toilet paper, soap and perfumes. It was times like that I was glad to be a Westerner.

Soon, our half hour was up and we had to go back to our bus. We had an early dinner in store for us, we had to catch a train for Kiev that night. But our bus was a bit late leaving the downtown core as trading hit a frenzy for about ten minutes. We knew what as for dinner, no-one needed to tell us, so we weren’t in a rush. Fish was waiting as we had expected. But there was a little twist … caviar! Before I had left, I had made a promise to try everything that was placed before me. I’m a fussy eater, which as George Carlin puts it, is a euphemism for “Big pain in the ass!” But it was a new country and I wanted to experience it.

I swear, rich people are demented. Caviar is disgusting. Very salty, mushy and extremely fishy. Fortunately, there was a lot of bread and water to wash the taste out. But other than that, dinner followed the pattern that we had started two nights before. The food, incidentally, finally got to someone that night. Toni left the dining room having not eaten a thing, and it concerned a few of us. Given, the food was pretty raunchy, but we had to eat something. We found her outside, not feeling up to snuff. Pete stayed with her and the rest of us just left her alone.

We collected our bags from the courtesy rooms and piled them outside, so the porters could put them in the lower compartments on the bus. The next thing on the bus was us. Then we took our last trip into Moscow. We got to the train station, but weren’t let off the bus. Our guides had to track down our tickets. So we sat around, wondering what the hell was going to happen that night. Little did we know …

Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Touring Moscow

The next thing I heard was the beeping from my alarm clock. It has one of those annoying electric beeps that grates on your nerves after a beep or two. The clock was on Jason’s side of the table that rested between our beds. Too lazy to get up and turn it off myself, I waited for Jason to become annoyed by the alarm and turn it off himself. Unfortunately, we broke out into an all-out war of apathy that morning neither of us moved for a while. Finally, after about 30 seconds, my annoyance reaching the breaking point, I got up to have a shower.

I don’t know exactly when Jason woke up, he turned the alarm off while I was bathing. At least I knew he was awake. There’s nothing worse than trying to get a roommate out of bed when they don’t want to move. (That’s why I left the alarm on.) But even when I had finished washing some ten minutes later, Jason was still sprawled out on his bed. It looked as if he had actually risen to his feet, only to lose his balance and fall backwards onto his mattress.

After a few minutes of bugging him, Jason finally rose to a semi-vertical position, and proceeded to prepare for the day ahead. We dressed quickly, not wanting to be any later for breakfast than we already were. The previous night’s nonchalance for dinner had passed, and our bodies were adjusting to the new time zone. To put it succinctly, we were hungry. We could even bear to look at fish.

Most of the group had already started eating by the time we arrived, only steps behind Pete and Derek. Despite the aforementioned claim that even fish would have looked appealing, we were ecstatic to find none displayed at the table. Cold cut meat and cheese was neatly arranged on plates, awaiting consumption. Normally, it’s not the kind of thing I would partake of first thing in the morning, but all things considered, it wasn’t that bad. The cheese I particularly liked, it tasted like a combination of mozzarella and cheddar (I’m told it was goat cheese).

The main dish was some sort of quiche, as near as I can tell. It was made of eggs and cheese, that much we could tell, and what appeared to be dates, although I’m not too sure. (I don’t know what it is with Soviets and prunes, but we saw an awful lot of them while we were there.) I ate what I could, not finding the dish all too palatable, eating mostly around the dates. What little I did end up eating gave me gas — of the abdominal variety.

Following our morning repast, we quickly returned to our rooms for supplies: Walkmans, music, cameras, and film the four essential components of any tour. A quickly glance out the window necessitated the bringing of coats and umbrellas. It wasn’t raining, yet, but the weather wasn’t looking too cooperative. (We would see very little sunshine during our stay in Moscow. ) A heavy drizzle had started by the time we ventured outside.

We all filed into our solitary bus, which would ferry us to downtown Moscow. Unfortunately, the bus had too few seats for all 46 of us, even when Greg (grudgingly) let others sit in the rear with him. The buses, like everything else we traveled in, was built in the Soviet Union. The buses were thus moderately comfortable. I certainly wouldn’t want to take a cross-country trip in one of them.

That morning we met our Intourist guide, Marina. I was expecting either some crusty old man, or a very large and loud woman. Marina was the antithesis of every preconception I had. She, like Suzanna, was very beautiful, had a wonderful speaking voice, was a pleasure to be around, and not once did she intimidate anyone. The trip would probably have been a great deal worse if we had a guide that fell into my expectations.

The trip downtown from our floating hotel was about as long as the trip from the airport, and we were still moving in a straight line, down what I believe was Gorky Prospket (I believe “prospekt” is Russian for “street”, although I’m not 100% certain). As we drove, Marina started to fill in some information about Moscow and its history. As the monuments began to appear, Marina directed our attention to each and every one of them. (For the record, it seems that the Soviets don’t erect a monument unless said cenotaph is of major importance.)

The first such monument were huge concrete X’s (but with legs in the X, Y, and Z dimension). They mark the closest the Nazis ever got to downtown Moscow during World War II. If it hadn’t been for the winter, which Hitler hadn’t counted on having to fight through (somehow, Hitler forgot what the Germans had to go through in World War I when dealing with the Russians), Nazi tanks would have probably rolled through Red Square. But the fierce Russian winter, combined with Soviet defensive fanaticism, kept the Nazis at bay until the snow began to fall.

Further along the highway, a large stainless steel sculpture dedicated to Soviet cosmonauts graced the side of the road. It was about 100 feet tall, and shaped like an arc of stylised smoke swooping from the ground skyward, with a rocket at the top.

When we reached the “downtown” (which was still huge), we started passing huge statues of Tolstoy, Marx, Puskin, and several prominent members of the Soviet military. I’ve heard of putting people on a pedestal, but this was ridiculous.

The War Museum appeared moments later. At the front were huge guns and a tank from what looked like World War II. I couldn’t help but remind myself that for all the Soviets tried, they could never dispel the view that the Soviet Union is a militaristic state. Given, they’re not as bad as the United States of America (who will start a fight for no other reason than it gets the President good publicity), but considering the general lack of freedoms that exist in the Soviet Union, a strong military presence tends to give you the shivers.

Last on our trip down Gorky Street before turning off was the famous Bolshoi Theater. In North America, a theatre of such fame would bear a large sign, most likely with bright blinking lights. If Marina had not pointed the building out to us, we’d never have known it was there. There was nothing remarkable about the structure, except for its Doric columns, which of itself wasn’t terribly remarkable, as a few other buildings in the area had them as well.

We then made a right turn into probably the largest intersection I had ever seen in my life. It looked like on of the massive yards used by Ford Canada to store finished vehicles prior to shipping. The only difference here was the lack of vehicles. (This was something that amazed me as a whole throughout our trip the lack of traffic. Living near Toronto, I’m familiar with how bad traffic can get. It was to the point where I expected it. To be driving in a city several times the size and population of Toronto and see almost no vehicular traffic was something of a culture shock.)

So undoubtedly you want to know: Why was that intersection so large? That’s as good a question as any. As near as I can figure, it was so May Day parades had a place to stage their show before replaying it in front of a lot of people.

We sped through the intersection and on around the Kremlin wall. Marina didn’t mention too much about the Kremlin at the time (other than the fact that “kremlin” is the Russian word for “fortress”), mostly because it was on our tourist agenda. As we continued along towards Moscow University, we passed by the “largest outdoor swimming pool in Europe”, which was steaming from the heat of the water and the coolness of the surrounding air. We also saw the site for the Moscow Circus. Unfortunately, it was on tour at the time, so it was one spectacle we would not get to see. (Ironically, the Moscow Circus was visiting Toronto during the time we were in Moscow.)

We finally came to a stop just outside a large important-looking cemetery. According to Marina, many famous Soviets, including high-ranking government officials, military leaders, celebrated writers and composers, and athletes were buried there. I somehow doubted that anyone would find any peasant farmers within. No matter how much the Soviets tried to extol their classless system, hierarchy always worked its way back in.

But we were not here to visit dead people, that would be later. We were here to bolster Russia’s economy. We were taken into a Berioska Shop, which is a hard currency (meaning any currency other than rubles, and preferably US dollars), tourist-only store. Like any tourist-targeted store anywhere else in the world, you could buy things that most locals wouldn’t be caught dead with. It was supposedly the second largest such store in the Soviet Union, with only one larger in Leningrad.

We went into many Berioska Shops, but few (if any) of us realized the significance behind shopping in these stores. The Soviet Union’s economy was state-controlled. Although many economists will suggest that most countries (Canada and the United States included) control their economies, their control is very different. In the Soviet Union, the government sets how strong the ruble is against other currencies in the world, states what price merchants can charge for certain goods and services, provides jobs for nearly every person, and so forth. Nearly every variable of economy is under the Soviet’s control.

So what does this have to do with the Berioska Shops? If you control your internal economy with very little outside influence (unlike the democratic capitalist countries), then you’ll find you have a hard time dealing with “the outside world”. The Berioska Shops are one method the Soviet government used to gain some leverage when dealing with other countries a source of currency the other country would take.

Nevertheless, we would eventually call the Berioska Shops “BS Shops”, or even more informally, “Bullshit Shops”. There was a certain amount of unnecessary sleight of hand that went on in those stores that none of us really liked. I guess that somewhere deep down, we all understood what these stores really stood for.

But at the time, I was highly naive, and didn’t know what I was helping to perpetuate. I was instead looking for souvenirs. This particular BS Shop had a tremendous selection of wares that any Soviet, given the opportunity, would gladly donate a vital organ just to see. (This is based on conversations with Soviets, and with comparisons with Soviet department stores.)

I did not purchase much, except for a small metal bust of Lenin and a stacking doll for my little cousin (once removed). The store had a huge selection of small pins (the Soviets were big on pins) that had neat designs. I didn’t buy any, but would later regret that decision when I turned into a pin collector, like several other people in the group.

As we exited back to the bus so we could continue to Moscow University, I bore witness to the Soviet Union’s policy of “a job for every person”. An older woman, reaching the end of her childbearing years (but looking like she had more than contributed to the national population), sat solemnly at the door, staring down the path leading out to the road. She held a broom in her hand, seemingly waiting for a leaf to dare to fall on her spotless stone walkway.

Arriving at Moscow University a few moments later, we received our first good look at one of the greatest buildings designed in the Stalinistic style. The approach is heavily gothic, based upon art deco or modern design, with a touch of partial insanity for good measure. The main building for the university looked almost painful, though whether that was from the sight of hundreds of small spires sticking out of nearly every edge remains to be resolved.

Not staying around very long (just long enough to take a few pictures), we proceeded towards the river. There we got good look at the Moskva River valley as it wound through the city. Trees lined both sides of the river, which was no more than 15 metres deep at that point. Across the river (looking towards the Kremlin) was Lenin Stadium, which would be host to the first hard rock concert (organized by the Make A Difference Foundation) held in the Soviet Union only two or three weeks later. Unfortunately, the weather was too dismal to obtain any decent photographs. What pictures we did take were limited in their scope due to the heavy mist and light rain that persisted nearly the entire time we were in Moscow.

It was standing at the edge of the Mosvka that we began to break the rules. In our information sessions prior to departure, we were told that the Soviets did not take kindly to people (foreign or domestic) taking pictures of certain things. This stemmed from their military’s paranoia. (And people thought that the military wasn’t a huge influence?) The rules forbade snapping pictures of any bridges, planes, airports, trains, railway stations, subways, subway stations, or anything having to do with the military. (I guess they were afraid that we might all turn out to be spies for the supersecret Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), or as they’re more commonly known in Canada, the “We’ve got an intelligence agency? Bwahahahahahahaha!” Agency. Two bridges in near proximity to our outlook quickly fell victim to several cameras.

As we were snapping pictures of the bridges, we noticed a rather peculiar white structure to the right, about 300 metres away. It took a moment for someone to figure out what it was: a ski jump. Yes, there’s a ski jump in downtown Moscow. (Those gold-winning athletes need to practice somehow.) We stood there, waiting for someone to take a ride down the run. Eventually, someone shot down the incline, and flew into the river. The trees obscured our view, so we don’t know how well he (or she) did.

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 890702.15

Day 3

This morning, we traveled to the centre of town and viewed many of the historical sites including Red Square (especially Lenin’s Tomb) and the Moscow University. Our trip down Gorky Street also showed us several statues and important places including the Bolshoi Theater, founded in 1776. We also saw the Moscow Circus complex and the largest outdoor pool in Europe.

Leaving the University, we drove back over the Moskva towards Red Square. (Incidentally, “red” is Russian for “beautiful”.) We were to visit the most important person in the Soviet Union. His schedule permitted a visitation, and from what I understand, it didn’t take much coaxing from Intourist or EF to arrange an introduction, albeit a brief one. Of course, there are rarely any objections from a dead man.

The Soviet Union, officially, is an atheist state. This stems from Marxist theory that religion is an opiate for the masses. (Depriving them of that opiate would, at least from Marx’s point of view, make a better citizen. I’m an atheist, but I’ve never understood what Marx was trying to prove remove religion, and you remove many people’s sense of purpose as well as their hopes and dreams.) Since Vladimir Illyich Ulanov based all his theories on Marxism, the Soviet Union became an atheist state.

Ironic that the man who brought in Marxism would himself be elevated to the position of deity upon his death. When Vladimir Illyich Ulanov (or as he preferred to be known, Lenin) died in 1924, the Soviets built a massive stone mausoleum in Red Square, next to the Kremlin wall. Inside, they buried their revered leader, and paid continuous homage to him to this day.

The mausoleum is built from deep red granite blocks, stacked in a three-tiered pyramid. (I need not bother make mention of the references to practice of mummifying Egyptian pharaohs and burying them in thousands of tonnes of stone.) The building doubled as a podium and grandstand for the government and military leaders during the May Day parades.

Upon arrival, we were instructed to make sure our knees were covered. (We were told this before we left, but some of us had opted to wear shorts anyway, and put pants on as necessary.) It still struck me as very odd how a godless nation would hold a single person with such reverence that they would even take a religious practice from the Catholics (covering of the knees when in places of worship) and applying to their dead leader. But complain, we didn’t. We were also told to leave our cameras behind. It seemed the Soviets weren’t too keen on photographs inside the burial chamber.

The lineup was surprisingly short, only about a hundred or so people ahead of us. The poor weather that day seemed to be on our side it kept the throngs of people away. Normally, so we understood, there would be thousands of people waiting to get a glimpse at Lenin lying in state. Instead of having to wait hours, we only had to wait about 10 minutes.

The line moved through a checkpoint, where guards made sure that no-one was carrying any kind of photographic equipment. Passing through that, we continued to inch our way towards the tomb, continually chatting as we shuffled ahead. We paid little attention to the Museum of Natural History to our left, or Red Square, or Gum, or St. Basil’s Cathedral, or the Kremlin. I don’t even remember what it was we were talking about. But before we knew it, we had turned 90 degrees to our right, and were looking right at the front door to Lenin’s final resting place.

We fell almost perfectly silent as we slowly approached the entrance. The doorway was immense: nearly three metres tall and about two metres wide. Two massive stainless steel doors were flanked by two equally massive Soviet soldiers. Like the British Honour Guard, these men were utterly motionless (it was debatable if they even breathed), staring directly forward. They brandished rifles, which we assumed were loaded.

We stepped between the doors and entered the upper atrium. The inside was built of the same red granite that adorned the outside. We turned to our left and descended down a short staircase, running perpendicularly to the doorway. The stairs were slick from the mist and rain, and sixty-some-odd years of wear (remember that thousands of people visited Lenin nearly every day). The architects seemed to have neglected handrails. Another guard was positioned at a small landing at the end of the first staircase.

At the landing, we turned to our right to proceed down another set of stairs, much longer than the first, not to mention colder. With every step down, the temperature dropped. It was becoming more unclear as to whether the pants were a sign of respect, or to keep you from freezing to death.

At the bottom of the stairs, we again turned to the right and passed through another (albeit much smaller) set of stainless steel doors. Looking through the doorway, we saw a stone pedestal (made of the same red granite), upon which sat a wood and glass casket. The pedestal sat in the middle of the room, but rested against the rear wall. A series of velvet ropes and stanchions separated we pedestrians from the final resting place of the founder of the Soviet Union.

We walked around the pedestal at a distance of about a metre or so. But we couldn’t stop to look we had to gaze with silent awe (or ‘ugh’, depending on your point of view) while walking through the small antechamber. The only sound in the room was our feet shuffling across the floor (a sound that must have had the Soviet guards’ nerves on edge after about thirty seconds), and the odd cough.

The chamber runs chills down your spine. If the sight of an embalmed body doesn’t get to you, the air conditioning does. It’s cold in there, and ceiling vents constantly blow cold air into the room. The ceiling itself is rather interesting, because it’s shaped in such a way that makes the room look larger than it actually is. (You can draw allusions to the life of a certain prominent Soviet if you wish.)

It’s not exactly what I would call a Disneyesque sight. To allow Comrade Lenin to be on display for sixty-some-odd years, the Soviets had to take some — liberties — to make sure he’d survive. Rather, to make sure his likeness would survive. The result is the removal of most of Lenin’s body, and replacing it with wax. (They didn’t tell us this while we were on the tour, I learned it about a year later from CNN.) It certainly explains his waxy complexion.

At the other side of the chamber was a staircase that mirrored the one we came down. The only difference was that at the top of the staircase, we exited through the side of the building instead of through the front. We all sighed a bit of relief, and immediately started exchanging our opinions of Lenin’s Tomb. (Though in all honesty, part of the reason we started chatting as merely for the sake of chatting, which hadn’t been permitted inside.)

The path was a kind of “Walk of Fame”, where many of the most prominent and famous Soviets were buried. (The reader will note that this is a form of hierarchical classification your ordinary farming peasant would not be found here.) Former Soviet Premiers (including Stalin, who originally had himself entombed with Lenin, but was later removed after the truth of his reign of terror came to light) were buried in the ground between Lenin’s Tomb and the Kremlin wall. I could identify which grave was which by the statue placed over top most useful because I hadn’t yet figured out how the Cyrillic alphabet.

We rounded a patch of grass after the last Soviet premier, and turned around to face the Kremlin wall. In the wall were more graves, containing the cremated remains of high-ranking military officers, Soviet heroes (from several walks of life, I would assume), and some of the early Soviet cosmonauts. Having a deep interest with space exploration, I wanted to find Yuri Gagarin’s plaque. Unfortunately, I had no idea how his name was spelled in Cyrillic.

We took our time walking down the wall, some of us not really caring what we were looking at, the rest of us squinting at the letters, as if the narrowed view might magically distort the letters enough so we could figure out who was buried in front of us.

Exiting back into Red Square proper, we took notice of the massive stonework parade ground. At the “north” (the directions are purely guesses, I didn’t have a compass to set my direction, and there were no shadows to tell me otherwise) end of Red Square was the dark red Museum of Natural History. We never saw anyone go into the bleak-looking structure, so I think it was safe to assume it was either closed, or not operating. On the east side was the massive Gum (pronounced “goom”) department store. The south end was graced by the multicoloured and multipatterned onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral. (According to legend, when Ivan the Terrible saw the finished structure, he declared it so beautiful that he ordered the architects’ eyes put out so they could not build anything more beautiful.) The west side was dominated by the Kremlin’s east wall.

Our bus was waiting for us at the south end of Red Square, in a designated parking zone. Those of us who were finished with looking at dead people decided to venture towards our bus and claim seats before everyone else did. On the way we took picture of Red Square, Lenin’s Tomb, and the outside of St. Basil’s Cathedral. (Unfortunately, we never got to see the inside, which I would have liked.)

We hopped across the somewhat busy street on the south end of Red Square and started searching for our bus. Then someone noticed something that we hadn’t expected to see in the Soviet Union: a Baskin & Robbin’s Ice Cream parlour. We trotted off in search of rocky road and tutti frutti. But as luck would have it, as soon as we entered the realm of the familiar, someone else from our bus appeared to promptly declared that we were going back for lunch.

I failed to see the reason to waste over an hour of driving simply to eat lunch at our hotel. Particularly when we were dreading to see a plate of fish before us at the other end. We were happily surprised to find not fish, but a plate of bread and a bowl of soup awaiting us. (We would learn that meals in the Soviet Union are very structured. Breakfasts were usually cold meats and cheeses, an egg dish, prune juice, and buns. Lunch was a bowl of soup, some sort of a meat dish, and dessert. Dinner (or supper, depending on what you call it) was a fish appetizer, followed by a large piece of beef.) We rarely learned what the soup was, but I was wary of borscht. Beets I and have never gotten along, and the thought of eating beet soup was not at all appealing to me.

As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, we usually had a dessert with lunch. More often than not, it was a small dish of ice cream. Or to be a little more specific, iced cream. What’s the difference? If you’ve ever had Russian ice cream, you’d know what I mean. North American ice cream, even the gourmet varieties, are made from milk. There’s nothing wrong with that (unless you’re lactose intolerant), but it makes for (believe it or not) a somewhat harsh texture. Soviet iced cream is made with real cream. There’s only one flavour (I think it was vanilla), but to date I have never had such good ice cream.

We came to expect it ever day after a while, and it got to the point where Jason and I would start reciting a short portion of a sketch Eddie Murphy did on his album “Delirious”. Everyday, as the ice cream cart approached, Jason and I would repeat Eddie’s “Ice Cream Man” routine, imitating the ice cream truck’s jingle in particular.

Finishing our lunch, we were directed back to the bus for another long trip downtown, back to the Kremlin. (Again, for the record, I fail to see why we had to come all the way back to our hotel for a meal we could have just as easily had downtown — or brought with us, for that matter.)

Arriving again at the largest intersection in the known galaxy, the driver turned away from the Kremlin and started looping in and around various side streets before appearing across from one of the Kremlin’s entrances, known as the Trinity Gate. There are only two other portals through the massive red brick walls.

It’s hard not to be awed at the construction of the Kremlin wall. True, it would never repel today’s kind of military force, but in its day there was no better protective barrier. The walls varied in thickness from two feet to nearly thirty feet. There was no cannonball that could penetrate such a defensive measure. The walls were also very tall, about 15 metres or so. A daunting obstruction if there ever was one.

We had been joined by a second guide, who would remain with us only for the Kremlin tour. There were a lot of tourists running through the fortress, all of them in groups (I have a sneaky suspicion that the Soviets don’t take kindly to individuals running amuck). To be able to learn anything, we needed to be able to hear our guide. Marina, as gifted as she was in tourism, was not loud enough to be heard over the other groups inside. The second guide allowed the group two split in two.

Crossing through to the other side of the Trinity Gate, we found ourselves staring at the Palace of Congresses. This was where the Politburo did their dirty work. (Quick political lesson: The Politburo is an assembly of representatives from all over the Soviet Union, who make the laws and decide the future of the nation. So in this respect the Politburo is just like the Canadian and British Parliaments, or the American House of Congress. The only difference is that there is no second validating government body, such as a Senate or House of Lords. For a long time, representatives were chosen by the government. In more recent years, the process used democratic voting.

Across the roadway / walkway (whatever you called it, a narrow paved section of the grounds set aside primarily for pedestrian traffic) from the Palace of the Congresses was the Armoury. This was a remnant of the gunpowder and cannonball days of yore, readily deduced by the huge pile of narrow bore cannons laid in front of the building. We would enter neither building, but we did get a good look at both.

Not much further down the path was yet another cannon. But this one stood on its own. That was obvious when you saw the sheer size of the thing. It’s said to be the largest cannon (breech fired) in the world. The breech (the hole in the cannon the ball is shot through) was over a metre in diametre. You could stand little kids inside it. The mere sight of the cannon was terrifying. Of course, that was the whole idea. You see, the cannon never fired a shot. The cannonballs built for the monstrosity were so large, there was no way to easily lift the balls into the breech. Chances are that even if you did load the cannonball, it would either go nowhere when fired, or the cannon would explode.

But that doesn’t mean the cannon didn’t defend against the attacking Mongol Hordes. Indeed, the cannon is reputed to have saved Moscow from a certain sacking. When the Muscovites (who were mostly living in the Kremlin’s ancient (and much smaller) walls) saw the encroaching Mongols, they wheeled the cannon (probably with a great deal of effort) to the city’s gates. The Mongols, seeing the massive gun, turned and ran.

A few steps from the cannon was yet another example of ancient Russian ingenuity: the Tsar Bell (otherwise known as, the King of Bells). Like it’s military counterpart, the Tsar Bell was reputed to be the largest in the world. It weighed in at over 20 tonnes (I’m assuming Metric tonnes, though it could just as easily have been Imperial tons either way it was a heavy bugger), and at its base was wider than most people are tall. But despite its credentials, like its military counterpart, the Tsar Bell was never used.

During the casting of the massive bell, the molten metal was allowed to cool too quickly. As a result, a two tonne chunk fell out of the side. We didn’t notice the hole until we walked around to view the opposite side of the bell. The hole was large enough to fit almost anyone in our group standing up. The bell was so large, the Russians never bothered to move it from the place it was forged.

We turned right at the bell, and moved into Cathedral Square, an aptly named location. There are seven cathedrals and churches in the Kremlin, all located in the Cathedral Square area. I know what you’re thinking: Why are there seven churches in the middle of the governmental centre of an officially atheist state? Sounds rather hypocritical, doesn’t it?

I didn’t know what to make of it either. All the buildings were in perfect condition, although none were in working order. Stalin had taken the issue of atheism to point of destroying any building of religious origin. For some reason, he had spared these seven. (He had also spared St. Basil’s Cathedral, but then again you don’t destroy internationally-known national symbols for theological ideals.)

One factor that might had led to the sparing of the churches from the wrecking ball is history. Russians are obsessive about history. They’re almost as fanatical as the Americans. (Americans are insanely fanatical about history because it gives them a place in the world. Remove the Great Tales of the American Past, and suddenly the United States doesn’t sound all that special.) The buildings held some sort of significance for the Soviets, I suppose. It’s the only thing I can think of that might explain why buildings such as that were left behind.

As we entered the square, I pulled out my camera for a quick picture. Just as I snapped the shot, the seemingly permanent clouds parted for a brief moment, just long enough to leave a distinctive lens flare across the photograph. Apply all the religious notions you like, such as God making his presence known by shedding light on a house of worship inside a godless nation. I just liked the picture.

We entered one of them, the Cathedral of the Assumption. It was an unremarkable building, at least from the outside. There wasn’t much going in the way of architectural uniqueness. But on its interior was a new reason to study languages, just so you could find the right words to describe its beauty.

Nearly every single square centimetre of space was painted with imagery. The columns that rose in the middle of the room were adorned with delicate drawings of important scenes from the Bible. But the walls, pillars, or ceiling could come close to the grandeur of the iconostasis. This was a an entire wall of detailed and exquisite oil paintings of all the Apostles, with Jesus Christ in the very middle, above the doorway to the priest’s chambers. The paintings were framed with gold borders, and rose from just below eye level all the way to the top of the 10 metre ceiling.

This concluded our stay inside the Kremlin. We started towards one of the exits, passing by various unnamed buildings (one of which was painted a rather interesting deep yellow, with the letters “CCCP” across the top). As we traipsed along the road that ran between the Kremlin and the Moskva River, I took it upon myself to take a picture of Suzanna for posterity.

Immediately she dove into defensive mode, and blocked all my attempts and pleading for a snapshot. I was completely dumbfounded by her behaviour. I knew that many people didn’t like their pictures taken, but mostly due to self-consciousness. Suzanna had nothing to be self-conscious about. But nevertheless, she insisted. This led me to utter the following:

“You’re going to get nailed at least a dozen times before this trip is over.”

This is a valid comment. Human nature loves a roadblock, and adores tearing it to shreds. Declare you don’t want your picture taken, and within moments you’ll hear a hundred shutters snap. It’s something to do with the need to break with authority (which occurred in abundance on this trip). Ain’t humanity weird?

At any rate, Jason decided to jump upon my rather open choice of words, responding with: “That’s disgusting!”

Naive little me took a moment to figure out what the devil Jason was talking about. “What are you talking about?” I babbled, not realizing my mistake. He just looked at me and grinned. Like I said, naive little me. Two years later, I would have probably meant Jason’s connotation. But for then, I simply replied: “That’s sick! You have a sick mind, Jason!”

“Thank you!”

“You’re welcome.”

That tirade over, we boarded our solitary bus and returned to the Dmitri Furmanov for dinner. We (the young’uns of the group) worried about what was awaiting us. We knew what it would be. It was only our second dinner in the Soviet Union, yet we already had a pattern set for our meals. Most of us were dreading it, the rest just tried to ignore it.

I didn’t eat fish for over a month after I got home.

Observer’s Log: Supplemental

The Kremlin is an area which was a lot larger than I thought. There are 7 churches, including the oldest church in Russia (not the Soviet Union itself, just the republic of Russia), founded in the 1300’s. It is rather small (called the Cathedral of the Assumption) and almost every square inch is painted. Outside, there is the King of Bells, which weighs over 20 tons. There is also the largest cannon in the world, but neither have ever been used. All the towers have names, including the gates. On our way back for dinner, I noticed how you find a Metro station … they are all marked with a big “M”.

Following our evening meal of formerly aquatic life, baked ground grass seeds, and roasted carcass of a member of the bovine family (don’t meals sound so much more appealing when you spell them out?), we were informed of our evening activities. Earlier in the day, Suzanna and Marina had said they would try to get tickets to the Bolshoi. However, even for foreigners with hard currency, even those precious pieces of Soviet culture were hard to come by. In lieu of more “highbrow” entertainment, Marina suggested we visit Arbat Street.

What’s Arbat Street? I didn’t know either at the time, but I would soon find out. It was apparently a pedestrian mall, about a mile or so in length, and a big centre of Moscow’s night life. So those of us who were interested (which was most of us), grabbed our cameras and followed Suzanna and Marina away from the river, through the garden (past the building we all thought was supposed to be our hotel), across the prospekt, and into another group of trees.

A few moments later, we arrived at a small building. It was the Moscow Metro their subway system. The ride costs a mere 5 kopecks (about 10 cents Canadian, by the exchange rate at the time), a far cry from the $1.10 the TTC (Toronto Transit Corporation) charged. Ah, the joys of a state-controlled transportation system.

The subways in Moscow are deep, and exactly how deep is one of those well-kept state secrets. (Where did I learn that? It’s amazing the things you learn while researching essays–) In addition to being used as bomb shelters, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to hear that people weren’t the only things moved around down there.

The station was nothing spectacular. I was disappointed. We had heard much about the Moscow Metro stations, how they resembled French palaces, with high vaulted ceilings, mosaics, gold leaf, and huge chandeliers. But these fancy stations were only in the central portion of the Metro system.

The Metro system is laid out in a kind of dart board format. The very centre of the system (which isn’t a single point, but a cluster of several stations that merge nearly every line) is within spitting distance of the Kremlin. A huge circle ran around the city, about two-thirds of the distance from the downtown core to our station out in what we North Americans would call the suburbs. This was the Garden Circle route, connecting all the radial lines.

But we were headed downtown. The train was not particularly large, though it was long enough to fit probably a few hundred people with ease. The train was also very loud. Unlike cities like Montreal, where the trains run on rubber tires, or even Toronto where the utmost care is kept in keeping the noise to a minimum, the Moscow Metro is ear-bleedingly loud. The screech from the wheels was enough to bring any Metro novice to their knees.

And hot. I don’t know what its from, but the Metro was uncomfortably warm. There was nearly no ventilation to speak of, save for a couple of open windows (which certainly didn’t help with respect to all the noise). Most certainly there was no air conditioning. You had to sweat it out for the entire trip.

About a half hour after boarding the train, we arrived at a station right next to the Bolshoi Theatre. I assumed that if we had gone to the Bolshoi that evening, we probably would still have taken the Metro. But the Bolshoi wasn’t on the menu that evening. We marched right by the theatre, and north (at least, I think it was north) towards the mysterious Arbat Street.

Suzanna led us through a maze of overpasses and underpasses, crossing major road after major road. Before long, we could see streams of people entering a narrow street, blocked to traffic by large concrete blocks. It was (what was becoming) the infamous Arbat Street.

As we set foot onto the pedestrian mall, we could see far up the wide alley, packed wall-to-wall with people enjoying the warm summer night. Laughter, yelling, perhaps even the odd scream, all of it was indistinguishable from any similar street in North America, such as Spark Street in Ottawa. The road was only a mile or so in length, but the sheer number of people in the short distance was astounding.

Things got interesting the second we were recognized as tourists. (This was something some of us honestly tried to avoid we wanted to be observers from within, not treated as outsiders. It was a naive thing for us to think, especially when we know that we can spy the tourists at home with little effort.) Almost immediately, Jason was approached by a trader, who asked the following (and I swear I am not making this up):

“Would you like to trade your jacket, your shirt, your pants, your shoes?”

There was a millisecond pause before everyone in our group within earshot burst out laughing. In retrospect, I feel a little sorry, we must have come across as being rather snobbish, but it was so hard to resist. The sentence above isn’t quite correct it’s grammatically correct, but it doesn’t quite match the intonation the man had used. He never paused.

Jason declined the offer. The man did not approach any of the rest of us.

Arbat Street was an interesting showcase of Perestroika and Glastnost the “openness” policies Premier Gorbachev had been promoting for a couple of years. In the heady days of Chernyenko and his predecessors, Arbat Street would likely have been your ordinary road, or perhaps an open air market. But with political reigns loosened, the people were freer to speak their mind, and step out to have more fun.

Along either side of the road were street preachers (something that was unheard of in the atheist state until religious freedoms were returned), lecturers, philosophers, and the like. I couldn’t understand a word that they were saying, but judging by the number of people who were listening to them, I could only assume that the speeches were at the very least interesting, and probably controversial. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to hear that the speakers were making political statements against the government, even calling for a return to the Czarist regimes.

Because of the lateness of the evening (I think it was around 19:00 or so, but I wasn’t paying attention to the time), most of the shops and retail spaces were closed for the evening. It was a shame, we

(NOTE: This paragraph is currently undergoing rewrite. The rest of this log remains in an unedited form. Hopefully, I’ll be able to update this soon.)

We ventured our way to the other end, taking our time, seeing what there was along the way. Glastnost and Perestroika were paying off. All over the place were speakers and philosophers. Now I had no idea what the they were saying, but I had a funny feeling that Stalin wouldn’t have liked it.

When we reached the other end, we ran into a few others who were trying to get into a Soviet dance club. They weren’t having a lot of luck. Jason wanted to go in, but I pointed out that it would take forever. Three others in the line, Laila, John and Paul all agreed too. Greg however, wasn’t going to give up. The five of us decided we would head back to our hotel. But we opted not to go back down Arbat, as it now had even more people than before. So we hooked around the end and went down a parallel road.

At least we thought it was parallel. Correction, I thought it was parallel. For some stupid reason, I took the liberty of guiding us through a city I had never been to before. I thought I knew where I was going. The road I had though was parallel was actually perpendicular. Warning, warning, danger, danger!

We walked for about two miles before we got to a street that we knew was parallel to Arbat, Marx Prospekt. The only reason that we knew the road was Marx Prospekt was that Laila remembered it from our tour that morning. If it were not for her, we could still be wandering around Moscow. At this point, I was labeled as an idiot (one of many labels that I would receive on this trip) and we stopped to collect our bearings. We also took a picture of “Students Lost in Moscow”. Then we headed down Marx Prospekt.

We found something rather surprising along our walk. Well, we thought it was surprising. We turned a corner, trying to get our bearing, when we found salvation. We found McDonald’s. At first, Jason and I yelled “FOOD!” and began to run towards the Golden Arches, until we noticed that it was only the sign letting us know that it was the future site of the first McDonald’s in Moscow. The building wouldn’t open for another nine months. So we all took a picture of it and continued on.

Not long after finding the McDonald’s sign, we finally got to the station. Almost. It was across one of the six lane roads. And we had no way of getting over there. There were no crossings to be seen. Moscow is an interesting place, huge roads that could be classified as highways in Canada, but no way to get to the other side (where’s a chicken when you need one?). Everyone but me, charged across the road on the count of three, and got stopped by a cop on the other side. I got stopped even before I left.

I ended up sprinting down the road to the next crossunder (I was “told” by watching the hand signs from the cop on the other side). Thank God for O.T.H.S. gym teachers who made us sprint the mile. The others met me on the other side a couple minutes later. They told me that the cop had bawled them out in Russian, and that they had to bite their tongues to keep from laughing at him. The cop probably took personal pleasure in doing so, and is probably still talking about it.

We finally got back on the subway, got on the proper train (fortunately) and began the long journey back up. It was only after a year that I really thought of the consequences of that night. We could have been lost for good. That is a big city, and it took me a week to pick up the alphabet. I still shudder at the thought.

When we got back to our station, we tried to make a beeline for the hotel. But we got stopped by some rather large Soviet men, who wanted to sell us vodka and other things. We thought they were KGB. They spoke perfect English and scared the shit out of us. We split as fast as we could.

As we approached the hotel, we found two of our group who hadn’t gone downtown, Kelly Hogan and Jen. Both of them were drunk out of their minds. Little did we know that this was only the beginning of the booze.

Before we signed in for the night (something KB made us do every night), Jason went outside to do some trading. The guys at the boat were rip off artists. We liked the ones downtown better. But Jason had his mind set on getting a hat. And he did.

He came whipping in the room, threw the hat in the fridge (it still wasn’t working) and jumped in bed, mumbling about something. It turned out that two cops were coming down the pier when he bought the hat. We were told that paying for things was a no-no, and Jason was shitting bricks. So was I. I didn’t want to get arrested as an accomplice. When I went down to sign ourselves in, there were no cops in the halls. They hadn’t seen it, I guess.

Observer’s Log: Second Supplemental

If you haven’t already noticed, I watch a lot of Star Trek, which is why my journal entries look like this. We had an interesting time in Moscow tonight. We took the Metro down went up a street called Arbat (which was about 2 miles long at least) which was solely for pedestrians. Then we got lost. That was fun to say the least. Fortunately, one of us was able to figure out where we were. Some of us (not me) got nailed by the traffic cops (the ones who make you cross at the specific areas).

Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Flight to Moscow

Day 2 began pretty much the way Day 1 ended — at 35,000 feet. The only thing that really marked the passage of a day was a change in the clocks. Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t clear when the day actually started. You see, it was an eight hour flight, and we were traveling east (hence we were going ahead in time), so our day changed well before our clocks’ day.

It wasn’t long before the sun had risen far enough that we could see below us again. All we could see was water — and lots of it. The North Atlantic is a frightening place. The storms there are legendary it takes one brave soul to sail those seas. Ditching the plane at that point would probably mean certain death for us. Even if it was the start of summer, the cold waters would drop us in no time.

Before long, the ocean gave way to snowcapped mountains. I assumed the range was part of Norway. (Although I had to admit I wasn’t 100% certain of my assumption, a semester of European and Asian Geography led me to believe that I was in fact looking at the northwestern coast of Norway.)

As we crossed over the peaks of the mountains, the plane suddenly lost about 1000 feet in altitude. I don’t know if this was because of the thermals from the mountains beneath us, or if the pilot had accidentally let the stick go a bit too far forward. At any rate, it took a moment for out stomachs to fall out of our heads. The group in the rear half of the plane, however, had to retrieve their brains from the overhead compartments.

(Remember all those free drinks? Well, the group in the rear partook rather heavily of said beverages gratis, and got, shall we say, comfortably numb? They were like that for most of the flight one way of passing seven-some-odd hours and were still well-liquored as the plane dropped from beneath them. I’ve never been inebriated and in that kind of a situation, so I have no clue what it could have felt like, but judging from the en masse half moan / half yelp from behind us, it couldn’t have been all bad.)

Soon the plane was beginning to hug the ground. I was a little curious about that, especially since I hadn’t seen any signs of civilization whatsoever. Until that point, I had always landed at airports that were near (or in) a city. You could see buildings, people, cars, and forth, right up until the runway appeared below your window. But in Helsinki, the airport’s buried deep in a forest. It’s a little on the unnerving side when you think you’re going to crash into the trees.

The plane landed sometime around 07:30 Helsinki local time. The airport continued to amaze me, this time with its size — it was tiny. This was the capitol city’s (and largest Finnish city’s) airport, but had only a small terminal building and only two runways. (By comparison, Toronto had two immense terminal buildings, with a third under construction, and five or six runways.) There were no hangars of any kind, and no gangways. So instead of sidling up to the terminal building, as with most North American airports, we were met with a rolling staircase. We wouldn’t see another gangway until we returned to Toronto.

The articulated bus that met us was huge, quite capable of fitting everyone from the half-full plane. The bus then drove us to a loading dock-style station under the terminal building. There we shuffled through the doors into an atrium. We had two choices: go through Finnish Customs, or go upstairs to the terminal lounge. We probably would have stood there for quite a while debating the issue if it weren’t for our trusty EF tour guide, Suzanna. She didn’t have a hard time spotting our group, nearly all of us were toting white EF duffel bags.

Suzanna would be our guide for nearly the entire trip, taking us into and through the Soviet Union, then back to Helsinki at the end. She was of British nationality (at least by birth), and was from the Manchester area (if I’m not mistaken). She was a bit taller than me (I was about 5′ 9″ at the time), though that might have been due to her high-heeled shoes. She almost always wore a full-length skirt and a t-shirt of some sort. She was extremely beautiful, yet for some reason had a severe aversion to having her picture taken.

We were led up the stairs to the departure lounge, where we found Pete and Jason deep in philosophical debate Pete was trying to find out whether his life would improve if he stained Jason’s shorts with hot coffee. (Jason had accidentally spilled coffee on Pete’s shorts during the flight.) But we couldn’t find KB. Right about then, I heard that he had ended up in Tokyo.

That’s right, Tokyo. Japan. Other side of the planet. In a strange way, it seemed to make sense to me if airlines can lose luggage, why not people? After a few minutes of repeatedly uttering “Japan?!” in astonishment, someone clued me in that “Tokyo” was being used as a figure of speech. In reality, we had no idea where KB was. Our best information placed him about six hours behind us, which meant that we weren’t going anywhere for a while. And regretfully, Helsinki Airport doesn’t have much to see.

The first order of business was to get our tickets for the flight to Moscow. This was a rather quick procedure, having been preplanned before our departure. Despite our later-than-planned arrival, we still had time to kill before our plane departed for Moscow. Having little else to do, we ventured over to the bar for something to drink. Nearly everyone ordered something with an above-the-recommended daily dosage of caffeine. The only ones who didn’t (to the best of my recollection) were Mom (Mrs. Pollitt) and myself. Mom opted for something of the alcoholic persuasion, and I for nothing at all. (I didn’t drink coffee or tea, and I wasn’t terribly thirsty at the time.) Most people had their fill of booze on the plane, and were partaking of a much more down-to-earth drink.

We found a table, and began to tell our collective sides of the story to date. Pete and Jason’s flight was at least a little more bearable than ours (as I said, my fortune to making my flights was only fortuitous from a certain point of view), in that they had an in-flight movie (Rain Man), and free beer. (Given, we had free drinks, but I didn’t find the amusement of pulling sections of the wall apart enough to keep me occupied for the entire flight.)

An hour later, we were herded down the length of the terminal to a corner of the boarding area. The area was chosen for its remoteness from everyone else. (Already signs were showing that we were not going to be an easily controlled group.) Then came the blow we were dreading: we weren’t going to Moscow for a few more hours. The Soviets refused to let us into the country without our visas. This was understandable, but to a flotilla of hyperactive teenagers (some of whom were beginning of come down from the alcoholic high), which was a death knell. We couldn’t leave the airport either. We were trapped. Oh, joy.

Almost as soon as the announcements finished, Greg took a cue and passed out on the floor. It was roughly 03:00 Toronto time, and most of us hadn’t slept during the “night”. Signs of exhaustion were appearing on the faces of some, boredom on others. No sooner than Greg started snoozing that several packs of cards began to circulate amongst hands. Shaun, Jason, and Derek began a friendly game of poker. The stakes began to rise when Lisa V. donated some of her plethora of peanuts and cinnamon hearts to the foray.

Even the teachers / chaperones began to get bored. Mr. Phillips started giving people M*A*S*H nicknames, starting with William “Radar” O’Reilly, an obvious choice. I pulled a tape out of my bag, popped the phones over my ears, and began to tune out to music, letting the rest of the world sink into the background — at least for a while.

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 890701.10

Day 2

This is the second journal entry in less than six hours. A good part of us are now lounging around waiting for our flight to Russia. We have found out that Mr. Black missed the plane, and he has all our visas. This outta be fun! Right now, Mr. Phillips is starting M*A*S*H nicknames, starting with “Radar” O’Reilly.

After about a half-hour of listening, I began to notice a hissing in my right ear. At first, I thought it was the tape I was listening to. Only after stopping the cassette did I realize that I was Pete hissing at me. I looked up to asking what in blazes was so important to — then I noticed where Toni’s head was. (Those of you currently thinking what I think you’re thinking had better stop thinking it. Aside from the fact that this was a public airport, Toni wasn’t that kind of person.) She had decided to go to sleep, and was using Pete’s right thigh as a pillow. Pete didn’t need to say another word.

I quietly rummaged around in my bag and pulled out my trusty Minolta X370 35mm camera. Toni’s angelic sleeping form, and Pete’s gaping expression were forever captured on celluloid a moment later. (It would not be the last time I caught Toni sleeping and I stress sleeping as in terms of “being asleep” with someone.)

An hour later, Suzanna reappeared with a handful of green pieces of paper. Finnair seemed to feel for our plight, and had offered all of us free lunches at the airport’s only restaurant. Most of us took the opportunity to at least obtain something free to drink (other than water), a few of us noting that our appetites could use some quelling. We snatched the coupons with hungry (or thirsty) abandon, and hustled our way over to the restaurant.

The restaurant was on the “second” floor of the terminal (the terminal was built with an open-concept, but had a raised section in which the restaurant operated), and surprisingly empty. Several of us quickly tried to take seats, but weren’t sure what to with the Reserved signs all over the tables. But the waitresses, excuse me, servers, indicated that the tables were in fact for us, so we hastily took seats. The servers took the coupons we so proudly waved, and disappeared into the kitchen behind us. They returned a moment later with eight bottles of Coke (there were eight at our table) and eight glasses. Only two decided to be heathens and drink from the bottle. (Hey, my family stems from William the Conqueror, I’m a heathen at heart!)

After a few minutes, the server returned again, this time carrying several plates of — something. I really didn’t know what to think of it then, and I certainly don’t know what to call it now. The nearest I can describe, it was a large slice of meat (whether it was a steak, a slab of roast beef, or that morning’s airport runway roadkill was impossible to tell), covered in some of the thickest gravy I have ever seen in my life. (It was so thick that no matter how hard you tried, it was impossible to see the meat through the gravy.) A side of sliced carrots finished off the ensemble.

The meal, overall, was bland. The meal(s) we had on the flight over the Atlantic were better, at least in my humble opinion. But bland or not, I was hungry (as I usually was at that age). So was almost everyone else, except Lisa V. By all rights, it was approaching breakfast time back in Halton County, and our internal clocks hadn’t quite reset themselves for European time. But Lisa just sat there, picking at her meat and carrots.

Lisa’s complained that she was too fat to eat. (I’ll excuse you if you want to think about that statement a moment.) Allow me to shed my perspective on the issue: Lisa was not, nor would ever be possibly mistaken as being, even the slightest bit overweight. Whether she was a victim of the anorexic modeling waif, I don’t know. But this much I was certain of: if she didn’t something, she’d start to implode from the vacuum.

I wasn’t the only one to pick up on Lisa V.’s potentially dangerous lack of eating habits. The remaining six soon started piping in that Lisa should eat something, even if it was only the carrots (which do not contain fats of any kind). It was only after a great deal of prodding that she started to nibble on the odd carrot slice.

We were still munching away when a familiar-looking older man with a yellow plastic visor appeared at the restaurant entrance. The group of us gave Mr. Black a standing ovation for arriving. (A few other people sitting nearby, whom we didn’t know at all, joined in.) He smiled broadly, bowed slightly, and informed us to meet back with the rest of the group as soon as possible. We quickly finished our meals.

The tickets needed to be changed. We had missed our scheduled flight (which had left several hours earlier), and now needed new tickets. KB and Suzanna vanished to make the arrangements while the rest of us waited around. A couple of us took interested in playing with some family’s five year old kid to try and pass the time.

When KB and Suzanna returned, we picked ourselves up and prepared for our second flight in as many days. Destination: behind the Iron Curtain. Moscow awaited our arrival, and we longed to get the heck out of that airport terminal. We marched triumphantly down the hallway, down a flight of stairs, and walked towards our worst nightmare.

We were flying Aeroflot.

For those of you who have never heard of Aeroflot, that would be because Aeroflot is the Soviet national airline. It only flies on route where at least one of the endpoints of the flight is Soviet. Not to mention the fact that if Aeroflot were silly enough to venture out into the free market, it would be driven into the ground in no time. Sure, Aeroflot has an impressive flight record (no recorded crashes), but then again it was only after absurdly strong radiation levels showed up in Finland did the Soviets admit that the Chernobyl nuclear power plant had blown up.

Anyway, back to the plane. The plane was built by the Tupolev company, and looked like McDonnellDouglas DC9, except that the nose was slightly different, and the tail ailerons were oriented on the tail (like a Boeing 727) instead of on the hull. (A side note: the Soviets were notorious for producing planes that were suspiciously similar to ones build in the West. But then again, the West did the same with a few fighter aircraft.) It also looked a little shorter, but then I hadn’t boarded a 727 from the ground before.

The doorway was also in a different location: roughly one-third the way down the hull. Usually the doors are right behind the cockpit, but between the cockpit and the passenger compartment was a cargo section. (Gee, I wonder which took priority?) The seats were none too comfortable either. The foot room was nearly nonexistent. My seat was on the starboard (right) side of the plane, wedged between Sasha (on the window) and Konrad (on the aisle).

After the lot of us had taken their seats, and were raising our now nearly typical ruckus, the crew closed the door and began to pressurize the cabin. In most North American-built planes (at least with all the ones I’ve flown in), you never notice the change in cabin pressure prior to takeoff. It’s an entire different sensation when you see mist pouring out of vents running along the tops of the overhead shelves (the compartments didn’t have doors the Soviets built planes like Americans build buses, only worse). For a brief moment, I thought they might be gassing us.

For all I know, maybe they did gas us. Maybe the entire trip was nothing but a dream. A bizarre, albeit extremely clear, hallucination that invaded our collective unconsciousness, designed to make us believe that we had done all that we thought we had done, so that the net effect was positive for all sides (the Soviets wouldn’t have to deal with us, and we’d still have the memory of having been there). Of course, that wouldn’t explain where I got all that neat Soviet stuff…

We rolled to the end of the runway, and started to take off. Again, the design flaws of Soviet aircraft showed through as we began to accelerate we were deafened by the roar from the engines. Planes built elsewhere in the world tend to have a fair bit of soundproofing to cut down on the noise. The Soviets didn’t seem to care too much. It lasted only a few moments, until we were airborne. But it was loud enough to drown out Batdance, which I had playing at near full volume.

The flight itself was uneventful. Sasha fell asleep within minutes, his fedora covering his face. It didn’t take Konrad long to strike up a conversation with Chris, who was two rows up from us. This left poor little me with little to do. I couldn’t get up, I couldn’t see anyone in front or behind me (airline chairs are always huge, even in the Soviet Union) — I was isolated.

Our only break in the monotony of the hour and a half flight came about halfway through the trip, when the flight attendants served us an in-flight snack. And I stress “snack”. It was a small plate of various kinds of fish (in both raw and cooked states), and a wrapped cube of something to one side. Konrad and I opted to share a serving, while Sasha opted not to wake up.

I picked at the fish, while Konrad unwrapped the cube. It was about ten centimetres in size, so was easily large enough for two people. I don’t know exactly what it was, but it tasted like dried maple syrup. The fish, although somewhat fresh, wasn’t my cup of tea. Neither was the maple cube. We tried to eat as much as we could, partly because I don’t like letting food go to waste, and also because we didn’t want to look unappreciative.

Eventually, the plane started to descend towards Moscow. Again, I started rooting through my duffel bag, searching for a special cassette tape. I had made it a couple years previous, taping the theme from a TV show through my stereo. This was back in the days when stereo wasn’t a huge commodity on TV, so the signal I got was monaural. At the time, I didn’t know how to combat the problem, so I had to listen to the music on only one side. As I was packing the day before, I had remembered the tape, and wanted to bring it along.

I hit the Play button as the plane came onto final approach. The bass line was unmistakable, anyone who had watched any amount of TV over the past 30 years would recognize it. The theme from Mission: Impossible blared through the left side of my head as we headed towards the ground. It seemed very appropriate music to be playing just before touchdown. As the tune ended, the wheels squealed on the tarmac.

The plane slowed, turned off the runway, and headed towards the terminal. But like in Helsinki, the plane came to complete stop some distance from the terminal. We started to get up to disembark, but were told to remain seated until the shuttle bus arrived. So we sat. And waited. Sasha went back to sleep. And we waited. Outside, it was raining, not at all like the bright sunny weather in Helsinki. The weather didn’t improve the apparent dreariness of the airport.

Observer’s Log: Supplemental

Finally arrived in Moscow after many delays. However, we are now stranded in the airplane and it is raining! Great way to start.

After about a half hour wait, we were finally let off. A small dingy yellow bus awaited us at the foot of the staircase. It was then I noticed just how low slung Soviet airplanes are. Their western counterparts all stand high enough to let a tall person walk underneath with room to spare. You have to duck when walking under a Soviet-built plane.

The bus whisked us quickly to the terminal, where we were to go through customs and retrieve our bags. Mr. Phillips made a valiant effort to try and keep the entire group together, so no-one would get lost in the melee, but the guards (about twenty of them) kept shuffling us forward without regard for our attempts at organization. Within a few moments, we were queued in front of the customs booths. The room was a clamour of voices, some from the lobby beyond, the rest from the public address system. No-one in line so much as whispered.

At the time, I had no clue what these booths were. This kind of thing was simply not seen in North America. When you go through customs there, you walk up to a desk, they ask you if you’re carrying any fruit or illegal firearms, and you’re in. But Europe isn’t quite as trusting as Canada and the United States are with each other. And considering this was the Great Communist Threat, I was expecting a lot of trouble.

But this wasn’t even Customs, so I was about to find out. Customs is separate. First, you have to go through Passport Control, where the guards make 100% certain that the person in the passport is the same person standing in front of them. Customs comes only if you manage to get through Passport Control without ending up in front of a firing line.

Mr. Phillips was the first up. He walked up with a broad smile on his face, and handed over his passport and visa. The guard took them, stamped the visa, looked briefly at the passport, and handed it back to him. Without a word passed between them, Mr. Phillips simply nodded and continued to the other side. Sasha looked at Konrad and I, smiled as if to say: “This is easy!” and walked over to the booth.

Then began 20 Questions. Sasha nearly broke out in a sweat from the interrogation. Konrad and I wondered if Sasha had accidentally screwed up the information on his visa. For several minutes the guards scrutinized every detail of the visa and passport, asking him questions about the information. Sasha kept looking at us like he was about to get hauled off to Siberia. But finally the guards gave Sasha his visa and passport back. Sasha smiled wearily, and stumbled through. I was up next.

The booth was about two and a half metres wide, and four metres tall. A single pane of glass running from about stomach height to the top of the booth was all that separated me from the guard. He looked like an officer of the Soviet Army, but it was hard to tell many Soviet law enforcement agents wore similar (if not the same) style of uniforms.

It was the longest five minutes of my life to date. I stared, almost unblinkingly, at the guard while he stared, almost unblinkingly, at me, my passport, and my visa. One other guard stood to the rear right of the guard seated at the window. The second guard neither spoke nor moved, but kept a hand on his rifle at all times. The first only asked short questions, to which I could only answer “yes” or “no”. At one point, he even asked me if the photo in my passport was of me. (Given, that was understandable the picture had been taken some years earlier, and was to expire about two months after the trip.)

But finally he stamped the visa, handed me back my identification, and I beat a hasty entrance into the Soviet Union. This time, we could wait until the rest of the group had assembled. From there we proceeded to Customs. This was a far easier process. We were asked only if we had anything to declare. I found it rather curious that while the Soviets did everything in the world to prevent my entry into their country, they didn’t seem to mind me smuggling in thirty pounds of narcotics. (Assuming of course, that I had any narcotics.) From there, it was into the airport lobby.

And so we began the waiting game. Namely waiting for our luggage. The most common complaint I’ve ever heard about luggage in the West (after the worry of losing luggage) is waiting for your luggage. But even in North America, the wait is at most 30 minutes. Those of your who complain about long waits in North America should never travel to Moscow. We were waiting over an hour just so we could retrieve our belongings.

The longer we waited, the more temperamental we became. KB was not oblivious to our disgruntled nature. It was then we first learned of what we would soon consider an annoying habit of his. Whenever things started to look grim, or even somewhat not so good, he would splash a huge grin across his face, and promptly announce in a loud sparkling voice: “Smile! You’re in another country!”

The first time we heard that, the general consensus was that KB had lost his mind. We were too young, too centred on the current situation, and not open-minded enough to fully comprehend what KB was attempting to convey. Not to mention the fact that he always uttered this phrase whenever things looked potentially unwell. It got so that every time that he told us to smile because we were somewhere new, we would reply (quietly enough so he wouldn’t hear): “Smile! ‘Cuz we’re getting screwed!”

When we finally were called for our luggage, we found at least part of the reason it took so long for the bags to turn up. It seemed that the gears that powered the conveyor belts caught the corner of Jamie’s suitcase and chewed it to bits, leaving only the structural wire behind. The Soviets were extremely apologetic. They even looked sorry. Fortunately, none of Jamie’s things were harmed, so he only needed to repair the corner with a little duct tape to remedy the problem.

Then it was back to our corner of the terminal to wait for our bus and Soviet tour guide to appear. In the Soviet Union, everything touristy is arranged and operated by Intourist, the Soviet travel agency. They say where you can go, and then they supply the bus to take you there. They also supply the guides to show you around and give you the State-approved schpeal.

That’s assuming that Intourist remembers that you’re there.

Either Intourist forgot we were there, or decided to send the bus fashionably late. Of course, even most teens showing up to the high school dance don’t show up three hours after it starts. No-one at Intourist, however, seemed to have attended any sockhops. Not only did our bus show up after the aforementioned three hours, but our guide didn’t show up at all. No amount of KB’s smiling could get us even remotely chipper after that little fiasco. (It also didn’t help matters that we were all tired, and particularly cranky.)

We grudgingly pulled our bags outside into the grey, drizzly, and heavily polluted Moscow afternoon, filled the underside luggage compartments without too much care for neatness, and boarded the buses. Like most bus-experienced students, I went straight for the back of the bus. But not as far as the back row. The game is to look like you might cause trouble. (It’s a simple formula the appearance of being a troublemaker is inversely proportional to the distance you are from the authority figures. Unless said authority figure is Greg.)

Speaking of Greg… When Lisa V. boarded, she made a beeline for the rear bench. (The buses didn’t have rear seats, opting for what looked like a carpeted panel that sat above the engine compartment. I never sat there, so I really don’t remember.) She claimed it for herself — at least until Greg arrived. He made it quite clear that the bench had his name written all over it. After a few minutes of pleading from one side, and tickle torture threats from the other, Greg managed to evict Lisa from the rear.

The bus then pulled away from the terminal, and we began the trip to our hotel. We didn’t know much of where we were staying, only that it was closer to the downtown core than we were at the time. Of course, “closer” is a relative term in Moscow. The city is enormous. It takes over an hour to get from the airport to Red Square, which is at the heart of Moscow. (And yes, the airport is considered within city limits.)

At we traveled down what I assumed to be one of the major roads (usually called “Propekts”), we began passing hundreds upon hundreds of small, boxy, and loud cars. They are a staple of Soviet transportation, mocked around the world as some of the worst things on four wheels. (But at least they weren’t as bad as the Yugos.) Yes, that’s right, we were in Lada country!

For those of you who have never seen a Lada, imagine (I apologize for the cliche, but it works too well here) a shoebox on wheels. Not only does that convey the approximate design appeal of one of these vehicles, but also the size of them. You’d almost think all Soviets were extremely small to require such tiny vehicles.

Huge apartment complexes were everywhere, there were almost no houses to speak of. They sprang out of the landscape like ungainly grey plants. (The Soviets put as much attention to the design of their apartment buildings as they did their cars.) It was hard to deny culture shock as you slowly began to realize that Muscovites lived in a truly concrete jungle. In North America, we use the term figuratively to describe all the high rise buildings that we create to live and work in. Yet the vast majority live in houses, semidetached dwellings, and townhouses. It’s an entirely different world over there.

The buildings eventually gave way to the banks of the Mosvka (Russian for “Moscow”) River on our right. The Moskva, like many rivers around the world, was a source of life for the city that bears its name. Shipyards lined both banks, loading and unloading all sorts of bulk items. Some of it was probably food, the rest industrial goods. We didn’t get too good a look though, for a run of trees blocked our view only a few moments later.

The trees were actually part of a lush garden. A very large lush garden. Several of us began to assume that the garden was a part of a high-ranking politician’s house. We neglected to remember that under Communism, the mansion would be home to several families, not just one. Of course, that was under Communism. As much as the Soviets would like to have believed, and the United States would have loved to be true, the Soviet Union never reached true Communism. (The advantages of our Russian History classes.) Under Communism, there is no central government, no money, no class structure, nothing to distinguish one individual from another — except for name. The Soviet Union was deeply mired in Socialism. Thus, the mansion was likely the domain of a single family.

Not too far from the massive gardens, but still amongst a lot of greenery, we turned into a large driveway on the right side of the road. We found ourselves driving down a road that was lined on both sides by thick bushes and trees that also obscured our view skywards. But then the trees broke, and we were witness to an immense and elaborate looking building. Almost all of us instinctively thought it was our hotel. The thoughts were immediately accompanied with various utterances to deities and divine dung.

But alas, our dream residence it was not. Our excitement dropped off dramatically as we drove around the side of the building, and onto a wharf running along the Moskva River. We continued down the wharf, leaving our excitement behind. Our excitement was being replaced with confusion what were we doing on a wharf? If we weren’t going to a hotel, then where were we going? That answer was soon to arrive.

We pulled up next to a pair of large boats, looking much like small versions of oceangoing cruise ships. The two boats were lashed side-by-side, with only one ship actually moored to the wharf. Our first impression was that we would be traveling along the Moskva for the remainder of our trip downtown. But we quickly found out that the Dmitri Furmanov, the first of the two ships, was to be our floating hotel for the next two days. We were informed that the three person sleeping arrangements that we had so carefully planned were no longer in effect it was two people to a room.

Faster than the media on a political scandal, Pete and Derek (my two would-be roommates) left me high and dry. I snooze, I lose. Jason had been dumped by his two roommates as well (although I can’t remember who they were), so the two of us teamed up. We were instructed to turn in our passports (as was common practice), put our bags in our rooms, and then attend dinner.

The last instruction was followed by an immediate mass whimper and whine, and most of us declared that we were far too tired to even consider eating. But KB was adamant about us showing ourselves at dinner. No two ways around it, we were having our last square meal of the day, whether we liked it or not.

Jason and I took our key from the front desk, after leaving behind our passports (nothing like leaving your only real proof of citizenship with a total stranger to give you confidence), and trudged our way up to the second floor. Not too far down the hall, we found our room, on the port side (the starboard side was against the wharf).

To say the room was tiny is to say month old rotten eggs are unpleasant. There was barely enough room for two beds, a small table, a nonfunctional refrigerator barely large enough for a six pack, and a private head (the bathroom, for you non-nautical types). The head was a rather interesting spacesaver as well. There was barely enough room for a sink and a toilet. There was also a shower, which took Jason and I a few minutes to figure out how it worked. (The sink’s faucet pulled out on a flexible metal hose. The floor was a gridwork of wood teak, I think to let the water flow out through a drain. Needless to say, everything in the head was waterproof. Even the toilet paper dispenser had its own cover to keep out water.)

Having inspected our quarters, we proceeded to find the dining room. It was at the other end of the ship, but also on the second floor. No-one else had arrived before us, so Jason and I stood around a moment before working up the muster to actually sit down. As we approached a table, we spotted the appetizers sitting at each place setting. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I could hear Rod Sterling saying: “– a dimension beyond sight and sound –”

Fish. Again.

Jason and I took two seats at one of the tables, and stared at our meals — which stared right back. (I hate it when chefs leave the heads on fish, it gives me the willies.) Before I could even imagine touching anything on my plate, Pete and Derek arrived to take the remaining seats at our table. Their expressions didn’t look much different than Jason’s or mine.

There was more variety than what we had on the Aeroflot flight, but it didn’t look any more appealing. Salmon, raw and cooked, several sardines, several cuts of other fish (probably including sturgeon), and one unidentifiable brown blob. Derek’s expression was deceiving, as he dove at the place in front of him with hungry abandon. But he took care to eat around the blob. Jason, Pete, and I picked at our food, eating only the salmon.

There was also a plate of bread and cheese, which all four of us partook in, and eight glasses of beverages on the table. Of the two glasses in front of each person was a glass of water, and a small glass of a dark, thick, slimy liquid. My first impression was cod liver oil (it fit with the fish theme). But Jason, catching onto the “try anything once” idea, downed his glass to see what it was.

Prune juice.

As none of the remaining three of us wanted to even touch the stuff, Jason downed all four glasses. (Despite a strong protest on my part after all, I did have to room with the guy.) We assumed that the meal would be light (it had been a long day, and most of us had been awake for almost 36 hours by that point), but it was only the first course.

Everyone who had lost their appetite with the first course found it again when the second course appeared: beef. That was welcomed by everyone, and didn’t last long on the plates. (True, we were tired, but some of us hadn’t eaten a full meal since the transatlantic flight almost 12 hours earlier.) Dinner was officially declared over after that.

But instead of heading directly to bed, the result of catching a seventh wind, we decided to check out the trading scene. In the Soviet Union, things aren’t exactly pristine, as the government would have you believe. The Black Market there is unbelievable. The price of a pair of Levi’s there is outrageous, if you’re willing to part with them. (A few people brought extra pairs.) A Sony Walkman will fetch you easily three times its price in various clothes and baubles. A pair of high-end Reeboks or Nikes? A night with a hooker, including the tip. (Not that I know from experience.)

But the trading varies from place to place. We were warned before arriving that the traders working the wharf were notoriously stubborn, and very stingy when it came to making a fair deal. But that didn’t stop us from finding out for ourselves. There were only two boys, both of whom were veterans, both unbelievably closefisted. And there was very little to trade for that looked of interest.

Returning to the boat, we found Toni, the Lisas, Kim, Kelly, Pete, and Derek on the foredeck. We joined them for a group photo before deciding to go to bed. The light wasn’t very strong, and whomever’s camera we used (it wasn’t mine) took a fairly dim picture. I was surprised we could smile after being awake so long.

And with that, Jason and I headed to bed. We were exhausted. Jason took the initiative and took a shower. I would wait until the following morning before doing same. I pulled out my travel alarm clock from my bag, set the time and set the alarm for about 07:00. I then fell backwards into a very deep sleep, passing out in only a few moments. I didn’t even get a restful moment to contemplate where I was.

Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Leaving Canada

It was a most unusual Friday, but it started off as a very routine morning. As usual for a summer day, I awoke late in the morning, about eleven o’clock. The day was sunny and bright, with only a few clouds in the sky. It was also fairly warm, temperatures in the mid-twenties (Celsius, not Fahrenheit). It was an excellent day to start the trip, or at least so I thought. Looks are often deceiving.

All of my essential packing (clothes, towels, and the like) I had accomplished over the previous couple of days. This left me only with my carryon luggage to pack. (“Carryon” luggage, for those of you who have never heard of it, is luggage you can take with you onto the plane. It’s usually small, about the size of a small duffel bag or knapsack.) This was considerably more difficult than packing my clothes. My carryon consisted of my camera bag (carrying my Minolta X370, my father’s 3070mm zoom lens, and eight rolls of Fuji film), and my EF bag (EF was the company who organized the trips for other schools) which was full of my Calvin and Hobbes books, about two dozen cassette tapes, a couple of novels (both of which went unread), snacks, toiletries (toothpaste, soap, shampoo, bla bla bla), and a bunch of other things that I thought might come in handy during the trip.

The next thing I did was finish a booby-trap on my computer. It wasn’t to keep anyone out, but it was designed to print something very important. Call my a skeptic, call me paranoid, call me what you will. This was the first time traveling anywhere without family, and my first time out of the continent. There was no way for me to know if I would ever be coming back.

I programmed my computer to print my Last Will and Testament two days after the day I was supposed to return, which was, ironically, my birthday. I was supposed to remember to tell my parents (my mother specifically) to turn my computer on every day, so the program would work. (Under the guise that the computer needed to be turned on so it would keep working. My parents believed anything when it came to computers.) But I forgot. As it turns out, I was only paranoid. But there’s always that nagging “what if?” that lurks in the shadows of my mind.

The only other thing I still needed to do was obtain some foreign currency. I had two or three hundred dollars in American Express Travelers Cheques, but I needed some spare cash for Helsinki. While I was at it, I should have also changed some money for Rubles, as the rate at Deaks International was better than in the Soviet Union (go figure). But that would be on the way to the airport.

We had to be at the airport for 15:00, where we would meet with the rest of the group. Our flight was at 17:00, so we wanted to make sure that we had the time to get all 46 of us checked in. My family likes to be early for such things, and we had a few stops to make along the way, so we left around 13:30.

First stop was a couple blocks from my home to pick up Laila, to whom we had offered a lift. It took only a few moments to load her bags (of which she had two: a suitcase and a carryon bag) in the back of van, but a while longer to get through the traditional teary-eyed goodbye to her mother (Laila’s father was at work). Then it was off to Square One.

Square One is a mall in downtown Mississauga, and is probably the largest mall in Ontario. But Deaks was right next to one of the entrances, and not terribly busy. So it was a matter of running in, switching about $50 into Finnish marks, and running back out. Our last stop was to pick up my father.

My father’s office wasn’t too far away, just a quick jaunt up Highway 10 from Square One. From his office, you can see the low-flying planes landing at Pearson International Airport, less than 10 kilometres away. For an international airport, Pearson has got to be the most mismanaged airport in North America. For example, other international airports operate 24 hours a day. Pearson can only operate from about 07:00 to about 23:00.

Why such odd times? Well, somewhere along the line, someone let developers build subdivisions around the airport. Then the IQ level of homebuyers dropped, and people seemed to think that living near an airport wasn’t such a bad idea. Then they realized just how loud it was. So they complained to the governments, and the next thing we knew, the airport stopped running flights late at night. After all, who would be so silly to fly on loud, sleep-disturbing planes so late at night?

At any rate, we arrived at Terminal 1 ahead of almost everyone else (which I have to admit, wasn’t much of a surprise). Our group had set aside a meeting of two hours before the flight. I hoped that they wouldn’t be too far behind. I wanted to make sure everyone arrived in time for the flight. I didn’t really want to have to go through arranging tickets for different flights.

When we entered the terminal doors, and found one of our group already waiting. Chris Frederick had arrived a little before us, and was lounging on his suitcase, trademark shades firmly planted over his eyes. His smile seemed to indicate a lessening of anxiety that he had entered the wrong terminal. My parents left shortly thereafter, and it became my turn to become anxious.

But my anxiety also dissipated as others appeared over the next 45 minutes. Unfortunately, it didn’t completely go away. And as 15:00 came and went, it started to grow again. The bus that was supposed to be bringing the remainder of the group hadn’t arrived. And the number of people in the check-in area was growing seemingly exponentially. We couldn’t go in either KB had all our tickets.

An audible sigh of relief echoed in our little corner of the terminal as a large yellow school bus appeared just outside the terminal doors, and a large man wearing a yellow visor entered the room with a giant smile smeared across his face. As if on cue, we mounted our bags, and awaited instructions. The confusion all started the moment we entered the check-in area.

The room was wall-to-wall people. We had only an hour and a half until our flight, and from what we could see, there was at least an hour and fifteen minutes of people. We were told to find a line, get in it, and hope for the best. It wasn’t looking good from the beginning. This wasn’t exactly the way I had hoped this crazy little trip.

I and a couple of others stood in a line, completely unable to keep calm so long as the ticket clerk took his time. But then, in the darkness of the hour, a piercing light hit me from across the room. Actually, it was John Philips yelling at me. Our airline, Finnair, had realized that we were in trouble, and had opened a booth specifically for us. In the blink of an eye, we exited our slow moving line and raced across the room to the swifter line.

But our problems didn’t end there. Now most of us were in the single line. The clerk moved like The Flash, processing each person in about half the time it took normally. At first, I admired the man simply for his efficiency. Then I found out the reason for the urgency the airport’s computer was told the flight was at 16:30, not 17:00. In less than 15 minutes after entering the line, the computer would automatically cut ticket distribution off. It seemed there was no override.

If this wasn’t an omen, I wouldn’t have known what was.

As it turns out, I was the last one to check in for our original flight number. Pete and Jason, who were right behind me, both complained at my fortune. I was now wondering what they were going to do. I was wondering also about KB. He would be the last person to check-in. But he also had all of our official documents. So if he wasn’t with us, we were going to have a few problems getting to where we were going. But I couldn’t reverse a check-in, and proceeded through to Security.

Finnair wasn’t about to strand anyone in our group. Instead, they started booking the rest on another flight, bound for Helsinki, but scheduled to leave a half hour after us. And as for my fortune on getting in on the first flight? Not much of a fortune their flight would arrive a half hour ahead of us. I could only assume that they had a faster plane.

And so I proceeded to Security. I’ve always had mixed feelings about Security. Sometimes they’re completely nonchalant about checking people, and that makes me worried about bad eggs slipping through their fingers. On the flip side, they annoy me to no end when they’re in their “everyone is a suspect” mode, and they tear your bags apart looking for anything that might be considered unwanted. They can never get a balance between the two. But better to be annoyed than dead, I guess.

Knowing my luck, I got the annoying one. Despite the fact that I had sent my carryon through the x-ray machine (the camera bag was passed around it, I didn’t want to expose the film), the guard at the other end had a bone to pick with me. She started to pull my bags apart, examining each individual item as if it were a vital clue to an international spy network. She even had to look through my camera, just to make sure it wasn’t concealing a gun or a bomb. Give me a break, lady! I was only 16 (going on 17). I suppose that in some bizarre way I should feel a bit flattered because she honestly seemed to think I was capable of wrongdoing on that scale, but at the same time I wanted to smack her for taking it so far beyond what would be considered appropriate.

She finally gave up trying to arrest me, and with a grump and frown, told me to get lost. I wanted to tell her what to do, but I was more interested in leaving that starting an insult fight. I proceeded to the end of the terminal, where the rest of the group was waiting around for the flight to board. Some were listening to music, others were chatting (most trying to figure out what was going to happen to those who didn’t make our flight we didn’t know about the later flight yet).

I was only there a few minutes when the flight was called, and we started boarding. I pulse was pounding, and liquid excitement surged through my body. Traveling was in my blood, and flying was my favourite way to get somewhere.

Our flight was with Finnair. But for some unknown reason, we weren’t flying with Finnair. We were on a charter line, Crown Airlines. I had flown with a couple of charter lines before (most notably Canada 3000), so I wasn’t all too excited with the prospect of flying on a charter line. (If you’re wondering why, then you’ve never flown on a charter line. Picture a cattle car with wings. Charter lines are interested only with money. They know they’ll get hired by other airlines, so they cram as many seats into their planes as possible. They usually use Airbuses, which live up their name in every detail.)

I was hoping for a Boeing 747. I’d never flown in a 747 before (unless you count the one time I went to BC when I was 21 months old). But we didn’t get a 747. We didn’t get an L1011. We didn’t even get a DC10. I just assumed those were the only planes capable of transatlantic flight. I was wrong there was at least one more: a DC8.

I didn’t think that DC8s were still used as carriers. The design was old, and probably inefficient. Although on the bright side, the design predated the profit-over-comfort theory used by charter lines, so the seat spacing wasn’t so bad. Of course, I was seated next to the emergency exit, so by default my row had more leg room.

Nothing prepared me for the next little detail. Okay, flying a DC8 was bad enough. But it was more specifically known as a DC8 Series 52. Not knowing was the “Series 52” meant, I mistook it to mean: “built in 1952”. Image my shock when I realized that I was going to be flying in a plane built two decades before I was born. The plane, by all rights, was 37 years old. I was ready to jump off and wait for the later flight. As it turns out, the “Series 52” means something completely different, although I have no idea what that is.

Owing to the computer error, the flight was only half full (or half empty, for you pessimists out there). This resulted in me with a row of three seats all to myself. That was until the flight attendants started rearranging passengers. It seems that even with a vehicle that size, a few measly people can through the works out of whack. Thus, I lost my status as a single person when Derek took position next to me. At first I thought badly of the situation I had lost the ability to lie down and stretch out but I came around when I realized I now had someone to talk with.

Despite the earlier departure time (at least according to the airport’s computer), we sat in our seats for nearly an hour before the plane left the terminal. During that time, we saw a Finnair DC10 leave. Derek and I knew that those who didn’t make our flight were on that plane. We were justifiably annoyed about not having left yet.

Somewhere around 17:30 (or later) we finally backed out of the gate, and the plane started rolling towards the runway. I kept muttering to myself: “No turning back!” I started digging through my now disorganized carryon bag (no thanks to the security guard), and pulled out my Batman soundtrack. (Batman had opened a month earlier, and I had purchased the soundtrack shortly thereafter.) I cued up “Batdance”, and waited for the plane to start takeoff. With Prince, Jack Nicholson, and Michael Keaton blaring in my ears, we took to the wild blue yonder, and banked eastward.

Ever taken a transatlantic flight? Ever taken one where you can’t wait to get to the other end? Some people are like that because they don’t like flying the sooner their feet touch terra firma, the better. But I love flying (I’m convinced I had to have been a bird in a previous life). The only reason I wanted to get to the other end was so our adventure could begin. I could hardly contain myself. I wouldn’t be touching ground for another eight hours. And when I did, I would be on another continent.

The traditional minuscule bag of stale peanuts and pop (or other beverage of choice) began moments after we were in the air. The peanuts are usually gone in a mouthful or two, and the drink rarely lasts more than a few minutes. But lucky us, Finnair (or Crown Air) gave us free drinks. I don’t know if it was because of the screw up with boarding, or if it was part of the transatlantic service. At any rate, the offer was readily abused.

The abuse was particularly bad in the back half of the plane, which was where most of our group (who had boarded that particular plane) sat. The only drinks they were interested were the alcoholic sort. (If this wasn’t a sign of things to come, I wouldn’t have known one if I saw it.) Needless to say, those in the back (comprised mostly of the Jeremy Squad) had a great deal of fun during the flight.

I entertained myself with examining my little space of the plane: my chair, the chair in front of me, the magazines in the chair in front of me, sections of the wall — it was amazing what came apart in a plane that old. Derek’s slight phobia of flight came to surface when I started examining things. He became particularly jittery when I managed (without hardly any effort) to pry off part of the wall. (It wasn’t anything major, just some carpeting meant to hide the seams between the plastic panels.) He virtually begged me to put it back, as if the plane’s structural integrity hinged on the carpet remaining on the wall.

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 890630.21
Day 1
We are now approx. halfway through our journey to Helsinki and are now situated about 35,000 ft. in the air in an old DC8, built in 1952 (real comforting!). The sun is now just rising and most of us (those who ended up on this plane, the rest ended up in a DC10) haven’t slept or haven’t even tried yet. Next stop, Helsinki.

Quick explanation time. Undoubtedly, you’re wondering what’s with the above paragraph. Why the devil is there this strange abbreviation of what happened? What possible purpose could it serve? It was part of our assignment: everyone had to write a journal of what we did and saw.

So why is it here? Well, when I originally wrote my journal, all there was were a little over a dozen entries, similar to the one above. At the time, my handwriting was notoriously bad (to this day I still cannot read one of the entries from Kiev). I knew that if I tried to hand that in, my mark wouldn’t be too good. So I decided to be a good little student, and wrote them out on my computer. Only thing was, the more I wrote, the more I remembered, and the more I wrote. (You can see where this is leading.) The Observer’s Log is what I ended up with.

Anyway, back to the story at hand…

There are a few advantages to half-empty flights (and in this case, half-empty is the optimistic view): less noise, less distractions, more leg room, and more food. Seconds on airplane meals are always welcome, especially when they expect you to survive for eight hours on only a pound or so of food-like substance. I have rarely griped about airplane food (except for “continental breakfasts”, which are a total waste of time there’s barely anything to eat with those), I usually find it quite good. I will admit though, the flight attendant gave me a very odd look when I asked for seconds. I felt a little like a character in a Dickens novel. I needed both helpings just to get me through to Helsinki. (Ironically, it would be the last meal I would have for some time that I actually liked.)

Night never really came that day. You see, it was summer in the northern hemisphere, which meant that the sun was spending more of its time above the equator. The days were longer, and the night shorter. Especially when traveling at 35,000 feet. We saw the sun dip very low along the horizon (almost disappearing into the clouds), and then start to rise again. So although the clocks would tell us a new day had begun, our minds were telling us otherwise.

Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Getting Edumacated

I had to suffer through most of the school year, anxiously awaiting departure. The date was set for late June / early July. Ten months of school seemed like an insurmountable barrier. And for a hyper 16 year-old, that was eleven months too long.

In late fall of 1988, those who had signed on were asked to attend an informational forum. I assumed it was to tell us the schedule of events, who to contact for things like passports and visas, and anything else that revolved around the trip. You can imagine the gasp of disbelief from the students when we learned that we had to attend classes.

More school. How utterly depressing.

But that’s how the Board of Education (remember, the morons?) wanted us to learn. We had to attend 90 hours of classes prior to departure. Assumedly, we would learn the background and theoretical information of our destination, which would then be backed up by actual experience. At the time, I thought the entire idea was hideously sadistic. (In retrospect, some eight years later, I see this as nothing but unadulterated genius.) My philosophy behind the affair was simple: we’d learn a lot on the trip, so why not do the 90 hours during the two weeks we were actually in the Soviet Union?

But Boards of Education rarely listen to the student body — something about lack of intelligence (though on whose part is up for debate). So the griping went on for only a short while before we accepted our fate, and waited longingly for the trip to start. Although with the classes in the way, our enthusiasm was diminished slightly.

When the final count was taken, there were 33 students, and 13 adults-cum-chaperones. (The adults didn’t have to attend the classes. Mrs. Pollitt did, only because she was taking the courses along with her son, Derek.) We came from various walks of life, and from all over Halton county (which at the time was a region of six or seven cities/towns/villages, with a combined population of around a half million people.)

Because we were so scattered, the classes were regularly moved between three schools, which were deemed “fair” for those traveling about. They were, in no particular order: White Oaks Secondary, an Oakville high school (though not mine) about 10 minutes from my home; Nelson High School, which was roughly in the middle of Burlington (a half hour drive) and accommodated the very large Burlington compliment of our troop; and E. C. Drury High School, situated in Milton (a little over a half hour drive), which accommodated everyone north of Oakville and Burlington. A fourth school in Acton (over 45 minutes from where I lived) was used in the last three days before the trip to cram as many hours into us as possible given what little time remained.

My mother, Ms. Organization, took it upon herself (amidst my objections, mostly due to shyness) to organize a carpool with everyone from my school — all four of us. It turned out to be a truly advantageous system. First of all, Kelly Hogan, Laila Singh, Pete Skrivanic, and I got to know each other much better (a large bonus in the first couple of classes, until we got to know others in the group). We particularly looked forward to the nights when Kelly drove (she was the only one with a driver’s license), as it allowed us to goof off in the car without fear of repercussions from our parents.

Our first class began on April 5th, 1989. There was one teeny-tiny little problem with our classes: we had to cover all the material that would normally be covered in five months, in fifteen two and a half hour classes. This is not humanly possible. And it gets repetitive. Very repetitive. Annoyingly repetitive. So repetitive, many us got bored after the first half hour. (Which, when you think about it, really doesn’t say much. I know of very few students who paid total attention in any class, regardless of what the subject was, or how long the class lasted.)

On the bright side, we only had two topics to cover: Russian History and Urban Geography. At least this made classes a little easier, as we all still had day school to contend with (which usually mean four to five more classes worth of work). Geography and history, at least for me, were easy topics. For some reason, I liked then both, and could easily pull high scores in tests (Skippy’s Canadian History classes excepted, but only because I slept through half the semester).

To guide us along that long and dark path of knowledge, we had four teachers (and three supervisors who kept an eye on us). Mr. Black was the Master of Ceremonies, and wasn’t directly involved with the course material ( without him, there would have been no trip at all). Performing the dirty work were our history and geography teachers, John Phillips and William O’Reilly (I often think that if there had been a hierarchy in all this, Mr. O’Reilly would be a staunch second or third). The last teacher was Mr. Hanson. He was more a gopher (e.g. “Go fer”) than a teacher, as the only thing he taught was Driver’s Ed, which few of us needed at the time.

Then there was our set of in-class supervisors. First off, we had an elderly couple, the Findlays. (Glen Findlay was my other choice for second or third in the hierarchy.) Mr. Findlay was a bit of a spoilsport, but he knew when to take control of things. We had no idea whether or not they had been teachers before or if they were just good friends of Mr. Black’s, but they were there anyway. They didn’t do much academically, but they were instrumental in getting our visas processed.

The other supervisor was a little off the wall. Greg Lane was a graduating student of Mr. Black’s, and was anything but supervisory. He would take cues from the other supervisors and teachers until such time as Greg was the only one. Then it became an all-out party. To this day, I still wonder what possessed Mr. Black to make Greg a person of supposed authority.

It was in the first few classes that we really needed the Findlays. We had to organize all our visas and passports, not to mention the pictures for them, in the first month. If you thought the Canadian Government (or whichever government you’re subjected to locally) was slow, guess again. The Canadian Government has to deal with some 25 million people, all at the same time. The Soviet Embassy only has to deal with probably a few hundred (give or take a few hundred), and we still didn’t get our visas until two days before we left.

We spent most of our class time absorbing information about the history of the Soviet Union, and the geographical theories that accompanied the studies of the areas we would be going to. The history was interesting, but the geography was snoresville! (Mr. O’Reilly was not exactly what I would call a riveting lecturer.) The history was very in-depth, most likely due to the short period of time we were studying. Prior to the classes (dating back into my childhood), I had gained a passion for documentaries, which probably fed my interest in history. But now I had a really large infatuation for documentaries on pre-World War Two Soviet Union. Some may find them dull, but I, for some reason, didn’t.

Our history lessons began around 1800’s Russia and progressed from there. We probably should have started a little earlier (about 800 AD probably would have been sufficient) but then we wouldn’t have been able to finish in time for the trip given the depth of detail we received. We started in the Czarist regime, just before Nicholas II popped his little head into the picture. (I had heard a little about Nicholas II, and I thought he was simply a moron. But it turned out he was a monarch who made a couple of bad mistakes, ones that cost him and his entire family their lives. And contrary to common belief, Anastasia wasn’t spared, she died with the rest of Romanov family.)

We also had a few lessons in speaking Russian. Pete Skrivanic’s family had emigrated from a Russian-speaking country, so he knew a bit of the language. Mr. Black coaxed him into giving the class a few key phrases and words that might get us through the country in one piece. (We even got the venerable “Where is the bathroom?”)

Our classes were aimed towards going on the trip. This was most evident when Mr. Black had a professional photographer come into tell us how to take good looking pictures. This woman was so pretentious, she had an entire forest firmly rooted in her rectum. She spent half her time telling us our pictures were crap (even before we took said pictures), and extolling her perfection. (Which, in my humble opinion, were at best average. Good looking, but average.)

The hardest time for the classes came in June, which for many people meant final exams. It was particularly bad for the four from my school — almost all the schools outside of Oakville started their exams earlier. And not all of them were at the same time. As one could expect, this caused a fair bit of trouble — we all ended up missing at least one class each. The worst part of the deal was that we were expected to make up for time lost. It seemed mildly unfair. We couldn’t control when the exams were scheduled. Why should we be punished for that? In the end it turned out that we weren’t the only four — a few others from other schools also fell victim.

The last three classes were held on June 27-29, at Acton High School. They were full-day classes, designed to cram that last few hundred facts and details into us before we left. It was an uncomfortable three days, if for only the fact that the room we used was air-conditioned. Painfully air-conditioned. During that time we reviewed the material we had studied, and watched a Soviet movie — Dr. Zhivago. Beautiful movie, but I saw little use in our courses. (For those of you unawares, Dr. Zhivago is a Hollywood production.)

Those last classes were also used to finalize the last of the details. Up until that point, we weren’t entirely sure what was going on. You see, when you went to the Soviet Union, you had to deal with Intourist, the Soviet Union’s tourism bureau. Unlike other countries where they simply give you information and you go where you please, Intourist tells you were you may go and arranges everything for you. They even changed our plans for outside of the Soviet Union. Originally, we were scheduled to pass through Berlin on our way east. But Intourist said “nyet”. Helsinki was put in as a replacement.

Once the classes were over, the next step was to pack, and prepare for the journey of a lifetime…

Well, almost.

There was one thing, that at least for me, was hindering some excitement. On June 9th, 1989, the Chinese Government cracked down on democracy supporters and students in Tianamen Square. So what did mean for me? After all, it was China, not the Soviet Union. Well, as history seems to indicate, Communism, like birds of a feather, tend to stick together with one another. Hence, I began to get a little worried. What if the crackdown soured some sentiments back in Moscow, which would in turn lead to problems for us? Whether anyone else had these same thoughts, I have no clue. (I never discussed any of my apprehensions with anyone else.)

Did we encounter any problems? Well, read the story, and you’ll know the whole truth.

Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Introduction

High school, at least as it’s made out in the movies, is supposed to be the best (and worst, depending on where you fit into the social cliques) time of your life. (According to some of my university professors, post-secondary education is supposed to be the best time of your life, but I found it about the same as high school.) For me, it was just something else to go though.

My high school career, non-academically speaking, was pretty dull. I had a few friends, most of whom where classified as either “geeks”, “nerds”, or “weirdos” (I personally fell into the latter), but no friends by whom I could refer to as a “significant other”. To put it mildly, a rotting corpse saw more action than I did. But that’s a whole other story, and not what I’m trying to get at here.

Where was I? Right, high school.

It was dull. Following Grade 9, I figured out how the education system in high school worked, and how to get through it in one piece. Pattern is not a kind mistress however, and I soon found myself, well, unfulfilled. I don’t know how else to explain it, other than there was nothing there to truly interest me. Maybe it was the courses I was taking. Maybe it was the teachers. Maybe it was because our school was so old you could kick holes in the walls.

Everything was reasonably dull — until one fateful day in Grade 10.

My Canadian History course with Mr. Lloyd was one of my daily tortures. Don’t get me wrong – there was never a nicer man. But history is a dull enough subject without the Human Sleeping Pill as the teacher. Mr. Lloyd (whom his students called “Skippy”, alluding to an incident where an old student of his covered his treasured blue bicycle with peanut butter) was from England. (That in itself should be indicative, but I’ll continue nonetheless.) He had a heavy Welsh accent, and a very soft, airy voice. Even if you were strung out on caffeine and cocaine, he could put you to sleep in under five minutes. (I still wonder how in the world I ever passed one of his courses.

This particular day though, he was interrupted by a largish man by the name of Keith Black. Mr. Black hailed from Acton High School, about 45 minutes north of Oakville, which was where I lived. He was there to introduce us to the joys of learning abroad.

He ran a project in Halton County (my educational district) where students could earn up to two credits by traveling to another country (or set of countries). I was so rapt with attention, even Mr. Lloyd would have a tough time putting me to sleep. It was essentially summer school, which many of my fellow students balked at. But it was a summer (or part thereof) in the Orient.

The Orient! I’d never been there! I’d always wanted to go. At least ever since Mr. Black had mentioned it. Immediately any apprehensions I’d had of the six foot tall, two hundred and fifty pound teacher who looks right of the movies (the kind that’ll nail you with a detention if you so much as sneeze in class?) disappeared. He passed a sheet around, on which a few of us signed our names as wanting some more information. It was a signature that would eventually change my life. (Whether for better or for worse has still to be decided.

When he left the class, we returned to our history lesson. Whatever that lesson was, it sucked my mind out of my head, wrung it dry, and placed it back in without my ever knowing it had ever left. As much as I hate to admit it, I forgot all about Keith Black’s visit within a couple of weeks. Suffice to say, when on a dark night in July the phone rang with purpose, I was completely dumbfounded when a stranger called for me about a trip to the Orient.

It took some time for the rusty gears in my mind to start turning. This was due to several things: first, the presentation had been some ten months earlier, so I was less likely to remember; I was working for my father’s company as a general labourer (I essentially spent two months cleaning up the messes the workers left behind, a mind numbing task at best); and it was summer, when all students’ brains automatically begin to atrophy. I had to sift through ten months of trivial garbage before remembering the fateful encounter.

According to Mr. Black, everything was “go” for the trip to the Orient. My parents must’ve been somewhat concerned, as my body was vibrating with excitement. Then the other shoe dropped. The Directors at the Board of Education (euphemistically referred to as “morons”) failed to see any educational value in such a trip (unlike similar trips which had been ongoing for years), and had canceled the academic credits. The trip was still going, but without the possibility of gaining some ground in school, I knew the chances of convincing my parents to let me go were significantly lower (about the same odds as Canada taking over the United States in a military confrontation).

My body shifted from vibrating to implosion. I was not a happy camper. About to hang up on Mr. Black, he quickly interjected with an alternative: the Soviet Union. Behind the Iron Curtain. In Communist Territory. Needless to say, I started vibrating again. Unlike the Orient tour, this escapade did have academic backing (again I restate: morons). I spent the next 15 minutes writing furiously as Mr. Black gave me the low-down on the trip.

With the credits approved, it seemed more likely that I could get approval from my parents to go. Actually, approval wasn’t the only thing I needed. There was also the issue of $1,500 to cover the costs. (Remember, I was about to enter Grade 11. My $6.50/hr job didn’t afford me that kind of a luxury.) By the end, I was as excited as my little sister (who was excited only because she wanted to use the phone – but then, don’t little sisters always want to use the phone?). And so I started my master plan: Operation Beg.

For four months I begged, pleaded, dropped hints (both blatant and subliminal), attempted to save money, considered robbing a bank, anything that would get me the necessary funds to get me on that trip. In the end, I won, but only through the gracious generousity of my grandmother. I’m nearly certain that I caught the travel bug from her, and I can only assume that she recognized it in me. There’s something to be said about supporting what some might call a bad habit.

I was to be the first person from my family in God-only-knows how many generations to visit the Soviet Union (or Russia, for that matter). My parents were sold on a few things. Price for one, the trip was surprisingly inexpensive (when compared to other such trips). I would also get the two credits I needed for school. And last, but most certainly not least, my parents would be getting rid of me for two weeks.

There were obviously good parts in all this for me. For starters, I would be leaving North America for the first time in my life, and entering a country that hasn’t been completely commercialized. (Given, the Soviet Union “sanitized” their society from tourists – separate hotels, tourist-only gift shops, and so forth.) Maybe the best part was that it was behind the Iron Curtain. I would get to see first-hand the Communist society, and see how all of Gorbachev’s policies were really working.

The rest, as you can probably guess, is history.