Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Shopping in Kiev and the Odessa Night Train

As Jason had told me when he came in after being out on the town, Igor showed up that morning to finish trading. But he had also brought his friend Sergei to get in on the action. There were only three of us in total, the two Soviets and myself who could trade. Jason had traded himself out. Half of the clothes I brought went, but I held onto both my camera and my Walkman with an iron grip. I couldn’t have finished the trip without them. But I did manage to pick up a flag and some Soviet clothes.

At 8:25, we had to take them back down and then race to breakfast. That morning was going to be very hectic because we were on a very tight schedule. KB had told us that if we didn’t make the bus, that was our problem, it was leaving with or without us. We ate breakfast as fast as we could and then sprinted back up to our room so we could make the 9:00 bus. But just as we were about to go back downstairs, Mr. McClelland informed us that we were to have our bags packed and brought downstairs. We whipped back in, threw everything in our suitcases and began to move things over to the elevator.

But then Mr. McClelland said that he had made a mistake, all we had to do was make sure our stuff was ready to go and we could leave it in our rooms. We threw our suitcases back in the room and sprinted down the stairs, almost taking whole flights at a time. But it was too little too late. The bus had left, leaving seven of us behind.

Our first impression was one of death, namely ours. KB was sure to have us skinned alive, or so we thought. We were not dead in the water yet. Mr. Howard mentioned that Marina was still in the hotel. At least she knew where we were supposed to go. In a flash, someone took off to ask her for help.

When she came down, we asked what we could do. I pointed to a small Intourist bus and asked if we could commandeer it. Five minutes later Greg, Mr. Hanson, Mr. McClelland, Paul, John, Laila, Jason and myself were on our way to the Cathedral of the Caves. We were all wondering what KB was going to do to us. When we arrived, we pulled our pants on as fast as we could and sprinted into the museum, where we found everyone else. A few of them were a bit surprised that we even showed up, but others had their minds on something a bit more troubling.

During the night, a group had gotten together in Chris’ room for a small party. Also present was the standard drink in the Soviet Union … vodka. However, in the middle of this party, KB did a room check. All he heard was a clinking of bottles and some muffled whispers. Then the door opened. When Chris saw KB, he slammed the door in his face.

Until such time as we got burned, I turned my camera lens on other things. The museum had a no flash rule in effect so taking pictures was rather difficult. In areas that light shone in brightly, it wasn’t so bad, but a tapestry that hung in the middle of the far wall didn’t turn out too well.

Then we went back outside and down towards the river side of the monastery. We went into a small church, where a flash was allowed. But all I got was a chandelier. Outside, I got a better picture of the bell tower through a bombed out building that formed a good frame for the shot (something we picked up from some egoistical bitch of a photographer who gave us “tips” before we left).

We went still further to yet another building around which was a large walkway that gave us a very good view of what I like to call “Cathedral Valley”, mainly for the dozen plus churches that are visible. We went down a path until we reached a kind of dead end road. Only pedestrians could walk any further. There we had to wait for our guides to give us the okay to continue to the caves further down. Meanwhile, Greg took Polaroid shots of his foot.

Soon we were going down the covered stairway to the foot of the hill, where the caves were. The guide for Kiev asked me a few questions on the way down, explaining to me at the same time that the stairway had to be covered, as it often got buried during the winter months. We entered a doorway not far from the bottom of the stairway that would take us into the caves. Big deal, they’re just caves right?

WRONG! To be specific, the caves are catacombs where they buried the past priests from the monastery. The catacombs are Russian Orthodox, not Christian, as I had been told. This meant that the bodies weren’t just loosely wrapped up in linen and placed in the walls to decay. These bodies were clothed in robes with their heads covered up. The only thing you could see were the hands, which were all shriveled up.

Most of the bodies were of priests and monks who had lived there but there was one area that got to everyone who was down there. It was a small chamber set into the wall. Inside was a velvet cloth with a deep purple colour. There were seven bumps (if I remember correctly) but they were only about four feet long at the most. At the far wall were golden crowns, seven of them, at the head of each of the bodies. They were children, not of the monks, but of the people who lived around the monastery. They were killed when part of the monastery collapsed onto them. But I could not take a picture due to lack of light.

When we got outside, we all took a deep breath to clean the fumes of decay from our lungs. Then it was time for us to go. We climbed our way back up the stairs to the dead end street and walked out way up that to another road.

Our bus was parked in the lot of the Kiev War Memorial, were the Mother of the Ukraine had been erected. When we got to the memorial, KB informed us that we had only a few minutes before we left. With that news, Greg took off for the statue so he could get a couple of pictures.

When we did get back on the bus, KB finally gave us the speech that we had been expecting. He bawled us out for the incident with the alcohol, but mentioned no names. While he stood and spoke, we said nothing. The second he sat back down, a few of us in the end virtually laughed at him, we just couldn’t help it. It was like being yelled at for doing something that you were allowed to do. We weren’t supposed to drink on the trip, but I couldn’t believe KB never noticed all the bottles before.

Lunch was rather uninteresting, aside from the fact that we had borscht, which although I tried, I could not eat. I hate beets with a passion, and I couldn’t help but pick the taste out. I mean, it was really disgusting.

After lunch, we a very short tour. Our bus let us off at one of the most famous cathedrals in the Soviet Union, the Church of St. Sophia. It wasn’t far from the road to the lower city that those of us in the Circle had gone down the day before. The inside was quite impressive, but like many of the religious institutions in Europe, operational or otherwise, pictures were not allowed. But this didn’t stop someone behind us snapping a shot off.

It’s an impressive place, a three foot thick floor, several layers of paint and a history that no-one can nail down exactly. One of the Ukraine’s most famous people is buried there, Yaroslav the Wise. He took control of the Ukraine near the turn of the millennia. While his brothers fought, he stepped right around them to become king.

That was it for touring that day. We returned to the hotel and some free time. A large group of people took the subway to the far side of the Dneiper river, where the beach was. I was going to go, except I remembered where the water in that river must flow by at one point. One hundred and thirty kilometres to the north lies Chernobyl. I know it boarders on paranoia, but I wanted to live long enough to be able to tour that city.

A smaller group consisting of Greg, Lisa V, Kelly B, Mr. Hanson and myself decided that we would check out the department store next door. You would not believe what it’s like in a Soviet department store. Instead of wall-to-wall carpet you get wall-to-wall people.

But we all had missions in mind. First, both Greg and I wanted watch bands for our watches (he had gotten a watch also) and then Greg had to buy a whole stack of GreenPeace albums. The Soviets have an interesting selling system. You tell the cashier what it is you want (or you point at it if you don’t speak the same language), you pay whatever the price is and the cashier gives you a receipt. Then you go over to the goods counter and present the receipt and you get what you paid for. That’s a good idea if I’ve ever heard one.

While Greg was picking up his records, Mr. Hanson and I looked around in the electronics department. I saw stuff that could have been left over from the 50’s! All the TV sets were huge and the colour was kind of dull, if the set was even a colour one.

When we finally managed to squeeze our way out back into the fresh air. As soon as we got out, we ran into Igor and Sergei out in front of the store. Greg almost immediately wanted to do some trading. Igor suggested that we go to his place. This time, I went. Six of us, all except Mr. Hanson who mysteriously disappeared, hopped on the street cars for a short trip downtown. Most street cars are made of two cars, end to end. They work on the honour system, the transit people assume you have already purchased a ticket. Most people don’t.

We traveled for about five minutes and then got off at what we thought was Igor’s apartment. It was his sister’s. We waited while he went in for something, which I think was his key. But she wasn’t home at time so we ran out of luck there. Sergei suggested his place. But to get there, we were going to need a taxi.

In the Soviet Union, there are only a handful of real taxis. But you can get almost any driver to be one, they’ll all do it for the money, the best way, so we were told, was to hold up a pack of cigarettes. It took us only a few minutes to get us all on the road to Sergei’s place.

Sergei, Kelly and myself took the first car and Igor, Greg and Lisa took another car, which was a privately owned Lada. Those have got to be the most uncomfortable cars in the world. Shocks must be nonexistent in those things. And as if the cars are bad enough, the drivers are psychopaths!

We finally arrived at his place, an apartment complex somewhere in the north end of Kiev. We all filed out and waited for the others to arrive. During that time, Sergei went into his apartment to retrieve the things he needed to trade with. His aunt was living with him and didn’t like visitors.

Just before he returned, the others arrived. I didn’t want to trade anything, I had nothing to trade but Greg was definitely intent on doing so. However, he had nothing either. Greg made arrangements with Igor and Sergei to meet us at the train station that night before we left for Odessa.

The next thing we knew we were vying for taxis to take us back. Greg and Lisa snatched the first taxi, Kelly and I caught the second. During this time, I was a bit worried, hoping we got back in time for dinner, still remembering what had happened that morning. When we finally arrived, we paid the three rubles for the ride, plus another three for the quick ride. Greg had done us one better and paid his driver ten rubles, something which, according to Greg, made the driver almost cry.

Dinner was, as usual, with fish. But few of us tried not to eat. We wouldn’t be getting off the train for some time so we wanted to make sure that we wouldn’t get hungry. And besides, I had no more granola bars.

We arrived at the train station at about 8:15 that night, none of us could see Igor anywhere. We knew that he was there, but we weren’t sure where. And what was worse, we couldn’t get off the bus to look either. Once again we were stuck on the bus until Suzanna and Marina returned with our tickets.

Once again, the porters came and took our bags, which we would find later at our train. Then we finally got off the bus and headed for the station. This time we went into the station rather than go around the side of it. But we did not wait inside. We zipped through the main lobby, went upstairs, crossed two tracks and went down to our landing, where we would have to wait for the train as it had not yet arrived.

However, we didn’t all arrive at the same time. Some of us got divided in the station and had no idea where the hell we were. Greg became a bloodhound and went out to track them down. He was gone quite some time and a few of us thought that those who got lost did so individually.

It turned out that Greg found Igor. I suppose that Greg did the trading that he wanted to do earlier that afternoon. I really don’t know though, all I heard was that he found Igor.

Our train soon showed up and we boarded for our second, and last, night train. This time however, Derek and I got dibs on the top bunk. Pete and Shaun were on the bottom. We were hoping for a repeat of the Kiev night train. When we boarded the train, the Russian music was on again. It was on the first train too, but at least the volume switch worked. On this train, there were two settings: high and still high.

We already knew that none of the stewards spoke any English at all. This meant that we had to find Marina or Suzanna to ask them to shut it off. But we couldn’t find either of them. It was beginning to look like we were going to have one hell of a time sleeping that night.

Radar came to our rescue. Using a One Kopeck coin, he unscrewed a panel over the volume knob. Before he had completely unscrewed the panel, he sent me out in the hall to run interference. This meant I had to go around, collecting all the tea cups so the stewards didn’t find out what was going on.

After about five minutes, I had run out of cups. I was getting worried, wondering how much longer it was going to take. I peeked in the room to find Radar with his arm hooked up inside the panel with a pair of nail clippers. A quick snap, and the sound was gone. Then he quickly replaced the panel before we got in trouble. We thanked him heartily, we knew that we were going to be able to sleep. Then we opened the door as far as it could go. The temperature in that room was stifling and we had to cool it off.

Not long after Radar left, Toni and Lisa V came in to talk again. But they weren’t in there for very long. The Mr. Phillips and Radar took them out and put them in the own rooms. Then they told us to close and lock our doors until further notice. We thought the train was begin searched for whatever reason. It was a little unnerving.

Since we had been in Moscow, we had attracted the attention of some Soviet men. It wasn’t actually us as a whole, but the girls to be specific. Those guys were big and creepy in all sense of that term. They were kicked off at the next station, and we were free roam the halls once again.

That let us all back out again for some fun. We grouped again back in our cabin again for yet more talking. We yapped right up until about 10:30, when Mr. Phillips informed us that it was time for bed. Toni, who was very good at using her “puppy dog” look to get what she wanted, managed to get us some leeway with him.

Five minutes later, it was revoked by Radar. We couldn’t argue with him. Besides, the elders had learned their lesson with the Kiev train. This time, there were adults in the car, so all night partying was out of the question. It could have been worse though, Jason had to sleep in KB’s cabin. We were by ourselves.

So we said good night to Toni and Lisa and prepared for sleep. We talked amongst ourselves for a little while longer before we finally hit the sack. Shaun more or less set the mood in doing so. We all brought our Walkmans out, grabbed our favorite tunes and Shaun all got us going at the same time.

There were going to be no parties that night. It was going to be a short one for us, we wouldn’t be up for longer than an hour. Beyond that, it was slumberville for us.

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 890705.23

Day 6

Today was rather hectic. To start off with, we went through some heavy trading this morning. Due to a small discrepancy, 7 of us missed the bus and ended up commandeering an Intourist van. We went to the Cathedral of the Caves (which incidentally is not the real name, but the Ukrainian version is very complicated). There, we visited the museum, which had several beautiful tapestries, including one that had a picture of Lenin, but no flashes were allowed. We then visited the catacombs (which were Russian Orthodox, not Christian), where I managed to snap off a few photos but due to a pair of weak batteries, they were very few.

After lunch, we went to the St. Sophia Cathedral, which was founded in the 1030’s (at least that was when it was first mentioned in the chronicles). There, we found out that the church had gone through several floors (about 3 ft. of them). Yaroslav the Wise was buried there along with his second wife.

We also got some pictures of the statue of “The Mother of the Ukraine”, which was made out of stainless steel and stood over 300 ft. high.

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