Guest Columnist

The Iron Curtain rises

Fourth in a series

Carroll McKibbin, left, poses with a Russian veteran and the man’s grandson during a “Victory Day” celebration in Moscow, Russia in 2013. The event, which included many veterans coming into the city in uniform and with their families, marked the defeat of Nazi Germany during World War II. (Submitted Photo)
Carroll McKibbin, left, poses with a Russian veteran and the man’s grandson during a “Victory Day” celebration in Moscow, Russia in 2013. The event, which included many veterans coming into the city in uniform and with their families, marked the defeat of Nazi Germany during World War II. (Submitted Photo)
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I visited the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War in 1963. Thirty years later I returned in the wake of the collapse of the USSR and its communist system.

Symbols of the past changed quickly, while some habits of the communist era persisted. St. Petersburg, where our plane landed, had returned to its former name after 70 years of being called Leningrad. The tricolor flag of Tsarist times replaced the hammer and sickle version of the Soviets.

The St. Petersburg airport was stark and dingy, a reminder of the past, as were the armed guards at every door. We soon witnessed long lines of people waiting to purchase scarce merchandise, another continuation from the Soviet era.

“What is the biggest change you have noticed since the fall of the Soviet Union?” I asked a lecturer. The professor smiled, another thing I seldom saw in 1963, and responded, “Now I can tell the truth.”

I had received an invitation for a visit from the St. Petersburg Polytechnic University, a sure indication of change in Russia, and took a group of professors and students with me.

We were housed in a bleak, concrete dorm with cold, non-potable water. We drank bottled water purchased at a tourist shop and endured frigid showers.

While the university structures were dreary, we enjoyed the food in the cafeteria. I recalled as a child in Iowa finding in “My Weekly Reader” newspaper an article about Russian children eating black bread. I thought they were doomed to burned toast, not the tasty rye bread we enjoyed.

Russian professors provided daily lectures on a variety of topics. They, along with other adults, were engaging and willing to converse, unlike the remote, wary adults of my 1963 trip.

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“What is the biggest change you have noticed since the fall of the Soviet Union?” I asked a lecturer.

The professor smiled, another thing I seldom saw in 1963, and responded, “Now I can tell the truth.”

Hmmm, I thought to myself. Isn’t that the purpose of a university?

On another occasion, I asked, “What has become of the Marxist economic professors since the switch to a market economy?”

Again, a smile. “Many of them are on the street selling soft drinks.”

Although Russians told us they rejoiced in their newfound freedom, the transition from a state-controlled economy included devastating inflation.

During my earlier visit the ruble was artificially pegged by the Soviet government at $1.10. In 1993 the ruble was worth less than a penny. Kopeks, one-hundredth of a ruble, were in circulation but insignificant to tourists. Indeed, a can of Coca-Cola had become the unit of value, always selling for one dollar while the ruble declined.

We visited the famous Hermitage Museum and were asked to check our jackets at a cost of five kopeks. When my wife discovered she didn’t have the required change, a member of our group came to her aid. “I’ll pay you back,” she responded automatically, not thinking she owed less than one-fifth of a penny.

The sidewalks of the city looked like flea markets with people selling personal possessions — shoes, pillows, coats, or most anything. The more artistic vendors offered finely embroidered and painted souvenirs. But none of them, no matter their wares, wanted to accept rubles.

We visited a defunct steel factory with would-be workers sitting around. Dusty photos of “hero workers” of the communist era lined the walls.

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“We are hoping for Western venture capital to operate again,” a sad factory guide explained.

Russian prices were higher for tourists than for locals. At the steel factory, however, the cost of lunch was the same for everyone. We paid two rubles — less than two cents!

When I visited the USSR in 1963, a few tourists were present among crowds of locals. In 1993, I found much the opposite. Tourists of many nationalities were present, eating at restaurants, enjoying entertainment, and buying items at ridiculously low prices — all of which were beyond the means of most Russians. We attended a magnificent ballet performance in St. Petersburg with Russians on the stage, but not in the audience. We ate group meals at a local restaurant where Russians served tables, but did not eat at them.

The train we took to Moscow was “late night” in name only as the sun never sets in June in St. Petersburg. Thus, we could see Russian villages, like images from “Fiddler on Roof,” as our train rumbled along.

In Moscow we were housed in high-rise dorms constructed for participants in the 1980 Olympics. Newer and cleaner than what we experienced in St. Petersburg, the major improvement was safe, warm water. I enjoyed the longest shower of my life.

We visited the usual sights in Moscow: Lenin’s Tomb, the Kremlin, the Bolshoi Ballet, and the State Circus, always with crowds of Western tourists and few, if any, Russians.

The stores in Moscow had the same empty shelves and long lines we found in St. Petersburg. The de facto rationing system of the Soviet era where time-consuming, complex procedures were required to buy an item were still in effect.

Street vendors were more inventive than traditional stores, selling items never allowed during the Soviet era. Near the Kremlin I bought a red T-shirt with a yellow hammer and cycle on the front and an inscription on the back: “The Party’s Over,” an amusing reference to the demise of the Communist Party. In former times the clever vendor might have ended up in a gulag.

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Wooden nesting dolls, each fitting inside the other, were widely available on the streets. What Russians call matryoshka dolls, offered humorous caricatures of former Soviet leaders, or American movie stars, or British prime ministers, or whatever might appeal to tourists.

We left Russia in 1993 with many embarrassingly inexpensive souvenirs. When we returned 20 years later, again in St. Petersburg, we discovered a country very much on the rebound.

The birthplace of Vladimir Putin did not have the modern, lively bustle of a Paris or London. But compared to what we saw in 1993, the city had come alive. We ate at an elegant restaurant, this time with vodka served in many flavors, including cranberry and horseradish. Churches, overtly discouraged during the Soviet era, were now much in evidence and open to tourists. The ruble, still a bargain, exchanged at 32 to the dollar rather than the ridiculous 1,100 of 1993.

The long lines of our earlier visits were gone and merchandise was readily available. The transportation system worked smoothly. Street hawkers were still active, but not in the numbers or desperate circumstances of the 1993 visit.

We joined Russians in commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, what they call “Victory Day” and we call “VE Day.” Joyous, happy people paraded with veterans proudly wearing their military uniforms. I asked one if I could have my picture taken with him and his grandson, and he readily agreed. Such a gracious opportunity would never have happened during my Cold War visit in 1963.

During our last day in Russia I spoke to a man who had visited the United States. “So, what did you think of our country?” I asked.

“Why do you have so many different kinds of potato chips?” he responded. “Whole aisles of them in your grocery stores.”

“It’s called freedom of choice. Different people like different kinds,” I replied. “Why do you have two dozen flavors of vodka?”

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The Russian smiled. We both laughed. How nice, I thought, to compare notes on potato chips and vodka — and not on nuclear missiles.

• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean.

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