In summer 1982 I made my third and, as it turned out, last visit to the Soviet Union. This time I signed up for a tour of the trans-Caucasus, to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, which I had heard was a fascinating region. As things turned out, I couldn’t have made such a trip a few years later. I still couldn’t do it today. This is what I wrote about it the time, together with a retrospective comment as a postscript.
After the usual delays (the tickets and visa only arrived two days before departure!) I duly set off: one of a party of 14, who included a bank manager and his teenage son, a family of four headed by a man whose sole aim in going on the tour was to inspect as many tramways as possible, and Danielle, a Parisian lady who taught English. Despite our disparate nature, we were soon united by our low opinions of our guide, our food, and the Soviet way of doing things in general.
Our first destination was Leningrad, staying at the Moskva Hotel overlooking the river at the far end of Nevsky Prospekt. At least half a dozen tourist groups from Britain tried to register there together at around midnight, in a scene of dreadful confusion with no sign of guides, itineraries, or instructions about next morning’s breakfast. We stayed three nights, and to be fair, things did get better, though it rained a lot of the time. There were the usual outings: to the Peter-Paul fortress, the Hermitage, Petrodvorets and Pavlovsk; all “optional extras”, and therefore having to be paid for, needless to say, in Western currency. The fortress was the only site I had not previously visited. Danielle and I got into the Hermitage for nothing, by the simple but effective trick of mingling with another group of foreign tourists: nobody bothered to count heads. We also went for a walk one evening, and found our way to the Smolny, an exotic blue-and-white baroque building next to which the Bolsheviks had their headquarters during the revolution. We were surprised to find that a lot of the back streets were unmade, even so close to the centre. Leningrad had splendid buildings, but we thought it also had an air of fading, and sadness; of being more a museum-piece than a real, vibrant, living city. I suppose this comes from it being a former capital. Much the most attractive place we saw was Pavlovsk palace; a warm honey-coloured and comparatively restrained classical-rococo construction, which like all the others had needed massive restoration after wartime devastation. (Incidentally, although war damage was much played up by the guides, the Germans were never mentioned by name as being responsible, and the designation was always “Hitlerites” rather than “Nazis”)
We then flew south to Georgia; a three-hour journey over the Caucasus mountains, which unfortunately were shrouded in dense cloud. The capital, Tbilisi (the initial “T” being silent when pronounced by the locals) is a long, thin city running north-south down the deep gorge of the river Kura, with barren hills on either side and the bulk of the mountains some way off to the south-east. Our hotel was on the main thoroughfare, Rustaveli street, named after the national poet of the 12th century. Overlooking us, and reached by a funicular railway, was a steep eminence crowned with pinewoods, where there was a ferris wheel, and all the apparatus of an old-fashioned funfair. It bore the improbable name of Stalin Park. We speculated on the most suitable arcade games for an institution with such a name: liquidating Trotskite deviationists, perhaps? Stalin himself went to theological college in the centre of the city, and in sharp contrast to the rest of Russia, nobody was ashamed to mention his name. He is, after all, the only Georgian anyone has heard of. The oldest part of Tbilisi is the southern end. There the river sinks beneath high cliffs, across which a mediaeval church faces a ruined castle and an utterly appalling giant statue of “Mother Georgia“, executed in stainless steel. Behind the church we found an impenetrable tangle of alleyways and courtyards, with wooden cabins, vines, shops in cellars and general mess, from which children issued forth to pursue the tourists and beg for foreign currency, chewing-gum, tee-shirts, biros, or anything else they could cadge. The boldest of the youngsters even penetrated into our hotel. “I think these people, they are just like gypsies”, said our guide warily. Incidentally, all Georgians look exactly like Stalin; especially the women. We did not see any of the legendary centenarians, but the little old ladies who swept the streets by hand with crude-looking brooms (as in all Soviet cities) appeared exceptionally ancient and decrepit. All signs were not only dual-language, but dual-alphabet; the Georgian alphabet being made up of lots of wiggly worms in rampant postures. I was told that the language resembles no other, though the spelling is strictly phonetic. It is no wonder that Stalin, who only learnt to speak Russian at school, was never a fluent orator or writer.
The most interesting place we visited from here was Mtzkhreta, the old capital a few miles upriver, which had a number of ancient churches. The cathedral, dating from the eleventh century and still functioning, was home to the tombs of the ancient Georgian royal family, a number of wall paintings not quite in the Byzantine style, and a decorated pillar by the bishop’s throne which was supposed to contain the robe of Christ. There were a great many candles offered at the various icons. A tiny monastery, deserted but with signs of a few recent worshippers, stood spectacularly on a very high rock above the town.
On the 16th we caught the overnight train to Baku. In this part of the world, railway stations do not have footbridges or even much in the way of platforms: you just wander across the track. Since the trains seldom seem to venture beyond 30 miles an hour, this is fairly safe. Our couchettes were about British Rail standard, but a party of Red Army men on the same train appeared to be journeying by cattle truck. The train did not set off for ages. It was very hot …..
I woke up soon after seven and looked out onto the desert. On one side was a limitless expanse of flat sand with only a few clumps of coarse grasses, and on the other a range of entirely barren hills. The train was still going very slowly, which was why a journey that appeared on the map to be no more than about 300 miles as the crow flies was contriving to take 13 hours. Soon after eight we reached the Caspian Sea, and assumed we must be near our destination. Not a bit of it! For three more hours we rolled slowly northwards along a cheerless coastline of oil installations, forgotten sidings where people lived in abandoned railway carriages, revolting apartment-block settlements in the middle of nowhere, decaying nineteenth-century stations all painted bright pink, and more desert. I wondered how on earth Hitler had ever imagined he could get his tanks through to the Baku oilfields. Had anyone told him what conditions were like? It was only after eleven that we finally reached Baku, so the train contrived to be two hours late – no unusual occurrence, we were led to believe.
Baku is the capital of Azerbaijan; the names meaning “the windy city” in “the land of eternal flame”. The latter stems from all the oil and natural gas in the region, and there certainly was a constant wind, without which it would have been intolerably hot. Our hotel overlooked the Caspian seafront, along which ran a kind of promenade or long, narrow park, with restaurants, funfairs and bandstands; all looking charmingly old-fashioned by British standards. There was even a pier, and boat trips round the bay. But the sea was totally unsuitable for swimming; the rainbow colours of petrol glinted over the water’s surface, and out to sea a forest of oilrigs was dimly visible through the haze. Two boys in our party wanted to go swimming and were taken to a “tourists only” beach a considerable distance away, paying £6 each for the privilege.
As with most Soviet cities, Baku was mostly tower blocks, and the tram enthusiast, who took a ride to the outskirts, said some parts were extremely filthy and decrepit, but for some reason we all rather liked the place. It had always been a Moslem city, with ancient links to Iran, and close to the hotel we found an old caravserai and a very well preserved 16th-century palace of the local shahs. It was surrounded by the rabbit warren of the Native Quarter, from where, as in Georgia, children issued to cadge bakhsheesh from visiting sahibs. One little boy was so importunate that I gave him an English penny. A few minutes later he returned and solemnly gave me six kopeks in exchange. Apart from the palace, the most interesting sight here was the Temple of the Fire Worshippers, a few miles out in a scruffy village. This had been built by a Parsee colony from India, who did not die out in Baku till the 19th century. Disappointingly, the eternal flame in the temple proved to be fed nowadays by piped gas, and was only lit when the tourists came.
Although the local people no longer wore native costume like in Soviet Central Asia, Moslem influence was still noticeable. There were several mosques, and no women ever appeared on the promenade in the evening. This meant we were treated to the extraordinary sight of pairs of Red Army men in uniform going on the funfair rides together. In the modern town centre was a big statue of Sergei Kirov: once boss of the region, and now remembered chiefly for being assassinated in Leningrad in 1934, presumably on Stalin’s orders. There was a department store selling carpets for up to 2700 roubles. This cast a new light on Soviet life: who on earth could afford them? The official exchange rate for the rouble was the entirely fraudulent 1 to £1, but even at the black market rate of 2.5 they would have been expensive. One stray memory of Baku was seeing a man with part of his face torn away, so that all one side of his nasal cavity was exposed and open. One tried hard not to stare at him as he walked down the street. Didn’t they have even rudimentary plastic surgery?
We flew to Armenia very early in the morning. I saw a huge bright orange glow, which I took to be the sun rising in splendour over the Caspian, but it proved to be a gigantic gas burn-off, apparently in the middle of a suburb. Yerevan, where we arrived an hour later, was a much less interesting city, and suffered from being fiendishly hot: quite the most unbearable heat I experienced on this tour. We were amazed to find that our hotel, which was a very large new building, backed onto a slum: a revolting area of little cabins made of bits of board and corrugated iron, packed together all higgledy-piggledy and housing several hundred people. There were television aerials and even a few cars amidst the squalor, but I also saw large rats foraging in broad daylight within a few yards of the cabin doors.
Apart from the slums, there were few old buildings in Yerevan. The pride of the city was clearly the new football stadium, home of Yerevan Ararat, one of the best teams in the USSR. There were also monuments to the “genocidal massacre of 1½ million Armenians in 1915”; but, as in the case of the war damage in Leningrad, there was a curious reluctance to name those responsible; and only once did our guide incautiously admit that it had been done by the Turks. The general tendency seemed to be to blame the Americans, which I suppose was inevitable, even though it was unclear how, in the circumstances of the First World War, this was ever logistically possible. From the city there is a view of Mount Ararat, over 40 miles away, but it was disappointingly hazy during our visit, even when we got up at sunrise specifically to see it. Eventually our guide pointed out the peak; a white triangle of eternal snows above the haze; and we still couldn’t locate it. This turned out to be because it is such an ENORMOUS mountain that we had set our sights 20 degrees too low, and had taken the summit for a blob of cloud.
However, we had much the best excursions of the holiday from Yerevan: to Echmiadzin, where we saw the still-functioning cathedral of the Patriach-Catholicos (an ancient sect considered heretical by the Greek church. Armenia disputes with Georgia for the title of being the first officially Christian state) and some impressive ruins. At Garni, there was a well-preserved Hellenistic temple atop a peninsula of cliffs, which was currently being used by a Czech film studio to shoot what promised to be an extremely bad historical epic; the place was full of the kind of pseudo-Greek props left over from the 1950s Cecil B. de Mille period. At Gegard there was an ancient monastery cut into the cliff face miles from anywhere. The Armenian countryside was like rural Greece: primitive, waterless, barren and generally desolate.
We flew to Moscow on the 21st. This time the skies over the Caucasus were clear. We passed very close to the eternal snows on the sharply-pointed peak of Mount Elburz, where Himmler believed the Aryan race originated. I’m not sure why he should have thought this: we didn’t see a single Aryan-looking face among the natives, and the languages sounded very non- Indo-European. (Why does “Caucasian” still means “white” in American police dramas?) We ended in the Cosmos hotel near the Park of Economic Achievement, where I had stayed for the World Gymnastics Championships. Only a few things I saw in Moscow were new to me, such as the little churches and log cabins at Kolonenskoye, where Peter the Great once lived, and the Novodevici monastery and cemetery, where I wasted a lot of time looking for Khrushchev’s grave before being told that it was in the cemetery next door which was closed to the public. There was also a visit to the Andrei Rublyev icon museum, which was very fine, but suffered from a guide who clearly had very little knowledge of Bible stories, and as a result got some of the iconography completely wrong. There was one picture which quite obviously showed the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace, from the book of Daniel, but the guide could only talk vaguely about symbolism. I felt this was taking state-sponsored atheism to unnecessary lengths. We did the usual tourist things like going round the Kremlin and on a boat down the river, though strangely there was no attempt to take us to see Lenin in his tomb.
The grand climax came when our tram-spotter was arrested and had his film confiscated for rashly photographing a tram that had broken down. I don’t know whether this wasn’t supposed to happen to Soviet trams, or whether the all-purpose tram repairing tool he saw in action (a kind of gigantic housebreaker’s jemmy) was considered a state secret. In fact only his film was taken, and he was given back the empty cassette. He was the delayed because the desk sergeant had never seen a zoom lens before, and insisted on having a play with it. I think we were all glad to get home intact after this.
The whole tour was very badly organised. We never knew our itinerary more than 24 hours ahead, and there was never a list of optional excursions and prices, so it was impossible to budget ahead. This was because excursion prices went up and down (usually up) according to the latest fluctuations of the £. One of the visits from Tbilisi actually cost £4.30! Needless to say, there was never sufficient change to give us. The bank manager in our party boycotted future excursions after he had a £5 note rejected because it had a mark on it. Our guide was not much good, and showed little interest in us. In fact, all the guides in the different cities were a remarkably incurious lot, and only Rosa, the guide in Yerevan, showed any interest at all in our life in the west. (She had compiled a list of British monarchs, but talked of the Tudors, Stuarts etc as “dynasties”. I offered to explain how they were related to each other if she came to the hotel, but she didn’t turn up) It was ironic that after the tram-spotter incident our guide was hauled over the coals by the authorities (or so she said) and accused of “always taking the side of the tourists”. Whose side is a guide supposed to take, I would like to know? The hotels were mostly poor, and, with the exception of the Cosmos in Moscow, would probably have been closed down in Britain by a health and safety inspector, for a variety of reasons ranging from broken lavatory pans and dangerous light fittings down to cracked teacups. Russians are still hopeless at plumbing. The hotel in Tbilisi appeared to have installed old bathroom fittings in a new hotel. The Cosmos was rather better, but fell down badly at meals, which took a very long time to arrive and were generally stone-cold when we got them. When we complained about this, the maitre d’hotel (or possibly an underling) came and asked whether we wanted anyone to be punished!
The general overall impression that we formed was that Russia was essentially a very large third-world country. Everything pointed to this: the all-pervading inefficiency and inattention to detail, the constant petty cadging and black-marketeering, the concentration on big-scale prestige projects (and armaments) to the exclusion of everything else, the obvious poverty and lack of basic facilities. Thus, the old ladies who swept the streets had brushes which looked home-made and were too short in the handle, so they had to stoop the whole time. In the smaller restoration projects, such as the palace in Baku, there were no proper ladders, only bits of wood nailed together; nor were there any wheelbarrows, so the mortar and bricks had to be humped around by hand everywhere. I could not imagine British bricklayers agreeing to work under these conditions. It was the sight of the slums in Yerevan which sparked off the most discussion in our party. The whole lot could have been cleared away for the cost of building our hotel, and the new football stadium just down the road must have cost millions. So why were the slums still there? Of course, it is likely that thirty years ago Yerevan was all slum, and that the rebuilding done so far was actually an impressive achievement. I suspected there just aren’t enough civil engineers in the Soviet Union working on such things. But we were all surprised that the authorities had given so little thought as to what visitors would make of the squalor staring them in the face. I was saddened how fast the tourists fell into an entirely patronising attitude towards the slum-dwellers, on the general theme of, “Well, we wouldn’t like to live there, but the people seem happy enough, and they probably prefer it to living in blocks of flats”. (this view, interestingly enough, was expressed in these very words by an East German.) Judging by the extreme grottiness of the flats we saw under construction, I could understand people not wanting to live in them, but those slums were a plain and simple health hazard, and should have gone long ago. Besides, refraining from demolishing slums on the grounds that the inhabitants still want to live in them is hardly the approach one would expect from the Soviet planning authorities! I was more convinced than ever that the Soviet Union is a very inefficiently run country, still trying to escape from ancestral poverty and backwardness, and that trying to conceal this not-too-disgraceful fact is the cause of a great deal of pretence and dishonesty. Long before the end of the tour, we were starting to laugh at the latest display of incompetence, though Danielle, our French lady, kept exclaiming “Oh! What a country!” in a tone of despair. Russia may be a military threat, but otherwise I would find it difficult to treat the Soviet system seriously at all.
I’m very glad I visited this region, because I couldn’t do it today. Less than ten years after my trip, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the three trans-Caucasian republics became independent states. But independence was shortly followed by wars, which are still continuing: civil war in Georgia (during which our hotel in Tbilisi was burnt to the ground), war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, war between Russia and Georgia; and this was nothing compared with the sufferings of the North Caucasus, with two wars in Chechnya and the capital city Grozny destroyed by Russian bombers. All the region had to cope with at the time of my visit was the boring inefficiency of the Brezhnev years. (As P. J. O’Rourke wrote after visiting Warsaw around this time, “Communism doesn’t really starve or execute many people: mostly it just bores them to death”. I agree with him”) And maybe the people of the Caucasus would prefer to have the boring times back, given the chance.
The other major change has been the attitude to Islam. At the time of my visit, the Soviet Union was still fighting in Afghanistan, and the West was backing the Moslem extremists. I saw one remarkable Soviet propaganda cartoon poster showing heavily-armed bearded mullahs, all of whom looked exactly like Ousama bin Laden, advancing under their banner, which was, of course, the dollar! How times change! Nowadays we fight the mullahs and the Russians support us; and when the Russians kill large numbers of Moslems, notably in Chechnya, we are careful not to criticize them. What would we have said if had been Leonid Brezhnev’s Communist government bombing Grozny! We’d have been smuggling anti-aircraft missiles to the Chechens! This is a truly Orwellian situation, in which your bitter enemy can overnight become your friend, and vice versa.
(More on the Caucasus to follow in a later blog entry)