Visiting the USSR in 1980

We’ve just arrived in Irkusk, Siberia, after 3 days on the Trans-Siberian train. I’ve written a bit about the trip so far, and Greg has taken heaps of photos and videos, and we’ll post some soon. But while we find our legs again and get used to the floor staying still and not rocking from side to side, here’s a post from Greg’s mum & dad, Fay and Ron, about a trip they did to Russia in 1980.

Memories of Russia 1980

Judy emailed us, wondering if we would like to reminisce on our trip to Russia in 1980, comparing it to their trip 2013.

So here goes.
We were in the UK to visit the relations, and had arranged a trip through Europe, called Russia, Poland and the Northern Capitals, cost $1,220 each, included dinner and breakfast along the way.

In July 1980 we left London for Harwich and embarked on the D.F.D.S. SEAWAYS for Esbjerg in Denmark, day two and three Copenhagen, and day four embarked on a ferry to Sweden, reaching the capital Stockholm in time for dinner. Day five spent sightseeing in Stockholm. Later that day we were driven to Norrtalje for the overnight crossing to Finland. Sightseeing in Helsinki our sixth day where we toured the bustling capital.

Then eastward to Russia:

First have to explain the times, we were arriving in Russia just before the 1980 Russian Olympics, several nations had banned athletes from attending the Olympics due to Russia invading Afghanistan. Australia did not send a full team to the games. Americans did not send a team.
We arrived at the border of Russia to overbearing custom people, there was only 18 of us in the coach (which could hold 44) many had cancelled because of the Russian situation.
They kept us in customs for four hours, went through everyone’s personal luggage, I had heated curlers, they took them apart, all books were searched through methodically. Small dogs were let loose in the coach; rods were put through the bodywork. Later they let us go.
Next Leningrad, now called St Petersburg, where we were taken by coach sightseeing and then to the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, a cemetery for 500,000 people. These people died during the siege of Leningrad, by the German army during World War 11. We walked down past this vast cemetery, to the monument where we found many Russians stood crying. A heart stopping moment to see such sorrow thirty six years after the siege ended.
In the evening we were taken to a performance of ballet at the spectacular Kirov Theatre.

Day nine we were driven to Novgorod where we first learnt you could only shop in Berioska shops, special shops for tourists. Shops in Russia at that time were not good; we see many queues outside premises, which to us did not have much displayed.
Hotels were unique as well. On every floor there were security, a lift in the Novgorod hotel could not be installed because the area left for it was not correct shape. Also food, we were served chicken which was so tough you couldn’t eat it. And we were served with caviar one time, which was a memorable moment.
In Novgorod we see young children led along holding on to a long rope, we see older children guarding the tomb of the unknown warrior, which apparently they performed this duty every day.
We learnt about another custom, brides on their wedding day they came to the memorial to honour the dead.
In the streets woman swept the roads with birch twig brooms, they were older woman and wore aprons and scarves.
In Russia there was not much traffic, mostly looked like government cars, few private. People did not speak to you; one place a man spoke in English but quickly moved away when security came into view. Not a happy country.

We continued on to Moscow where we did the usual sightseeing Red Square, huge queue for Lenin Mausoleum, we did not go in. The Kremlin and St Basil Cathedral, Tretyakov and Pushkin art galleries and the amazing Pavilion of Scientific Achievement.
The special thing we did in Moscow was to visit the Moscow State Circus in their permanent home, I would say circuses do not come at the top of my list to go and see, but, the Moscow State Circus, what can you say, it was amazing, never seen anything like since.

The journey through Russia continues past huge housing estates, high rise, ugly places, no landscaping.
We see paddocks were people lined up in a long row were cutting corn with scythes.
Saw woman washing clothes in creeks.
We stopped to get diesel on our way to Minsk, 150 litres the cost two cartons of cigarettes, the driver had them under his seat.
During our long travels through Russia we came across many block houses with armed guards.

So you can see how 1980 behind the iron curtain was different compared to 2013.
When we were leaving Russia we had to give roubles we had back.

Into Warsaw Poland, we learnt quickly how they all hated the Russian people.
Still behind that Wall, taken to a hotel in East Germany, built by the Swiss and run by them, the best hotel we had been in.

Taken around to see the wall, Brandenburg Gate and the gigantic Soviet memorial.
Next day out of Russian hands through Check Point Charlie, with more security checks underneath the coach they used mirrors. Into West Berlin, like another world entirely, shops packed with goods, and happy people.

Day nineteen moved on from Amsterdam to London.

Out and about in St Petersburg

We arrived in Moscow yesterday morning, but before we start sharing our adventures here, I want to write about our last full day in St Petersburg before I forget what we did and where we went.

Greg wrote about visiting the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery in his last post. We took the subway there and back and oh my gosh the subway is a long way underground. It must be halfway to China, or maybe even Australia. When we stood at the top of the escalator going down, it was impossible to see people getting off at the other end, that’s how long it was.

We had lunch at the shopping centre near the Akademicheskaya metro station (filled pancakes from a Teremok fast food place, and I tried Kvass, which I thought was a fruit drink with mint and is actually a fermented rye bread drink.  There’s another drink made with cranberries but I can’t remember its name. Will look for it and try it when I find it), then we caught the metro back to Nevsky Prospekt and did the Lonely Planet’s recommended walking tour, which took us along some of the many canals and past more fascinating buildings between Nevsky and the river.

Starting off at the magnificent Singer Building, which now has a large bookshop and cafe (and probably no sewing machines!), we nipped into the bookshop for a quick browse. I found a full set of Jamie Oliver’s cookbooks plus a few of Gordon Ramsay’s in Cyrillic, and most surprisingly, a Cyrillic language version of Bourke Street Bakery, which is a Sydney-based bakery. I sell the English language version. We wandered along one of St Petersburg’s many canals to the magnificent Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, where Alexander ll was blown up by a terrorist group in the 1880s hence its catchy name. Greg reckons there’s a bouncy castle in the highest cupola, but we didn’t go inside to check. We kept on walking along canals, past the now-ruined Court Stables and Pushkin’s last home, now a museum. We saw 4 of 5 bridal parties while we walked – Friday afternoon must be wedding time in Russia.

We wandered along a canal by the side of part of the Hermitage Museum to the Bolshaya Neva River, then along the back of the museum to the Alexander Column and the large square at the front of the museum. Crossing Nevsky Pr, we wandered through some side streets to the Faberge building which is still a jewellers but sadly there were no eggs anywhere. We caught a trolley bus just around the corner from the Hotel Astoria and I caught a glimpse of No 13 Malaya Morskaya, where Tchaikovsky died in 1893.

Greg went to the railway station to buy a luggage trolley for our still-enormous duffel bag – we’re hanging on to a few things we think we may need when we’re at Lake Baikal for a few days in the middle of our Trans-Siberian train trip. We had dinner at one of the many Coffee House cafes near Nevsky Pr – they seem to be Russia’s answer to Starbucks (which are also here, but not as common). A young waitress practised her English with us. It was … okay, she told us she had done a 7-day course.


the Singer Building - now  bookstore

the Singer Building – now bookstore

wrought iron gates

wrought iron gates



Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery

The Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery  is a monument to the Leningrad siege and contains the graves of 500,000 people.

We found a post on trip advisor that gave directions to the cemetery. So we took the metro (our first time, up to then we had used buses) and headed north. We emerged from the Metro to find ourselves in suburban Saint Petersburg. We then found the right minibus, paid our money and hoped that the driver would drop us off to the right place. Due to some mistranslation of Cyrillic he dropped us off past the memorial and we had to walk back about 1 km,

There were not many people at the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, It is surprising as it is the most important event in Saint Petersburg (Leningrad) history. The siege of Leningrad by the German Army and the Finns started in January 1941 and lasted 872 days. Approximately 1.5 million inhabitants died from starvation, and the bombardment by the German Army. 500,000 of those who died are buried in mass graves at Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery. Compare this with UK and USA deaths in World War 2 which totalled 800,000.

It is a very moving place.


Just some of the many mass graves at  Piskariovskoye. Each are marked by the year they are from.

Just some of the many mass graves at Piskariovskoye. Each are marked by the year they are from.


Some of the Individual graves, with names and year of death

Some of the Individual graves, with names and year of death

How to get there:

We got instructions from Trip Advisor, these are the slightly amended instructions-

Take the Red Line (#1) subway to the Akademicheskaya stop on the north side of town (28 Rubles) . Exiting the metro go straight across the plaza, cross the side street (to the right that runs between the metro plaza and the shopping centre) and look for an appropriate bus. Take either a private bus K172 (Mini bus 35 Rubles) or 178 (25 Rubles) to the memorial. Just pay the driver the Mini-bus (K172) the 35 rubles , On the way back, there is bus stop directly in front of the memorial. You will be let off across the main street from the subway. If there is no conductor on the 178 bus pay the 25 rubles to the driver (just put the money on a tray through the little window near the driver) when you LEAVE the bus.

the name of the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery in Cyrillic. If you can copy thsi to your phone you can show it to the bus driver.

the name of the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery in Cyrillic. If you can copy this to your phone you can show it to the bus driver.

the route the K178 bus takes from the Metro to the Cemetery, the bus continues on past the cemetery.

the route the K172/ 178 bus takes from the Metro to the Cemetery, the bus continues on past the cemetery.



The State Hermitage Museum

On the first Thursday of the month, admission to the State Hermitage Museum is free. As luck would have it, we visited the Hermitage on Thursday August 1st. I’m not sure whether that was good or bad – the queues to get in were long, and even longer by the time we left, but at this time of the year there would always be a long queue, free tickets or not. At some of the popular exhibits (Da Vinci’s Madonna and Child, and some of the Rembrandts), we had to wait till the crowd thinned to see the painting. But the museum’s crowd control was pretty good – they are obviously used to getting a lot of people through as quickly as possible.
The Hermitage Museum is huge, opulent, impressive, bewildering at times, easy to get lost in and a fine tribute to the excesses of Tsarist Russia. I couldn’t help thinking of how many of Russia’s poorer classes would have paid for those artworks with their blood, their sweat and their lives. The collections are displayed throughout the Museum, which itself comprises the Winter Palace, the New Hermitage and a couple of other buildings. In addition to the main exhibits, it is possible to buy tickets to see other collections including the Porcelain, Gold and Diamond rooms. We only saw a small sample of the main collection, and apparently what is on display in the museum is about 1/20th of the whole collection.
It took us about an hour to get into the museum and while we waited we watched some workmen replacing cobblestones around the edge of part of the Winter Palace. Well, 2 were working and 3 were supervising. We got our free tickets, took our bags to the cloakroom, went through metal detectors and headed straight to the Egyptian Room which has a great display of sarcophagi, jewellery, assorted artifacts and a mummy. Unfortunately there were no English translations for any of the display headers, so we couldn’t really work out what, when or where the exhibits were.
Then we headed up the magnificent Jordan Staircase in the Winter Palace to the Imperial staterooms and apartments, many of which had photos showing how the rooms were furnished during the last Tsar’s rule. We were following our Lonely Planet Guide which had a suggested half-day tour plan, although their map wasn’t all that easy to follow. We wanted to see the Da Vinci, the Monets and the Van Goghs, all of which we saw – a room full of Monet paintings, 2 rooms of Picassos plus one of Rembrandts. I know, all very mainstream, but the vast range of what was on display was pretty overwhelming for non-museum goers like us.
After the Picasso rooms we decided we’d seen enough – by then we had probably walked through at least 150 rooms spread across 5 buildings and 3 storeys, so we went to find a late lunch and a trolley bus back to the hotel.

the one hour long queue into the Hermitage

the one hour long queue into the Hermitage

The Hermitage from the plaza

The Hermitage from the plaza

the crowd at Da Vincis Madonna and Child

the crowd at Da Vinci’s Madonna and Child

the Jordan steps

the Jordan steps



Hermitage crowds

Hermitage crowds



Saint Petersburg

Well, we’re not in Scandinavia any more, and I’m not sure what is the most confronting – the masses of people everywhere, the huge volume of traffic, the scammers, the almost total absence spoken and written English language or the strange (Cyrillic) script. The most obvious is the Cyrillic script. In countries that use the Latin alphabet, I can usually have a go at working out what’s written, but not here. We’re staying just off Nevsky Prospekt, the main historical (and touristy) part of St Petersburg, and there are bits and pieces of written English around, and we haven’t got hopelessly lost or ordered the wrong thing off a menu …. yet!

We got into St Petersburg airport late on Tuesday evening and I made the stupid mistake of assuming the guy standing next to one of the official taxi booths was a taxi driver. Well, he had a Taxi ID card around his neck and a Taxi sign on his car …so he drove us to the address we had for the hotel we’d booked and then demanded 4 times the official fare. A bit of back and forth – he refused to let us get our bags, we refused close the car door and wouldn’t pay him any more money. He eventually gave up, let Greg grab the bags while I waited in the car, then he jumped out, grabbed his magnetic Taxi sign off the car roof, ripped the home-made Taxi card from around his neck and zoomed off. At least he did drive us to where we wanted to go. But then the real fun began. The hotel’s address was Apartment 65, 136 Nevsky Prospekt. We had the right number, but where the hell was Apartment 65? We wandered up and down the street for a while, hoping it would magically appear. A young man coming out of a nearby shop asked us if we needed help – why, yes we did! He was from Siberia, but was visiting a friend who lived locally and they took us down a long courtyard/lane to the street behind NevskyPr, into another courtyard and showed us where to ring the bell for the hotel. We would probably still be hunting around, 2 days later, if those young people hadn’t helped us.

So, we’re staying down one end of Nevsky Prospekt, and at the other end of the road is the Hermitage Museum, almost 4kms away. In between is one of the main railway stations, quite a few monuments and places of historical interest and many grand-looking buildings which have shops on the lower and ground floors, and then either more shops or apartments on the upper floors. A century ago, NevskyPr was a long, wide boulevarde, and those grand-looking buildings were huge private residences. I can imagine horse-drawn carriages and the well-heeled classes of Petrograd promenading along to the theatre or to an audience with the last Tsar in his Winter Palace, which is now part of the Hermitage.

We went to the railway station to organise our train tickets to Moscow (fast train on Saturday morning), then continued walking up NevskyPr, marvelling that even the McDonalds, Subway and Burger King signs are in Cyrillic. There is a lovely small park with a statue of Catherine the Great, and the flower beds are at their best at the moment – floral designs planted out with begonias, verbena and other bedding plants. The National Library is next door, but it didn’t seem to be open to the public.

We wandered off Nevsky in search of lunch and found a little cafe that had a selection of hot dishes keeping warm behind glass. We hung back to work out how to order, then as luck would have it the customer before us ordered what we wanted (shaslick and potatoes) so we just made gestures that we’d have what he was having. It came with cold cucumber soup, salad and a cup of hot water with 2 sugar cubes. It all tasted good and we were feeling pretty happy that we had successfully ordered our first meal in Russia when I got stung by a wasp that had somehow crawled down the back of my t-shirt. Ouch! I wasn’t really feeling up to much more sightseeing after that, so we hopped on a trolley-bus back to the hotel, calling into a nearby supermarket for a packet of frozen peas (to use as an ice pack on my wasp sting) and some medicinal beers.

Later on, we went and ordered pizzas from a little place near the hotel, and more beers. The local water has traces of giardia in it so we’re drinking and cleaning our teeth in bottled water. And drinking bottled beer!

McRussian - McDonalds on Nevsky Prospect

McRussian – McDonalds on Nevsky Prospect



Nevsky prospect

Nevsky prospect

Catching a Trolley-Bus on Nevsky prospect. The Trolley Buses get power from overhead electric lines

Catching a Trolley-Bus on Nevsky prospect. The Trolley Buses get power from overhead electric lines