In 1966 Leonid Brezhnev directed Intourist, the Soviet Union’s travel agency, to actively promote tourism. For the first time since the Bolsheviks grabbed control of that unhappy place in 1922, tourists were not only to be welcomed but actively courted!
This sea-change in Soviet behavior probably signaled the beginning of the end for the Soviet Empire, though at the time nobody drew that conclusion. After all the Soviet Union and our Union of States were engaged in a Cold War, a space race and any number of other contests around the globe … on its several continents, its seas, its skies and its moon.
But by courting tourism it could no longer hide its need for cold, hard cash. It took another 21 years, but bankruptcy eventually wrote finis to their “Union.”
In 1966, while still in Koblenz, I’d read of the new Soviet openings to the West. I didn’t think much of the news. However when I found myself in Helsinki some Finnish guys gave me an entirely different way of looking at those developments.
Living with Charlie automatically enrolled me in the embassy crowd, a bunch of bright young people from all over the world who worked in the 70 or so embassies of Helsinki … and who loved to party! And party we did!
We’d gather after hours in an embassy’s cafeteria, load up the juke box with markkas (the Finnish currency then), start drinking beer or vodka, or both, and start dancing. US and British groups ruled the charts at the time. The Mamas and the Papas, the Beach Boys, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones all produced great rock ‘n roll that moved me and Charlie to wild, rhapsodic, uninhibited dance!
She had the energy of an Olympic gymnast combined with the endurance of a Viking raider! So we danced, danced, danced to our hearts content during late afternoon get-togethers! For us dancing was the oxygen of life!
Along with drink! And singing! And we talking with cigarettes dangling from our lips like Bogart in an old black-and-white film.
The conversations there were always fascinating, especially considering the gossip and secrets to which that group was privy. But the intelligence that seriously caught my imagination came from some Finnish guys who, on long weekends, would hop a train to Leningrad (originally and now, once again, called Saint Petersburg) wearing several pairs of Levi’s and layers of shirts which they’d shed and sell for exorbitant amounts on that city’s black market. The profits from their illicit trade more than covered the costs of their trips!
The idea of visiting Russia (but eschewing the black market) started bouncing around in my head like a rubber ball on a string … “Wow! I’d like to visit Russia … and it’s right next door!”
I was inspired! I was motivated! And I was standing at the counter of the USSR’s Embassy in no time at all! The Soviets were new to customer service … so new in fact that even the most rudimentary skills of that helpful art were completely unknown. However, after long waits making arrangements for hotels in Leningrad and Moscow, and purchasing obligatory gas coupons for the single gas station on the only highway (no more than a country lane really … just a strip of asphalt with no markings, not even a center line) connecting those two great cities … I got my visa.
I was off to the USSR the very next day!
In 1967 the borders of Russia were like those of a fortress. The Cold War was much more than an academic term. The actors all played their parts in earnest … deadly earnest.
The notion that I should have given more thought to my hasty decision to leave the warm embrace Charlie and drive into Russia vaguely came to me as I drove to the border. A sunny deep blue sky and my radio blasting the latest British ‘Big Beat’ bands like the Dave Clark 5 or the Animals saved me from devoting too much time to such unwelcome thoughts.
However I couldn’t completely ignore my lack of due-diligence as I drove along the countless miles of road that cut through dense forests as straight as a gun barrel with sings on barbed wire fences that read “Do Not Stop! Stopping For Any Reason Prohibited! Do Not Stop!”
That got my attention. But I’d seen similar sorts of signs on the fences surround the Benicia Arsenal back home in California. I let it pass, again, without much forethought. Then, after driving for over an hour it dawned on me that I hadn’t seen anyone else on the road all day … and it was the main arterial between Finland and the Soviet Union.
Not a single car. Not a single truck. Nothing! Was it due to a holiday? No. Was it Sunday? No. What then? I couldn’t figure it out!
I’d never experienced anything like it … unless you counted the time I snuck through the roof hatch and fell into the dark, cavernous auditorium of Curry Elementary School on a long, boring weekend.
Of course that’s like comparing apples and oranges, but still, like that escapade, I couldn’t shake the feeling I was sneaking into some place I shouldn’t be sneaking into. It was kind of spooky … but that feeling burst into full bloom at the border crossing.
The Finns kept their side of the boundary spotless and ship-shape (as Finns will inevitably do). The Russians were nowhere to be seen. Only a remotely controlled James Bond-like border gate and a flagpole the size of a redwood tree with big, red USSR hammer and sickle flag rippling in a pleasant morning zephyr stood between me and their workers’ paradise.
It was more than a bit unnerving coming face-to-face with the flag that stood for the enemy who I’d learned to fear ever since long ago school drills that prepared us for atom bomb attacks … by crawling under our desks!
And now, without a desk in sight, I was driving into enemy territory alone … completely along! It was all a bit discomforting feeling to say the least, making me doubt my cavalier attitude about long-range planning!
Coming next! Driving Around Europe Without A Map, Part 6 … AN HONOR GUARD, A TOMMY GUN AND SOME PORN
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