On July 6, 1991, a group of teenage high school students, including myself, boarded a plane departing for a three week journey together. We were bound to a country that, until very recently, had been shrouded in mystery and secrecy. This country was, during my visit, known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This tour would take us through six of the former Soviet Union’s most important cities; Moscow, Smolensk, Minsk, Odessa, Kiev, and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). These cities are now located in three countries; Russia, Byelorus, and Ukraine.
Our tour of this country gave us just a small sample of the way of life that its citizens live. However, we received a vast knowledge of their culture, history, and government. Another important item that I discovered was that it is not the people that deserve our hatred and fear, but the government officials. I believe that fear of the unknown can lead towards hate.
When we arrived in Moscow, we were greeted with this ghastly, pungent smell that was a combination of diesel exhaust, bad cigarettes, sweat, and other general disgusting odors. This is a big city, there was at the time of my visit about six million people residing in Moscow, and there will always be pollution in cities this size. After a couple of days within the city, we forgot the smell and became absorbed by the architecture, history, and culture.
During our visit to Moscow, we were given a tour of the Kremlin. Many people think that the Kremlin is just one building that was the seat of the government for the former Soviet Union, like our White House. However, the Kremlin is really a walled complex that houses numerous buildings, to serve different government purposes, as well as several cathedrals.
The fact that there are cathedrals in the Kremlin seems almost against the image that the Soviet Union is an atheistic society. The cathedrals are in very good condition for being built several hundred years ago. Most of the cathedrals within the Kremlin were built in, or around the thirteenth century.
When kremlin is translated directly into English it means fortress. The kremlins of the main towns were used for a fortress to protect the government officials, the tsars, grand dukes, and their families. Most of these structures have been destroyed by the various wars that have been fought upon Soviet soil. One of the remaining kremlins that is completely intact is the one we’re all familiar with, the Moscow Kremlin.
While we were touring one of the cathedrals in the Kremlin, we were suddenly interrupted by a large noisy group of reporters. The reporters were following two women around the cathedral, one of the women was a smallish lady that was dressed in a white dress and had reddish colored hair, the other lady was taller and not known by our guide. Our guide told us that the first lady was Raisa Gorbachev, the wife of the former President of the Soviet Union.
On the following days after our Kremlin visit, we had a general tour of Moscow by bus. Some of the many places that we saw were Moscow State University, which incidentally is the largest University in the world, Lenin Stadium, where the 1980 Summer Olympic Games were held, Gorky Park, one of the few amusement parks in Russia, Bolshoi Theater, that was founded along with our country in 1776, and numerous other sites.
After our visit to Moscow was over, we took a train to the town of Smolensk. This town dates back to the early eighth century, which was long before Moscow was founded. In more recent times the city was known as the “Gateway to Moscow.” Smolensk lies about halfway between Moscow and Minsk, and is one of the oldest cities in Russia.
While we were in Smolensk, another group member and myself met with the Mayor of the city. We spent no more than half an hour talking, through a translator, with him, but during that time we presented him with the Key to the city of Jackson and a map of Michigan. He in return presented us each with maps of Smolensk. During our conversation with him, he expressed the hope that our two countries would become friends, starting not with the top government officials, but by starting at the more local level government.
We were told before our trip that we would be able to stay overnight with a host family. When we arrived in Smolensk we were told that because of the lack of time, we would only be spending the evening with different host families. We were split into small groups of three or four according to the preferences that the host family indicated. The family that two other group members and I visited was an above average family. The husband was a geography teacher and the wife was a doctor. The average monthly income, at the time of my trip, was around 400 rubles ($13 US). A teacher received close to 700 rubles ($23 US) a month and were among the highest paid. Doctors only received around 300 rubles ($10 US) monthly, because they were paid by the state and not by private citizens, or insurance companies.
We also visited a summer school for young children. The children at this school aged from about eight to around fifteen years. These students learned how to speak English, to make stuffed dolls, to dance, as well as many other principles. The dance students had prepared a very nice performance for us and invited us to join in on learning one of their folk dances. Then we showed them one of our dances, the Chattanooga.
We ended our visit to Smolensk at the same place that our visit began, the Smolensk train station. When we disembarked from the train several hours later, we found ourselves in Minsk, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Byelorussia. Now Minsk is the capital of the country of Byelorus.
While in Minsk, we visited a place that is known as The Hill of Glory. This place is a monument to the four fronts of fighting that were in Byelorussia during World War II, as well as the victory of 1944, when Soviet forces largely liberated the republic from the Nazis. The monument is composed of a conically shaped man-made hill. At the apex of the hill stands four colossal bayonets, reaching upwards into the sky. Each bayonet symbolizes a front of the fighting during World War II, which was known as the Great Patriotic War in the former Soviet Union. At the base of the hill, on one side, is a large reflection pool that makes this monument a pleasing site.
Another site that we visited during our stay in Minsk is about 35 miles from the city. This complex, named Khatyn, is now the site of a memorial to all the collective farms that were destroyed by the Nazis, including those that were rebuilt after the war, and those that no longer exist. Khatyn is also a memorial to all the Soviet citizens that died in the Nazi’s concentration camps within Byelorussia.
When the Nazi armies came upon a collective farm, what they would do is gather all the people of the farm into the farm’s largest building. When all the people were in the building, they would set it on fire, shooting all the people that tried to leave the building. The Nazis would also burn down the other buildings that were on the collective farms. At Khatyn, where each house stood, there is now a small memorial, in the shape of a chimney, that has a bell in it which chimes every thirty seconds.
Near the entrance to the memorial stands a sculpture of a man that is holding a young boy. This is a monument to the only person, Josef Kaminsky, to have survived the fire. He is holding the form of his young son that also survived the fire, but died a few days later from the extreme burns that he received. When we arrived at this statue, there were some other tourists that were getting ready to take a picture of family members standing in front of the statue. Our guide excused herself from our group and explained to the other tourists that it was against Russian belief to take a picture of someone in front of a sacred place or memorial.
Our flight to Odessa from Minsk only took a couple of hours, but it was a very pleasant trip. The hotel that we were to stay in for our visit to Odessa was remodeling the cafeteria. Therefore, we had to walk several blocks to another hotel for our meals. Walking through a city in another country, I feel, is the best way for you to see what the people live like, what condition the roads, sidewalks, houses, and other buildings are kept in.
During our stay in Odessa, we were taken to a ballet in the Opera House of Odessa. The ballet we saw was Don Quioxte, that was written by Spanish author Cervantes. I was in awe of the interior of this building, with all of the guilded lights, marble columns, and the felt lined box seats. From what we were told by our guide the Soviet people place a very high emphasis on promoting culture and the tickets for the ballet were priced so that most every citizen can come to the Opera House every week.
Unfortunately for us, the flight that we had originally been scheduled to take had been cancelled, so we went by train to Kiev. This was an overnight trip that ended up taking around 14 hours. The train was also heavily infested with flies. Because of the uncomfortable beds, the flies, and an occasional stuck window letting in the cold night air, most of our group didn’t get much sleep that night.
One of the places that we visited in Kiev was the site of the mass execution of 100,000 Soviet citizens during World War II. This place, named Babi Yar, is just outside of the city. There is now a memorial bronze statue to the people that died here in the center of the field. This statue is composed of different citizens that are frozen in death and falling into the pit.
While in Kiev, we also visited a place that is known as the Monastery of the Caves. This place is the site of several underground churches that were founded in 1051 by two monks that wanted to protect the church from harm during attacks by pagan invaders. Located in the several natural caves are the tombs of several 11th, 12th, and 13th century monks. These tombs are open coffins placed in nooks in the tunnel walls. The bodies have been preserved by the constant cool temperatures of the caves.
Leaving Kiev a day earlier than scheduled to avoid another trip by train. We flew to Leningrad, now renamed to St. Petersburg. At the time of my visit, Leningrad was called the Venice of the North, because of its many canals and the similarities in the architecture of the buildings. Most of the buildings in Leningrad were designed by Italian architects.
During our stay in Leningrad, we visited both the summer and winter homes of Tsar Peter the Great. His summer home is located about 20 miles away from Leningrad. This palace is named what it was, Petrodvorets, which literally means Peter’s Palace. The palace grounds are now a public park.
On the palace grounds are several fountains that were built for Peter the Great. There are two sets of fountains that are “booby-trapped.” These fountains are set up to look like a normal area with benches to sit on and trees and flowers to admire, but watch out. When approaching a flower or tree for a closer look, you carelessly release a hidden trigger and the flower or tree suddenly turns into a fountain, getting you wet. The benches are also set up the same way. These fountains were built for Peter the Great to entertain his guests and are gravity fed with water.
The Winter Palace of Peter the Great, named the Hermitage, is located on the banks of the Neva River within the city of Leningrad. The Hermitage is one of the Soviet Union’s major art museums, housing works from Renaissance artists as well as more modern painters and sculptors. There is an entire floor of the Hermitage devoted entirely to French Impressionist paintings.
When we were at the train station, waiting to leave the country for Finland, our entire group was full of mixed emotions ranging from extremely glad to be going home finally, to somewhat sad that the trip was over so quickly. This was one trip that I will never forget.
This journey led me to completely rethink all that I had been taught by family, friends, and school, that the Soviet people were our enemies. It is sad to think that we thought this about their entire population, when from what I saw they are very similar to ourselves.
I believe that peace will come.
I believe that fighting will cease.
I believe that nature will heal.
I believe that God will come.
I believe that evil will be vanquished.
I believe that…
Bantam’s Soviet Union 1991; Bantam Books; New York; 1990.
© 1993-1994 Jon Warren