My Travel Journal Continued: “From Paris to Russia and Back”
I visit the Ukraine in 1968
Saturday 24th August, 1968 (Day 55 of our journey)
I awoke feeling sick on our 5th day in Russia. So Liz drove us into the Intourist Centre where we asked for a guide, who was sent for immediately. Kiev was a very beautiful city with wide streets, huge buildings, many shops and more western-looking than Odessa. Our chubby, round-faced guide, who said he was not Ukrainian but of Tartar origin, attempted to amuse us with an American-style accent. He was an extremely good guide, and told us many interesting facts about each monument. As if in passing, he also announced the news that Russian troops were currently occupying Czechoslovakia, and said it was to stop Czechoslovakia from moving towards capitalism. We saw the statue of St Vladimir the Grand Duke, who brought Christianity to Kiev: it overlooked the River Dnieper and showed a fine view of the city.
Saint Sophia was next—a beautiful Byzantine church, originally the replica of the one at Istanbul, but very much modified since. Built in the sixth century by Yaroslav the Wise, this church had been repainted since and gold added quite recently to the domes. It was full of beautiful mosaics and icons and there were metal tiles on the floor, with Jewish and Moslem patterns and designs, signifying, perhaps, that Christianity stood above these other religions. We attended a typical Russian wedding, in which the bride wore a short white gown and the guests were either joyful or tearful and carrying flowers. The ceremony was conducted by a female municipal official dressed in a formal and sophisticated manner, with a red band around her shoulder and waist. The ceremony was short, and the atmosphere formal and relaxed, at one and the same time. Afterwards, they would drink champagne with their guests and have a lunch together. There would be no honeymoon. This wedding took place in a building known as a Wedding Palace. We looked at the modern architecture, much finer than in Odessa, but stayed in the car, because it was raining. I noticed that the facades were in white stone over brick, shiny and easy to keep clean looking.
One very surprising monument, especially in the light of the recent events we had left behind in Paris—the Workers’ and Students’ strike, or mini revolution—was the Red University. The charming story behind this building—a little too stark for my liking—was that it was painted red on the orders of the Czar of Russia, whose presence in Kiev in 1842 had prompted student demonstrations against conscription: “YOU, STUDENTS, WHO HAVE NEVER BLUSHED WITH SHAME, SHALL FOREVER BE REMINDED OF YOUR DISGRACE BY THE COLOUR OF THIS BUILDING,” he announced in a speech to the student body at the time.
We discovered more recently that this was incorrect information, The legend does not reflect the historical fact, as the building was painted red before WWI, in 1842. Nicholas I of Russia (1825–1855) died long before World War I (1914–1918). Built at the top of a hill, this building has significantly influenced Kiev’s architectural layout in the 19th century (Wikipedia).
As before, we asked many probing questions of our guide, who wanted cigarettes and to drive the car in exchange. He said that there was propaganda against religion in Russia, but that you were free to worship as you wished, as long as you did not try to convert anyone.
“Patience is the motto for all of the people of our great land,” he explained. “The government tells us that in five, ten years, we will have all the things that we have waited so long for.”
I could see that this patience and waiting applied to many fields inside Russia, and that we, too, had been caught up in this in some small way, in the long queues in restaurants and shops. But for the people of Russia this would go on—waiting, waiting , for consumer goods to be produced more cheaply and better, waiting for the economy to improve and to take the people into the modern world, waiting for better clothes, books, houses to be built, waiting, waiting…
In the evening, on the guide’s advice, we decided to eat at a restaurant just before the camp. But when we sat down at a long empty table, we were advised by a waiter it was reserved, and were just walking out, when a man, dark, slant-eyed and sleazy-looking urged us back inside, and and sat us down next to two young pleasant-looking men.
We tried to explain to one of the young men that we were unable to pay a lot of money, since we were on a tight budget. Suddenly, Edouard, the dark one, was plying us with dishes and wine, acting the over-attentive host, even cutting up my meat for me. We could do nothing but hope it was not going to cost us too dearly, and actually the meal was excellent, its only fault being that it was too much. By this time, perhaps as a result of the uninhibiting effect of the wine, we were managing to communicate—Liz in faltering Russian—with the other two, Slava and Nikola. I noted that Slava, dark and plump, showed very effeminate traits. Nikola, tall and handsome, made us laugh with his outrageous mimes, particularly when he made gurgling sounds in a rendition of the drowning of the former prime minister of Australia, Mr Harold Holt. I danced madly the jive with Edouard, who by this stage seemed less threatening to my floating spirit. The rather conservative-looking, middle/upper class guests watched us in amused silence. As the evening wore on, I became more and more convinced that Slava and Nikole were camp (the expression of the time, I think, unless you preferred “queer”). Still, we were enjoying ourselves, and liked them a lot, despite the uneasiness and surprise when they would not allow us to pay the bill.
Afterwards, they accompanied us to the bar of the motel to finish the evening off, where we sat outside on the dark terrace and continued, against our will, to be plied with wine by Edouard, who had a vodka too. But despite all this drinking, neither Liz nor I became the least bit intoxicated, and enjoyed the dancing with Slava and Nikola, and listening to Nikola sing.
Nikola told us he was an actor and we could easily believe this. Slava was supposed to work in a television studio, and Edouard said he had been a law student. I wondered if he meant into crime? He was scruffy-looking and not at all intellectual. As my cigarette lighter was finished, I handed it jokingly to Slava, and he took it gratefully, as a compliment, searching for gifts to give us. I was handed a small bottle of perfume and Liz a poetry book signed by Nikola.
We asked them for their address, so that we could send them a thank-you postcard, and the evening was closed. Or so we thought!
Sunday 25th August (Day 56)
We awoke very late and ate a good lunch at the restaurant. Then Liz discovered 100 francs and 9 rubles stolen. I’d had 100 francs taken too, but not the rubles. Immediately, we knew it must have been the three men! Or at least, Edouard, while the other two danced with us. Was it a plot, a conspiracy between the three?
Monday 26th August (Day 57)
The car was making a strange noise but we met two French boys who were able to fix the fan-guard easily enough. After writing in our diaries, we talked and had breakfast, meeting some Italian men and a Swiss boy. Then we bought some food and set off: it was late by this time. The day was sunny and the driving good; we even stopped to take some photos and to eat by the side of the road. We drove until 9.30 pm, when we found a restaurant and then set off again. However, we took a wrong turn and were stopped by a drunken policeman who questioned us and flirted with us. By this time the remaining patience we had had with Russian officials deserted us completely and we lost our respective tempers. Liz insulted him about his drunkenness; others arrived to back him up. We were then led to the police station for questioning, taken out the back past long corridors, hearing the key turn heavily in the lock. Then followed more interrogations. Finally we were invited to put our tent up across the road from the station in the middle of the village square.
58th Day: Tuesday 27th August
The police came and woke us up at 6 am. I noticed peasant workers trudging along the roads on their way to commence their daily grind. They must have been surprised at the sight of our tent pitched there. Perhaps that was why the police wanted us on our way. But the car would not start in the cold frosty morning air. We ate apples that were growing there. The men helped crank the car and tried to push-start us into action. After about two hours, when the sun had come up, the car finally relented, gave a splutter and, much to our relief, burst into life once again. It seemed to me at that moment that it knew the terrible predicament we were in, if it did not make one last effort. In reality, we would probably have had to have it freighted out at our expense if it had refused to start. Apparently, you could not dump a foreign car on Soviet territory.
It was a gorgeous sunny day as we set out once again. For mile upon mile we passed Russian military convoys en route for Czechoslovakia, going to prop up the rebellion there. At one stage we were caught up in heavy troop movement. I especially remember the old-fashioned stove-like contraptions being pulled along behind the vehicles, and the important-looking officer sitting in a side-car of a motor-bicycle. It was like stepping back into history, albeit an unpleasant one, being caught up like this. We arrived in Lvov in sunny weather, and the camp was a good one: we even found a pleasant private spot to pitch the tent. Liz slept but I couldn’t, so I had coffee and wrote in my diary. After lunch we visited the charming town of Lvov; by this time it was raining again. We saw many poor-looking Russians lining up for stodgy food in street self-service stalls. After visiting art galleries, we ate in a fine Intourist restaurant, meeting up with the French boys from the Kiev camp.
We only understood about the invasion of Prague, when we reached Vienna, and read about it in a newspaper there.
We were prevented by the military from continuing on to Prague … so back to Vienna it was. There we read about the true story of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the USSR.