Travelling the USSR in 1982 – memories of a ‘surplus group’

In 1982, when she was 21, my mum joined an exchange programme to travel through the Soviet Union. The group of 30 young Germans produced a travel diary that she recently dug out for me from the attic. In the introduction it reads: “If somebody reads this in a few years, they should consider the following words by Theodor Fontane: ‘He who wants to travel has to bring with him love for the country and the people, at the least he shouldn’t bring prejudice. He needs to have the good intention to find the good instead of killing it through critical comparisons.'”

Grandpa Lenin?
Grandpa Lenin?

So here we are, 34 years later, with the travel journal and a carefully put together photo album, retracing their steps. For three weeks, the group crisscrossed the USSR by train, coach and plane. In some places, they were allegedly the first “Westerners” to visit. My mum recalls that she had not really thought about the diversity she would encounter. She’d been to East Germany (which in her memory was “just grey”), and expected something similar from the Soviet Union. Today she laughs about getting off the plane in Alma-Ata (today Almaty, Kazakhstan) and being surprised to see that most people “looked Asian”.

Shopping in style at the "GUM".
Shopping in style at the “GUM”.

The journey started on the Paris-Moscow express, taking them not all the way to Moscow, but to Minsk first. Rather than the sightseeing programme in Minsk and its surroundings, it was the culture change that made the biggest impression on the travellers. Sausages and cabbage for breakfast? Tea instead of coffee? The supermarket has run out of beer?! However, they quickly learned to adapt. This was especially the case with securing a steady supply of beer. My mum recalls: “They usually had beer at airports, so before every flight, we had to calculate carefully how much beer we needed to buy. In some places it was really hot, it was difficult to keep the beer cold. So we stored it in the water tanks of the toilet flush, and that worked very well.” That’s German engineering for you.

Pioneer camp: To break ranks is not appreciated.
Pioneer camp: To break ranks is not appreciated.

After Minsk, the next stop was Moscow, where they were confronted with the two faces of the Soviet regime. On the first day, they saw modern residential areas, a huge university complex and were impressed by the luxurious shopping centre “GUM”. On the next day, they visited the “Exhibition on the Achievements of the Economy of the USSR”, a permanent exhibition on the outskirts of Moscow. Alas, the “achievements” failed to impress: “In 80 pavilions, partly build in the national styles of the Soviet Republics, one can experience the self-adulation of the Soviet Union. As tourists, we see pedicured greens and pretentious buildings and fountains that are supposed to cover up the outcomes of policies. But among the masses of people that are transported there every day, one keeps seeing the afflicted population: poorly dressed, marked by hard labour, who are working in the flower beds and on the walkways.” (Angelika, 22/07/1982).

Lenin in the woods, Kazan, Tatarstan.
Lenin in the woods, Kazan, Tatarstan.

Also the next point on the itenary contained ample opportunities to marvel at the differences between “East” and “West”. Flying from Moscow to Kazan, capital of the Tatar republic (today a federal subject of Russia), the first point of interest they visited was a pioneer camp, a kind of summer camp for teenagers. They were greeted with folklore dancing and got involved in games, to get to know each other. “All this looked like a TV game show – but in Russian. That’s why four of us got away from the group and tried to see the rest of the camp” (Ulrike & Ulrich, 1982). After one failed attempt to escape, they were suddenly allowed to go to see the sleeping quarters, which actually made a quite good impression.

Who knew it
Who knew it’s this hot in Kazakhstan? Cooling off in Alma Ata (Almaty).

After a short stop back in Moscow, the group continued to Alma Ata, Kazakhstan (today Almaty). Disregarding the temptations of the bazaar, the Soviet travel guides wanted to show them a rather different highlight of the city: the kindergarten. 280 children, 12 groups, and 70 teachers don’t fail to impress. I should add that labour force participation of women was still rather low in 1980s Western Germany, so that day-care for children on a large scale didn’t really exist. Hence, our travellers were astonished at this strictly organised institution for children aged 1 to 7. Yet, they were most irritated by the omnipresence of “Grandpa Lenin”:  a Lenin-image in every room of the kindergarten, neatly decorated by the children themselves.

This kindergarten is a tourist attraction.
This kindergarten is a tourist attraction.

On they went to Dzhambul and Shymkent, Kazakhstan, where the highlight of the day was a wine tasting at a sovkhoz (a state-owned farm). My mum has vivd memories of this: “It was boiling hot, and I was thirsty, so I took a big sip of the first wine I was given. I was sure I was going to die. Instead of normal wine, it was port wine with more than 50% of alcohol!” Safe to say, she survived, and the group continued to Kentau and Turkistan on the next day.

Wine tasting in Shymkent. Guess who
Wine tasting in Shymkent. Guess who’s my mum.

My mum recalls that everybody was a bit puzzled: Why Kentau and Turkistan? Most Russians did not even know these places – or had never bothered going themselves. It emerged that they were a “surplus group”, squeezed in by the responsible agency “Sputnik”. In other words, they hadn’t been considered for the five-year-plan. Because the plane back to Moscow was overbooked, half the group had to take an earlier flight from Tashkent, Uzbekistan. After some discussions with the officials, a group of volunteers was found and brought to Tashkent – in the middle of the night, escorted by police, because there was no time to arrange the necessary visas. From this point on, the “Sputnik” officials seem to have given up on opposing the hard-headedness of their Western guests. Visiting the Bazaar instead of sightseeing tour? Fine. Scrap the visit of the Lenin mausoleum. Alright then.

Hotel in Dzhambul (now Taraz), Kazakhstan.
Hotel in Dzhambul (now Taraz), Kazakhstan.

Despite some obstacles on the way, unflexible Soviet officials, endless delays and waiting times, my mum and her friends still have fond memories of their adventures in the Soviet Union today. What I find most impressive is how unprejudiced and open-minded the travel group was in 1982, when the Cold War was still in full force, just before the Soviet Union started to crumble. Mostly reliant on their interpreter and the Soviet travel guides, the group followed along, with just a little grumbling, and accepted things the way they were.

Images: Regina Ellefredt-Thol.

The youth-exchange programme still exists today. Find more information here (in German).

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