Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Travel: Memories of Russia

© 1992, 2020 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

[This diary was written by hand in a spiral notebook during the trip. Now, I've transcribed and edited it.]

For some years, I'd been writing a monthly column for a US-based computer magazine, and my byline included my email address. One fine day in 1991, I got an email from a computer science professor, Vitaly, at a university in St. Petersburg, Russia, who was an avid reader of my articles. He invited me to come to his city and give a series of lectures over a two-week period, provided I could pay my own way there. After some dialog via email, I accepted his offer and decided to combine it with a holiday and to take my wife, Jenny, and son, Scott, the following summer. We'd also spend time in neighboring Finland before and afterwards.

I contacted the Russian embassy in Washington DC to see how to go about getting visas. They said I needed a letter of invitation on letterhead from the sponsoring organization. Less than a week after I conveyed that information to the university by email, I received a letter in the post from New York (where it had been hand-carried by someone on a flight from Russia) written in both Russian and English. [Apparently, they didn't want to rely on the Russian postal service, as it was slow, and things were often stolen!] I went to the embassy with my filled-out application form, photo, and letter. There were quite a few counters, but only one was open, so I got in the long line. When it was my turn, the officer took my papers and told me to sit and wait while the papers were examined. Sometime later, I was informed that everything regarding my application was okay, but where were the invitations for my wife and son? I explained that while I wanted a business visa, my wife and son would be going as tourists, but the officer insisted they still needed invitations. Two weeks later, I returned with said invitations, and was promptly issued three business visas. Yes, my 8-year-old son was apparently going there on business!

Like the then just-passed Soviet days, we were issued loose-leaf visas that were handed in when we left the country, which meant that we have no permanent record of having been there. [I was in-country a day or two when I noticed on the visa, text that said I had to report to my local area authorities to let them know my movements; however, I decided that was just a Soviet-era holdover, and I ignored it.]

When it came time to book the trip, there was one thing of which I was absolutely sure; I was not going to fly over Russian airspace at the mercy of Russian air-traffic controllers, even in a non-Russian airline plane! Instead, we flew to Helsinki, Finland, and took a brand-new Finnish train from there, reversing the process on return.

[Diary] At the Helsinki train station we hauled our luggage to Platform 8 where we boarded Car 35. A young Russian mother and her 1-year-old son sat in our carriage, and I helped her with her luggage. Her English was excellent. The public-address system announced our departure in Finnish, Swedish, English, and Russian. The restaurant car was right next door to ours. Two young German girls joined as we pulled out of the station. The new train was very comfortable.

When we approached the border with Russia, the Russian border guards and customs inspectors boarded to process us. They looked us over but didn't search any luggage. Then they took our passports returning them a while later just before they disembarked. It was a formality, which it would not have been not too long ago. (We were traveling on Australian passports.) As we crossed into Russia, we saw an armed soldier in a guard tower.

We arrived in St. Petersburg on time at 2 pm, where Vitaly met us with a bunch of red roses. All three of us were feeling quite tired, so he drove us to our apartment, where we slept for three hours. (As we were feeling rather low, the roads were full of large potholes, and the apartment building and neighborhood were rather run-down, I decided to delay my "first-hand" impressions until later.)

The apartment was spartan, but adequate. It was clean and comfortable and had all we needed for our stay. It belonged to Sonja (a nickname for Sofia), a mathematics Professor at Vitaly's university. The building primarily housed retired military officers and their families. Vitaly and Sonja's friend Slava was there to meet us. [Sonja vacated the place for us for the two weeks and took her 12-year-old son to stay at her Mother's.]

At 7:30 pm, Vitaly drove us to a circus. It was superb and ran for two hours. The acts included the following: dogs wearing shorts with suspenders, sitting at desks in school; jugglers; a woman twirling hoops; a strong man who lifted weights, laid on nails and broken glass, and walked on fire; some great clowns; several lots of acrobats, some swinging on a trapeze out over the crowd; three elephants; and a man doing tricks with soccer balls. The cost of admission was 13 rubles (about US$1.30).

[Diary] Around 8 am, Scott and I went out to the neighborhood playground. We found some young boys nearby, and joined them. One of them had travelled to East Germany on vacation, and spoke a little German. Using that he and I introduced everyone to each other. They were fascinated with my Swiss Army knife and all its gadgets. Beyond a few pleasantries, my Russian phrase book wasn't much help.

Later, a 13-year-old girl joined us. She'd been learning English for six years, but Scott and I were the first native speakers she had ever met, so she was a bit excited. We talked with her for quite some time, and when I gave her some lifesavers, she responded by giving us some Russian candy. Our first excursion was a success!

At noon, Vitaly arrived in his car, and he and I went shopping. Some staples—sugar, bread, and milk—were only available at government stores, so we went there first. The waiting line wound way out into the street with an hour's wait time, so we went off to a "peasant" market instead where stalls were privately run.

The stalls were inside a large building in which the stall owners had to rent space. (Remember, the free market was well under way in Russia by that time.) Most sold fruit and vegetables, but some had meat and fish. None had refrigeration! However, everything looked clean, and I had no reservations about buying anything. The carrots were "fresh-out-of-the-ground" that morning, and at 20 rubles a bunch, I bought four, for stews and soups, and to eat raw. I also bought a lettuce, some apples, and a small pot of butter they'd bought at the government store and were reselling there, and a can of condensed milk. From a butcher, I bought a kilo of veal-on-bones. Eventually, I found my way down some very dark stairs into an even darker basement, where people were selling potatoes. I bought two kilos; however, my pack was full, and I had nothing in which to put my "spuds"! As I stood there thinking about how I'd carry them home, an elderly lady saw my predicament and offered me a spare, plastic carry-bag with handles. Now in the new free-market economy, everything had value, so I smiled and thanked her saying "Спасибо" (spa-ce-bo) and gave her three rubles in exchange. She smiled, appreciated my generosity, but kept only one ruble. In that little exchange, she and I had done our bit for international diplomacy! Back home, I unpacked my goodies along with the stuff we'd bought from home: salt, pepper, powdered milk, coffee, and tea, and a can of peaches I'd bought in Finland. (Interestingly, the peaches came from Shanghai, China.)

Late afternoon, Slava drove us around the inner city for an orientation along the Neva River. [During preparations for our trip, I remembered reading that foreigners should not drink water from it, as it contained parasites that would make them sick.] We finished up at the Peter and Paul Fortress, where we walked for an hour or so. There were many stalls selling things that were mostly Russian-made. Scott really wanted a set of five hand-painted wooden dolls that were stacked one inside the other, so we bought one. (Some sets contained up to 11 dolls.) I bought a 100% cotton T-shirt that had the Pepsi Cola symbol on the front, and their slogan in Russian (Пепси) on the back. [Pepsi was one of the first western companies to break into the Russian market, and exchanging Pepsi for vodka was one way to balance the trade. Google "pepsico russia deal" to read all about it.] I also bought a bunch of bananas, which came from Panama. All the stalls took US$ cash, and we'd brought plenty!

After all that activity, we went home for a nap. After we rested, we felt better, and the city took on a more positive shape. Given Peter the Great's involvement, the city looked very European and was well planned. Most buildings built before the 1917 Revolution were very solid. The newer ones were rather drab in the typical Soviet style. Everything was quite rundown down to a lack of maintenance. However, with a good steam-clean, most old buildings would look magnificent! There were quite a few orthodox cathedrals and churches, most of which had been, or were in the process of being, restored. As the economy improves, I expect the city's appearance will too. It was by no means dirty, just neglected. There were beautiful parks and tree-lined streets everywhere, and the people were friendly.

[Diary] Vitaly picked me up just be before 9 o'clock. The university was on the main street, Nevsky Prospect, in an old bank building. Given the "new economy," the entrance halls were rented out to private stall owners. I met Natalie, the organizer of my lectures. She was a very pleasant lady who spoke English.

My first lecture began about 10 minutes late with 80–100 people in the hall. Vitaly provided simultaneous translation, so I had to pause after each sentence while he spoke in Russian. I soon got the hang of that, but every so often, he would turn to me and start speaking in Russian, or to the audience in English, as he got himself confused. I used an overhead projector and a chalk board.

During the break, people gathered around me with lots of questions. [As you might imagine, after decades of living in a tightly closed system, with a lot of stolen technology from the West and pirated software, they were eager for information.] Natalie recognized that I needed a break from speaking, so she rescued me and took me into an office to drink hot tea and have a Russian-style chocolate-chip cookie.

During the second half, I got much more technical, and people started to ask more questions as I went, which I prefer. Now under the new system, nothing was free anymore, and attendees had paid 10% of their monthly salaries for the lecture series, so they were certainly taking it very seriously. And knowing that in advance, I even wore a tie, but only on the first day!

For lunch, I invited Vitaly and Natalie to join me for a meal at a nice restaurant near the university. It took only hard currency; that is, well-recognized foreign money (such as German Deutsch Marks, English Pounds, or American Dollars). It was German-run, and the prices were in Deutsch Marks. The menu was written in English, German, and Russian. We each had several glasses of juice and an open-faced sandwich with sausage and mustard. The total cost was US$26, which was 1–2 months' salary for my Russian guests! As you can imagine, they can't afford to eat at such places. On the one hand, it was good to be able to give them a taste of "the good life." However, I didn't want to overdo it as they had to return to their everyday lives afterwards. They were such frugal people, I had to work hard to convince them to order something other than the cheapest dish.

Around 4 pm, we headed out to the world-famous Hermitage Museum, right next to the Great Winter Palace of the Tsars. The museum's interior was unbelievable, even without the art treasures. However, I remember that many things were gilded, and I am not a fan of gold! We got a good orientation during our 90-minutes there. Now the price of admission for foreigners was about 10 times that for Russians, so Vitaly asked us to keep quiet as we approached the cashier, and he claimed we were all locals. There was an extra charge to use a still or video camera (which was not uncommon at major museums).

Across the street by the Neva River were some stalls, and I bought another 100%-cotton T-shirt. Written on its front in Russian was "I was an agent of the KGB." A year or so earlier, it would have been unthinkable to print such a shirt let alone sell and wear it in public.

[Diary] At noon, we left for the nearest Metro (subway) station, 1 km away. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and we walked via a large park where people were out walking, picnicking, and sunbathing. Vitaly had given me a list of the stations we'd have to pass through, and how to change lines along the way. As I couldn't read the Russian letters he'd written, he'd provided a phonetic English spelling as well.

The escalator going down was v-e-r-y long, took at least two minutes to get to the bottom, and was moving quite fast. I thought we were journeying to the center of the earth! The station was very clean and well-organized. The train arrived almost immediately, and we boarded. It was quite crowded, and we had to go four stations before changing. A young man sitting next to me spoke some English and offered to help us get out at the correct stop. At the change, we simply crossed the platform and waited no more than a minute. This time, we sat next to a young woman who smiled a lot and knew a few English words. Five stations later, we get off.

Vitaly took us by car to the town of Pushkin. Afterwards, we headed back to Vitaly's house where, once again, Irina had prepared a meal. The appetizers consisted of salads, cheese, mixed vegetables, and calamari (squid). There was also smoked salmon and bread. Next, came a thin chicken soup with lots of parsley and fennel, and meat-filled pastries. The soup plates were very large and old-fashioned, and held a lot of soup. They reminded me of those my maternal Grandmother used when we visited for Sunday lunch. After that, we had veal rissoles, baked potatoes, more salads, and dilled pickles. Along the way, Vitaly served Hungarian champagne. Finally, sweet pastries and tea were served. When I commented how much I liked the dessert, when we went to leave, Irina gave me some to take home. Now, we figured they really couldn't afford all this food, but we had to be gracious, even though I was full after the first two courses! We tried not to think that we were "eating them out of house and home!"

[Diary] I managed to negotiate the electric trolley bus into town on my own. I left home early, so I'd have plenty of time and, subsequently, I arrived 45 minutes early! Jenny and Scott came with me and sat in the front row to listen to the first 10 minutes of my lecture. Scott particularly wanted to see how the English-to-Russian-to-English translation worked as I spoke. The second lecture went well, and although it was scheduled to end at 12:30, I didn't finish answering questions until 1:15!

Sonja arrived at 5 pm for supper, and we ate vegetable soup and veal stew. She took us to see the ballet Swan Lake, at a theater not far from our apartment. Scott had had a very busy day, and he dropped off to sleep halfway through. I too had 40 winks! The damned swan took so long to die, I thought we were never gonna get out of that place! We took a taxi home.

[Diary] Jenny and Scott slept quite late. Outside, it was cool and overcast, but calm. I walked to several government food stores before going to work. The stores had plenty of goods, and I wanted to buy some things, but that proved challenging. One must first pay at the cashier and then present the receipt at the appropriate counter for service. But as I couldn't speak Russian, I couldn't order to get a receipt! [Don't you just hate that when that happens!] (We'd had the same situation another day buying bread, but as Sonja was with us, she took care of the ordering.)

My third lecture went very well with question time running until 1:30. I then lunched with Vitaly and Natalie in the small, basic cafeteria in the basement. It was my first public Russian-style meal.

Now that business was free market, the university gave me an honorarium for my lecture series. It was 850 rubles (about US$8.50, a sizable amount based on local salaries). I thanked them profusely and donated it back to them; however, Natalie didn't know what to do with it, so I suggested she buy cake or chocolates for the office staff.

At 2:30, Vitaly and I rode the subway to his place of employment where the Director wished to meet me. We arrived late, as we'd gotten on the right train, but in the wrong direction! [Don't you just hate that when that happens!] To my surprise, I found the whole staff of 20 were present, and soon after, I delivered an impromptu 90-minute lecture with question-and-answer session. I then toured the teaching and computer facilities.

[Diary] About our apartment; it's in a 5-story building for retired junior military officers. It's rather rundown from the outside, and stairwells and the entrances are dark, musty, and shabby! However, it was not dirty, just neglected. We have three main rooms—kitchen, dining/lounge/family room, and another room that served as a study. There are no separate bedrooms. Instead, there are three divans in two rooms, that fold down into two single- and one double-bed. There is also a bathroom with a very old and deep tub, and a gas hot-water system that heats on-demand. Its pilot light is like an oxy-acetylene burner, and burns very strongly with the smell of gas ever present. Adjoining that is a small toilet, which, surprise, in Russian is called a WC!

There are lots of cupboards, bedding, books, three TVs, and a radio. A balcony leads off one room, and it has a clothes line. All the paint around the large windows was peeling, and woodwork was in poor shape. The stove was gas and there is hot water in the sink, fed from the gas heater. Overall, it's like a beach shack or mountain cabin; basic, but clean and comfortable.

Vitaly's apartment had a similar configuration, but is in better condition, as it is much newer and has been lived in continuously. By contrast, Slava's apartment has two separate bedrooms, so it is much larger. And as his family has always been well-off, they have a lot of nice furnishings, including a VCR and stereo music system.

By the way, all three apartments are owned outright by their occupants, and have been so for quite some years. This surprised me, as I was under the impression that no-one owned property here. In fact, quite a lot of people own cars and have done so for many years. However, now, gasoline is hard to come by and expensive, but people still manage to get enough. Of course, with public transport being so cheap, people prefer to use that.

[Diary] It was my 4th lecture day. The weather was back to summer with no coat or sweater needed. I browsed in a few shops and saw a Russian edition of the New York Times that was a few days old. The lecture went well, and questions took at extra 90 minutes at the end. Then I had a short meeting with two men who were trying to get a technical paper published along with some software.

I squeezed in time for a cup of tea and a cheese sandwich before being driven to a 3:30-pm appointment. Along the way, the driver picked my brain. He had a small company and apparently was a brilliant mathematician. The meeting was with two men running the brand-new office of Digital Equipment Corporation, the world's second largest computer company. (That company was a client of mine back in the US.) The meeting went well, and we talked about some ideas for joint ventures and seminars, translating my books and columns, and licensing some of my seminar materials. The meeting had only been proposed that morning!

I was dropped off at home about 5:15 pm, and Sonja arrived at 5:30 for dinner. Jenny had cooked pork chops and vegetables, and had made a dessert.

At 6:30, we caught a bus downtown where we had tickets to a classical music concert at 7 pm. The old theater was nicely restored, and until recently, was the headquarters of the Communist Party! The first part of the concert was "modern" classical, and it was absolutely woeful! The second was very enjoyable, and included a piano soloist. The third part was okay. We emerged at 9:15, and as the large canal was nearby, we jumped aboard a tour boat that circled the inner city for an hour. Most of the old residential buildings we saw were quite ornate. Scott spent the whole trip outside on the upper deck.

By 10:30 pm, we were back on dry land, the sun was still beaming, and we all went to a German-run hard-currency restaurant for dessert and coffee. Scott had pizza. By 11:30, our eyes were getting heavy, so we left Sonja at the subway, and we caught a bus home. At 11:45, it was still quite light out as we walked home from the stop. On the way we came across a man beating a large carpet as it hung over a swing in a playground.

[Diary] Mid-afternoon, Vitaly arrived and we headed out into the country to Slava's family dacha (country house). The roads greatly improved as we got further from the city limits. We drove along a narrow country road and passed through a number of small towns during the 80-km trip. There was lots of pine forest with moose and reindeer, and many small lakes. Most of the agriculture involved potatoes. All along the road people had small stalls; some just sat next to a bucket of potatoes. Many also had "country cheese," which we knew as cottage cheese.

On arrival at the dacha, we found Slava, his wife, son, daughter-in-law, grandson, and mother. The cottage was basic, but had all the necessary conveniences plus a color TV with antennae that received Finnish broadcasts. At 11:30 pm, an American show, B.L. Stryker, starring Burt Reynolds, was shown with Finnish subtitles. The dacha was the only house in the village to have running water. The other families got their water from a central well.

We went for a drive through a big pine forest to a large lake where Vitaly and Scott had a swim. A large group of children was camped there, and one girl spoke English and asked us if we were tourists. From all appearances, they could have come from any European country, right down to their T-shirts, hats, and bikinis.

Supper began with the usual fare: tomato, cheese, bread, fresh and dilled cucumbers, parsley, fennel, and spring onions. The main course was braised meat with mashed potato and more salad. That was followed by copious quantities of dessert and tea. We talked until late, finishing off with some Russian port wine. The weather had been calm and very sunny with no humidity to speak of. However, there were plenty of hungry mosquitos. It was still daylight at midnight!

[Diary] I was up around 9 am. It was a beautiful day. For breakfast, we ate some fried meat along with some tomato relish from Estonia that was a good approximation for ketchup. In fact, it tasted better than good! We also had bread, cheese, and tea.

Mid-morning, Slava, Vitaly, and I worked on Vitaly's car door to fix a rattling window. Afterwards, we visited another large lake nearby that was surrounded by tall pine trees. There were several sandy beaches, and the locals were out in force. No-one seemed concerned at how much of their bodies they couldn't fit into their swimsuits. Scott and Vitaly went swimming.

At 3 o'clock, we had a large meal involving salads, rissoles, and mashed potato. We followed that with stewed rhubarb (straight from the rather large garden) and tea. We rested for the afternoon pausing for "high tea" around 5 pm, to have cinnamon rolls and fruit slices. (Despite the generally poor economy, people managed to eat very well!)

Soon after 6 pm, we left for home driving back via a different route. Along the way, we passed a large military installation with numerous armored-personnel carriers parked out front. On the way out and back, we passed through a Police checkpoint, but both times they waved us through. Although officials still follow some of the old security procedures out of habit, things were much more open now. It is hard for people to start thinking for themselves after so many years of not being allowed to! In fact, we understood that many people missed the direction provided under the communist regimes of the past.

I spent some time studying the Russian alphabet, and the Greek alphabet from which it was (indirectly) derived. Having used many Greek letters in math and science back in high school and university, I had a head start, but to be sure I was rusty. However, by day's end, I managed to recognize most of the Russian letters and had a handle on their pronunciation. Now that we're about to leave Russia, I'm beginning to read a bit!

[Diary] I was up at 9:15 am, and made a breakfast of sausage, eggs, mashed potato, and gravy, plus the obligatory tea. The cupboard was getting bare as we were ending our stay. We set about packing and cleaning up the apartment. We'd planned on going into the city to stroll around some shops, but being lazy, we stayed home, sat in the sun, read, and played chess.

Mid-afternoon, we set off for the Metro station, and at our destination we spent an hour roaming around some stalls. We ate ice cream and watched a road construction crew put a new asphalt top on the main road nearby. At 5 o'clock, Vitaly picked us up and we went to his house. After some business discussions, I gave him US$1,000 cash, to buy a personal computer, so he could go into business for himself.

Slava and his wife arrived, and we had our "Last Supper," which included caviar! Of course, there were plenty of desserts including some Australian cookies, a recipe for which Irina had found in a magazine. She gave us a bag to take home. Slava drove us home and we said our "goodbyes." I gave him an envelope containing a farewell letter, for him to open later. Inside was cash enough to enable him to afford that trip to Germany he'd been dreaming about. Lights out at 11 pm, although the sun was still high in the sky. In fact, a workman was busy plastering the wall of a house next door.

[Diary] My 5th and final lecture began at 9:30 am, and was wrapped up by 1 pm. It went well, and the audience seemed pleased. Sonja attended, and we said our goodbyes shortly afterwards. We also gave her a farewell letter and (via an intermediary) some cash to help her through her difficult economic situation.

Jenny and Scott met me at the office, and we had lunch with Vitaly and Natalie at our "usual" German restaurant. The service was very slow, and apparently good supplies were hard to find, and no ham or salami was available for pizzas. We changed our orders several times as we discovered what wasn't available that day! Having the long-regimented history that they do, Russians will take a good while to get used to giving and receiving good service!

We were back at our flat by 2:30 pm, where we closed our luggage. Vitaly drove us to the train station to catch the 3:55-train to Helsinki. Natalie also came to say goodbye and to give Jenny several roses. (The night before, she gave Jenny a nice coffee cup and saucer, and me a book on Russian architecture.)

Our Finnish train pulled out on-time, and we had plenty of room in our carriage. We spoke with a Canadian, and a South African now living in Toronto. We bought two ham and cheese rolls which cost the equivalent of US$6 each, which after the local prices, seemed like a fortune. Pricewise, we definitely were headed back to the real world! The train menu and shopping list was comprehensive containing everything from food and drink to toothpaste and condoms. It had everything for the complete traveler! We played cards and read the time away.

There were a tense few moments at the Russian border when one guard found 150 rubles in my bag when I had declared I wasn't taking any Russian cash out of the country. Although it was only worth about US$1.50, and was for my foreign-money collection, the guard was a little upset. He politely warned me to declare such cash "the next time" and I apologized for the "oversight." Then he let me keep the money anyway!

Back in Finland, we got off at Riihimäki, the final station before Helsinki, where we waited for the 22:17 train that ran to Rovaniemi, at the end of the line, just south of the Arctic Circle. Except for a few short and one long stop, it was straight through, arriving there at 9 am the next morning to begin our vacation in Finland.

Fast-forward 28-years: Vitaly divorced his wife, remarried, and moved to California, but I lost touch with him. Sonja moved to Oslo, Norway, where she married Gunnar, a Norwegian. Jenny and I visited them in September 2003 when we spent a week at their cabin and drove across to Bergen and back with them. I visited them again several times, and Gunnar and I enjoyed playing Backgammon. Unfortunately, he passed away after an illness. I last visited Sonja in November 2016. While there, we visited Gunnar's grave.