Interlude from travel in the Soviet Union — some reading for you

Delve into Russian history with these two books.

Martin Sixsmith Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East (BBC Books 2012)

China Mieville October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (Verso 2017)

Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East

Martin Sixsmith’s chronicle begins with the Vikings and finishes with Putin taking us on a journey which is breathtakingly grand and conflicted.

Rejoicing, grieving, and drenched in blood… (Alexander Blok)

He traces the history of the “turning points” where the story of Russia could have moved towards reform and liberal democracy or continued its autocratic trajectory. Russia’s history can be conceived as a long and tortuous conflict between the push and pull of European Russia exemplified in St Petersburg and Asiatic Russia of the eastern plains and the Mongols.

The book provides a riveting, and at times unbelievable, story – tragic, glorious, chaotic, complex. Everything, including the numbers of people who perish under various authoritarian leaders and even their foolishness, is on a grand, staggering and operatic scale.

A great, and intense, read!

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

China Mieville’s history is the story of one year only, or rather part of one year: February to October 1917. Each chapter covers one month, with a forward on the prehistory of 1917 and an epilogue that describes very briefly the tragic consequences of the October revolution.  Mieville is a novelist and he knows how to make a story gripping.

Luckily for the reader, he includes a glossary of who’s who. I read this book with regular checks of the glossary and my own record of the names of various players and political groups with their often very long acronyms.  I had pink post-it notes with tags like Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, RSDWP (Russian Socialist Democratic Workers Party), MRC (Military Revolutionary Committee) and so on.

Mieville also has a glossary with a very brief biography of 54 characters who played a role in the revolution. Their deaths tell the story.

  • 14 were executed by Stalin
  • 15 fled or left Russia
  • 6 were murdered by various political factions
  • 2 died in prison or a labour camp

Not many lived to die from natural causes.

I was left with the impressions that the revolution was a process of endless meetings attended by hundreds of delegates, where decisions took hours to be made if they were actually made at all. People regularly shifted allegiances. Heroes one day were enemies the next. What it meant to be revolutionary was constantly evolving, waxing and waning. On a couple of occasions, while immersed in the story, I called out “No, no. Don’t do that, you fools”, as another opportunity for liberal democracy collapsed, and the tragedy of the ultimate revolution marched on.

The writer acknowledges that fleetingly there was a shift towards empowering peasants and workers, providing equal rights for men and women, introducing free and universal education, expanding literacy and cultural explosions. These were “snuffed out, reversed, became bleak jokes and memories all too soon”. Tragically, “it might have been otherwise”.

Can any book about Russia be anything but intense? I read this with another tome on the Russian Revolution beside me — Orlando Figes  A People’s Tragedy which also contains an amazing collection of photographs.

And if you want to read more, Mieville has an excellent annotated bibliography at the back of the book.



Honour and Glory…and good luck


The Soviet Union July 1976

On our way out of the Soviet Union from Moscow to Poland via Minsk, we came across a detour on the main highway. This was nothing new. There had been many on our trip. They were characterised by one DETOUR sign in the middle of the highway that pointed you off the road. Having obeyed the sign, it was then up to you to work out how far to travel along the new road (or more usually, a dirt track) and where to make your way back to the highway. We could never work out what we were actually detouring either, presumably a treacherously deep hole or a totally impassable section of the highway. On this particular occasion, we dutifully headed onto a dusty, unmade road that took us down a hill and into a village where everything, including villagers, was coated with the local road dust. We drove through the village and out the other side, but as usual, could see no sign sending us back on to the highway. We continued for some time and then approached another village. Here some people came out of their houses and waved at us, but not in friendly greeting. They appeared worried.

“I think they are warning us about something, “ I said.

We decided to go back, but the road was narrow and dipped down at the edges into deep, rough gutters. Far too risky for a U turn! Ahead of us, we saw what looked like a driveway flanked by brick walls. It was the entrance to something and seemed a suitable place to maneuver a turn. So turn we did. Into the driveway and towards the gates we went.

And there in front of us, a few metres away, stood two fully armed Russian soldiers guarding the gated entrance. They stared at us – stunned and stupefied. We stared back, equally stunned. Behind them through the gates we caught a glimpse of buildings, more soldiers and movement.

“Holy shit, “ I said.

Norm whistled softly, and then hissed:

“The camera!”

It was on the dashboard. I leant forward, lifted the camera slowly and carefully, and placed it on the floor my eyes never leaving the face of the soldier in front of me.  Taking photos in the Soviet Union was risky at any time, but taking photos of anything military was a punishable offence. And this was military with a capital M.

What I had seen behind the soldiers truly terrified me. I shifted my view ever so slightly to the left to check that what I had seen was correct. It was. There, stretching away into the distance, were rows and rows and rows of army tanks, hundreds of them, some of them moving in formation. There were more soldiers up near the buildings conversing in small groups and others walking around briskly. The two at the gate continued staring at us, obviously in shock, but they weren’t going to stay like that for much longer.

“We have to get out of here”, I said softly. “Reverse slowly. Quickly! No. Slowly! Just quietly.”

“Quietly? This thing?” Norm put the Kombi into reverse and for once it did not screech.

“Start praying, “ he said as we slowly rolled back out of the driveway.

I did not take my eyes off the soldiers who just stood there watching us still with a look of wonder on their faces. They had not moved. Having backed a few metres, Norm engaged the gears, and I held my breath as they made their usual scraping sound. He turned the Kombi to the right to head back down the road from which we had come. As we started to drive forward, I raised my left hand, fingers slightly open, eyes still on the soldiers’ faces hoping this gesture communicated goodwill. The two soldiers leaned forward slightly to watch us drive off and I think I detected the flicker of a smile on the face of one of them. We drove away.

We remained silent for some time. My mouth was dry and I licked my lips.

“Do you think we just saw the full armoured might of the Soviet army? They couldn’t have more tanks than that could they?” I asked.

“Don’t know. Don’t care. Just let’s get the hell out of here”, was Norm’s reply.

He was quite pale and his hands clutched the steering wheel. His eyes were fixed ahead.

On returning to the village we were greeted like long lost friends by a group of villagers. They cheered, clapped and patted the van and chatted away in Russian indicating to us to follow them. We trundled behind a few of them to a road off to our right. Here they pointed down the road, shooing us away. We smiled and nodded our thanks and headed off eventually arriving at the highway where there was a sign pointing us in the direction of Smolensk. Never have I been so pleased to be on that bumpy old highway. For a while we kept checking behind us to see were not being chased down by Russian authorities, but after a few kilometres we appeared to be safe.

All these years later, I wonder where on earth we had been. Back then it would have been impossible to find out not only because of Soviet secrecy but also because of the difficulty finding any suitable reference library. Today, of course, Russia is a more open country and there is Google. So my research began.

The first difficulty was trying to work out what road we took from Moscow to the Polish border via Smolensk and Minsk. Roads have improved and new highways and motorways have been constructed since 1976. These days you would take the E30 to Smolensk that is not far from the Belarus border and then on to the capital city of Minsk.


The E30 is part of the international E road network that extends 6,500km from the Russian city of Omsk in southwestern Siberia to Cork, in southern Ireland.  It connects with the Trans-Siberian Highway and then the AH6 that takes you all the way to Busan in South Korea. I assume that before the E30 there was a highway of sorts between Moscow and Smolensk and that this is the road we took.

After looking through lists of Russian tank divisions and their locations I decided there were two possibilities.

The first is that we went off the main highway and headed southwest towards Naro Fominsk where we dropped in on the 4thGuard Kantemirovskaya Tank Division, an elite armoured division of the Soviet ground forces. It was originally the Red Army’s 17thTank Corps formed in Stalingrad in 1942 and later renumbered and renamed after the village of Kantemirovka which it had liberated from German troops. It’s motto: Honour & Glory. Today the division has 320 main battle tanks, 300 infantry fighting vehicles, 130 self-propelled artillery and 12 multiple rocket launchers. I can find no information on what the capacity was in the 1970s, but I suspect Soviet-era statistics would have been similar.

Tank museum, Kubinka, Moscow region

Picture of the Kubinka Tank Museum today 

The second possibility is that we visited what is now the Kubinka Tank Museum, which these days is just south of the E30 about an hour’s drive from Naro Fominsk. The museum is located on a military testing site that is still operational. During various wars, the Russians acquired enemy tanks that were inspected for their strengths and weaknesses. The results of these inspections informed the manufacture of the Red Army tanks that were then further tested at the Kubinka Force Technology Centre. The museum now houses what is reputably the world’s best collection of tanks and armoured vehicles. I do not know when the museum was established, but my guess is that in 1976, it was simply a tank testing facility, and a top-secret one at that.

Today one can visit the Kubinka Tank Museum by catching a train from Moscow or joining an organised tour. And today, cameras are permitted. Foreigners are still treated suspiciously. To gain entry, they must have their original and a copy of their passport. Unsurprisingly, weapons are not permitted. Perhaps the only way I will find out whether we did visit Kubinka is to take a trip there and see if the entrance to the museum brings back any memories.

And I wonder about those two soldiers on guard at the entrance. Would they have talked about us? They surely wouldn’t have told anyone that a noisy battered red combi van driven by foreigners had done a U-turn in the driveway and they were so surprised they failed to arrest us for trespassing, if not spying. Perhaps we just became their secret.

Two days in Leningrad 1976


Himself presiding over Nevsky Prospect in 1976.
A photo by Roger Lipsett.

Leningrad named in honour of Vladimir Ulyanov, otherwise known as Lenin, after his death in 1924.

Originally Sankt Petersburg named by Peter the Great after the Apostle Peter (not himself) in 1703 when he dreamt of establishing a European city to rival the great port city of Amsterdam.

Re-named Petrograd in 1914 to eliminate the Germanic ‘sankt” and “burg”.

Back to St Petersburg in 1991 after the collapse of communism.

Known as Piter to the locals.

In Leningrad, we treated ourselves to hotel accommodation, but the name of the hotel is not recorded in my travel diary. I do remember it as a very large, rather ugly building reminiscent of a block of housing commission flats back home. The long, narrow corridor leading to our room had warped floorboards in some places. The room was box-like, basic and functional.  The toilet wobbled at the base and the seat was insecure. The bed was luxurious compared to the campervan, so we did not complain.

My research suggests that it was the Sovetskaya Hotel near the intersection of Lermontovsky Prospekt and the Fsontanka River. The first stage of the hotel had been opened in 1968 and had the capacity to accommodate 1,700 guests. It has been described as having been built “without architectural superfluities” and that was certainly the case.

Hotels had been closed down after the October Revolution in 1917. According to I. A. Bogdanov who wrote a piece about the history of hotels in Leningrad, there were seven hotels and six bunkhouses in the 1920s and by 1940 there were ten hotels and something called a Peasants’ House, all of which were converted into hospitals and 24 hour clinics for the treatment of dystrophy in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945. After the war, hotels were developed out of army dormitories and then in the 1960s, there was a veritable rush of hotel building described by Mr Bogdanov as “typical Soviet projects”.

The Sovetskaya Hotel was a typical Soviet project: plain, functional, modular, fortress-like, exposed concrete, glass and steel.


I highly recommend scrolling through a collection of photographs of so-called ‘fossilised, Soviet architecture’, in this case, in Belarus.

On our first evening in Leningrad, we walked down to Nevsky Prospekt. That is what I recorded in my diary, anyway. I have no memory of this, but I do know that Nevsky Prospekt is the main thoroughfare of Leningrad and on a summer’s evening locals would have been out promenading or having ice-cream at Ogonek which according to Let’s Go Europe 1976-77 is ‘probably Leningrad’s nicest ice-cream parlour’, where amongst ‘potted plants and a pleasant, quiet atmosphere’ you can ‘indulge yourself on ice-cream, champagne, wine, candy, fruit etc.’ I do remember that at some point in our travels we visited an ice-cream and champagne parlour. Perhaps this was it.

Later that evening when it was still light, I was standing on the Kirov bridge gazing out over the Neva River when I was accosted for my jeans. A young man about my age approached me and the conversation went something like this.

I vant to buy your jeans.

What? No!

Yes. Now.

Don’t be silly!

Your jeans, Yes. Now. Pleaze.


I give good wodka. Very good. Now. Your jeans.

Absolutely not. (Did he really expect me to take my jeans off then and there and go about in my underwear?)

He persisted for some time, him pleading more and more desperately and I responding less and less politely. It was a game, and eventually, I just walked away, with him calling out goodness-knows-what in Russian. This episode was a testimony to the declining centralised, Soviet command economy,  in particular the stagnation of the Brezhnev era and the increasing demand for Western ”luxuries” like jeans, or LP rock records, or even biros. It lead to a burgeoning black economy.

That first evening we were victims of this when all the paraphernalia attached to the outside of our van was ripped off – the sticker of the kangaroo and the Australian flag, another sticker of Snoopy on his kennel. Also wrenched off were the large chrome VW logo at the front and the full name, Volkswagon that had been screwed onto the back. I suppose they became an addition to someone’s collection or more likely they were sold in the backstreets of Leningrad.

I later discovered that velvet was another scarcity. In Moscow, we went to the theatre one night and I was dressed in a brown velvet dress. Older women came up to me in the street and tentatively touched my sleeve, stroking the precious fabric, smiling sadly at me.

At the camping ground in Moscow, we gave away other scarce commodities –  paperback books. I was re-reading classics and the students who worked at the camping ground were utterly delighted to receive a copy of Wuthering Heights which was apparently “unavailable”, although oddly enough Jane Eyre was. We received a bottle of vodka in exchange. This was all highly illegal, but such transactions were how people obtained the products they desired.

My memory of Leningrad is visiting palaces – testimony to the wealth and glory days of the Tsars (glorious for the aristocracy, that is). Breathtaking, opulent, gold colonnades, heavy rich embroideries, paintings fit for any of the major museums in the world, elaborately landscaped gardens with dozens of fountains and sculpture. Grand staircase and gorgeous views from windows into vast courtyards, gardens and parks.

A letter home in July 1976 tells more.

Leningrad was not as beautiful as all the books say. Many of the old homes of the nobility are in a state of disrepair;  looking like stale and crumbling cakes iced in pastel shades of pink, pale blue, apricot and lemon. There are lots of extremely ugly high-rise flats (although not as bad as Poland’s) and many of the streets are dug up and no work seems to have been done on them. Rubble and holes and weeds. The people are poorly dressed, very dour and sombre, rarely smiling. Leningrad’s beauty and excitement are in her past. The Winter Palace is the most beautiful building I have ever seen. It now houses the Hermitage Museum – a fantastic collection and art and pieces – Rembrandts and da Vinci, Titian, the Impressionists as well as other fabulous things. The interior of the museum is left as the old palace was – incredibly lush décor of gold and marble. Quite breathtaking. We also went to Peter the Great’s Summer Residence which is famous for its fabulous fountains. No wonder there was a revolution!

In the Hermitage, there were supervisors for each room, some of them quite elderly. They were dressed in black and sat on chairs at the entrance to each room and simply watched us go in, but never made eye contact and hardly moved. They just sat and looked out. At what? Sad ghosts from earlier times, perhaps? When we went to take a photo, one old woman put her hands over her face and lowered her head. Generally, people were afraid of having their photo taken and many were simply afraid of us.

According to my diary, we did a city tour visiting St Isaacs and Palace Square. As tourists, we were entitled to a free tour of each city on a bus with a guide. Here was an opportunity for the Russians to educate Westerners. We were lectured on the greatness of the USSR, of its superiority in every way to the United States and the degradation of the West.

In Leningrad, there was constant reference to the Great Patriotic War, the fascist Germans and the terrible destruction they wrought on Russia. It was as if the war had only happened a few years ago, not 30. Even now I can remember the statistics: 20 million dead, 25 million homeless and thousands of cities and towns destroyed. Incomprehensible to young Australians with no experience of war.

Leningrad was also the city of the Revolution. We visited the Museum of the October Revolution, now called the Museum of Political History, situated in a beautiful art nouveau building once the home of a prima ballerina, Matilda Kshesinskaya, one-time mistress (when she was only 17 years old) of Tsar Nicholas II prior to his marriage. In 1917, she and her son fled to Paris where she lived a relatively quiet life as the wife of one of the Tsar’s cousins, Grand Duke Andrei Valdimirovich. Her Leningrad mansion was taken over by the Bolsheviks who used it as their headquarters. It was in this building in the glamorous reception hall that Lenin gave his thunderous and rousing call for continuous revolution.

The Museum of Political History

The museum was established here in 1954 after much of the collection that had been housed in the Winter Palace had been lost or systematically destroyed because it did not fit with a Stalinist version of events. Graduates from the Leningrad State University worked to replenish the collection during the 1960s and 1970s and included artefacts from the era of Russian space exploration as well as the history of Russian communism and war.

As with the Lenin Museum which we visited in Moscow, we were provided with a tour by a friendly guide and a translator who spoke earnestly and proudly of the glories of Russia, the triumphs of war, the suffering endured, the heroic struggle of peasants and workers and the victories. Lenin was the hero. Stalin, of course, was not mentioned. We apparently impressed our guides with our knowledge of Russian history and they scurried about to find some postcards and booklets for us to take. They shook our hands, smiled and even patted us on the back. We seemed to have made an impression.

We left Leningrad that same day, got lost, arrested because we were on the wrong road heading to Kiev rather than Moscow and eventually ended up where we were supposed to be, in Novgorod. We had only been in Leningrad two days, but it was an intensely rich experience. Memories of it have lasted for decades and it must surely be time to return.

Soviet Union 1976: Arrested on the Road to Where?


On the morning of the 11th July we walked to the Museum of the October Revolution in Leningrad and spent the afternoon, by way of a contrast, at the summer residence of the Tsars. Our plan was then to set off towards Moscow with an overnight stop at Novgorod.

As we headed out of Leningrad we got lost in amongst the crisscross roads of the older suburbs. We stopped to ask people directions. Very few people spoke English so we used the Russian travel dictionary as best we could. Some people refused to stop, hurrying past us eyes averted, afraid to be seen talking to Westerners. Others stopped and tried to help and eventually with sign language and drawings in the dust on the pavement we had a map out of the city.

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Cheese, ice cream and GUM (and a recipe!)

Shopping was a complicated business in the Soviet Union in 1976. There was very little food in the gastronoms: fresh, canned or pickled cabbage, cheese, eggs (sometimes) and a small variety of canned food. If you were lucky there was dark rye bread. All goods for sale were on display. Nothing was stored in any back rooms. Items were neatly lined up on shelves with plenty of space around them. Cans were staked in precariously balanced pyramids and glass display cabinets held a sparse collection of dairy products.

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Soviet Union 1976: Arrested on the road to where?


On the morning of the 11th July we walked to the Museum of the October Revolution in Leningrad and spent the afternoon, by way of a contrast, at the summer residence of the Tsars. Our plan was then to set off towards Moscow with an overnight stop at Novgorod.

As we headed out of Leningrad we got lost in amongst the crisscross roads of the older suburbs. We stopped to ask people directions. Very few people spoke English so we used the Russian travel dictionary as best we could. Some people refused to stop, hurrying past us, eyes averted, afraid to be seen talking to Westerners. Others stopped and tried to help and eventually with sign language and drawings in the dust on the pavement we had a map out of the city.

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Checkpoint Vyborg: our first stop on our state sanctioned itinerary

If inly the roads had been this good. Countryside tick. Road surface - no way.
If only the roads had been this good. Countryside tick. Road surface – no way.



We were the odd ones out travelling independently in the Soviet Union in 1976. As far as I know, 1976 was only the second year that tourists were allowed to travel this way, but even then it was tightly controlled with an itinerary sanctioned by Intourist and constant monitoring.

This does not mean there weren’t many international travellers in the Soviet Union. In 1976 there were 3.9 million tourists, but the vast majority of these were from Soviet block countries, especially Poland and Finland. Only a few hundred thousand came from the West. Of these, the majority were classified as “mass tourists” who travelled on fully organised group tours, flying in to the country, moving between cites by bus or train, staying in tourist hotels, sightseeing only what was approved for them and escorted 24/7 by trained guides whose role was nothing short of indoctrination. Continue reading

Telly Savalas and the King of the Cocus Islands


Recently, while reading through entries in my 1976 travel diary, up popped a memory of visiting a girl in a place that was near Earl’s Court. The visit is not actually recorded in my diary. In fact, there is nothing in my diary about the girl or Earl’s Court, but out of the blue the memory had moved to front of mind. I recalled that the house was somewhere near Earl’s Court, that it was a rather posh house in a posh street, and that it was white with two or three storeys and a basement. More memories teased me at the edge of consciousness.

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