Sick Insurrection

The USSR’s economy was in decline and failing. Even tourism was being encouraged to help build up the GDP. Intourist, the official travel agency, was organising cheap holidays. 

The air hostesses, as we still called them then, were big burly women, the embodiment of the state and geared only to delivering its requirements. The state was always right. Any customer who disagreed was wrong.

All tourists were kept in guided groups. Our group was a mixture of the adventurous, the ageing fans from Glasgow Socialist Sunday Schools, the ideologically curious, and people like us, newfound lovers of cheap foreign holidays.

The stern uniformed border guard, standing stiffly to attention in his sealed plastic cubicle, eyes moving up and down comparing my face and my passport photo. Five silently palpitating minutes passed before the gate opened and I was in. The Moscow hotel was luxurious, even if the bath had no plug. Any attempt to impress tourists with the wonderful success of Soviet life was fine by me, so long as the cost stayed the same as the Costa Brava. But in Europe’s biggest city mile after mile of colossal multi-storey tower blocks still told a rather different story.

Treated like royalty, caviar at the Bolshoi, front seats at the state circus, a guided personal performance by a pianist performing Scottish traditional songs, three big meals a day and free pink vodka.

‘Much better here than Margaret Thatcher?’ the tour guide and official guardian enquired. Perplexed when we said we hadn’t voted for her, and annoyed when we spoke of democratic elections. Placating her, someone keen to improve her English, with an offering of battered holiday reading, Gorky Park.

But after the flight transferring us to Leningrad (St Petersburg) things went off the rails. The guided tour of the Hermitage – Yes, we agreed, too much wealth for one family. But conspicuously ignored by the guide when asking about Bakunin’s cell as we toured the Peter and Paul Fortress. But worst, turning green on the coach trip to Petrodvorets (Peterhof Palace) to wonder at the golden fountains in a sick haze.

Tummy bug. Maybe food poisoning, though eating the same as everyone else. The doctor was summoned. A very big woman, no make-up and a flapping white coat. Spoke no English. When I looked confused she spoke increasingly loudly. I recognised the more usually monoglot British treatment of foreigners. She was scowling, shouting, and gesticulating at the Western weakling posing as a patient. Eventually I understood the recommended treatment regime: white rice and plain yoghurt.

Struggling on I was invalided out to Uzbekistan by Aeroflot with the rest of the group. So hot. I struggled into khaki shorts in Tashkent, unaware of my rebellious gesture. Derision and embarrassment greeted the appearance of my bare legs on the Islamic streets. Rescued by the train transfer to Samarkand. Able to stand up just long enough to gaze in wonder that is the Registan. 

Floored by the train to Bokhara. Grinding along largely empty so hobbled to select a free compartment and lay down wearily across the seats on one side. 

I gathered this was against the rules when the guide / security officer entered angrily, flustered, pointing at my prone corpse-like body with its ashen face, loudly berating me as ‘A very bad tourist.’ But I couldn’t summon the strength to move. She threw the book at me, literally. Gorgy Park hit me on the stomach in its unceremonious return, obviously no longer a welcome aid for right-thinking minor Soviet apparatchiks.

Agony on the flight back to Moscow. Air hostesses thrusting drink and food packages at me, compulsorily issued to each passenger, and insisting on their consumption. Again made to feel incalcitrant, rebellious, by attempting refusal. I began to comprehend the extraordinary strength of those Soviet citizens who maintained independent thought and found ways to express it, rebelling against the ideological monopoly. ‘Thinking outside the box’ gained new meaning for me. I wasn’t even strong-minded or fearless enough to argue with an air hostess.

Despite much greater awareness of the scale and multitude of marvels contained within the Soviet empire a feeling that the Soviet Union was declining, stagnating, closed in on me as the old Aeroflot flew back to Glasgow. Exercising blanket bureaucratic power over citizens can’t last forever; one of the rules learned from history. The control of the new tsars like Brezhnev would be ultimately unsustainable. 

Brezhnev died later that year, succeeded as President by Andropov, Chernenko, then Gorbachev. In 1989 Gorbachev organized elections, requiring Communist Party members to run against non-members, creating a more democratic electoral system. The Communist Party's constitutional role in governing the state was also removed, inadvertently leading to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the separation of its constituent republics. Aiming to prevent this, Gennady Yanayev deposed Gorbachev as President in the August 1991 coup. But real power now rested not with Gorbachev but with the President of the Russian Republic, Boris Yeltsin. The tanks of the rebellion’s leaders were no match for his oratory. 

In the summer of 1994 I spotted Boris Yeltsin in Montmartre, Paris. Unmistakeable bulk and puffy Slavic face still bleary with alcohol. Retired and presumably on holiday. Still surrounded by three sturdy, probably armed, bodyguards in dark suits. So I refrained from coming too close or addressing him as we passed. I’d had enough of Russian interpretations of what constitutes rebellious behaviour. But given his predilection for copious quantities of vodka he no doubt suffered occasional stomach problems. I wondered what the medical bedside manner was like nowadays in post-communist Russia.  I suppose, as Gorbachev discovered, he was the kind of rebel unlikely to be cowed by raised voices or thrown books.

Yanayev was arrested, but then pardoned in 1994, spending the rest of his life working for Russian tourism, probably arranging for more potential rebels like you and me to come witness the amazing revival of Russia, newly capitalist, under its newest rebellion-crusher, Vladimir Putin.

Me, I’ve never been back.

personal rebellion, the cold war, travel, identity