Leningrad, USSR -- St. Petersburg, Russia

Detention by the USSR

russia moscow tankOn 25 December 1991, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the final leader of the Soviet Union, resigned, declared his office extinct and handed over its powers – including control of the Soviet nuclear missile launching codes – to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The USSR officially ceased to exist on 31 December 1991.

The Fall of the USSR

DJ and I were there during this time.  The USSR was collapsing and was becoming the Russian Federation.  Tank tracks were in the streets.  The state bank collapsed.  The ruble was worthless.  Food was scarce.  Poverty was rapidly on the rise.  The ground was icy and the temperature freezing cold.  The black market was thriving.  Things that had been closed or banned since 1922 were quickly re-opening or becoming available.

Bribery and confusion was the order of the day.

We were in Leningrad (today Saint Petersburg) to record with Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra (now St. Petersburg Philharmonic) Morris Bernstein’s score that was the basis for a forthcoming musical.  As part of the agreement with the Ministry of Culture, we agreed to deliver a public concert at the famous 1,500 seat Bolshoi Zal (Grand Hall) of the Leningrad Philharmonia.

The experience was fascinating, from driving around in the mayors limousine, to ‘key lady’s’ observing, logging and tracking our movements, to visiting the Tikhvin cemetery grave sites of the most iconic classical composers like Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, to opening a synagogue for the first time since 1922 and seeing a wedding alter from it’s last inhabitants before locked down, to breaking the seal and opening room 7 at the Hermitage museum, to interviews with Russian TV on the rooftop of a cathedral, being stuck in an elevator in the suburbs of Leningrad, to Russian overnight trains, frightfully terrifying flights, and ultimately my (brief) detention at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.

At the recommendation of my mother years before, I keep daily travel diaries, noting daily interesting things.  Below is an extract of this particular travel diary…

Extract from my world tour diary

DAY 35 (of a world tour)

DJ and I woke early for a breakfast of cheese, buns and coffee. We checked out of the Budapest hotel and caught a taxi to the airport. For 850 Florins, we drove for 45 minutes on a guided tour of the city compliments of the friendliest taxi driver we have ever had. In exchange for the tour, he wanted to speak in English, as he is trying to learn it. We arrived at the airport, checked in, and changed back our money where we lost half of it. [Hungarian Florins may not be removed from the country, and when exchanging them back upon departure, they keep half as a fee].

The Malev flight was a tiny plane, and a little like Aeroflot with minimal safety announcements, and people doing whatever they want on board.

We stopped in Warsaw, Poland for 2 hours where we had the pleasure of meeting a British businessman, a director of a liquor and cigarette company [with an O.B.E. – Order of the British Empire] who was also heading to Leningrad on the same flight. He made the stop in Warsaw go much faster. In each of Eastern Block countries it was interesting to see the different military uniforms, and the amount of arms that they each carry. Even in Warsaw, on the shuttle bus from the plane to the terminal transit passenger holding area, the guards on the bus where wielding heavy machine guns.

The Warsaw to Leningrad flight was full. People in the non-smoking section smoking, no seatbelts etc… etc… it was very interesting. We landed in Leningrad airport and taxi’d for miles to the far side of the airport. From there we boarded a rickety shuttle bus, with a badly smashed front widow, and drove to the terminal. From there, we went quite quickly through customs and immigration.

At the customs point, we again met up with the British businessman who helped us avoid a very pushy woman who was trying to get about 30 bags through the customs x-ray ahead of us. We where quite astounded when the Brit yelled at her to “Piss Off” and pushed her violently away. He then signaled to us to keep in line with him and go through, saying this is the way you have to deal with some of these people, or they will take complete advantage of you. Now on the outside of the airport, we where expecting to be met – but no-one was there. There where hundreds of pushy people and no car for us. Fortunately, the British businessman offered to drive us downtown. The Brit paid the taxi driver 2 packs of Marlboro cigarettes and us a further US$50.00 to get us to the Hotel Moskva that is seemingly miles out of the city.

Upon arrival at the Hotel Moskva, I went to check with the desk to see if there where any arrangements made for me in Leningrad, and found no messages. We were on the 6th floor of a huge, several thousand room hotel — room number 6054. The hotel room door was 157 steps from the elevator. There is a ‘key lady’ assigned to monitor and log the comings and goings of guests, every 20 or so rooms, with a little hallway desk.  I was amused to immediately notice that the room has several obvious listening devices built in, speakers and microphones on the wall above the beds, the dresser, and above the door. The bathroom also has a two way mirror, so the ‘key lady’ on the floor can watch you in your room if she desires – but they don’t try to hide it. Each room has 2 doors, one for the guests, and one for the key lady, she has an area about 4 feet by 5 feet to stand and watch you if she feels there is illicit activity. Amazing, and probably only still there from an era gone by.

We walked around the hotel, went into the store where we could buy all sorts of food, but it was all very expensive. A bottle of coke and a sausage was US $11.00! The ruble tourist exchange rate was dreadful — about 1 for 1, Anyway, at this point there was not much we could do about it.

After watching Soviet TV for an hour, we went to sleep on the hardest beds ever — again, like Budapest, tiny and very uncomfortable.

DAY 36

We woke early and decided to try to find our concert and recording team. We started by going to the hotel bank to change some money, since all we had were travelers cheques, since the taxi last night had used up all our remaining cash. The hotel bank was out of money, and could not change traveler’s cheques. The same with the hotel front desk, the bar and restaurant. They told us to go downtown to the State Bank to change money, but the only way to get there since we were so far out of the city was by either taxi or metro subway — and of course both needed cash! It was a catch 22. Finally a very nice lady at the front desk gave us 1 ruble of her own money so we could get downtown on the metro. [1 ruble as it turns out is worth about 1/10 of 1 cent, but for a local Russian would cover a few metro trips] We went to the Neva store where I talked the owner into cashing a traveler’s cheque so we had US dollars. They are normally forbidden from doing this.

We caught the metro from the hotel, after going down a huge escalator honestly about 1 mile long. From the top, we could not see the bottom — it simply looked like a pin spot. The metro doubles as their Nuclear Fallout shelters, and each of the stations are designed with massive steel doors that close like bank vaults. Indeed the train doors align themselves with a series of these steel doors to make sure that very little uncontrolled air gets in. We ended up catching 2 trains in 4 different directions and back again until we could find our station — it is very confusing as each of the stations are not signposted, they only make an announcement in Russian. We ended up finding our station by trying what little Russian both of us could speak (it helps DJ is from a Ukrainian family). What makes it more confusing is the English Intourist metro maps are color coded differently from the actual Russian. This is done since Intourist does not want tourists catching Russian trains to areas that tourists should not go to.

Leningrad is the second largest city in the Soviet Union with a population of ~ 5 million people. The city is located on the Neva River, on the edge of the Gulf of Finland. Leningrad is truly one of the most beautiful cities in the world, filled with an eclectic form of architecture.

After getting off downtown, we started walking for miles from hotel to hotel [that we could find] asking if there was a Bernstein staying there. As we walked around, we could not help but notice the lines of people, stretching blocks in order to buy food. The stores were all but completely empty. People tried selling us anything and everything on the street in order to get money to buy black market food, a little boy followed us for 2 and a half blocks begging for food or money. Eventually, and at 4:00pm, after 14 hotels and 7 hours of walking we found them staying at the Astoria Hotel! [of all places!!!!]

We phoned Morris [the Composer] and went up stairs to see him, and to learn that Richard had not come to Russia, and that Richard had been trying to get messages to us everywhere we had been in the past 2 months (on a ship, throughout Asia, in Australia, in England etc..) — we had been 1 step ahead the whole time. Anyway, I can’t tell you how relieved we were to find Morris.

Morris informed us of some of the last minute details that needed to be completed prior to the concert that evening, so we immediately went to work. Phillip Kaykov, our humongous ape of a man – and our Leningrad contact, interpreter and all round Soviet whiz kid arranged for a taxi to take us back to our Hotel Moskva, wait while we steamed our tuxedo’s, showered and changed, and then return us to the concert. What would cost the average tourist US $50.00 each way, ended up costing us US $10 round trip for about 1 and a half hours of taxi hire in local rates!

We arrived at the concert in our tuxedos and walked around the lobby before entering the Great Hall where we had seats in the official box with Morris. The concert was received exceptionally well with Morris and RJ Miller receiving 9 encores! – Russians don’t applaud after each number — they leave it until the very end when they go crazy, but I can tell you there where a few anxious moments throughout the evening as we were wondering how they would receive a US composer and conductor with a Jewish concert. According to several members of the Philharmonic, they were themselves amazed at how the public acknowledged the music [with foot stomping, applause and flowers], as the Russian audiences are extremely finicky and are often known to get up and walk out in the middle of a performance if they do not like it.

Leningrad Philharmonia Concert and Dinner

After the concert, we went backstage for official photographs to be taken for the Leningrad Philharmonic, Soviet newspapers etc… We then had an opportunity to relax in the conductors room [a room where Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Shostakovitch, Karajan etc… have sat on numerous occasions] with RJ Miller, Morris, Mikhail Baskin, the director of cultural events of the old Soviet Union, V.S. Fomin, the director of the Philharmonic and many other dignitaries.

During the concert, I also met up with a music producer from Amsterdam, who produces a lot of Soviet tours. We swapped cards and will discuss more business, and the possibility of Israel, Oh Israel in Holland upon my return to Canada.

russia payingirublesAfter the concert, Mikhail Baskin, his wife, Phillip, his ‘girlfriend’, Morris, RJ, Jeff Shuey, DJ & I went to dinner and drinks in the restaurant of the Hotel D’ Europe – [the only hotel that is Swedish run, and is more likely to have food every night. It also happen to cost US $1,100 per person per night to stay there.] – A crazy evening with more than 40 toasts of vodka to the success of the show, 8 courses of food, vodka, soups, vodka, salads, vodka, stroganoff, blintz, vodka, caviar, ice cream, champagne, vodka, coffee, vodka and more vodka.

The bill was 17,850 rubles, what would have cost a tourist about US $12,000, and a local Russian 51 months average salary to pay! But after some US dollars going under the table from our Russian hosts to the manager and the waiter, the bill was reduced considerably, and ended up being paid with a stack of rubles about 10″ high.

Mayors LimoAfter dinner, the limousine [the only stretch limousine in Leningrad / St. Petersburg, and belonging to the Mayor, who gave it to us for our use throughout our time in Russia] drove DJ and I back to the Moskva [where we decided to remain, since it was a fifth of the cost of the Hotel Astoria] after dropping the Baskin’s at their modest home. We arrived back at the hotel at 2:00am and went to sleep.

It was noteworthy that Phillip, and the Baskin’s where able to get any food they want, at any time — the power of connections we guess, and an obvious 2 class system.

DAY 37

The mayors limousine picked us up at the Moskva at 10:00am to take us to the Great Hall for the recording session. When we arrived, DJ stayed with Morris, ensuring that he was OK, and making sure that he kept to his schedule, as I went off with Phillip to meet the orchestra manager and the Baskin’s to plan on how I was to solve the biggest problem.

Leningrad Philhamonic Concert Hall

The way the contracts had been worked with the Philharmonic orchestra, we were required to pay in cash – in hard currency, with either British Pound Sterling or US Dollars, since Rubles were worthless in the USSR. The other reason the orchestra required cash, was that the Russian banks literally have no money, the country is bankrupt. Indeed Mrs. Baskin went to the State Bank to withdraw some money from her account, but was told to “come back next month since they do not have any money today.” This is very true, and explains why we could not get any at the Moskva. Russia is in a serious economic crisis — with no currency.

For the funding of the concert and recording, rather than travel around the world with a large amount of cash in a briefcase, prone to robbery, it was decided, and quite rightly, it was safer to travel with traveler’s cheques. American Express did not have sufficient quantity of traveler’s cheques on the days preceding the departure, and so US Mastercard traveler’s cheques were used.

Upon arrival, we found that nowhere in Eastern Europe do they accept Mastercard, let alone traveler’s cheques, and furthermore, no where in Russia could exchange the traveler’s cheques, since there was not enough hard currency in the country to accommodate the amount required since the state bank was collapsing due to the revolution underway. The Russians, upon learning that their money was in this form, became extremely concerned, thinking that they would never see it, since they understood the problems of the Russian monetary system better than we did.

Indeed the orchestra on 2 occasions came to the point where they were going to pull the plug on the recording, and not play until they got paid in hard currency. A lot of gentle persuasion, persistence, and diplomacy allowed Phillip and I to be able to convince them to continue the recording, and await my efforts of converting the traveler’s cheques into hard currency.

Upon my arrival on the scene, we had but two options. The first was to deposit the traveler’s cheques into an account with the State Bank, where after several days hold, the money would be converted into Rubles at an exchange rate of .51c, or alternatively, find a way to cash the cheques outside the country, and bring the hard cash back in for distribution. Since the first option meant that the exchange on the rubles, and back into US dollars would cost us 5 times the original amount of the contract, we only had one option left — for me to leave and cash the cheques in a nearby country, and return with the cash.

Because of the very structured Russian visa that was issued, and the fact that when entering or leaving Russia, every visitor must complete a currency declaration, declaring exactly [to the dollar] how much money is coming in, and then on departure, you must complete another declaration, showing either you still have the same amount of money, or alternatively, receipts totally the same amount from authorized state stores, taxis or restaurants. This presented us with another major problem. This was the reason for our meeting with the various leaders, away from the Great Hall during the recording.

Morris and RJ Miller had to concentrate on the artistic matters of the recording, the business elements were left to me to arrange.

After a morning discussion of how I was to successfully do this, I left Mikhail Baskin to phone political friends of his in Moscow to get advice, and to commence working on the necessary departure visa and re-entry visa required. I returned to the Great Hall to find that the first mornings recording session had gone very well, and we where now ready to do some sightseeing.

Phillip, Morris, RJ, Jeff, DJ & I headed off in the mayors limousine, with a camera crew in tow, following in another car to the graveside of Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Stravinsky an so many more at the Tikhvin cemetery… [The camera crew where there to film a documentary on the American team in Russia for both Soviet TV and for us to be able to utilize in our own marketing – they literally shot everything we did, getting in and out of cars, walking around, eating, drinking etc.. etc… The only time they shut camera off was when we went to the bathroom, or when we slept].

The graveyard was very impressive, normally no tourists are allowed to visit it, we had special permission to not only walk into the catacombs and graveyard, but also we where allowed to take pictures.

Tikhvin cemetery

Unfortunately at this time, Morris started feeling ill [he had been brushing his teeth with the water that is heavily polluted in Leningrad], so we returned Morris to his hotel, and continued on a general tour of the city.

We visited a Russian Synagogue that had been locked up for years, and was only re-opened exclusively for us.

Actually, Morris was not the only one ill, I had been bitten by fleas on the train to Budapest (the Orient Express) a couple of days earlier, and by now, my ankle had swollen badly, and I was in terrible pain. A large red sore had grown on the side of my ankle and I was very concerned about it, but at the same time, I was not prepared to see a Russian doctor about it, preferring to wait until at least Vienna before seeing a doctor. I made the decision that I would also keep it quiet, with only DJ knowing, in the event, our Russian hosts decided they would check me into their own hospital. It was agony to walk on, and the only relief I could give it was soaking it in alcohol, and keeping light gauze pads wrapped around it.

We returned to the hotel to collect Morris, and then take RJ, DJ and Jeff to the second recording session. After dropping them at the Great Hall, and making sure that the orchestra were prepared to continue to play, we left to go back to the Baskin’s to find out what he had developed