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 massi