Selling Soles in the USSR

In 1986, three months after the Chernobyl disaster, I sailed into Soviet waters on an oversized yacht with a group of successful though quite young stockbrokers.  At the entrance to St. Petersburg harbor, we were boarded by the harbormaster and a couple of people working for Intourist which, at that time, was the only tourist agency allowed to operate by the communist government. Their job, we soon learnt, was to interrogate any passenger whose passport raised suspicion and to determine who would be allowed to disembark.  They had almost three hours to complete their interrogations as that was how long it took to sail past the massive Soviet fleet of warships moored there.

At the mouth of the harbor we were also assigned two escorts: Cold War Era destroyers with troops standing on their decks at alert.  Some of the idiots on board our ship responded by breaking out the champagne, cranking up “Born in the USA” full blast, and skeet-shooting off the bow.  The scene below during the interrogations and our later indoctrination was much more somber.  One woman with a South African passport was informed she could not disembark with her American husband.  Two men were interrogated for over an hour because of time they had spent in Israel.  The rest of us got a severe lookover in case if we had something to confess.  After the list of permitted tourists was complete, we were told the rules:

  • We were not allowed to engage in conversations with people on the street
  • We were not allowed to buy from any street vendors. 
  • We could only purchase “trinkets” from approved Intourist shops which we would be taken to.
  • We were only allowed to take photographs with permission from our Intourist guides.
  • And most importantly, we were not allowed to sell our personal belongings to people on the streets. Apparently shoes were the number one thing the residents tried to buy off tourists. 

Breaking any of these rules meant you would be detained and not allowed to continue on your cruise.  I had a hard time understanding any of the rules, especially the third.  Why would the Soviet government care if I walked around barefoot because I was silly enough to sell my shoes?  Besides, my shoes weren’t fashionable; just sturdy.  Still, I was assured that a tourist had actually sold his boots on the streets of Moscow and gotten himself in hot water with the KGB. 

The St. Petersburg terminal was one of the grimmest places I’ve ever seen.  To either side of the entrance was a ten foot chainlink fence topped with barbed wire that blocked those greeting travelers from actually being on the docks.  Ours was the only ship containing passengers that day but people stood at the fence watching us with gray faces and deep pocketed eyes as we strutted into the customs office for further interrogations.  All of us Jim Dandy, well-fed Americans with new shoes and clothes that fit, still humming Born in the USA and giddy from champagne quickly realized that stories of Soviet oppression had not been exaggerated for political gain;  they were real.


Of our selection of shore excursions, we’d opted for a tour of the city which would end at the Hermitage followed by a traditional Russian banquet.  It was a cloudy, humid and hot day as we were shuttled in buses without air-conditioning past monuments and palaces. Very little context was provided by the Intourist guides who seemed more concerned with monitoring our activities.  Here you may take pictures.  At Intourist shop you may buy guides in English of city.

I remember smiling at the people packed like sardines in city buses next to us only to have them look down.  I remember how everything seemed tired and ready to die in St. Petersburg.  The buildings, the traffic and even the statues. Uncared for, soot-covered and badly in need of a paint job.  But the Hermitage I thought would brighten the day. For those of you who’ve never been, it is a huge museum which at one time was the Winter Palace for Catherine the Great.  On a hot July day you would expect huge crowds but we had no problem getting close to masterpieces by Rembrandt and Rubens.  Only not too close.  The paintings and sculptures were guarded by fierce women far past retirement age sitting on folding chairs in each room.  The thing I remember the most – far more than the masterpieces and museum pieces and the insane amount of gold – was the lack of water fountains, indoor toilets and elevators.  To pee, you had to run down three flights of marble stairs and persuade the person guarding the back door to let you use one of the portable potties sitting on hot asphalt behind the museum.

I imagine that situation has changed by now.

By the time we got to the restaurant where our banquet was to take place, we were hungry and thirsty.  Our Intourist guides had apparently been hired for their endurance skills.  The notion of comfort or customer satisfaction was alien to them.  We were just a bunch of lazy spoiled American who expected to have a good time.  Shame on us!

However, we had a problem.  Chernobyl had poisoned livestock and crops and the only thing safe to eat was caviar bottled before the disaster, vodka and champagne. I suppose to many people the idea of dining solely on those three things sounds heavenly but I couldn’t resist taking a chance and trying the borscht.  I felt sorry for the waiters and the cooks as their food was ignored but then I was told that the massive amount of food we’d left behind would definitely not be wasted. Russians had no choice but to eat the poisoned food whereas we could return to the ship.

There was a nighttime excursion we meant to go on but several glasses of Russian vodka (which is alarmingly smooth) and champagne rendered us completely without energy and we stayed onboard.

The next morning the ship was set to sail at eight but one of the passengers had not returned the night before.  Somehow he’d evaded his keepers long enough to meet the love of his life and that was it.  He was staying with her.  Intourist informed our captain that until he was apprehended, our ship would not be allowed to leave the Soviet Union.  The two young men he’d been with the night before were taken below and interrogated and within a half hour he was located and dragged back aboard ship. I don’t even think they needed to waterboard those two dudes to get them to rat on their friend. 

The Russian girl followed him and stood behind the chain link fence sobbing and screaming his name.   I often wonder how long it took for him to forget about her entirely. Probably as long as it will take for Americans to forget the treasonous actions of Trump.