Author’s note: This post is the first of a several part series of stories about the author’s travel to the U.S.S.R. in April 1973, during the ‘Cold War,’ between the former ‘Soviet Union’ and the United States.
PART I: SCANDINAVIAN DELIGHT!
In the spring of 1973, just after I had graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville campus, I enrolled in a graduate course there called ‘Soviet History.’
At that time, the U.S. and the old Soviet Union were still involved in what was called, the “Cold War,” which had existed since World War II.
It was a time when U.S. President Richard Nixon was getting ready to visit the U.S.S.R. for the first time, in late April (and for you youngsters who might read this, that was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics).
This was one of the most popular history courses at UW-P at that time, as the unique and attractive part of this particular course was, that it contained a three week ‘field trip’ to the U.S.S.R., which would take place in early April of that term. The cost for the trip was an amazing $600, which included air fare on Finn Air, hotels, ground transportation, tour guides, and regular meals. A veritable bargain of a world class trip!
I had tried to register for this course for the two previous years there as an undergrad, but, because of its popularity, there was a waiting list of two years to get in it. Only 28 students were allowed to take the course each year, which was offered only in the spring semester.
The structure of the trip involved having all of the State Universities in Wisconsin coming together on that trip, with each campus having a quota on how many students and staff could participate.
There were a number of possible itineraries available for each campus to choose from, and as it worked out, our group of 28 students and two staff were paired up with the group of six from UW-Eau Claire, which included five students and one faculty member, who actually spoke Russian and had family in the U.S.S.R. Our combined group would visit Leningrad, Moscow, Kiev and Odessa.
The course was set up so that all of the course requirements were completed prior to the trip, so that there were no pressures during the trip to keep up on any course assignments. That made the actual trip a lot more enjoyable to look forward to.
My packing list for the trip (besides personal clothing) included a number of items for personal use and for trading: 25 rolls of Kodachrome and Ecktachrome 36-exposure slide film; lots of batteries for my Canon FTQL SLR 35mm camera and flash, 4 cartons of Camel cigarettes (I have never smoked cigarettes), 6 cartoons of Wriggly gum, 2 commemorative cigarette lighters, 4 decks of playing cards, a small, folding, magnetic chess board, 4 rolls of t.p., several zip lock packets of laundry detergent powder, and a small length of strong nylon cord (to stretch in my hotel room to utilize as a clothes line to dry my clothes). Plus: diarrhea medicine, aspirin, and an English-Russian pocket dictionary.
I also decided to wear my red Eddie Bauer down winter jacket, as it would be cold in Leningrad and Moscow in April. This choice would subsequently create quite a bit of attention during the trip…
The State University system booked our flight with Finnair, because, in addition to the great price they provided on the flight cost, that airline agreed to provide two days stay for all of us in the capitol city of Helsinki, including all hotel, meals, ground transportation and tour fees. From Helsinki, we all would take tour buses from there over to the Soviet border, through customs, and from there, to the first city on our Soviet tour, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).
During the later part of January, all of February and March, I drove an hour one way to attend this class one evening each week, taking care of the pre-trip course requirements.
We learned about what to expect during the trip, and studied about various aspects of the Soviet Union, including its history, politics, economics, sociology, poetry and the arts. We also learned about what was permitted and not permitted in terms of the conduct of tourists visiting the U.S.S.R.
I did my best during those two and a half months of class time to learn as many Russian phrases as I could.
As the semester progressed, the students in the class got more and more excited about the upcoming trip, which, beside spending two days in Helsinki, would involve visiting the Soviet cities of Leningrad (now know as St. Petersburg), Moscow, Kiev and the Black Sea port of Odessa.
So, on the appointed day of our flight, all 170 some of us University of Wisconsin regional campus students and staff, met down in O’Hare Airport north of Chicago, in the International Terminal, and damned be him or her who forgot to bring their passport to the airport, because he or she wouldn’t be going on the trip without it!
The flight from Chicago to Helsinki took about 8 or 9 hours, and was a study in getting acquainted with as many of your fellow students during the flight as possible. OR, you could do like many of the students did and sleep, read, or try to watch the in-flight movie.
We finally arrived in Helsinki, early the next morning, to a very cold and snowy Scandinavian capitol city. After being bused to our hotel, we discovered that unfortunately, we would not be able to check in until several hours later.
Unfortunately, for this post, my original slides, numbering several hundred, are at my home far away, and not available to use herein. The beautiful images you will see herein have been borrowed from several internet sources, and I am grateful for their use. When you see them, try to imagine that they are in the winter with snow on the ground.
So, with our luggage piled high in one entire side of the rather small lobby, several of us decided to take off on a self-guided, walking tour of the nearby port area, which was only a few blocks away from our hotel.
With snow on the ground, and our breath blowing out of our noses and mouths like a bunch of cattle clomping along in a pasture, we made our way over to the port area, and discovered, despite the cold and snow, a rather large, busy, and colorful open farmer’s market bustling with activity.
The market area consisted of several dozen vendor tents and stands, where a number of kinds of early, colorful flowers, including lots of tulips, were on sale. There were also several stands full of fruit, vegetables and pastry items, which drew our noses in to investigate, with many yummy smells of freshly-baked bread, croissants and other delicacies drifting through the air.
An immediate, disturbing problem arose, however, which prevented any of us from purchasing any those delicious-smelling baked items: none of us had any Finish currency yet! And we were all afraid of paying in dollars, for fear of getting taken advantage of with the exchange rate.
So, we walked, saw, snapped numerous pictures of the port area, smelled the baked goodies, and eventually made our way back to our hotel, hoping to be able to check in to our rooms, and square away our gear.
After a lot of waiting around in the cramped, hotel lobby, we were finally assigned rooms. We picked up our luggage, road up the elevator, got into our rooms and unpacked. Seems like I also took a short nap, when all was settled.
During the next two days after our arrival, with coldish temperatures down in the 20s and 30s, and about 6″ of powdery snow on the ground, our group (including the 6 from UW-Eau Claire), toured around the modern, very westernized capitol city of Helsinki.
We also had the opportunity to go shopping at Stockmann’s, the largest department store in Europe, which had anything and everything you might ever want to shop for. Incredible store!
Among other attractions, we visited a very large Lutheran Church, a downtown high school and a glass/china factory. We also had time to wander about, and do some shopping near our hotel.
The Finnish high school we visited was headquartered in a multi-story building located only a few blocks away from our hotel, and was an interesting contrast to what I was used to seeing in the high schools I was familiar with in Wisconsin.
The classes held from 15 to 25 students each, and were incredibly ‘lively’ for high school classes. The students were all very active during the classes, talkative, contributing, and noisy, but not in a disruptive manner. And strangely to us, many of the students kept coming and going from the classroom to somewhere else. The kids dressed all very different from each other; no uniforms at this school.
The huge, famous Lutheran Temppeliaukio ‘Rock’ Church was just amazing! The church itself was built upon open granite bedrock, with a beautiful, copper metal dome roof, which covered an open circular area of probably four acres. The beautiful granite bedrock was exposed along the walls and part of the floor, and lent such a distinct personality to the place. An incredible place to worship, and probably the most beautiful and unusual church I have ever seen.
It was in the evenings of our stay in Helsinki in the hotel, after having our evening meal, that many of our students, including myself, came together and played the first of dozens of great card games in our rooms, during the tour! Much more so than in the classroom during the previous two and a half months, members of the group began their bonding process in earnest, a really neat thing to watch and experience.
As it turned out, I was the oldest member of the students in both groups, by about six years, and shortly after our arrival in Helsinki, I kind of unofficially became the leader of the group, and the one the other students came to to ask questions and advice of.
After a whirlwind two days of touring, shopping, taking pictures and playing cards, our combined travel group packed our bags, loaded up onto the bus, and headed for the 250-mile journey over into the Soviet Union, to the pre-Russian Revolution Soviet capitol of Leningrad, now known as St. Petersburg.
Visiting Helsinki had been a grand start of this most-anticipated tour of the Soviet Union, and all of our group was looking forward to crossing the border and the experiencing that which lay ahead.
And that Cold War travel story will be the subject of NIGHT TRAIN FROM MOSCOW TO LENINGRAD, PART II: TRAVEL TO LENINGRAD: SOVIET WINDOW TO THE WEST.