Leningrad ’91

The first time I went to Russia, with my two kids and first wife, was in 1991, when St. Petersburg was still called Leningrad, and when historic changes were underway. Statues of Lenin had been toppled, revolution was in the air, the U.S.S.R. and its communist ways were in the process of collapsing, and although we were warned not to go because it was such dangerous times, we went anyway.

Leningrad was exactly as I had pictured it and wanted it to be – dark, old, strange, just like in books and films, and I was so excited. We came in by train from Helsinki late at night and our Russian friends hadn’t received our letter saying we were coming, so we were alone and more than confused when we stepped onto the train station platform. Eventually, a fellow who spoke English asked if we needed help, and things got sorted out thanks to him. Surprised the heck out of our friends too.

Russia has changed over the years, with fancy cars, mega-movie theatres, high fashion, and serious money being thrown around now, but back then it was the real Russia to me, the one I expected and wasn’t disappointed with. It was also the bargain to end all bargains. Almost everything was dirt-cheap. Eight of us went to a restaurant one night, had chicken or beef meals with all the trimmings, plus a couple of pitchers of Cokes along with dessert, and the entire bill came to the equivalent of seven bucks. Now it would be several hundred at least.

Here’s a few photos from our big trip 21 years ago, when Russian citizens still had to line up for hours to buy a few things in shops, when many ordinary Russians had no choice but to share an apartment with several other families, and it goes without saying, when life wasn’t easy for all but the chosen few. It was also a time when it was very unusual for westerners to see the inside of a Russian home, it rarely happened, and I was very proud that we were able to experience that. (It took some serious red tape). I also attended a meeting of the Leningrad Montreal Canadiens Fan Club, where they made me their first non-Russian member.

When we got back home, I wrote a full-page account of our trip, which was published in the Calgary Herald. It was all very heady times, and I have wonderful memories of this huge trip, which also included Stockholm, Helsinki, and Copenhagen along the way..

10 thoughts on “Leningrad ’91”

  1. Dennis…a few years later I was in Kharkov and Kiev, Ukraine on a medical missions trip for a few weeks. Much the same experience. I was amazed at the poor level of medicine in the former Soviet Union and the state of the country in general after decades of communism. But the people were wonderful- friendly and outgoing, generous and so happy to see westerners.

    I have not been back, and I expect Ukraine has undergone a similar transformation to Russia. It was a neat time to experience something we will never see again.

  2. I am very envious of your experience. Great story, Great shots……… How good can a bargain be if there is nothing to buy?

  3. Layne, they really are a terrific people. Family-oriented and kind. It’s great that you were able to experience that. And yes, it’s really changed. All the chain stores like Ikea and fast food joints like we have. It’s completely different for young Russians from what their parents and grandparents experienced.

  4. Hobo, yeah. The lining up must have been a drag, especially in the cold. And sometimes when they finally got into the stores, there was almost nothing left to buy.

  5. You’ve had such an amazing life Dennis. You’ve done things, gone to places, etc. Man, my life is such a drag. :(

    What a great story. If I were to ever make it there I’d love to see where Stalingrad is (I think it has a different name now). I am very into World War history (both of them) and Stalingrad is one of my favorite subjects.

  6. Darth, Stalingrad is back to Volgograd again, named after the Volga river. I’d like to see it too.

  7. Christopher, Moscow has a lot of that but St.Petersburg has some too. Makes our subways in North America look very ordinary.

  8. Denis, what a great pictures and so many memories. I was 15 in 1991, I lived in Leningrad, I do remember those lines and lack of essential things to buy. It’s also amazing to see some shot of the “yubileyniy” ice rink, I gave up doing hockey because of lack of money of my parents even for food. This is sad, but this is our history. Thank you for publishing this.

  9. Kirill, thank you so much. You’ve made my day by enjoying this. I hope things got better for you and your family.

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