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..