I had the pleasure of watching “The Purple Ball”, a 1986 fantasy film made in the Soviet Union a few days ago. Around the time the film was made I went on a trip to the CCCP with my school. The films date reminded me of that bizarre excursion and I am about the same age as the protagonist featured in the above picture.
I imagine that due to it being the period of Gorbachev, Glasnost and Peristroika that the Soviet Union wished to encourage school visits. I was 11 at the time and was told that this planned trip for the years above me had spaces and there was an opportunity to go to Russia and to me it seemed too good a chance to miss. I didn’t appreciate how strange such a trip was. A few years later a county musical ensemble I was in were offered a tour to Israel, but all the parents refused to let us go to Israel, so went to Sweden instead, but Soviet Russia? fine???
It is perhaps telling that there wasn’t such a huge enthusiasm for the trip from the other kids at my school, brought up as we were with the Cold War, fears of Nuclear Armageddon and the Western propaganda that Russia were “the Evil Empire” and the “Bad Guys”.
Yet, off we went! It was my first time flying, I was 12 by the time we went but I was probably too young to really understand what I was seeing. We were more interested in collecting the really cheap Soviet badges that we were constantly offered by street hawkers and the seemingly endless refrain:
“You want Paul McCartney record?”
This LP was not available in the “West” at the time. We did stand out a mile and must have been a magnet for every hawker in the city dressedas we were in bright primary colours. All the locals were in black or dark greys. We stood out for miles around!
The memories I do have are perhaps of interest:
The Moscow State Circus were amazing.
We went to a school disco, which was very strange as we had no Russian and the Russian school kids had no English, so we sadly didn’t speak to them at all. A large group of them were surrounding this laser disco light, that seemed entirely new to them, which was perhaps provided to make Soviet Russia seem more “modern” I don’t know.
We went to this shop that sold electronics that Soviet citizens were barred from, though quite why a bunch of young teenagers would want to buy big lumpy electronics designed for a different current level? I think the idea was to get Sterling out of us.
We were very naughty. We were supposed to change money into Roubles at a bank, but our teachers decided to take us out into the street and change money on the black market. Which was worth it! Instead of 1 Rouble to the Pound, the official rate at the time, we got 5 Roubles to the Pound. I imagine that those guys were making a very healthy profit on that as well! We even had to do it twice as there was another local school group with us and their teachers wouldn’t let them change money with guys on the street in Moscow.
Was this risky? Were the KGB watching our every move? Or were we just left alone for political reasons, who knows?
Food & Drink
We were even naughtier than that. We went to a shop and brought bottles of Vodka. 12 years old, no questions asked, which was pretty much the case in Wales too at the time! But surely a nightmare for our teachers having 12 year olds drinking vodka in their hotel rooms, especially when we weren’t eating very well as were were young and picky and struggling to like the Russian Food.
One night we seemed to be offered cat food by the hotel, some sort of meat in a thick jelly, just like in tins of cat food we thought, ych a fi! There was this wonderfully sweet tart we got for breakfast though which was heavenly.
Our hotel in Moscow was high rise, which was new to me, so there were the lifts. The doors of these lifts would only open for three seconds so we had to manually hold the doors to get more than one person in. I really hate lifts (mild claustrophobia). They were often full too. I think we were on the 27th floor but I was young enough to just run up the stairs without it being too much.
Travelling 1st class
After some days in Moscow we then took the night train to Leningrad (now St Petersburg again). We had a private cabin for me and my friend and I have never since travelled in such luxury on a train. The cabin was beautiful. It was a shame it was night as we didn’t get the see much of the Russian countryside, which coming from ta farming area was actually what I was more interested in seeing than the big cities.
So we arrived in Leningrad, which was very different to the cold concrete blocks of Moscow, and lots of very pretty pre-Soviet buildings. It was colder, snow on the ground and -10 degrees, but it didn’t feel that cold. I now had a furry Russian hat, but I think it was more the lack of humidity that made it seem warmer than Wales was.
The St Petersburg Hotel was very posh, wonderfully clean comfortable rooms, however not so the toilets. They didn’t flush, no bucket to manually flush the pan and had no toilet paper. I remember exploring different floors of the hotel in search of a loo that had sheaves of old newspaper left on the string. Once I had to resort to a trip to the lobby to buy a copy of Pravda for such a use!
We were taken to lots of tourist shops where we bought lots of cheap Soviet tat. Looking back, I wish I’d bought more as these days it probably has something of a cachet. We did buy reams of Soviet propaganda posters though as they were 2p each! Hopefully, they are still in reasonable condition in my dads attic somewhere!
Sadly most of the trip was very touristy, endless coach tours and the like, though the Space Centre was very cool. The Leningrad underground railway was stunning, every station was beautifully designed and only 5p to go anywhere in the city, if only London was like that!
Really I was too young to appreciate it all and we, as a school group were ferried around by our InTourist guide (who incidentally did extremely well from all the Roubles we were unable to spend or change back.
I still don’t do normal holidays, maybe because of this trip. Maybe it’s a desire to see strange different parts of the world and see how other people live, rather than sweat on a packed beach in Spain.
It was a place that can no longer be visited, the CCCP no longer exists. I could go back to Russia and see it all completely changed of course. Even though I hadn’t spoken with hardly any real Russians, I think it did leave me with a positive view of Russia, which was perhaps the aim, but as one of the kids who had signed up to go, I didn’t have a negative view of Russia.
I still live in a country with a negative view of Russia and still negative media propaganda about Russia, deservedly so to some extent but our government and that of the US are no Goodies by any means. Now though at’s all about Putin, rather than the Soviets. Generally, I feel the ordinary Russian people haven’t had the chance to really connect with Western Europe, there hasn’t really been a period in my lifetime when Russia has not been regarded as a political ‘enemy’ and I think that does influence peoples views of people. If a government is regarded as a bad guy then it’s people must be bad guys too, though this is a false connection as pretty much every government is terrible.
Really if we had just watched more Soviet films and less American films (which often do have a very pro-USA underlying message, <cough> Star Wars <cough> what was that about really? <cough> ‘the evil empire’? <cough>, there would may be less bias against our Russian comrades. The Purple Ball is ultimately a much more uplifting film than Star Wars in my view and it has dragons in! which of course, warms any Welshman’s heart.