A 1962 Journey of the Cold War

John Sayles

© Copyright 2019 by John Sayles

Photo of a newspaper clipping.

A young geography teacher’s first field trip as party leader of 13 senior boys and fourteen friends and colleagues. Two years in planning a geographical holiday with  much bureaucratic form filling for travel permits to Russia at a time of  political unrest known as the ‘Cold War’. 

Joining our coach and British driver in Belgium, we set off to travel across West Germany, entering East Germany near   Madeburrg along a strictly controlled,  no deviations allowed, travel route organised by the state run Intourist Organisation which we had been led to believe worked closely with the Soviet Secret Police. This holiday to visit designated tourist attractions also allowed the geography students to observe changes in agriculture, varied landscapes and perhaps meet German. Polish and Russian people was very ambitious.

After a prosperous, largely reconstructed West Germany the sight of bland, Stanalist architectural blocks of flats with few roadside trees to soften the scene and acres of rubble filled bomb sites caste a sense of gloom over the coach group. Using cameras to capture the depressing towns and villages passed by was discouraged. Taking pictures, especially near border crossing points was forbidden. Such advanced instructions from the Intourist travel office  helped  build up a sense of foreboding and even fear of being spied on at every turn. As the East German- Polish crossing point drew near at Frankfurt on Oder one could sense the increased apprehension among the party for clearly this trip was going to be less of a holiday and more a series of experiences.

We had yet to see a smiling face, surrounded as we were with various officials in a variety of uniform, many carrying guns. Nearby a convoy of military vehicles drew up waiting to cross the border, each lorry marked with a white star. [Picture?]  I could see one or two cameras surreptitiously held up to capture the scene but cautioned the students about camera rules sent to us before leaving England. Two officials came on the coach collecting passports and checking overhead lockers and under seats. Then, shepherded to where the customs were situated we were checked against a list of names, again provided as part of access rules some months ago. With passports stamped, back to the coach to wait. The driver was told to move the vehicle over a deep inspection pit and so we were able to watch as armed officials did a further security check both under the coach and in the luggage storage areas.

During a wait of two hours boredom set in. Some started reading, others writing up diaries and student log books. At the front of the coach a student sitting behind the driver, possibly bored, lifted a camera to his eye to scan the activity outside. The first of several unexpected experiences occurred as, with a hurried clatter of boots an angry soldier burst into the coach and before anything could be said snatched the camera from the student and took out the roll of film. Shock all round at the suddenness of this action. As we drove off, subdued, humbled, frightened and embarrassed across the R.Oder bridge we passed an armed soldier sitting in a wooden hut with high powered binoculars focussed back across the river  to the next vehicle waiting to follow us. So that is how the security worked. Much food for thought.

At last a few smiling faces as we crossed Poland to Warsaw, meeting our two Intourist guides to remain with us for the duration of the holiday. The restoration of central Warsaw gave one hope for Poland’s future. The façade in the old town Market Square had been completely rebuilt as it appeared before the war, hiding new flats and offices behind. An active ‘Black Market’ operated everywhere, on buses, public toilets and hotel lobbies. Anywhere that Western visitors might be seen but at great risk. Who were the genuine people wishing to pay for a Biro pen or plastic mac as a ‘status’ symbol and which were the secret police trying to trap a Western tourist for propaganda purposes?

Next morning, I stood looking out from the bedroom window across the city centre surprised by the lack of transport and business activity to be seen. Just a couple of cars and a few dejected looking farm labourers sitting long, narrow wooden carts pulled by slow plodding horses. Rather different to London’s Piccadilly Circus or other city centres. Suddenly the Polish radio chatter stopped and I caught the tail end of President Kennedy broadcasting an ultimatum to the Russians about ships having to turn back. Not fully understanding what the news broadcast meant, a knock on the bedroom door allowed the Intourist guide to declare “Now you will have an opportunity to experience the might of the Russian bear”. A brief discussion of what was happening in the outside world led me to believe we would have to retrace our journey and return to England as soon as possible. To do this we would need an exit visa and this was only available from the Moscow office. Good grief, here were faced with possible war at any moment and yet having to go deeper into Russia to obtain the necessary exit visa.

We had no choice but to continue as quickly as possible on the road to Moscow where we intended to get to the British Embassy via the American Embassy to get a better idea of what was taking place. Our road route would take us through Smolensk and Minsk two more cities that greatly suffered from the German Army advance to Moscow in World War ll and further horrors when they had to retreat in the face of overwhelming Soviet forces retaking these cities.

Passing through vast dark conifer forests on either side of the highway the coach swerved to avoid a car shooting out of a side track as we neared Smolensk. The coach [Picture 2?]  left the road, sliding into the soft sandy drainage ditch, hitting a small tree in the process. Though shaken, thankfully no one was badly hurt. Climbing down from the coach to inspect the damage and take photographs we met a few excited Russian ladies emerging from where the car had appeared. What a joy to meet these smiling, gold toothed stout, buxom women in bright coloured kerchiefs holding their grey hair in place. They represented the almost textbook image of what many Westerners thought a farming peasant to be.

It did not take long for the police to arrive in an armed motorcycle combination, the Intourist guides telling us the car driver would probably go to prison, not so much for causing the accident but for the inconvenience and bad impression created of Soviet hospitality for tourists. The ladies invited us to see a bit of their Collective Farm something I had tried to include as a geography feature of the holiday, the request having been refused months ago but here, by accident, we were meeting real farming peasants, some clearly lacking in personal hygiene. We saw their school, shop and out buildings. The image of these rosy cheeked smiling faces and flashing of gold teeth remain with me every time I think of Russia. Finally, as we were about to resume our journey for an overnight stop in Minsk, I asked about working hours and if they had any unemployment. I was surprised that many of these old ladies worked shifts of twelve hours or more while some of the menfolk in busy periods worked twenty-four hour shifts right through the night if the weather was good for seed sowing or harvesting. They claimed unemployment did not exist, even for the oldest. As if by magic who should appear out of the nearby forest but a very old lady leading a cow on the end of a rope. It seems she had been sent into the forest with the cow all day to find additional grazing.

Minsk still exhibited large area of piled rubble among enormous building sites of massif apartment buildings and wide roads with young trees softening the image. Being able to have the first real stress-free break from teacher duties at our hotel, three younger colleagues joined me to further explore the city that evening, relaxed in the knowledge that the students would be well looked after. Where to go?

Standing at a busy road junction trying to decide in which direction to walk we came to the attention of a young, attractive lady who, on hearing us speak in English introduced herself as Ludmilla. It seems she was a teacher of English at a nearby school and would appreciate showing us a bit of her city while providing her opportunity to improve knowledge of our language. This seemed a good idea but flitting eye contact and raised eyebrows between my friends suggested otherwise. Was she genuine or part of a police surveillance plan? What the hell, we had nothing to lose by her company but an opportunity to learn more about her country.

Would we like her to take us to ‘The Peoples Palace’ just down the road? Yes, this was not on the usual tourist itinerary. We approached a high stone building the students commenting how reminiscent it was of Worthing Town Hall, which was near to their school. Fronted by shallow steps flanked by stone columns we were taken in through large doors. We entered large ballroom-like area dimly lit by some broken chandeliers to see a few couples shuffling round the wooden floor to the music of a wind-up gramophone. All seemed shabbily dressed except a few soldiers in uniform, most of the men appearing the worse for wear and held up by their partners. Taking us to be seated at a spare table and becoming the objects of considerable interest while Ludmilla went to get us drinks, we watched the gramophone being wound up and more couples taking to the floor.

Ludmilla was bubbling with questions about our lives and ambitions as teachers in England. Her English, considering she had never been out of the country, was remarkably good. After about half-an-hour of pleasant, cheerful conversation me noticed a silence had fallen on the hall as two men in heavy leather raincoats and Trilby-like hats stood by the door surveying the scene before them. With a look of alarm Ludmilla stood up as the men came towards her. Grabbing her handbag to go with the men she looked over her shoulder and said, “Sorry, I should not have brought you here”. So ended a pleasant meeting. Was she genuine or secret police? We shall never know the answer but on boarding the coach next morning we saw her in the street upbraiding a drunk man trying to push his way ahead of others for a taxi. Ludmilla was wearing a small arm band and our Intourist guides thought she was on some sort of civic duty patrol, certainly very brave to tackle this particular drunk man who was being very abusive to other nearby pedestrians.

Reaching Moscow early the next morning the coach went past the American Embassy where I had anticipated some sort of demonstration. But, no, just a bored looking soldier walking up and down in front of the building. With a great sigh of relief, we went past the British Embassy where all appeared quiet to a modern Intourist Hotel set aside just for tourists and business men from Western Europe. Most of the group made for an early night being quite tired from the various experiences to date and knowing there were several tourist attractions organised for the next day.

After an unusual breakfast of sliced tomatoes, pickled gherkins along with cereals and toast we set off for Red Square to see Lenin’s tomb. Most of us had seen at home earlier T.V. newsreels of the great military parades through Red Square which marched passed the large red granite tomb where Lenin’s embalmed body lay at rest since his death in 1924, except during the war when his remains were protected in Siberia, On top was the saluting base for Army Generals and Soviet leaders to take the salute while looking down on the passing military parades, the whole area looking so much smaller than the T.V. newsreels suggested. Today we joined a long que of hundreds of people from all over the Soviet Union who already had been waited hours before we arrived. As we joined the tail end of the que we were spotted by some official. He took us to the head of the que. I’m not sure how such privileged treatment for tourists helped foster good relations with the long waiting crowds. The preserved body of this former Soviet leader, dead since 1924, was an impressive tourist attraction for people to shuffle past with heads bowed paying their respect. But personally, the wax work figures in London’s Madam Tussauds was far more interesting and possibly looking more real than Lenin’s sallow, yellow features impressive though the tomb was. 

On the other side of Red Squa.re was the famous tourist attraction of GUM Department Store with many food and clothing shops on different levels with long empty shelves. The tourist gift shop was busy. Several lads would be going home with fur hats with ear muffs while others purchased the traditional Matryoshka Russian Nesting Doll made up of five different wooden dolls fitting into each other.  Such dolls brought to mind the happy, smiling peasants so recently seen.

The Intourist Office had arranged for two of the party to be interviewed on radio. At this time the Beetles were top favourite of young people in the U.K. the latest hit being “A hard days Night” but sadly the radio station could only find one Beatles record in their library. “I want to hold your hand” came to light which was better than nothing. The rest of the group split up to meet back at the hotel later to exchange experiences. Some visited the Kremlin; others took the underground train to see other tourist spots. Without doubt the most impressive experience turned out to be the underground railway stations, each spotlessly clean, several with chandeliers and statue, each looking almost like a palace. Even more impressive for the adults was to learn that construction of more palace-like stations was taking place at a time when Hitler’s army had almost reached it goal of entry in to Moscow.

While most of the group were exhausted by their tourist adventures, a small group of younger colleagues were keen for a last night fling. So, knowing all would be in safe hands I was lucky enough to join friends enquiring of the Intourist guides for a late evening activity. With what seemed great secrecy we were directed to a massif nearby building, to enter the lobby, not talk to anyone but enter the lift to a specific floor number and enjoy another side of Russian life.

The lift doors opened to a vast ballroom with hundreds of people, many of the men dressed alike in modified evening dress attire and black bow ties.  As we nibbled from a wonderful selection of food trays being passed round and holding a glass of Champaign-like wine an English person, possibly from the British Embassy, explained that we were surrounded by people who might be bricklayers, timber loggers or excavators who had, by exceeding production targets, became heroes of the State, hence the medals. Wandering out on to a flat area overlooking Moscow we could not help but reflect that down below us were the tired Russian people with no idea of the different lifestyle being led at the top of this building, at a point when nuclear Armageddon could destroy us all. Again, a new experience of Soviet life where few people knew what was going on except the world’s top political leaders.

In conclusion what of this holiday? Well, it was not so much a holiday as a series of unusual, interesting experiences where luck played a part. The feeling of watchfulness and fear was best summed up in “Fifty years of Europe” by Jan Morris (Published 1997, ISBN: 9780679416104) which I read some years later. She wrote “Travelling from west to east through [the inner German border] was like entering a drab and disturbing dream, peopled by all the ogres of totalitarianism, a half-lit world of shabby resentments, where anything could be done to you, I used to feel, without anybody ever hearing of it, and your every step was dogged by watchful eyes and mechanisms.” Nothing seemed to have changed during the following thirty-five years after our 1962 visit.

Looking back over time to gather thoughts of a life story for the grandchildren, it is ironic that two matters emerged closely linked to Russia and the holiday. I found a long forgotten, but charming letter from Ludmilla about her working life in school and hopes for the future written several years after we met. This clearly provided an answer to the question raised in 1962 about her genuineness. She was a genuine teacher of English and thus unlikely to have also been an agent of the Secret Police but even so a teeny-weeny question mark still lingers. More recently talking to a highly decorated Probus Club friend who, it transpired had a very secret role as Vulcan Bomber navigator. At the very time of what became the Cuban Crises involving nuclear rockets transported to Cuba this friend was at cockpit readiness for a two-minute scramble to launch nuclear missiles at the very time I was with Heroes of the Soviet Union. A small but fragile world for us all.

An afterthought, perhaps suspicion and political concern is more widespread than that experienced during the ‘Cold War’ visit to the Soviet Union. Later, a Senior Civil Servant acquaintance informed me that, despite appropriate experience and qualifications, it was likely that failure of an overseas job application had been blocked by earlier geographical travel interests to Russia. Who really knows what secret powers affect our lives? The answer is part of the mystery and joy of life.

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