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USSR and beyond, 1977 – Part I: The East

A guest post by my father, Aleksandar:
In 1974, I returned home to Yugoslavia from my life-changing trip to India. When all the excitement and stories settled, my father (who was 56 at the time) started behaving very strangely. Usually very social and jovial, he started isolating himself in his bedroom.We noticed tons of books, maps and few notebooks piling up around his bed. One evening in the spring of 1975, he appeared wide-eyed and called a family meeting.”I have all the details right here,” he said pointing to the notebook in his hands, “We are buying a new car and DRIVING to Japan this summer!”  Wow! We were quite surprised and sceptical but not one of us said no.

My father's notes

My father’s notes

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In fact I still have some of his documents today. The careful and minute planning my father undertook: charting budgets (the cost of gas, food, ferries, souvenirs, museums and of course, cigarettes); painstakingly copied language phrases; typewritten itinerary lists of destinations and kilometres to be travelled, subsequently revised in blue, then red pen). At the time this was an incredibly ambitious undertaking, not to be taken lightly.

We managed to buy a new car replacing our Fiat in autumn of 1975. It was a shiny, red Renault 4. Our travel plans altered a little, after careful consideration and a few visa rejections. Ultimately, we decided to take the trip in the summer of 1977 through Romania to the USSR, then Finland all the way up to the Polar Circle. We’d come back the other way around, through Norway, Sweden, Denmark, East and West Germany and Austria (not Japan this time!). One of the main reasons we selected Russia for our tip was the romantic wish my mother had to visit the enormous and beautiful birch forests of the  steppes. They populated Russian literature that she (and all of us) had read and loved all our lives. So off we went!
Our infamous Renault on the outskirts of Moscow

Our trusty Renault, with my father Slobodan in the foreground

Odessa

Odessa

Odessa

Odessa

Kiev

Kiev
Kiev

Kiev

We traveled more than 20,000 km in about 40 days, if I remember correctly. Among other troubles (and many more good times) we had to apply more than 6 months in advance to get written permission and visas for traveling by car through the USSR. We found out later that only one in 100 applications get approved. We got a luck stamp of approval, but it came with  significant alternations to our proposed plan. We were permitted to travel a maximum of 500 km per day, drive only during the day, and only on specially pre-approved roads. No unplanned excursions to villages or towns were allowed, and we had to stay only at camp grounds, no hotels of any kind. It turned out that we were not even allowed to sleep in our own tent, but had to stay in tents or cottages provided by the authorities, who were to be paid in advance.

Moscow

Moscow

Moscow

Moscow

Moscow

Moscow

Every step of the way we raised the suspicion of the Soviet authorities. We underwent numerous police checks, and encountered obstacles of all kinds. To any of our complains they replied: “We didn’t invite you to come here!” We were not even allowed to buy gasoline at the gas station, instead we were escorted to a special location in each city where we could buy 10 litre coupons and then return to fill up a tank. If you didn’t know exactly how much would fill your tank and accidentally asked for more than would fit, there was no way to stop the pump. Gasoline would overflow and spill out.

St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg (then Leningrad)

St. Petersburg

Pushkin

St. Petersburg

Pushkin

The obstacles culminated in one emblematic experience at the USSR/Finnish border. During the 4hr-long interrogation we were required (3 separate times) to take everything out of our car, down to the last, tiny item and present it to the authorities for examination. This absurd ritual allowed us to proceed.

But looking back, our overall impression of Russia was still extremely positive. The birch woods were magnificent, bringing to life every story we’d read about them. Driving by the milky-white trees for days was unforgettable, as was getting lost in the surreal light once inside the forest. And of course, seeing Russian history come to life was sublime. For example, the Orthodox churches were extremely well-preserved, though not always used for intended religious purpose. We also had numerous precious contacts with locals. Even when their poverty was so blatant, that you might see an old woman selling just one egg by the road side, the local people were ready to help us or share a story and a drink.

Birch forest

Birch forest

My mother, Ivanka

My mother, Ivanka

d-breze12sTo be continued…

Next time: PART II – The West, the second leg of this family journey.

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UnaUSSR and beyond, 1977 – Part I: The East

Comments

  1. Sarah

    I really love this! It’s an inspirational wanderlust-inducing post and family history in one!

    1. Author
      Una

      Thank you Sarah! That’s the best part of digging through our old family photos—hearing all the stories and preserving them. Plus now I know where the travel gene comes from ;)

    1. Author
      Una

      Glad you enjoyed it Carol. Part II to come soon, with the highlight being Scandianavian architecture (drool).

  2. GBC

    Love the attention to detail your grandfather took in planning the trip. And the photos of 1970’s USSR are priceless! The birch forests are very dreamlike, I see why your grandmother loved them so.

    The border crossing sounds similar to my trip to the USA in 1986 – all because instead of just showing a drivers licence for ID as I did, my friend showed his Czech passport. After 2h of questions and guards stripping his jeep, we were denied entry, as they said we required signed statements from our employers and landlords, and $200/day in cash each (no cards) for our 30 day trip. ;-)

    Off to read part 2 now!

    1. Author
      Una

      Thank you for the kind words GBC!
      I love learning about how politics impact travel, particularly with the benefit of hindsight, because then you can truly appreciate the various factors. ($6000 each for a month in the US in ’86… preposterous!)
      Glad you’re enjoying the ‘Family Journeys’ posts.

  3. pavel (@mep3abeli)

    May I suggest some correction?
    1. The picture with red car and truck named as Moscow. It seems that it’s Odessa, because of license plates with letters ОД which are ODessa.
    2. Two pictures with palaces are not exactly St.Petersburg, but town Pushkin (named after Russian poet), which is near St.Petersburg.

    1. Author
      Una

      Hello Pavel,
      Thank you so much for the corrections. We are relying on memory from more than 35 years ago and not always the best labels on old slides. But “ОД” should have been a good clue ;)
      I’ve made the changes. I hope you enjoyed the post otherwise.
      Una

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