In 1991, Russia was very much an unknown destination to most South Africans, and not much to their liking. No one dreamt of going there. But to Jannie Herbst and fellow journalist Teddy Knoetze, it sounded like a place not to be missed.
It was the Thousand Lakes Rally in Finland – a “must attend” on any self-respecting motoring journalist’s bucket list. I was covering the event as Wiel magazine’s editor, and good friend and fellow motoring journalist Teddy Knoetze was reporting on behalf of Rapport newspaper.
Disappointingly, besides the rally, the most exciting things Finland had to offer were elk steaks and thousands of lakes and pine trees. Since Russia borders Finland, it was natural that we should try to visit the land of the communists, so before leaving for Finland, we booked a trip to St Petersburg through a South African agency that specialised in tours to this mysterious country. Few South Africans visited Russia in those days.
The rally ended in Jevaskyla, and after dropping off our rental vehicle in Helsinki it would be just a half-day’s journey by Trans-Siberian train to our destination.
There was, however, one worry. Our visas were due to be delivered to our hotel in Finland. Should they not arrive in time, we would simply forfeit all our payments.
On the last day of the rally, the visas arrived by DHL and the following day we found ourselves waiting for the train on a small platform in the summer sun just outside Helsinki.
It was sometime in August and that morning, before leaving our hotel, CNN informed us that Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachov had been placed under house arrest by hardliners in the Soviet leadership who were opposed to his policy of glasnost (openness) and anything that might lead to the break-up of the Soviet Union. Oh hell, what was waiting for us on the other side of the border?
We found our compartment, which we had to share with an old Russian oom and tannie. We soon found the restaurant coach – nothing special, and the only items on the menu were beer, sparkling wine and sausages.
We promptly ordered some of everything and immediately learnt that there were just two kinds of beer. Both came in 500ml bottles, one brown and one green, but neither had any label or identification. And the taste was unappealing. The sparkling wine looked more promising. At R80 it was very expensive, but it tasted good. The sausages were as pale as the UV-deprived nation we were about to rub shoulders with and not very tasty. It was obvious we were in for a peculiar time.
Stepping out at the station in St Petersburg six hours later, we were greeted by a grim, grey and monotone world, where neglect and decay were clearly visible in the dilapidated state of the buildings around us. Our translator awaited us on the platform… a beautiful young girl. Her yellow top was a ray of sunshine in the gloom. Helena led us to our minibus, where we met our guide – a stern, grey-haired woman who to us appeared to be a typical communist.
It seemed that everything was going to plan. The arrangements had been made back at the agency in Johannesburg and at a rate of R60 a day for the vehicle, driver, guide and translator, it was an unbelievable deal.
Travelling to our hotel, we were mesmerised by the many newspaper-clad windows. On enquiring, we were told that Russia was experiencing a glass shortage. There was also a shortage of steel nails, she mentioned.
We saw interesting roadside stalls en route, but despite our pleas, the Sergeant Major tour guide refused to stop and allow us a closer look. And our request to stop at a bank to cash travellers’ cheques was met with, “No, not necessary”.
Although our accommodation was prepaid we still needed roubles if we were to hit the city’s night life. Then our guide informed us that it would not be possible to leave the hotel as neither she nor the translator would be available that evening. “You eat in hotel and listen to music,” she said, and with that gave us each one US dollar – “enough”. We could pay her back later. In 1991, one dollar equalled less than R3.
Inside the dimly lit foyer we checked in and tried again to cash travellers’ cheques. Not possible. Credit card? Not possible. Too scared to argue, we just accepted our fate and went to our room. On our floor, a dreary clerk looked us up and down and made notes in a large book that was spread open on the table in front of her. There was one of them on every floor, right next to the elevator. We didn’t realise it then, but we were to be “recorded” whenever we left or arrived. We were watched and monitored all the time.
A little anxious and overwhelmed by the unwelcoming attitude of Mother Russia and her folk, we were eager to just relax and raid the minibar. Minibar? What were we thinking?
The room was clean but simple. The towel resembled a small, thin white sheet. (I actually stole mine just to show friends back home). There was no toilet paper and no plug for the bath. “You have to bring your own,” Helena told us the next day. Somehow our specialist Russian tour agency had neglected to share this bit of useful information.
The dining hall looked more like a concert gallery. Heavy velvet curtains, old world furniture… and the omnipresent dim lights that made it feel even more dark and gloomy and ominous.
We were surprised at the jolly music from a live band on the stage in the far corner. The music had a jazzy vibe and was quite enjoyable. The place was almost empty, with about 50 people scattered here and there.
The buffet consisted mostly of meats, soup, bread, lots of cucumber and potato salads and – would you believe it? – caviare. We noticed the beer in brown and green bottles being consumed by other diners and promptly ordered some. This time it tasted better and we even had a second round.
Then we noticed the same sparkling wine that we’d had on the train. We realised that we did not have enough cash, but surely we could just sign the bill to our rooms? So we ordered a bottle. We now knew that the Russian wording on the label meant Sovetskoye Shampanskoye (Soviet Champagne).
After enjoying the ice cream, we called for the bill and asked where we could sign to add it to our room account. “Cash only”, we were told. We were in trouble. But after much talking and explaining, it dawned on us that the beers, champagne and dinner for two came to less than a dollar. There was even some change, which was paid out in roubles. At these prices we wanted another bottle of champagne, but were told that the diningroom was closing – “but you can go to the American bar on the top floor”.
This was a proper bar as we knew it in the West. We noticed familiar brands of beer and whisky and immediately ordered our now favourite champagne. And this is when it became clear that Soviet communism worked in strange ways. Suddenly the price of the bubbly was the same as it was on the train!
So, at R80 a bottle, we preferred to skulk back to our dull room and fell into a sober, almost panicky slumber.
Next morning after breakfast (lots of cucumbers and potatoes) the minibus with our three custodians was waiting to take us on a city tour. Helena was starting to defrost and conversation flowed more easily.
We visited the Hermitage Museum and marvelled over some of the more than three million pieces of art that included ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian works as well as paintings by Monet and the French Impressionists. The architecture of this largest museum in the world was incredible; the history and reality of it awe-inspiring. Photography was not allowed.
In contrast, the deterioration of the city is difficult to describe. Most buildings were in dire need of a paint job and there was nothing to indicate growth or prosperity. There were no identifiable shops. No display windows. Everything was sealed with shutters.
There were queues of people on various corners. We were told they were queueing for oranges… or shoes… or bread. There seemed to be a shortage of everything, and even bare necessities did not come easily.
Cars were mostly real skedonks and originated from communist countries. Public transport was mostly in the form of dirty old trams that ran on tracks in the centre of the potholed roads.
We asked to stop at a pharmacy to buy toilet paper. It was sold out. The entire country was experiencing a toilet paper shortage. “Tissues?” “Kleenex?” They’d never heard of such items.
One thing we wanted to get as a true souvenir was an ushanka – the Russian fur hat with side flaps that warm your ears and cheeks. Although it was summer we saw some of them at the roadside stalls, but Sergeant Major guide would not let us near them.
Instead, we were taken to a “state shop” in a quiet street. The windows were blacked out. Inside, however, was an Aladdin’s cave of luxury, bling and all things beautiful that the common herds in the streets could only dream of – mink coats, beautiful leather items, even cognac. And there were lots of ushankas, but at around R600 they were beyond the reach of even western-looking South African tourists.
We visited other interesting places like statues and the Summer Palace, and had lunch at a typical communist restaurant where we were served beetroot soup, known as borscht, as well as lots of cucumber and potato salad. We enjoyed Russian tea from a silver samovar with excellent cookies – sweet and nutty.
With Helena’s help and special connections, we managed to get our travellers’ cheques cashed for some dollars. Now we were almost starting to enjoy ourselves.
Helena suggested a Cossack folk show at a theatre in the early evening. It was out of this world and we were astonished by what these dancers could do.
After the show, Helena took us to another hotel, without the rest of our crew. It was almost a carbon copy of our hotel – same dim lights, velvet curtains, eerie clerk recording our every move.
We had hardly sat down in the dining room (where another live band was playing) when a young woman came over and asked Teddy to dance with her. She came to sit at our table afterwards and I took Helena for a dance. A very large and tall woman then appeared and demanded a dance. I felt like a broom as she lifted me onto the floor and manhandled me around the room until the end of the song.
We were very happy to find our favourite champagne at this hotel, too. And since we now had some money, we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly and had more food than we could eat.
More and more women joined our table and Teddy and I had to do a lot of dancing. In the end we ended up paying for all the meals and booze and even some cigarettes that the girls had ordered. But at commie prices it was a steal.
We were goed gekuier by the time we had to go home. We had to walk about a kilometre to our hotel, where the driver would pick up Helena. On the stroll along the pavement, we were halted by two dark figures that appeared from nowhere. It was the woman who had swept the floor with me and a big Mafia-type man.
They confronted us in a very intimidating manner. Neither Teddy nor I had the foggiest idea what was going on. Helena started arguing with them. As the argument got louder and more heated, the man drew a huge knife from his jacket. “Run” was all I could muster. Teddy ran for the hotel and I grabbed Helena’s hand and ran across the wide road, dodging cars and trams.
Teddy made his way through a dark park to the front of the hotel, only to be confronted at knifepoint by the same guy. He wanted our money. Teddy emptied his pockets and assured the man there was no more. The female floor sweeper also appeared, grabbed Teddy by the chest and shook him around for more cash. She took his dollars, but threw the Deutsche marks and pounds on the ground as if they were trash.
“I know where your friend is. We will find him,” were the terrifying words that Teddy was left with. He was horrified.
In the meantime, Helena and I had run for our lives and jumped over a wall at a church in a dark street. We sat huddled there on the patio for hours. Whispering, Helena told me that the big girl was the “madame” of the escort girls who had asked us to dance. She regarded Helena as an intruder on her turf who was keeping her girls out of business.
We made ourselves comfortable and even dozed on and off. At around 4am we convinced ourselves it would be safe enough to make it to the hotel. I was still scared out of my wits. The streets were deserted and eerie.
A man then approached us, but luckily he only wanted a match. Helena explained that Russia was also short of matches.
A lone car with just one working headlight came down the road. Helena flagged it down. They spoke for some time before she persuaded the driver to take us back to the hotel.
The inside of the car was even dodgier than the neighbourhood we found ourselves in. Where the dashboard should have been was just a mess of wires from which a crackling radio dangled.
When I finally made it back to Teddy, he was visibly still in shock. “Ek dog die KGB het jou al in die rivier gegooi,” he mumbled.
Not happy with the way things were going, we decided to take the next flight home.
We met our crew early the following morning and after a lot of explaining, they got us onto the next aircraft home… a very expensive move.
We learnt that Helena got a drive home that night in the same dilapidated car that picked us up. We were relieved that everyone was fine, but we couldn’t get out of Russia quickly enough.
Six months later
In February the following year I attended the Monte Carlo Rally. I decided to pay Mother Russia another visit, but this time on my own.
I had kept contact with Helena. She and her fiancé had since bought their own minibus and started conducting tours. This time I wanted to see Moscow.
On the day I flew in, the temperature was minus 17ºC and there was snow everywhere. Helena and Ivan met me and we drove to the town of Pushkin. To me it was terribly cold and I needed an ushanka urgently. My cheeks were freezing!
We stopped at a park and in spite of the terrible weather there were many people walking around. There was something like a flea market going on, and at last I managed to get my hands on my very own ushanka. At R10 for real fur, I bought a whole heap of them to dish out as gifts at home.
The tide of change was very apparent. There was western clothing, western vehicles and everyone seemed to be selling something… cigarettes, ushankas and matryoshka dolls.
McDonalds had just opened up in Moscow and Helena explained that the famous Arbat Street (pedestrians only) used to be very dreary but now it took on a western look, with billboards and neon lights.
But not all the problems had disappeared. In one restaurant we learnt there was a shortage of vodka in the city. On another occasion, we ordered our favourite champagne, but it was warm. I asked for an ice bucket. “No ice.” I asked for the ice bucket in any case, went outside and filled it with snow. No ice? Ja, right!
Another six months later
My fascination with Russia had still not abated when it was time for the Thousand Lakes Rally again. I was definitely going to Russia, but this time I wanted to see Kiev in the Ukraine. I paid to have Helena and her fiancé fly to Kiev from St Petersburg to show me around. It cost me a mere dollar per person for their air tickets. Luckily, in some ways the communist system was still in place.
It was summer and I stayed in one of the hotels looking out on the square where all the protests and deaths recently took place. It was interesting to see how people had to queue for tickets to buy bread and then queue again to buy the actual bread.
Inflation had sky-rocketed. You needed heaps of money to pay for a simple chicken dish in a restaurant. Drawing money demanded a large duffel bag to carry all the cash in. Paying a taxi was a nightmare. It seemed they could tell at a glance whether the heap of money you left on the front seat was more or less correct.
But commerce was increasing and little shops and stalls were sprouting everywhere. Cigarettes from around the world were now available… and there were no shortages of matches, vodka or toilet paper.