Piercing the Iron Curtain (1987)

by Ben Best

I spent the summer of 1987 touring Europe with a tour-group of young North Americans. Five days of the tour were spent in the Soviet Union.


Our point of departure and return for the trip to the USSR was Berlin. We were originally scheduled to get a return flight to Copenhagen (which would have saved us a long drive), but the Soviets had no qualms about altering their agreements when it was convenient for them to do so. When you toured the Soviet Union, you took what they give you or you took nothing.

I was in West Berlin long enough that I was able to affort the time for an afternoon excursion to East Berlin. My attempt to go to the eastern portion of the city very much influenced the attitude I had in touring the USSR.

When the West German Mathias Rust landed his Cessna plane in Red Square he became something of a folk hero in West Germany. A popular West German T-shirt depicted a Cessna in Red Square with lettering above the picture that read: "International Airport, Rotor Platz" (Red Square). I had bought one of those T-shirts and (almost carelessly) wore it underneath my long-sleeve shirt.

Getting into East Berlin meant first standing in line for East German currency. A tourist could not enter East Germany without getting at least 25 East German Marks which had to be spent completely (ie. could not be brought back to West Germany or exchanged back into Western currency). The tourist had to pay one West German Mark for each East German Mark bought. Although there was no exchange market for Warsaw pact countries, I was told that the market rate was closer to 6 Eastmarks per Westmark. I also heard repeatedly that there was little or nothing in East Germany that a Western tourist would want to buy.

After getting my money, my person and my passport were inspected by an East German border guard. He called me into a room and had me empty my pockets onto a table. Then I had to open my shirt to confirm what he had suspected. He told me that my T-shirt was not permitted in East Germany. We left the room and I was told to wait at a nearby seat.

The guards had my passport and I was on the East German side of Checkpoint Charlie. Between me and West Berlin were a double-set of concrete walls capped with barbed-wire and a few of the 1,800 shooting towers surrounding Berlin (this was before the shoot-on-sight order was rescinded). I didn't really see a point in getting melodramatic about the matter. And I didn't think the guards would do anything to me. But the longer I sat, the more uncomfortable I became.

The first guard was joined by another who quizzed me on where I had gotten the T-shirt, what my intentions were in buying it, why I had come to East Berlin, what I do for a living, etc. Then I was told to sit and wait again. More guards came, one of whom looked like a well-decorated officer. They talked, examined my passport and conferred privately in a room. I didn't see that I had done anything that couldn't be corrected by an apology and by giving up my T-shirt. But on the other hand, I am not used to such intense censorship or being surrounded by shooting towers. These people looked at life very differently than I did and they were deadly serious about it. Left alone with my thoughts, I had a few moments of real panic.

I was joined for a short time by a young woman from my tour group. She had bought a book about the Berlin Wall in one of the shops on the west side of Checkpoint Charlie. She was dwelling on the irony that she, an ardent socialist, was being held. I asked her if she thought there is a socialist country that is not totalitarian. She replied "Nicaragua". I expressed my skepticism. The guards kept her book and allowed her into East Berlin.

I also saw another tourist in an altercation with a guard over the fact that he still had his Eastmarks and was through touring East Berlin. He said there was nothing there he wanted to buy, but the guard insisted that he go back and spend the money.

After an hour-and-a-half a guard told me I could go to East Berlin, but I would have to leave the T-shirt with them. When I told him I wanted to return to West Berlin, he immediately agreed. I was even able to change my Eastmarks back to Westmarks, which a tourist cannot normally do.

In retrospect, I think the core problem was the intensely paranoid bureaucratism of the East German guards and their confusion over how to deal with the situation. I experienced little malice from the guards and I think in their hearts they must have nurtured an ethnic pride that a German, Mathias Rust, and tweaked the nose of the Russian bear. But the experience made me very circumspect and overcautious in travelling to the USSR.

The West German side of Checkpoint Charlie has a Checkpoint Charlie Museum full of artifacts, photos and stories of people who got under, over, or through the Berlin Wall. The story I found most interesting was of a West Berliner who sought to reunite himself with his East Berlin girlfriend not long after the Wall had been built. He found himself a West Berlin woman who resembled his girlfriend and got her to go to East Berlin with him. He then stole her passport, abandoned her and returned to West Berlin with his girlfriend. He was sentenced to four months in prison by the West Berlin government for "deprivation of freedom" of the West Berlin woman.


Because of my experience with the East Germans, I took the advice that "the lighter you travel in the USSR, the less hassle". I packed a tote-bag with shirt, pants, several pairs of underclothing, toilet paper, towel and my electric shaver. On my customs declaration-form I declared my money, watch and shaver.

The Soviets monitored the currency in particular. They wanted much Western currency to be brought into the USSR and not much taken out. We were allowed to exchange money at one Ruble per $1.70. In Leningrad and Moscow, black market currency traders on the streets gave 2 Rubles to the American Dollar. Soviets do not allow Rubles to be taken out of their country and will buy back their Rubles at roughly $1.70 plus a little gouging (they give only bills and round-off in their favor) from tourists who are leaving. The only reason I can see why they would object to Rubles being taken from the country is to prevent tourists from buying Rubles in the USSR black market and selling them outside the USSR to other prospective tourists. But I wonder how much economic rationality was behind the politics.

At the airport in East Berlin, the males were subjected to a body search in which the searching officers used their hands as well as a hand-held electronic device. A Soviet plane flew us to Leningrad. Even on the plane I noticed how many overweight Russians there were and how heavy their diet is with greasy meat and starch.


Most of the people in my tour-group found Soviet food to be marginally tolerable. I recall breakfasts consisting of plates of frankfurters and glasses of buttermilk. All meals were included in the tour and alternatives (restaurants, groceries, or fast-food outlets) were not readily available. I saw a few kiosks selling ice cream, one flavor only, either vanilla or a caramel-like flavor. This ice cream had a wonderful taste and is unlike ice cream I have had anywhere else. In Moscow I only found one example of a fast-food outlet; it was selling sausages wrapped in deep-fried bread.

In both Leningrad and Moscow there were a number of pop machines on the streets. Instead of being dispensed in cans, the fluid would squirt down into a glass glass. The user was expected to rinse the glass with a jet of water by holding it upside-down on the receptacle and pressing. These glasses were to stay with the machines, and it is a comment on Russian character that they were not stolen. The drinks were cheap: 1 Kopek for soda water and 3 Kopeks for a 7-up-like drink (100 Kopeks to the Ruble). One machine by Red Square gave apple juice for 20 Kopeks.

There were also a number of kiosks (especially near "tourist attractions") selling Pepsi. Evidently Coke was sold in Israel and therefore the Arab countries only allow Pepsi sold in their country (since Pepsi had agreed not to sell in Israel). The USSR went along with the Arabs by granting Pepsi some kind of special franchise.

Soviet shopping and Soviet life had a lot to do with spending a great deal of time standing in very long lines. Considering that the pop machines entrust their glasses to the anonymous citizen, it is remarkable that I saw no self-service in the USSR. Imagine going to a store to buy some shampoo, thread and stationary. Then picture having to stand in 3 lines, one for each item, for 10-to-15 minutes each. Before standing in line you had to pay a cashier who gives you a receipt to exchange for the item, so once in line you are somewhat trapped. Lines for meat, vegetables and fruit seemed to be longer (30-to-40 minutes) and some items required waiting well over an hour. I did not make a systematic study so I cannot say how the lines vary with time-of-day, etc. However, I hypothesized that there were no shortages in the Soviet Union; for scarce items the number of outlets was reduced to the point where the length in lines becomes intolerable to most people. I was amazed at the number of people using an abacus — the hand calculator revolution had not yet hit the USSR.


Leningrad has a latitude matching that of the southern border of the Yukon (in June it only gets dark between 3 and 4 am). It is the northern-most city with a population over a million (its population is actually over 3 million). The city looked like it hadn't changed since Ayn Rand was born there at the beginning of the 20th century. A modern-looking building was a rarity and I saw no skyscrapers. There were no colorful signs, neon lights or eye-catching architectures...just drab-looking old buildings. It was difficult to distinguish stores from other buildings.

Our Soviet tour guide was a stocky 19-year-old female. I was expecting her to be a hardline Marxist, but she wasn't even a member of the Communist Party. (She said that it was too much work to belong and that there were no advantages to being a member — due to careful Soviet efforts to prevent petty opportunism.) I admit to being continually surprised by the complete absence of revolutionary zeal anywhere. Our tour guide told me that rather than having people spend time in meetings discussing ideology, the government preferred for them to be doing things more economically beneficial for the country.

In Leningrad, as in Moscow, we were free to come and go as we pleased. I spend a bit of time, especially in Moscow, exploring on my own and was never tailed by the KGB or any such thing. Wandering Leningrad the first night, we were soon approached by young men wanting to trade.

As an ardent pro-capitalist I'm almost ashamed to admit that I got involved with the traders perhaps less than most of the other (non-ideological) people on my tour. For one thing, I don't like bartering. For another, almost all the traders smoked cigarettes and I react very negatively to being approached by any smoker. Traders wanted jeans, T-shirts, watches, calculators, and Western currency. I had already declared my watch and shaver, so I didn't feel I could trade them. I hadn't brought any jeans and I had left my Cessna-in-Red-Square T-shirt in Berlin. Some traders had lacquered boxes to trade, but others had fur hats, military garb, flags and Rubles. I only traded currency (2 Rubles per U.S. dollar, I didn't even attempt to bargain), partly out of concern over being hassled by customs. Our tour guide told me that the currency traders were the only ones who could be sent to jail.

The others on my tour, however, traded their jeans, T-shirts, watches, etc. Much of the motivation was the romance of dealing with the black market. One of the traders told a fellow in our group that it was illegal to take a Soviet Flag outside the USSR. This, or course, made him eager to obtain a Soviet Flag and try to "smuggle" it out. I have heard repeatedly that the traders want our currency for the Western currency shops. I saw only one such shop and was not impressed with its selection or prices — even compared to the Soviet department stores. In fact, the largest department store in Leningrad had Lee-brand jeans and digital watches for sale. The traders evidently figured they could get a better deal from the tourists.

Although I began to think of the traders as pesty high-pressure salesmen, they were among the few people to be found who could speak English. (There are far fewer people who know any English in the USSR than in any other European country I visited.) Some people used trading as a way to get to know Russians and a few even visited them at their homes. One trader, whose father was a physician, told me that through his dad he had gone to a special school to learn English and had gotten a medical deferment from the draft.

Our city tour of Leningrad included the Peter and Paul Fortress as well as the Winter Palace (Hermitage, a czarist attempt to outdo the Palace of Versaille). The artwork in the Hermitage came from all over Europe, and easily rivalled the contents of the Louvre. The Soviet-citizens lined-up for hours for the Hermitage, but we tourists went directly in.

Later, I wandered Leningrad with a few others from my tour. There was a long line-up for St. Isaac's Cathedral, but one of the women in our group had the audacity to go to the front of the line and get tickets. No one complained. St. Isaac's is the third largest Cathedral in the world, but possibly the most awesomely beautiful (both St. Peter's in Rome and St. Isaac's in Leningrad so overwhelmed me that comparison is difficult.) I didn't find out if St. Isaac's was used for worship, but I was told that another large Leningrad church had been converted into the Museum of Religion and Atheism. The exterior of St. Isaac's was undergoing recontruction, so apparently the Soviet's were concerned about preserving the artistic masterpiece.

We also visited the Museum of the History of Leningrad, which was difficult to find because it was in the middle of a block of similar buildings and is in no way distinctive. Although there were many staffers and a guard outside, none of them spoke English. And there were no other people in the Museum besides ourselves and the staff. After about 45 minutes we saw a group of Outer Mongolians accompanied by a tour guide — but otherwise we had the museum to ourselves. Unfortunately, all the legends were in Russian only.

I walked through the sculpture-filled park adjoining the Summer Palace and as I left I was approached by a fiftyish Russian fellow whose English was quite good. He said he was entirely self-taught. He worked for the street and sewers department, I think. His ambition in life was to be a street musician ("amateur vagrant", he called himself), but was given a fifty-Ruble fine when he tried playing in the park. I didn't think to ask if this was related to accepting money for his music. Nonetheless, he thought the new liberalism was mostly a sham, except for a more open dialogue on booze and drugs.

In our conversation it came out that he had never heard of a World's Fair, EXPO or the Eiffel Tower. It turned out that our tour guide had never heard of these things either. I suspect that this was indicative of a Soviet Government attempt to keep the people ignorant of temptations to go abroad.

We were scheduled to meet with some Soviet students to "exchange views". I was expecting a group of glib Young Communists who were practiced in the dialectics of attacking the American Point of View. Instead, we met with a group of young workers, only one of whom had any grasp of English. Another fellow and myself were paired with a couple of giggling women in their early twenties. The laughter proved to be very contagious as we tried to communicate by sign language. One of the women indicated that she had a child, had split-up with her husband and had no remorse that he was gone. We gave them some coins from different European countries and they gave us pins. Oddly, one pin depicted the Museum of the History of Leningrad. The other pin depicted Lenin, although it had about as much ideological significance as if I had been given a pin depicting George Washington. (Images of Lenin were common in the USSR, whereas images of Marx were very hard to find.)

We did some disco dancing to Russian rock music as well as to a tape of American rock music belonging to a member of our tour. When it was time to go, I was quite touched by the amount of regret our companions displayed at parting (in contrast to my own detachment). They insisted upon an exchange of addresses.

Russian rock music was quite a surprise to me. I even watched a TV show of a Russian rock concert by a long-haired fellow wearing sequins. All the usual props were there: strobe-lights, smoke, mosaics of mirror, etc. I was equally surprised by a 7 am TV fitness program led by a cute young Russian woman who exercised to the tune of Russian rock. I was reminded of Dr. Ludwig von Mises' claim that socialists can only set prices and do economic calculation by "peeking at the market".

It may be that the Soviet government tried to reduce Western influence by copying much of it. Everywhere I went in Europe (even Hungary) the discos played American rock almost exclusively. Everywhere else in Europe I saw American movies and American TV programs with European-language subtitles. English is becoming an international language because so much of the world is fascinated by American cultural goodies. (I met a Belgian who said he learned English from watching so many subtitled movies.) The Soviets seemed to be fighting this kind of influence very hard.

We rode a train from Leningrad to Moscow. I tried to observe as much of the countryside as I could. The strongest impression I got of the farmhouses was how 19th century they looked (except for the metal roofs)...and how poor.


Much of Moscow looked like Leningrad, but there were also many skyscrapers and apartments. (The apartments all looked alike — one architect was evidently all that was needed.) I got the impression that much of the wealth from the rest of the country had gone into the development of Moscow. The Metro (subway) is the nicest I have seen anywhere in Europe or North America. Each station had a unique character, often quite artistic. One would have mosaics, another would have large incongruous-looking chandeliers, etc. I bought a book of glossy color pictures of each Metro station and surroundings. (This was sold in my hotel's shop — which quoted prices in Rubles, but refused to accept anything but Western currency.) Since a subway ride was only 5 Kopeks, I was very tempted to spend all my time just riding from station to station, and walking around outside each one. I did a little of this.

Red Square, of course, was the centre of Moscow — and it is ironic how much the czarist influence dominated its character. On one side was the Kremlin, the fortress whose ancient brick walls surrounded the Soviet seat of government. On the opposite side of the square was the GUM department store, reputedly the largest in the world (it was built in the 1890s to accommodate 20,000 shoppers), but despite its size it had a selection inferior to that of an average K-Mart. To the side was St. Basil's Cathedral with its uniquely shaped-and-colored rounded turrets. St. Basil's is to Moscow what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. It was built by Ivan the Terrible.

Lenin's mausoleum sat up against the Kremlin wall. I waited two hours to see Lenin's body and am convinced I only saw a wax effigy (or, at the least, a body covered with very thick wax); the features were too smooth and flawless.

Our tour guide showed us the spot where Mathias Rust had landed his Cessna. Rust had flown in on a Sunday and caught to many high-level officers having a day off (and too many underlings unwilling to take the responsibility to do anything). The Russian guide thought the whole episode was hilarious — quite a contrast to the East German guards. (Having spent a day in Moscow on a Sunday, I was rather struck by how this atheistic country observed "the Lord's Day" more devotedly than did the Christian nations — by not working.)

We went to the National Economic Achievements Exhibition, which was probably the closest thing to Disneyland in the Soviet Union. The fountains and architecture were breathtaking for me — but the contents of most of the buildings were unimpressive. The best by far was the space exhibition. One might have expected the kiosks to be selling fast-foods, but instead they sold rather banal consumer items. One sold nothing but socks. I had bought more Rubles than I could possibly spend (possessed more than I had bought legally) so I disposed of them by buying a Russian umbrella, which was an incredible struggle to open and close each time. Our tour guide had a good laugh and said Russians never buy Russian umbrellas — only Japanese umbrellas.

I had a number of little adventures and observations too numerous to mention, but I will attempt a few: Toilet paper was somehow rare in the USSR, and one frequently found torn-up copies of PRAVDA sitting by the toilets (I carried my own toilet paper).

I was riding on the Metro when I glanced across at a plump, sixtyish, very-Russian looking fellow wearing a pin with an American Flag on it — as casually as if it had been a pin of Lenin.

I was crossing a very wide street near Red Square, which had no people and few cars, when a car started driving towards me like it was trying to hit me. I began running, but it sped-up and continued to head directly toward me. I just managed to jump to the curb when a policeman jumped out of the car and motioned for me to get in the back seat. I couldn't understand what the cops were saying to me so I started talking in English. One cop said "English?" I nodded my head and said "Yes". He said "3 Rubles" and handed me a ticket for jaywalking. I paid him, took the ticket and got out. (Policeman's uniforms were identical to those of the Army, including the hat. The only difference was the colour: the military's uniforms were olive-brown, whereas the police's were grey.)

One evening I found myself quite lost in Moscow. I could have retraced my steps, but that would have taken a long time. I tried getting a taxi, but they all rushed by me. After a while a beat-up car with a cracked windshield stopped and an old Russian pushed open the door. I guess I was a bit desperate, so I got in and showed him my card with the name of my hotel on it. After he started driving he took out a cassette and plugged it into his cheap old cassette player. It played some corny English language music. When he arrived at the hotel I handed him a 5-Ruble note. He nodded his head with satisfaction and I got out.

My last night in Moscow I attended the Circus with my tour group. As tourists, we were given front row seats. Somehow the performances by the trained horses, monkeys, elephants and especially the tigers reminded me of the intense effort put into discipline I came to associate with Russian character. And every time the audience clapped, they quickly assumed a cadence whereby all hands came together at once (signifying to me a spontaneous desire for conformity, group participation and discipline). Nonetheless, there was an act in which one of the clowns pretended to be a drunk walking in a straight line for a mock policeman. I was a bit surprised to see this kind of humor at the expense of a symbol of authority.

In leaving the Soviet Union our baggage was not subjected to the same kind of scrupulous inspection it had been on entry. When our tour-group finally crossed the border to re-enter the "free world", the group let-rip with wildly enthusiastic cheers. I found it ironic that an ardent libertarian such as I — of all those in the tour — enjoyed the USSR so much more than the others. Most of them found it to be an intolerable place, but I was fascinated by it all — and would have enjoyed staying longer.