05 June 1980

From Smolensk to Moscow and first real taste of the USSR

Smolensk cathedral
In the morning we visit the Smolensk cathedral, one of the oldest in Russia. As we will find out, one of the relatively few to be in good condition and open to the faithful as well as to visitors.

As we approach on foot from a nearby parking lot, an old lady, head covered in a black scarf, is crawling on the floor. Must be some kind of penance to punish her body for one's sins. It is hard to imagine what this fragile god-fearing woman could possibly have done in the recent past to deserve this but here she is. A young kid, perhaps ten years-old, briskly walks by her on his way.  The contrast could not be starker.
Boy and lady go to church

Once inside, another old woman has no sins to repent for and instead screams at me for taking some pictures although, unlike in so many other places we'll visit in the USSR, here it is not forbidden to take photographs.

We then move on to Moscow and reach our camping by the afternoon. It rains hard and it is cold.

Once settled in our bungalows we drive to the Red Square, in the center of the capital. At a first glance, the Square and the Kremlin are by far the main attraction of the city, which is pretty gloomy, oppressively grey and characterless.

After a brief walk around we visit the GUM, the most famous (or infamous?) shopping mall in the USSR. Lots of shops in a decrepit old structure that must have seen grander days, but hardly anything to buy. Much worse than comparable malls in Warsaw like Centrum, and that is saying something.

One guy named Igor, about our age, introduces himself to us and asks Andrew to sell him the jeans he is wearing. Andrew can't do that without risking arrest for indecent exposure, but I happen to have some extra pairs of jeans in the car and sell three pairs to him for 350 rubles, quite a considerable sum of money, but money can't buy much in this country. Prices are low, but unless you have connections, preferably in the Communist Party, you can't buy anything with it, with a few exceptions that I'll write about in later.

Igor is very friendly and we spend a few hours walking around Red Square together. The Saint Basil cathedral stands proudly at the edge of the square

Several people stop us long the way and ask for chewing gum, but we don't have any. Lots of policemen all over the place. At one point they stop us and, it seems, almost everyone else for no real reason. They ask a few general questions about what we are doing, where we come from etc. and then let us go.

Kremlin with Lenin mausoleum

Igor and us

Saint Basil cathedral

The Kremlin wall

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