Looking Back on a Travel to the Former Soviet Union

Saint Basil’s Cathedral at the Kremlin, Moscow

I didn’t know then, but a week after my return from a journey to Tashkent, Uzbekistan via Moscow in August 1991, the communist regime had fallen. The year before, I had relocated from Denmark to Uppsala, Sweden, to attend bible school. Since my youth, I heard stories about the suppression of conscience and thought in the Soviet Union. After one year of Bible School, I got a chance to go on a mission trip to meet fellow Christians whose lives were complicated as they had to hide where they were gathering and deal with a lot of lack of material things and food. The light building left of the cathedral was a department store for the privileged communist party members.  

Thirty years have passed and looking back today, I wouldn’t have taken such a risky journey and have relatives take care of my four children at home. During the ten days in August, I never felt that I was in danger and I met a lot of kindness from very underprivileged people I met.

Preparing to go, I asked a experienced British missionary what I needed to bring with me. He answered me

Toilet paper, if you need some

The worn out and huge plane to Moscow seats in three corridors. We carried our luggage our selves to the flight, and no one checked anything. We got a meal in the air, and I remember the taste of a rotten tomato and the sight of a bent fork that showed the quality of everything. Before the departure, the missionary I had talked to mentioned the airline name as Aero Flop and not Aeroflot.

We were met in Moscow by a Russian interpreter who seemed exhausted from the start. As soon as she could have a chance, she slept like a rock. I never had the chance to use her in conversations with locals as the trip leaders would want to talk through her all the time. That got me on the idea to study Russian at the university to become more independent. We were picked up by a driver who had an old minibus. He took us through the worst traffic jam I had ever seen and let us see the Red Square in central Moscow. Our leaders wanted to take us to the newly opened McDonald’s. I didn’t enjoy it as I felt the embarrassment of us being privileged as Westerns to beat the queue and buy whatever we wanted. There was a line of people around a block, or longer most of them bought a milkshake. The leaders were ten years younger than I was, and I felt the difference. 

   

At the airport in Moscow, we waited for some hours to continue our journey to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, a distant state in the Soviet Union north of Pakistan and west of China.    

There were no benches, so we sat on the floor leaning on each other and our luggage. Our leader brought a large bouquet of gladiolus to beat the queue and gave it to the lady in the ticket office. I had never thought that we had to bribe people to get on with our journey.  

The hotel in Tashkent in brutal or Soviet style

We arrived in the morning and were obliged to stay at a hotel the first night to visit the state. Some of the journey members took breakfast there at once, but I preferred to go to bed immediately after a long journey. I found that their sparrows were identical to ours back home in Denmark and Sweden at the hotel. Those who got the breakfast were ill with a bad stomach for at least half of the days we were there. The next day I and two other ladies were installed with a family in a flat. We slept in the living room and got our meals with them. The hosts explained that they lacked a variety of food, so they had to serve the same to all the meals. I don’t remember what it was, so at least we didn’t go hungry. The reason for the lack was that each state was ordered to grow certain things and not other things. They had a surplus of melons but not enough sugar to preserve the melons for the winter season.

A meal at our generous host family in Tashkent

As a health visitor, I was interested in hearing about giving births in hospitals. The host told me horror stories about cruel treatments and lack of knowledge and up to date expertise at the hospitals.

We walked narrow paths to meet at different places to attend church services, both inside a building and outside. Our new Russian friends insisted on carrying our luggage wherever we went. After a meeting that would take forever, we shared a meal, and like the most natural thing in the world, we ate from the same big bowl and shared spoons and forks and cups.  

A photo from the meal we had in a secret location

People from the congregation had prepared the meal for hours before our arrival. A huge cooking pot on an open-air fireplace created lots of smoke. The ‘bathroom’ was non-existent but was a hole framed by boards in the ground inside a shed. A curtain served as a door. When you are there with very nice people, you adjust in an instance.

Looking at people in the market places and streets of Tashkent, many had an Asian look, and others were light-haired and light-skinned people. The background for that is that Stalin forced people from the Baltic countries to live in distant states like Siberia or Uzbekistan, and many other places.  Please look up a post on this tragic part of the Communist history.

We never saw the KGB, and looking back, I believe that it was due to the end of the Soviet regime.   

The most dramatic part came upon departure, where they had run out of gasoline for the planes, and no one knew when they could leave for Moscow. We prayed a lot and didn’t lose hope. Some of the church members stayed with us during the many waiting hours. When finally we got the good news of being able to go back together on the same flight, one man volunteered to follow us to Moscow to be sure we could find our way from one airport to another in the gigantic city.  

Relived to come home, I was met by my children, and the youngest had learnt to ride his bicycle during the time I was away.  

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