Back in the USSR


Well, Graham, you want a Nordic story as it is hot where you live. So it is here, too, actually, and when it is really summer here, we pretend this is how it is here; blue sky, just the occasional white cloud for decorative purposes, and as temperatures up near 30 C (that is mid-eighties if there are any NASA engineers out there). As I sit at the veranda to the north of our house, at eight PM it is still some 22- 23C (70-71F), and a couple of hours sunshine left. So - a real cold story - no way. But what about the time of the cold war?

In 1980 the summer Olympic games were held in the Soviet Union. Most in Moscow, but some - like sailing - in Leningrad. Just as the games were over, we started from Helsinki in Finland on what at that time still was - well not an adventurous journey - but still, many warned us, we would be taken to jail by the KGB or all sorts of wild stories. And yes, we met the KGB, at the customs crossing the border, but that story is almost impossible to tell anyone who don't understand Norwegian (or possibly Danish), so I'll skip the border control. (They certainly did not!)

On both sides of the border, the road goes on and on forever through light forests, the odd tiny farm here and there, until we came to Vyborg in formerly Finnish Karelia, where we had to register and get some money exchanged. Still in 1980, 35 years after the war, people tried to talk to us in Finnish - which is quite incomprehensible for all but Fins and Estonians. Then we went on, and as quite a few hours had elapsed at the border, we thought maybe best buy some food. So, we found a small rural shop, and entered. All the shelves was filled - with two sized of jars holding Bulgarian salty cucumbers. That's it. No other things to buy. In Zelengorsk we had some better luck; we found another shop where we got bread and meat loaf and mineral water. The system - you get in one line to determine what you want to buy; get a piece of paper, get into another line where you are allowed to pay, and then last, get into the third line to get what you paid for.

Now, I could tell all those stories of the defunct Soviet Union - the camping site built for the Olympic games; where the toilet facilities opened the day we came (the games of course over); the Russian guide pronounced "the brick house" like this "the broken hose". Which it, by the way, was broken at the first day. Doors fell off; the pipes leaking, all sorts of "things" out over the floor. Or, how we had to "borrow" a kitchen maid to act as an interpreter at the dairy some miles away to get milk. But this is the well-known side of things.

Now, one day we went for the famous state circus. I hate circus, but kids are kids. There was a Norwegian Cruise Ship in with American tourists that day, so we stood amidst elderly ladies with blue hair and suddenly young sailors talking Norwegian.

Now, this was a very hot day, some 35C (90+F), like the Baltic can be in the summer. We had parked the car a few blocks away from the circus, and as we came out it was getting dark. A very seriously looking man was circling the car. I thought - what now? It is probably illegal to park there, or someone will pretend it is, so I will have to bribe him, and I don't know how to bribe someone, and this will be pure hell, what about my family, how are they to get to our caravan (trailer) things like that.

And yes, as we approached, the man started to talk very loudly and point to the car. Then I noticed the problem: I had left the car without shutting the windows. Just locked the doors and the trunk. And in that car lay two cameras, one of them a Mamiyaflex. I thought that will be the last I see of my cameras, but they were both there. So I just smiled to the man, and he nodded and that was it.

When we came back to Helsinki a week later, we happened to camp just to the side of a very conservative Norwegian businessman and his ex-soviet gypsy wife. They were no lovers of the Soviet system, to put it like that. I told them what had happened, and they told who this man probably was. There was a system of dividing the city into small areas governed by a party committee. At its worst this was done to spy on the inhabitants and keep political control. But it also had some quality of positive social control and helpfulness. The committee leader, they said, did not want his area getting blamed for robbing tourists. Whatever one may say about the Soviet system, their streets were very safe. If you were not a dissident, that is.

There is absolutely no moral to this story, except, perhaps, all things can be understood very differently according to your point of view.


Leningdad (back in 1980) is a city of canals.

Horses in the larges woods in the world, the birch-woods that goes from Eastern Norway to Siberia. Here just outside Leningrad

The Eremitage. The boy on the bridge is my son, Snorre.