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Remembering Old Russia

Professor Arnie Greenberg

I arrived from Tashkent by air. I had stayed in a modern well-built hotel in Tashkent, built by the Finns, after the great earthquake of the sixties, but I was hardly ready for what I saw in seaside Sochi.

The plumber was a girl in her twenties, dressed in a freshly ironed blouse, wearing high heels and carrying a plunger which she was adept at using.. A telephone call took a day for the hotel to put it through for you. The hotel was so large you had to go out the main door and around the corner into another door to get to the assigned dining room.

There have been changes over the years and it has been years since I was last there. But I remember a warm resort in a lush part of the Black Sea with hotels that could rival those of Miami, not, perhaps in their food services but certainly in their modernity and setting. The Black Sea is immense. It is peaceful, deep blue and inviting. The beaches, on the other hand were stone covered and hardly conducive to walking in bare feet.

Sochi beaches were covered with plump or ageing tourists who stood looking into the sun. This may not strike you as odd but they stood with arms outstretched, facing the sun or they raised an arm to allow the sun to tan a part otherwise hard to reach. Some wore hats or covered their heads with handkerchiefs. Sunglasses were non-existent. They stood or sat like sun worshippers for long periods of time. Lying on a mattress or a lounge was not the Russian way to do things. Ladies often took the sun wearing their daily bras. Men stood in their underwear. So much for Speedo.

On the streets along the water’s edge, vendors, in white coats, staked out their corner where they sold whole pickles, which they carried in a pail. People walked along the sidewalks eating pickles. And in the squares, there were small trailers with their truck attachments leaning on the sidewalk and huge barrel-like containers offering beer to passers by for a few copeks. They did a steady business. But for those who wanted something without alcohol, there were vending machines selling watered down juices. There was nothing odd about these dispensers except that the drinking cup was attached with a chain. First, you ran the glass under a water tap, rinsed it, then filled it with the flavor of your choice.

I saw mostly older people. Perhaps it was the time when schools were still in session and perhaps it was because Sochi was a ‘workers’ holiday haven. Many large industries had their hotels for their workers. One earned the right to go there for a while. There were tourists too but not as many as one would suspect in a setting that was more than one dreamed about in otherwise drab Russia.

Of course that was long before glasnost and life in the Soviet Union was Spartan to say the least. But in this haven the workers were allowed to drink Pepsi-Cola. It was the only place in the entire Soviet Union that I saw an American label. There were nine people in my group. Each of us was asked by our tour leader-guide to carry two six packs of Pepsi Cola on the plane when we returned to Moscow. She would have a king’s ransom with 108 small bottles of Pepsi.

And speaking of guides, we had a different guide in each city. The group leader took us to each city and a local guide took over when we arrived. In those days it was all Government organized by ‘Intourist’. It was efficient but there was more talk of ‘America’ than there was of the new Russia.

In Sochi, our guide was a young man. I knew immediately that he was a guide as he wore American styled jeans and a jean jacket. His name was Constantine but he preferred being called ‘Conn’. He even had the American idioms perfected. He actually sounded like a sixties New Yorker. I once asked him where a particular store was. “Go out the door and hang a right,” he replied. So much for the Russian language I had been trying to perfect. 

Language was a problem in those days as all the signs were in Cyrillic. I noticed that ‘restaurant’ was non-existent. People ate in a ‘pectopah’. Later I realized that p e c t o p a h is pronounced restauran. How nave can you get? My guidebook said beer was p i v a. The barmen knew that uninformed tourists called ‘bira’, peeva.

Our hotel was the huge water’s edge Zhemchouzena, (please excuse my spelling) and it meant Pearl and sounded like Gem-choose-in-ah. It was indeed a pearl, all sparkling new and clean. The lobby was large and inviting and the dining room bustling with people from afar. It was a hotel especially reserved for tourists. The meals were simple but filling. There was always soup (often borscht) followed by a meat and potatoes dish with cabbage but no other vegetables. We never saw tomatoes and fruit was an orange at best. The bread was bread, pre sliced on platters. There was plenty of it. Drinks were on the table in large bottles. There was soda of one kind or another and large bottles of beer and ‘vada’. When there was a festive reason, one could order wine or Champagne, not that we were eager to try their local vintages.

Small buses took us to the local botanical gardens and we sat on our balconies and watched the sun worshipers and the small excursion boats plying the waters. Of course, we hadn’t arranged for an excursion to another town, so we had to stay in Sochi. Not that it was so bad. I just wanted to see more. Travel was heavily regulated.

In those years there was a drinking problem among Russians. Once, when we got back on the bus after a visit to a specialty shop, there was an elderly man, obviously a little tipsy, seated on the bus. No fuss was made. We loaded and drove away. Along the route the driver spotted a policeman. He explained our unwanted visitor. The policeman smiled, warmly took the man by the arm and guided him to the sidewalk. He gently patted him on the rear and sent him on his way. Everyone smiled. Alcoholism was a major problem in those days. The policeman was very understanding. He approached me and asked (through our guide) if I wanted to sell my camera. I did not. I wonder if they curbed some of the drinking.

When we left Sochi, we were headed back to Moscow. As a treat, the crew opened a wooden crate with apples and gave us each a special treat only awarded to tourists. On the plane, a member of our group offered a chocolate from a box she had purchased. She suggested I offer one to the two soldiers seated behind me. I did my usual pantomime and a soldier smiled and took the box. I never saw it again. They ate every peace. The stewardess did nothing. She was fast asleep. I woke her when we landed. So much for “coffee, tea or milk”.

Today, traveling in that part of the world may have changed. Back then it was basic to say the least. But I did enjoy the experience. The streets were sparse except for taxis and the occasional bus. People were poor and under a Communist regime. All that is different today. It may be time to go back. After all, that’s the land of my ancestors. I’m glad they chose to leave, over a hundred years ago.

Back in Moscow I went for a walk. I did a little shopping and marveled at the cashiers determining costs with an abacus. I bought very little and decided to take a bus back to the hotel. When I took my seat, people began to smile at my. My clothing gave me away. One man smiled and asked, “America”?

“Nyet”, I replied in perfect Russian, “Canada”. A heated argument ensued. To me it sounded like some thought America and Canada were the same place. Others argued that they were not.

I got off the bus at my stop. The argument continued. Fists were waved, facial gestures changed. Nobody noticed that I had gotten off.

There are big changes in store for the visitor. I must return one day and see for myself. 

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You can Contact Professor Arnie Greenberg at


Over the past few years, Professor Greenberg has traveled with groups to France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and both Sorrento and the Bay of Naples plus most of Sicily. His tours traveled to the far reaches of the globe including Italy and most of China (Beijing -Hong Kong) and to Russia where his group cruised the waters from St.Petersburg to Moscow. 

"He took a group to Greece and another to northern Russia. In Nov 07 he took a tour group to much of India and ended his tour groups by revisiting France. He now travels with his wife and friends. They winter in Argentina or San Miguel Mexico.  His newly found spare time is taken up with his painting and writing. "I must write every day." His current work is a cautionary manual for would-be tour leaders..  "So You Want To Be A Tour Leader." 

Arnie now travels with friends. He continues writing Travel articles about unusual places but often concentrates on novel writing. Two books based on French Art will be published this year.  Keep reading his web for travel ideas.  His next novel HELLSTORM'S Folly, will be available this fall. He now lives in British Columbia.

Go to: or contact him directly at

(More about the writer.)


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