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Finding Ways to Do It Our Way in the U.S.S.R.

October 05, 1986|MARJORY OATES | Oates is a free-lance writer living in Los Angeles. and

MOSCOW — For an American traveler, there are two ways to vacation in the Soviet Union.

You can join a tour or, working with a travel agent, you can plan the trip yourself.

Most visitors from the United States, fearing the unknown in the land of the czars and communists, prefer to be shepherded by a tour guide.

But for those who are the least bit adventurous--for those who want more than can be seen from a tour bus--the only way to go is on your own.

A couple of senior citizens, my husband and I went that way this summer, flying to Europe, taking a night train from Helsinki to Moscow, and returning to Finland on two fast Soviet trains by way of Leningrad.

We spent three days in Moscow and four in Leningrad, walking everywhere we pleased, reliving a lot of Russian history, blundering about at times and enjoying every blunder.

Elegant Astoria

In one instance, we thought we had reserved a double room with bath for four nights at the Astoria Hotel, an elegant, beautifully located hotel in central Leningrad.

We especially wanted the Astoria because, we knew, the last czar sometimes put up his friends there in the pre-revolutionary years. But when we checked in, management refused to give us the room we had asked for.

Instead, we were installed in a large, opulent two-room suite where we spent four nights.

We never found out how the mistake was made, but we did learn that our travel agent had indeed requested the suite--and that we had to pay for it. A deluxe double room rate was $82 per night; our suite cost $125 per night.

Soviet bureaucrats permit no travel changes once you're here. Before you leave home, in fact, after they've approved your itinerary, no changes are allowed unless you send them a telex message or two. These cost $25 a throw, minimum.

Plan Carefully

So the first lesson for the independent traveler is to think through every step of a Soviet trip beforehand. Second, specify the exact transportation and lodging arrangements desired.

Otherwise, you may get stuck in a suite. During the cocktail hour, you may have to put your feet up on a splendid, 18th-Century couch once used, possibly, by a White Russian duke or more likely a baron or at least his mistress.

At breakfast one morning in the Astoria dining room, an Australian schoolteacher summed up a vacation here with this comment: "Tourists are the new Russian aristocracy."

A stretch, surely. You wouldn't want to live here. But to see Moscow and Leningrad, one must come to Russia. And these are two of the most amazing cities in the world.

For one thing, we weren't prepared for the vastness of the Kremlin, the high-walled, ancient fortress that stands in the midst of modern Moscow. The camera simply can't capture the Kremlin's immensity and allure.

Five Trips to Kremlin

As independent travelers making our own sightseeing plans each morning at our hotel on Red Square, we allowed ourselves to be drawn back to the Kremlin five times in three days.

There, at one of several large cathedrals in a small corner of the fortress, it was fun standing on the same outdoor steps where Ivan the Terrible stood alone in 1569 when he was being married for the fourth time. Because he was a three-time loser, the church wouldn't let Ivan join his betrothed inside during their marriage ceremony, which was one of the most magnificent of the 16th Century.

The Russian people we met there--and elsewhere in the Soviet Union while going it alone--were almost all kind and considerate.

Most looked and dressed like the Europeans you see in London or Paris. And although fewer speak English, most tried to be helpful, realizing we weren't attached to a tour group.

It started on our first morning in Moscow, when we were met at the train by a cheerful chauffeur who sped us to the hotel in a new limousine.

Soviet Escort Service

The Soviet travel bureau, Intourist, transports all foreign visitors to and from their trains and planes, making sure they get to town and, more importantly, get out.

The rest of the time we saw Moscow and Leningrad mostly on foot. At home or abroad we hike a lot--and a prerequisite for doing your own thing while traveling is a willingness to walk, preferably a delight in walking.

A second prerequisite here is the ability to get around with reasonable dexterity in a country that has fewer English-speaking residents than any other, except, possibly, China.

In general, we simply watched and emulated Soviet tourists. But our method was severely tested one day in Leningrad when we were on the move from 10 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. without once hearing an English word.

That day we managed to get on the right boat, a speedy hydrofoil, for a Neva River ride to the Gulf of Finland, where we visited Peter the Great's 18th-Century palace, Petrodvorets. Returning to Leningrad, we walked a mile along the river to Peter's smallest palace, where he lived in seven ground-floor rooms, allowing his wife to have the seven view rooms on the second floor.

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