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The U.S.S.R.

July 24, 1988|ART WILD | Wild is a Times news editor.

MOSCOW — The brochure carried a promise and a warning. "It is an opportunity to walk through history," it said. "It is not, however, for those faint of heart." After an 8,000-mile tour of the Soviet Union with 22 stouthearted fellow travelers, my wife and I were in total agreement. It was a rigorous but exhilarating and enlightening journey. We found it well worth the time and effort to extend our itinerary beyond Moscow and Leningrad to Siberia, Central Asia and Georgia. The 22-day trek began with a Finnair flight from New York to Helsinki, then Aeroflot to Moscow for a five-day visit. Our aerial swing then tookus to Irkutsk in Siberia; Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara in Central Asia; Tbilisi in Georgia, and ended with four days in Leningrad.

Our Intourist guide bounced aboard the bus on our arrival in Moscow with a cheery, "Hello, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Igor!" He performed this ritual with such infectious enthusiasm that it became his trademark.

We had been well-advised to choose an established tour instead of trying to see the Soviet Union on our own. Intourist, the government agency through which all travelers are channeled, gives priority to tour groups. In every city we visited we saw independent travelers waiting for hotel rooms or restaurant seating while groups under the wing of an Intourist guide filed past with no delay.

In Igor, who stayed with us until the last day in Leningrad, we were fortunate to get one of the agency's best representatives. A 27-year-old graduate of a Moscow language institute, he spoke nearly flawless English and gave interesting commentaries on the history, art, music and literature of his country--though never deviating from the orthodox Communist line.

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From the first day in Moscow we could see that tourism, encouraged by glasnost and boosted by the recent Gorbachev-Reagan summit, is growing rapidly in the Soviet Union.

In the cavernous lobby of our 28-story Cosmos Hotel, armies of tour groups from many countries gathered under their leaders' banners for the day's assault. Outside, long rows of buses lined up like troop carriers, ready to take them to their prime targets.

Our stay in Moscow was highlighted by unforgettable tours of Red Square and the Kremlin, and rides on the amazing Metro subway system, which efficiently serves a city of 8 million people and is decorated like a cathedral.

Also worthwhile was a day at the Economic Achievement Exhibition and adjacent Museum of Space. At the North Gate of this complex, across the boulevard from the Cosmos, the 295-foot Cosmonaut Memorial arched into the sky, a beautiful sight from our window at night.

A Slight Letdown

After five kaleidoscopic days in Moscow, we flew 2,600 miles to Irkutsk in southeastern Siberia.

The capital of Irkutsk Territory and just 60 miles north of the Mongolian border, Irkutsk proved to be a slight letdown--the only one of the tour.

A busy but uninspiring city, it's on the Angara River, the sole outlet of Lake Baikal. Irkutsk has some of its original chocolate-brown wooden homes with elaborately carved and decorated facades, but its chief attraction is the lake, the world's deepest and an ecological wonder.

A one-hour bus ride through the primeval taiga (forest) took us to the Limnological Institute at Listvyanka on Baikal's southwestern shore. It is well worth visiting but our local guide had difficulty in translating the museum lecturer's presentation. We tried, with little success, to persuade her that those bones from an early dig could not have been "unicorn bones."

The mile-deep Baikal stretches northward for 400 miles but we were unable to fully appreciate its lonely beauty because chunks of ice kept us from returning to Irkutsk by hydrofoil.

Concert in Siberia

As it turned out, one of our best experiences in Siberia was the concert on native instruments by university music teachers. The selections and musicianship were much above average and well worth the $8 apiece that we and a German group paid for the concert in the Intourist hotel bar.

Also memorable was a Decembrist home turned into a museum in honor of idealistic military officers exiled after rising against Nicholas I on Dec. 14, 1825.

If Siberia was a mild disappointment, Central Asia was a magnificent surprise. A 1,900-mile flight took us to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan and just a few hundred miles north of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Tashkent is a modern, bustling metropolis of 2 million people, beautifully rebuilt since the devastating earthquake of 1966. Our hotel, the Uzbekistan, was putting on its best makeup for an international film festival spotlighting the Soviet and Indian movie industries. Flowers were springing up everywhere in lobby planters, and rows of posters stretched across the entrance.

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