What was it like to have a holiday in a resort in the Soviet Union?

Vacationing in the USSR was an inexpensive, but in many ways challenging adventure.

I have mostly sunny memories from my holidays in 1970s and 1980s. I was young, I was mostly lucky, and I didn’t know better.

Holidaymakers in the Soviet Union had to grapple with three sad facts:

  • The country was enormous. For most people, the closest of the warm resorts was very far away.
  • Resorts were few and located at the Baltic coast (sandy beach, cloudy days, cold surf, seaside towns looking like Europe), or Black Sea (sand or pebble, sun assured, crowded beaches, lousy food and accommodation, warmer bathing temperatures)
  • The entire infrastructure of travel and leisure was shaped not by the eternal laws of demand and supply, but some suits in Moscow. These suits had their own ideas how Soviet people should spend their off-time. These seemed to hold a Communist conviction that people at work are good, and people who relax are not as good.

Every holiday was for us in so many ways a pinnacle of the year, emotionally, logistically and financially.

For most, it meant a challenge of spending many hours, or rather days, in transit. Imagine taking a train from the middle of nowhere in Siberia to a sunny beach in Crimea. This is how the majority of holidaymakers traveled at the time:

This image may help you better understand why Russia has produced the best cosmonauts and tank personnel. We excel in making the best packed in a barrel-sized space with a bunch of strangers without shower for days and even weeks: think the Trans-Siberian transit by train.

Some could opt for first class (only three other strangers to share your body odors and life stories with, not the entire carriage), or a plane.
To my recollection, a single 2nd class train ticket Moscow-Crimea was about 10% of an office clerk salary, train compartment about 15%, and plane 25%. Scalpers’ margin was about 50–100%, but as with the right connections could provide you tickets at the nominal cost.

For many, the travel was the ultimate escape bubble. A strange mix of anonymity and proximity on the Sardine Express turned even the darkest of introverts into gregarious party birds. People shared life stories, lunch packs and drinks with their new bunk buddies. You would meet most incredible people and learn life-changing stories in a way that were unimaginable before the Internet came around.

But the worst challenge was not the hardship of moving across the largest country on earth. It was getting the tickets. Standing in line for hours, a known substitute for the Capitalist yoke of demand and supply, often didn’t help. During the red season the most popular destinations were already booked long in advance by people with the right kind of jobs or connections. In the USSR parlance, a dismissive answer from a ticket clerk “There’s never been any tickets there” didn’t mean physical absence of transit to the destination. It just meant no booking had been available for retail distribution.

This is how I remember getting my holiday tickets:

The choice of the destination was defined not so much by your preferences, rather by the place where you worked. Resorts were owned by the government, its enterprises, or the trade unions. If you were lucky–or rather had the right job or friends–you could get a subsidized, or even free tour to one of the places.

This is a decent abstraction of what our resorts were expected to look like:

A cursory look at this picture may tell you some curious things. The body distance and the excitement of the couples on the photo suggest they are not married. Which is correct, those places were not family friendly. Only the most exclusive places could accommodate couples. (You got a separate room, but the marital requirement was on par with the modern Saudis: you were expected to document your relationship). And no kids! You had to find a place to stow away your kids. With some luck, in a similar place, but almost never close to your own resort.

And yet, the places were not particularly conducive to carnal pleasures. The holiday makers had to share room with strangers. Up to four persons usually shared a room. If you or your roommates scored a date with a view to the third base, an arrangement was needed to rotate the room for appropriate privacy.

At the same time, you got five decent meals a day, all inclusive (no alcohol), and often a kind of spa offerings. Think massage, mud baths, salt inhalation, therapeutic body exercises and other wonders of 19th-century convalescent and preventive treatment, with no extra charge. It all may sound like very high-class, if it weren’t for its typical echoing dungeon setting:

  • If you didn’t have access to established resorts, you still had an option of “wild vacationing”. This Soviet expression didn’t imply drug use or promiscuity. This meant renting private accommodation. Someone could arrange it for you in advance, but many simply rented a room on arrival. It was more expensive, and quite substandard. Yet, it provided one of the most sought-after things so sorely lacking in our Soviet lives: privacy.
  • Going “wild”, you also had to think harder about provisioning. Restaurants and diners were few, expensive and greatly varied in quality. Buying groceries and cooking at home was a budget option, if you were prepared to make the most of the scarce supply in the Soviet-era retail. To my recollection, sausages was the best I could find of processed meat. In order to buy milk, I had to get up early and stand in a line for half an hour or more.
  • And then there was seaside camping. Contrary to what you may think, in the Soviet Union, this was the utter manifestation of affluent libertarianism. First, this required a car, which marked that you belonged to a small minority. Second, your banger needed to be decently tuned and maintained for the long haul. In the USSR, car maintenance was a real challenge, very expensive. Any breakdown along the thousand-mile route to the sunny beach in the private-car-averse Soviet was an outright emergency. And third, hitting the road with friends and heading to a place where we could find a solitary cove and luxuriate in the surf miles away from maddening crowds made us feel not only young and free – it made us feel almost American.

Here’s a short video about what “wild vacationing” in the USSR looked like. Soundtrack is in Russian, but from 0:20 and onward you can see a lot of happy Soviet faces.

Putin’s ice hockey show

President Putin keeps his body fit, the face tight and perky. But is his head really as young as his face looks like?

President Putin defies his old age by practicing a lot of activities that are claimed to rejuvenate brains and bodies. He swims for hours in his private swimming pool, spends quality time with pretty women, goes hiking in Siberian wilderness, learns to play the piano.

In 2011, he publicly pledged to learn how to skate. Which he did. Ever since, he was a regular at the plays of so-called Night Hockey League, where select luminaries of certain age gather after hours for casual ice hockey plays.

Recently, they had a gala play for public. President Putin scored ten times (or, according to the opposition, eight). After the show, he took a victory lap, but carried away by the moment failed to notice a ceremonial carpet rolled out on the ice and took a fall (see below).

The reaction of Russian public focused on three things:

  1. The organizers that forgot to take away the carpet before Putin took the victory lap, have messed up their careers big time, irrespective of our President’s reaction to the mishap.
  2. The way President Putin fell and bounced back to his feet, has demonstrated an impressive core strength of his torso, considering his age.
  3. For a Master of Russia, taking a victory leap for scoring goals against play-along opponents before the public and the cameras, demonstrate a strange detachment from reality and possibly an early onset of senility.

President Putin probably can’t Slav squat

Squatting with heels on ground, the weight distributed on both legs allows for prolonged seating without blocking blood circulations in the legs. But not this position called Slav squat is often unavalable to overweight people and seniors with bad backs and troubled knees. President Puting seems to be one of them.

The photo below reveals a puzzling revelation. When squatting, President Putin does it in a regular European fashion. As a matter of fact, there’s no photos except photoshopped fan memes where our President does a Slav squat.

Putin squatting
Photo: President Putin listening to the heartbeat of the Earth. (c) RIA Novosti

Since Putin spends hours working out and in the swimming hall, almost certainly in the company of competent PTs, flexibility in the joints and muscles shouldn’t be a problem. Neither has he the kind of pouch that pushes him too far back out of balance.

At the much-profiled bare-chested photo-op, Putin also does a regular squat. His weight is all on his right leg, which blocks blood circulation below the knee. This means he can’t sit this way longer than a few minutes, which is unacceptable for a Slav squat.

Putin regular squat with weight put on one leg
Photo: a regular squat with the body weight put on one leg. (c) RIA Novosti

In the photo below, Putin seems to have what it takes of the stretch in his hams and gluteus.

President Putin doing warm-up before a judo training session
Photo: President Putin doing warm-up before a judo training session. (c) RIA Novosti

This leaves a hip/knee/foot joint injury, which is understandable for an old practitioner of martial arts and downhill skiing. However, the most likely cause is the back condition that often impacts his gait.

Rich people flee Russia

Rich people leave Russia. And if they don’t, they send away their money. Rich people voting with their feet for the best country to live in, give an important insight into where the world is heading.

We have a proverb in Russia about “no place like home” that has a uniquely Russian twist to it: “Every wader boasts of her marshes” (vsyák kulík svoyó bolóto khválit). I’m one of these waders. However, in order to get to what people really think you need to weed out opinions dictated by the crowd mentality and the thirst for belonging.

Here in Moscow, the most vocal proponents of Russia as the best country in the world are people on the top—who also typically stash their money in Western offshores, buy property in Florida and around the Mediterranean, and keep their families in London, Paris, California and New York.

Which is why I put more trust in people voting with their feet, and placing their money where their mouth is. I look at the simple stats: where do people who can afford to move wherever they want, choose to live. The picture is rather straightforward: the Anglosphere and their globalized affiliates outperform the rest of the world hands down.

Info-graphics Net millionaire migration for some countries in the world
Infographics: Net millionaire migration for some countries in the world

“Trust, but verify!”

History has taught Russians the value of sticking with their clan, for better or for worse. It’s also important to know for sure who you really can trust.

In Russia, we have a proverb, “trust but verify”. I live in Moscow, and at my place it’s a very important piece of wisdom.

Flocking for survival

Lives of Russians are typically built around a tight-knit network of trusted friends and family. No man is an island—that’s the existential principle at our place. As the great proletarian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky once said: “A single creature, who needs it? / Its voice is a tiny mosquito’s peep / Who’ll hear it—maybe the wife / Just pray she’s not out shopping”.

This need for mutual trust involves a lot of testing each other. Ladies are more proficient at doing it continually. While guys tend to rely more on the last time the relationship test was successfully performed (typically the last stag party), and the general feel-good feeling when spending quality man-time together.

Stats

If you like numbers, here are some about trust.

In Moscow, just about 1% of people think people generally deserve trust. About 85% distrust people they personally know beyond their closest friends and family. In the high-rises and multi-story condominiums that define the residential market in Moscow, more than 80% don’t know their neighbors (proof link in Russian), because they don’t feel either the need or capacity to build a relationship with those people.

home party in the late 1940s USSR
Photo: a home party in the late 1940s. Most of men and women around this table would’t have made it through the WW2 calamity without help of their closest friends and family.

Narcissism is a risky luxury in Russia

Russia provides a rather hostile environment for people too full of themselves.

In Russia’s millennium-long winner-takes-it-all history, the country has produced surprisingly few famous narcissists. Those who caught the public limelight, were brought down rather swiftly: Emperor Pavel I, Alexander Kerensky, Lev Trotsky, Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Berezovsky.

It looks like the hammer and anvil of Russian self-doubt and imperial despotism kept weeding out the kindreds of Trump, Sarkozy, and Berlusconi in our neck of the woods. If you insist on putting your head high above the parapet, sooner or later the wrath of Russian gods takes you down. That’s the wisdom most Russian babies absorb with their mothers’ milk.

Stalin, for decades living in the sweetest spot of unrestrained glorification, never seemed to be relishing the moment. He just used it as a torchlight for spotting hidden enemies—those who either admired him too much, or too little.

The same is true for Putin. Watch Putin’s facial expression when someone tries to dissolve themselves in humility and awe before the Russian President: “Was that Judas’ kiss?”.

The brilliant Germa philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said: “If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” It seems, in Russia, you don’t need to stare into the abyss to get noticed. All it takes is to be full of yourself. If you bask in your own impossible awesomeness long enough, at the end of the day the abyss will find you.

In a recent Russian TV series about Trotsky, his alleged narcissism is shown as one of the major reasons he lost the power game against Stalin. The creators of the series also hold his narcissism agaisnt him as something that revealed his uncompatibility with Russia’s culture and hate of our country.

High skin factor

Mini skirts were all the rage in the USSR in the late 1960s and early 1970s

The early 1970s in the USSR was the unique era in the history of universe when women’s clothes were shrinking from top and bottom at the same time. During these happy years, no fashion police would call the girls in the photo cheap, tasteless, or trashy. I caught the tail end of it, and looking back it all feels like a party.

The best place to live in Russia

The best place to live in Russia according to people with highest IQ, is Moscow, St Petersburg and the areas with petroleum extraction

Depending on your priorities and lifestyle, there are thousands of good answers. But whatever is your preference, consult this very useful map.

It shows different regions in Russia, ranked after the IQ of the locals in the “younger than 30” age bracket (approximately). The way it was done, they took PISA measurements and converted them according to the IQ scale. Where 100 is the general OECD school age average, 98.8 being the Russian one.

As you can see, if you like to rub shoulders with the smartest guys and girls, Moscow would be your top pick with 106.8, followed by St. Petersburg with 104.7, and Tyumen oblast—this is where we pump our gas and oil—with 103.6. On the other side, if you want to dazzle the locals with your superior brain capacity, the best places is North Caucasus, Mary-El on the eastern bank of Volga River north of Tatarstan, and Zabaykalsky krai on the border with Mongolia.

Map: IQ in Russian regions, based on PISA data from 2009 and 2015, compiled by Anatoly Karlin.

Snow removal in the USSR was top-notch

Communists made Moscow the global top performer in immediate snow removal.

Moscow, the capital of the USSR, was extremely effective in combating snowfalls. I’m a living witness.

At the first sign of a major snowfall that could hamper vehicle traffic, an army of snowplows and snow collectors (see the pics at the end of the post) would swiftly come out, assisted by a least as large following of snow-transporting trucks.

The granite embankments of the Moscow river had several discharge points where the snow was promptly dumped from trucks on the ice. They also swept most of the pedestrian walks, which is why no sidewalk in Moscow was narrower than the scoop of this impressive snow-annihilating machine.

From what I have seen so far in other large cities in the snowfall belt, the USSR was a century ahead of everyone. How come?

In February 1917, in St. Petersburg, an uprising happened that led to the abdication of Czar Nicholas II, the take-down of the Russian Empire, and the rest of distressing stuff you know about the XX century. What sparked the event was closed bakeries in the city that didn’t have flour to make bread. The flour wasn’t there because of lack of grain—there was a lot of it in the train stations and depots around the country—but because heavy snowfalls made it impossible to deliver it from Central Russia to St Peterburg.

The long disgruntled lines in front of the bakeries were the starting point of the ripples, then waves, and then a tsunami that swept the empire off its feet.

The man who made sure that these ripples would ultimately grow into a revolutionary tsunami was an unassuming but very determined Bolshevik. His name was Skryabin. He went on to become a luminary in the pantheon of Soviet leaders, known to the rest of the world as Vyacheslav Molotov.

He was one of the most trusted men in Stalin’s circle. He never forgot what brought down the mighty Romanov’s empire: snow. Neither did the rest of the men in the Kremlin. Which made it very clear to anyone responsible for snow removal in Moscow and other large Soviet cities: the day when a black government sedan won’t be able to leave the Kremlin because of snowfall, would be the last day of their career—and most probably their life.

In the Soviet Union, no one ever tried penny-pinching on snow removal.

In the photo below is Prospect Marksa outside the Hotel National in Moscow:

Collected snow is disposed into the river from an embankment. This is St Pete, but you get the idea:

Kissing, Kremlin-style

Russian rulers practiced a lot of public lip-kissing before, but now it’s gone out of vogue. President Putin hates kissing people.

Russia has a rich tradition of royal lip contacts with their subjects. However, the history presidential kissing is rather short. There has been only two of them (if we include the placeholder president Dmitri Medvedev, three). The first one, Yeltsin, came about first in 1991.

Out of vogue

There were a couple episodes of Yeltsin kissing other alpha males. Yet, they were relatively prudish. He was nowhere near the famous Russian lip-locks practiced by General Secretaries Leonid Brezhnev (“mediocre politician—but what a kisser!”) and the occasional lip-brushing of Mikhail Gorbachev.

One of the last holdouts of this ancient tradition was reported to be Putin’s former chief of staff Alexander Voloshin. Otherwise—especially amid the wide nationwide campaign against gay propaganda—it has largely disappeared.

No kisses, please

Some theorists of the Sino-Soviet split in the 1950s attribute the deterioration in the bilateral relations to repeated attempts at brotherly kissing on the part of Soviet functionaries, which the Chinese interpreted as a repulsive manifestation of their intent to dominate the international Communist movement.

Like the Chinese, President Putin belongs to the group that have an aversion to lip-kissing. Moreover, he is famous for hating touching other people unnecessarily. He rather prefers facial contacts with horses, dogs, fishes, religious artefacts and kids’ bellies. Silvio Berlusconi tried Slav-kissing on Putin once, but found no reciprocity.

This is shared by an absolute majority of Russians. Even amid the universal jubilation on the Easter day, when true Orthodoxes congratulate each other with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, it’s not a good idea to try to lip-kiss people.

Origins

The tradition of male lip-kissing was brought to us by Balkan clergy. They performed a holy kiss as a standard Easter greeting. The habit caught on immediately. Foreign travelers describing Muscovy in the XVII century were puzzled by the ubiquitous lip-kissing among Russians. The tradition was somewhat relieved by a customary kiss on the lips that guests in the house were expected to exchange with the wife of the host.

There is an apocryphal explanation that linked to lip kisses the legendary robustness of our people. Russians were allegedly subjecting themselves to the bombardment by virulent foreign germs. Throughout generations, it conditioned our bodies to all kinds of hardship.

Czars

Among old-timers in some local Russian Orthodox communities there is still a tradition of laity kissing the priest on the lips at the Easter service. Czar Nicholas II often did the same on his troops when awarding medals (the picture below).

Czar Nicholas of Russia kisses troops
Photo: Czar Nicholas II bestows royal kisses on the best of his troops during WW1.