Monday, August 19, 1991
The train was rocking so hard this morning that it woke me. I had a sore throat, dry mouth, and blisters on my lips. I didn’t feel very good. I couldn’t brush my teeth because the bathrooms were really gross and the water did not look clean. Thank God I brought Evian, Tylenol, Sucrets, and Anbesol. They saved my life. The train arrived in Leningrad at 0800. As soon as the train stopped, a man from GTC Corp came and met us on the train. I was surprised they were right there waiting for us. I thought we were going to have to wait a while. Off the bat, I felt the people were more talkative and open.
We arrived at the Grand Palace Hotel (Palace of Youth). The rooms were awesome. There was a living room, spacious bathrooms with big showers, and a working refrigerator. We had breakfast (fried eggs, bread, and cold cuts). After breakfast, we were told they were going to take us on a tour at 1000. We went upstairs to change and unpack. We had not realized a tour was included so we were pleasantly surprised.
NOTE: Before arriving at the hotel, we passed through the city and it was beautiful. We passed by the Winter Palace, where the Hermitage is, cathedrals, and other buildings. The city has over 300 bridges and beautiful architecture.
While I was getting ready, I heard some people outside the room talking to Ralph. He called me to hear what they were saying. I opened the door and a woman called Helen and two drivers were standing there saying the tour was postponed until after lunch because they did not know how safe the streets were. They had just heard that Gorbachev was overthrown in a coup attempt and the military was taking over. I thought...wait a minute, can’t they wait until Friday afternoon... They said Gorbachev had no power and the military was saying he was ill. It was scary and bad news, but they assured us we were safe in the hotel and not to worry. Helen took our passports to register us (whatever that means). We trusted her because she looked decent and she spoke perfect English.
The first thing I thought about was our family members. They probably knew by now and they were probably extremely worried. I wanted to use the phone, but the government cut all phone lines even the ones in MOW. We were also worried about Leo and company because they were supposed to arrive two days from now. We knew from before that it was difficult to call out of Leningrad, but this situation made it even more difficult.
We all sat in one room saying how adventurous, dangerous, exciting, and scary the situation was. I was a little skeptical because even the employees of the hotel didn’t know exactly what was happening. Either they were left in the dark, or they did not want to worry us. We decided to take a nap until lunch. After lunch (at about 1430), Helen said they had confirmed it was a successful military coup and that Gorbachev was no longer in power. Some guy named Nievev or something was the leader. Yeltsin was even ousted.
We were tired of being in the hotel so we asked them to take us around the city. They dropped us off at a flea market. The people were more aggressive. Boys came up to us asking for gum. I guess they saw us chewing some. They were surprised we shared the gum with them without asking for some of the dingy postcards in their hands. People were selling old religious icons. Ralph wanted to buy a $250 one, but we all doubted its authenticity and he felt they would confiscate it at the airport. Another thing we were worried about was that there is only one flight per week out of Leningrad so we were stuck here. The only way out, if anything would happen, would be to take a train to Helsinki, Finland and fly from there, but we didn’t even want to think about it.
After the market, we asked them to take us to the U.S. consulate so we could register and try to call home. We got there and there was a crowd of Soviet citizens waiting for visas and applying for them. We walked passed them up to the guard and advised him we were U.S. citizens so he let us right in. Once inside, it felt safer. Outside, the people looked tense. Not happy and not sad, just tense. I guess they were just waiting for something to happen.
It was funny because earlier in the market there were some guys saying “Gorby is dead! Gorby is dead! and that there was a special sale because it was the last day of capitalism. We laughed, but it was weird because I didn’t know what to think. Was this a good thing or a bad thing? I knew it was bad, but they were laughing about it and almost taunting us. Another strange thing was that I asked Helen about rock concerts and she said “no more.”
Anyway, we talked to the employees at the consulate and they assured us it was safe in Leningrad. They confirmed again that Gorbachev was out, but that’s all they knew. An American girl told us that there was a curfew in the Baltic States and that in MOW there were some peaceful demonstrations. After we registered with the consulate, I had to go outside and ask Helen for the address and phone number of hotel in case of an evacuation emergency. When I stepped outside, I heard a woman say that there were tanks in the streets of MOW so it kind of freaked me out a little. After I got the information from Helen, I went back inside.
The consulate was full of more Americans. I felt safer knowing there were other Americans in the city because I hadn’t seem them at the hotel or in the streets. They also told us the phone lines were out so we definitely couldn’t call home. Although that was bad, we felt good about registering with them and we left our home contact information in case anything would happen. We left the consulate and they took us to the mall.
The mall was depressing. Helen told Ralph and Vivian that 80% of the people were poor and alcoholic. Leningrad seemed to be more real than MOW. The people seemed more honest and less stuffy. They weren’t afraid to say things are bad and that they too are scared. The mall had little to offer. People stood in line to buy the strangest things: hairspray, barrettes, and buttons. Things were quiet. We left after 20 minutes and went back to the hotel because dinner was at 1830. We got back to the hotel and took a nap.
Dinner was good. We had bread, potatoes, steak, and Pepsi. Thank God we didn’t have to drink another seltzer water. After dinner, we went back to the room and just hung out. It was funny because I made Ana pack everything. All of us showered and had everything ready in case anything happened in the middle of the night. We stayed up late writing in our journals and doing Russian adventure and Greek Island word searches.
Essay written about this day:
I woke up as the train pulled into the Leningrad train station at about 0800. I remember waiting five days before the trip to tell my parents where I was headed. I had told them I was going to Europe and when they would ask me where, I would say I was flying into London and out of God knows where. In that time of my life, I worked for Pan Am and they were used to me just picking up and flying off somewhere on a moments notice. But, this time I felt really guilty because I knew how strongly they felt about me visiting a Communist country.
“We left Cuba to get away from a political situation you’re going to admire as a tourist,” they said.
“The situation is a little bit different. It’s not about politics. It’s not about me wanting to hurt you. It’s about me having this learning opportunity to see a part of the world now and I’m not going to pass it up. There are many places I want to go to see for myself, and Russia is one of them," I responded.
“You can stay here, finish your last semester of college, and learn all you want. Please don’t go.”
For a moment after we arrived in Leningrad, I thought of myself stuck in traffic trying to make it to an Economics class. Then, as the hotel driver knocked on our door calling out our names, I knew I was exactly where I was suppose to be.
After checking into the hotel, we ate breakfast. The hotel’s tour desk had advised us we were going on a tour of the city. They suggested we go to our rooms, unpack, and be ready within the hour. Not even 20 minutes had passed, when we heard a loud conversation in the hallway. At the same time, we all opened our doors to find Helen our tour guide and two of her drivers giving us a message.
“The tour is postponed until after lunch because they didn’t know how safe the streets were. They had just heard that Gorbachev was missing and the military was taking over. Gorbachev no longer has power and they are saying he is ill. Don’t worry about anything. We will keep you posted.”
We were all stunned. As we gathered in one of the rooms, all we thought about was our family. We wanted to use the phone, but the government had cut all phone lines. There was no way to communicate with our loves ones. At lunch time, Helen came to give us an update.
“They had confirmed that it was a successful military coup and that Gorbachev was no longer in power.”
“So, what do we do know. We need to call home. We need to call Pan Am to see when they are going to re-instate the flights,” we all said in unison.
“Don’t worry. Leningrad is surrounded by tanks and it’s own military police. They will fight to their deaths before letting anyone destroy this city. What are you so worried about? At least you will have the option of leaving. What about the people that are here? What are we going to do? I know Gorbachev is not perfect, but we were finally getting the freedoms people deserve. We were finally seeing a future. What about us?”
For the first time in my life, a government was controlling me. We could not call home. We could go out, but had to be back by a certain time due to a curfew. I felt I was stuck in a situation where I did not know how to react. For the first time, I realized how within my life, I thought I knew everything. I made my own decisions and did what I wanted to do. But now, I was just another being on this planet in a situation beyond my control. For the first time, I felt trapped and helpless. These people we met in Moscow, Helen, and her guides, must have felt like that all the time. I thought of my parents and how this is what they never wanted me to feel.