Leningrad - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Leningrad

Formalities over, we were driven off in a long convoy, led by a police car with flashing lights and siren. Each coach had at least one Russian interpreter on board and from ours we learned that we were now a delegatsiya and as such entitled to a police escort to ensure we were not held up in traffic jams. For a while we thought that red traffic lights in Russia meant 'go' until we realised that every traffic light at every junction was red until after we had passed when, presumably, the normal sequencing was resumed. It was fascinating to note that many ordinary vehicles tagged onto the end of our convoy so that they, too, could take advantage of the police escort.

Above: The line up at the military side of Leningrad's Pulkova international airport. That's our doctor carrying his bag of bloods and other potions!

Below: Trying to look interested in the Hermitage - no Soviet citizens present - this was a visit set aside by Intourist for the Red Arrows party.
We eventually arrived at the Soviet Officers' Club in down-town Leningrad, a faded but once grand building with an imposing façade outside and sweeping staircases and lofty decorated ceilings inside. The Club was crowded. Whether it was always so or whether people had turned up especially to see us, I don't know but we were certainly the centre of attention. We were led by our hosts and interpreters to the front of a long queue to collect our dinner. We then sat down at tables that had been held ready for our arrival. The food was no more than adequate. Most of us found it embarrassing that the hundreds of other diners were watching us, not simply because we were British but because we were being fed meat. I was not the only one, I suspect, who ground his way through the gristly, tasteless meat when we would normally have left it untouched on the side of the plate.

Above: One of the embassy staff took this pic of me trying desperately to appreciate what the Hermitage had on display - but, sadly, I was unmoved. I have no interest whatsoever in old pictures. (Having written that, it's a good job I'm not on Twitter or Facebook otherwise I would doubtless be harangued for being a Philistine!!)
After dinner, we were ushered back into our coaches for another long bus ride with the same police escort. We arrived at a military hotel in a really shabby part of town and parked at a rear entrance. The hotel would rate barely one star by western standards but who cared? There was a TV in every room and the football World Cup was being shown live. We had adequate supplies of British beer, freshly delivered from Albert, but I doubt if any import duty had been paid. I was fascinated to meet my first dezhurnaya - the archetypal, unsmiling, large Russian ladies who sit bolt upright on small chairs and guard all hotel corridors. They watched us dashing from room to room, making quite a bit of noise as we unpacked, drank our beer, and checked for late amendments to the WHAM. There seemed to be no other guests in our part of the hotel and soon we settled down for the night.

Left: The folk appearing in this magnificent mirror were members of the Red Arrows ground crew.

The next day was set aside for touring and PR opportunities in and around Leningrad. Our host for the day was Lieutenant General Boris Yurevich Nikiforov, Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Air Force Leningrad District. It was typical of the Soviets that they made sure our two-star detachment commander was outranked by their three-star general - or were they just making sure we felt welcome? At each location Intourist, the official Soviet tourist organisation, had laid on one of their VIP guides to explain everything to us through one of their own interpreters.

Leningrad city centre was shabby and uninteresting; most of the buildings and all of roads were in desperate need of renovation. The majority of the shops appeared to be empty of goods but the occasional long queue indicated a shop that did have something to sell. Soviet shops were not privately owned and most stocked a single commodity, indicated by one-word signs on their windows: meat, milk, vegetables, furniture, chemist, and so on. It must have been extremely frustrating for the shoppers who could spend all day moving from one queue to another.

There were, however, some spectacular places for the tourist to visit in and around Leningrad. We were taken to two of them: Tsar Peter’s Winter Palace in the city centre, housing the world-famous Hermitage Museum and Art Gallery with its fabulous treasures including many original Rembrandts, Monets, Cezannes, van Goghs and Rubens paintings and, 28 km west of the city, Peter the Great’s magnificent summer palace. At both places we were given VIP treatment. Our Intourist guide insisted that I should take a photograph of this mosaic in the Hermitage floor. I did so but I cannot remember anything about it.

Left: Briefing for the flight to Kiev was conducted in our Leningrad hotel during  a rather sumptuous breakfast.

Before leaving the Leningrad hotel, I went in search of the dezhurnaya on my corridor. I wanted to give her one of the extra-large bars of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut chocolate I had brought with me as personal gifts. (I had heard before leaving UK that Russians were particularly fond of Cadbury's Fruit and Nut.) I found her in an office at the end of the corridor and she showed no signs of discomfiture when she realised that I could clearly see that she was sitting in front of a complicated telephone switchboard with a jumble of patch-cords and tape recorders. Presumably this was where the KGB monitored conversations in the hotel rooms. The woman was absolutely delighted with the chocolate and quickly secreted it within the ample folds of her dress - but not before she had looked around guiltily to see if anyone had noticed. The Assistant Air Attaché told me later that she would undoubtedly have sold the chocolate rather than eating it herself.

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