May Day and my 3-days in the USSR

May 1st is “May Day” in several countries, including the 1970’s version of the U.S.S.R. On May 26, 1972, the USA and USSR signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. Less than a month later, I spent three tense days in Moscow as part of a cultural exchange program; a member of the United States Collegiate Wind Band (USCWB), conducted by Prof Al G. Wright, then Director of Bands at Purdue University. The group included approximately 120 recent high school graduates from 26 states. After three days of rehearsals in New York, the USCWB left for a three week tour with three days in Moscow.

The concert band performed in Belgium, France, England, Sweden, Switzerland and the Soviet Union. For this May Day article, I’ll focus on the Moscow portion, accomplished at the very front end of “détente” (an official reduction of tensions).

From Switzerland to Moscow

We were to depart from a Swiss airport for the 4-hr flight to Moscow, arriving in the early evening. Only after arriving at the Swiss airport, we learned that the Soviets decided we would fly in on one of their Aeroflot jets, which didn’t leave Moscow until they confirmed that we were waiting. That 4-hr wait plus the 4-hr flight ensured our arrival in the middle of the night, when no one would see us.

Moscow Airport, Armed Guards and Popping the Clutch

We did not pull up to the large, impressive terminal, stopping instead a fair distance from it. Our welcome included two busses, which pulled up alongside the planes and two armed guards (rifles) standing at attention at the doors. We were instructed to deplane and get on the busses. “Your luggage will be taken to the hotel for you.” Not only did that prevent our entrance into the airport terminal for baggage claim, but it also gave them a few hours with our luggage.

The bus ride to the city was annoying and uncomfortable. Each time the manual transmission bus would get up to speed, the driver would shut off the engine and we would coast…. then as the speed decreased to a near stop, he would pop the clutch for a jerky engine restart and then repeat the cycle.

We were greeted warmly at the hotel and treated to some amazing food as they prepared us for our “orientation”, which also delayed our hotel check-in. Unlike our other stops, when we normally had at least half a day to ourselves and to explore the city we were visiting, the Soviet guides said we could not leave the hotel. The reason, “The Soviet people do not speak English and if you get lost, they won’t be able to help you find your way back.”

But then they did something awful. When we finally got our luggage, organized neatly and alphabetically for us, we discovered they removed all the souvenir stickers from all the other countries on all our luggage. This was our next to last stop, so there was no way to replace all that. There was little doubt that our luggage had been searched.

How they kept us from seeing too much. In most of the countries, we would get a “continental” breakfast (a roll and drink), were on our own for lunch and then would get a good evening meal. We were even allowed to visit Denmark from Sweden on our own. In the USSR, we were fed multiple-course meals three times daily with some lasting two hours, leaving less time for sight-seeing. I tasted caviar for the first time there.

Some of the propaganda we experienced

  • “Pop” machines. We never traveled by foot. But as we toured the city, we kept seeing these weird vending machines. Customers would take the community glass and put it over a nozzle for rinsing. Then they would dispense what looked like beer, stand there and drink it, then set the glass down for the next person standing in line. When we asked our guide we were told that those are soft drink machines”.

    Moscow University
  • They took us to Moscow University, which was a huge, modern campus…. and told us, In the Soviet Union, College Education is Free.
  • We went to the pre-revolution section of “Old Moscow” to view poorly maintained buildings. This is what Russia was like before the revolution.
  • At a huge cathedral we heard, Unlike what you hear in your country, there are 55 operating churches in Moscow.
  • As we toured, we were constantly instructed when we could and could not take pictures.

Lenin’s Tomb was impressive and unique. The line to get in was very long. A married couple, still in wedding garb, was escorted to the front of the line. What an honor. Inside the tomb was extremely cold, dimly lit, and had a soldier every few feet. No talking. No cameras. And the main attraction……the actual body in a glass casket. This was nearly 50 years after his death in 1924, reportedly from syphilis.

Oops….we weren’t supposed to see that, I’m sure. We were in Red Square, a huge area somewhat like a brick version of the National Mall in Washington DC, when we saw someone fleeing a group of soldiers. The soldiers released a dog. We’ve all seen videos of well-trained police dogs taking down and “holding” a criminal. Nope. Not this dog. We were too scared to take a picture. I did get one of some soldiers who were unhappy to have a picture taken by a teenager with a US Flag patch on his touristy shirt.

The Concert

This was a music tour and we gave concerts before huge crowds everywhere we went. There was one town in Switzerland where they built us a stage in the town square and literally shut the town down so everyone could come. People wanted to hear us, meet us, talk to us, touch us, get autographs and pictures…. we were treated like famous guests everywhere we went, except in Moscow.

The Moscow concert was in an old building with a stage so small part of the ensemble had to set up on the floor and a pathetic audience of about 50. The explanation: “Everyone in Moscow has a job and you are giving a concert on a work day.”

Even the departure was eventful

In every country we would do a currency exchange and try to end up with just a little bit left over for souvenirs. Our guides emphatically told us that it would be illegal to “smuggle” Soviet currency out of the country. I put a Ruble inside a chewing gum wrapper inside a reed box inside my clarinet case. Things got interesting as we were in the lobby of the airport preparing to board our Aeroflot plane when a group of people arrived and started physically searching us. You could hear coins hitting the floor. That process took an uncomfortably long time…..enough that the plane was late for departure. They wouldn’t allow us to leave until our director signed a document confessing that we were late arriving at the airport, thus causing the plane’s delayed departure.

It was a tense trip for us. Keep in mind that the Cuban missile crisis was only nine years old and the arms race was in full force (until the ’72 treaty). Ours was the generation that had the elementary school “stop, drop and cover” drills for nuclear missile strikes ….. and these were the people aiming the missiles at us.

There were probably some politicians somewhere claiming good will and détente with our being there. From our perspective, it seemed like they got 120 of us in and out of there with almost no one seeing, hearing or knowing that we were there. But the Cold War was “over”.

The video below is of a Moscow May Day parade from 1974, two years after I was there. Where you see all the Soviet leadership observing …. is a ledge atop the Lenin Tomb. Enjoy. The first 19 minutes are boring. Hear the playing of the “old” anthem at 19:06 and see a good portion of the show at 45:45.


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