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Politics and culture

Not long after I arrived, the Soviet Union held the first genuinely contested election for the lower house of the parliament in the country's history. The Communist Party was still guaranteed a comfortable majority, but opposition candidates were able to run for hundreds of seats, and many of them won. The candidate and party platforms ranged from Communist to liberal democratic to lunatic fringe, and were posted in public places all around town, often sparking animated debate on the street.

A youthful hippie making both a political and a fashion statement in front of the Kazan Cathedral

Just a few weeks after my arrival, pro-democracy demonstrators gathered in Leningrad to protest the violent suppression of a nationalist demonstration in Georgia in which around 20 people were killed. Such a blatant anti-government public gathering would have been unthinkable a few years earlier.

Soviet involvement in Afghanistan had been costly, unpopular, and largely a failure -- and it had undermined the authority of the government and the Party. Here, a young man stands by as a sort of guard at an impromptu memorial to Soviet soldiers who had died in Afghanistan.

Russians loved to celebrate their weddings in style.

I don't remember exactly how or why, but we somehow got ourselves invited to a wedding in Leningrad performed in classic Soviet style by a bureaucrat at the Wedding palace -- a beautiful old building near the center of town. At the raucus reception that followed, a cheesy band played covers of American pop hits and the alcohol flowed freely.

A couple of construction workers taking a breather from the restoration of Leningrad's Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ.

A day or two after the Chinese government crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tianamen Square in Beijing, several hundred protestors in Leningrad marched through the streets to the Chinese consulate. The police pretty much stood by, but did prevent protestors from getting right up to the entrance to the consulate. The sign says "No to Stalinism and Maoism". While the Soviet government failed to condemn the crackdown in Beijing, its tolerance of the demonstration was quite extraordinary.

For some reason, I found the anachronistic 50s glitz of a Chaika limousine parked in front of our hotel in Tbilisi to be the embodiment of all things Soviet in 1989. Full of grand ambition, but pretty much out of touch with the modern world.

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