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Traveling around

I had the opportunity to travel extensively during my four months in the Soviet Union. Though I knew that there were vast differences among the 15 Soviet republics, I was still surprised at just how great those differences were. Here, we are looking down at Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, from a cable car that carried visitors to a small amusement park at the top of a steep hill. We laughed nervously at how rickety it seemed, but a year later, several people died when one of the cables snapped.

Tbilisi stretches for many miles on both sides of the Mtkvari River, with much of it built into the hillsides formed by the river valley. An old castle -- the Citadel -- was being reconstructed at the top of the hill.

Tbilisi looked and felt much more Mediterranean than Soviet, and had a charming cobbled together look on the back streets.

The Armenian capital, Yerevan, had a large, attractive central square, but just a few miles away, I came across these homes on a sun-baked hill that looked like a squatter settlement.

Minsk was probably the most depressing, Stalinist looking place I visited. Apart from one small section of charming old wooden homes, its center consisted almost exclusively of uniformly gray, imposing structures. Of course, most of it had been leveled during World War II, so it was not something that could be blamed on the Soviets.

The look and feel of the Baltic republics was far more "European". In all three Baltic republics -- Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania -- nationalist movements had gained support and political power, and most people were not shy about expressing their hopes for independence and their disdain for everything Soviet. Espeically in Tallin, seen here, and Vilnius, the old centers were being lovingly restored.

Riga was a far more Russian city than either Tallinn or Vilnius, and you could feel a palpable tension between Russian speakers and Latvian speakers. Just outside a very old center, there were some quite splendid examples of fanciful Jugenstil architecture from early in the 20th century. There were also some quite charming, but less well-maintained wooden buildings just a litle further out from the center. After that, there were endless rows of Soviet style apartment blocks.

Peterhof, known in 1989 as Petrodvorets, is an incredible palace located a little ways outside of the city of Leningrad/St.Petersburg, on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland. Built by Peter the Great and very much an example of czarist splendor, it is famed for its many hundreds of fountains. Unfortunately, like so much in the Soviet Union in 1989, many of the fountains were non-functional during my visit.

One day I headed off in the opposite direction to the beach with a few locals I'd met, going away from Leningrad towards the Finnish border along the Gulf of Finland. It was lovely and pastoral. "This is my favorite part of of Russia," said Tanya. To which Dima replied, "Yes, but this is the part that used to be Finland."

And then there was Moscow, which was more complicated. There was Red Square and St. Basil's Cathedral -- monumental, impressive, and immaculate. But then, if you wanted to find an affordable restaurant with anything you might actually want to eat, you might wander around all day. We were staying in the American Embassy compound, and going back and forth from the weirdness of Moscow to the decorum of the compound was like traveling between parallel universes.

Inside the Kremlin, limousines were parked, waiting to ferry party apparatchiks to the next appointment (or home).

Moscow State University, one of the "seven sisters" built in what is described as the "wedding cake" style, epitomized Stalinist architecture.

Moscow did not have the vitality of Leningrad, but along the Arbat, a histroic pedestrian street of well-maintained, human-scaled buildings dating largely to the 19th centtury, hustlers and street musicians competed for the attention of tourists and shoppers.

Under Gorbachev, Soviet political culture was opening up -- the official policy was dubbed "glasnost" -- and Moscow's Pushkin Square was a magnet for activists who gathered to debate latest developments. The square was home to Izvestia, the official government newspaper, as well as the Moscow News, which pushed the boundaries of the permissible. In Russia, it was common to post the newspaper for the public to read, and here, Muscovites are gathered in front of the Moscow News postings.

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