I was about to start describing an actual trip, but then I’ve realized how many details surrounding this trip require a separate explanation. That’s one of the reasons I’ve decided to start this blog in the first place. I would never put into my journal back then all these details of our everyday lives because they were so “everybody knows it.” And the future generations will never ask about them because they won’t imagine that everyday things may be so different!
There were two essential things to take care of: passports and money. I know that for most of the world, a “passport” means a document that allows you to travel abroad. Not the case for the Soviet Union, and even for nowadays Russia.
All of us had an “internal passport,” which was issued to anybody when they reach sixteen years of age. This internal passport (which everybody would refer to as just “passport”) was used and is still used in the situations when Americans use their driver’s license or State ID. It was something you would need to carry with you most of the time if you want to avoid trouble with a militia.
And if you are lucky to be allowed to go to Zarganitsa, you will be issued a separate passport – a foreign passport, or as we now are aware of the terminology, “zagran-passport.” There were three different types of zagran-passport, and we were issues the “regular” ones.
Now, imagine this – we were not even allowed to carry them! I believe we had to fill in the application forms, although I do not recall it; maybe they were prefilled for us by some officials, and we only had to sign them. I remember though that at some point we all were summoned to one room in the University. Our group leaders (those two faculty members who were assigned to go on the trip with us) presented us with a stack of newly printed passports. We signed them, and the passports were taken away again.
The visas for East Germany (The German Democratic Republic) were already stamped in, and the dates on the visas were the exact dates of our trip. To be precise, we were supposed to depart a day or two before the expiration of the visas, and we were lamenting about that.
We ended up never holding our passports in our hands. The group leaders had them on the train and were presenting them to all the bother controls we had to pass. We never had them with us when we were in Germany. Technically speaking, we were not supposed to walk anywhere without the group, and our group leaders were expected to have our passports with them at all times. But they were kind, smart, and sensible individuals, and above all, they were realists, so they were giving us more freedom on our honest word. But even then they won’t let us have our passports – what if one of us would decide to defect?! Then our group leaders would be severely sanctioned.
The second important thing was money. In the Soviet Union, it was illegal to buy and sell foreign currency; a person could go to jail if caught (not like people didn’t do it, though :)). One of the reasons for this was the fact that the official exchange rate had nothing to do with the actual market value. Remember this “deficit” thing? We could not buy the things we needed and wanted even having money in our pockets. At that time, the official exchange rate was something like 0.7 rubles for a dollar and the market value, if I remember correctly was something close to 20 rubles for a dollar. You could tell it by the black market prices.
You can imagine that in these circumstances if people would be allowed to exchange as much money as they want, the sky will be the limit. Many people had a lot in savings “just in case,” and because there was not much to buy. Since the number of people traveling abroad was very limited, family, extended family and friends, and friends of friends would ask the lucky traveler to bring SOMETHING, and they would give money for their purchases.
Can you believe that I still remember all these numbers?! Anybody traveling abroad was allowed to exchange 300 rubles, and based on the rate I’ve cited above, you understand that was a fortune! Just try to imagine how many jeans and sweaters, and gym shoes you could buy for four hundred dollars back in the 80s! There was also an allowance of 34 rubles which you could bring with you to exchange while abroad. I do not remember why it was 34, and whether there was any reason at all, but we made some agreements with our German visitors regarding informal exchange :).
If you ever read some memoirs of Soviet actors, dancers or athletes, who would go abroad relatively frequent, you might remember that they would always mention packing portable boilers and some food supplies. The main reason for that was that they had the same hard limits for currency exchange, and they were trying to avoid spending this money on bare necessities.
Actually, the above statement applied to all travelers, and our group was not an exception. Before we left, we made plans on who is bringing canned meals, instant soups, etc. Mind you, all these things were also considered “a deficit,” and you also had to “get” them (see this post).
Finally, everything was planned out, and our super-excited group boarded the train to Leipzig; we had almost two days long travel through Poland ahead of us.