Wednesday, July 24, 2019

From the Archives: Moscow, Soviet Union, in 1978 (Plus-X film)

Kremlin walls from the Moscow River in 1978, Kodak Plus-X film, Leica IIIC, 5cm ƒ/2.0 Summitar lens
Kremlin walls from Bol'shoy Kamennyy Most (bridge)
Vodovzvodnaya Tower, Moscow
A few weeks ago, I had coffee with my karate friend Tatyana. She remembered her childhood in the Soviet Union. When I told her I had visited Moscow and Leningrad in 1978, she immediately asked if she could see my pictures. Well, that led to retrieving my negatives and scanning them. They were on Kodak Plus-X film exposed with the same Leica IIIC that I still presently use. The negatives were scratched and muddy in the low exposure areas. Maybe muddy low tones were a characteristic of Plus-X, but I am not sure. Back then, my technique was haphazard, and I can't recall who developed this roll. The scratches may be my doing. I do not see much grain, and in those days I sometimes used Microdol-X, which was a fine-grain film developer (i.e., it was designed to reduce the visual appearance of grain). But I was staying in Athens in those days, so maybe a Greek lab developed them. Regardless, they required some serious cleaning with the heal tool in Adobe Photoshop CS3 and some adjustment with the curve to improve tonality.
Red Square from the GUM department store
This is the view of Red Square and the Kremlin walls taken from the GUM store. The GUM department store was a giant arcade built during the czarist era. It was reasonably well-stocked when we visited in October of 1978. Tatyana said Moscow and Leningrad were quite cosmopolitan in those days, but small towns in the hinterland had stores with empty shelves. We bought something in the GUM, but I do not remember what. The purchase process was multi-step. First you pointed out what you wanted to a clerk, and she wrote out a ticket for you. Then you took the ticket to the cashier's counter. The cashier took your tickets and added the total amount on an abacus. She accepted your Rubles (definitely no credit cards in the Soviet Union, and regardless, I did not have any cards in those days). Then the lady gave you a receipt in multiple copies, which you took back to the original counter. Upon close examination of the receipt, the lady gave you your merchandise. They were reasonably friendly and did not seem too surprised to see foreigners. That was the era of Perestroika, when the Soviet Union was semi-opening and increasing interaction with the outside world. Tourists were encouraged to come, stay in hotels, and spend foreign currency.

As tourists, we were herded into one of the Beryozka shops. These only accepted foreign currency and catered to tourists, diplomats, government officials, and special people (athletes? ballerinas?). The Beryozka shops sold goods that were hard to get in normal shops, but most local people were forbidden to enter the premises, plus they usually did not have any foreign currency. We saw the normal offerings of liquor, cans of caviar, and some jewelry. I almost bought a Kiev camera but passed.

In the photograph through the arch, the people in the distance are waiting to see Lenin's body. If we tourists wanted to enter the mausoleum, the guards would have put us in front of all those people, but that seemed rude and we did not want to flaunt privilege. So we never did see Lenin's body. Stalin  and other notables are buried at the base of the walls. Notice the gents hanging around in "plain" clothes? We assumed were being tracked, but who knows? Maybe our grumpy Intourist guide was the only official watching our group. In our hotel room, we occasionally said "Hi!" and "How are you today?" to the telephone receiver.
Soviet tourists, bronze Czar Cannon (cast in 1586)
The premier tourist site was the Kremlin, the ancient seat of power of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. We were surprised how open it was. You could not enter the government buildings, but could pretty freely walk around and take pictures. I occasionally looked for First Secretary Brezhnev, but of course, he was nowhere to be seen.
Church of the Nativity, Kremlin 
Several ancient cathedrals and churches are inside the walls of the Kremlin. Although religion was officially discouraged in the communist era, some churches were maintained and, I think, held services. The government preserved others as museums.
St. Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow
St. Basil's Cathedral, Red Square
St. Basil's Cathedral, (from Wikipedia: The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed (Russian: собо́р Васи́лия Блаже́нного, Sobor Vasiliya Blazhennovo)) is an architectural wonder. This, too, was a museum. I recall the inside being rather dark and claustrophobic. The ornate chambers were much more confined than the soaring spaces in Gothic cathedrals in France or Germany.
Smolensk Cathedral
The bell tower of the 1690 Smolensk Cathedral dominates the walls and passages in the ancient Novodevichy Convent. This is now a museum.
Bolchoi, Moscow
We saw the Barber of Seville (Il barbiere di Siviglia, ossia L'inutile precauzione) at the Bolshoi. I recall a superb performance, but cannot remember if it was sung in Italian or Russian. Also, I cannot recall if we went with our tour group or just bought tickets and attended by ourselves.

We stayed in an old hotel called the Berlin. It was on Pushechnaya Street and and within walking distance of Red Square and most tourist sites. It dated back to the Czarist era and looked like it had not received much maintenance or cleaning since the 1917 revolution. Sturdy babushka ladies sat at a desk on each floor and gave you your room key while they glared at you. I am not sure if they worked for the KGB, but they certainly had been instructed to report any suspicious happenings.

This was a quick tourist look at Moscow. I am sorry I did not take more pictures of ordinary life. There are some slides in my boxes, but scanning will wait for "some day" (like so many other mythological projects). These black and white frames were from Kodak Plus-X film, exposed with my dad's Leica IIIC camera and 5cm ƒ/2.0 Summitar lens, which I am still using many decades later.

1 comment:

Mike said...

You got some good quality images from your retrieval efforts. I've been rescanning some old negatives to make prints and am finding it difficult to reproduce my original results even though I'm using the same hardware and software.