Traveling in the USSR

This is part of a series about when I lived in the Soviet Union from 1977 to 1979. Click here for more stories from the USSR.

One way to overcome the boredom of living in the USSR was to go on vacations. It wasn’t easy. There were restrictions on travel outside of Moscow, and you had to file a trip plan and get approval before you were allowed to go.

My parents managed some trips anyway.

The Helsinki Express

Photograph of the train station in Helsinki Finland
Train station in Helsinki, Finland

We traveled to Helsinki, Finland several times while we lived in Moscow. There wasn’t much to buy in Moscow and what there was, wasn’t great. We would take an overnight train across the border into Finland to go shopping every now and then.

I remember that we were woken up at the Finland-USSR border so the officials could check our passports and so forth. One time we were traveling with another family, and the Soviets confiscated their dad’s Playboy magazines, and returned them sans photos.

In Helsinki, we usually visited the famous Stockmann department store. I remember they had quite an impressive toy department. At the time I had Playmobil toys, and I would get a figure or two to add to my collection.

March 1978

After a few months of living in Moscow, my parents decided it was time for a break and we went to Scandinavia. It was quite a trip.

We started by taking a train from Moscow to Helsinki. We stayed in Helsinki briefly before moving on to Stockholm, Sweden, then to Oslo, Norway. My parents knew people in Oslo and we stayed with them.

I had no memory of this segment of the trip until I went back to Oslo in 2019. When we walked up to the central area of the Vigeland park, I was struck by the feeling that I had been there before.

Photograph of the Vigeland Park central statues, from 1978 and 2019

Ten year old me was disgusted by the statues of naked, entwined people. I remember now how much I wanted to leave the park. 52 year old me found them fascinating.

Boy standing next to a statue in Vigeland Park in Oslo

I guess this statue was less naked than the other ones, or I got over myself.

The photo below shows the Holmenkollbakken ski jumping hill in Oslo. It hosted the 1952 Winter Olympics among many other events. My parents took many photos of it.

Ski jump in Oslo Norway

I believe we travelled by ferry from Norway to Denmark. This was the first of three visits to Copenhagen. I remember that we went to see the Little Mermaid statue and she had been decapitated by vandals on that visit.

Boy wearing life jacket

From Copenhagen, we flew back to Helsinki on April 6, and presumably took the train back to Moscow from there.


I remember taking a ferry from Denmark to England. I think it was the Esbjerg-Harwich ferry, which finally ended its service in 2014.

Family on a train

From Harwich we took a train into London. I think I was more interested in my root beer than in the train. My sister was definitely not interested in having her picture taken.

We rented a car in London, and stayed with people that my parents met on our big 1978 trip.

We went to see Star Wars at a theatre. It was their last showing and they were taking the marquee down as we were there. We were late to the movie because my dad had trouble finding a parking spot. We came into the theatre when the droids were wandering around on Tatooine, and I was very confused for a while. Who were they? How did they get there? Who was this Princess they were talking about?

Husband and wife on a train

I don’t remember anything else about London other than Star Wars. We flew back to Moscow.

To West Germany

On another trip, in 1978, we drove from Moscow to West Germany in our car, a Zhiguli. You may know them as “Lada” and were basically Fiat 124 cars manufactured (badly) in the Soviet Union.

The plan was to drive to Warsaw, Poland, to stay a day or two with friends, then continue through Prague, Czechoslovakia to CFB Lahr in West Germany. That plan fell apart pretty quickly.

The alternator broke while we near Minsk (Belarus). We had to stop so my dad could call “someone” to tell them we were deviating from our trip plan. We limped into Warsaw and ended up staying a couple of extra days there while a new alternator was installed.

I remember we were in a line at the Czech-Polish border, waiting to cross. Many people were out of their cars and my sister and I were kicking a ball around. Unfortunately the ball got away from us and rolled across the border. One of the border guards gave us a look and kicked the ball back to us.

The only other thing I remember about that trip was that we were pulled over for speeding in Czechoslovakia. My dad knew several languages but pretended that he only spoke English, and the frustrated police officer let us go.

The Black Sea

We went to the Black Sea once for a vacation, to Batumi in what is now Georgia. I believe we travelled with an Australian family. I remember seeing palm trees as we were checking into the hotel.

This was a short trip, from April 13 to 16, 1979. I know the dates because they’re written in my Junior Jet Club logbook. We flew on an Ilyushin IL-18, a four-engine airplane operated by Aeroflot. I remember it being loud and somewhat scary. It rattled and banged a lot and we were glad to get out of it.


We visited Kyiv over a long weekend, June 8 to 11, 1979. Kyiv is now the capital of Ukraine, but at the time it was known as Kiev, capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. This was probably our last trip, as we left Moscow for good the next month. I remember very little about Kyiv, unfortunately.

I do remember tagging along with my mother and her friend as they shopped.

One thing you should know about the USSR is that it was very common for someone to follow you around. Sometimes they were very subtle and you didn’t notice them, but in this case our tail was obvious and my mom and her friend noticed him.

They decided to play a little game with him. They would walk down the street a bit, pretending to look in a store window, then double back past him to a different store, then back again, just to make him move all the time. After a few iterations of this, he came up to us and said, in a very thick accent, “GO TO HOTEL”.

The fun was over, I guess.

The End

Our last trip was when we left Moscow for the last time, on July 4, 1979. We flew a Lufthansa Boeing 727 to Frankfurt, West Germany. Somehow we made our way to CFB Lahr, where we took an Armed Forces CC137 (Boeing 707) to Ottawa on July 6. After a week of debriefing in Ottawa, we flew Ottawa-Montreal (Nordair Boeing 737) then Montreal-Fredericton (Air Canada DC-9) to home. I know these details because they were written in my Junior Jet Club book.

Living in Moscow had its bad points, for sure, but we did get a chance to travel a lot. One thing I can say is that I have been to four countries that don’t exist any more… Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, West Germany and Czechoslovakia. Not many people can say that!

More stories about the USSR

2 thoughts on “Traveling in the USSR”

  1. Root beer, eh ? Looks like real beer to me, haha !

    I love looking back on old photo albums, yours are great. The thing that always gets me though, is – OMG I had hair !!

    Stay safe Steve.

    • I’ve never liked beer, so I really doubt it was real beer 😉

      For me old photo albums help fill in the blanks in my memories… and remind me that I had hair, too.

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