TIME CAPSULE 1989 — In 1989, a group of Keene State College students and professors went on a trip over spring break to the Soviet Union. They visited the cities of Moscow, Vladimir, Suzdal and Leningrad.
History professor specializing in Russian culture, Wilfred Bisson, who had been to Moscow once before in 1987 with a group of students from Keene High School, organized the trip. Bisson cited the massive changes happening in the Soviet Union under the rule of Mikhail Gorbachev as the reason why he wanted to take a group of college students to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Bisson said, “The first time, I thought, Jesus, what a depressing place. The second time, I saw the diversity.”
Another student who also went on the trip in his sophomore year, Derek Pedley, described the Soviet people as, “very friendly,” and that the way Americans viewed them was “totally wrong.”
The trip began with three nights in Moscow. While there, the group visited Red Square, the Kremlin, Lenin’s Tomb and the Moscow Circus. Another sophomore on the trip, Denise Borovy, said her favorite spot was Red Square, which is home to both St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin.
After Moscow, the group spent a short time visiting the smaller cities of Vladimir and Suzdal and then traveled 400 miles by train to the city of Leningrad. There, they visited the Hermitage Art Museum, St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the massive World War 2 cemetery.
The students were particularly shocked by the cemetery. They had been expecting to see a cemetery similar to the Arlington National Cemetery, with headstones as far as the eye could see. Instead, they learned that the dead had been buried in mass graves, with one headstone for every 40,000 bodies.
The group visited several churches and cathedrals while in the Soviet Union. Bisson decided to feature them on the trip because of the “resurgence of religion” in the USSR, which was an officially atheist country. “Churches are being rehabilitated: rebuilding domes, replacing crosses,” Bisson said.
Although Bisson’s interest was mostly with the religious establishments, business and management professor Philip J. Peters, who accompanied the group on the trip, was particularly fascinated by the USSR’s economy. “Their economy is much more open, but in many ways, they’re behind the times,” Peters said.
He noticed that the shops constantly had lines of people, but some more than others. The particular contrast he noticed was between the vodka shop and the confectioners shop; the vodka shop had more than twice as many patrons. The group’s Russian tour director admitted that the Soviet Union had a huge problem with alcoholism.
However, that was not the only shortcoming the tour director identified in the USSR. They also had serious problems with drugs and AIDS, and fresh fruits, vegetables and coffee were hard to come by.
When it came to the food, Pedley said, “One word ‒ terrible.”
Although some aspects of the trip were rough, Steve McCarthy, who went on the trip in his sophomore year, said it changed his perspective of the USSR. McCarthy said he initially “thought [the USSR] was cold, dark and drab. Everyone walked around in a haze of oppression, like no one wanted to be there or live there.”
However, throughout the course of the trip, he began to realize that the Russian people were not so different than himself. He realized that they “work and play games just like Americans.”
Abbygail Vasas can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org