I was looking for some old photographs of my trip to the Soviet Union in 1977 and didn’t find them. I did, however, find a bunch of stuff, including receipts for flights and hotels.
I learned that I had stayed in a suite with a view of the Kremlin at the Hotel National, now owned by Marriott. My receipt indicated that I had paid 37 rubles for a night—the Intourist rate, much higher than what the locals would’ve paid.
Those Soviet rubles were not a convertible currency, and I cannot find the value of them at the time.
What I did learn is that when the Soviet Union collapsed, that Soviet ruble was convertible to the new ruble—at the rate of 1000 to one. Yes. 1000 old rubles to one new ruble. It reminds me of the time I returned from Yugoslavia with one million dinar notes that weren’t worth converting.
So my night would have been worth about three kopeks or 3/100 of a modern ruble.
Today one ruble is worth a little more than one cent. So my night at one of the best hotels of Moscow cost me $.0003. I might be off by a zero, but I’m walking and writing, so I don’t want to stop and get my calculator. You get the picture.
And then there was the suite. Yes, I had a wonderful view of the Kremlin. But it was a real dump of a room that looked as if it hadn’t been upgraded since the 1917 Revolution. And of course there was a heavy older woman sitting in the hall checking my every move and holding onto my room key.
I’ve written many stories about that trip, but one of them has to do with the mistake of leaving my camera in the hotel room. The next time I tried to use it, it fell apart in my hands.
In the 1970s, it was the first of the miniaturized Minox 35mm cameras. I was very proud of it. Having it fall apart in my hands was not cool. You can imagine, as I did in those days of Cold War paranoia, what must have happened.
When I returned to the U.S., I took it back to the store where I had bought it.
“I’ve never seen anything like this!” The shopkeeper kept turning it one way and another, trying to come to grips with it. “What happened?”
“I don’t know. I took it out of my hotel room, tried to take a picture, and it fell apart in my hands.”
“So you didn’t drop it?”
“No, I never dropped it.”
“Well, it certainly doesn’t look banged up. I don’t know what to say. But the camera is still under warrantee, so we will give you a new one.”
I accepted his offer without further explanations.
Another memory from the Hotel National was of going to the dining room and being seated, in a giant empty room, at the only table that held two other people. I could not convince them to give me my own table. I suppose it was too bourgeois a concept to even consider.
I neglected to mention to my tablemates that I spoke Russian, because they were deeply absorbed in a conversation and ignored me. Soon I was in the middle of the story of their illicit romance, and their first reunion in several years. It was quite fascinating. Their world obviously did not include any concepts of privacy.
But what I remember most about that conversation is when she brought up an old friend, and her companion said, “Oh didn’t you hear? She cut her hand, it got infected, and she died.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that happened,” she replied, moving onto another subject, as if it were a completely natural occurrence—which I suppose it was, for them.
I’m sure you have guessed by now that I decided to stay at the Hotel National on my recent return trip to Russia. How could I resist? And yes, I did splurge for the Kremlin view suite.
Needless to say it was considerably more expensive than the fraction of a penny I once paid.