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Being With The People: Leningrad 1989

For The Madera Tribune

In 1989, Kirk Edwards, a 1973 MHS graduate had an experience unique to any Madera native. He traveled as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Band to the Soviet Union — the first U.S. Band to do so. Throughout his stay, he kept a diary, which is here published, in serial form, for the first time.


A Diary by Kirk Edwards

Chief Warrant Officer Four, (CWO4)

United States Coast Guard (Retired)

Former Director of Cadet Bands, U.S. Coast Guard Academy


On the occasion of the First U.S. Military Band to Visit the Soviet Union, (USSR)

In celebration of signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty

June 18-19, 1989

We were very excited as we prepared to board the bus to JFK Airport in New York City. We left New London, CT at 10:30 a.m. Upon arrival at JFK we went through the first of many international security checks.

Upon boarding the plane, I discovered that I will be seated with Coast Guard Band saxophone player Tony Gibbs. An attractive young lady from Columbus, Ohio, is seated next to us. She is going to visit her parents in Bombay, India. She is very nice, very cute, and very married… Her name is Premy. We joked about her having an arranged marriage and about the possibility of her parents adopting me and arranging a marriage for me.

I was not able to sleep at all that night because I was so excited about our trip to Russia. We arrived in Frankfort, Germany at 8:30 a.m. I am amazed at the sophistication of the bustling Frankfort airport and its similarity to America. We encountered a mini-mall comprised of lots of stores. I am alarmed at the presence of soldiers walking through the airport terminal concourse with machine guns. The currency exchange rate is 1.97 dollars to the German Mark. The cost for a breakfast consisting of bacon, eggs, a roll, and a cup of orange juice was nine dollars.

We departed for the Soviet Union at about 1:30 p.m. It was raining lightly, and overcast when we arrived in Leningrad around 9 p.m. But, then the skies cleared up and the sun came out. The customs official studied my documents for about five minutes, alternately staring at me intensely before allowing me to pass though the checkpoint. After going through customs, the leaders of the Leningrad Military District Band — our sponsors — the Leningrad Regional Committee for the Defense of Peace, the Leningrad City Executive Committee, and the Minister of Culture welcomed us as the first U.S. “Orchestra” to visit Leningrad and the Soviet Union. A woman addressed us after we collected our luggage as we stood near our waiting bus. She said, “We hope that your stay in our city is pleasant and useful so that you come back as Leningraders. We wish every success to you and we hope that you will remember this the whole of your life.” The welcoming party presented flowers to the women of the Coast Guard Band and carried their luggage to the idling buses. I mused, “Its 10:30 p.m. and the sun is still shining!”

We received a small pin that featured the flags of the U.S. and the Soviet Union juxtaposed side by side; the Soviet Flag on the right side and the U.S. flag on the left side. The dimensions of the pin were approximately one-inch-wide by three eighths of an inch long. I had never imaged that our countries would overcome our past disagreements, but, the pins seemed to be an indication that we had entered into a new age of peace and harmony. So, we cherished these mementoes and optimistically wore them on our uniforms. I believe that the Leningrad Peace Committee presented them to us.

Tuesday June 20, 1989; Leningrad

I woke up at 7 a.m. and anxiously surveyed the immediate area around the Oktiabrskaya Hotel while I went for a run. I am cautious and uncertain about the parameters of our visit and our access to the city. The first thing that I encounter is a traffic rotary in the road with a grand obelisk type monument. I later learned that this was Insurrection Square or Uprising Square (Vosstaniya in the Russian language) and the Hero City Obelisk.

The streets were alive with Leningraders scurrying to work. I was impressed by the various modes of public transportation that brought the Leningraders into the city. The throngs of Leningraders arrived at the city center in subway trains, trolley buses, buses, and trams. The trams are situated in a lane in the center of the streets, which is trimmed with a well-manicured lawn. The streets are filled with Soviet made Lada cars and trucks. I wore my glasses during my initial run to insure that I would be able to see anyone who was gesturing to me. All of the street signs are in the Cyrillic alphabet and I can’t decipher any of the street signs. It is so strange to be in Russia and the Soviet Union and moving about freely. The people noticed me, but my presence does not seem to be unusual to them. I encountered people who are sweeping the sidewalks with brooms that appear to be made from weeds.

Our hotel looked like it had been an elegant destination in times past. As one enters the Oktiabrskaya Hotel you behold a grand marble staircase. Four Coast Guard Band members were assigned to each room. Tony Gibbs, Greg Martin, and Carroll Potts are my roommates during this adventure. There are four small beds in each room. Tony and I are both 6’4” tall and had to sleep at a diagonal on each of our beds to fit. Additionally, I had to rest one of my feet on the floor because the bed was so short. So, it was very difficult for me to sleep comfortably on the bed. The bathroom consists of a shower, a washbasin, and a toilet. A subtle sweet odor lingered throughout the bathroom. I assumed that the odor was the produced by the water. We were informed that we should not drink the tap water under any circumstances. Ironically, heat emanated from the radiators in our hotel rooms even though it was summertime.

Although we were not aware of the significance of the Oktiabrskaya Hotel at the time, it has great historical significance throughout Leningrad and Russia. The Oktiabrskaya Hotel is one of the oldest hotels in the city. The Oktiabrskaya Hotel is located in the central part of the city where two main avenues Nevsky and Ligovsky meet just in front of Moscow Railway station. The Oktiabrskaya Hotel foundation celebrated their 150th year anniversary in December of 2001. The site on which the Oktiabrskaya Hotel was built served as the Tsar’s Menagerie Elephant’s Yard in the middle of the 18th century. After the October or the Russian revolution in 1917 the Oktiabrskaya Hotel was given to the needs of the October Railway Administration. The railway workers and the Red Army soldiers were housed at Oktiabrskaya Hotel during that time. Subsequently, it was used as a hostel for hundreds of homeless children. The Oktiabrskaya Hotel served as the headquarters of the Karelo-Finn Republic from 1939-1940 and it served as a hospital for Leningraders who suffered from the starvation during the Siege of Leningrad from 1942 to 1944. The Oktiabrskaya Hotel served as the headquarters for the Estonian Government from February of 1944 till the end of the Great Patriotic War in May of 1945.)

The Octoberskaya Hotel will provide all of our meals during our stay in Leningrad, or at least when we are in close proximity to the hotel but the cuisine is quite different from the food that we routinely eat here in the U.S. Our first breakfast consists of an egg dish, some apple croissant-like pastries, Russian rye bread and butter, and prune juice to drink. After breakfast, the Coast Guard Band members went to a bank to exchange currency and to a Beriozka store (a twin chain of state-run retail stores in the Russian SFSR that sold goods for hard currency,) to buy some drinking water. A canned and carbonated imported drinking water called Sourcy was recommended to us. After our trip to the Beriozka store, we proceeded to our first rehearsal with the Leningrad District Band.

• • •

To be continued.


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