I first visited Russia back in the old USSR days. The USSR stood for The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (aka the Soviet Union). It was 1991 when the Soviet Union crumbled but I think my first visit was in 1989 or 1990. A stand-out memory for me was seeing queues of people lining up outside some dingy-looking shop, waiting for bread. I also remember the sad, despairing faces of people as I whipped around Moscow with the friend I was travelling with.

Both of us spoke Russian. She much better than me. I have Russian ancestors on my mother’s side and I studied Russian at Uni for a few years. My Russian is pretty rusty now but, back then, I could carry off a reasonably decent conversation. My friend, however, spoke it fluently and we tried very hard to melt into the local landscape.

We travelled by train somewhere. I remember descending down a long, fairly steep escalator into this huge cavernous space of some metro station in Moscow. We were talking on the train. She was doing most of the talking because her Russian was so good. We were confident that no-one would suspect we weren’t locals. But everyone knew. People were staring at us.

Dissecting our experience, we felt that her watch was the give-away. We weren’t wearing jewellery and both of us dressed down (we thought) but, of course, our jeans and clothes were Western. We were also approached by the KGB on some train station. Now that I think about it, we were nuts going to the Soviet Union. Young and stupid perhaps.

We returned just after the collapse of the USSR – either late 1992 or 1993. And this time we chose some Homestay programme. In Moscow, we stayed in the tiny, tiny flat of a single mother and her young son. I remember the police knocking on the door and asking for our passports. We said Nyet to that! The kitchen was SO small with a tiny bench where we all crammed together for breakfast and dinner. The apartment buildings all looked the same and we were often lost in our efforts to distinguish which Stalinist apartment block was ours. The overwhelming memory I have is the smell of urine as you entered the building.

In Saint Petersburg (formerly Petrograd) we stayed in the very large apartment of a former KGB General. I seem to remember he was a General but I know he was former KGB. I don’t recall much about this apartment except a misty memory of plush dark velvet and oil paintings. We visited Catherine Palace just outside of Saint Petersburg, the Hermitage Museum, the Peter and Paul Fortress. A vivid memory is the golden onion domes and multi-coloured domes of The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood.

Another recollection is standing in Red Square when it was snowing. I was wearing some fur cap I bought in Moscow, which was later confiscated at the airport for some reason I can’t recall. I turned around and saw….McDonalds on some corner of the square. I was shocked; so this must have been during my first visit.

I tried to buy some diamond ring from the time of the Russian Revolution (1917). It was unbelievably cheap considering the Aussie dollar against the ruble in the late 80s/early 90s. Alas, I was told in no uncertain terms that religious or historic relics could not be bought by foreigners and taken out of the Soviet Union. I consoled myself with a Russian camera instead – the Smena 8N.

And I finally get to the point of this post. I’ve dusted off another Soviet-era camera I have – the Zorki 4K made in 1974. It’s a 35mm film rangefinder camera and has a Jupiter 8 50mm lens. It comes complete with a user manual in Russian but I have an English translation thankfully.

I’ll be taking it with me to the local A&P show this weekend. A&P shows in rural New Zealand are a big thing. They’re all about agricultural displays, equestrian events, woodchopping, donkey and alpaca displays and so on. Rather like I remember the Royal Easter Show in Sydney when I was a kid. I’ll be shooting with Ilford XP2 black and white film. Fingers crossed that the Soviets don’t let me down!

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My Zorki 4K – manufactured in 1974 in the old Soviet Union.

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USSR – haven’t seen these initials in a long, long time. Cold War anyone?

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