A trip to Siberia … and a Coup!

Would you vacation in Siberia?  Would you?  What if it you knew there would be an attempted coup that might threaten your return home to these United States of America?  Well no, I wouldn’t, but yes, my mother did.  And so I will take you on a journey to Magadan and Khabarovsk in Russia’s Far East, during the waning days of the USSR.

It was August of 1991 and Alaska Airlines had begun flying to Russia from Anchorage, Alaska.  My mother had remarried after being widowed some years before and she and her new husband decided upon this unusual vacation. (Apparently after the honeymoon in Hawaii the next logical place to go is Siberia?)


After spending a few days in Alaska, they fly west to Magadan, a port city on the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia’s Far East. Magadan was a major transit center during the Stalin era for prisoners sent to the Siberian labor camps. It served as a staging ground to the Kolyma gold fields, the deadliest of the camps in the Soviet Gulag.

It is still a difficult existence. Their two local Russian guides are teachers, and they earn the equivalent of eight dollars a month.  Senior citizens in town are required to clean the streets to receive their pensions.  Scenes from a town in disrepair reflect its painful past.

The accommodations at the Magadan hotel (the only hotel in a city of 100,000) are what you might call basic. The hotel was previously used almost exclusively by government officials.

The beds are tiny though each room does have its own private bath. (Uh-huh, see for yourself.)

No, she’s not complaining. The water was hot (at least when the pumps were working according to one local) and the experience invaluable.

They tour the town and visit the Magadan Theatre, famous for the actors, writers and directors who had worked there in the past as prisoners.

Golden Bread

It’s a good thing they didn’t go for the food.  One time they sat down to a lunch that included Russian bread the color of gold.  Beautiful gold that seemed to flow. And as they watched, the gold poured out of the center of that bread in the form of tiny ants.  Lots of them.  (So mom, tell me again why you wanted to vacation in Siberia?  Oh yeah, I remember now, because it’s there!)

On to Khabarovsk

They head south to Khabarovsk, a much larger city on the Amur River near the border with China.  The people are friendly and the children beautiful, as are children everywhere.  It was customary for the little girls to wear big bows in their hair.

They visit an old-fashioned theme park..

Take a cruise on the Amur River..

And stop at a Military Museum complete with Russian tanks.

But why settle for that when you can see the troops roll down the streets for yourself? They are in Khabarovsk when news arrives that hard-line Communist Party members have staged a coup to take over the Soviet government from President Mikhail Gorbachev. Things are tense as KGB officers are seen huddling in front of Military buildings and troops roll down the streets in army trucks. (Tourists were cautioned not to take pictures but as you can see some did anyway.)

And then, after two days, the failed coup was over and Gorbachev was back in power.  But it was the beginning of the end of the USSR.

The Americans had been scheduled to fly back through Magadan but the city is closed and no one is getting in or out. They would have to fly directly to Nome instead, refuel, then continue on to Anchorage.

When the plane reaches its final destination it is met by TV crews and my mother is one of the first to be interviewed. Was she afraid at any time while she was there?  No, she replied honestly. It had all been so interesting, there was no time to be afraid.

Years later I am going through her scrapbook to write this story and come across a handwritten letter from a friend they made while in Russia.  It read in part, “Do you remember my state of mind on that terrible day – the 19th of August.  All of us were greatly depressed that there existed a probability of democracy defeat in our country those days.  Thank God, it never happened though we still have no surety of a better life.”

I don’t know whether they attained to a better life or not. But as I consider these words I am reminded that we are really not that different.  People all over the world have the same needs and wants, aspirations and struggles, for freedom and a good and decent life.   It is still true that there are no guarantees.

~   Susanne

22 Comments on “A trip to Siberia … and a Coup!

  1. Terrific story, Mom will be proud! As I can only imagine how nonplussed she was when the TV Reporters gathered around looking for a DRAMATIC soundbite – the media, they twist everything! Oh wait, that’s me…

    • Thanks John! I loved going through her scrap book. She had documented everything so well with pictures and newspaper clippings. I enjoyed telling her story.

  2. Wow! I think other peoples’ day-to-day realities fascinate us because we think what we have is merely basic. Your folks went to Siberia in the 90s, and I went to Nanjing and other places in China in the 80s, and we all likely realized that “basic” is not us.

    • I really enjoyed getting into mom’s scrapbook.. she kept good records of the trip, including newspaper articles of the events of the time. I learned a lot and almost feel I went there myself! Travel is good for enlarging us. I’d love to hear about your China travels someday! I never made it to Mainland China but I did travel to Taiwan back in the 8o’s myself! So many stories to be told! 🙂

  3. Have her tell of the retired teacher they met, the visit to her home and subsequent sponsoring of her visit to America. Spoiler alert, she cried at Safeway as she had no idea we had so much food…

    • Svetlana? I know there was lots of correspondence and a visit.. I will find out more! Thanks. 🙂

  4. What a great story and it’s not that long ago, amazing how things have changed, although not much in some parts of Russia.
    I recognise the Poloneze car and the Uaz van in the picture, It just had to be a government building as no one else had transport.! You still see them driving around in this part of Poland on occasion and you can still buy the UAZ van….I want one 🙂

    • Thanks so much for your comment! You obviously know more about the vehicles than I do! 🙂 I wonder if Magadan is much different today. I imagine more people have left the area for a better future. I hope they have found it..

      • I hope I don’t sound like a motor head, I’m not honest! I just happen to have spotted them both in Poland and asked what they were 🙂
        Some of the older generation here still hanker for the old days of communism, at least they knew what to expect. My father in law has the best line on it all though. Back then everyone was rich, they just didn’t have anything to spend the money on, now you can buy anything you want, but no one has any money!

  5. A great story, Susanne. I have visited many parts of the former Soviet Union, from the 1970s, up to the late 1980s. (Though not Siberia). I have to say that I found reasonably smart hotels, good food, and plenty to see and do. But it could never have been judged by ‘western’ standards of course. At least your Mum had an unusual experience!
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • Thanks Pete. She found it fascinating and enjoyed the history and the people. Magadan was not typical being a Gulag town and the times were unusual too..

  6. What an adventure for your parents. I heard that news in our tv as I was already here in Germany at that time. A critical time in Russia. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story.

  7. Wow, what an amazing trip. I think of this kind of travel as “type 2 fun” it may not seem “fun” at the time, but it is sooo interesrting when you look back on it!

    My Grandma has similar stories of having to be airlifted out of Georgia when they had a coup. Those travels really do make the most impressive stories!!

    • Thank you! Yes, it amazes me my mom made this trip back in the day and participated in history! I loved reviewing the trip with her and going through her scrapbook for this post. 🙂

      • It’s sooo cool that she made a scrapbook too! I love that kind of thing!

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