Transport facilities in the former USSR

Some German-built river motor-boats in the former USSR were more than simply means of transport or cruise ships.

'Necessity is mother of invention,' or so they say. We were very familiar with this all-encompassing proverb in the USSR of the mid-1980s.

To us it simply meant that, with chronic shortages of almost everything that was needed for normal existence, one had to keep looking for substitutes. We learned to put smetana (Russian sour-cream) on sandwiches instead of hard-to-find butter, to consume fatty and starchy pale-grey sausages under the guise of the non-existing red meat; to drink foul-smelling sparkling plonk instead of champagne, and the peculiar 'Troinoi' perfume instead of cognac. Some of the most unexpected substitutes, however, could be found in the world of technology: on trains and motor boats.

A tyro journalist with one of Moscow's leading newspapers, I was once tipped off about alleged 'massive dissipation and orgies' on board Akademik Vernadsky – a German-built river cruise motorship undertaking daily four-hour excursions along the Moscow Canal. Dubbed 'The Boat of Love', the four-deck vessel with comfortable cabins had become Moscow's favourite dating venue. Why? The answer was simple.

By Soviet nanny-state laws, two people of opposite sex were not allowed to share a hotel room – or any other state-run types of accommodation – unless they were married and were able to prove it by showing a marriage stamp in their passports at reception. On board MS Vernadsky, however, due to some minor bureaucratic oversight (of which there were plenty in the former USSR), such proofs were not required, and four-hour-long trysts during the smooth and affordable river cruise had soon become very popular among the amorous Muscovites.

'You won't believe it, Vitali,' said my contact , 'but I recently went on Vernadsky and during all four hours of the cruise not a single person could be seen on any of the four decks. Only occasionally, a bare-footed and topless guy would run down to the buffet and hastily return to his cabin with a bottle. And the amount of pitching and rocking accompanied by loud moans from all the cabins! A real floating nest of debauchery it is, nothing else!' he concluded emphatically.

According to him, the real journalistic value of an investigation into the 'illegal lecherous happenings' on board Vernadsky was the fact that a number of high-ranking – and married! – Party and Komsomol apparatchiks were using the boat for secret sex sessions with their mistresses.

It had just become fashionable to expose – 'in the true spirit of new openness', i.e. glasnost – small peccadilloes of low and medium-range bureaucrats...

With great difficulty, my newspaper got me two tickets for a cruise: I was to go with my wife, so as not to arouse suspicions.

At first the voyage was progressing smoothly, and I was listening (without much interest) to a guide droning through the intercom about Russia's first passenger motor ship Borodino, with its six-cylinder diesel motor, built by engineer Arshaulov in 1911. Passengers were all hiding in their cabins, from where lascivious screams were periodically heard.

Two hours later I was still worried as to how I would conduct my investigation, when Vernadsky reached the farthest point of the itinerary where the Moscow Canal (built in the late 1930s by Gulag prisoners on Stalin's orders) gave way to the Volga River. From there the boat was supposed to start a two-hour long return journey back to the Khimki River Terminal in Moscow.

On that occasion, however, she was unable to do so due to a very thick fog, which suddenly descended onto the river and reduced the visibility to almost zero.

There she was, stuck in the middle of the Moscow Reservoir blowing foghorns, while back in Moscow spouses and bosses were waiting for their faithful husbands/wives and their hardworking subordinates to return from their important 'business meetings', 'family emergencies' and whatever other pretexts were used by the boat's adventure-seeking couples to justify their absences.

The situation soon became critical. Families, reputations and careers were all under threat. Whereas some particularly desperate couples were trying to lower the life-boats and even swim to the nearest shore of the vast reservoir (a couple of miles away), other passengers organised themselves and sent a delegation to the captain demanding he started the engines. The captain refused, which triggered a full-scale riot on board Akademik Vernadsky.

I watched with awe as the rebellious sinners soon overwhelmed the captain and the crew, tied them up and locked them inside the boat's kitchen and the heads. Just like during the 1917 Bolshevik coup d'etat, the power on board the ship was usurped by the 'people' who hardly knew what they were doing, their sole desire being to steer the boat back to Khimki on time.

A mutiny on 'The Boat of Love', no less...

It was a great story, which never saw the light of day. Despite the first timid signs of 'openness', the vigilant censors would never agree to publish an investigative article exposing Party and Komsomol functionaries from Moscow.

While one could get away with mild criticism of some provincial big cheeses, Moscow remained a well-guarded taboo, and my 'Boat of Love' story was spiked.

Today, nearly 25 years later, I'm revealing it for the first time. *

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