Monday, February 17, 2020

On A Soviet Ship

Recently, as I was writing emails to Annette in Denmark, the fact that I had twice sailed on a Soviet ship and how unusual that was came up in our conversation.  

This is how it happened:

When I was 19, I went to London to study and have adventures. I spent about two and a half years there, but went home to spend Christmas and my summers in Sweden.

At first, I sailed from Gothenburg, which meant an extra day traveling to the west coast of Sweden. So when I found out I could go directly from Stockholm, I booked a berth on the MS Mikhail Kalinin. She was a Soviet ship, named after a Bolshevik revolutionary who served as the formal head of state of the Soviet Union from 1919 to 1946. 

Compared to today's ocean liners she was a small ship, a part of the Soviet Baltic fleet. Coming from a communist country her accommodations were very basic. If I remember correctly, my cabin had three sets of bunk beds and probably somewhere to store luggage. A toilet and sink to wash in must have been included, but I don't remember a bathtub or shower.

It was an interesting experience for me, then in my early twenties. I bravely sampled Russian food, including kasha, the ever present buckwheat porridge; I drank Russian vodka and talked with the Soviet crew, mostly young men, who turned out to be just like guys everywhere. 

On the first voyage, I met a young Irishman, named Michael, who was the son of a diplomat and on his way back home to Ireland. The ship docked in Copenhagen for a day and Michael and I explored the city together. I have no memory of our spending time in the city, but I have many of my letters home to refer to, as my mom saved most of them. One of my letters describes the fun this young Irishman and I had in the Danish capital, a friendly city with many enjoyable things to see, eat and drink.  

After spending a school year in London, I sailed back to Stockholm, again on the Mikhail Kalinin. 

This time, I met a Swedish girl and we had fun with the Soviet sailors. We talked politics, asked what it was like to live in a communist country, we knew we were not supposed to do this, but we were young and silly. We tried, without success, to find out how they felt about their Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. They were really nice though, fond of their vodka and after a few drinks we would dance. Looking back, I'm sure they enjoyed their jobs with the Soviet Baltic fleet. 

This time, the ship was full of tourists, many of them American. They all shared cabins, packed together since the cabins were small. My Swedish friend and I compared notes and found both of us had a cabin of our own. I still have no idea why this was so, but we had no uninvited guests, and I enjoyed being alone in my cabin with its five empty bunk beds. 

It was early summer, the absolutely best time to sail up the East coast of Sweden. I remember being giddy with happiness as the ship approached the archipelago, the 20 to 30,000 islands and islets that hug the coast of Sweden, outside Stockholm. A place where I had spent every summer of my life and loved beyond words. The place where I learned to swim, to fish, to steer a boat, to read a sea chart, and so much more. I still love those islands more than any other  place on earth.  

My voyage home on the Mikhail Kalinin was the last time I went by sea to England. When I went back for what would be the last time, it was by train with my friend Ingrid, who was going to an au pair job in Cambridge. The train went to Hoek van Holland, from where we took a ferry across the Channel to Harwich on the English coast. I had finished school, but I was still with my first serious boyfriend, so not ready to leave London yet. To make it possible to stay a while longer, I signed up for an au pair job in vicar's family in Lee Green, a London suburb

Living in the vicarage was a very English experience, one that I will never forget. One that I'm very grateful for. 

Looking back now, I understand better that sailing on a Soviet ship was an usual experience and sailing up the East coast of Sweden through the archipelago a beautiful memory to share.

Click here to see the ship docked at Stockholm


  1. What an adventure! I enjoyed reading this, just sitting here on my couch imagining those old days. I bet they gave you those empty cabins just to be nice. I like how you couldn't quite find out what they thought about their leader. 😉

  2. What an interesting trip and so glad you have the letters your mother kept. Impressed that language was not a problem for you. Most of us here are barely proficient in one language. Too bad the Russian men would open up about their leader. I guess even in those days it was wise to stay away from political conversation.
    Thanks for taking us along.

  3. your life has had many adventures and the few you have shared with us are amazing to me. a person who has never been out of the USA... and so far from home at such a young age... you have lived a most interesting life for sure. and the life you live now is still very interesting to me. love the pup header

  4. Thanks, I love the pup header too and was so happy to find it in this computer. From last year's snow. I still haven't figured out how to get my pictures uploaded to my Chrome book. Will call my "guy" next week for help.

  5. It looks quite a large ship, and to be going among all the islands, what a remarkable trip for you, and to do it again, this would have been so brave, and you have letters and memories always.Love the header photo. Is this the year we both celebrate, mine is in July, have forgotten when your birthday is? Maybe we need to arrange an online party!!!

  6. Memories...
    Scandinavia and Russia are in fact geographical neighbors, but at that time, the different regims caused separation. That's how a voyage on a russian shp and encounter with russian sailors were a rather exciting experience for you, and created fond memories.

  7. Sounds like you had some very interesting adventures. How exciting!!

  8. What wonderful adventures you had. It's nice that your mom kept the letters.

  9. Hi Inger - those trips must have been very exciting ... it's something I've never done: taken a steer passage; but definitely eye-opening ... much like my trip to Czechoslovakia in 1974 before the Berlin Wall came down ... eye opening to say the least. I remember you mentioned Lee Green before ... and how happy you were to experience something of the south-east countryside.

    Love your header with your beautiful dogs ... thanks for sharing those special memories - cheers Hilary

  10. ohmygoodness!!! a happy laughing puppy Faith and the ever adorable smiling Samson!
    and then the fabulous story of youth and beauty and adventures! it's wonderful!
    I love when you're in storytelling mode with wonderful memories to spur you on!
    uh oh. I'm ending every sentence with an exclamation point or two or three. LOL!
    can you tell this made me very happy? LOL.
    thanks Inger! (and when I clicked on the link to see the ship...
    and saw that it had a nice long life... it still made me sad when I read it was
    scrapped) . . . and how LOVELY that your mother saved all your letters! xoxo

  11. Dear Inger! I was amazed with this post! What many wonderful adventures you had.
    You are very special for sure!
    Just great that your Mom kept the letters with that amazing memories.

    Love the picture of Samson and Faith having a great fun on the snow! Both are always adorable!
    Sending lots of hugs and much Love!

  12. What a fascinating experience. I have never traveled a long distance on a ship, much less a Soviet ship! My dad made his first few trips back and forth between Ireland and here on a ship. I feel quite certain that I'd go stir crazy!

    Thanks so much for sharing. I love your new header!

  13. Hi, I loved this post, I've been most interesting.
    I loved your post, I did not know your blog, do you want to follow us? You already tell me. Cheers


Thanks for leaving a comment.. ~~ Inger


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