Peter Williams

British Peter Williams made the unusual step of attending the Olympics held in Russia in the summer of 1980. This is an interview with him conducted by John Harrison after his lecture at ‘ELE,’ this Autumn.

First of all, who are you, and why did you decide to visit the Soviet Union way back in 1980? 

I was born in 1951, and I was brought up in a military family, so I was brought up not only in Britain but in Germany, Bermuda, Hong Kong and the UK. Having finished school in England, I then studied history at Cambridge university, and after that, I joined the army. As part of my military progressions, my first job was in West Berlin where I worked as an intelligence officer. That made me no stranger to the Soviet army and gave me an interest in a lot of things to do with Russia. 

So when the opportunity came up to get a ticket on Aeroflot you took it, but it was not the average thing that Brits did in 1980? Was it perhaps a chance to see the other side of the curtain for yourself?

Yes, at the time I was actually studying languages in the Army School of Languages. I was about halfway through the course, and this was an opportunity, probably never to be available to me again, to visit the Soviet Union. Once I saw that package holidays were being sold to tourists to go to the Olympic Games in July of 1980, I bought a ticket. 

Several months later it turned out that Mrs Thatcher didn’t really want people to go to the Olympics, but she didn’t seem to want to reimburse me for my ticket, and so I was determined to go ahead, and went anyway. 

So you went on a package tour, was that organised by Intourist?

Intourist found a package tour operator in London, and they gave that company a contract to sell package tours to tourists. The only requirement was that if you were in an Olympic city when there was an actual Olympic event, you had to actually go to a sports event. So the tours they were selling really appealed most to sports enthusiasts. They also gave people an opportunity for ordinary people to see everyday life in the Soviet Union. 

What was your first impression when you arrived in Moscow?

We actually arrived in Leningrad, that was the first city we went to. We had 5 days there, 5 days in Kiev and then 5 days in Moscow. Our arrival in Leningrad was slightly dramatic. There were 34 people in our group, and half of them were held back by border guards for trying to take propaganda and/or contraband into the Soviet Union. We didn’t expect to see them again, but much to our surprise, all those young men turned up at the Pribaltiskaya hotel where we were staying at breakfast time. We arrived as a group of 34 people and we left as a group of 34 people. But what was impressive was that there was none of the aggressive anti-western propaganda on display. They were making a huge effort to be friendly to people from all parts of the world. Anybody who was willing to come to the Soviet Union was going to be made welcome, and we were made welcome.

What was the opening ceremony like?

The main opening ceremony was in Moscow, but the one that we attended was held in Leningrad on the 20thof July. It was a very impressive mass demonstration, people marching with flags and so forth. Everything worked exactly to plan, and as such it was very moving.

Leningrad Opening ceremony scene

Were you worried about security?

As a soldier obviously one is aware of that sort of thing, but during the 15 days we spent in the Soviet Union, I never saw anybody other than militsiya[1]There were no armoured cars round the corner or anything like that. The Soviet authorities had obviously worked out the security very closely, and it wasn’t in any sense noticeable.

So you weren’t phoning up friends and family back home to tell them that you were OK?

No, we didn’t have those sorts of phones in those days anyway.

What was the most impressive aspect about the actual games?

The aspects of the games that I had really gone there to see were the athletics at the Lenin stadium at Luyzhniki in Moscow. That was a really very impressive sports programme. A number of world records were broken and of course as a British sports enthusiast I knew that there were a few British folks involved in this, not least Sebastian Coe, who won the gold medal in the 1,500 metres. But there were others, including Daley Thompson, who was a famous character of his time, who won the gold medal for decathlon. So there were Brits to cheer for, but we were there like most people, applauding great sport, whichever country people represented. It was a great show and it was very impressive, full of spectators. It worked really well, it was a very spectator-friendly experience.  

Nadezhda Olizarenko winning the 800 metres in a new World Record

What else did you do in the Soviet Union apart from watching sport?

In each of the three cities we visited we had a female Intourist guide, who met us in Leningrad, and she was with us throughout our stay in all three cities. Part of her job was to make sure that we saw all the sites that tourists should see in these great cities. So we went to see The Summer palace in St. Petersburg of course, and things like the Babi Yar Memorial in Kiev. In Moscow we did the Mausoleum on Red Square, we went to see the Kremlin armoury in the Kremlin, all the things that the Soviet regime would have wanted us to see in addition to the games themselves. 

Did you manage to see and do anything that wasn’t organised for you? Did you manage to meet ordinary people?

Yes, in particular in Kiev, I think people were much more open to outsiders there; Moscow has always had a bit of a sense of control about it, as did Leningrad in those days. But in Kiev they seemed to be going about their business in a freer, more normal way. I remember at the circus, two of us got chatting to a nice young couple, a man and his girlfriend and they took us the following day around Kiev and introduced us to some of their friends. We had a bit of a party, and it was all very normal. Because it was so all very normal it seemed very surprising because we hadn’t expected to have that level of interaction with relatively normal citizens. I has expecting that the organs of state security would be following us but I think that there were so many tourists, and so many of them were so much more important than us, that we were sort of at the bottom of the food chain, and so we were allowed to get on and do our own thing. In Moscow and Leningrad we didn’t have much contact with people, apart from nodding a: “hello” or to as we walked by, partly because the Intourist guide was trying to keep us busy and on our toes, and also because many people in those two cities had been sent away out of the city if they didn’t have a reason to be there. This was something we noticed at the tourist sites, that there were very few tourists there. As far as we could make out, if you were a Muscovite and weren’t going to be at the Olympics then you probably weren’t going to be there during that Olympic period. 

With friendly locals at Kiev’s Babi Yar memorial 

What were the main differences between the impressions that you received at the Olympics in the Soviet Union in 1980 and the views that we had of that country in the UK at that time?

I think one should bear in mind that the Olympics took place at the end of July and the beginning of August, so it wasn’t a dark, cold place. The weather was very fine, I don’t remember any rain throughout our stay. The nights were light, and the days were warm and sunny. As a result, climatically, one felt good getting up in the morning. There was no sense of gloom or smell of brown coal, that one associated, certainly with East Berlin at that time. So Russia felt as natural at it did at any time. The other thing was that the government had invested money – not the amounts that some governments did later on – but had invested to make sure that the streets were clean and tidy, and the busses that took us places worked. Everything worked like clockwork and so if there was a surprise, it was that things went as well as they did, which was a tribute to the organisers at all levels, that they could deliver a successful experience for these foreigners coming to the country. 

Thank you very much indeed Peter for a fascinating reminder about those days, and thank you for ELE for arranging this interview.

ELE has become a venerated Moscow tradition, and has been quietly organising public speaking events, without any external funding, for the past 22 years! For details on upcoming ELE lectures see:

[1] Militsiya: Russian police.

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