‘Moscow for a week’: Georgia’s Soviet-era frequent flyers

Before the advent of today’s low-cost air travel, Soviet citizens hopped on budget flights run by Aeroflot.

Four Georgian women stand in the Red Square in Moscow
Khatuna, right, and friends pose in Moscow's Red Square during a trip from Georgia in the 1980s [Julien Pebrel/MYOP/Al Jazeera]
Correction Jan. 4, 2022: This article originally misidentified the person in a photograph as Kakha Chachava. The photograph has been replaced.

Tbilisi, Georgia – In the 1980s, when Manana Natchkebia was in her twenties and worked in an aeronautical factory in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, she would relish her holidays to Moscow.

At the time, Georgia was one of 15 Soviet republics that made up the USSR. Manana, now 60, travelled every year to the Russian capital and would buy French perfumes and fashionable clothes and shoes – expensive imported products that were not easily available throughout the USSR.

“We loved Moscow,” says Manana, sitting among potted violets, green plants and Orthodox icons in the living room of her Tbilisi home.

“As young people, we had to go and see the capital, the big theatres and Lenin because we were all members of the Communist Party. There was always a long queue to visit his [Lenin’s] mausoleum,” she recalls.

She and her friends would stay in guesthouses in the city centre, close to Moscow’s well-known Tsum and Gum department stores, and she visited Lenin’s mausoleum just the one time.

“When we came out, my friend told me she regretted not having been able to go shopping instead of wasting a whole day waiting [in the mausoleum queue] outside.”

Manana, who worked as an electronics technician, and her friends were not the only ones travelling and taking advantage of an extensive budget air travel service. Long before today’s low-cost carriers such as Ryanair, EasyJet and others came along, many ordinary Soviet citizens travelled by air to the Russian metropolis for holidays. The Soviet authorities favoured collective public transport over private car ownership and given the huge distances within the USSR – it spanned 11 time zones, as Russia does today – and harsh climate, investments in air transport were often less costly than building new roads and railways.

A plane ticket from Tbilisi to Moscow cost 37 rubles one way and twice that for the return trip. It was affordable, comparable to train fares which cost 31 rubles one way. But the USSR’s airline company Aeroflot, a monopolistic entity, was more popular than the Soviet railway system for long-distance travel. “Save time, fly Aeroflot!” was the airline’s slogan. Indeed, it took less than three hours to reach the Soviet capital by air and more than 40 by train.

“I earned between 300 and 400 rubles a month,” says Manana, who is warm and soft-spoken. Her housing in Tbilisi was provided for free by the factory and staples only cost a few kopecks (equal to one-hundredth of a ruble).

“With this salary, I could go to Moscow for a week without having to save money.”

A portrait of a woman, Manana Natchkebia, 60
Manana Natchkebia, 60, loved travelling from Tbilisi to Moscow in the 1980s [Julien Pebrel/MYOP/Al Jazeera]

Frequent flyers

The first frequent flyers in the 1950s were Soviet party officials, but by the 1970s and 1980s, students and young professionals were among those travelling around the USSR.

“After high school graduation, I went to Moscow with my mum. We did some shopping and visited museums. Then, during my student years, I also travelled to Kaunas, Vilnius and Tartu,” says Khatuna Shamatava, 54, a resident of Tbilisi, referring to trips to Lithuania and Estonia.

Khatuna still has matchboxes from the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which she bought as souvenirs when she first flew to the Soviet capital at the age of 13.

For Georgians, Baltic states were a popular getaway, but the Soviet capital remained the number-one destination. Georgians, regardless of wealth, were culturally generous spenders and therefore welcome tourists in Moscow’s shops and restaurants.

“Compared to other nationalities, Georgians were known in Moscow as people with money and a propensity to spend it demonstratively,” says Erik Scott, an associate professor of history at the University of Kansas in the United States, who has written a book about the Georgian diaspora in the USSR.

“There were at least 10 daily flights between Tbilisi and Moscow, and the number could rise to 14 in the summer,” recalls former Aeroflot pilot Kakha Chachava, 60, who now works at the Georgian Civil Aviation Agency.

A portrait of Kakha Chachava, 60, a former Aeroflot pilot
Kakha Chachava, 60, a former Aeroflot pilot says during the Soviet period, there could be as many as 14 daily flights between Tbilisi and Moscow in the summer [Julien Pebrel/MYOP/Al Jazeera]

Aeroflot pilots wore a cap stamped with the logo intertwining stylised wings with the hammer and sickle. Being a pilot was a prestigious profession and the national carrier, which operated non-military aircraft as well as ground services and airports, also touched popular Soviet culture.

The 1977 film Mimino (meaning sparrowhawk in Georgian), a cult Georgian Soviet comedy, follows the adventures of a helicopter pilot named Valiko who operates in remote mountain areas. He struggles to find his place in Moscow but eventually fulfils his dream of becoming a pilot on international routes and flying an Aeroflot supersonic jetliner, the Tu-144.

Unveiled in 2011 near the Avlabari metro station in Tbilisi, a sculpture dedicated to Mimino features Valiko and two other characters: an Armenian truck driver and a Russian war veteran. For many who came of age during the Soviet Union, both the monument and the movie epitomise the multiethnic fabric of the USSR and the official ideology of the brotherhood of nations.

Both were shattered when the USSR collapsed. After months of political crisis, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned from the presidency of the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991. The white, blue and red Russian flag replaced the hammer and sickle banner above the Kremlin. But Georgia had already declared independence months previously in April 1991, following the example of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Khatuna Shamatava, 54, visited Moscow and cities in Lithuania and Estonia in the 1980s [Julien Pebrel/MYOP/Al Jazeera]

Low-cost flights, the Soviet way

Manana, Khatuna and many members of the last Soviet generation – currently aged between 50 and 70 – remember cheap Aeroflot flights with nostalgia.

They are often quick to recall the most frivolous moments of their journeys to Moscow: going away for a few days – or even less than 24 hours – to party, dine with friends, meet a lover or just get a new haircut in the Soviet capital.

Georgians were not the only ones who were fond of these urban escapes. In every corner of the USSR, young people had the opportunity to fly and discover Moscow, the cosmopolitan metropolis.

The Soviet Union – a country with a planned socialist economy – in many ways invented the concept of low-cost flights before the proliferation of today’s budget airline companies. And indeed, there are similarities between past Aeroflot services and today’s low-cost air carriers such as basic comfort, no business class, pared-back or non-existent meals and queues.

“Curiously enough, Aeroflot was at the forefront of what was going to happen to the rest of the world from the 1990s onwards, with passenger services reduced to a minimum in order to keep prices down,” says American historian Steven Harris, who is writing a book on the Soviet company. “The big difference is that Aeroflot had no obligation to make a profit. It was first and foremost a state administration, which had no incentive to use more fuel-efficient planes or to cut back on the least frequented routes.”

Air travel that was affordable to all was the result of communist leaders deciding at the turn of the 1960s to build a huge number of new airfields and significantly reduce fares.

In February 1966, General Yevgeny Loginov, the Minister of Civil Aviation of the USSR, said during a meeting with European journalists: “Air transport is moving towards lower fares. This is a problem that goes beyond transport. It is a social problem. Everyone must be able to fly.”

Several months later, at a press conference, he said: “We are tending to turn transportation planes into a kind of air bus.” That was 36 years before Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary compared air transport with a “glorified bus operation” in an interview with Businessweek.

In the USSR, the number of passengers rose from eight million in 1958 to more than 100 million in 1976, for a total population of around 257 million (compared with around 200 million in 1958). The growth in air traffic went hand in hand with the massification of tourism.

“In the post-Stalin era, the Soviet regime wanted to offer the population more holiday opportunities and a better quality of life,” says Scott. “These flights were aimed at allowing more people to go on vacation.”

With snow-capped mountains, reputed gastronomy and popular seaside resorts along the Black Sea, Georgia was a popular destination for Soviet tourists. Despite the small size of the Caucasus country – Georgia is roughly the size of Ireland – Aeroflot operated four main airports there with connections to the other Soviet republics and 14 smaller ones.

In 1990, Aeroflot entered the Guinness Book of Records as the “largest airline ever”, with a network of more than one million kilometres in domestic routes connecting 3,600 cities and towns.

Despite this impressive intra-Soviet mobility, it was virtually impossible to leave the USSR. All travel abroad, even to East European communist countries not part of the Soviet Union, was subject to draconian control by the Communist Party. These restrictions led to tragedies such as the 1983 failed hijacking of Aeroflot flight 6833 between Tbilisi and Leningrad (today Saint Petersburg) by seven Georgian youths who wanted to escape the USSR. All were either killed when the special forces stormed the aircraft or after being sentenced to death.

Opposite the exit of the old Tbilisi airport, a sculpted fresco from the Soviet period is an homage to travel [Julien Pebrel/MYOP/Al Jazeera]

From serving to subverting the Communist power

Besides tourism, domestic flights had political functions too. They connected the various republics to the centre of power, facilitated the work of state security, and helped spread the official ideology to the peripheries. In the 1920s, the first air connections made it possible to transport the printing plates of Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, throughout the Soviet Union.

In the next decade, Aeroflot had a specific squadron dedicated to propaganda, which comprised the biggest plane in the world at the time named after the writer Maxim Gorky. According to Soviet journalist Mikhail Koltsov, the aeroplane, which was his brainchild, was “a winged agitator, which will bring culture, knowledge, light and political learning to the most distant parts of the country”.

But the authorities did not foresee that subversive ideas and information would also circulate more rapidly.

In the 1970s, political dissidents visited each other and built a transnational network.

“In 1977, the dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia [who would become president of Georgia in 1991-1992] was arrested after having Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago published by the Georgian Academy of Sciences,” says Timothy Blauvelt, a history professor at Ilia State University in Tbilisi. The memoir, which details the brutal Soviet labour camps, was banned in the USSR and contributed to the decline of communist parties in the West. “He had then taken copies to Moscow and Leningrad himself by flight.”

Aeroflot routes also facilitated informal economic exchanges. Indeed, many Georgians circumvented communist rules to pursue their personal interests. “I was speculating,” says Archil Dadiani proudly, a friendly 53-year-old taxi driver with white hair and piercing blue eyes.

“Speculation” was a derogatory term used by the Soviet authorities to characterise the grey or black market economy which made up for shortages of consumer goods.

As a student in Tver, a medium-sized city about two hours by car from Moscow, he made many trips to his homeland in the 1980s. “Before leaving Russia, I used to buy clothes and fabrics,” he says. “I put the goods in a train compartment with the complicity of the controller, and I took the plane. Then I would pick them up at the Tbilisi train station and sell them. In the other direction, I shipped a lot of alcohol, but this time by bus.”

This parallel economy allowed the student to enjoy a comfortable income, which he spent on trips and outings. “We couldn’t invest or buy real estate,” says Archil. “So, with my friends, we would go to bars and restaurants. Or we would take last-minute tickets to fly to the Black Sea resorts of Sochi and Sukhumi.”

Georgia’s main economic advantage over the other Soviet republics was its temperate climate, which favoured the cultivation of grapes, tobacco, tea and citrus fruits. Popular in the northern cities of the USSR, these agricultural products quickly attracted the interest of ultra-mobile “speculators”.

“It was possible, for example, to embark in Tbilisi with a suitcase full of flowers or mandarins to go and sell them in Siberia and thus make a considerable profit,” says Blauvelt, the history professor.

Matchboxes that Khatuna still owns were designed to celebrate the 1980 summer Olympics [Julien Pebrel/MYOP/Al Jazeera]

‘Golden age’

Cultural exchanges were also facilitated. Director Lana Gogoberidze, 93, who studied with the filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, was a regular on flights to the Soviet capital.

“At the time, I was obliged to go to Moscow to attend conferences or to support my films in front of the censorship committee,” she says in her spacious apartment filled with books located in the trendy Vera district of Tbilisi. “But I also liked to travel to see my friends and enjoy the cultural life. We often met with other artists at the House of Cinema near Moscow. It was a place where there was real freedom of expression, where we talked about everything.”

Georgia’s alternative cultural life also benefitted from its proximity to Moscow. A pioneer of the Tbilisi underground rock scene, Lado Burduli, 57, remembers the low-cost trips with acute detail. “I spent my time with other Moscow musicians, met many foreigners, and smoked a lot of marijuana.”

Sporting leather trousers, a ponytail and Crocs on his feet, the rocker lights up when recalling the 1980s, his “golden age”.

It was a time when he travelled to Moscow up to seven or eight times a year, thanks to the 19 rouble discount tickets for students.

“I could fly to attend parties whenever I felt depressed, it was a good offer from the Soviet authorities,” he jokes. “I was also in love with a German girl who lived in Moscow. When I went to see her, it was a double joy, because she brought me back from West Berlin tapes of forbidden music, such as Cure or The Smiths.”

A portrait of filmmaker Lana Gogoberidze, 93
The filmmaker Lana Gogoberidze, 93, travelled regularly to Moscow from the 1950s to the 1980s, at times to defend her films to the censorship committee [Julien Pebrel/MYOP/Al Jazeera]

37 ruble flights come to an end

It all came to an end in 1991. That year marked the break-up of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of the 37 ruble flights with the restructuring of Aeroflot and the privatisation of the airline sector. In turn, in Russia and the other newly-independent states, hundreds of national and regional airline companies informally dubbed “babyflots” emerged. Many had a poor safety record and collapsed within months or years.

Since then, the Tbilisi-Moscow route has reflected the continuing Russian-Georgian tensions related to the separatist conflicts over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway provinces located in western and central Georgia.

Direct flights were first cancelled in 2006 for a short period and then between 2008 and 2014 following the August war between the two countries. Russian President Vladimir Putin has again banned all direct flights since June 2019, after a violent anti-Russia protest broke out in Tbilisi.

Meanwhile, the expression “37 rubles” has remained in everyday language. For Georgians, it refers to cheap flights, travel, career opportunities and good times spent in Moscow.

But following the Rose Revolution, with the coming to power of the pro-Western leader Mikheil Saakashvili in 2004, positive memories of the USSR no longer fit into a new national narrative that mainly focused on victimhood and resistance to communist oppression. Those nostalgic for the days of the 37 ruble flights were quickly suspected of having pro-Russian affinities.

In Saakashvili’s vision, “37 rubles”, symbolising a wish for closer ties with Moscow, and the chosen geopolitical path towards integrating within the European Union and NATO are mutually exclusive.

Saakashvili has invoked 37 ruble flights during his leadership in speeches including in one of his last as president in 2013. “It is politically very important to us that every generation of the Georgian society is able to travel to Europe – our natural home … – and we do not cry over 37 ruble Moscow tickets.”

The departure hall of Tbilisi airport from the Soviet period is photographed from a former hotel where refugees from Abkhazia now live
The departure hall of Tbilisi’s airport from the Soviet period is reserved for the president and officials. It is photographed from a former hotel now occupied by refugees from Abkhazia [Julien Pebrel/MYOP/Al Jazeera]

Nostalgia for the past

But for Manana, fondness for 37 ruble tickets has to do with her personal memories and not politics. “With my friends, we often recall our trips to Moscow. It’s nostalgia for our youth, not for the communist system,” says Manana, who burned her Communist Party card in the early 1990s.

If the nostalgia around the 37 ruble flights lives on, it is largely due to the contrast between the end of the Soviet period – during which Georgia enjoyed stability and relative prosperity – and the 1990s, which were marked by armed conflicts and an explosion of crime and poverty.

“My last flight was in 1993,” says Manana. “I went to Poland to buy basic products such as butter, pasta, rice or sugar. Everything was rationed in Georgia and some goods were impossible to find, even on the black market.”

She, like many members of the last Soviet generation, has not travelled out of Georgia since independence in 1991.

Today, with visa-free travel to the EU since 2017 and the availability of low-cost airlines such as the Hungarian Wizz Air and its Turkish competitor Pegasus, it has become easier for Georgians to travel to Europe.

Berlin, Prague, Amsterdam, Barcelona and Paris have become the new favourite destinations for a younger generation of Georgians who can afford a holiday abroad.

Passengers today depart from the new Tbilisi airport built and operated by a Turkish company. It is located in the arid steppe southeast of the Georgian capital, just a few hundred metres from the old Soviet terminal, now closed to the public, its monumental Stalinist facade a rare reminder of the country’s golden age of Aeroflot.


Source: Al Jazeera