Cholera swept the globe half a century before COVID-19. But nothing, not even Keystone Cops, could stop our road trip to Moscow.
When France, my home for many years, went into a strict lockdown to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in March, this reminded me that I had briefly lived through something similar.
I was once in the middle of a cholera outbreak.
I was visiting the then Soviet Union in August 1970, on my last break after graduating from university in Britain before joining Reuters as a trainee journalist the following month.
I had been a British Council exchange student in Kiev, the capital of the now independent Ukraine, the previous academic year. A friend who had completed a similar year in Moscow and I drove in his bright red Austin Mini from London via Prague to Kiev, and then Moscow.
In Kiev, we heard talk of a sanitary crisis and the culprit was cholera. There was no hydro-alcoholic gel then, and shops in Kiev protected customers with disinfectant-soaked floor-cloths wrapped round door handles and spread across doorsteps.
We wondered what the consequences might be for the rest of our journey. In the absence of guidance — not that we sought any — we embarked on our two-day drive to Moscow.
We were that most problematic of all foreigners: Westerners.
The management of cholera in the Soviet Union in 1970 resembled something worthy of the Keystone Cops compared with this year’s stringent measures in France, which required citizens to download statements on their smartphones justifying every step outside.
We were stopped at a police checkpoint on Kiev’s outskirts. I showed our British passports. An unsmiling officer in the grey Soviet militia uniform asked: “What are two Englishmen doing in a Bulgarian car?” He was looking at the GB (Great Britain) plate on the Mini. Bulgaria, I said, is BG not GB. He took me at my word, telling us to expect many checks along the road.
We were that most problematic of all foreigners: Westerners. Almost certainly apprentice James Bonds but better left alone for fear of provoking a Cold War incident that might require an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council. So, from then on the militia preferred to pick up the phone to warn the guys up the road and let us pass.
Just once, after we had crossed into Russia itself, we were waved into a lay-by with a sanitary caravan. Two white-haired doctors waited on the steps as the militia led us in for a moment of reckoning.
The woman of the pair hated us on sight, complaining about the length of our hair — we had just come out of London’s Swinging Sixties, after all — while her male colleague thought we were terrific. “Imagine, Galina Ivanovna,” he said, “two young men travelling the world” — something totally out of reach at the time for his own children.
We were subjected to a cursory temperature and blood pressure examination and warned that things would get tougher the closer we got to Moscow. “Get your hair cut,” the woman shouted as we left. “Boys, I wish you all the very best in your travels and in life,” shouted the man.
Cholera could be treated. COVID-19 remains elusive.
The next day we checked into a campsite just south of Moscow. At the reception, an officious young woman ordered us to stay outside the city for 48 hours and only then to seek permission to go in. Within an hour we drove our highly visible Mini into the centre of Moscow for dinner, unhindered.
We called the British Embassy. Go to the U.S. Embassy doctor for a cholera vaccination plus certificate to avoid problems on the rest of the trip, we were told.
There was, of course, a huge difference between cholera, which was a known quantity 50 years ago, and COVID-19 now. Diagnosed in time, cholera could be treated, especially by re-hydration. And there was a vaccine, even if not a very good one, since it only offered six months’ protection.
It was thanks to an earlier cholera lockdown that Russia’s great poet, Alexander Pushkin, found himself shut away in the Russian countryside in 1830, far from his fiancée and her pesky mother, greedy for a generous dowry. As The Economist recalled recently, it was then that Pushkin was at his most productive, and he did much of the work on his masterpiece, the epic novel in verse, “Eugene Onegin”.
‘The cholera will pass.’
Pushkin was never one to let adversity get the better of him. When Tsar Nikolai I exiled him for political reasons from St. Petersburg, the poet struck up an amorous liaison in Odessa with the wife of the provincial governor-general, prompting the husband to arrange his transfer to a faraway Pushkin family estate.
Back to sanitary issues. Cholera was therefore around in the 19th century and was destined to hang on and on. According to the New York Times in 1970, the pandemic that hit the Soviet Union then had started a whole 35 years earlier in Indonesia.
Pushkin, who was to die in a duel in 1837, was philosophical about the disease. In 1831, according to The Economist, he wrote to a friend:
“Spleen is worse than cholera. The one only kills the body, the other kills the soul.… Your daughter will grow and turn into a bride, we will turn into old fogeys, our wives into old grunts, but our children will be nice…. The cholera will pass, and, should we still be alive, we will also have joy.”
Julian Nundy joined Reuters in 1970 and was posted to Moscow, Paris, then Brussels, with stints in the Middle East reporting on the Lebanese civil war and the Iranian Islamic Revolution. As a staffer for Newsweek, the International Herald Tribune, The Independent and Bloomberg, he covered the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the assassination of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, conflict in Bosnia and the Ukrainian Orange Revolution.