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For nostalgic Russians, Cuba is a tropical time machine

Tourists look for bittersweet traces of Soviet past in Cuba's present.

Russian tourists coming to Cuba seek sun and surf, and also signs of the old days, when Cuba was supported by the Soviet Union. Here Cuban bartender Roly prepares a daiquiri at Havana's famous bar El Floridita, Oct. 10, 2003. (Claudia Daut/Reuters)

HAVANA, Cuba — She’d only been in Cuba a few days, but for Maria Malysheva, the memories came flooding back at the sight of Cuban schoolchildren, all dressed in the neat uniforms that identify them as "pioneros" — communist pioneers.

“I was a pioneer leader when I was a little girl growing up in the Soviet Union,” said Malysheva, now the general manager of a Russian travel website, sounding wistful. “The children were playing and laughing. They seemed so happy.”

Malysheva had come to Havana to help promote the Soviets’ old tropical ally as a hot tourism destination for the new Russia. Her country was the guest of honor at this year’s international tourism trade fair, and with expanding direct-flight service to Havana from Moscow and St. Petersburg, the number of Russian tourists is projected to climb from 30,000 to 45,000 in 2010.

That’s a small share of the roughly 2.5 million tourists Cuba receives each year — the majority from Europe and Canada — and the 12-hour flight from Moscow is likely to remain an obstacle to mass tourism. But Russians visitors in town last week said Cuba offers more than sun and sand to their sentimental countrymen. It’s a place to experience a part of their own history — one that they’re still grappling with.

Just as U.S. visitors are stirred by the sight of Cuba’s old American automobiles and Eisenhower-era hotels, Russians find elements of their own past in Cuba’s present, even if the memories aren’t all good ones.

“Cubans still use ration cards, like they did in the Soviet Union after World War II, so that’s a bit negative” said Anna Martynova, a tourism official with a Soviet-sounding federal agency called the Ministry of Sport, Tourism and Youth Policy of the Russian Federation.

“There aren’t so many Russians who are nostalgic for the socialist stuff,” she continued. “They want to get a glimpse of times gone past. They want to feel something inside, something bittersweet.”

For nearly three decades, the Soviet Union propped up Cuba’s socialist system with generous oil subsidies, food imports, manufactured goods and — for a short time — nuclear missiles.

In turn, Cuba sent sugar, citrus, coffee, rum and other Caribbean treats to the frigid north. By the 1980s, Moscow was wiring several billion dollars a year to the Castro government.

When the Soviet Union dissolved and the aid pipeline went dry, Cuba’s communist leaders held on, in part by opening up to tourism. Few Russian visitors reached the island in the years that followed, but the Cuba market has been growing since then, Russian tourism officials said, along with a burgeoning nostalgia for the rosier elements of the Red era.

“Of course, Russia is doing better now than in the Soviet period,” said Malysheva, the former pioneer leader. “But many people think in Soviet times we were more friendly. Now, we’re always thinking about business, about money, and we have no time for friendship.”