For nostalgic Russians, Cuba is a tropical time machine

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.”

Russian tour operators at the FITCUBA trade fair had their own exhibition stand, offering free shots of Stolichnaya vodka and a live band playing Russian folk music on an accordion and a ukulele. The walls were plastered with posters of Lake Baikal, Siberian forests and snowboarding Russians, all looking rather out of place in the tropical setting. But the Russian entrepreneurs were there mostly to firm up partnerships with Cuba’s state-run tourism companies, not to market Russian destinations to Cuban tourists.

Alexander Gureev, a 33-year-old saxophone player with a hearty laugh and a bearish physique, said Cuba had become a trendy destination in his homeland. “It’s a very hot place, and the people are very hot and powerful,” he said, laughing and pronouncing his words in a heavily Slavic accent.

“I learned a lot from Soviet Union history, because when I was young I studied in Soviet Union and Cuba was a friend of Soviet Union,” said Gureev, wiping sweat from his brow. “And now I can look for myself.” From what he’d seen so far of the island, Cuba didn’t seem nearly as grim as the Soviet society he remembered as a boy.

“The Soviet Union was a closed country, a very closed country,” he said. “The Russian people love to travel. And now Russian people have some money, so it is like there are no borders.”

Among Cubans, the sense of nostalgia for the Soviet era isn’t universally shared. Russians were sometimes disparagingly referred to as “bolos” (bowling pins), for their pale skin and sometimes-spherical appearance. But they are also remembered for their generosity.

Anice Rubio Miranda, who was raised in Moscow by Cuban parents, said the two countries are “like brothers.”

“We share a love for dance, and music, and culture. And rum,” she said. “In Cuba, (Russian tourists) enjoy the best parts of the socialist system,” Rubio added. “They feel safe here, 100 percent safe.”

The tourism trade fair was held in Havana’s Morro-Cabana Park, a 18th-century Spanish colonial fortress that also serves as Cuba’s military museum, with a permanent exhibit that features a smattering of old Soviet rockets and surface-to-air missiles. It was only place at the entire event where the hammer-and-sickle logo was still visible.