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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 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.