Cycling Across The Soviet Union in the Twilight of The Cold War

Cycling Across The Soviet Union in the Twilight of The Cold War

by Charles Youel September 12, 2016

In 1990, the balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union was on the verge of tipping precipitously. Mikhail Gorbachev, who came to power in 1985, had introduced his twin programs of “perestroika” (“restructuring”) and “glasnost” (“openness”), ushering in an economic and political era of transformation that would shake the empire to its foundations, and eventually led to its dissolution.

Against this backdrop of historic upheaval, two brothers from Minnesota, experienced cycling adventurers who'd already set a Guinness World Record for transcontinental cycling, had an idea: Cross half of America and the entirety of Europe and the Soviet Union — on bicycles. Calling their adventure Sovietrek, Steve and Dan Buettner joined two Russian cyclists for a five-month bicycling journey through a country that was literally falling apart around them.

Dan Buettner recounted this epic journey in a book called Sovietrek: A Journey by Bicycle Across Russia, published in 1994. This Thursday, September 15, Steve Buettner will share stories from Sovietrek at The Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis. He was kind enough to talk to us about Sovietrek, experiencing Soviet-era Russia as an American, and the ups and downs of traveling the world by bike with your brother.

You’ve taken some pretty audacious trips by bike. What was your first bicycle adventure?

The bicycle treks were my first long expeditions. However, when I was growing up, I didn’t have a driver’s license until I was 18 so I got around almost exclusively via bicycle.

It’s a bit of understatement to say that you’ve spent a lot of time riding with your brother, Dan. Has there ever been a sibling rivalry dynamic to the way you ride together? And if so, how did that play out?

He is my older brother, so as you can imagine, there was a pecking order and I was lower on that chain. There is of course going to be conflict and disagreements on these types of expeditions, however in most cases we worked through them as a team.In fact that is one of the life long lessons I learned from Sovietrek: Understanding that the different strengths of team members make a group exponentially stronger.

As for bicycling, Dan is more of an extrovert and would often stop along the way to meet people or explore. I, on the other hand, like to get the biking out of the way and challenge myself to keep riding. Because of these different styles, by mid-morning I would typically be farther along the road and wouldn’t see the other team members until lunch or for breaks. We would start together, have breaks together, eat lunch together and end the day together. Except for a few times when a team member got lost.

"On the second day, we lost Volodya. When we found him he was sitting, watching TV and eating popcorn. He said that he'd found a new home and was moving in!"

Lost? Sounds like that happened more than once. Are there any stories about that you'd care to share?

A one mile per hour difference in bicycling speeds between teammates means that two or three hours of biking creates considerable separation. When arriving at cities, especially large ones, the options of what road to take or where to stop and wait for the teammates are pretty difficult to pin down.

So you can imagine that a rider arriving at the outskirts of a town might end up on a bypass instead of the road that leads to the center of town and through it. This was particularly difficult in Russia because there were not many clear road signs, and people didn’t seem to know what was “the road” we should be taking in order to take the shortest route to the center of town or through it. What added more difficulty was the language barrier. First for the Russian teammates while in the U.S., and then for Dan and me when we traveled through Russia.

In fact, on the second day of the trek, we lost Volodya in rural Wisconsin. We had arrived in a small town and were waiting for him to show up. It got dark, he still had not shown up, and we were worried. Finally, we called the police to help search for him. After 30 minutes we found him outside of town. He got to town and was so tired he knocked on the first house he arrived at. Before long, he was invited in and made new friends!

When we found him he was sitting, watching TV and eating popcorn. He looked up at us with a smile and said that he had decided not to continue with the trek, but instead he'd found a new home and was moving in!

"For the first time in my lifetime there was a discussion about the possibility that the Russian people could be our friends instead of our enemies, and that intrigued Dan and me."

For those who didn’t live through the era, it’s hard to characterize the Cold War relationship between the U.S. and the then-Soviet Union. Things were obviously drifting towards dissolution in 1990, but I imagine that the trip was in the works for a long time before then. Give me an idea of how Sovietrek came together?

This is the thread that I have been thinking about as I prepare for the presentation at The Museum of Russian Art. I am a product of the '80s and the cold war was still in full swing. I can recall the military competition we had with the Soviet Union and how the played out in geopolitics.

We had just completed two expeditions in the Americas and were thinking about what was next. One of those trips was through Central America, and we saw firsthand how smaller countries like Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua were caught up in the geopolitical cold war that was occurring at the time.

Also, Mikhail Gorbachev had become the President of the Soviet Union and had announced Glasnost and Perestroika. For the first time in my lifetime, there was a larger discussion about the possibility that the Russian people could be our friends instead of our enemies, and that intrigued Dan and me.

The idea was that perhaps a team representing both countries could embark on this adventure could it be a small model of how we could look and interact differently as people. We had an organization in the Twin Cities called Connect USA USSR help us identify our Russian partners as well as get the visas needed to travel across what was then the Soviet Union.

Huge parts of the Soviet Union were, if not outright inaccessible, at least not regularly visited by Americans at that time. What stands out to you most in memory about your first impressions?

How incredibly vast the country of Russia is. Also, the far eastern portion of Russia was very remote, with huge bogs, large forests and very few towns outside the small collective farms that supported the Trans-Siberian Railway.

I also remember being so impressed by how self-sufficient these people were. From growing the bulk of their food to repurposing car batteries to use as bricks for saunas, nothing went to waste and there was a way to solve almost anything. Finally I would have to say it was the hospitality of the people. Every night while in Russia we were welcomed into someone’s home and given food and a place to sleep. This was not done because they had to, but rather because they wanted to.

 "Every night in Russia, we were welcomed into someone’s home and given food and a place to sleep. This was not done because they had to, but rather because they wanted to."

All told your trip covered more than 14,000 miles, much of it through some of the harshest and most desolate parts of the continent. Is there any day or stretch that stands out to you as the toughest/worst?

During a large portion of bicycling in Siberia, it rained: I think it was close to 28 days straight. After biking all day in the rain, keeping a set of dry clothes and a dry sleeping bag was what kept my spirits during this time. Somehow, I was able to wrap these items in enough sacks and bags that it worked!

How did the trip change the way you looked at the soon-to-be-former Soviet Union?

I came away from this expedition with a profound respect for the people of Russia. I alluded to the kindness of the people, but this was the end of the Soviet Union and I am pretty sure everyone knew that the experiment called communism was not working and about to end. Looking back on it now, it would have been understandable if the people felt cheated or deceived, but I don’t recall them acting that way. Perhaps it happened when the Soviet Union actually came to an end.

Have you stayed in touch with the two Russian cyclists who traveled with you?

Yes, we still hear from Volodya and Alexander. In fact, Alexander has been helping me with this presentation by providing me context on modern day Russia. They both still live in Novosibirsk.

Of all the epic adventure travels you’ve had on a bicycle, is there one you’d like to do again?

I am so thankful that I have had the opportunity to travel and experience these places and people. I have been back to some of the places, and would be interested in seeing other places again to see how things have changed. I do dream of biking down Highway 1 on the west coast, which would be fun and a great way to see this part of our country.

However, there is one thing I have learned in my travels, and that is you can go back and visit places in an attempt to relive memories, but the experiences almost always are not the same. That is neither good nor bad, just the way it is. 

Charles Youel


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