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While Visiting Havana Cuba My Wife Recognized as a Fellow Russian Woman

Updated on July 31, 2019
Chuck profile image

A lifelong lover of history, I enjoy writing articles about the past & interesting political topics, especially when the two intersect.

Basilica of San Francisco de Asis in Havana Cuba

Looking across the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis toward the church of the same name.  This beautiful old church has been converted into a museum and music hall by Cuba's communist regime
Looking across the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis toward the church of the same name. This beautiful old church has been converted into a museum and music hall by Cuba's communist regime | Source

My Wife Wanted to Visit Cuba

On a recent Caribbean cruise with our daughter and son-in-law we had the opportunity to spend two days visiting the 500 year old city of Havana Cuba.

Among other economic sanctions levied against Cuba during the Cold War by the United States was a travel ban, imposed by President John F. Kennedy in 1962 barring travel to Cuba from the U.S. However, in 2016 President Obama relaxed some of these sanctions including travel to Cuba.

Ever since President Obama lifted the travel ban on Americans traveling to Cuba from the United States my wife has been wanting to visit Cuba. When I pressed my wife on why she wanted to visit she said that while she was growing up in the old Soviet Union, Cuba was the only country in the world that was friends with Russia

I teased saying her that she might run into some of the many Russian women more or less trapped in Cuba from the era of Soviet-Cuba friendship.

My Wife Recognized as Being From Russia

The second day we had booked a tour of the city in a 1950s era convertible. Our daughter and son-in-law joined us for that tour. We left the ship after breakfast and spent two hours or so before the tour exploring the area near the port.

The tour was scheduled to start at 11:00 and we had been instructed to meet outside a hotel named Palacio Del Marques De San Felipe Y Santiago de Bejucal a little before 11:00. The hotel is located in the northwest corner of the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis which is a short walk from the ship.

We arrived a little after 10:30 before the tour operators arrived. Doug, our son-in-law, went into the hotel lobby to cool off (the Caribbean area is hot and humid, even in mid May). My wife and daughter waited outside and I wandered around the plaza taking pictures.

After a few minutes I looked across the plaza and noticed my wife and daughter speaking with a couple of ladies so I headed over toward them thinking that the tour operators had arrived.

As I approached I heard the four of them speaking Russian. Sure enough my wife had encountered a couple of Russian Soviet era expatriates living in Cuba. My wife introduced them to me but, not knowing Russian, I was unable to join the conversation.

They left a few minutes later when the others who had signed up for the tour arrived.

My Wife Next to Sculpture of Architect and Author Joaquín E. Weiss

My wife admiring sculpture of Joaquin E. Weiss located in front of the Basilica de San Francisco de Asis in Havana, Cuba
My wife admiring sculpture of Joaquin E. Weiss located in front of the Basilica de San Francisco de Asis in Havana, Cuba | Source

My Wife Left Russia to Marry Me

As we walked the two or three blocks to where the cars for our tour were parked I asked my wife about the ladies and how she had met them.

They told her they had each met a Cuban man in the old Soviet Union whom they married and moved to Cuba with years ago. They both worked as tour guides and were on their way to their meeting spot. They had seen Bella from across the Plaza and recognized her by the way she was dressed (they were also dressed very tastefully but their clothing didn't look expensive).

My wife has been in the United States since I brought her and her two children from Russia and married her over 15 years ago. She was born in Russia and had never been outside Russia until she married me. She studied English in college and had been teaching English in grade and high school before marrying me (her professors had been from England so I just had to teach her American).

My Wife Dresses Well When in Public

While my wife always dresses very well when she is outside the house there is nothing very special about what she wears. She does have a very good eye for style and loves to go shopping but often just browses. She doesn’t spend a lot of money on clothes and frequently waits until an item goes on sale before purchasing it. However she is frequently complimented on her dress.

Thus, I wasn’t surprised when she told me that the two ladies had spotted her as Russian by the way she was dressed.

Sipping a Daiquiri at Bar With Ernest Hemingway in Old Havana

My wife enjoying a daiquiri at bar next to sculpture of Ernest Hemingway  in La Floridita Bar in Old Havana - this was one of Hemingway's favorite drinking spots
My wife enjoying a daiquiri at bar next to sculpture of Ernest Hemingway in La Floridita Bar in Old Havana - this was one of Hemingway's favorite drinking spots | Source

Things Began Changing in Soviet Sphere in 1970s

When I visited the old Soviet Union as a college student in 1969 it was easy to differentiate the locals, men and women, from foreign tourists by their dress. Soviet clothing, was similar in type to western clothing, but poorly made and drab.

A decade later, in 1979, a friend of mine and I took a river cruise up the Danube River from its mouth on the Black Sea to Passau, Germany. This took us thou the former Soviet satellite states of Ukraine (which was a part of Russia at the time), Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

Things were starting to change and, especially in Soviet Eastern Europe where growing political unrest was forcing some liberalization and economic change.

Both the Soviet Union and their East European satellites were encouraging foreign tourism in order to obtain hard currency (dollars, pounds, francs, etc. which were accepted and used in foreign trade as opposed to the near worthless currencies circulated within the communist Soviet Bloc) which they needed to import goods from the West.

Posing in Late 1950s Era Chevrolet Convertible in Havana Cuba

Cold War embargo on U.S. trade with Castro regime stopped flow of cars & parts.  With my wife and daughter in old Chevrolet convertible.Owners allowed by regime to  keep cars have maintained them and now earn living giving tours of Old Havana in them
Cold War embargo on U.S. trade with Castro regime stopped flow of cars & parts. With my wife and daughter in old Chevrolet convertible.Owners allowed by regime to keep cars have maintained them and now earn living giving tours of Old Havana in them | Source

Women in Soviet Union and Its Satellites Wanted Cosmetics and More Stylish Clothing

Among other Western imports were clothing and cosmetics which urban women, especially younger ones, began buying. While Eastern Euroean women were ditching their shoddy communist produced clothes in favor of those produced in the West, styles in the West were becoming more casual with more popular and expensive items like jeans that were produced torn and faded.

It was very easy to tell local women from forein women simply by the way they were dressed. Russian women turned out to be no different when it came to dress.

Apartments with Shops Below in Old Havana

Historic buildings have been restored but most people live in places like this (the 2 Russian ladies said they lived in poor section like this)    Picture taken as our old car tour passed through this area
Historic buildings have been restored but most people live in places like this (the 2 Russian ladies said they lived in poor section like this) Picture taken as our old car tour passed through this area | Source

Food Rationing & Scarcity Plague Cuba Today

These two ladies worked as tour guides and were dressed more stylishly than local Cuban women. Both were divorced with the more talkative one telling my wife that her Cuban husband had taken advantage of an opportunity to work in Spain a few years ago but left her behind and never returned.

They also told my wife that Cuba doesn’t allow foreigners to become citizens and limits government social services to citizens. She said that her children and grandchildren are in Cuba and is thus reluctant to leave even if she could. They said that they both live in the poorest part of Havana and that food is scarce even when they have ration coupons (which are needed in addition to cash when buying food).

They recounted how they had been to the market for meat earlier that morning and, in addition to the market opening a couple of hours late, they only had two chickens for sale. A fight ensued, which they were among those electing not to participate and the two that came out on top in the fight got to buy the chickens.

Soviet Union Surrounded by Wall to Keep Their People From Leaving

On March 5, 1946 Winston Churchill, Britain’s Prime Minister during World War II, made a stop in Fulton, Missouri during a trip across the U.S. with then President Harry Truman. While in Fulton Churchill gave a speech at Westminster College, in which he uttered the famous words:

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.

The Iron Curtain that Churchill referred to was the thousands of miles of barbed wire, guard towers manned by soldiers with machine guns and, in some places, minefields and / or physical walls (as in the 1960 Berlin Wall which topped with barbed wire and armed guards). This Iron Curtain surrounding the Soviet Union and its captive satellite nations was in place not to keep foreigners out but rather to keep their own people in.

Other than diplomats few residents of the Soviet Union and its East European satellites were allowed to leave. In the later decades of the Cold War during thaws in relations between the Soviet Union and the West there were increases in things like trade, tourism (Western tourists visiting the Soviet Union but not their people visiting the West), cultural exchanges, etc. Crews on Soviet merchant ships as well as entertainers, athletes, chess players, musicians, etc. did travel beyond the borders of the Soviet Union and its satellites. However, secret police guards made sure that seamen on merchant ships stayed on board while in Western ports and kept a watchful eye on those participating in athletic and cultural exchanges to make sure they didn’t defect (although a few were able to escape their handlers but risked reprisals against relatives back home).

When Large Numbers of Young Men are Sent Abroad Many Return Home With Foreign Wives

Starting in the 1960s the Soviet Union’s close alliance with Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba began changing things. Castro needed to increase the number of engineers and other technical professionals. Russia was more than willing to accept the young men Castro wanted to send to study in Russian universities. Castro also began sending members of his military to the Soviet Union for training.

Throughout history whenever large numbers of young, single men are sent abroad a fair number end up bringing a foreign wife home with them. During the Cold War the United States had military bases in allied nations around the world and it was not uncommon for many of the young troops to bring a foreign wife with them when they returned to the United States.

It was thus not surprising that many of the young Cuban men studying or training in the Soviet Union or its satellites met and began dating young women that they met and, this sometimes resulted in marriage (in some cases a pregnancy then a marriage).

Building in Old Havana - Apartments With Wash Drying on Balcony on Top With Shops Below

Another picture taken from our car (can see our driver's hat in bottom center)  This is typical of most of Havana - Few new and restored buildings are for tourists
Another picture taken from our car (can see our driver's hat in bottom center) This is typical of most of Havana - Few new and restored buildings are for tourists | Source

Russian Women Saw Moving to Cuba an Opportunity for a Better Life

For many of the women marrying a Cuban held the promise (in their imagination at least) of a better life. Cuba was a foreign country which they were allowed to travel and move to.

Others, having grown up under socialism had an idealistic belief in the system but were disillusioned with the band of aging, corrupt revolutionaries

In contrast Fidel Castro was 33 when he became leader of Cuba in 1959 and his associates were also young and idealistic. To these young women who believed in socialist ideals they saw marrying and moving to Cuba as a new life in a tropical socialist utopia.

Plaza de San Francisco de Asis and Basilica With Same Name in Old Havana, Cuba

Looking across Plaza de San Francisco de Asis  toward Basilica.  Meeting place for our classic car tour was a little to the right of small tree in bottom right corner
Looking across Plaza de San Francisco de Asis toward Basilica. Meeting place for our classic car tour was a little to the right of small tree in bottom right corner | Source

1991 Collapse of Soviet Union Made Life Difficult for Russian Women in Cuba

Prior to its collapse in 1991, the Soviet Union provided the economic prop that kept the Cuban economy afloat. The Soviets brought Cuba’s sugar output as well as providing Cuba with millions of dollars worth of credit which Cuba used to purchase oil and technical supplies.

The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in severe economic hardship for Cuba and the Cuban people. It also created problems for the Soviet women living in Cuba.

Life in Cuba is hard for all the people, except for the communist party elites who live very well at the expense of the nation as a whole.

Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral in Old Havana

This is a new church & not a museum.  Discretely built between 2004 & 2008 as part of Regime's improving relations.  Like former USSR, Cuba is officially atheist but in post communist Russia Orthodox church now plays major role in Russian life.
This is a new church & not a museum. Discretely built between 2004 & 2008 as part of Regime's improving relations. Like former USSR, Cuba is officially atheist but in post communist Russia Orthodox church now plays major role in Russian life. | Source

Feelings of Russian Women About Life in Cuba Varies

For the estimated 2,000 or so Russian women who married Cubans and are still in Cuba life varies. Like other Cubans most are poor. Some are still happily married. A number are divorced or have been abandoned by their Cuban husbands. Some husbands, tiring of living under the communist dictatorship took advantage of opportunities to escape leaving wives and children behind Some miss Russia or the Soviet Bloc nations they came from while others have come to like the climate and culture of Cuba despite their poverty. Some would like to leave Cuba but don’t want to leave their grown children and grandchildren who have grown up Cuban.

Returning to Russia is not a viable option for most due to the cost of returning (a plane ticket costs the equivalent of 3 years wages), plus the fact that the Russian economy is not that good at the moment.

Many Russian Women Choose to Stay in Cuba for Various Reasons

For the estimated 2,000 or so Russian women who married Cubans and are still in Cuba life varies. Like other Cubans most are poor. Some are still happily married. A number are divorced or have been abandoned by their Cuban husbands. Some husbands, tiring of living under the communist dictatorship took advantage of opportunities to escape leaving wives and children behind Some miss Russia or the Soviet Bloc nations they came from while others have come to like the climate and culture of Cuba despite their poverty. Some would like to leave Cuba but don’t want to leave their grown children and grandchildren who have grown up Cuban.

Returning to Russia is not a viable option for most due to the cost of returning (a plane ticket costs the equivalent of 3 years wages), plus the fact that the Russian economy is not that good at the moment.

Leaving Cuba Will Be Difficult if Not Impossible for Most Russian Women in Cuba

The rules may be different for Cuba but unless a person has gone through a complicated renunciation of citizenship process in Russia they are still considered a Russian citizen even if they have formally renounced that citizenship while becoming a citizen of another nation.

My wife is a U.S. citizen but Russia still considers her a citizen and she has to use her Russian, rather than American, passport when visiting Russia. It costs us $400 or more every 5 years or so to renew the passport. Further, if they decide to remain in Russia they would have to get their internal (for use by citizens within Russia).

Whether they like living in Cuba or not most of the aging Russian women in Cuba lack the financial means to leave and even if they can afford the trip the current weak economy in Russia offers them little hope for supporting themselves in Russia.

Havana Skyline Receding As Our Cruise Ship Carries Us Back Toward Miami

A last view of Cuba as we head back to Miami and then home.
A last view of Cuba as we head back to Miami and then home. | Source

© 2019 Chuck Nugent

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    • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

      Chuck Nugent 

      2 months ago from Tucson, Arizona

      Peggy Woods - thank you for your comment. I'm glad you enjoyed the article. Unfortunately there is a lot of poverty and hardship in Cuba. Tourist areas have been fixed up and are as modern as any place in the world as is the area where those running the country live. For the rest it is a struggle as in the story about the store that opened with only 2 chickens for sale as was unable to accommodate the people who had both the required money and food ration coupons. The chickens ended up going to the winners of the fist fight. Thanks again.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      2 months ago from Houston, Texas

      One of our very good friends is a woman who came from Kazakhstan and married an American. Like your wife, she dresses well. I read with interest your impressions of Havana. One of the art galleries here featured photos from Cuba, and it was very informational as to how people there live. It is a shame that there is so much poverty.

    • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

      Chuck Nugent 

      2 months ago from Tucson, Arizona

      Bill - thanks for your comments and glad you enjoyed this Hub. The Havana visit was interesting and the local people were very nice. Despite the poverty and lack improvements outside the tourist areas it is still a fascinating and beautiful city to visit. (P.S. I am still working on the last 2 Salton Sea Hubs and hope to finish and post them shortly)

    • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

      Chuck Nugent 

      2 months ago from Tucson, Arizona

      Liz - Thanks for the comment and I am glad you enjoyed the article. On the 1969 college trip we visited Leningrad (now back to its original name St. Petersburg), Veliky Novgorod, Kiev and Moscow. My wife's father was a Major who flew MiGs in the Soviet Air Force so while growing up she lived near AF bases in Siberia, Mongolia, Lutsk in Ukraine and Poland where she graduated from High School. The changes in Russia and Eastern Europe between my 1960 and 1970 trips and trips with my wife back to Russia have been huge.

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 

      2 months ago from Massachusetts

      Hi Chuck. What an interesting look at Havana, Cuba. That’s amazing that the 2 women recognized your wife as being Russian. My sister just recently returned from Cuba with a lot of photos of the old model American cars. It’s unfortunate there is so much poverty there. Enjoyed the trip, maybe we’ll get there someday.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      2 months ago from UK

      From this one article about your trip to Cuba, you have branched out to give a fascinating insight into the life of Russian expats living there. You have also skilfully woven in your own experiences and observations. I have read this article with special interest as I visited Moscow and Kiev in 1984. A lot of your observations tally with my own from that time.

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