The U.S.S.R.

Wild is a Times news editor.

The brochure carried a promise and a warning. "It is an opportunity to walk through history," it said. "It is not, however, for those faint of heart." After an 8,000-mile tour of the Soviet Union with 22 stouthearted fellow travelers, my wife and I were in total agreement. It was a rigorous but exhilarating and enlightening journey. We found it well worth the time and effort to extend our itinerary beyond Moscow and Leningrad to Siberia, Central Asia and Georgia. The 22-day trek began with a Finnair flight from New York to Helsinki, then Aeroflot to Moscow for a five-day visit. Our aerial swing then tookus to Irkutsk in Siberia; Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara in Central Asia; Tbilisi in Georgia, and ended with four days in Leningrad.

Our Intourist guide bounced aboard the bus on our arrival in Moscow with a cheery, "Hello, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Igor!" He performed this ritual with such infectious enthusiasm that it became his trademark.

We had been well-advised to choose an established tour instead of trying to see the Soviet Union on our own. Intourist, the government agency through which all travelers are channeled, gives priority to tour groups. In every city we visited we saw independent travelers waiting for hotel rooms or restaurant seating while groups under the wing of an Intourist guide filed past with no delay.

In Igor, who stayed with us until the last day in Leningrad, we were fortunate to get one of the agency's best representatives. A 27-year-old graduate of a Moscow language institute, he spoke nearly flawless English and gave interesting commentaries on the history, art, music and literature of his country--though never deviating from the orthodox Communist line.

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From the first day in Moscow we could see that tourism, encouraged by glasnost and boosted by the recent Gorbachev-Reagan summit, is growing rapidly in the Soviet Union.

In the cavernous lobby of our 28-story Cosmos Hotel, armies of tour groups from many countries gathered under their leaders' banners for the day's assault. Outside, long rows of buses lined up like troop carriers, ready to take them to their prime targets.

Our stay in Moscow was highlighted by unforgettable tours of Red Square and the Kremlin, and rides on the amazing Metro subway system, which efficiently serves a city of 8 million people and is decorated like a cathedral.

Also worthwhile was a day at the Economic Achievement Exhibition and adjacent Museum of Space. At the North Gate of this complex, across the boulevard from the Cosmos, the 295-foot Cosmonaut Memorial arched into the sky, a beautiful sight from our window at night.

A Slight Letdown

After five kaleidoscopic days in Moscow, we flew 2,600 miles to Irkutsk in southeastern Siberia.

The capital of Irkutsk Territory and just 60 miles north of the Mongolian border, Irkutsk proved to be a slight letdown--the only one of the tour.

A busy but uninspiring city, it's on the Angara River, the sole outlet of Lake Baikal. Irkutsk has some of its original chocolate-brown wooden homes with elaborately carved and decorated facades, but its chief attraction is the lake, the world's deepest and an ecological wonder.

A one-hour bus ride through the primeval taiga (forest) took us to the Limnological Institute at Listvyanka on Baikal's southwestern shore. It is well worth visiting but our local guide had difficulty in translating the museum lecturer's presentation. We tried, with little success, to persuade her that those bones from an early dig could not have been "unicorn bones."

The mile-deep Baikal stretches northward for 400 miles but we were unable to fully appreciate its lonely beauty because chunks of ice kept us from returning to Irkutsk by hydrofoil.

Concert in Siberia

As it turned out, one of our best experiences in Siberia was the concert on native instruments by university music teachers. The selections and musicianship were much above average and well worth the $8 apiece that we and a German group paid for the concert in the Intourist hotel bar.

Also memorable was a Decembrist home turned into a museum in honor of idealistic military officers exiled after rising against Nicholas I on Dec. 14, 1825.

If Siberia was a mild disappointment, Central Asia was a magnificent surprise. A 1,900-mile flight took us to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan and just a few hundred miles north of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Tashkent is a modern, bustling metropolis of 2 million people, beautifully rebuilt since the devastating earthquake of 1966. Our hotel, the Uzbekistan, was putting on its best makeup for an international film festival spotlighting the Soviet and Indian movie industries. Flowers were springing up everywhere in lobby planters, and rows of posters stretched across the entrance.

In the older section of Tashkent, the cooperative farm market beckoned with buckets of strawberries shining in the noonday sun amid mounds of cherries, radishes, salad greens, carrots, onions and other produce.

We were touched by an immense sculpture group in the central square honoring a Tashkent blacksmith who took in 13 children after Uzbekistan became a Soviet refugee center in World War II. One of the 13 was a German boy; the blacksmith insisted that he was entitled to the same consideration as the other children. The sculptured faces unforgettably reflected this humanity.

Painstakingly Restored

Samarkand, 180 miles to the southwest, was the tastiest visual feast of Central Asia. Ancient mosques and mausoleums gleaming with glazed tiles are being restored with painstaking authenticity. Three madrasas --Moslem seminaries--of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries rise impressively in Registan Square, the center of the 2,300-year-old city. We were fascinated by the mausoleums of Shakhi-Zinda and the Mosque of Bibi-Khanim.

A long and graceful flight of steps leads to the Shakhi-Zinda, an elaborate architectural ensemble. The centuries peel away, step by step, on the climb toward the immense portal.

"Count the number of steps up, and if you count the same number coming down, you'll live a long and happy life." Thus spake our Samarkand Intourist guide, and who would argue with the local authorities?

One of the trip's most delectable moments came on the second evening in Samarkand.

From the balcony of Room 711 at the Samarkand Hotel I savored a cigar as I watched the setting sun's rays glinting off the bright-blue dome of the Guri-Emir, the tomb of Tamerlane, just a few hundred yards away.

On the balcony below I could see the hand of a fellow traveler, flicking the ash off his evening cigar as he enjoyed the same scene.

I didn't call down to him. It would have broken the spell.

Monuments Impart Aura

Bukhara, 130 miles to the west, lacks the rich colors of Samarkand's glazed tiles, but its many Muslim monuments impart an aura of the 10th Century, the height of the Samanid Dynasty.

Smaller and more primitive than the other cities we visited, Bukhara has an ageless charm. Women in the traditional costume of Uzbek silk in a brilliant zigzag pattern strolled in the shade of a large park while men reclined at tea tables. Musicians with ancient instruments filled the air with harmonies that blended East and West.

Atop a dust-blown hill in the center of Bukhara the 1,000-year-old Ark, a massive fortress, testifies to the power of the emirs.

After returning to Tashkent we flew 1,300 miles west to Tbilisi and a different world.

The capital of the Republic of Georgia, Tbilisi is beautifully set in the Caucasus Mountains between the Black and Caspian seas. It proved to be the home of the most proudly nationalistic people we encountered on the tour.

Linked to Basques

In boulevard signs and in street conversation the Georgian language, one of the world's most difficult and mysteriously linked to the Basques, predominates over Russian. Museums emphasize Georgians' contributions to art, literature and the rich history of the Caucasus. (The Georgian Art Museum has the world's finest collection of icons.) Shota Rustaveli, the Shakespeare of Georgia and author of the 12th-Century epic poem, "The Knight in the Panther's Skin," is revered throughout the republic.

Tbilisi is just 100 miles north of Yerevan, capital of the strife-torn Soviet Republic of Armenia. My wife and I had a memorable experience there while touring Old Town near the landmark Metekhi Church/Citadel.

At a coffeehouse a large man in his mid-30s approached us and asked, "Are you Americans?" We said yes, that we were from California. The man's face lit up and he exclaimed, "California! You have a governor, Deukmejian--an Armenian!"

Smiling men crowded in from the fringe of the conversation and we felt like visiting royalty. They were hungry for news of the West and asked us for U.S. magazines. We were sorry that we had none.

Arriving in Leningrad after a 1,400-mile flight north, we could see that the best had been saved for last.

Our hotel, the Pribaltiskaya, is one of the finest in the Soviet Union and affords a soul-satisfying view of the Gulf of Finland. The northern season of Dostoevsky's White Nights was approaching, and those of us determined to see the evening sun go down had to wait until nearly midnight.

Incomparable Museum

We were impressed by Leningrad's grand scale and the feeling of spaciousness despite the population of 5 million.

The highlights of our stay were the incomparable Hermitage Museum, a shattering visit to the memorial honoring Leningrad's 650,000 World War II victims, and a hydrofoil excursion to Petrodvorets, the summer palace of Peter the Great. The palace has been impressively restored after its destruction in World War II.

A recommended book to buy in Leningrad: "Saved for Humanity: The Hermitage During the Siege of Leningrad, 1941-1944." The large book, from Aurora Arts Publishers in Leningrad (1985), is an authoritative account, and its photos reproduce the brilliant colors of today's museum better than any other publication we've seen. We found it well worth the $58 U.S. cost and the added luggage weight.

A fair number of firms specialize in Soviet Union travel, notably Maupintour, General Tours and the Russian Travel Bureau, an American company based in New York City. We chose the RTB's "Russia, the Great Tour," because it offered the most extensive itinerary within the weeks we had set aside.

The cost of the tour, including the overseas and Soviet flights, deluxe or first-class hotels and three meals a day, was $2,900 each. The plane fare to and from New York City was additional. It was a 20,000-mile round-trip journey from the West Coast.

Our Russian-speaking RTB escort, Anna Kushnir of Jim Thorpe, Pa., met us at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport and stayed with us until our return. Young, fit, genuinely friendly and always helpful and efficient, Anna was an ideal den mother for our group, which ranged in age from the 50s to the 80s. She was delightfully imperturbable; our bus mishaps, lost articles and incessant trips to the foreign-currency beriozka shops never put a dent in her beatific smile.

Good Chemistry

The tour attracted a well-traveled, knowledgeable and congenial group. The good chemistry added much to the enjoyment of our peregrinations. Anna and Igor worked well together from city to city and, despite the many connecting flights not a single piece of luggage was lost or delayed.

Our reception was friendly throughout, a remarkable change for those in our group who visited the Soviet Union in the 1960s and '70s. Hotel staffs responded warmly to tips of hand lotion, felt pens and U.S. mementos. (They will not accept money.) On the street we exchanged smiles and sign-language banter with passers-by and construction crews.

Everywhere, we were approached by boys wanting to swap pins for chewing gum, and by young men who wanted to buy our coats and microcassette recorders and to exchange rubles for dollars. Their exchange rate was liberal because with dollars they could go to the beriozkas for the goods not available in their own stores.

The black marketeers weren't pushy, however, and a single nyet sufficed.

Our tour package called for five theater performances. Cultural exchange and subscription groups bumped us from hoped-for nights at the Bolshoi and Kirov. But in Moscow we enjoyed "Swan Lake" at the Stanislavski Theater, plus the dazzling circus; in Tbilisi, the Georgian Dancers and Singers and a performance of "Giselle" featuring two leading dancers from the Bolshoi; in Leningrad, an engrossing modern ballet, "Macbeth," at the Mali Theater, plus the world-class Latvian Folk Artists.

The hotels ranged from adequate to elegant. In Siberia and Central Asia the bathrooms were best suited for those who like to sit on an antique porcelain throne while taking a hand-held shower, and the elevators had minds of their own. The notorious toilet paper was merely mislabeled; it was great for washing windows and scrubbing sinks. And even in the best hotels, the narrow twin beds forced six-footers to sleep like pretzels.

World's Best Butter

The food at the hotel restaurants was better than we expected. We grew weary of the ubiquitous cucumbers and French fries, and it was hard to stomach multi-course meals three times a day. But the soups, the bread, the Siberian dumplings, the blini (crepes), chicken Kiev and the caviar-stuffed eggs were delicious. The ice cream and butter were simply the world's best.

The Georgian flat bread was excellent, but the beet-top pate had the effect of an industrial-strength laxative and should be approached with caution.

We found the water in Moscow, Irkutsk and Tbilisi to be cold, clear and delicious. It brought back memories of our favorite campsite at 8,600 feet in the Utah Rockies. We avoided the water in Central Asia and Leningrad, on the advice of our guides, and stayed with mineral water. (Noncarbonated mineral water has yet to make its way to the Soviet Union, apparently.)

A word of advice: Bring comfortable shoes for your walk through history. Many of the Soviet Union's chief attractions are surrounded by endless square kilometers of hard pavement.

During the tedious nine-hour flight from Moscow to Irkutsk we had listened like captives to a flight attendant's long speeches in Russian over the intercom. Suddenly we were amused and comforted by a familiar voice.

"Hello, ladies and gentlemen, my name is Igor! Welcome to Aeroflot Flight 776.

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