Isabelle DeSisto: My Summer Research in Moscow and Havana

Isabelle DeSistois a member of the Harvard Class of 2020 and a resident of Mather House. She is pursuing joint AB/AM degrees in Government and Regional Studies: Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. This summer, she spent one month in Moscow and two months in Havana conducting research for her senior thesis on Soviet-Cuban educational exchange programs during the Cold War.

 

A Cold War Adventure:
My Summer Research in Moscow and Havana
By Isabelle DeSisto

 

On June 1st, 2019, I set off for Moscow with a stack of business cards, three hard drives and a suitcase full of peanut butter. In other words, I was equipped with all of the essentials for a three month-long research trip to Russia and Cuba. But I also knew that preparation would only take me so far in these countries; the real keys to success would be patience, persistence and a healthy dose of luck.

The idea for my research project had come to me while I was studying abroad during the fall of 2018 in Havana, Cuba. One sunny Saturday I decided to take a day trip to Jaimanitas, a neighborhood famous for its winding streets lined with colorful mosaics and makeshift art galleries. A painting hanging on the gate outside one of the art galleries caught my eye, and I struck up a conversation with its owner. As it turned out, he had spent five years studying in Moscow in the early 1960s. This piqued my curiosity; I too had studied in Russia and had a keen interest in Soviet history.

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This is the painting that caught my eye in Jaimanitas. It reads: “Cuba-USSR. Thank you, Russia!!”

Back at Harvard, I couldn’t stop thinking about this man’s experience. Paradoxically, what made it interesting to me was that it was hardly unique; tens of thousands of Cubans had received university degrees and academic training in the Soviet Union. Yet this phenomenon had been largely ignored by the academic world. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a single book or article that provided a comprehensive analysis of the experiences of these students and the role they played in Soviet-Cuban relations. I concluded that if nobody had studied them, then I would just have to do it myself. So I decided to dedicate my senior thesis research to the topic of Soviet-Cuban educational exchange programs.

Thanks to generous funding from the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, and the Government Department, I designed a project that allowed me to spend one month in Moscow collecting archival materials and two months in Havana conducting interviews. This proved to be an invaluable opportunity to travel and gather original data, while exploring an understudied dynamic of international relations during the Cold War.

When I got to Moscow, I had never set foot in an archive. My first visit to the Russian Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI) was an exercise in humility. After fumbling over the payphone in the lobby, I tried to make small talk with the secretary in charge of archival entrance passes. “You know what? I really couldn’t care less,” she told me bluntly when I had finished explaining the topic of my research. Not a good start. Luckily, by the end of the month, she had warmed up to me. Each morning I would ask her how she was doing, and she would respond with one of two things: “Thank God it’s Friday,” or “It’s too hot!” On my last day, she gave me a wink and told me that she would miss me.

The majority of my work Moscow was centered around three archives: RGASPI, which holds the records of the Komsomol (communist youth league); the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF), which is home to the documents of the Ministry of Higher Education of the Soviet Union; and the Russian State Archive of Contemporary History (RGANI), which houses the materials of the Soviet Communist Party. I found the archives to be relatively well-organized—that is, if you know what you are looking for. Unfortunately, the legacy of the Soviet bureaucracy lives on; each archive has its own convoluted process for obtaining access, ordering files, and making copies, and each maintains its own arcane set of rules. For example, in GARF and RGANI you are not allowed to charge your laptop, even though there are plenty of outlets along the walls. In RGASPI, no drinks are permitted—even water. At first, I was outraged, but I quickly learned that the best way to get the documents you want is to put your head down and follow the rules. Of course, no amount of good behavior will get you access to the scores of documents that are still classified.

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The reading room of the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF)
Ultimately, working in the archives was an exhausting but rewarding experience. Despite the limitations, I was able to find and copy a significant amount of relevant information. In my free time, I also managed to conduct a handful of interviews with Soviet diplomats (including one former Soviet ambassador to Cuba), Russians who had Cuban classmates in university, and Russians who received training in Cuba.

As June came to a close, I was sad to go. I liked the ugly-but-functional Soviet-era apartment where I was living; I had developed a comfortable routine at my local gym, and I still hadn’t finished sampling all of Moscow’s trendy vegetarian restaurants. But I knew that I had to move on. During my last three days in the city, the temperature dropped dramatically and it began to rain nonstop. The Caribbean was calling my name.

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A photo I took during a weekend trip to Suzdal, Russia

When I saw that the Russian airline Aeroflot had a direct flight from Moscow to Havana, I couldn’t believe my luck. However, I soon realized that if something looks too good to be true, that’s probably because it is.

My first major problem came in the form of a short-lived visa crisis.

In order to legally travel to Cuba for the purpose of academic research, I had to receive permission from both the American and Cuban governments. On the U.S. end, I was traveling under the Office of Foreign Assets Control’s (OFAC) General License, which permits certain trips to Cuba, including educational travel for the purpose of research. On the Cuban end, I received an academic visa through the Institute of History of Cuba (IHC). However, I would first need to buy a “Tarjeta del Turista” (tourist card) in order to enter the country, before going to the IHC to pick up my academic visa. Generally, when people travel to Cuba, their airlines sell them the tourist card at the airport, or as part of the ticket price. I assumed that I would just get one in Sheremetevo airport before leaving Russia.

Then, the day before I was supposed to fly to Cuba, I learned that Russians are one of the few nationalities that do not need a tourist card. Consequently, my airline did not sell them. I read online that it would be possible to buy one upon arrival in Cuba, but that most airlines would not let passengers board without one.

To quell my fears, I paid a visit to Aeroflot’s corporate office on Stariy Arbat street. “Tourist card?” the attendant said quizzically, “I have never heard of that.” She put in some calls to her superiors, most of whom were similarly confused. Finally, she suggested that I go to the Cuban embassy to inquire about the card. Unfortunately, it was a Saturday evening and my flight was leaving Sunday morning. “Well,” she said, “Maybe a travel agency can sell you one.”

Trying to keep my cool, I visited one, two, three travel agencies. None of them had even heard of the tourist card.

Feeling defeated, I returned to the Aeroflot office. The attendant was concerned, but there was nothing that she could do. “If I were you,” she said, “I would show up at the airport tomorrow morning and try to get through. If they don’t let you on the plane, then you can try to switch your ticket to a later date and apply for the tourist card at the Cuban embassy.” I nodded my head. I didn’t seem like I had much of a choice.

At four o’clock the next morning, I dragged myself out of bed and took a taxi to Sheremetyevo airport. When I got there, the baggage drop-off line for Aeroflot had already snaked around the entire lobby. Even after living in Cuba for a whole semester, this was the longest line I had ever seen. The tourist card was no longer my biggest problem; if things didn’t start moving, I might miss my flight altogether.

But, if Russia has taught me anything, it’s how to be assertive. I fought my way through the baggage line and then the security line, ruffling a few feathers along the way. When I arrived at the gate, the plane was already boarding. I walked up to the check-in counter, handed my passport to the attendant, and smiled innocently. “Where’s your Cuban visa?” he asked me. “Oh, don’t worry, I am supposed to buy one in the Havana airport,” I said self-assuredly. “Are you sure? Who told you that?” he asked. “Well, I spoke with someone from the airport,” I replied, hoping that this white lie would not get me into trouble. He looked at me suspiciously, but then waved me along. Feeling a surge of relief, I dashed into the shuttle bus before he could change his mind.

When we finally touched down in Havana after a grueling thirteen-hour flight, I hoisted my backpack over my shoulder and speed-walked to the immigration desk. Fortunately, the process ended up being quite simple. I did have to wait about thirty minutes for the woman working at the desk to come back from her lunch break, but when she did she was happy to sell me the tourist card. Unable to believe my luck, I waltzed through passport control and to the baggage claim. By that time, almost everyone was gone, except for a crowd of angry people around the lost luggage counter. “What a bummer for them,” I thought, scanning the belt for my suitcase. But it was nowhere to be seen. It appeared that my luck had run out.

Thus began an action-packed two months in Cuba. I suffered for a few days in the tropical heat, wearing the same pair of jeans I had arrived in and desperately praying that my suitcase would turn up. Thankfully, it did. But I wasn’t out of the woods just yet. Havana welcomed me with both the usual challenges—food poisoning, shortages and bureaucratic red tape, to name just a few—and the unusual: a mysterious rash, a stolen wallet, and a run-in with a rusty barbed-wire fence that prompted a trip to the emergency room for a tetanus shot.

I had initially planned to conduct both interviews and archival research in Havana, but it became clear early on that it would be impossible to gain access to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Education archives. For one thing, I was a young American with a research project that, despite being historical in nature, was still politically sensitive. Beyond that, I had arrived in the middle of the summer, at a time when already-unpredictable institutions close up shop completely. Fortunately, if I had learned one thing during my semester in Havana, it was that you have to roll with the punches. No archives? No problem. I would focus on my interviews.

Over the course of my eight weeks in Cuba, I conducted nearly sixty interviews, with both Cuban diplomats and Cuban graduates of Soviet universities. I had arrived in the country with just a few names and phone numbers, convinced that I would have no trouble making connections once I was on the ground. And I was right; by leveraging the contacts I already had and then asking each interviewee to recommend others, I was able to build a full schedule of interviews.

Interview work was without a doubt the most gratifying part of my research. People opened their homes to me—a complete stranger—and shared intimate details of their lives as students in the Soviet Union. It was fascinating to listen to their anecdotes and reflections, and to learn about how their experiences have impacted their lives today. The majority of my interviewees recall their university years with great fondness and nostalgia; they were thrilled to have the chance to reminisce on this formative period of their lives. As we sipped on cup after cup of Cuban coffee, I heard stories of friendship and love, confusion and disappointment. Certain experiences were universal: the challenge of learning Russian, the shock of adapting to a new cuisine, climate, and drinking culture, the first time they saw the snow. Others were more personal: giving birth in a Soviet hospital, sneaking over the border to Romania, being subjected to a barrage of tests after the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. I feel very privileged to have had this rare window into the private lives of so many people. Their stories reinforce my belief that this research is valuable.

Conducting interviews also allowed me to explore parts of Havana that I wasn’t able to visit during my semester abroad. Some days I would have three back-to-back interviews on opposite ends of the city; this forced me to become an expert at navigating Havana’s bewildering bus routes. I was living in El Vedado, a quiet, mostly residential neighborhood, but my interviews took me everywhere from Centro Habana, with its maze of pothole-covered alleyways, to the glamorous mansions of Miramar and far-off corners of Boyeros and Guanabacoa. Although I was familiar with the public transportation, I always opted to walk if given the chance. Not only was this a way to escape the sweltering, suffocating city buses, but it also helped me gain a much richer understanding of life in Havana. As I sidestepped puddles and cracks in the sidewalk, I passed teens playing pickup basketball, old men engaged in fierce games of dominos, couples munching peso pizzas, and street venders hawking flowers, tamales, and plump avocados. At first, this was a sensory overload: teens selling WiFi cards, speakers blasting reggaeton music, men hurling catcalls from every corner. Eventually, though, I grew to love the frenzied pulse of the city.

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A shot of El Vedado neighborhood from the balcony of my apartment

 

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A scene from Centro Habana

My free time in Havana was limited, but I savored every second of it. Sunset jogs along the seawall, Saturday mornings at the beach, and afternoon shopping trips to the agromercado were a few of my favorite pastimes.

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A fisherman blowing up condoms to use as floats along the Malecón, Havana’s seawall

On my last weekend in Cuba, I took a short trip to Cienfuegos, a southern port city that was settled by French immigrants in the early 19th century. I had visited Cienfuegos once during my semester abroad, and was impressed by its stunning neoclassical architecture. I was also intrigued by the story of the Juraguá Nuclear Power Plant, whose solitary gray dome is just visible from across the bay. For years, the plant was a shining example of Soviet-Cuban collaboration, but it was abandoned—unfinished—when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and financing dried up. The plant is strictly off-limits to foreigners, but the nearby Ciudad Nuclear (Nuclear City), which was built to house its engineers and technicians, is still accessible. During my first trip to Cienfuegos, I skipped the Ciudad Nuclear; this time I made sure not to make the same mistake.

It was fascinating to wander through the town, which is nothing more than a few streets of apartment blocks, surrounded by farmland. Strolling past stray dogs and sleepy horses, I searched for traces of the Ciudad Nuclear’s peculiar past. The only clue I found was a curious pattern of bricks laid in spirals along the walls of the main avenue. Could they be an allusion to the shape of a nuclear reactor, or were they a mere coincidence?

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The mysterious brick swirls in the Ciudad Nuclear
I tried to picture in my mind what the Ciudad Nuclear might have looked like if the plant had been finished: engineers hurrying to work, freshly painted balconies, a sense of hope and prosperity. But all that was left of that dream was the name of the townand perhaps a few mysterious brick swirls.

I remembered the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl and wondered if Cuba had in fact dodged a bullet when the government decided to abandon the plant. Although Juraguá’s planned reactors were not the same as Chernobyl’s, any reactor is a risk—especially for a country that today lacks the necessary funds to maintain its most basic infrastructure. But then I thought of all of the nuclear engineers who had spent years training in the Soviet Union and in Cuba, only to be told one day that their life’s work would be dismantled. No story is single-sided.

As my time in Cuba drew short, I, too, began to feel a sense of nostalgia. My whirlwind research trip was coming to a close, and an even more challenging journey lay ahead: turning the heaps of documents and hours of interviews I had collected into a singular thesis. The prospect was daunting, but I felt motivated. I recalled the professors and advisors who had supported me when my research was still in its embryonic stages, the archivists who had transformed from grumpy gatekeepers into crucial allies, and the dozens of Russians and Cubans who had selflessly shared their stories with me. This project was theirs too.

Although my senior year is just beginning and many months of work still separate me from a finished product, I am confident that the memories of these adventures and the people who made them possible will motivate me to the very end.

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A Soviet flag flies above the Malecón from “Nazdorovie,” a Soviet-themed restaurant in Havana