Vodka on the Malecon

Traces of Soviet Influence Are Still Visible in Havana
Dmitri Prieto-Samsonov at the bar; photo by Marcel Dufresne

They are the forgotten minority in Cuba, ex-Soviets who stayed behind after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Their culture registers barely a blip on most tourist agendas, and their proletarian contribution to Cuban architecture is universally disdained. Nevertheless, I was quite pleased to find a visit to Nazdarovie, a Havana club specializing in food and culture from the former Soviet republics, included on my June tour with InsightCuba.

Nazdarovie is “basically about persons” and not politics, said our host, Dmitri Prieto-Samsonov, who alternately calls himself Cuban-Russian or Russian-Cuban (take your pick), and who works as a social anthropologist, lawyer, and activist when he’s not at the club. Although open to the public, Nazdarovie is primarily a place for Cubans with Soviet ties to share their common heritage and reminisce about their Cold War–era alliance. Any American old enough to recall the Cuban missile crisis will never forget when that alliance pushed the world close to nuclear war; and the buddy photos of Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev displayed at the Hotel National in Havana can still bring a chill. But aside from the hulking Stalinesque high-rises that cast unwelcome shadows throughout Havana, it’s easy enough now to forget that the Soviets were ever even there.

As for Nazdarovie, by luck or design it is housed inside a handsome Spanish-style building on Havana’s famous seaside Malecon Boulevard. If it weren’t for the Soviet flag flying from the balcony and a placard outside advertising “Restaurante Sovietico,” it wouldn’t stand out. Inside, however, it’s a different world, with folkloric painted plates, Soviet-Cuban friendship posters, and historic photos on the walls. Premium vodkas have a prominent display behind the bar, and you can count on finding traditional borscht and salmon with caviar on the menu.

People come to Nazdarovie “to share the memory of personal and national relationships,” said Prieto-Samsonov, who researches the Soviet diaspora in Cuba. He blogs for the online Havana Times, whose website pledges to provide “open-minded writing from Cuba.” The son of an Asian-Cuban father and a Russian mother, Prieto-Samsonov was born in Moscow in 1972 and lived in Russia until he was thirteen. The family typically vacationed in Cuba, cementing his early ties to the island. “We are not as visible as other minorities,” he said, with only about five thousand living in Cuba today.

Binational families were formed when Soviet diplomats and workers married Cubans, or when Cubans went to the Soviet Union to study, as many did, and fell in love. When the Soviet Union started to fall apart in 1989 it canceled all its contracts with Cuba. “For Russians, it was a very difficult moment,” said Pietro-Samsonov. Almost all the Soviet workers soon returned home, painfully severing many personal and familial relationships.

“Some people have nostalgia for the Soviet Union,” he said, “but not for Putin’s Russia.”

One reason I was especially eager to visit Nazdarovie is that I felt a bit nostalgic for the Soviet Union myself. As a journalist I first traveled there in 1983. I fell in love with the people through their theater, in which all that couldn’t be said publicly was being said, subtly but courageously, on stages in Leningrad and Moscow. 

I returned to Russia in 1989 to glasnost, perestroika, and heady anticipation of globe-rocking change. In 1989, America was focused on what the collapse of the Soviet Union meant to us and to our allies. Meanwhile, Cuba was entering an extended period of economic devastation and even outright starvation. Cubans call this period—in an Orwellian phrase that eerily evokes Communist Party doublespeak—“the Special Period in Time of Peace.”

The nearly three decades since then have been hard ones. A Havana psychologist studying income inequality told my tour group that while most Cubans were poor before 1989, it felt like all were in the same boat. When the Soviets left, and only the powerful and connected stayed afloat, the government’s equality myth was exposed, resulting in a “crisis of faith.” Cuba has been changing for a long time, the psychologist said, and that change has accelerated since Raúl Castro cracked the door open to capitalism. So what will happen now, with Fidel Castro dead, Donald Trump the U.S. president-elect, and Raúl Castro stepping down from the presidency in 2018?

Will Havana again become a tourist mecca and celebrity playground? Or will the Castro family give way to a Cuban Putin? People tend to compare Cuba with Russia, the psychologist said, because both are Socialist countries, “but first of all you have to take into account that we are not Russians. That is a big difference.” Cubans have far more exposure to American culture, she said, and young Cubans, who didn’t grow up with the Soviets as their protectors, trust themselves “rather than trusting the government.” But that doesn’t mean they have soured on socialism—and interestingly, they may have some new allies in this to the north. Many young Americans, upset by inequality and the power of big money, don’t have the same negative impression of socialism as the previous generation. They want a stronger safety net, and collectivism isn’t a dirty word to them.

How these generational shifts might play out in each country, and in relations between the countries, is anybody’s guess. It’s not surprising that many Cubans remain grateful to Moscow—not least for its agreeing, in 2013, to write off $32 billion of Cuba’s $35 billion Soviet debt. More surprising is that average Cubans are so friendly toward the United States, which pushed them into the arms of the Soviets by instituting a punishing embargo in 1960, and a year later launching the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in an attempt to topple the Castro regime.

The thaw in U.S.–Cuban relations has triggered a deluge of American tourists. The day I had lunch at Nazdarovie with my InsightCuba group, however, the only other customers were two young Russian men on vacation. Why, I asked, had they come to Cuba? “For the sun and the chicas,” they said.

As for Vladimir Putin, while his country’s alliance with Cuba may look like a historical relic, it would be premature to count it out. Cuban President Raul Castro recently approached Putin about a new contract to buy oil from Russia, Cuba’s major supplier before 1991. Cuba has gone shopping for oil because Venezuela, its main supplier since 1991, is in a deep economic and political crisis. An oil deal could be part of a broader renewed Russian influence with Cuba. In September, Reuters reported that words like “democracy,” “human rights,” and “protest” were being blocked for Cuban internet users. Despite the Obama administration’s push to link U.S. internet providers with Cuba, Reuters indicated, Cuban authorities seem more eager to work with Russia on cybersecurity. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress stubbornly refuses to finish what Obama started—end the fifty-five-year-old U.S. embargo, and make friends with the companionable people of a nation just ninety miles off the Florida coast.

Trump has said he won’t support lifting the embargo without new concessions from the Cuban government, despite having circumvented the embargo himself when it suited his business interests. Given his reluctance to separate his family business empire from his presidency, perhaps the lure of a Trump hotel along the Malecon will modify his stance.

The president-elect has criticized Obama’s easing of travel and trade restrictions and vowed to roll them back unless the Cuban government meets U.S. demands—an action that, besides disappointing American tourists and hurting emerging Cuban businesses, would likely push Cuba further back into Russia’s orbit. We can only wonder how a revitalized Cuba-Russia alliance would sit with Trump, who has praised Putin’s strong leadership. Would it fire up his competitive instincts?

Meanwhile, Americans streaming south to explore the latest exotic vacation hotspot should not be surprised to hear so many Cubans still saying, in Russian, “Spasiba” (“thank you”).

Published in the January 6, 2017 issue: 

Bethe Dufresne, a frequent contributor, is a freelance writer living in Old Mystic, Connecticut.

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