ON THE ROAD IN THE SOVIET UNION -- It is a long road from Moscow to Yalta by car -- about the same distance as the trek from New York to St. Louis. But that's where the comparison must end -- abruptly, like one of the potholes in Melitopol, a bleak town of yawning craters in the Ukraine.
In theory, the trip should give a feeling of the immense sweep and drama of Russian landscape and history. The road is the same one Leo Tolstoy used to take from Moscow to his estate at Yasnaya Polyana, and Ivan Turgenev to his estate at Spasskoye Lutovinovo, and that Anton Chekhov took to Yalta itself. The route, which drops like a plumb line south from Moscow, takes you through the "black earth" zone, past the famous World War II tank battlefield at Kursk, onto the Zaparozhe Sech, where Cossacks once gathered, to the Crimea, the legendary Black Sea peninsula made famous by ancient Greek settlers, Florence Nightingale, Chekhov, Franklin Roosevelt and others.
However, theories pale beside the reality of hours and hours in single-lane traffic behind trucks that look as if they came out of the Dust Bowl, of miles and miles without a sit-down toilet, and town after town without a decent place to eat or even just a cup of coffee.
The idea behind the trip, made with another American correspondent in a four-door Soviet-made Fiat, was to see the Soviet Union from behind the wheel. It is something not everyone in this country has the chance to do: Most Soviet citizens do not have cars, and although tourists could make the trip, they would have to file more detailed travel plans than we did -- and their logistical challenge would be considerably greater.
Few people recommended the route we took: For scenery, they proposed the Georgian military highway; for convenience, they suggested an airplane. "You are powerful women," said the hotel clerk in Yalta, when we pulled in at midnight after crossing the mountains in rain and fog with nonfunctioning windshield wipers.
But in a country where most things are planned (even if only in theory), the idea of hitting the road was appealing. Yalta, a resort city of European charm, seemed a good destination. After informing the Foreign Ministry of our route, we left Moscow in the pouring rain one Saturday afternoon with a tent, two sleeping bags and a supply of mineral water, soft drinks, beer, cheese and crackers. As it turned out, the cheese and crackers were breakfast, lunch and dinner for most of the trip.
We did make a detour into the center of Kharkov, a city in the Ukraine, for a meal of vareniki, Ukrainian dumplings with a choice of stuffings: sweet cheese, potatoes with mushrooms, or ground meat. This was a major treat. First, the dumplings were tasty, and second, there was a choice -- which made this stolovaya (diner) stand out from all others.
Otherwise, stolovayas are pretty skippable. One visit gives you the flavor. You take a tray, stand in line and watch ladies in white coats reach into steaming vats and ladle first some broth, then one or two pieces of grizzled meat, into a soup bowl; you pick up a glass of heavily sweetened hot tea, a plate of cucumbers and maybe some ground meat with noodles; pay a pittance; grab tin flatware and take a seat at a row of long dreary tables, brightened, surprisingly, by bouquets of fresh flowers.
The driving -- there and back -- took four days. We breezed through towns whose names translate into First Soldier, Free Sickle, Brick and Chicken, dozens of state farms named after Lenin, as well as the cities of Tula, Kursk, Orel and Simferopol. Villages with painted wooden houses, ornate windframes and abundant lilac bushes alternated with rows of the ubiquitous five-story apartment blocks. Occasionally, an old church graced a main street and in the villages, carts pulled by horses in heavy wooden yokes would plug along slowly, guided by a sleepy babushka (grandmother) or dedushka (grandfather) dangling their legs over the edges of the cart.
Both nights on the road we camped out -- although not at the "kemping" grounds at the Zaporozhe: A sour-faced woman there said the grounds were for "kemping," not in tents but in little huts, which also looked skippable.
We spent that night on the banks of a river, alongside a family of fishermen. The other night we spent on the edge of a state farm, where a rider on horseback swooped by to inspect our gear at sunset, around 10:30 p.m. Otherwise, both nights in the Russian countryside were uneventful -- except for a sudden blast of rock music about 1 a.m. from trucks that had pulled over for the night.
A word or two about Soviet trucks. Given the state of the roads, it is a good thing there are no double trailers. Weaving in and out of a row of Kamaz trucks, around potholes, is bad enough. Most trucks carry uncovered loads, which provides a display of the Soviet economy on wheels, as spare tires, spare parts, spare engines trundle past. In cities, the loads become more varied: cabbages, mattresses, brooms, even bones have been spotted, piled high on truck beds.
Setting out, we were braced for frequent stops at gai road posts, where uniformed traffic policemen in glass booths keep an eye on the passing traffic. Our license plate clearly identified us as American correspondents, and ours was one of only three foreigners' cars we saw during the whole trip.
In fact, we were never stopped for a documents check: Apparently the notice of our route had been well distributed. But we were stopped for traffic violations -- in three out of four cases for exceeding the speed limit in villages.
"Comrade driver," said one militiaman with a tip of his hat, "this is not a way to drive." "Why are you being hooligans?" queried another. Chastened and contrite, we were able to avoid the dreaded punch on the license, three of which in the space of a year can lead to loss of driving privileges.
The car, nearing its third year on Soviet roads, had its own problems. The windshield wipers conked out twice, and just as we were crossing the mountains into Yalta, the fuel line began to protest. An elderly hitchhiker took us to a friend's house, where with typical Soviet resourcefulness an amateur mechanic performed repairs that official service stations in Moscow -- charging exorbitant rates in hard currency -- had never been able to fathom.
There were two moments of trouble on the road. One involved getting stopped on a closed road outside Yalta on the way to Bakhchiserai. Such is the hazard of traveling in a country where what is closed is known only to local police and a few officials back in Moscow. Guidebooks and maps are designed to leave you guessing.
In this case, after creeping over a twisting road in dense fog, we were spotted coming down the mountain and escorted to the local police. It was only two days after a small West German airplane had landed in Red Square, causing heads to roll in the Soviet military, and the militia station at Bakhchiserai was not eager to take lightly the discovery of foreigners on a closed road. At the final count, 10 people were involved in the case, which took three hours and five forms to resolve, culminating in the payment of a 50 ruble fine each back in Moscow. We pointed out that an army officer in uniform, whom we had stopped for directions, had been the one to show us the forbidden mountain road. This had no effect.
The second incident took place on the way back to Moscow, not far from the village of Nenashevo,which means "not ours." It was a bad omen.
A flock of sheep bounded up from a ravine and onto the road in front of the car. We braked and swerved, but could not avoid hitting one of the sheep, injuring its leg.
"Fifty rubles or I will take you to the police and it will be worse," said a bleary-eyed shepherd who bounded onto the road behind the sheep. It was our only accident in 1,800 miles and more 40 hours of driving, and we were understandably distraught.
The shepherd, feeling right was on his side, pushed his case. Learning we were Americans, he announced he was a war veteran. Asked what difference that made, he said, "Everything," and added that he was also a former "gaishnik" -- or traffic policeman -- and said he had a secret pocket radar with which he had clocked us.
It was pointless to argue, and his threat about going to the police was very real. We settled up with him and pressed on.
As we neared Moscow, it was time to jot down what was good about road travel in the Soviet Union. We came up with something: road signs, which tell you periodically when phones, gas, stolovayas and "kemping" are coming up.
Gas also was plentiful -- although expensive at 12 rubles for a 30-liter tank. The whole trip cost about 100 rubles in gas, or $162 dollars at the official rate of exchange. And people were mostly pleasant, from the police to the playful driver from Krasnograd who trailed us at high speed along the four-lane stretch in the Ukraine, to the truckers who invariably flashed their lights to warn of speed traps ahead.
It was easier listing what was lacking -- cafe's, good asphalt, and clean bathrooms. But, as one Soviet travel writer pointed out, "in many ways, this country is still not prepared for tourists." Particularly those behind a wheel.