In Cuba, Russian Tourists Peer Into Soviet Past Cuba once relied on the Soviet Union for its food, cars, oil and, of course, missiles. Now, as relations with Moscow warm up again, the island is angling for a new Russian export: tourists. It's offering a growing number of Russian travelers a bit of nostalgia with their sun and sand.

In Cuba, Russian Tourists Peer Into Soviet Past

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LYNN NEARY, host:

Cuba used to get food, cars, oil, and at one point missiles, from the Soviet Union. Those days are gone, but the island is now hoping for a new Russian export: tourists. It's offering them a glimpse of a society that some Russians view with nostalgia. Nick Miroff reports from Havana.

NICK MIROFF: Translator Anice Rubio says that when Russian tourists land in Havana they often start to cry. Not because they've been sitting on a plane for 12 hours, but because they are so sentimental about the old Caribbean ally of the Soviet Union.

Ms. ANICE RUBIO (Translator): (Singing in foreign language)

(Speaking) Cuba, you're my love. You're like a red color.

MIROFF: They sing that at the airport here?

Ms. RUBIO: Yes, as they arrive they sing it.

MIROFF: Rubio grew up mostly in Moscow, but her parents are Cuban. She's been working in Cuba's tourism industry since the early 1990s, and this year the number of Russian visitors is expected to grow to an all-time high, with two direct flights added from Moscow and St. Petersburg.

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MIROFF: Russia was the guest of honor at a recent trade fair in Havana, held on the grounds of an 18th-century Spanish colonial fortress overlooking the city. There was live Russian folk music and free shots of Stolichnaya vodka. The travel posters on the wall promoting Siberian forests and Russian snowboarding looked a little out of place on a tropical island that restricts its own citizens from traveling, just as the Soviets once did.

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MIROFF: Anna Martynova is an official with Russia's Ministry of Sport, Tourism and Youth Policy.

Ms. ANNA MARTYNOVA (Russian Official): Frankly, Cuba doesn't have shopping. Cuba doesn't have, shall we say, five-star all-inclusive and everything. But Cuba offers a different thing.

MIROFF: Tourism companies in both countries are targeting Russians who like a little socialist melancholy with their sun and sand. U.S. travel restrictions still limit American visitors, of course, but just as they're likely to be flooded with 1950s nostalgia some day at the sight of Havana's old Chevrolet and mafia hotels, Martynova said Russians want to experience a part of their own history that's still a bit unsettled.

Ms. MARTYNOVA: In a way, because there's not so many Russians who are nostalgic for the socialist stuff, but they just want to get a glimpse maybe from times long past and feel something inside, some bittersweet stuff, I guess.

MIROFF: For some Russians, it's the sight of familiar Cuban products they remember from childhood, or the uniforms of smiling Cuban schoolchildren identifying them as communist pioneers. Other elements, like Cuba's ration-card system, aren't such fond memories.

Mr. ALEXANDER GUREEV (Saxophone Player): I learned a lot from Soviet Union history, because when I was young (unintelligible) Soviet Union and Cuba was a friend of Soviet Union. And now I can look by myself. But it's a great pleasure for me.

MIROFF: Alexander Gureev, a bear-shaped saxophone player, was flush-faced and sweating heavily in the tropical heat. Gureev had only been in the country for four days, but he said Cuba didn't seem nearly as grim as the Soviet system he was born into.

Mr. GUREEV: A very hot place, but people are very hot and powerful and like -it's near from States. It's a good place for a fantastic rest. And I understand why States are so seriously thinking about Cuba and it's a special problem.

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MIROFF: One visitor from Moscow says it's not that Russians want to go back to their Soviet system. But she said her compatriots now seem so consumed with earning money that there's little time for anything else. In Cuba, that is definitely not a problem.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.

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