Nuclear subs, bear cubs & Fidel Castro's other legendary adventures in the USSR (RARE PHOTOS)
Propelled to power by the Cuban Revolution in 1959, and having instantly become a role model for revolutionary movements, Fidel Castro first visited the USSR in 1963, aged 36. Four years prior to his visit, Havana established diplomatic ties with Moscow. Having been the Soviet Union's ally during the Cold War, relations between the two nations' leaders cooled in 1962, when USSR's Nikita Khrushchev removed Soviet missiles from the Caribbean island following an agreement with American President John F. Kennedy. Castro said the Soviet leader did it all behind his back.
To sugar the pill for Castro, Khrushchev proffered him a personal invitation to travel to the USSR. The visit turned out to be a 38-day tour all around the country.
Castro arrived in the USSR amid top secrecy in late April 1963. Instead of heading to Moscow, his non-stop flight from Havana landed in Russia's city of Murmansk. The base of Soviet submarines, located in that northern region in the town of Severodvinsk, was the Cuban leader's first destination. He was the only foreigner to be allowed to set foot to a nuclear sub, and he got all excited about it. The Soviet military even showed him a loaded nuclear missile.
Starting from the country's north, Castro then visited more places in Russia and then Soviet republics than any other foreign and even Soviet leader. Everywhere he went, he got a warm welcome from the Soviet people, and that's what he said he loved most of all.
When touring Siberia, the Cuban revolutionary leader's train got surrounded by lumberjacks, who somehow learnt Castro was in their area and refused to leave before they saw him with their own eyes. Fidel heard the noise outside, and went to see. He was caught on the train's footstep wearing just his under shirt, while outside it was severe Siberian winter. The men didn't want the legendary figure to leave without talking to them, and offered him a warm quilted jacket. Castro was so touched that he wanted to give the men something back, but only found three cigars in his trouser pocket. He gave them to the large crowd of men, with each of them taking just one puff before passing it on. The scene brought tears to the Cuban's eyes. "In the West, no one would have behaved that way. A person who got the cigars first would have pocketed them. Now I understand the strength behind the Russian people," Castro said.
On his visit to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, Castro expressed a wish to go to a local department store. Uzbekistan's minister of trade was put behind the counter to serve the Cuban leader, who was buying a leather belt. Fidel was furious, saying he wanted to meet the ordinary people and not the officials.
Another similar incident that happened in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) was even reported to Khrushchev. During one of the meetings, Castro was presented with flowers by a little girl. Castro asked her to tell him which kindergarten she attended, and later said he wanted to go there to meet his little friend. Castro's wish caught officials off guard, and they tried to avoid such a visit by all means, but the Cuban leader insisted. In the end, he was taken to a kindergarten with a shiny plate with the number Fidel remembered, where he was again met by the girl. Castro asked the child to show him around, but the girl replied: "I'm so sorry, I can still get lost, it's only my second day here!" It turned out that the girl was from a poorer orphanage, and the officials had transferred her to an exemplary one to show off to Castro, and replaced the sign on it.
Castro criticized the authorities' "flashiness" at an official dinner later. "You do many things to impress. I don't need it. You are building a metro in the city, but stop such important works because of the motorcade driving me around, to be able to comfortably pass through the area. I'm not an arrogant man, I could have taken a side road not to disturb," he told Soviet officials.
During his visit to Lake Baikal, where he was fishing with Soviet geologists, he was one day approached by a young man with a bear cub. The man said he had traveled through the taiga to see the Cuban revolutionary leader talking to people at some public rally in the region, but accidentally met him in the wilderness of the lake. He gave Castro his bear as a present, which Fidel later named Baikal. The bear then traveled with Castro to Cuba. Although provided with best conditions possible in one of the Cuban leader's residences, the animal sadly died several years later, unable to adopt to the hot climate of the Caribbean.