I have a mandoline at home. It was a souvenir from my cruise on the Baltic Sea in 1964 from my school when one of the ports we visited was Leningrad as it was then known. Today it has become St. Petersburg again. We were 17 year old school girls and it was our last time spent together. After this journey some of us would all be leaving the school to begin our life in the working world and others would go on to university.
We were on the cruise ship, m.s. Devonia and there were three Russian ladies on board from the Intourist office of Russia to answer any questions we would have about our visit to the USSR as it was then called. They answered our questions and somewhere in the converstions the mention was made that music instruments could be bought, mainly balalaika of course.
Eventually we were let loose, all 40 of us, in Leningrad and we all made a bee-line for the department store, the music department. It was unbelievable that a balalaika cost only 8 rouble, which was next to nothing in those days. The result was that we emptied the store. The Russian ladies serving had never had such a sales day. Of course I joined in, but when I asked there were no more balaikas. they only had a few mandolines, which were a little more expensive, 12 rouble, still next to nothing. I chose my instrument and paid. We left a very astonished groups of salesladies behind us in a department store with no more stringed instruments to sell, the shelves were completely empty.
To prove the indentity of my instrument I just did a closeup of the label inside the body of the mandoline all in cyrillic letters. I can read cyrillic, but my eyes are not as good as they were. One of the words is Russian for “instrument” and another says something like “musical”. The manufactuers of the mandoline have a bird as their symbol. There is also a word meaning “factory” and after it a word which could mean “people”, so “people’s factory”, but in the days of communism everything belonged to the people if they had the money.
We had arranged to meet our teacher at the bus stop in Leningrad at a certain time to return to the ship which was moored in the harbour. Of course, we were all late, and met a very worried teacher with only half of us. Gradually we all arrived, each of us carrying a balalaika or mandoline. We decided it would be better to deposit our instruments in the purser’s office in the ship for safe keeping. Forget it. They must have had at least 100 instruments piled up to the ceiling in the office and could take no more, so mine spent the remainder of the cruise next to my bed, which was in a dormitry.
I still have my balaika to this day, it came from Russia to England and eventually to Switzerland where I now live. Mr. Swiss, being a drummer, knows his way in the music world, and even restrung my mandoline with new strings some years ago. This instrument is now over 50 years old – who knows, perhaps it is valuable. And me – I never learned to play it and I am sure in the fingers of a musician it would be wondrful to hear. I never learned to pluck any instruments, I was a piano player.