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Cruising the high seas Soviet-style: hardly a proletarian experience

``Welcome aboard the M. S. Ilyich,'' says the slick four-color brochure, promising ``a journey with a very distinct difference.'' Truer words were rarely spoken.

The ``Ilyich'' is one of a fleet of ferries that ply the Baltic Sea, shuttling cars, trucks, and people between seaport cities like Helsinki, Stockholm, and Leningrad.

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But the ferries of the Baltic are a far cry from their working-class counterparts elsewhere. Their Soviet owners have elevated a basic form of transportation into something resembling a luxury cruise.

Computerized reservation services, glossy advertising brochures, and on-board conference facilities lure passengers. And once they're on board, they are pampered with white-linen dinner service, swimming pools, saunas, casinos, and duty-free shops. The aim, of course, is to turn a profit in the process.

It is somewhat surprising to find the Soviet Union among the operators of these floating fun spots.

Through the Soviet-owned Baltic Shipping Company, Moscow has run the Ilyich between the Swedish capital of Stockholm and the Port of Leningrad, for the past year.

The Ilyich takes its name from the patronymic of Vladmir Ilyich Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state. But there is nothing the least bit proletarian about the boat that carries his name. On this vessel, ideology has clearly been given second-class passage below deck -- or, in some cases, pitched overboard entirely.

The aim, it would appear, is to give Westerners the most positive introduction possible to the Soviet Union. Passengers, says Chief Purser Yuri Petrov, should be afforded an opportunity to ``become acquainted with the Soviet way of life . . . to see more of the Russian culture and the Russian people'' while on board.

And, indeed, some quintessentially Soviet practices do keep cropping up, despite the best efforts to give a Western burnish to this Soviet enterprise.

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In all, it makes for a highly interesting trip -- though not always the kind that Soviet authorities had in mind.

The Ilyich, which is 128 meters (420 feet) long and carries 380 passengers, is a study in contrasts with other Baltic ferries. Finland's Silja Line, for example, runs huge ferries like the Silvia Regina between Helsinki and Stockholm. Svelte, blue-suited Finnish cabin attendants greet embarking passengers in English, Swedish, or Finnish and show them to their cabins, answering myriad questions about the ship and its facilities.

On the smaller Ilyich, that role is taken by a no-nonsense corps of middle-aged Russian-speaking matrons. While pleasant enough, they do not engage in small talk. Indeed, the entire crew -- while mostly English-speaking -- seems to show little patience with questions.

American tourist Mark Rood says he was ``a bit surprised with the abruptness of the people taking care of passengers on the trip.''

``It's just that when you ask questions,'' he says, ``they seem to give you a very quick answer without being very polite.''

``They're sort of cold,'' his sister, Lisa, says. However, ``the accommodations have been nice,'' she adds.

Indeed, the cabins are clean and well-appointed in shades of rust and burnt umber. The Ilyich was built in Finland and reconditioned in Sweden, countries noted for their attention to design and mastery of detail. Nevertheless, the towels -- in clashing pink floral patterns -- are clearly a Soviet touch added later.

The Ilyich has not only the requisite casino, sauna, swimming pool, and duty-free shops: it also has an on-board video system tuned to Swedish television, supplying a steady diet of Western comedies, melodramas, and even rock videos -- programs that would be summarily banned in the Soviet Union itself.

The most attentive viewers seem to be the Soviet crew themselves, some of whom sit transfixed as a leotarded Jane Fonda leads a workout session dubbed in Swedish.

The crew, incidentally, are about the only Russians on board -- because few Soviets are allowed to travel to the West. The crew represents a privileged elite in Soviet society -- and seems to enjoy its status.

Announcements on the ship's public address system are dutifully made in Swedish, English, and Russian. But the duty-free price lists, for example, don't even bother to list items in Russian -- and won't accept payment in Soviet rubles, either.

On the A-deck, just behind the duty-free shops, there are banks of video games -- another Western pleasure denied in the Soviet Union. Some of the most enthusiastic patrons are Soviet crew members.

One space-war simulation game displays the initials of previous high-scoring players. The second-, third-, and fourth-place winner turns out to be a Russian employee. On her off-hours, she feeds Swedish kroner -- presumably tips -- into the machine and zaps incoming spacecraft like a pro. Nearby Soviet propaganda publications that warn against the militarization of outer space lie unread and, apparently, unheeded.

But the crew also finds other uses for the hard currency that forms a part of its wages. One use, it seems, is the purchase of as much Western clothing as possible -- preferably clothing that advertises its origin. One male attendant had a Western logotype on virtually everything he wore -- from his trademarked running shoes to his alligator-festooned belt to his designer-label shirt.

Indeed, it is sometimes hard to determine who's really enjoying the cruise more -- the crew or the passengers.

In the ship's sauna, for example, two waiters -- chortling in Russian over their adeptness at slipping away from work early -- promptly appropriated most of the available space for themselves, leaving paying customers with few places to sit. As they lay in a steamy torpor, they agreed that a job on board the Ilyich was ``very good'' indeed.

Passengers questioned at random rated the food service adequate but unexceptional. After the evening meal, some crew members donned costumes and engaged in a lively round of Russian folk dancing. This entertainment is rated among the most popular aspects of the cruise. But for this, too, payment is accepted only in foreign currency.

The opportunity to take in foreign currency may provide the Soviet government's rationale for operating the Ilyich in the way it does.

The official Soviet explanation for running the ferry is to satisfy numerous requests from Swedish tourists. To that end, a number of package tours are offered that combine a cruise with sightseeing in Leningrad. An eight-day tour, including hotels and several meals in Leningrad, costs only about $300 a person.

Still, the Ilyich often runs only half-full. On a recent cruise, during the height of the summer tourist season, the crew nearly equalled the passengers. There were some 170 passengers, which a crew member said was ``normal,'' and some 135 crew members.

The vessel, designed to hold up to 345 passenger cars or 30 tractor-trailer trucks, had only three cars and one truck on this August crossing. Clearly, the Ilyich is not packing in tourists at anything close to capacity.

Some Western analysts don't find that too surprising. They speculate that the Ilyich may provide a useful cover for electronic intelligence-gathering as it steams back and forth through the Swedish archipelago, and that this activity is of far greater value to the Soviet government than the tourist dollars that the Ilyich brings in.

The Soviets clearly have an extraordinary interest in Swedish waters, since they have sent submarines to prowl in them for years. But such exercises carry risks, as, for example, when a Soviet submarine ran aground near the top-secret Swedish naval base at Karlskrona in 1981. Subsequent reports of repeated Soviet submarine penetrations caused a chill in relations between the two countries that is only now beginning to thaw.

But the Swedish government continues to require that a Swedish pilot be on board during the first part of the journey. The Soviets, proud of their maritime prowess, say they are perfectly capable of piloting the boat themselves. The Swedes -- citing possible language difficulties in ship-to-shore communication -- take no chances, and keep a pilot on board until the Ilyich has steamed out of the Swedish archipelago.

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