Soviet American Review 15, No 2, insert
Click here for a Ukrainian translation by Irma Alexseeva of writingsessay.com
The Soviet immigration officer peered intently at my face, comparing it several times to the photograph stapled onto the visa form. The silence made his khaki uniform and hammer-and-sickle emblem all the more foreboding. Finally he spoke in a harsh, deep voice, "turist, pervoie visitnya na Cobetskie Coyuz?" My three months of study with cassette tapes might have prepared me for this remark, but I was expecting English. One of the other travelers quickly translated, "tourist, first time in the Soviet Union?" The same words were typed on the visa form, and I'd managed to read them. I responded, in English, "yes, I'm a tourist visiting for the first time," and the officer silently pushed my passport through the slot in his tiny booth and waved me on.
My father and I signed up with an American group which advertised a "people to people" tour, claiming that they had many "contacts" in the Soviet Union, and that we would be helping to build "bridges for peace." I naively assumed they would eagerly accept my offer to share my contacts with new informal political movements in Moscow. For the first time dissenting citizens can legally organize political groups which are independent of the Communist Party.
I was shocked when the national office of our tour organization sent a mailing claiming that many dissidents were really black market operators and that meeting with them wasn't important because their views were well publicized in the American press. Then they sent us a free copy of an atrocious Soviet travel guidebook full of crude Orwellian distortions of history. The sort of thing which the Soviets no longer teach in their own schools. I feared we were in the hands of a group of starry eyed fellow travelers, and regretted informing them of my plans.
My anxieties continued through the long wait for our bags, but the customs officer waved us through without even opening our gift laden suitcases. Cynthia, our American group leader, wasn't a naive Soviet apologist, as I had feared, but a savvy doctoral student in slavic languages who did her best to smooth our way with the authorities.
The enormous, multi-entranced, maze-like Rossia hotel is just off Red Square, and we were still wide awake although it was almost midnight local time. My father and I strolled through the impressive, beautifully lit, red brick square and soon came upon a crowd watching the honor guard at Lenin's tomb. The solemn midnight ceremony left us with a feeling of awe as our first day in the Soviet Union came to an end.
Cynthia advised us to use pay phones when calling Soviet citizens, since the hotel telephones might be bugged. Each room had an electronic device prominently installed on the ceiling, but we were undecided whether they were microphones or smoke detectors. My first call was to Viktor, a young leader of the Civic Dignity group who had promised Alex Amerisov, my journalist contact in Chicago, that he would show us around Moscow and introduce us to the most interesting people in the informal political movements. The woman who answered his phone spoke no English, but I understood that Viktor was out of town and would be back in three days. His sister Anna would be home later in the evening. We had only five days in Moscow and couldn't wait for Viktor's return to make contact and unload the tapes and tape recorders which were stashed away in our suitcases.
My next call was to Evgeniya, a well known dissident and leader of the Trust Group, a small pacifist organization which supports conscientious objectors and human rights in general. Her phone was answered by a young man who spoke perfect American English. He explained that he had lived in southern California for a number of years as a child, but was now living in the Ukraine and crashing in Evgeniya's apartment during a visit to Moscow. Evgeniya was in the countryside for the day and wouldn't be home until about ten, but he was sure it would be o.k. for us to come over after dinner and visit with him until she arrived.
Evgeniya's apartment was on the 8th floor of a typical Moscow apartment building, somewhat run down but surrounded by grass and trees. The building's door was open and unattended, and we took the small elevator with doors that opened and closed manually. The apartment was small, with two twin beds, couch, chairs and an electric typewriter on a small desk in the living room, a small kitchen and bath. We knew that the informal political groups reproduced their newsletters by typing them over and over with multiple carbon copies.
Andy offered us some tea, apologizing for the fact that there was no sugar, and launched into his well rehearsed life story. His father had been posted as a Soviet diplomat in Iraq, and his mother left him and fled to the United States when Andy was eight. They settled in California where he entered the third grade with no knowledge of English. He learned quickly, however, and made several close friends whose names he immediately recited. His mother never adjusted to life in the United States and in 1972 she decided to return, taking 14 year old Andy with her against his will. Since his return, he has been involved in numerous protest demonstrations and suffered the consequences. While in the army he proclaimed his belief in Jesus and was sent to a mental hospital when he refused to declare publicly that God did not exist. He was diagnosed schizophrenic by his regimental commander without seeing a mental health professional.
Andy's childhood friends in California seem to have let him down, at least no one has sent him the invitation to visit or emigrate which he desperately desires. His main contact has been with a woman who believes in extra-terrestrials and reincarnation. This woman claims that in previous incarnations Andy was Montezuma and Kon Tiki and founded important civilizations in Central and South America. She herself was the Egyptian goddess Izita. She receives telepathic instructions from the extra-terrestrials, who told her Andy had been sent to the Soviet Union to gather information for 13 years, but that he would then return to the United States.
I finally suggested, "if these extra terrestrials want you to go to the United States, surely they have the capability to transport you themselves?" He responded, "no, I expect to go in an airplane like everyone else," his faith in the extra-terrestrials unshaken by our skepticism.
By this time it was past eleven, and my father and I were tired and uncertain about finding our way back to the hotel. We were reluctant to leave our gifts with Andy, since there was no way of knowing whether he might receive telepathic instructions from the extra-terrestrials, or what they might be. We changed the topic, asking him about the informal political groups to which he belonged.
He told us about Democracy and Humanism, a seminar which meets once or twice a week to discuss political theories and current events. Discussion focuses on the "white spots" of Soviet history which are neglected or whitewashed in Soviet textbooks and in the press. Many members also take part in demonstrations for the liberation of Soviet prisoners of conscience. The Democratic Union, a new political party which was announced on May 7, 1988, calls for a pluralist democratic society in which all parties will have the opportunity to compete freely for power. It avoids arguments about "socialism" or "capitalism" as abstract systems, asserting simply that the most progressive economy is the one which works best in a given situation.
Finally Evgenia returned home. A trim, businesslike young woman with a narrow face, sparkling eyes and a prominent nose, she immediately understood who we were since Alex had called from Chicago to say we were coming. It was late, so we arranged to meet later at our hotel, leaving behind some of our gifts including two pairs of blue jeans that fitted us overweight Americans but not our svelte Soviet friends.
Andy was now free to walk us to the bus stop, but it was after midnight and we weren't sure we'd know where to get off to transfer to the metro. Fortunately, a small black private car, a Soviet version of a ten year old Fiat, came along and Andy negotiated a fare of five rubles to the Rossia Hotel. The driver was excited to have Americans in his car, and launched into an animated critique of Soviet society as we careened through the streets of Moscow.
His father had been sent to Czechoslovakia to shoot people, and now his brother was doing the same in Afghanistan. His English was as limited as my Russian, so he dramatized his point by turning to face us in the back seat, holding an imaginary gun in his hands and making machine gun noises. My father pleaded with me, "can't you ask him to slow down? There's no hurry now." I couldn't remember the word for slow, and listened helplessly while the driver lamented about how he gets nothing for working harder on his day job, and asked for the five rubles right away because he didn't want the police or official taxi drivers in front of the Hotel to see him taking money. When I told him I lived near Philadelphia he lit up and asked about the Flyers.
We joined the cluster of tourists, taxi drivers and black market operators hanging out in front of the hotel and waited. No one was patronizing Baskin and Robbins ice cream parlor, for hard currency customers only, which marred the hotel's frontage on Red Square. Several of our new Russian friends were there, and we introduced them to members of the tour group. Anna was late and I tried to guess what she might look like. The only person who seemed to be looking for someone was a blue eyed, cherub faced, curvaceous young woman with full red lips and dark eye make-up, wearing a stylish blue sheath dress, high heeled shoes and large silver earrings. She looked like an actress or model, and would have fitted in perfectly in New York or Hollywood. Later I learned that she was, in fact, trying to get established as an actress, as well as working with the Civic Dignity group and with a collective which offered computerized information services.
Every guest in the Rossia hotel has a pass card which is used to get by the doorman and to get one's room key from the concierge. We were supposed to get passes for visitors by registering them in an office somewhere in the hotel, but I wasn't eager to have our guests on record. Fortunately, the doorman let the whole crowd through when a few of us showed our passes, and we proceeded to cram the whole group into our small hotel room. Our guests agreed that the room might be bugged, but all of their activities are legal and they refuse to be inhibited by the possibility that the authorities might be listening.
I was eager to learn about Civic Dignity, and Anna tried to explain how its philosophy differed from that of the other informal groups. Andy served as a most able translator. She explained that, "Civic Dignity believes that Soviet citizens' feelings of patriotism and commitment to the common good have atrophied during the years of oppression. A true citizen in any society will not be enslaved, and will work to see that freedom and human rights are not violated." Civic Dignity collects information about human rights problems and passes it on to groups abroad. They have succeeded in getting several people released from prison.
I asked, "is it possible to be a member of the Communist Party and also belong to Civic Dignity?" "It is possible," she replied, "since our goal is to promote citizen participation, not to advance a particular ideology. Many people, however, are afraid to join, or believe that it is a group for professional politicians or full time activists. Our goal is to build a society where ordinary people will feel completely comfortable about taking an active role in public affairs."
Note: this may not be exactly the same as the version published in the Soviet American Review.