(Second story in an occasional series about one reporter’s travels and experiences.)
His eyes told the story. A sudden look of surprise carrying a little bit of fear. Eyebrows raised.
“What’s up?” I quietly asked my 21-year-old translator in Red Square, the historic red-brick area in Moscow considered the geographic heart of the nation.
“He says he is from the KGB and we are to come with him,” was the reply.
The slender, stern-appearing Russian secret policeman wearing a trench coat (really) did not utter another word. He led us across the Square to a guard house in the Kremlin wall at a decent clip, where he spoke in crisp, authoritative-sounding Russian to a uniformed man.
Then Mr. KGB marched away, presumably to match wits with the CIA, leaving us in the care of this bewildered soldier who wondered what the heck to do with us.
We were busted for talking.
The country was still the Soviet Union, the U.S.S.R., not simply Russia, at least for the time being. General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost, breaths of freedom, were being introduced.
I was testing the limits of those freedoms in this era just before the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union imploded with countries breaking away like sea ice in the Arctic affected by global warming.
We were performing man-in-the-street interviews with passing strangers, my sidekick asking people in Russian for me what they thought of Gorbachev’s initiatives.
Sometimes, when informed I was an American reporter, people ran away. Some offered cautious opinions about what might be next for the long-time communist dictatorship.
Then, we randomly selected a KGB agent to quiz.
Coming full circle
While Russia is worth the ocean crossing to see historic sights, including Red Square, the theme of wariness 30 years ago should still be applied today.
Don’t trust the Russkies.
Just ask special counsel Robert Mueller. Maybe not Russian President Vladimir Putin.
That Vlad, he would never interfere in an American election. He was looking the other way when all those indicted Russians were playing with their computers.
It has been at least a century since the words trust and Russia reliably appeared in the same American sentence.
Start with the Russian Revolution of 1917. Remember Lenin? He is still reposing in his tomb, mummified in Red Square (looking pretty good for someone who hasn’t budged since 1924).Then came the massacre of Czar Nicholas II and his family in Siberia in 1918.
It has basically been 40 forevers since the United States and Russia have been on the same page except for a timeout during World War II when they were our infamous allies because Hitler’s Germany was the greater menace. Russia became a Cold War enemy 90 seconds after the war ended.
Seriously, who wanted to be friendly with Joe Stalin for long? Estimates run to 20 million as the number of his own people he had killed. History remembers Stalin as the guy with the gulags.
No surprise that after the Berlin wall toppled and satellite Eastern European countries under Soviet domain declared independence, Stalin statue teardowns became a popular sport. Nobody wanted too see his face at all.
Lots of imitation Lenins bit the dust, too, hinting the populace was not so keen on Communism.
Soviet Union’s final days
Enter the optimistic Gorbachev, who believed it was a higher priority that Russians eat than bomb other nations, that his country build a sturdy economy rather than tear down American capitalism.
My trip to the Soviet Union came courtesy of a New Hampshire-based group called The Forum for U.S.-Soviet Dialogue which believed everyday citizens (under 40) conversing with similar counterparts perhaps could establish personal relationships to pay peaceful dividends in the future. In terms of making a difference, the answer was, “Nah,” but the experience was worthy.
These conferences annually alternated countries and I was a delegate to three, one in Denver, one in Virginia and one in the Soviet Union and even served a term on the board of directors.
For most, it was our first trip to the Evil Empire. I was hassled at the Moscow airport, a stoic-faced customs man claiming I didn’t look like my visa picture. He should have seen some of my newspaper column mugs. Eventually, he stamped the visa.
Our stolid USSR hotels were of Stalin-era vintage construction, 1930s to early 1950s. Expedia.com currently lists 10 five-star hotels in Moscow alone, including a Crowne Plaza, Marriott, and Radisson.
The old hotels employed floor ladies to sit in hallways and sniff out troublemakers. They seemed to be paid by the frown and were more spy-like than helpful concierges.
Upon entering our rooms we glanced upwards to the light fixture, trying to determine if that’s where the KGB stashed the hidden microphone. Couldn’t be sure, but we were pretty sure we would run across Boris and Natasha at some point.
When I visited, GUM (pronounced goom), was the Sears of the Eastern bloc. It is now called State Department Store. It was the best thing around, but would not be confused with Tiffany’s (or Sears) in terms of high-end merchandise.
Shops on Red Square were worse off than U.S. stores during the Depression. A butcher shop sold a slab of something that was salty and unappetizing in appearance. Some dared to use the word rancid. None of our meals were memorable. There was a State Department advisory warning against drinking tap water and even bottled water tasted metallic. Pepsi was the savior. My weeks in the Soviet Union represent the only time I ever brushed my teeth with cola.
These days, it is possible to buy first-class furs, vodka, chocolate and cavier in Moscow. There is even a Calvin Klein.
In contrast, on my venture to the dark side in beautiful Leningrad (before it switched names back to St. Petersburg), there was considerable street action. In the shadow of Peter The Great’s marvelous constructs, young people approached, beckoning with loud “Psst” whispers. They offered rubles for my watch, or rubles for my jeans, leaving unaddressed the issue of what I would wear out of the alley if I sold my pants.
As of the end of this May, the ruble was worth 1 1/2 cents per American dollar, meaning buying one of those furs might set you back a billion rubles. Wonder if the Russian version of the Clint Eastwood movie was called “A Fistful of Rubles?”
Under Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, Dmitry Medvedev, and apparent President-for-Life Putin, Russia contracted geographically, leading to escape from the Soviet Union by the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, who always despised the Russian influence, and a bunch of -stans, Kazkhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikstan, among others, none named after Stan Musial.
In Tallin, four of us were on an evening stroll through Estonia’s capital city, a place that dates to 1000 A.D. A young blond man suddenly charged us on a nearly deserted street.
Clearly drunk, he was shoved away and departed, only to return soon, issuing an apology in English.
“I didn’t know,” he said in English. He hadn’t realized the quartet was American. Yet he risked the assault because of his hatred of ethnic Russians, the deeply ingrained Baltic State-view due to being annexed by the Communists in 1940.
Estonians, of whom there are about 1.3 million, identify more with neighbor Finland. No one celebrated more vigorously when the Baltic Sea states became free at last, reclaiming independence.
For Estonia that came in 1991. The rush of emotions likely recalled words of a famous, long-dead Estonian poet named Lydia Kodula, who wrote, “Who can separate an Estonian’s soul from Estonian soil?”
There are so many ghosts haunting Russian closets. It is amazing how Putin romps through elections.
Other shameful history include crimes against humanity.
In September, 1941, German troops, aided by Ukrainian collaborators, massacred nearly 34,000 Jews in a ravine called Babi Yar in Kiev. Over time, more than 100,000 people were murdered at this time, other ethnic groups included. Eventually, they were memorialized with a statue, though the anti-semitic killing was not specifically acknowledged.
When we stood at the memorial, a Jewish member of our group recited the Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, in Hebrew.
My grandparents on my mother’s side came to the United States from Kiev. When my grandmother Sarah was a little girl in the early 1900s she and her brother, my uncle Jack, took refuge in an oversized kiln to escape marauding anti-Jewish mobs.
Jews were still under siege for their beliefs in the 1980s, many desperate to emigrate to Israel. These people were called “refuseniks” because the Soviet administration refused to allow them to go.
One day, as members of our group took in a tourist attraction, I ducked out alongside a woman with connections. We slipped onto a subway car, constantly checking to see if we were followed.
In a public park we met with some refuseniks, 11 years into attempts to move to Israel. These people were a worldwide cause. Some had been detained by authorities, some imprisoned for the temerity of making the departure request.
Hunger strikes brought U.S. Congressmen into the picture. That drew promises the refuseniks would be permitted to leave. But always something intervened.
The phrase, “Next year in Jerusalem,” ends the Passover seder, but sometimes is said as a general good wish. When I parted from those refuseniks, I uttered that comment.
One of the men replied, “This year.”
I would like to think they soon left Russian shores for the Middle East.
Also, while so close by in Kiev, dummy that I was, I repeatedly implored our Soviet hosts to allow a visit to Chernobyl, the nuclear reactor that melted down. Nobody talks about Chernobyl anymore, but for a while in the late 1980s we wondered if its radiation would spread worldwide and kill us all.
If I had gone, I would probably be dead. Instead, I interviewed one of the 250 firefighters assigned to the accident that quickly killed 31 people. Some early responders also died from radiation poisoning. My guy, then 28, had been hospitalized.
“I consider those who died more courageous,” he said.
In May of June of this year, an HBO series documenting the Chernobyl disaster received worldwide acclaim. However, immediately after we learned Russian state TV has produced its own Chernobyl story, a slightly different version which hints that the whole thing was the CIA’s fault.
Russian has always been good at writing alternative history.
Just a warning
My translator and I sat at the Kremlin wondering if we could be incarcerated. The guard made phone calls. After an hour he shooed us away. Clearly, he just didn’t relish us being his problem.
We slid away from Red Square, but we had not been ordered to stop interviewing. So I convinced the young man to resume translations outside the walls.
Warned we might be searched upon departure, when our group departed the Soviet Union for Helsinki by train, I hid all my notes in my shoes.
Unlike the U.S. presidential election of 2016, my papers and I got away free of interference.
Don’t trust the Russkies.