Wednesday, July 4, 2007
Moscow: July 4, 1987
Twenty years ago, rather by surprise, I celebrated American independence with a bunch of -- gasp! -- Soviet Communists.
The world was a different place in 1987. Or perhaps it was not. The United States and our allies were very much in the grip of a "Cold War" that was not exactly a war, with an ideologically-driven enemy with a long-term strategy. More than a few Americans were persuaded that if we would make nice unilaterally, peace would immediately ensue. In other words, they thought the US was unilaterally responsible for the hostilities. Today's enemy has a different ideology, speaks a different language, and is even less conventional, but again there is a large faction which seems to believe that if we wouldn't fight, they wouldn't, either.
Meanwhile, an entire generation has arisen which does not even remember a Soviet Union. There has since been a brief bout of chaotic freedom there, after the empire fell, but a careful look at contemporary Russia reveals little more freedom than in the Soviet empire's waning years. (Of course, hardly anyone suspected they were the waning years at the time.) The new tyranny is unconstrained by Marxist-Leninist ideology and is carefully dressed up to appeal to Western sensibilities, but familiar in other ways.
I was a student at the Pushkin Russian Language Institute in Moscow 20 summers ago. That was the summer when an ambitious German youth flew his Cessna to Red Square, landing himself in prison and some Soviet generals in their graves. That was the summer when relaxed control of some of the Soviet media led to a passing mention of Russian prostitution in the humor magazine Krokodil, after decades of pious Soviet insistence that such things never happened under Communism. Stateside, that was the summer when Oliver North testified before Congress about arms and hostages and Iran. Mere weeks later the "borking" of Judge Robert Bork began in the US Senate, by which time I was stateside and working as a Senate intern.
I wrote this autobiographical essay in 1988, based on the daily journal I kept then. This is a narrative, a memoir -- not a political treatise. But you will see that politics are everywhere in it. Precisely what it means in a political, cultural, or personal sense . . . I leave to you, along with the question whether it is relevant at all, 20 years later.
Saturday in the Park
One end of northeast Moscow's Izmailovsky Park borders a shimmering lake, which reflects the spires of the small church on the opposite shore. The Orthodox onion-shaped gold domes are almost blinding on a clear day. At the other end of the park a dense grove of birch and pine almost completely obscures the army barracks beyond. The soccer stadium in the center of the park is where I spent Independence Day.
The occasion was the first joint American-Soviet rock concert in Moscow, a five-hour affair featuring James Taylor, the Doobie Brothers, Santana, and three famous Russian groups. It was the ceremonial climax and conclusion of the much-publicized US-Soviet Peace Walk, which had started in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) a few weeks earlier and ended in Moscow the day before. (In fact, the 200 American and Soviet walkers had traveled half the huge distance in buses.)
What was I doing at a rock concert -- I, who actually thanked my little brother for wearing out all my rock tapes while I was gone for two years as a missionary? It's simple: Unlike most of my fellow students, I had no hangover after spending the previous evening at the restaurant Uzbekistan. Fifty of us, joined enthusiastically by the Russians who happened to be at the restaurant, had celebrated American independence by dancing to Beatles tunes performed by the live band, singing Russian folk songs, drinking, and feasting on shashlik and whole cloves of pickled garlic. When we returned to our dormitory at the Pushkin Institute late that evening, we discovered that the concert's American organizers had called with a desperate request for interpreters to work during the next day's preparations and the evening's entertainment.
At the appointed hour, the eleven of us who were conscious and physically capable of subway travel reported to the stadium. We were soon issued Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts, which we wore to identify ourselves as interpreters, and assigned to various posts. Mine was a side entrance to the stadium, on the path from the soccer field and the stage to the dressing rooms and a buffet reserved for the American staff and artists. My instructions were strict and thrice repeated: Only those with a special pass were to be allowed through the gate in either direction. All others were to be sent to the main gate.
Misha and the Rock Stars
Since I was the interpreter, I was left to make my own introduction to my partner at the gate. Misha, a Moscow policeman about my age, was dressed in the usual blue uniform. He spoke no English; most of the people allowed to use the gate spoke no Russian. His instructions were to follow my instructions, and the unspoken reason for his presence was clear: If I couldn't persuade, he could enforce.
The concert was six hours away. Our first task was to persuade the rather self-willed American performers that it would be necessary for them to wear their passes instead of leaving them in their trailers. Some were gracious and cooperative; others were not. In any case, we soon learned to identify each American by how many months or years it had been since his last haircut. Often Misha would see someone approaching, notice that his dress and grooming deviated from the conservative Soviet standard, and ask with a smile, with a single syllable of Russian, "One of yours?" I would wince at the association, force an ironic smile, and say yes. We would allow the fellow to pass without his documents.
When we weren't letting people pass, we were turning them away. We were nothing if not conscientious. Our orders still fresh in our minds, we turned away even the manager of the stadium. He showed us proof of his identity but didn't have the right pass, so we sent him to another gate. Laughing, I explained to Misha that I had had to show my dokumenty so many times to so many guards at so many doors and gates in the last three weeks that it was the height of enjoyment for me to be checking others' documents for a change. He chuckled. "You're beginning to sound like a Russian."
In spare moments, he told me about his wife and their new baby, and showed me a family picture. I told him about my family and my girlfriend in the States. He asked me my impressions of Moscow; I asked him what he thought of Americans. He wasn't given access to the snacks and drinks available to the interpreters, so I smuggled pastries and Pepsi to him when I could.
I visited briefly with most of the performers and at greater length with a few of the peace walkers. The latter varied in age from six to seventy years; most were about twenty. On the way to the park I had mulled over how to phrase a certain question as inoffensively as possible to these people who considered themselves activists for peace. The best I could do was ask directly: What good will a peace walk do? It is, to be sure, a symbol, and symbols are sometimes important and powerful, but not as substitutes for substance. Is there not already far too much symbolism and not enough substance in US-Soviet relations?
The Americans said they had learned to appreciate the Soviets more. I wondered aloud how one can fully appreciate someone with whom he cannot even converse without an interpreter. They said that only about ten of the American walkers knew even a few words of Russian, but that some of them had resolved to study the language upon returning home. I didn't get a chance to pose the same questions to the Soviet participants, who I knew were carefully selected to be both impressive and unimpressionable.
One of the other interpreters, a fellow student, had more heated questions. She was interpreting for a Soviet official who, caught up in the mood of the moment, wanted a souvenir. He asked if she knew where he could get one of the little American flags the American walkers were waving with obvious pride. She decided to ask one of the Americans to give the man a souvenir. The official balked, but she assured him that any of them would gladly give up a flag. "They cost less than a dollar in the States, and you can buy them anywhere," she explained.
She asked one walker, then another, then yet another. She asked ten in all and was refused as many times -- sometimes apologetically, usually rudely. She flared. "What did they come for? Would they even be interested in a flag of their own if they were at home in the States? Are they promoting peace through selfishness, or what?" Not all her adjectives were polite.
"I Thought You Were Russian!"
Tom, a walker from Utah, introduced me to Olga, a Soviet interpreter. I had seen her and thought she was American: She was wearing shorts. Learning that she was a Russian who had been on the walk as an interpreter, I greeted her in Russian. Tom excused himself, and Olga and I exchanged a few words of polite conversation. She held out a small box of popcorn. Popcorn is rare in the Soviet Union, so I refused. She insisted, and I took a few kernels. She gently reproached me, and I finally took a handful.
We conversed in Russian for a few minutes. Suddenly, she stopped in mid-sentence. "I thought you were Russian, but you're American!" she exclaimed. I was astonished, flattered, and curious. She said that I was dressed like a Russian, in jeans and Nike high-tops, and I behaved like a Russian -- when she offered me popcorn, for example. This was news to me; I didn't feel like a Russian.
Eventually, I was relieved long enough to get some lunch. One of the American managers, who used to manage the Rolling Stones, invited me to join her at a table. She expressed her surprise that the Soviet workers and administrators were completely cooperative and polite, but that the behavior of some of the American peace walkers was the worst she had seen in her career at a rock concert. "Are these the people who preach peace?" she mused.
Dima and the KGB
When I returned from lunch with something for Misha, I found that his shift had ended. He had left his best wishes with his replacement, Dima. After some insistence on my part, Dima took the extra food. He had missed lunch. We soon discovered that Dima had a little boy, and I had a girlfriend in Seattle.
Then the audience began to arrive, and we learned that our gate was to serve also as a public entrance to a section of the stadium. Minutes later, as I tried for the third time to explain to a well-dressed Russian than he couldn't use our gate unless he had the proper pass or ticket, Dima took me aside and reminded me that there are people in the Soviet Union who don't need passes or tickets to go anywhere.
I looked at the man in question. "You mean --"
He nodded. "I knew you could take a hint." Within an hour, with the help of Dima's silent winks and nods, I became adept at recognizing plainclothes KGB agents, who entered without passes or tickets and without question from me.
Just before the concert, 400 soldiers from the nearby army barracks ran into the stadium, circled the field, finished their day with fifteen minutes of calisthenics, and marched out. They said that the soldiers always use the stadium for exercises. What they didn't say is that they wanted the first Soviet-American rock concert to be a peaceful one.
A Classless Society
It began. After the first act, the American producer left us a stack of tickets with instructions to give one to anyone who wanted one. He was on his way to the parking lot to distribute tickets to the general populace. To his dismay, tickets had been available only to those with Communist Party connections. Thousands who had no tickets had gathered hopefully at the gates. Suddenly, instead of turning people away, we could let them in.
Soon the tickets were gone, but we were undaunted. If "rules are made to be broken" is a cliche in America, it is a religion in Russia. Virtually every story of a lucky purchase or any other happy circumstance includes the breaking of at least one rule. The trick is to get the person who has what you want to act like a human instead of an authoritarian brick wall.
By the third hour of the five-hour concert, Dima and I were acting like humans, admitting anyone who could dream up a good story in exchange for admission. This included two short, nearly spherical seventy-year-old women -- babushki -- who said that they were considering becoming devoted rockers and wanted to know what they were getting themselves into.
There were more policemen than there was work for policemen, and soon we were joined by five of Dima's friends on the force. They began firing questions at me as fast as I could answer. What did I think of Moscow? Had I a wife and/or girlfriend? Did I like the music? And a thousand more. I asked a few questions of my own, but it was six against one for two hours. They told me that they were relieved to discover that not all Americans are like those they usually meet on the job.
The boss came by again near the end of the concert, looking morose. He was disappointed by the audience's unenthusiastic response. Almost everyone had abandoned the stands in favor of the soccer field, but there was more milling around than dancing. I told him it was a huge success: Russians at a rock concert are about as wild as Americans at the symphony.
At 10:30 p.m., as the sun was about to set, the concert ended. The interrogation gave way to handshakes and farewells. The men in blue uniforms promised not to fine me three rubles if they caught me jaywalking, and I gave them special Peace Walk commemorative buttons for their children. The buttons were really for the elite, not the working class, but I had a pocketful. A friend from Harvard was in charge of them, and I wasn't the only one celebrating Independence Day by acting like a Russian.
My work was done. I headed home, first donning the stony, unsmiling countenance Russians carry with them for the sidewalk, the subway, and other public places. On the way I pondered the one question I had been unable to answer: "What are your strongest impressions about Russian society? How are we different?" I couldn't answer; my strongest impression was the absence of strong impressions. At length I discovered the reason. Upon my return to the United States, I would tell those who asked the right questions that the more important word in "Russian people" is people.
I was back at my dorm before midnight. By then I had devised a most devious and shocking way to report to my roommates that I had been interrogated for twelve hours by one to six Russian policemen and had met an indeterminate number of KGB agents. By 1:00 a.m. the truth was out, and I was asleep.
In a few hours, several time zones away, Americans in many cities would cheer as symphony orchestras, complete with cannons thundering only remotely in time, offered the final measures of the inevitable finale to every American's evening of patriotic music, the majestic prelude to his fireworks: Tchaikovsky's distinctly Russian 1812 Overture.
Olivia Barker comments (7/30/07):
I was an American walker on that walk.
I was sorry to hear about the opinion of Olga regarding the American walkers; I certainly did not participate in that. I spent most of my time with a lovely group of Soviet hippies, who looked as if they stepped out of 1970. They were hungry and thirsty, so I scored them water and food from the backstage area. I had also helped a woman from Leningrad [now St. Petersburg] hide from police; she was in love with an American walker who she had met the year before, and had stole away without a passport to Moscow to see him. I had a large hotel room, and she stayed with me. We used a Russian/English dictionary to communicate, and I gave her my extra pass to get into the concert. I caught some heat for that, but I didn't care.
I had been on the original staff of organizers, but had burned out tremendously from the dysfunctional group that handled everything. By the time the walk came around, I did not want to work, but decided to help with the children and reporters. I also became a guardian for a twelve year old who was the subject of one of the reporters' story. He was freelancing for <i>People and Life</i> and spend loads of time with us. After we arrived home, on the first day back, I remember him calling his editors from the only phone in our encampment and screaming. Seems the Reagan administration pulled rank on his editors and all the stories were suppressed. Shades of Bush. Hundreds of photos tossed. Oli[ver] North took front page, and damage control was rule of the day.
Personally, I did not enjoy my trip as much as I had hoped. I had a difficult time with the lead fumes. I had to bribe bus drivers with American cigarettes to accomplish anything. A Russian man decided he liked me, and to show his affection he ordered me around. I was not a fan of the food post-Chernobyl. The irony is that I am of Russian decent and look very Russian.
I did enjoy some relationships, and the concert was wonderful. I have fond memories in a box, and I watch the Showtime documentary once every couple of years.
David Rodeback comments (7/31/07):
I'm happy -- not surprised -- to hear that the American walkers were not universally as shallow and selfish as the few Olga asked for a flag.
I didn't have your opportunity to harbor a quasi-fugitive, but that experience is consistent with my observation that virtually any good thing that happened in that country seemed to involve the breaking of at least one law or regulation. Sometimes I feel like that in the US, too, but that's a soapbox for another day.
In any case, it sounds like you really did learn to appreciate the Soviets and their lifestyle without knowing the language -- an answer to one of my questions at the time. Your adventures as you report them sound quite typical, not in the sense that everyone had them, certainly, but in the sense that they combine to form an accurate picture of conditions in Russia then. Maybe illustrative would be a better word than typical.
I don't know anyone who really loves ordinary Russian cuisine generally, though I'm fond of some of it. I ate much better that summer than many American students I knew, because I quickly developed the habit of going to the farmers' markets two or three times a week for fresh produce, among other things, and buying Danish juice concentrates at the foreign currency stores. The odd meal at a restaurant was quite satisfactory, but the food we were served at the Institute and on official trips was . . . how to put this kindly? . . . unfortunate.
As regards outright bribery . . . From the beginning, my four roommates and I left packs of Marlboros -- brought to Moscow for exactly this purpose -- for the maid on a regular basis, so she would be less inclined to help herself to other things. At the end, we also left her about 200 rubles (approx. $325), too. We couldn't spend them, due to lack of time and a shortage stuff we wanted to buy or could carry home. We couldn't convert them, because they were not converted from dollars originally, but given to us as a meal allowance. So she fared quite well with us, I imagine, without taking anything we didn't want her to have. That was quite possibly more than a month's salary for her.
We also each brought a can of Raid for cockroaches. We kept one in reserve, but, as planned, emptied the other four the first afternoon in our apartment, at every crevice we could conceive they might use to enter. Our theory was that this would make our room less appealing than others', so they would get the cockroaches, and we wouldn't. This worked beautifully right up until the next-to-last week we were there, when the Russians treated the whole building, in effect rendering all apartments equally attractive to roaches, and we got ours back.
Across the hall was an apartment of American women, where the early riser among them would hit the shower before her roommates were awake. Every morning, she saw one cockroach in the bathtub. Every morning, she screamed -- and not softly, either. I think her roommates learned to sleep through it eventually, but for a while there, they were discussing, I assume playfully, a more aggressive solution, including where to dispose of the body. (That particular question was not answered in our orientation. The third-worlders upstairs would have thrown it out the window, with the rest of their refuse.)
I'm afraid Russian men are infamous for ordering women around. Russian-American marriages only seem to work if the wife is Russian and the man American. American wives generally will not put up with Russian husbands -- though I think I know a few Russian men who defy the stereotype, and perhaps the situation has improved in 20 years, too. During our orientation in Philadelphia, before we left for Moscow, the women in our group of students had some stern instruction on how to refuse Russian men's advances -- not with hints and gentle apologies, as seemed to be their wont, but firmly, clearly, unambiguously, even unkindly (by American standards), because anything else was likely to be received as encouragement.
Showtime did a documentary? I didn't know -- or perhaps simply didn't remember. It's hard to tell.
Ironically, though a confirmed Russophile, I don't have a drop of Russian blood in me, so far as I know.
Olivia Barker comments (7/31/07):
I did know a few jerks on the walk. There was a rich Hollywood contingent that were there for media exposure only and even sabotaged others' exposure to score more for themselves, which is evident in the documentary. [The documentary] is interesting, spending time 50/50 between the concert and the actual walk experience. Perspective is a bit skewed, but then, it was produced in Hollywood and backed by one of the walkers you see in the film over and over again.
I did remember a couple of wonderful nights with food. Once in Leningrad, in a building that look abandoned, an illegal culinary delight awaited me, with vodka, champagne, and several courses served on silver-lined china. One other night, in the middle of a field, we had another wonderful meal that might be categorized as country fare, and delicious. In contrast, there was the borscht with an inch of fish oil floating on top, and the "vegetarian meal" that somehow got translated into "a plate with all white food." The mound of sugar piled up against the potatoes was a delightful change of pace. Quite humorous now, mostly because I now have a culinary degree and have studied Russian food.
I should have thought of bribing the maid. In Moscow, mine stole my birth control, which I thoughtlessly set on the table beside our bed. I understand why, considering that all birth control then was black market, but it sure made the rest of the trip difficult for my boyfriend and I.
I did meet one wonderful Russian man, or should I say Soviet Mongolian. He was amazingly respectful and loved the idea of an educated woman who uses her mind. All the women fell in love with him. Then one day, toward the end, he disappeared into the blue without a goodbye. That's right, he was KGB. Educated, worldly, and totally corrupt. Oh well.
Twenty years have just fallen away, and I am a hip young woman back on the walk, counting the cigarette packs I have left to bribe with, wondering if my bug spray will continue to hold out against the Volkswagen-size mosquitoes on the road.
David Rodeback comments (8/15/07):
I have had borscht in several of its many varieties, from a rich, slightly beetish stew (Ukrainian and my favorite), to the chilled puree of beet, to which I am quite indifferent. I don't mind at all that I've never had it with that inch of fish oil on top. On the other hand, I ate a really good fish soup once or twice over there.
It makes sense that the KGB guy would be charming and somewhat Westernized, and that he would be smart enough to prefer women who use their minds. I wonder where he is now.
Thanks for your responses. I believe they are my favorite comments in three years of blogging.
Copyright 2007 by David Rodeback.