Today is    

Stories   Rita   World Cruise 1996   Ship Stories   Milan & Memory Repression   Santa Matilde   Poland   Olympics   Mullets   Angels   Poems   Christmas Letters  

USSR 1980

Cold War. Soviet Bear. Iron Curtain. KGB. These words hardly bring a shiver anymore, but back in 1980, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was a daunting place to visit. I had spent a year in Poland in 1976/77 and in spite of the difficulties presented by a socialist society, there certainly were many positive experiences in my time there. Now in June of 1980, I was headed to Big Brother for 3 weeks with friends Michael Buckwalter and Ken Shenk, both of which had grown up as missionary kids in Japan, and Wayne Lehman, who was only with us the first four days in Leningrad.

I had just finished working for a year at Hesston College, a Mennonite school in Kansas, where Michael and Wayne were students. Ken was a student at Goshen College, another Mennonite school. After touring Europe for two weeks with the college choir, the four of us headed east. We enjoyed a few days in Poland, and then boarded the train in Warsaw for Leningrad. We were a little nervous about what we might encounter, but we had an ace in our pocket - the 1980 Olympics were about to open in Moscow and the USSR was putting on a big show for the world about how wonderful their socialist paradise was. There was one little glitch. The United States and many allies were boycotting the games because of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan and that didn't particularly ease tensions. Nevertheless we were soon to find out that we could get by with things on our visit not normally possible in the Soviet Union!

We got to the Polish/USSR border at 7 am on Sunday, June 29, admittedly a little nervous. Officials checked our passports and visas, and then asked if we had any suspect printed matter. Well actually, yes, we had some Bibles and Hymnbooks to give to a church in Siberia, but we weren't about to let the guards see those. Instead, we readily showed them a Time magazine and a Newsweek, which they confiscated. They made us register a few other books and our journals, but allowed us to keep them. Fortunately they didn't really search our luggage much, but it was clear we didn't want to mess with them. A few minutes later soldiers came through the cars looking in every conceivable place a human might hide. Ha! As if someone would want to sneak IN to the Soviet Union!

At the border the train had to be put on new wheels, because Russian tracks are wider than western European. They just jacked up the train, rolled the wheels out, rolled new ones in, and we were on our way. The train made its way through Belarus, Lithuania, and Latvia and on to Russia. We played cards or visited with other passengers. One thing we particularly enjoyed throughout our trip was the tea samovar in the trains. For about eight cents we could enjoy a delicious hot tea, served in a glass in a decorative aluminum holder.

Monday morning we arrived in Leningrad. An English-speaking guide met us and put us in two limos for a ride through the city to our hotel on the Gulf of Finland, the Pribaltiyskaya Hotel. It was built especially for the Olympics and was quite impressive. It felt great to have a hot shower and shave, but we were ready to go exploring. I changed at the reception, for which I got only 6 rubles at the artificial elevated rate for the Soviet currency. The actual value is about 3 rubles for one dollar - five times the official rate! Grrrr! The whole place reeked of capitalist consumer rip-off!

We headed for the nearest tramway stop, paid 3 kopeks (5 cents even at the official rate) and took it to the nearest milk bar, where we had breakfast. We sure weren't going to pay hotel prices. We feasted on bread, cheese, raw bacon, boiled eggs, sausage, and milk coffee for just pennies each. Then we were off on our first big adventure that would not likely have been tolerated had it not been for the Olympics. We took the tram outside the city and found our way to the Baptist church. A couple men from the church were doing some construction work on a new addition and we helped them unload four huge cement blocks from a truck. The truck driver, out of the blue, gave me a gift of a silver cigarette case! With my limited Russian we were able to talk a little and it seemed they have a fairly large congregation of about 3,000 members, including lots of young people. Because of the numbers, they have three services on Sundays, as well as evening ones on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. They have three choirs and an orchestra, also with numerous young participants. We agreed to return the next evening for the service, and then headed back into town.

We did some shopping and bought bread, cheese, conserves, butter and milk for supper (one might suspect we were on a budget). Along the way we met two fellows who wanted to buy jeans, so they got the name of our hotel and said they'd meet us outside at 6:00 pm. Back in our room we started looking around, having heard all kinds of stories about spying and eavesdropping in the USSR. In the ceiling was a small electrical device with no apparent purpose, so I got out my Swiss Army knife and disconnected it! With all the talk about such things, we started to get a little nervous about meeting the two guys, especially when we saw the tight security around the hotel and realized we couldn't bring anyone in. About 6:00 our phone rang and there was a garbled mix of Russian and English including, "Jeans," "Money," and "Come down." Since we had not given them our room number or name we quickly got cold feet and definitely decided not to go down. We had been in the country too short a time to be comfortable pushing the limits very far just yet. To get a feel for how risky it might be to sell jeans etc., we went out to ask our hall manager if it was legal. She understood enough to know that I wanted to sell jeans and said she would ask if any of the personnel wanted to buy them. What a surprise!

Tuesday morning we awoke to clear, blue skies and pleasant temperatures for our city tour. Leningrad is a beautiful city of islands, canals, rivers, palaces and cathedrals. St. Isaacs Cathedral has a huge gold dome and in the square we were surprised to see a monument to Czar Nicholas 1st. Apparently it was not torn down after the revolution because the entire statue of horse and rider is extraordinarily balanced, with only two points of contact with the ground. The winter palace is a marvelous building, full of history. Many revolutions, including the October Revolution were based here. In 1905 the peasants came to the square to petition the Czar for better conditions. However, instead of getting their request, soldiers opened fire into the crowd, killing over 5,000 people in the square and surrounding streets. Is it really surprising the Bolshevik Revolution was successful? Also in the square is a monument to Alexander the Great, commemorating the Russian victory over Napoleon in 1812.

The Smolny Cathedral was one of the most impressive and most Russian-looking buildings we saw, with tall, domed spires in blue and white. Really lovely. Catherine the Great was planning to spend her last days in a monastery, but changed her mind and spent her last (wild) days in Smolny instead. Later it became a girls' school for training ladies in waiting.

Leningrad was founded in 1703 and first called St. Petersburg, changed to Petrograd in 1904 and then Leningrad after Lenin's death. It was the first capital of the USSR, but the capital was changed to Moscow because Leningrad was a little too close to the West. During World War II the Germans held Leningrad under siege for 900 days, not allowing food in or out. They never took the city, but 500,000 people starved to death. After our city tour I felt that it would be fascinating to study the city's history a little more.

After the tour the four of us got off at Hotel Astoria and walked down Nevska Street, the city's main thoroughfare. It's a very long, busy street with throngs of people. Two fellows wanted to buy my jeans (yes, I was carrying them around for such an occasion) and were even willing to pay 150 rubles. We went into a side alley and they tried to pull an old slight-of-hand trick, where the 150 suddenly becomes about 15. Fortunately, I was too familiar with that scam and caught them. A little further down the street we met another couple fellows who were friendlier and more interested in trading honestly. I sold them the jeans for 100 rubles (officially) and they also gave us 25 rubles for Mike's . Dollars sure stretch a lot further when traded on the black market.

We just sat along the street and observed people for a while. A man offered to buy my watch for 50 rubles and give me his 17-jewel watch to boot. I almost did, but decided I liked my watch too much. The man was Jewish and wore the Star of David. He said the police really hassle Jews and he had spent 7 years in prison.

In the evening we headed back out to the Baptist Church for the 7:30 service. We didn't arrive until a few minutes before starting time and planned to just go up in the balcony and observe quietly from the distance. Not! From a block away we could see people crowded around the door - the building was already full. We decided we didn't have much chance of getting in, but almost before we arrived, people had passed the word inside that there were visitors. An English-speaking Pastor, Anatoly, came out and insisted we follow him through the crowds, right up to the front of the church where they sat us on chairs on stage, facing the audience! We were a little embarrassed with the attention, but they wouldn't have it any other way. The service was fascinating and very lively. In the main auditorium were mostly older women, but men stood along the sides, and the balcony was full of young people. We were not quite prepared for the ritual of greetings, but they asked us to deliver "our greetings" from our churches at home. We were caught off guard, but managed to come up with a short salutation. After we said it the entire congregation stood up spontaneously in thanks for our greeting. The Pastor then gave us greetings to take back to our churches at home.

It was a special service that night, as there was a visiting choir from the Ukraine. They were good! We almost got the impression the Ukrainians invented singing. Afterwards we got to talk with some of them and they were eager to visit. They were from Lwow, where they had a church with over 1,000 members, but no church building. They meet under the open sky in winter and summer, rain or shine! Later Anatoly gave us a ride to a metro stop, along with an American girl who was also at the church. Debbie was on a student exchange in Leningrad and we talked for quite a long time. She said a lot of the Russians supported the boycott of the Olympics and that people were sick of the way the government was putting all the money into Moscow and Leningrad to put on a big fake show for the world. They really were sprucing up Leningrad with painting, cleaning, building, and repairing, and they were even exporting drunks and prostitutes out of the city. Visitors for the Olympics would get a grand display all right, but not a true representation of this socialist paradise.

We loved the Leningrad Metro. You just put a 5-kopek coin (8 cents) into the turnstile and go through - no tickets to worry about. Very fast escalators whisk you down at least 100 meters below ground. You never see the train tracks, only marble walls and elegant doors. Trains run about every three minutes and clocks on the wall count down to the arrival of the next train. When the train arrives, the door opens and you just walk on to the train without ever seeing the track or train itself.

Wednesday we hopped on a bus and went to the Hermitage, the largest museum in the USSR. It cost 1 ruble to get in and it was worth it! The building was the former winter palace and inside it was just magnificent. The chandeliers and decorations rivaled anything I had seen in the palaces of Western Europe. We spent several hours there but didn't even manage to cover half of it.

From there we went to a big department store, which was impressive, but tended to get boring and frustrating after awhile. To buy something you stand in line to pick it out, and then stand in another line to pay, then come back and stand in line again to pick up the item you paid for. It keeps people employed!

The next morning Wayne returned to the West via Finland and Mike, Ken and I took the train to Moscow.The villages along the way were really poor, but it was a fascinating ride. We arrived in Moscow at 9:00 pm and were taken to Hotel Intourist, which was not nearly as nice as our Leningrad hotel. However, we learned we were only a few minutes from Red Square, so we quickly put our things in the room and off we went to see the sights at night. We dropped our jaws at the sight! St. Basil's Cathedral at one end of the square looked like a cross between Disneyland and a fairytale castle, all lit up under floodlights. On the right side was the imposing Kremlin and in front of that was Lenin's tomb. On the left side was the famous Gum Department Store. We admired the views for a while and then started to head back to the hotel.

On the way a young lady approached us and asked if we were Americans. She said she liked to practice her English with Americans, and then she asked a few questions about where we were from and what we studied, etc. We noticed she was wearing a cross around her neck and she told us that she and her father were dissidents. She explained that they were not allowed to go to church, as they had "salted" (offended) the atheist Soviet State because they wanted more religious freedom. Then she said she knew some people from Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, "who go to church there," and added, "Perhaps you know them." Yeah, right - we're going to know her two friends in the US. She proceeded to ask if we knew John Ruth and Hiram Hershey, and we about fell over. We informed her that we were also Mennonites and we did indeed know of them. John had even been a guest in the Shenk home! The woman told us that Hiram Hershey had stayed in her home once when their choir sang in Moscow and she had met several others from the choir. We could hardly believe it. Then she introduced us to her father, who was standing in the shadows.

Iya asked if we would like to go to their home. From my experience in Poland, I knew this was not something done lightly in Russia, so I said we did not want to get them in trouble. She insisted it would be no problem and after some discussion we agreed to go. We took the subway, and then walked several blocks. When I realized we were almost to the house I asked if we should not at least split up into two groups, but Iya was totally unconcerned. Their home was a little tiny one-room apartment. They quickly made tea for us and offered it with cookies. When Iya brought out a Gospel Herald (Mennonite Church newspaper) with a personal note to her from Mary Oyer, the music director at Goshen College (Mennonite college in Indiana) we were flabbergasted. Iya seemed to have more Mennonite connections than an average student at Goshen College!

Iya then proceeded to play the guitar and sing for us. When she first opened her mouth it took us quite by surprise. She sang in a deep, rich Russian voice, in perfect King James English, and played the guitar strings the entire length of the guitar. She said she had written many poems and songs in English and asked if we could take some of them home with us and try to get them published in a magazine in the US.

We talked late into the night and they invited us back the next morning. They also asked if we might bring them some chewing gum and some coffee from the dollar store. The dollar stores sold goods not readily available in Russia, but prices were marked in US dollars and only western currencies could be used. They wanted the coffee for themselves, but the chewing gum was a handy bartering item - you could get a taxi ride in Moscow for one stick of chewing gum!

The following morning we had our city tour of Moscow. We sat at the back of the bus and there were also two girls from Intourist who spoke quite good English, which added much to our tour. We saw Red Square and got some of the history, then watched the beginning of the changing of the guard at Lenin's tomb. We crossed the river and got a look at Olympic Stadium and complex. We were disappointed - we thought it would be something glorious, but it was just the pre-existing sports compound, decorated and spruced up. We continued to the University up on Sparrow Hill for a panoramic view of the city buried in haze. When we suggested it was pollution, the two girls asked how dare we say such a thing!

Following our tour we took the metro to see our "friends" again and presented them with the promised gum and coffee. It was interesting visiting with them, however, we had limited time in Moscow and we started feeling anxious to get going and see more of the city. Besides, Iya had become a little overbearing and we felt it was time to exit. Iya wanted us to go with her to the US embassy and do some favors. She wanted staples for her stapler (this sounds stupid, but you couldn't buy them in the stores and she knew the embassy would have such supplies!); she wanted to get some American contacts in Moscow so she could practice her English; and she wanted us to go inside the embassy and visit the "Siberian Seven". The latter were a small group of Pentecostals from Siberian who had taken refuge in the embassy, requesting asylum. Particularly at that time, with the western boycott of the Olympics, this created another sensitive issue in Soviet-American relations. I decided we didn't have time, as we had to get tickets for the ballet in the evening and run a few other errands, so I just told her no. But Ken spoke up and suggested Michael and I could return to the hotel and run the errands while he went with Iya to the embassy, so that's what we did.

A few hours later Ken returned to the hotel and he looked like he had seen a ghost! When he and Iya arrived at the embassy they found it closed, as it was the fourth of July. But Iya knew a marine and had Ken call him to see if he could help with the favors. No, they couldn't give away supplies, they were not allowed to give out any information on Americans, and Ken and Iya could not go see the Siberian Seven. Ken thought he was off the hook then, but Iya said she would like him to meet the Pentecostals. She drew Ken a map of the inside of the compound and said he would probably find the refugees in the courtyard getting some sun. Ken followed her instructions and, sure enough, found the Seven as advertised. A young American journalist who spoke Russian was also there and he interpreted for Ken as he conversed with the Russians. After some time they asked how he had found them. When he mentioned Iya's name they froze up and wouldn't talk to him anymore. Ken was taken aback and had no idea what was the matter. The journalist tried to convince them that Ken knew very little about Iya and that he was really just a normal American. When the journalist finally got them talking again they said it was common knowledge in Moscow that Iya was a KGB agent! They advised Ken to have nothing further to do with her and get away from her as quickly as possible.

Upon hearing Ken's story, we were "sore afraid"! We tried to think of what we might have said to Iya that could come back to haunt us. The main thing I could remember was when she gave me the poems. She had warned me against letting the poems be found at the border, or she would get in serious trouble. I assured her I had some other things I didn't want them to find and I would put the poems with them. Ouch!

We felt a shadow over us the rest of our time in Moscow, and although we enjoyed the ballet, we were more than ready to get on the train and out of Moscow. After the ballet we were approached on the street to change money at 3 to 1, and although we were feeling very uneasy, we were low on cash so made a quick change and hightailed it back to the hotel.

We breathed a little easier the next morning when our train pulled out of the station and we were on our way to Siberia. This was it. We were officially on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The train cars were divided into ten 4-berth compartments, and Intourist didn't necessarily make an effort to see that traveling companions were in the same compartment. The hostess on our car was quite nice and we ordered tea from her and her samovar frequently. She taught us Russian words and it was fun interacting with her. We met several other passengers, played cards, wrote postcards, and watched the scenery. As the miles rolled by, our uneasiness from Moscow slowly faded away. We passed through countless little villages that looked terribly poor, with wooden shacks and muddy streets. It must be a hard life in rural USSR. A young fellow named Nick boarded the train in some unnamed village and we talked about everything from culture to politics to religion. We were his first exposure to westerners, but he spoke fairly good English. The people have exactly one source of information and since they hear the same propaganda all the time, they really don't have much reason not to believe it. We were pretty surprised by some of the impressions they had of our country though.

The landscape became hilly, but not exactly mountainous, as we approached the Ural Mountains. We stood at the window for over three hours, watching for the monument along the tracks that marked the boundary between Europe and Asia. Finally our conductor told us it would be another forty minutes, so we started playing cards. . . and missed it! We were pretty upset because we really wanted to get some photos of it.

July 7th we arrived in Novosibirsk, capital of Siberia, and were taken to the Novosibirsk Hotel. It wasn't bad and we enjoyed hot baths and there was even a TV and refrigerator in the room. We walked around in the rain, but learned that it had been over 100 degrees the day before, followed by a severe thunderstorm in the evening that had caused very bad flooding. Our city tour was on the second day and we were beginning to notice a pattern. There were lots of monuments to Lenin and to war heroes. There were lots of former churches and cathedrals, which now were used as libraries, galleries, and museums "for the people". There was one active church, but our guide informed us, "it was attended mostly by women of advanced years."

In the evening we went to the home of a Baptist pastor, Jacob Fast. He happened to be in Toronto for a Baptist World Conference, which surprised us. His wife was home, along with her brother, her cousin, and several of their children. Contrary to our guide's information, they told us their church has over 1,000 members and over a quarter of them are young people. Among other Mennonite and Baptist churches around Novosibirsk there are many young people, and in fact, they had just had a river baptism for 300 people. We communicated just fine because they all spoke German. In their Baptist church about 60% were Russian and about 40% German. Among Mennonites, they are almost all ethnic Germans. There seems to be good cooperation between both groups. It's funny how petty arguments are virtually nonexistent when survival is the main priority.

Fasts' daughter Olga played the piano and sang for us in Russian, then Ken, Michael, and I sang for them in English. Then I played the piano and we all sang several songs together in German. Mrs. Fast's brother, Adam asked me to deliver a letter to his sister in California. He said he wanted to move with his whole family to the US and was asking her help in the letter. He would not have dared to mail such a letter from Russia, as everything is censored. When I asked why he wanted to emigrate he replied, "Because we have it so good here!" That was more than a little tongue-in-cheek. He explained that everything they did was a struggle, whether it was trying to worship as they see fit or trying to make ends meet just to survive. They had to wait in line for everything from bread, to clothes, to toothpaste. If they wanted a phone, they were put on a seven-year waitlist. A car or an apartment could take longer than that. I assured him I would mail the letter for him once we got back to the States.

Our train left that evening and we settled into our home on rails for the next stretch to Irkutsk. Two student gals were operating the samovar and when they brought us tea they gave us two packets of sugar each! By morning the landscape had undergone somewhat of a facelift and the sun was shining brightly. Large hills rose out of the sleepy timbers and south-facing slopes were grassland, much like in central Montana. We spent much of our time just enjoying the scenery, but were disappointed not to see more mountains. We were beginning to realize we were not going to see stunning snow-capped peaks like those in the movie Dr. Zhivago.

The train arrived into Irkutsk 13 hours late, about 6:00 pm. So much for the city tour that day. Our hotel was located on the Angara River with a nice panorama. We went for a walk, looking for an open restaurant, but had no luck. We returned to the hotel to try to get something in the fancy restaurant there without paying too much. Nowhere in the world have we felt more pressure to be capitalist and bourgeois than in the Soviet Union of all places. We finally ended up with just cakes and tea - real food was too expensive there. Later we went out for a walk again and traded gum for a couple Olympic rubles. That brought my collection to 4 Olympic rubles and 6 other rubles. We had brought a couple packs of pantyhose to sell and we sold one of those for ! It was amazing how much some western items would fetch on the street.

On the city tour the next morning we visited an active Russian Orthodox Church. There was a service going on with mostly older women, chanting and singing a strange harmony. This was a far cry from our impression of the very much alive Baptist and Mennonite Churches in Novosibirsk. In the courtyard was the grave of the "Russian Columbus", the first explorer to discover America from the west. It was a reminder of how close Alaska came to being the 16th Republic of the USSR! How different history might have been had it not been for Seward's Folly.

Later we had an excursion out to Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world. It was a little hillier out toward the lake, but in the haze we saw nothing of the high mountains to the south. There are over 300 streams and rivers feeding into gigantic Lake Baikal and it contains about one quarter of all the fresh water in the world. It is over 400 miles long and 50 miles wide and an astounding mile deep! It would take all the rivers in the world combined, flowing a full year, to fill the lake. It really is in a beautiful setting with rolling hills, dark green forests, grasslands, and (when the air is clear) snow-capped peaks. Seeing Baikal was a highlight of our trip.

Saturday we got up at 9:30 and went to the service bureau to ask about our 10 o'clock train. The man didn't really know, but he thought it might be in about 2:00 pm and we should check back about 11:30. Since our train hadn't arrived until 6:00 pm we were more than a little dubious about a 2 o'clock departure. So off we went to the markets. A couple fellows who wanted to buy jeans approached us, and since we were getting a little low on money, Ken decided to sell them his old ones for about .

While window-shopping we saw a bookstore and had to go in for a look. I bought a Russian world atlas, a poster of Leonid Brezhnev, and a set of Olympic posters. There was some wonderful propaganda material, which we thought was quite funny except for the fact that it was meant to be serious. A series of posters showed the difference between capitalism and socialism. All photos of capitalism were in gray, while photos of socialism were in bright colors. One showed students in the West, sitting sadly outside a big gate, shaped liked a dollar, barring them from entering the university. Another showed the slums of New York City, compared to "lovely" apartment buildings in Russia.Yet another showed missiles and bombs in the West and the peace dove reigning over the East. Again, if people have only one news source, what else are they to believe?

We got back to the hotel at 12:45 and were met by an Intourist Rep who said, "Congratulations. Just ten minutes ago your train left for Khabarovsk!" This was followed by hectic planning and arguing, but in the end we had to pay to have a taxi try to catch the train at the next stop. We were pretty upset about it, but when you are at the mercy of Intourist, your options are limited. We took off on a harried and hectic journey on the "Trans-Siberian Highway" and couldn't see how we could possibly catch the train. The road was terrible and in the extreme heat (yes, in Siberia!) the tar was melting on the road and the car's engine was overheating. We were afraid we might not make it at all. The driver kept reassuring us we would be fine. He found a creek, got out his bucket and started pouring water all over the engine. He finally got it cooled enough so he could open the radiator and add water. From there the driver was really racing to get us to our destination and it was scary. As we sped around sharp curves, the car would slide in the melting tar. We came around one bend to see a truck heading for us in the middle of the road and the driver had fallen asleep. At one point our driver asked me if I had a car. When I confirmed it, he told me he could tell because every time we go around a corner I "step on the brake"! Until then it hadn't occurred to me that someone who had never driven wouldn't have that instinct.

We made it to the station just before the train pulled out and we tore across the platform with our luggage and jumped aboard. Our three berths had been vacant from Irkutsk; so three Germans traveling together had taken it upon themselves to trade with us. We had to each take a berth in different compartments and this was for the whole two-day stretch to Khabarovsk. We also had less and less contact with Russians, as Westerners were now concentrated in just two train cars. We did wander into the Russian cars a couple times, but felt a little self-conscious doing so. We did like the dining car and often whiled away the hours drinking tea and writing postcards.

The countryside from Irkutsk on was far more beautiful than anything previous. Small mountains and big hills were covered with vast expanses of forest, alternating with open grasslands. We would go for long distances without seeing any sign of civilization. It is striking how the area resembles much of Montana and I just loved being there and taking it all in. The hours seemed to go by fast, but I was in no hurry to get anywhere. That was just as well, since the train was running over eight hours late.

We didn't arrive into Khabarovsk until 8:00 am, thus missing our hotel night. We were told we could have the room anyway and put our luggage in it for the day, or take a hotel voucher and get a refund from Intourist when we got back home. We should have just taken the room, but we still weren't quite savvy enough to know there was no chance of ever getting a dime out of Intourist later. We just washed up in the public restroom and headed into town for a look around.

After lunch we had our city tour with just five passengers on a big bus. Our guide started into the same tired old spiel we had heard in four cities already and we just rolled our eyes. By that stage of the trip I was really becoming irritated with the communist system and their propaganda and I felt particularly combative that day. Since the group was so small I decided to challenge the guide at the end of the tour when she asked for questions. I said, "I have three. First, we can travel all over the world cheaply, staying in youth hostels or budget motels or bed and breakfasts. When we come to the socialist USSR, we are required to pay for expensive first class accommodations and don't even have the option of staying in standard hotels where the Russian people stay. You force us to be bourgeois capitalists!" She replied that they want their guests to have a good time on their visit and it's important they be comfortable. "Besides, even the Russian people don't like staying in the hotels where they have to stay!" I continued, "Second, we can go to any country in the world, including yours, but you cannot leave the USSR and come to visit us. If this socialist paradise is so great, why don't they let you out?""Oh," she claimed, "I have a passport and can travel if I want. It's your country that will not give me a visa to visit the United States." She was partly right, as the US is very tight with their visa restrictions, but that was obviously not the real issue. Then I decided to go for the jugular and broach the topic of Afghanistan and the boycott, so I said, "Now for Afghanistan. Do you really think the Afghan people want the Soviet Union in their country?" "Oh yes," she exclaimed, "In fact they had to ask us three times before we agreed to help them, because we knew the rest of the world would not understand. And do you know," she continued triumphantly, "that we have now pulled out ten percent of our troops from Afghanistan?" I retorted, "Well, when you have ten times to many in there to start with, ten percent isn't very much, is it?"

That evening we boarded our train for the last leg of our rail journey, an overnight to Nahodka, the port city for Vladivostock. As we approached Nahodka we prepared for the dreaded Russian Customs and we were admittedly nervous. I took the letter from Adam from Novosibirsk and put it in an airmail envelope, which I buried in the middle of a box of empty envelopes. I tucked the poems from Iya into a small pocket of my travel wallet, which I carried in an inside pocket of my suit jacket. I also had over 20 ruble coins for my collection and there was a five-ruble limit on exporting Soviet currency. So I hid them in various places. Three of them went into the bottom of my stick deodorant. A few were loose in my pocket. Another three went in the front pocket of my backpack with toiletries and I took disposable razors and laid them on edge so if customs officials put their fingers in there they would cut them! As it turned out, it was the only pocket of my backpack they didn't search, which irritated me. I gave a few to Ken and Michael to put in their pockets for me, but my three favorite Olympic rubles had to have a special hiding place, in case all else failed. I borrowed a condom from the young German couple in my compartment, put the coins in it, and hid them where the sun doesn't shine!

In Nahodka a long line of Soviets and Westerners alike waited their turn to go through customs and immigrations in order to exit the socialist paradise. We had really had enough of the USSR at that point and were eager to leave. Each person, at their turn, was escorted through a big door to one of 12 lines beyond, where they were thoroughly checked out by the Russkis. Another sight sent chills down my spine - everyone entering the door had to pass through a metal detector before proceeding to the inspection. What about my coins in their special hiding place!? It was a nerve-wracking half hour before my turn came and I breathed a lot easier when I had made it through the detector without setting it off.

Ken, Michael, and I were all sent to different stations and the interrogation process began. I was treated to a large, brusque woman who addressed me in Russian. I said, "I'm sorry, I don't speak Russian." She didn't bat an eye, but replied, "Da, da, gavaricheh po Ruski," which means, "Yes, yes, you do speak Russian!" I was taken aback by that, but told her again that I didn't understand her. In her cold, official voice, still in Russian, she insisted that I understood very well. She obviously knew that I had spoken with people along the trip and it was her way of making it clear right away that she knew more about me than I was going to be comfortable with! She proceeded in Russian, but I was not about to admit I could understand anything at that point. Two men helped her conduct a thorough "paper search" of my belongings. They didn't care about anything we had bought - they just checked out anything that could possibly have writing on it. They set my address book aside, then my journal and the English translation of the Oberammergau Passion Play text. I was trying to focus on the woman and figure out what she was saying, but I was much more nervous about what the men were finding in my backpack. When they pulled out the box of envelopes and started taking each one out individually and looking inside I started sweating. They found the letter from Adam and looked like they had hit the jackpot. I understood them asking the woman what to do with it and she just replied to them, "The normal."

After they went through the contents of my pack she kept insisting there was more, but I wasn't going to volunteer anything - not even that I could figure out what she was asking. Finally she took me to another room and started searching all my pockets herself. Naturally she found the travel wallet and checked my money and other papers in it. However, when she found the poems from Iya the search was over - she had found my hiding place. Oddly, she wasn't the slightest bit interested in the poems, just the fact that she had found them.

She took me to a waiting area and disappeared into another room with the two men, my journal, address book, Passion Play text, and the letter. They were only gone about 15 minutes, going through my things, but it seemed much longer. I had written every detail of our trip in that journal and even though some of it was in shorthand or code words, I had no idea what they were going to decipher about our escapades. To say I was on pins and needles would be a gross understatement!

In the meantime a French couple was having problems of their own. The conductor and one other person had advised Customs that they had taken a flash photo on the train the night before we arrived in Nahodka. It was black night, the shades were drawn, and he took a photo with flash, obviously eliminating the possibility of catching anything outside the train with his camera. Unfortunately for him, we happened to be passing a military installation at the time and officials accused them of taking photos of it, a big no-no in the USSR. The couple were told they would have to forfeit all their film, but after much protesting, the officials finally just took the one roll, promising to develop it and send the photos to their home in France if there was nothing objectionable. Yeah, right! The interesting thing was that the report from "the other person" apparently did not come from our samovar lady - and this in a car with only Westerners! Hmmmm.

Back to my nervous waiting. . . Finally my interrogator came back to me and returned the journal, address book and text without comment. Then, in perfect English(!) and sickeningly sweet, she showed me the letter and said, "We'd like to ask you a favor. We'd like you to put stamps on this and mail it from here." In retrospect I wish I would have just refused, but at the time I was still more scared than angry. I looked through my stamps, but didn't have enough for the required postage to the US. She assured me whatever amount I had would be enough. Sure! It wasn't going anywhere anyway. But she made a big show of escorting me back out through the big door to the waiting room and having me deposit the stamped letter into an official mailbox. I'm afraid that letter ended up doing Adam more harm than good. My fear at that point was quickly turning to anger. I left Customs, went through passport control, and walked out to the wide pavement, where there were soldiers all over the place. As I walked up the gangway I was steaming and it didn't escape me that we were all being filmed as we boarded the ship.

Ken, Michael, and I quickly compared notes and it turned out that all three of us had been given a meticulous paper search, but we were the only ones out of 80 Westerners (we were the only Americans) who received that treatment. As we spoke about it with other friends we had made on the tour, we started realizing the extent of the KGB network. We were on that Russian ferry two days en route to Yokohama, so technically we were still in the Soviet Union. Shortly after sailing there was a movie in the theater, so we went to check it out. It was more of the same propaganda we had seen for two and a half weeks and it made me sick. I had really had enough of it. I came into the Soviet Union with an open mind about socialism, but any openness there had been was gone now. I was livid with the communist system and the way they treated their own people. Nothing could have made me more anti-communist than that trip in the Soviet Union. At any rate, I was literally sick: vomiting, headache, and nausea. If it was seasickness, it was the only time in my life, so I prefer to think it was a reaction to the Soviet propaganda garbage on the screen. I got over it after a few hours of sleep.

There was a miniscule incident I counted as a bit of revenge during our ferry ride. Out on deck was a big chessboard and somehow I ended up in a match with a Russian, who was almost certainly a KGB agent. He was a very good player and he knew it. I studied my moves carefully, but he would make his move almost as soon as I was finished with mine. He was taking my pieces right and left when I noticed a slight glimmer of hope. If I could just survive long enough to get my rook down to his home row, I might be able to take him by surprise. Voila! He was so cocky, he never saw it coming and I announced, "Checkmate!" with great satisfaction. The look on his face was priceless. I taunted him in Russian, "Thanks, Comrade!" and walked away. He immediately wanted a rematch, but I wasn't going anywhere near that game again.

The three of us were amazed by the apparent extent of the KGB network and discussed it with some of our friends on the ferry. A businessman who traveled frequently between Japan and Russia told us it was not uncommon for KGB to follow him to his home in Japan. Other stories like the one of our French friends and their camera surfaced as well during the next two days. Our first day in Japan we got a newspaper to catch up on world news and found an interesting article about the new kind of spy being sent into the USSR to keep an eye on the commies. I was shocked to see that the description of the "new spy" described me to a "T"! No wonder they kept such a close watch on us the whole time. We were also uneasy about the whole episode with Iya, and decided not to mention it to others until we had a chance to contact a few people at home who might be able to shed some light on it all.

We hitchhiked to northern Japan, to the island of Hokkaido, where both Ken and Michael had grown up. It felt good to be with friends and to be able to relax. The first evening Ken's mother fixed dinner and a few of their friends joined us as well. Naturally our trip was the main subject of conversation and one of their friends, Mary, started recounting an unusual experience her two sisters had had in the USSR. She told how the girls were in a museum when they were approached by a man who asked if they were Americans. He wanted to practice his English a little. After talking a bit, he said he had a friend in the United States, "Maybe you know her." Their dubious reaction was to be expected, but he named a classmate of theirs at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School in Pennsylvania. They were shocked of course and marveled at the "coincidence".

Ken, Michael and I were looking at each other during the story, and then decided to relate our experience with Iya. The parallels were just too striking, so we related our encounter with Iya.

Shortly after that I returned to the United States, but pieces of the puzzle of our trip to the Soviet Union continued to fall into place over the next couple years. We were pretty sure that Iya was indeed a KGB agent and that she was likely in charge of American Mennonites visiting Moscow. That sounds pretty bizarre, but it became quite clear that the KGB network was far vaster than most Americans could even contemplate. We booked our tour through Menno Travel and we all came from a Mennonite College. That made us candidates for Iya's attention right away. In Moscow we were pretty easy to pick out. Three Americans arriving late evening in Moscow, just a few blocks from Red Square, are no doubt going to walk over to have a look. It was certainly no chore for Iya to pick us out and approach us, even if she hadn't seen our visa photos.

Several years later I got a call from an FBI agent saying they needed to meet with me. I asked what it was regarding, but the man said he couldn't give any information over the phone. He said he would be in Bozeman in three days and we would meet then. I must admit I was quite unnerved by that and had an anxious three days. It turned out they had questions about all my Polish connections and about some of the Poles I had helped come to the United States. When I explained that I had spent a year in Poland in the late 70's and therefore had a lot of Polish friends, it cleared up most of the questions, but we continued talking for some time. Then I asked if he minded listening to another story and I told him about our Soviet trip and our theory about Iya. He concurred that the story I related to him very clearly fit the pattern of what they knew about KGB operations and agreed that we had probably "put the pieces of the puzzle together" pretty accurately.

I've been back to the USSR/Russia numerous times since then and have had many different experiences. But that first trip was life-changing and shaped much of my perspective on world politics, and socialism in particular. Oh yes, I ended up with quite a nice batch of Russian Rubles for my coin collection as well!

Kent Kauffman, April 2004


Stories   Rita   World Cruise 1996   Ship Stories   Milan & Memory Repression   Santa Matilde   Poland   Olympics   Mullets   Angels   Poems   Christmas Letters