#33 Russian Adventure Part IIPosted: November 21, 2012
There are scenes in the movie Argo that were oddly familiar. In the movie, when they were getting out of Iran with fake ID’s, and every little check point along the way added tension, I had flashbacks of my first trip to the then U.S.S.R.. Not quite the same but back in the summer of 1987 I walked into something way over my head. As I watched the scene in the movie I knew I would jump ahead on my “Stupid List” to tell more of that story.
When I left off with #12 Russian Adventure, I had just entered Russia with a group of “citizen diplomats” mostly from Ohio and some from California. I knew no one, and wondered what sort of hippy dippy something or other I’d gotten myself into. The only way I could get to Moscow at the request of a friend was to sign on for a group tour through Central Asia, Russia and Ukraine, for about 3 ½ weeks. A dying woman asked me to do this. I did it because I had no life plan then and because I could.
So back to Leningrad on that trip. After touring a few days, we took the midnight train to Moscow, bunking triple stacked in compartments with strangers. The few of us who still smoked back then risked standing between cars rocking back and forth, trying to flick flying ashes into an old oak bucket.
My friend Nadia, and that is her real name, was at the station to meet us in Moscow the next morning. After some quick introductions I left the group and went off with her. She was healthy enough to work and was translating at a huge international peace conference of famous women. She instructed me to just follow as she led me through the crowds. She didn’t get me into any sessions, but no one asked who I was.
After she emerged from her work translating we made the long trek to her apartment. I knew supplies were sparse and I didn’t want to eat any of their food, but she insisted. I had one suitcase with me with gifts for her family. So we dragged that with us on a cab ride for a long way. We stopped at a little market for apple juice. I think it was less for the juice and more for my education. Here’s part of why their unemployment was so low back then. One person directs you to the department. When you pick out what you want, another clerk gets a jar of the juice. They take it to a counter where they hand it over to someone else who writes a slip with the price. Another clerk takes the money. Another clerk gives you the change. Another clerk wraps the jar in paper. Another clerk hands it to you. Another clerk checks the receipt before you exit the shop. I knew the word for thank you and it got plenty of use.
As we rode in another cab she chattered away about life there. I didn’t know where we were in Moscow. It had a mixture of massive stone buildings left over from the 40’s and 50’s. Everything was gray and it took a while to focus on what was missing. I pretty much detest outdoor advertising, but it’s amazing how it adds color. We arrived at a district with tall apartment buildings, no trees, no grass and no playgrounds. The building from maybe the 60’s had no one at the door and no front desk. Ironically those surroundings describe pretty much where I live now. The building had a tiny working elevator that barely held two people and a suitcase.
When we entered the apartment I was greeted by Nadia’s husband Dimitri, a well known but underground artist/poet, and, their son. Dimitri essentially spoke no English but their son studied it in school and loved to practice it with me.
They insisted that I stay there so their son gave up his room for me. I would have no idea how to find the hotel where my group was staying. She made a call to the man leading that trip to explain. And as a note, I made a few calls on that trip, which was no easy matter. I don’t know how we thought for decades Russia could efficiently obliterate us, when you couldn’t make a simple phone call.
The apartment was a two bedroom, very large by Manhattan standards. The furnishings were tired but had a simple Scandinavian look. And that’s where any resemblance to comfort stopped. I followed Nadia to the kitchen where she fed me anchovy paste on something like a cracker. I hate anchovies but couldn’t turn down what little they had. She then added tomato paste to hot water for soup.
Every inch of their apartment screamed adaptation to lack of comfort. The bathroom was a combination of clean design crossed with the rustic wooden walled bathrooms from summer camp. In every little crack and corner they had tucked toilet paper a few squares at a time that Nadia had collected in her travels.
I had no idea what the leader of the group I was traveling with thought because it turned out that I wouldn’t tour Moscow with them at all. For a few days I went with Nadia to her work and to as many sights as she could take me. She described their struggle, how her husband had to quietly distribute his poetry and his paintings. She described what she called her botched mastectomy of several months earlier and the implant that burst requiring another surgery. She described the rehabilitation sanatorium. Their brilliant son was told he would have to study language in the university rather than his beloved history. Or was it the other way around? For someone who never did know what I wanted to study, somehow not to be allowed to decide was inconceivable.
In Moscow Nadia would nod toward someone and say that they were KGB. Two men would pass by, she would whisper, “KBG.” Then, because I had been in the business of renovating historic buildings, she took me one morning to a large renovation of a church. The practice of religion was not sanctioned but the preservation of craftsmanship was. I got a chance to talk to a craftsman who had come from Paris to work on the church. There were as always at least 7 or 8 guys in bad suits standing around: more supervisors than workers. Suddenly she whisked me out of the site. She said someone had turned us in for having an American there. Our driver got us away fast. I was told that he was a retired army colonel, her friend, now shuttling me around Moscow.
Fear, and navigation around fear, were the greatest expenditures of time that I saw. They knew the rules, scoffed at them and quietly found another way, every day.
On the next day the woman who had been assigned as my roommate for the group tour joined us. We were placed together because we both smoked. She was from Louisiana and had a colorful personality. She and her colorful personality had never been out of the country and she loved the adventure of getting to know Nadia and her family. Her name was not Blanche but that’s what I’ll call her to tell this story.
That day the colonel drove us to an underground, meaning illegal art exhibit. Not only was it against the law to hold this exhibit, definitely no American could be there. It seemed like 50’s or 60’s Greenwich Village. I saw art and met artists who had had no exposure to other work in the world. While I had no formal art education, this was primitive to me and seemed stuck in a time warp. But what mattered was that they could be arrested at any moment just for showing their art.
When we emerged from the exhibit, Nadia’s husband joined us, sitting up front with the colonel. Now we were going for a picnic in the country. As the gray buildings of Moscow disappeared, the countryside took over. All the time Nadia chattered on about their life. It was like being on another planet and I had to turn my brain inside out. I had no idea where we were going or in what direction.
After nearly three hours, the colonel finally stopped at the edge of the property to a dacha. There were no lawns or lawn mowers anywhere we had been, and this was no exception with tall weeds everywhere.
We got out of the back of the car. Nadia and her husband took us up the outside steps of the house onto a big balcony to meet a dark-haired artist. There were several of his paintings propped against the wall. I remember wondering why he had the work outside. His paintings were very large panels, each with at least nine portraits of a variety of people all without eyes. What they lacked in style to me, they made up in a statement. After we looked at his work, he took us down to their kitchen, where his wife had tea and sweet wine for us. They sliced sausage and cheese and we all sat around the kitchen table. When I put my little tape recorder on that table, the dark haired artist slapped at it to turn it off.
So they told me stories. If one was not a government approved artist, then they were not allowed to show their work. Dimitri had been what they called “hospitalized” on several occasions. It was a kind of medical arrest. He was drugged, mostly intimidated about distributing his poetry or his artwork. Then, Nadia would find someone famous to bail him out.
I nearly had an out of body experience, hovering overhead in this kitchen. I thought what it must look like from above, the air gray with smoke especially from the Turkish tobacco. It felt more like a movie than any conversation that included me.
Then they said it. They wanted me to go back to America and promote their work to art galleries around the country, to keep the artists safe from inevitable arrests. If their names were known in the west, the state wouldn’t dare arrest them. I was to do this to save their lives. This was the second time someone’s life was in the balance. First Nadia wanted me to visit because she was dying. Now they might die if I didn’t go back to America and help them.
If there was a recording of that evening, I’d have a tape where I told them I knew nothing about, and had no background in the business of art. They didn’t blink. To them I was someone who could help.
The dark-haired artist said he had slides of his work at his studio he wanted to send with me. His studio was back in Moscow. Our group’s flight for Tashkent left the next morning, so he was going to go back with us that night. I don’t know how many hours had gone by. They said that our driver had gone back to Moscow and we’d all have to walk to the train station in the dark. They told us that we weren’t to utter a word in English. Don’t even smoke an American cigarette.
Why? Because Americans were not allowed in that area. “Try to look Russian,” they said. Back then, when preparing to make this trip, we were advised to pack simple clothes. But haircuts, hair color, the most inexpensive of clothes didn’t look Russian. I put my plain travel raincoat over my simple Liz Claiborne dress and followed them outside. For the second time in less than a week, I might be headed for a gulag.
To be continued in Part III.