#35 Russian Adventures Part IIIPosted: November 27, 2012
When I wrote #33 Russian Adventures Part II, I was hours from Moscow and following my Russian friends out of the dacha into the dark. We followed Nadia and the two men to a muddy dirt road with no lights. After they warned us not to look American, I was glad to have mud covering my shoes. All they said in a whisper was, when we got to the train station, be silent. They’d get tickets for us to Moscow. There was no clue about how far away it was.
The woman I’m calling Blanche and I had already spent a day completely lost in Leningrad and laughed every step of the way. Maybe it was the sweet wine back at the dacha, but the more serious we tried to be the more laughter would escape out of our mouths. We couldn’t look at each other without wanting to laugh. After a few minutes of trudging in the dark, we were quiet and didn’t even want to smile. We saw no one. Not one house had a light. I haven’t looked in my journal to check how far we walked, but we were hiking from the country to a village with a train stop. Let’s say 30 minutes.
When we got to the train station, the men motioned for us to stop. Even though there was very little light they didn’t want us anywhere near it. We didn’t budge. We couldn’t look at our American watch or smoke an American cigarette. We stood trying to look natural. This was anything but natural. Try to look inconspicuous and you are conspicuous.
The men returned and spoke to Nadia in Russian. Something was wrong. The last train for Moscow had gone. What now? We followed them to a paved road. If we walked we wouldn’t get to Moscow for our flight in the morning. Or the morning after that. Or the morning after that. Pretty sure hitchhiking was out of the question on Russian roads.
And suddenly a taxi swooped in, literally out of nowhere. The dark-haired artist spoke to the driver, opened a door and motioned for us to get into the back. I started to speak and Nadia put her hand over my mouth. These gregarious effusive people were cool customers that night.
The men rode up front talking occasionally with the driver who for all I knew was KGB. By now it seemed according to Nadia, that at least half the population was KGB, and I wasn’t going to doubt her. I’d been told many stories about people turning one another in for a minor infraction. Being an American that night was no minor infraction.
Even with very little traffic, we rode for nearly three silent hours. Just before dawn the taxi stopped in front of our big glass and metal hotel on the outskirts of Moscow. We got out and when the driver had gone the artist told me he would bring the slides to the airport in the morning. They each hugged us. There were always hugs everywhere we went on that trip. We left them and went inside. Just another evening out in Moscow.
There was never a moment when we didn’t feel watched back then. In Russian hotels, there was a key lady in every hallway of every floor. The key was left with her instead of the front desk. So we kept quiet all the way back to the room. When we shut the door, I bowed to touch the floor.
Were we near a military base? So what happened? Or, what might have happened?
After hours of silence it was time to burst. But we were all told about listening devices. This was a “citizen diplomacy” trip. To our group that meant peace through people rather than governments. The man who led the trip was devoted to that notion. Chiefly we didn’t want to cause problems for friends. Though I was there only to get to Moscow, I admired the notion.
So we chattered in a very low voice. The longer anyone talks about any subject, the more negative and detailed it becomes. After reviewing the events of that day, and night, we began to get a little indignant. What had they done? How could they have put us in this position? “Did you see Nadia shut me up?” “Did you see their look when you got out the tape recorder?” “Where do you think we were?” “Maybe there was a military base.” “Why did they go to so much trouble?” “How could there be a taxi in the middle of nowhere?” “Didn’t they know there was a last train?” “What was the point of all this, if he had slides in his studio in Moscow?”
As much as we chattered on about all the drama, the next stage tempered it with the harsh reality of their lives. How could they live where they weren’t allowed to write or paint what they wanted? Lives so severe that they put themselves in danger. We were glad we didn’t have to live that way. Phew! We might be exhausted, but we weren’t in a Russian jail.
On another trip I made there in 1991, a friend who was leading an art tour was detained by police with a few members of the group. We all bought paintings from artists in city parks. That was okay by then. But some were also buying what turned out to be black market souvenirs. That wasn’t okay. But back to this story.
It was an exhausting night with no sleep. We packed and got ready for the flight. I didn’t speak of this to anyone else on the tour, especially not our two guides from Russia. I did tell our American tour leader.
In the morning Nadia was at the airport. I didn’t write in Part II, that earlier that week, she had hosted at least half the men and women in our group at her apartment, along with delegates from the International Conference of Women. It was amazing to see her blending a life of fear and discomfort with the ease of hosting accomplished people from around the world. At the airport she continued to charm everyone and they loved her.
We were all still outside the terminal when she pulled me away from the group. She pointed out a man in a floral shirt with a camera. KGB. She pointed out another guy, KGB and another. Just like that. I wasn’t getting used to it exactly, but it wasn’t a shock either.
Then she changed from ebullient Nadia to serious and sad Nadia. She took an envelope out of her purse. She began the “careful” instructions. These were the slides mentioned the night before. I should pack them “carefully.” They were slides of unsanctioned artwork that I was now taking out of the country. No one could take anything out of the country except souvenirs with a receipt, or something you brought in with you. And if you’ve read the first installment of this adventure you know I already had enough drama with customs getting into the country. Now I was packing hot slides.
She told me that I must contact “the German banker.” His name came up the night before in the smoky kitchen. A man from Deutsche Bank in New York City. He was in some way working with them. Apparently he did business in Moscow. That wasn’t at all clear to me. Nothing was clear to me except that they were in danger and they wanted my help. She was begging. She cried. I would do what I could.
It was all just beginning.
To be continued in Part IV