Last post, we saw some of the Russian “judicial” system. This time, as promised, we will go shopping and meet a young Moscow resident who wanted to buy my blue jeans. We will also get to stand in the cold for hours to visit Lenin’s tomb.
GUM’s is the westernized acronym for some Russian words I can’t pronounce, much less spell, despite my limited study of the language.** The only department store in downtown Moscow in 1982, GUM’s occupied four floors of an ornate building about a mile down a wide street from Red Square and the Kremlin. I decided to do a little shopping one day and took off, the cameras hanging from both shoulders. On my way to GUM’s, I encountered a young Russian man who could not speak a word of English, but had a very resourceful way of communicating. He had a small spiral note pad with sentences and phrases of English written on each page. He would flip through his pad then show you what he wanted to convey. After he stopped me on the busy street, he ran through his pad until he got to the page that said, “I would like to buy your blue jeans.”
I chuckled at the enterprising fellow, but made him understand that I could not do that. Today, I imagine that savvy young man is a middle-aged capitalist entrepreneur sporting around Moscow in a red Ferrari with a gorgeous, young, blond Russian girl.
In our briefings, we were told we might get such a request, but we were strongly admonished that to sell western goods, especially blue jeans to Russian citizens, would be considered to be a serious offense by Soviet officials. We had been told that some folks had been jailed for such offenses. Some enterprising westerners had even been incarcerated for only bringing in the labels of Levi Jeans that the Russians could sew on their inferior denim pants.
Although I had planned to buy some gifts for friends at GUM’s, I became disappointed after touring the busy store. Because of safety concerns, much of the merchandise would not be allowed on American shelves. I could imagined that the night clothes constructed of flimsy, cheap, early version rayon would burst into flame if they came close to open fire. The pickings were indeed slim here.
No soda fountains, restaurants or food courts provided sustenance at GUM’s. I became desperate for something to drink and eventually found the only water dispenser on the premises. A large ceramic, cylinder contained room temperature water, but a single plastic cup used by all the public provided the sole method of consumption. I decided to wait for my return to the hotel to slake my thirst.
The pilgrimage to Lenin’s tomb was a solemn ritual. Our group received permission to visit the holy site along with about ten thousand Russian citizens. Fall cold shivered through our bodies as we stood in a line that encircled the Kremlin walls. Hours passed as we inched closer and closer to the subterranean vault located in the Kremlin wall, at the edge of Red Square. We joked with one another both to keep warm and to maintain our resolve to accomplish the feat of briefly viewing the body of the historic man. Some rumors suggested that a wax replica, not Lenin’s actual body, resided in the glass enclosed coffin, but we dare not jest about such a sacrilege.
All mirth ceased as we got closer to the tomb because armed, stony-faced soldiers formed us into two lines and demanded silence. Hard-pressed to keep straight faces, we had to bite our lips and think scary thoughts to keep from snickering. The harder we tried, the worse we wanted to laugh. Eye contact with one another would have been a disaster, so we looked straight ahead as the stern soldiers shuffled us along. Any hint of disrespect near or in the tomb would certainly have resulted in our arrest or maybe even worse. The soldiers demonstrated serious intent and dedication to their duties by holding their AK 47s at the ready and issuing sharp, authoritative instructions.
Definitely no cameras allowed here. The guards whisked us past the body, or whatever was in the glass coffin, and then we exited the tomb into the crisp fall air of Red Square and breathed a deep sigh of relief. Whatever or whomever I saw in that glass case seemed remarkably preserved to me. To this day, I still wonder what I saw.
We visited the subways of Moscow which not only provided efficient transportation for millions, but also housed great works of art in the form of giant sculptures of historic Russian figures. No graffiti blemished the beautiful mosaic art that walled the substations. I imagine destroying this beautiful public property would have been a grave offense and dealt with in the harshest manner.
We thought leaving Moscow would be easier than getting in. Not so. Well, it was somewhat simpler, but still a hassle. We arrived at the airport about three hours before our flight to be inspected to insure we were not departing with such contraband as Russian currency. I looked forward to getting on the plane and letting out a great shout of joy to be free of such a restrictive society. But as I approached the plane door three people stood there scrutinizing each of us as we boarded the plane. A uniformed soldier, a stout man in a black leather coat (obviously KGB), and a woman police officer lined up at the door of the plane. Their message was not, “Hope you had a good stay in Russia. Return soon.”
We got on the plane like sheep and sat quietly in our seats for the three-hour ride to Frankfort, Germany. We all remained restrained while we occupied Soviet air space, but as soon as the wheels touched down on German soil our group shouted with glee and relief.
When I review my photos of Moscow I see that they are all in black and white.
No color photos like those taken in England, Sweden and Germany. In 1982, the Russian people had little reason for mirth. Nevertheless, I found them to be proud, resourceful, intelligent, industrious folks who seemed to yearn for better lives.
From what I can see on television and the internet, times are a changing in Russia now. Yes, they have had tough times converting to a form of capitalism and such a transition certainly invites corruption. Putin certainly has his hands full, but I don’t count these people short. In a short time, they could become the most influential nation of the world, especially if they continue to create political and economic pacts with China and Middle Eastern nations. As we used to say not all that long ago, “The Russians are coming. The Russians are coming.”
**The translated name of GUM was Gosudarstvennyi Universáľnyj Magazín, literally, State Universal Store.