This essay was completed some time ago, about a visit to Russia even further in the past. But, with Russia in the news every day now, it seemed timely to revisit some memories of a long ago trip to what was still the Soviet Union in 1982.
Reading TIME Magazine’s article naming Vladimir Putin the man of the year for 2007 reminded me of my visit to Russia long ago.
In 1982 the People to People organization–the brainchild of President, Dwight D Eisenhower–invited me to join a group of judges and juvenile justice professionals to travel to England, Sweden, Russia and Germany to study juvenile court systems in these countries. I felt privileged to be among this respected group of dedicated juvenile justice experts.
I had a bit of trepidation about entering Russia at the height of the Cold War because part of my obligatory military career had been in Military Intelligence, which I found none too military and lacking in intelligence. Our unit did bring in a Russian woman to try to teach us the Russian language. However, she was hard put to get us past our New Orleans vernacular much less impart to us the secrets of us that complicated, unromantic language. Despite some concern that the paranoid Ruskies might somewhere have a dossier on Lt. McGee, former Military Intelligence Officer, I heartily embraced the trip.
Our trip commenced in Washington D.C. with briefing on our trip from State Department personnel about customs, and expected conduct. We left Dulles at night in a 747 configured like a cattle car. I felt like mooing all the way to London until, just after takeoff, the lady next to me spilled her entire Coke in my lap. My damp, sticky blue jeans dried somewhere over the Atlantic, but the body parts below, now encased in a molasses-like substance, yearned for a shower.
No matter. London and the whole of England were wonderful. I had two Minolta SLR cameras, one loaded with black and white film and the other with color film depending on the nature of the subject matter I was shooting. The beauty of the British country required that it be shot in color. The only exception was the northern city of Birmingham, which dictated black and white.
Stockholm called for much color film. We waited in Sweden for final approval to enter Russia. Yes, we did not get final permission to enter Russia until the day before we were permitted to enter. And then, for some inexplicable reason we could only enter from Helsinki.
We finally made it to Moscow about dark on Aeroflot Airlines which we affectionately dubbed “Aeroflop.” The plane resembled our trusted 727s in design but in no other respect. The dirty, uncomfortable craft appeared to be in dire need of maintenance. I did not want to even think about what the pilots or air traffic controllers were up to.
When we arrived at the airport in Moscow, we saw no greeting saying “Welcome to Russia. Enjoy your stay.” The surly officials at the airport–Customs and who knows what other bureau personnel–acted as though they didn’t want us Americans on their soil and would use any excuse to either lock us up or return us to Helsinki. Anybody with a Jewish sounding name got strip-searched for no explainable reason. Someone had a TIME Magazine containing a story about Russia’s ongoing, draining conflict with Afghanistan. The magazine was quickly confiscated and its owner seriously questioned for an hour.
This encounter with morose Russian public officials reminded me of the somber pictures painted by Leo Tolstoy in “War and Peace,” and Dostoevsky in “Crime and Punishment,” where they explored in dreary detail the daily lives of Russian public servants.
After four hours of interrogations, hunger and fatigue, our custodians allowed us to board our bus for the hotel. I mentally held my breath the whole time, but to my relief, no official mentioned former Lt. McGee.
On our bus ride to the hotel we first met Sonia, our guide, caretaker, and I assumed representative of the KGB. She would attempt to assure that we only saw what we were supposed to see. Sonia would also indoctrinate us on life in Russia—according to the script she had been given. She spoke excellent English. A lean, but sturdy redhead, in her forties, Sonia spoke with the authority and certitude of a former Russian Army officer.
Her first words to me were, “But you have many cameras.”
I answered, “I have only two. I need them both because one is loaded with black and white film and the other with color film.” These question and answer sessions occurred each time we met. Same question–same answer.
About twenty miles outside Moscow, we passed a huge, well-lighted monument made of steel “I” beams. Sonia explained that the structure represented a tank trap and sat on the spot where the Russian army stopped the Germans during World War II. This was within shelling distance of the city. She reminded us that twenty-five million Russians lost their lives in defense of Mother Russia. She did not remind us that two decades prior to that War Stalin murdered an equal number of his own people because they dissented from his practices.
Check back in a few days for more about our adventures in 1980s Russia.