Last time, our group made its way to Moscow via England and Sweden and survived the bureaucratic indignities of the officials at the airport. We are now on our way to our hotel where the hotel personnel will act more like custodians rather than hospitality professionals.
As we rode in on the bus, I mused that the vast Soviet Union extended from Eastern Europe to the orient spanning thirteen time zones, a distance of about half the circumference of the earth, but had only roughly the population of the United States. I further calculated that this resilient nation had about a third of its citizens either murdered by its own leaders or killed by Germans during the short period of twenty years. Until I met some of its smart, hearty, proud people, I wondered how a country could survive such devastation.
At about eleven in the night, we arrived at the Hotel Russia on the banks of the Moscow River. The massive six-story, dreary square structure occupied a space between the river and Saint Basil’s Cathedral, with its exquisite colorfully spired roof.
From our hotel, we only had a short stroll across Red Square to reach the walls of the Kremlin and Lenin’s tomb.
Dispassionately, the officials at the hotel received us and curtly demanded that we surrender our passports, visas and airline tickets. They then ushered us to our rooms where “the floor lady,” the woman in charge of our group of rooms, became our custodian. By then, I badly need a big drink of water, but our keeper told me that she only had beer and seltzer water available. I chose the seltzer water, which came in a pressurized pewter container.
When we finally got settled in our austere quarters, my roommate, Judge Gorman Taylor from Shreveport, Louisiana, started to complain about our shabby treatment. I put two fingers across my lips to indicate silence and pointed to the ceiling with my other hand–suggesting our conversations could be monitored. We agreed to walk out into Red Square and get some of the frosty late September air. Another surprise awaited us as we attempted to exit the hotel. The officials at the desk took our room keys and handed us a paper pass about the size of a business card to use each time we left and re-entered the hotel.
We walked into the brisk late fall night of Red Square. I looked past the lights of Saint Basil’s, Lenin’s tomb and the Kremlin, stared into deep space and beseeched our Maker, “Lord, it is just us, You and these heathens. Please take care of us and make sure we get back home unharmed.”
We assembled for breakfast the next morning in the massive dinning room of the hotel. With high ceilings and large, vaulted, ornate windows overlooking the one block square courtyard it resembled an army mess hall. No menu provided us with choices for our meal, because we had no choice. We received some thick, coarse substance that resembled oatmeal in appearance only. We concluded that some reindeer gave his life to supply the meat offering. The buxom server admonished us, as though we were small children, “You must not waste food. Eat all that has been served to you.”
Women in Russia presented with great authority and held powerful positions. I had read stories of Russian women snipers and tank commanders who acquitted themselves with valor in battle during World War II. These valiant women lived to become grandmothers and pass down their experiences to their children and grandchildren. This gave me the sense of why the Russians refereed to their vast federation as Mother Russia.
Everywhere we saw World War II aged gentlemen dressed in civilian clothes proudly displaying their battle ribbons and medals. I soon came to realize that these were tough people, men and women alike. I wondered how the ice cream eating, TV watching, pampered American citizenry would stack up if we got into a real shooting war with them.
At subsequent meals, we made sport of betting on who would get the most of the rock hard green peas that appeared at each meal. “I got seven, one of us would exclaim.” The winner might enthusiastically relate, “Ah, but I got nine. I win.”
Daily life proved to be somber, serious business in 1982 Moscow. Matronly women, wearing old coats and scarfs on their heads, scurried from shop to shop, cloth tote bags in each hand, forging for their daily ration of meat, fish, cheese, bread and scarce amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Six days a week, neatly uniformed school children marched two by two to their classes.
Residents across the city groomed the ancient cobblestone streets daily with handmade round brooms constructed of uneven straw. Most everyone seemed reluctant to engage in conversation with strangers. This seemed like a reasonable attitude to me, considering that many of their relatives had been murdered by their leaders or slaughtered by Germans.
Figuring that a man fishing from the Banks of the Moscow River knew some English, as many Russians did, I tried to talk to him. My hope was that all fishermen shared a universal interest in telling at least a fishing story. No such luck. The man acted as though he feared being seen talking to me. He kept looking around as though someone were watching us, which may have been the case.
Even the beautiful, young, blond saleswomen in the duty-free store at the hotel, who spoke impeccable English, refused to engage in long conversation with us Americans. I couldn’t figure out if this aloofness existed because of fear of reprisal from superiors or because of a personal disdain of Americans that had been drilled into them by their leaders due to the strained relations between our countries.