After the soldiers cocked their rifles and invited me to come with them, I was marched through the midday sun of Moscow to a bleak office building. It was the height of Eastern Communist Bloc construction, a large grey concrete rectangle, crumbing a bit at the edges. I focused on not crying. I was escorted to a small room with a bare metal desk, an overhead light, and a single wooden chair placed on thin grey carpet. I sat gingerly as if I were on a melting ice floe about to tip into the Arctic Sea. After a long wait, a thin woman entered. She had slick helmet hair, jet black and wore a tidy uniform. My first thought was “I’m in a James Bond movie”, as she looked exactly like a cliché movie villain.
She leaned against the desk, considering me with muddy brown eyes, her head slightly tilted and I was reminded of a bird looking at a particularly tasty grub. I was the grub, in this illustration. I looked down, choosing to stare at her shoes, sure that little blades were going to spring out from them and that she would kick me with her poison darts. Having an active imagination can work against you sometimes.
She started speaking in rapid Russian that I couldn’t follow at all. I must’ve looked confused, as she slowed down, speaking more loudly this time as if I were not only stupid but deaf as well, “What were you mailing, what are you concealing, what do you steal from the USSR?” My brain was spinning. I couldn’t tell her, it would not only get me in serious trouble but perhaps my whole group would be thought complicit along with Davidoff, and even Olga our Intourist Guide. I didn’t like Olga but I didn’t wish her any harm either. My panicked brain came up with a solution: I needed to NOT be able to speak Russian. No one could get from our camp outside of Leningrad and into the neighborhood where Davidoff lived and out again without being able to speak Russian. They didn’t have any proof of anything, I thought – she’s suspicious and digging. I clung to that hope and it gave me enough courage to smile, look confused, and say in English, “I’m sorry I don’t understand you.”
She kept on asking me things in Russian, I’d pretend not to understand her. She’d leave for long periods of time. I was not allowed to use the bathroom or get a drink. At one point a kindly old man came in and asked me (In Russian) if I’d like some tea. I pretended not to understand him, too. Finally, after maybe 5 or 6 hours of this, the two original soldiers came back in, and motioned that I should come with them. My legs were shaking as I stood and walked with them to the front door of the building. One of them opened the door, the other one kept his rifle trained on me. One of the hardest things I have ever done was walk away with my back to that gun. Every moment I expected a bullet to slam into my back. As soon as I turned the corner I broke into a run, and didn’t stop moving until I got back to our camp.
I couldn’t tell anyone what had happened, as I didn’t know who to trust. That night I was uncharacteristically quiet. I started thinking that even though we were all travelling together, I didn’t really know any of them, and that I had made a mistake in coming at all. It colored the rest of my trip, that fear. It would later culminate in some frightening moments on a high cliff outside of Sochi on the aptly named Black Sea, but for now I sat quietly drinking vodka and eating a piece of bread as my travel companions chatted about their day.
We were in Moscow for another two days and I tried to behave normally, sure that I was being watched. I visited the Stiff. I went to the cemetery and paid my respects to Chekhov and Stanislavsky. I did not spit on anyone’s grave. I went to the Bolshoi, and discovered to my delight that their intermissions are almost as good as the shows themselves. Our ballet had two intermissions. As the house lights went up, a crazy stampede of people galloped to the mezzanine to get to the champagne bar, gulp 2 or 3 glasses of champagne (included in the ticket price) and then a lesser stampede to get back to the seats. They clap in unison there, it’s immensely powerful, that uniform approval. I found I liked it rather more than how we Westerners applaud, like scattered birds.
Moscow left me with one other present: dysentery. If you want to lose about 15 pounds in less than a week, try dysentery. I think I got it because the day after my KGB interrogation, I was so hung over and dehydrated I lost my mind and used one of the public drinking dispensers. These are machines that produce a stream of cold water or lemonade when you feed it a kopek (a Russian penny). Everyone shares 2 or 3 glasses that are not washed, merely drunk from and placed back on top of the machine. I know it sounds vile, but I just really needed a beverage that wasn’t coffee or vodka or the terrible beer (we called it Riva Piva) that is deemed unfit to export.
We travelled from Moscow on through Kiev. I remember nothing of Kiev except that I preferred being sick in the sunflower fields than in the public squatter toilets. The toilet paper in those was literally a book – you would tear pages out of the book to wipe with. It was smelly, fly-ridden and disgusting, and made me even more sick than I already was. I kept nothing down or in for over a week. Bryan used his superior Russian skills and the last of my American dollars to get me a black market case of Schweppes Tonic to try and keep me hydrated. It’s not hyperbole to state that Schweppes saved my life.
We left Kiev, headed for Tbilisi, Georgia via the Caucasus Mountains. We had a stop in Pyatigorsk for some food, and I remember sitting listlessly at the central square, which sported a war memorial (of course) and a lovely fountain. Little girls with giant bows like explosions played around the fountain as blue sky began to be eaten by a darker thunderstorm.
We scored a roasted chicken to share between 20 people (I still wasn’t eating) and some cucumbers and tomatoes to go with our bread, pickles and vodka and prepared to drive into the mountains, Stalin’s old homeland. Bryan was concerned and wanted to get over the mountains as fast as possible as heavy storm clouds continued to gather, and the single lane gravel road we were to take was notorious for washing out.
To be continued….
And now my boys know why I have such a fondness for tonic water…
Photo courtesy of victorgrigas