On Camping and Driving in the USSR Part 3. Crossing the Line

Davidoff’s apartment smelled like turpentine, oil paint, smoke, and that delicious chocolate smell created by old books.  Packed bookcases lined one side of the apartment.  Books spilled off of tables, and were piled on the hardwood floor.  Any wall space not occupied by bookshelves was filled with art.  Nudes, landscapes, cityscapes. Pencil drawings alternated with oil paintings, all of them Davidoff’s work. A thin wisp of papyroci smoke floated near the ceiling, and in one corner a samovar* steamed.  Davidoff cleared a seat at the small table near the windows, and poured me a cup of black tea. The tea in Russia is industrial strength, and even if you usually don’t take sugar in yours, you’d be well advised to do so.  You put a sugar cube between your teeth and drink the tea through it.  It’ll wake you up and keep you that way.

We talked for nearly an hour, me in my halting Russian, he graciously dumbing down his vocabulary so I had a fighting chance to follow his thoughts.  I told him every bit I could remember about his son. After a while our conversation ran out. Davidoff looked at me, and reached out with his strong, browned hands and held mine a long time, patting them.  He asked if I would be willing to do something more for him – take some of his art to his son, as well as a letter.  I didn’t hesitate, although perhaps in hindsight I should have.  I said yes, and then waited and looked at the collection of books and art as he wrote a long letter.  He cried openly as he did so.  He was unashamed of his tears, and laughed at the magnitude of the splashes they made on his little table. “Laughter through tears”, I realized. How precisely Chekhovian. How very Russian.  I wished at that moment I was not a tightly-wrapped British/German blend. There was such personal freedom in his emotional outpouring. That depth of feeling, “chustvayet” embraces grief and joy in a single moment and seems uniquely Russian to me.  It was remarkable.

Davidoff gave me a signed pencil drawing of a pretty girl as thanks. “She looks like you”, he said. “I must have known that you would come, an angel from the West.”  That drawing was one I treasured for a long time, until it got burned up in The Fire.

I hid the art, which had been rolled in wax paper, and the letter in the bottom of my sleeping bag.  Later I transferred them to the inside of one of the tent poles, as our personal belongings were periodically searched by Olga. Intellectually I knew I was playing with fire.  Davidoff had been labeled a dissident, which meant technically neither he or his artwork existed.  If I were caught with them, I could be prosecuted and be sent off to rot in some Siberian gulag.  I just didn’t care, and was determined to get them out of the USSR.  I had the boldness of idiocy going for me, and the sense that I was doing the right thing. Back then, there were two ways to get something out of the USSR – to smuggle it across the border or get it out by diplomatic mail pouch via an American Embassy.  When we got to Moscow, I went with option B, which turned out to be a mistake. 

The drive between Leningrad and Moscow was long and beautiful.  Very few towns, hundreds of miles of sunflower fields. Millions of giant yellow and black flowers, their faces ever turning towards the sun. Along the way there were war memorials, usually a tank or several large guns planted in concrete with the Soviet flag flying above.  World War II was still present in that swath of countryside.  We learned by chatting with the other visitors that every family in the region had lost multiple family members in the ‘Great Patriotic War’.   Periodically on the drive, there would be “Guy” stations – these were police lookouts, and stood on spindly legs like atomic spiders straddling the road.  At each of these, we would have to climb out from the vans, show our papers, and allow belongings to be searched.  It was after the first of these encounters that I moved my cargo to the tent pole. 

When we arrived in Moscow after several days drive, we set up camp and made plans.  We definitely wanted to see ‘The Stiff” as we irreverently called the embalmed body of Lenin that rests in a mausoleum in Red Square. (Side note, if that’s not a wax dummy I don’t know what is.)  I wanted to see a performance at the Bolshoi, and to go to Novodevichy Cemetery and visit the graves of Prokofiev, Chekhov, and Stanislavski, and pay my respects.  I also wanted to find Yakov Yurovsky’s grave and spit on it if I could. He was the bastard that was the chief executioner of Tsar Nicholas II and his whole family.  However, my main objective in Moscow was to get Davidoff’s package out of my possession and off to America.

To that end, I wrote a few letters to my parents and friends, and set out to mail them at the American Embassy.  I tucked the rolled paintings down my jeans, stuffing the end in my sock so it wouldn’t slip out, and went to the Embassy.  Showed my passport to the guard, went to the little post office, and sent off my mail, including the paintings and the letter in a mailing tube.  I felt absolutely fantastic walking out, like a hero. Here comes the tricky part. While you are IN the embassy you are on American soil. When you step through the gates and onto the sidewalk, you are back on Soviet soil.  That’s where, just a few steps away from the Embassy, two Soviet soldiers pointed their rifles at me, and pulled back the bolts, “Snick CLICK”, and told me to come with them. My first instinct was to bolt back into the Embassy, but realized that if I did, I would automatically look guilty and might never be able to leave.  So putting on my best “I am so baffled” face, I went with them, and soon had the unique opportunity to be interrogated by a representative of the KGB.

To be continued next week.  If you’re on tenterhooks about what happens next, imagine how I felt…

*a samovar keeps hot water hot, or in this case, the tea hot. It was a gorgeous antique, and the tea tasted vaguely of silver polish.


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