Amsterdam, late June. Chilly, blue skies, picturesque canals, and Heineken on tap. My kind of city. We were advised to buy wooden shoes, not as souvenirs, but to pound in tent stakes. Hammers were among the items forbidden to bring over the Soviet border. I bought cute yellow boots with wooden heels which ended up working just fine. Later, I’d wish I had bought lots of chocolate and crackers, but I didn’t know what was coming. It’s one thing to read the phrase, “live as Soviet people do” and another thing to realize my diet would soon consist entirely of bread, pickles and vodka.
Three VW Vans were rented along with extra windshields and wipers which we strapped to the roof. Where we were going neither of these things could be had for love or rubles. The vans were stick shift, and the group voted on who we trusted to drive. I was nominated for “flats only” driving as I had only just learned how to drive stick a week prior to coming on the trip. I got my first lesson in setting up a 4-man tent in a packed Amsterdam campground (or “dampground” as we called it). I got pretty good at it after a couple of weeks, but in the years since, I’ve never felt inclined to camp again. My preference runs to hotels with nice sheets and hot water.
Our journey to reach the USSR took us first through Copenhagen and Stockholm and then via ferry over the Baltic Sea to Helsinki. In Denmark we stopped at Kronborg Castle – the inspiration for Hamlet’s castle. It was large, cold, and dreary. The sea booms relentlessly on the cliffs beneath the place with clear spiteful intention of pulling the castle under the waves one day. No wonder Hamlet, Ophelia, et al were all bleak and depressed. We spent the 4th of July on the ferry. The crew pulled together a smoked fish smorgasbord for us, decorated with little American flags. They also served copious amounts of vodka and beer. Side note: I will never eat creamed herring again. Ever. At midnight the crew pulled out bottle rockets for us and we shot them off the deck. They decided there wasn’t enough noise, so they raided the arms locker and shot rifles off the stern. We were all horribly drunk so it wasn’t as alarming as it should have been. It was the first of many nights experiencing “midnight sun”. The “white nights” are a phenomenon of northern latitudes in summer. You can read a book outside even at midnight, and has the effect of making you want to stay up all night just to see how much you can drink. Quite a lot, turns out.
Our port of entry to the USSR was Tallinn, which is the capital of Estonia now, but back then was occupied by the Soviet Union. We weaved off the ferry and drove a short distance to the official border. We were scrutinized, and a few of our travel visas were deemed to be “ne horoshow” (no good). We were all so hungover we were incapable of drama, focused instead on not throwing up on anyone’s shoes. Our leader Bryan politely offered the guards Harvard T-shirts as gifts for helping us through this difficulty. There was some tense discussion. Eventually, we were sent behind the guard hut to a forested area with strands of rusty barbed wire running along at chest height. Two men with Kalashnikov rifles stood over us as the officials produced new “podleany” (genuine) travel visas in exchange for American dollars. We would need to renew them to cross back out of the Soviet Union, but that was a month away, we had time to figure it out.
Cleared, we drove just outside of Leningrad to a campground on the banks of a lake where you washed your clothes and yourself. We could take a charming little train with wooden seats and windows that were all stuck either open or closed to get to the city. Chekhov’s three sisters, Masha, Olga and Irina would have been at ease riding it. We were met at the campground by our Intourist Guide, Olga. Olga looked sweet on the outside, but she knew her job. She worked for the KGB, and was assigned to travel with us the entirety of our time in the Soviet Union and make sure none of us got into anything we shouldn’t. Some of us immediately began plotting how we could escape her.
On our 3rd day in Leningrad I was successful in eluding Olga. I had a mission to accomplish. Back in NYC, I had met a man who, when he found I was travelling to Russia, asked if I could take a letter to his father. His father’s name was Davidoff, and he was a dissident artist living under house arrest in Leningrad – communication between them had been blocked for years. I have no recollection how I met his son, or how the discussion evolved to my agreeing to take his letter. At any rate, I had agreed, and now needed to find a certain address in Leningrad.
I made my escape by pretending to be ill when the group was scheduled to see Catherine the Great’s summer palace. Olga didn’t like leaving me behind at the campground, but my theatre background paid off. After the group was gone, I caught the train into Leningrad, and took my life in my hands by grabbing a local taxi. I was deposited on a quiet street in the middle of a “na remont” (under construction) shabby area. Ancient women using homemade bundles of bound sticks swept the streets. Their own version of purgatory, I suspect. At the entrance of the building, I inched around an elderly man slumped in his guard chair, snoring. I climbed four dark flights of steep stairs that may at one time seemed grand, and knocked on what I hoped was the right door.
An elderly but still-vigorous man with a full head of white hair opened the door, holding a papiroci. (A Russian cigarette. It packs a whallop of tar and nicotine. There is no filter, you pinch the cardboard on the end flat before you light up. I developed a certain taste for these.)
“Pardon me, I am looking for Davidoff,” I said in Russian. He grimaced precisely like Madame Linchevskaya my Russian teacher did at my accent, but nodded slightly. “Da, you have found him. What do you want?” I handed him the letter from his son. He stared at it, then at me. “I met your son in New York, in America. He is doing well. He sent you this,” I explained, wishing in that moment that I had learned more Russian vocabulary than a 1st grader would know but it was the best I could do. Davidoff’s eyes grew round and filled with tears. “Come in, please, come in”, he said smiling. I stepped past him and into a marvelous room.
To be continued… And now my kids know why we never took them camping…
*this is the 2nd of a multipart series outlining a 1981 trip to the USSR and back again.