The Berlin Wall fell November 9, 1989. This signified the end of the cold war. It had been built in 1961 by the Soviet Union and was a symbolic boundary between democracy and communism.
The summer before the fall of the wall, we joined or friends, Dale and Pat Davidson and Bob and Billie Suchsland for a tour of a small portion of western USSR.
When we arrived at Moscow’s dimly lighted airport, all of our bags were found but mine. Luckily it was brought to our hotel the following day. I remembered that Bob’s suitcase did not ever show up on a trip we made to Portugal and Spain. He was able to purchase another bag, toilet articles and clothes to continue the trip. In Russia, we saw endless lines at doors of stores but few or no goods were found inside. I might have gotten pretty dirty and smelly if the bag had not shown up.
We soon found that our hotel and other buildings also were poorly lighted. The food at the hotel and tourist restaurants was acceptable but I soon longed for a Big Mac. The bottled water furnished us was brown which was not acceptable but we had to have water. We found an alternative at some hotel bars and that was imported soda water for one dollar for an eight-ounce bottle. No wonder their Russians are known for their vodka consumption.
Tourists were required to make their purchases at government stores for tourists. We found very little in these stores that we wished to buy. Purchases made elsewhere were subject to confiscation. Desperate for dollars, locals stopped us on the street and offered to sell artwork and other items to us. It appeared that these transactions were made only where police were not visible.
We found the Red Square and the surrounding buildings to be magnificent. There were the Kremlin walls, Lenin’s tomb, St. Basil’s Cathedral and the others churches with onion shaped spirals. Best of all was the Armory, which is a museum containing jewels, crowns, clothing carriages and other splendor belongs of the rulers of the past. I was overwhelmed at the sight of several Faberge Eggs.
We were shown many great monuments dedicated to military battles and war heroes. The one that stands out the most in my memory is one commemorating the spot where the Russian forces stopped the advance of the Nazis into Moscow. It appeared to me that proper respect was not given to the heroes of these monuments since the grounds around them were very un-kept. The Russians did not seem to be aware of the value of maintenance.
The highlight of my stay in Moscow was when our guide appeared in a red tee shirt bearing the white letters “Oklahoma Sooners”. It had been given to her by an Oklahoman who was traveling with a bunch of Texans. She lived with her husband, son and father in a three-room high-rise apartment. It was difficult to be very near to her until the second day after one our people gave her a jar of deodorant.
After three days of sightseeing, we left by bus to Suzdal, one hundred and forty miles away. It has been said that it is five hundred years from Moscow.
Long before Moscow was a city, Suzdal was the center of political and religious activity. Remaining are many of the large beautiful Russian Orthodox cathedrals and churches. The most of them now are more like museums.
We visited a nearby reproduction of a historic peasant village. One of the ladies with us could speak Russian, the language of her parents. One of the guides told her “Be glad that your family got out of here. I am close to your age and see how much older I look. We have a little money but there is nothing to buy with it”.
Walking around one of the residential areas of ever-day people, I found the homes to be colorless with thick walls with deep windows where perishables were stored. In the middle of the intersection of two dirt roads was a water pump. I watched as a rather sturdy lady dressed in what I would call peasant garb pulling a child’s wagon up to the pump and filled the several pots in the wagon. It appeared that the well provided water for people for several surrounding blocks. I wondered about water for bathing. This area reminded me of something out of “Fiddler on the Roof”.
As in our other hotels in Russia, this one was heavily guarded to keep out the locals. Our food left a lot to be desired and we had no hot water during our stay there. Believe me, a cold shower means a quick in and out.
As in Moscow, we encountered people on the streets with objects they wanted to trade for dollars. We bought a pretty lacquer box from a nice looking young man and became engaged in conversation. Alexander was an English speaking twenty-two year-old university student from near-by Vladimir. He told his story of being befriended by a tourist from Buffalo, New York. They had discussed life in the world and in Russia. Alexander had read a couple of Newsweek magazines the guy had given him.
After two years of mandatory service in the navy, university classes and then what he learned from the New York friend and the magazines, his eyes had been opened and he was tremendously disillusioned with his country. He and a Jewish friend were trying to earn money and someway get a pass to fly to Berlin. There they hoped to escape to the United States where his friend possibly would help them.
Then he presented his problem. He was not getting letters from his friend. He thought the reason was that his letters to this fellow were being confiscated by the Russians. Alexander pleaded for us to take a letter with us and mail it to his friend when we reached home. His pleading touched me deeply and I felt that I must help this desperate young man. I told him that I certainly would give it thought. He said that he would see me the next day.
Our guide told me that she would not advise me what to do but if I accepted, I should put the letter in the bottom of my suitcase. Our traveling companions were astonished that I would consider such a thing they thought the deed to be dangerous. Since we were traveling together, they could envision my being caught by the KGB and that all of us would spend time in a Russian jail.
When we returned to our heavily guarded hotel the next afternoon, we were shocked when we opened the door to our room and found Alexander sitting there in a chair. He obviously knew his way around and the right people.
He showed us his letter. It was a simple explanation of what he feared was happening and asked the friend to keep up their correspondence. The letter appeared harmless to me and he seemed so desperate that I told him that I would do as he wished. He jumped up and down with joy and presented both Jean and me with lacquer boxes.
Jean now agreed that we should help Alexander in his plan to achieve a better life. Our friends still had strong reservations and I could see fear in the face of one of the guys.
The next morning we bussed back to Moscow. From there we flew to Leningrad now called St. Petersburg. It was a beautiful city but reflected little maintenance and long lines at stores. Most of the great buildings were built in the times of the Czars. We visited the absolutely gorgeous Summer Palace of Peter the Great. It had been destroyed by the Nazis but carefully restored.
The beautiful Winter Palace of Catherine the Great is called the Hermitage. It contains a tremendous amount of art collected by her. With large acquisitions of additional art, it is now one of the largest and best art museums in the world. The building was not air-conditioned so our time there was limited.
One of the other exquisite structures we saw was the high-spiraled Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. There we got to view tombs of czars and other well-known notables of Russia.
The next morning we boarded a train for Helsinki, Finland. The six of us were crowded into a compartment close to the front of the car. We heard the police board and start their inspection at the compartments. I had placed the letter in the middle of a folded shirt that was placed in a plastic sack. It was in the middle of a stack of several shirts also in such sacks.
All six us had dour looks on our faces but one of the guys actually was trembling. I was afraid when the police saw our faces they would decide to search extensively. Two policemen came in, looked around and opened up a section of the ceiling and checked that area with a flashlight. They were gone in about two minutes. WOW, we made it. We started breathing normally again. I still did not feel secure and knew that I would not feel safe until we crossed over into Finland.
From others, the police had confiscated packages of caviar and a wrapped oil painting that was too large to fit in the owner’s suitcase. We had purchased two paintings from the same artist but they were packed deep in my bag so were safe.
We enjoyed the beautiful sights and delightful people in Helsinki. It seemed that everybody spoke perfect English. Like in Finland, we found the sights, people and food to be delightful in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Here, we found the people to be smiling and open. It was obvious that maintenance was important to them and there were no lines of people hunting for food and everyday items. Our biggest surprise was to see women sunbathing topless in the city parks of Copenhagen. I found myself humming the old song “Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen”
Soon after we arrived home in Denver. I telephoned Alexander’s friend in Buffalo. He told me that he is getting the letters and that his letters should be in Alexander’s possession by now. I mailed the well- traveled letter as was requested.
I hope that Alexander and his Russian friend escaped beleaguered USSR of that day and are living the good life somewhere in the USA.