The Leaving of Moscow Event
A True Short Story
When the visas were up and time came to go, the innocence of far off Ukraine, the happiness of the people of Kiev, the sense of abundance, the swirling native costume colors of bright Kiev were fast lost in my return to the political weight of Moscow. Kiev had been my Soviet destination last, and now I headed back to the place of my departure for home.
It was 1963. Exactly thirty years before, Stalin seized the Ukraine and strangled it dead. He called it The Breadbasket of Russia. His troops fully plundered those fertile farms and intentionally starved 5 million people to death in one year. The Ukrainian Genocide. Fearful uneasiness remained. Indeed, it would not be openly discussed by the world before 1988, a ‘Glasnost’ revelation when, at last, Stalin was identified as criminal instead of Soviet hero. And the monuments to the deadly dictator were torn down and burnt and crushed and vilified. By the survivors.
But in 1963 the endless busts of Stalin still decorated the landscape. And Lenin’s tomb in Red Square was sacred ground. And it was the height of the Cold War between my country and the USSR. And I had gone there as a tourist, a teenager barely out of high school to seek the truth.
My plane landed. I was taxied to my hotel which was imposing, broad, not tall. It faced Red Square in a sort of gray, angry five-story Greek revival squat.
1963. Nothing sparkled. The grimly plodding revolution was 45 years in place. Rough soap and water in calloused peasant hands was fine enough finery. Luxury, indeed all pleasures were forbidden decadence. As noted by Orson Welles (The Third Man, 1949) the Communists had outlawed miracles. Russia was another planet to me. Back home, my young American generation was filled with enthusiasms for the joys of communal living, equality and fraternity galore, rejecting suburbia’s convention. Rebelling. Hurrah!! The realities, as is always the case, were eye-popping.
My Soviet home base, that hotel. I’d calculated a simple Das Vidaniya. Figure out what to wear. Pack my suitcase, check for tickets and passport then board the train headed generally in the direction of Paris, west. It was late afternoon. I had time to shower.
The chiefest pleasure to the spacious bathroom was that it had the rarity of toilet paper. Facilities in pristine condition scrubbed til their ears fell off. Circa l920 solid all white porcelain. Zero glam. There wasn’t actual decor anywhere, unless the decor might be considered purposeful anti-decor. All bones boiled clean of delectable. Like Oliver Twist’s workhouse motto….No Meat for the Children. It Will Excite Them…..and Twist’s, “Please sir, may I have more?” that started the inevitable riot. The apparatchiks liked the thinking, missed the irony.
Communists trying to display savoir faire to Europeans and Americans simply do not know what to do with themselves. Like two steps forward and two back it produced a silly self-conscious trot. Big-hearted happy proletariat mass was the image to go for, workers in their workboots. Heigh-ho, heigh-ho. I looked for the Russian Taras Bulba and his bloody Cossacks, shining Catherine the Great and Faberge, Nijinsky, Stravinsky, Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein, Diaghilev. Even the one ballet I’d seen at the Bolshoi was “The Stone Flower”. All that fat lot of historic style scraped clean.
Gilt, jewels, brocade, or leaping high and ecstatically (except for Olympians and ballerinas) were an embarrassment. The only paintings in the exquisite Heritage Museum of Leningrad, winter palace to the Tzars, were dreadful Social Realism or Impressionist decadence like Degas’ The Absinthe Drinker, plenty of finger-wagging at debauchery. I suspected the real and looted treasures hid as walls seemed very empty and most of the palace closed off. In an odd concession of respect for Catherine the Great’s vast architectural triumph, I was given loose felt slippers, to sheath visitor’s shoes against the sweetly tended marble floors. Incidentally, Burton and Taylor’s just released “Cleopatra” was playing in the main Moscow movie house. John le Carre’s “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold” was published September that year. You get the drift. These were not quiet times.
“Doctor Zhivago”…..his name means ‘life’…..almost cost Boris Pasternak his. Forbidden publication in the USSR it was smuggled to Milan in 1956. Ten years later the David Lean, Carlo Ponti, Richard Bolt film was made, and upset the regime to distraction. Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1958 in an effort to prolong his life and though he died two years later, he had miraculously reached his 70th year.
In the West: Elvis, Beatniks, the Beatles, Bob Dylan. Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe. Sinatra. George Burns, Gracie Allen. Caroline’s pony Macaroni, and then…her father shot dead. These were the changing times, the mood surrounding my trip to this most peculiar society to the east, so conflicted by love of poets and crushing of poets and holding tyrants aloft and debasing beauty and treasuring the Hermitage which had been built by luxuriating tyrants of a different stripe and age.
Russians were our allies in the 40’s defeating the Nazis but not by the 50’s. Although by the 60’s something afoot, whispered with care –outside the country– “The Thaw”, a supposed relaxing of oppression, post-Stalin. Oh ha ha. The USSR was scary. We were all scary. The world had tilted off kilter. Less than two months before I touched down in Moscow, America’s President Kennedy had been assassinated. My Russian guide mentioned this before I spoke, and as she did, she wept. Which confuses me to this day. But then, I was very young and understood so very little of the world. And have never stopped looking in all my years to understand more.
In France I had booked the Soviet Tour…..through the sole government-run agency, Intourist….by train from Paris across Europe to Moscow. After a few days, off to Saint Petersburg/Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) by plane. And last the flight to Kiev, far enough clear of politics and Moscow’s contempt to be a lot of fun.
Everything Russian shared wide open expanse. No enterprise, community, shops, or factories interrupted land. No private property. The train had pulled me east through mile after mile of sweeping unsown wheat fields in barren longing for the late winter sun that hesitated through skies black til nearly noon. We had no stops inside the Soviet Union before reaching Moscow.
I remember a solitary figure in traditional Russian earflapped beaver headgear, the thickest wool garments up to chin and down to ankles then felt boots distorting whatever shape he might have truly been into a round and silent faceless thing, a black silhouette against white cinder-dashed snow, head down, on frozen land, swinging his kerosene lamp lazily alongside the railroad track to give the All Clear. He came and went dutifully, and he was all that lived there for hundreds of miles on either side. I hoped with Gorky, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin. The Russians are great storytellers and love books. Scarce books then, hidden books. Lenin, Trotsky, laid on a wooden bench by his front door for show, for memorizing. It made my heart leap as it was rare to me, and it was sad and it was thrilling.
What distress that huge land alone must cost a dictator demanding complete control, endless surveillance, rigid obedience. The population faced undefined infractions that might be broken by the minute, that might cost your life. If you were seen or heard. If you were witnessed.
My home base, the Moscow Hotel, had an elevator whose ornate metal gates sported a permanent Out Of Order sign. The old broad curving terrazzo steps led on each landing to a banged up wood clerk’s desk with two gray apronned and babushka-ed middle-aged women and their accounting book on which all movement in their purview was glumly penciled.
Almost to prove my observation that being in the presence of westerners confused, I recall the entirely empty hotel dining room when two sort of New York Lower East Side looking, badly dressed sort of uniformed black pants white shirt black bowtied waiters brought me the biggest cut crystal glass bowl, cached in a second bowl of crushed ice, held by ornate silver bands, of big gleaming black caviar. I have never seen its equal before or since. It was easily 8 inches across and six inches deep in a mound. Fabulous bread for slathering. A divine borscht to follow. And fruit flavored bottled water. Yeah, they had it first. Carbonation likely a crime against the state.
That afternoon in the thrall of these bespoke pounds of caviar a disturbance from the far other side of the empty dining room made its way toward me in the shape of two young very drunken Russians. The less drunk one was supporting the totally stewed one who turned out to be Yevgeny Yevtushenko, three sheets to the wind.
He was the hip modern Siberian-born poet who annoyed the hell out of the politburo but had got too famous to be done in. I’d read all his books. He was sufficiently drunk to conceal that I had not met up to whatever advertised expectation brought him to my table. Something enraged him. He did a great deal of gesturing and arm waving in my direction and shouted in Russian. When I ran after him with his pack of cigarettes he’d dropped Yevtushenko threw the smokes against the wall and shouted through the roof. Meeting fascinating poets doesn’t always work out for the fan.
Muscovites did not look people in the eye. They did not smile. They did not speak. I was reading The Jazz Age. Jazz had stealthily slid in some Soviet back door and gotten hugely popular and as with many things American, largely a love concealed. A man next to me on the flight to Kiev whispered if he could see the book. His eyes were starving. I gave it to him to keep. He hid it as if from a hungry roommate, his secret dinners for a month.
I should probably do a little aside here to say something about the way I looked. I have never in my life had a sense of how to pull off costuming well though I have periodically tried really hard and admire the hell out of the well-turned out woman. Nothing ever quite seems to go together. I like stuff individually. I do not possess a normal girl’s outfit-focus thing. Bear in mind I had been living in London, going to St Martin’s School of Art and we shared space with the Fashion School leading the revolution of British Mod.
And me, just arrived in exclusionary, isolated, clamped up downtown Moscow. I drew crowds. The women gasped and marveled and touched fabric and lifted hems and chattered and oohed and ahed and laughed. I was the only happy experience in that town. Police arrived to disperse more than once. I had no idea what their problem was nor did I know they hadn’t seen fashion past the 1930’s. I didn’t expect to cause a fuss, I would have passed unnoticed in New York.
I wore an off white, heavy wool Tyrolean hip length cape, zippered up the front and decorated with some scrolly stuff at the collar in thick green brocade. I had on a fitted top, sleeveless, flared skirt very short black wool dress with a deep vee collared neckline that stopped in a button then opened in a circle above the belly. Tres daring London chic. Rust colored cashmere turtleneck I’d gotten in Paris under that. Ditto black tights. And, God forgive me, before I knew better, calf-high sealskin boots. Striped wool gloves. My hair down to my waist, straight and reddish dirty-blond.
Heavy black eyeliner and mascara. 5’8” and skinny as Twiggy. Smoking Gauloises and English Ovals. Adoring Pernod and Vodka. Black beret. Terribly artsy and hip and bohemian.
Just so you know.
At my hotel, the moment of departure. My guide met me in the lobby. Checking watches, indicating the waiting taxi, she offered to help me make sure my papers were in order I saw her face drop. Flesh changed from pale white to red. Perfect English a bit harsher, higher pitched, faster as the tickets et al shuffled through her fingers.
“But where is your visa for Poland?”
“What visa for Poland?”
“You must have a transit visa to travel through Poland. Where is your transit visa.”
“Well, I mean, no. Like, I don’t have a transit visa. I didn’t know I needed a transit visa to travel through Poland. I’ll be sitting on a train. Uh……what do I need a visa for?”
Her everything broadcast the end of the world. Writing this out it occurs to me now that it was an error which may have fallen harshly upon her shoulders. If I was just too stupid for words and had no idea a visa was needed to travel by a train from Moscow into Poland and out the other side, that wasn’t good enough. She was in for a scold from comrade superior. Or firing squad.
Big frenzy filled me and her and the air around us in the cold, sedate, inhospitable, bare, colorless, communist Moscow grand hotel lobby. The desk clerk looked up from his work. One of the ever-present cleaning women behind us leaned on her mop to listen. The marble floors seemed to have drawn closer to the otherwise high ceiling. The visa had to be got. From the Polish embassy. On the edge of town. Before the train left.
And it’s not like, Oh I’ll catch the next one. There isn’t a next. Moreover, you must sit in the very seat booked by Intourist a month previous when the train leaves the station. And have all your papers. No options.
The taxi sped us to the Polish embassy. Did the driver smirk at the guide in his rear view? Taxi drivers were government owned. Yeah, I mean that. Owned. This embarrassment, this flaw would be noted. The driver would take the dirty pencil stub from behind his keen ear, lick the lead, and write out names and times on some rough paper scrap and tuck it in the inside pocket of his tatty wool overcoat with all the other tattler’s bits. I wasn’t concerned about my guide because her trouble had not occurred to me. I was getting worried for me. Not a lot, but some. Then too, I’d traveled considerably, driven across country twice, done the Mardi Gras and I was a New Yorker. I’d dealt with subways and Times Square, Yonah Schimmel’s waiters, Saks Fifth Avenue and the DMV. I’d lived in London. Stayed in Paris. Survived three Aeroflots. I didn’t faze that easy.
Harrowing race-driver’s dream of a trip on broad iced-over car-less streets. The taxi squealed to a stop in front of the iron gated, sparsely lit, Polish soldier-patrolled entrance. A small gleaming brass plaque said Polish Embassy, or something in some language or several.
“Go ahead. Go inside. Hurry! Tell them what you need.”
“Okay, let’s go do it.”
“You have to go alone! It’s Polish territory, Polish soil, I’m not allowed in!!”
I’m a naive, tired, 19 year old American studentski off on an adventure. Who knows from any of this. Not me. Mostly I understood Hurry. I understood Train Leaving Soon. And I was past ready to get out of town.
The Polish soldiers on guard didn’t like it. Frenzied Russian guide, Moscow taxi, kid from the US of A, what the hell? But they opened and escorted me through the tall spiked iron gates after some consternation over my explaining and my passport. A frozen noisy walk on cobblestones, the heavy soldier boots in step on either side of me, their strong woolen uniformed arms pressed into my slim shoulders, dark then spots of light then dark again and then an open door and inside the Polish Embassy, gleamingly warm, flowers in vases everywhere and antique upholstered chairs, and a pretty, well-dressed young woman who smiled, and no one who spoke English and I didn’t speak Polish.
It was well after dark outside, and that cold war 1963 city at night was dark in metaphor, devoid of traffic, Muscovites, lights, sound, or joy. It was maybe 8 or 9 o’clock. It was January. There was snow on the ground. And ice. I was on frozen foreign forbidden soil inside the foreign frozen heart of mother Russia, possibly up to pulling off a crime. The train, a good fifteen miles away outside town, was leaving in maybe 40 minutes. My train, ready to chug me west through the vast Soviet Union, through Poland on to East Germany, across to West Berlin, and then adorable France. I really really really wanted to be on it.
The Polish Embassy personnel understood exactly what I needed quick. Efficient, lovely, almost like a finger to the Russians who should only know what they were missing. Mission accomplished, off we went to the train station. My guide of weeks tried hiding her relief at finally saying farewell and seeing my back. I went alone with my burdensome leather suitcase toward the steaming black iron engine to rail cars that had my assigned seat somewhere in them.
There was heavy darkness around everything in that city except the pin pointed places where light had to be. Here, over the station door. At the edge of the train tracks. There were flashlights on then off in the hands of soldiers who patrolled casually in their olive drab and red caps, ankle length rough wool coats and thick felt boots, long rifles loosely under a crooked arm or dangling from a shoulder strap. The train men carried kerosene lamps. They swung their ovals of light against the snow in match with their pace. Brilliant. Dark. Brilliant. Dark.
There were no signs, no directions, no railroad officials. There was the train. You better know if it’s yours or if it’s not.
“Poland?” I asked someone.
“Da,” the someone said.
I could not match a compartment number to my tickets, and sideways squeezed through corridors filled with strangers layered large against the bitter cold. At the car’s end, where more people stood than there was possibly room for, heel to toe and chin to chest, we began to move.
“Nyet! Nyet! Moskva!”
Well that caused a lot of local frenzy. There was something worse than I even imagined if you were on a Soviet train and headed in the wrong direction. We were picking up speed and we were heading back to Moscow.
I worked my way to the edge of the metal top step at the end of the car to blasts of sub-zero wind watching the snow banks gradually say goodbye to any thought of the west. No! This cannot be!
Much fuss and shouting all around me, gestures to jump, get off the train! get off! get off! get off! get off!
So I threw my suitcase into the moving snow banks below, hoping it would do the inviting trick and coax me join it, and seeing absolutely no option except to jump, I did.
I landed. I rose up unsteadily in the dark, inspected my limbs for function, brushed off the snow and leaning against some chunk of nearby wood (which I had not landed on) I shook ice from inside one boot. Straightening out my garments and standing tall and firm I looked up and met the faces of two Russian soldiers, the only measure between us the length of their rifle stocks, barrels, and bayonets.
Well, you know, I’m an American. As a culture we get annoyed at incompetence, including our own, and irregularities only prompt more annoyance til you get on with the task at hand and get the job done. Actually, I was mightily pissed. All that intrigue with the transit visa, and speeding between hotels and embassies and trains, and the air heavy with blame and recrimination, really I’d had enough. Screw everybody. Where was my damn train and how do I get on it.
I shocked the soldiers who turned rather charming at my absurd indignation, lowered their guns and extended helping hands. I made some effort to restore composure. No doubt they’d watched me leaping from a Soviet train they were in charge of and aside from my flying cape and beret to the wind and mini skirt I was possibly a dangerous spy and a threat to the empire. They nonetheless checked my passport, picked up my suitcase, ascertained that I was just an idiot student from a planet far far away and found my train, which was still in the station, and put me on it. I was an American and I was cute, and both counted big, cold war or not. Possibly, too, I was their first sighting of the miniskirt.
The long journey home might have been eventful if I’d been awake to notice. On the trip into Moscow by contrast I’d been unable to close my eyes for two days. But now I knew the drill. Soviet trains stopped at the Polish border, a town called Brest. It is there that the iron wheels on the entire train are removed and a different caliber matching a different sized track, then replaced for the journey west. It was labor-intensive and time consuming. And prevented enemy trains filled with troops or contraband from hurtling across USSR borders.
Then on to Poland, for which I was righteously papered, and East Germany.
The Berlin Wall didn’t really exist yet as a wall. It was simply block after block of dark vacancies, barbed wire, apartment houses with broken out windows and shadowy courtyards between them. I remember a single naked lightbulb hanging in a rectangular black hole, third floor. The train slowed, it rose up on a kind of bridge, an elevation above those hostile heartless barricades where blood stained concrete and death came easy. We stopped for a final frightening inspection where people who did nothing wrong had to explain themselves and justify their existence to madmen. Young, focused, dangerous Soviet soldiers ran the platform as the locomotive screamed to a halt. Armed with rifles and machine guns, turgid movement. Calculated to terrify.
Do I know how long? An hour or forty minutes or two hours. The train began to move. We crossed into the remnant shocking dazzle, the brilliantly lit Christmas past of West Berlin’s warm winter night. Next stop, Paris by dawn.
(copyright 2013 Barbara Sparhawk)