Guest Columnist

Behind the Iron Curtain

Second in a series

An employee counts Russian ruble banknotes at a private company's office in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, December 17, 2014.  (Ilya Naymushin/Reuters)
An employee counts Russian ruble banknotes at a private company's office in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, December 17, 2014. (Ilya Naymushin/Reuters)
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I witnessed Nikita Khrushchev waving goodbye from the door of his plane before leaving Des Moines in September of 1959. A few years later I again watched the Soviet Premier wave, this time to a throng of thousands gathered in Red Square in Moscow. It was May Day 1963.

In the interim I graduated from Drake University, received a presidential appointment to the Foreign Service, and was assigned to the American Consulate General in Geneva, Switzerland.

The opportunity to travel behind the Iron Curtain, one of the early Westerners to do so, came about when I saw a classified ad in a Geneva newspaper. The Swiss-Soviet Friendship Society, a leftist organization, needed two more people to qualify for a subsidized trip to the Soviet Union. Desperate to fill their quota, they quickly accepted me, even though I possessed an American diplomatic passport.

Charles Marty, a Swiss painting contractor and anything but a communist, took the other opening. Charles and I became roommates and close friends on the tour.

I received permission from the State Department to make the trip and informed the U.S.S.R. had begun to allow tourism because of its desperate need for Western currencies.

Our group flew from Geneva to Vienna by Swissair and then switched to the Soviet airline, Aeroflot, for the onward flight to Kiev, then a part of the Soviet Union.

The landing in Kiev provided a stark reminder of the Cold War as MiG fighter aircraft lined both sides of the runway. The Soviets obviously did not separate civilian and military airports as in the U.S.

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We departed from a modern, comfortable terminal in Vienna. The one we entered in Kiev was a shabby olive drab Quonset hut.

We were greeted by “Alexander,” a guide from Intourist, the Soviet travel agency. “I will be with you throughout your visit,” he said in French, the native language of everyone in the group but me. “Please go to the foreign exchange counter and change all of your currency into rubles. This will be your only opportunity to do so. You can change back to your own currency when you leave.”

Our embassy in Moscow cautioned me to buy rubles in small amounts because of Soviet currency manipulation. I did as suggested. But my Friendship Society fellow travelers swallowed Alexander’s advice and exchanged all their Swiss francs, a decision they would later regret.

We stayed in a beautiful old hotel in Kiev, obviously built during Tsarist times. The communist regime placed so much emphasis on productivity with its Five-Year plans, that style became insignificant. As a result, structures of the U.S.S.R. era were typically dreary cookie-cutter types.

The entrance to the Kiev hotel was indeed stylish, including turned oak door handles with lion paw brass brackets. A workman was varnishing the handles as we arrived. Alexander motioned to him we needed to enter the hotel. He shrugged and wrapped a dirty newspaper over the varnish. Now functional, but their elegance lost, the erstwhile decorous handles seemed to characterize an element of communism.

I thought I heard a radio in our room, but it was actually a speaker built into the wall. We could alter the volume some, but not turn it off. Thus, we heard incessant music interrupted by Russian messages I could not understand. Because the Russian and French words for communism and capitalism are pronounced similarly, I recognized we were being bombarded with propaganda. The music I liked. The Russian dogma I did not understand. Good!

Khrushchev boasted of full employment in the Soviet Union, and it did seem some form of occupation existed for everyone.

In the mornings a horde of elderly women swept the streets with crude brooms. I observed two stout women hoisting huge chunks of concrete into a truck at a construction site. And at our hotel, elderly women wearing black shawls sat at desks in every hallway. I did not know the function of the ladies in black, but did call on one when an emergency arose.

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As I prepared to leave on a morning tour, the hot water faucet handle in the communal bathroom came off in my hand. A geyser of hot water erupted. I ran to the nearest desk lady and motioned frantically toward the bathroom. She sauntered down the hallway, observed the problem, went to a nearby closet, took a stack of towels, and proceeded to stop the gushing water by pressing the towels over the faucet. At best that seemed a temporary solution. But I had to leave for the tour.

When I returned the faucet was fixed and the corridor lady back at her post — staring into space.

The Soviets were enamored with vending machines. They were everywhere, but not of the type dispensing beverages in cans or bottles. Instead, soft drinks flowed into a tin cup used by everyone, unless you brought your own. In the meantime, flies dined on the cup’s sticky residue.

The young people were inquisitive and anxious to meet foreigners. I was surprised at their language capabilities and had no difficulty communicating in English or French. Two never-seen items caught their attention: one, the date indicator on my watch, and two, the button-down collar on my shirt.

I engaged in small talk with youngsters and traded a ballpoint pen for a metal badge adorned with the ubiquitous Soviet hammer and sickle. When I asked Alexander about the badge, he explained it was a Soviet army sharpshooter medal. I wondered if the boy perhaps filched an older brother’s prize for trading purposes.

In contrast to the exuberant young folks, the adults were wary and avoided us. When we left Kiev for the flight to Moscow, however, I sat beside a friendly Soviet journalist. He told me he covered agriculture for Pravda, the Soviet newspaper, and asked about my background. When I said I was from Iowa, he smiled and blurted, “Corn, Garst.”

He had accompanied Khrushchev on his 1959 trip to the Roswell Garst farm near Coon Rapids. Completing the small world moment, I told the reporter I was the security guard who checked press credentials at the Des Moines airport and we probably met on that occasion.

During the rest of the two-hour flight we engaged in lively conversation, covering everything from his visit to Iowa to space exploration. As we prepared to land in Moscow, he said, “I like Americans, but you have bad leaders.”

I was thinking the same about Russians.

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• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. He has written two books: “Apron Strings,” a humorous memoir of an Iowa upbringing, and “Lillian’s Legacy,” the true story of a supposedly unsolved murder in a small Iowa town. Comments: cmckibbi@calpoly.edu

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