Guest Columnist

Behind the Iron Curtain: Moscow

Third in a series

Russian servicemen dressed in historical uniforms take part in a rehearsal for a military parade at the Red Square in Moscow November 5, 2014. The parade was held on November 7 to mark the anniversary of a historical parade in 1941, when Soviet soldiers marched through the Red Square towards the front lines of World War II. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)
Russian servicemen dressed in historical uniforms take part in a rehearsal for a military parade at the Red Square in Moscow November 5, 2014. The parade was held on November 7 to mark the anniversary of a historical parade in 1941, when Soviet soldiers marched through the Red Square towards the front lines of World War II. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)
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Upon arrival in Moscow we were bused to a hotel on the outskirts of the city. Soviet Friendship Society groups were divided, those of us from the West in one hotel and those from communist bloc countries next door in another.

Early the next morning we were taken to a roped-off area to watch the May Day parade. Nikita Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders loomed ahead atop the Lenin Tomb. In the background, huge banners covered entire sides of multistory buildings with images of Lenin, Marx and Khrushchev, but none of Josef Stalin. By then the former Soviet leader of nearly 30 years had fallen into disrepute.

The parade began at 8 o’clock with Soviet troops marching 30 abreast in block-long columns. Various military hardware followed, including noisy missile-carriers belching black smoke. The largest missiles were olive-drab, the size of horizontal silos, and frightening. If the Soviets intended to impress onlookers with their destructive capability, they certainly made a believer of this witness.

By noon the military portion of the parade concluded and gave way to unorganized civilian groups of all ages strolling along the parade route waving the red hammer and sickle flag of the Soviet Union.

I had grown tired of standing. When Khrushchev and his Politburo colleagues left from their viewing position, Charles and I followed suit and walked to the Metropole Hotel for our group luncheon.

Glasses of water were available on a table at the entrance to the dining room. Thirsty after standing hours in the sun, I took a glass and a large swig. My head spun. It was vodka!

Later that afternoon I met two ladies from California, Mary and Beth, in the hotel restaurant and joined them for tea. With a smile, Mary told of a Russian woman following her into a restroom and asking to buy her dress.

“But what would I wear out of here?” she asked.

“Aren’t you wearing a slip?” the Russian replied.

We laughed, but I soon learned offers to buy clothes off one’s back were not unusual.

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During the tea we ate a few cookies from a large bowl on the table. On the bill, however, we were charged for the entire bowl.

“If you eat any cookie,” the waitress explained, “you must pay for all.”

“OK, then,” Beth retorted, “we will take the whole bowl.” She opened her purse and dumped a dozen cookies into it. We laughed again. The waitress was dumbstruck.

That evening Charles and I heard Elvis Presley singing “Hound Dog” near Red Square. A group of youths with a portable phonograph were doing the twist. Elvis and the twist seemed incongruous, but the kids were having a great time.

“How do you know of such things?” I asked a young man.

“We listen to Voice of America and buy records on the black market,” he replied.

While watching the twist dancers, a man tapped me on the shoulder.

“Are you interested in female company?” he asked.

With a nod he directed my attention to a young woman under a dark stairway.

I had wondered if my diplomatic passport might attract attention, particularly in view of a recent case of a Foreign Service colleague being blackmailed under similar circumstances.

I said “no” to the man and, feeling uncomfortable, told Charles we should return to our hotel.

When we arrived, we heard noisy reveling at the nearby hotel of the Soviet Bloc visitors. We decided to crash the party. In trying to enter the ballroom, however, a brawny bouncer growled, “Nyet.”

A young woman approached as we turned to leave, handed some cash to the bouncer, and was admitted.

Our guide, Alexander, told us tips were forbidden in the USSR and would not be accepted. But we found otherwise shortly before when our taxi driver demanded what he called a “bonus.”

We approached the bouncer again with cash in hand and joined the party.

The next day I went to the Gum department store to buy a Russian doll for my daughter. The hourlong process went like this: I took the doll and stood in line to pay for it, or so I thought. When my turn came I was given a chit and directed to another line. Another 30 minutes passed before I finally made the purchase.

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Three young men confronted me as I left Gum’s. “How much you sell shirt?” one demanded.

“Sorry, I need my shirt,” I responded.

“How ‘bout shoes?” he countered.

“Tovarishch (comrade), hotel, sell,” I blurted.

“Write here!” he insisted while handing me a slip of paper. I jotted down the name of our hotel thinking they wouldn’t bother to travel to the outskirts of Moscow to buy used clothing.

Wrong!

When I reached our hotel room, Charles’ suitcase lay open while the Russians tried on his clothes.

“What’re you doing?” I asked my Swiss friend.

“You wouldn’t believe what they’re offering,” he replied. “I can get three times what I paid for a raincoat.”

“Do you know it’s illegal to take rubles out of the country?” I cautioned. “If you smuggle them out, they’re worth next to nothing.”

Charles began stuffing clothing back into his suitcase, wagging a “no deal” finger.

An angry, thwarted buyer rubbed out his cigarette on the top of a dresser and sneered, “Nyet.”

We were trapped with three furious Russians. After some haggling, we reached a compromise. The young men left with a few items of clothing while Charles counted a fistful of rubles he soon spent on a shopping spree.

During the remainder of our time in Moscow, Alexander showed us a number of attractions. Within the walls of the Kremlin we visited a museum with the huge gilded sleigh of Catherine the Great. In Lenin’s Tomb we saw the embalmed body of the original Soviet leader encased in glass. We visited subway stations with marble floors and glittering chandeliers. We attended a memorable performance of “Swan Lake” at the Bolshoi Theater and laughed at clowns at the famous Moscow State Circus.

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We also took a bus tour of Moscow that revealed a dreary uniformity, as if one architect with one design constructed the entire city. Apartment buildings, perhaps eight stories high and in cookie-cutter style, were arranged in lengthy rows, looking like giant computer punch cards.

Automobile traffic was sparse, service stations limited. Moscow just didn’t have the lively bustle of a typical large city.

The day we left the Soviet capital, Alexander asked each of our group to describe our thoughts of the USSR in his notebook.

I wrote of the impressive things we visited. I did not reveal my true thoughts of a country I found to be shackled with regimentation and uniformity, its adult citizens wary and apprehensive, its youth desperate for something different, and time-consuming lines everywhere.

We left the USSR via the same Quonset hut in Kiev of our arrival, standing in line to exchange rubles before our flight to Vienna.

“What money would you like?” a uniformed lady asked.

The first in line laid her rubles on the counter and responded, “Swiss francs, please.”

“I’m sorry. We don’t have that currency today.”

“Then I’ll take American dollars.”

“We are out of those as well.”

“Do you have German marks?”

“Yes, we have East German marks, Czech korunas and Bulgarian leva. That is all.”

We were stuck with currencies of little or no value outside the Iron Curtain.

“I don’t plan to travel in any of those countries,” the frustrated customer complained.

“You can spend your rubles in our gift shop,” the counter lady replied.

The bargain trip had become a fleecing. I was the lucky one with few rubles, having been forewarned by our embassy of this likely outcome.

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Happy to visit the Soviet Union, I was also happy to leave. The differences on either side of the Iron Curtain were obvious when we arrived at the Vienna airport with no military aircraft, freely convertible currencies and soft background music.

I wondered how the Soviet system could endure. As I found out when I returned 30 years later — it didn’t.

• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean.

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