Uh — the Glorious Soviet Union!

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I always found it easy to learn another language provided I liked it. Russian was one of the languages I liked and so I took private lessons at the Cologne Berlitz School at age 16. But I had another motive, too. Those were the years when Communism began to become fashionable among my peers in capitalist Germany. Many people my age seemed to be magically attracted by it and by the Soviet Union as a model for social, economic, and political organization. The spell of Communism was always lost on me and with increasing frequency, I found myself involved in heated discussions with would-be Communists.

These discussions seemed to follow a stereotype pattern. The advocates of Communism would praise the accomplishments of the Soviet Union and I would counter by arguing that these so-called accomplishments were mainly propaganda lies and that the much touted equality that Communism was supposed to bring for everybody was mainly that it made all people under its rule equally poor, miserable, and oppressed. The predictable counterarguments were usually rhetorical questions:

“What do you know about the fatherland of workers and farmers? Have you ever been there? Do you even speak, read, or write Russian?”

I got tired of having to admit that the answers to all three questions were negative. I decided to change this and at age 18 I spoke, read, and wrote Russian pretty fluently. In 1957, the Soviet Union had opened the Iron Curtain a tad and started a state-run tourist office called “INTURIST”, which now allowed organized guided tours for groups of Westerners into the Soviet empire. When my father asked me in mid-1958 what I would want for my 18th birthday, I replied: “A trip to the Soviet Union, Dad”.

My father was skeptical. How will you communicate with the Russians? Is your Russian really good enough for this? He did not want to buy a pig in a poke and brought in a professor of Russian language to test me. The professor certified that I spoke Russian quite fluently and would certainly be capable of communicating effectively with Russians in Russia. Bingo!

My trip to Russia was to start in late October 1958 i.e. in the middle of my last high school year. The Principal of the school was sufficiently impressed with my Russian to grant me a three-months leave of absence under the condition that I would give a presentation about my experiences to the entire school after my return.

My journey began in Communist East Berlin. When I boarded the German train for Brest Litovsk, which is on the Polish-Russian border, a German railroad officer asked me “Where are you going?” – “Moscow,” I said “celebration of October Revolution” – “Uh” he replied, “great. That is something to remember for a lifetime!”

The narrower European rail tracks ended in Brest Litovsk and the wider Russian tracks began. During my trip to Brest Litovsk, I had tried to engage in conversations in Russian with some of the Polish train personnel, but they seemed all taciturn and offish. Finally, I found a conductor who gave me a hint: “Russisch Sprach, Scheisssprach!” he said in broken German, which means “Russian language, shit language!” OK. I got it. The Poles hated the Russians even more than they hated the Germans.

The train ride to Moscow took three days. The sanitary installations on board the train were – well – mildly put substandard. I tried the Railroad Station toilets in Brest Litovsk, but they were outright horrible. I was therefore fairly relieved to find that INTURIST had lodged me into the famous hotel Metropol in downtown Moscow, where the rooms were decent, the bathrooms were clean, and the food was acceptable, although cold raw fish and unbuttered black bread with coffee for breakfast is probably not everybody’s preference.

In my youthful enthusiasm, I was eager to find out what the Russians thought about their Soviet Union. I got up early in the mornings, walked through the long hotel corridors and started discussing Marxism-Leninism with the hotel service personnel. After a few days, my corridor debates became almost an institution at the Metropol. Hotel workers were already waiting for me, and the groups I debated became larger by the day. This went on for about three weeks, at which point the lady who was our “tourist guide” approached me and explained that they were running out of space at the Metropol and that I would have to move into another hotel. I realized that they wanted my political debates with the hotel cleaning crews to end.

I was transferred to the hotel “Ostankina”, a primitive run-down place 25 miles outside downtown Moscow. No Metro station anywhere close. The only way to get to the Red Square or the Kremlin was by public bus. I was determined to make the most of it. In my US Army parka, I was easily recognizable as a Western tourist. It took me about 15 minutes on the bus to engage every passenger in a fervent discussion of the pros and cons of Marxism-Leninism. While my Metropol debates had included at most 20 people, now I had over 50 people agitated and shouting at each other, because they could not agree about what was good and bad about Soviet Communism. I loved it but I was sure my “tourist guide” did not and I wondered, how long they would allow me to carry on with the bus show.

I sold most of my belongings, mostly blue jeans, on the black market. The black market was the underground public restrooms in front of the government department store “GUM”. The seller would enter one booth and the prospective buyer would enter a booth next to it. The seller would then hand his “merchandise” under the separation wall to the buyer’s booth and name his price. After a brief back-and-forth negotiation, the buyer would hand the money under the separation wall to the seller. A true free-market system based on mutual trust.

There was not much of anything to buy, but I found to my surprise that the GUM had an ample supply of Grusinskoye Shampanskoye – Crimean bubbly. I bought all the Champagne I could lay may hands on and in the evenings I strolled down to the Nevsky Prospect, a wide park along the Moskva river, where I met with gangs of young men, all more or less my age, the generation of Mikhail Gorbachev (born 1931). By Soviet standards, they were semi-criminal teens and tweens and they drank most of my champagne. We had very lively discussions, and I found them to be even more critical of the Soviet Communist regime than was I. They wanted Communism gone and were calling for a democratic open free-market capitalist system. To hell with collectivism. Equality? Ha! We are all equally poor and powerless and the ruling nomenklatura is privileged to the max.

One evening, I asked a question that could have cost me my life. I asked the apparent leader of the group: “You do realize that what you all are doing is against your system, don’t you?” Dead silence. Lasting dead silence. I recognized my mistake. They had to decide now whether I was just a stupid inconsiderate Western tourist or a planted KGB agent provocateur. If they went with the latter, I would soon be floating in the Moskva. Luckily, they decided that I was just a harmless and naïf Western ignoramus and they let me live.

One day, I was wandering across the elevated steel crossways over the vast Moscow railroad system. Somewhere in the middle of one of the iron bridges I ran into a beggar. WOW, I thought, this guy is really begging for food and money. A real beggar. I had been told that there are no beggars in the Soviet Union. I took a picture of the non-existing beggar and was getting ready to give him some money when a policeman stormed toward me shouting and yelling that I was not allowed to photograph the beggar, because there are no beggars in the Soviet Union and this was not a real beggar anyway. He tried to take my camera away from me, but I made such a racket that he settled for the film. Lesson learned. No beggars in the Soviet Union.

Then came early November and the day of the great Bolshevik Revolution, which actually happened in October, because, at the time, Russia still went by the old Caesarian calendar. After the Revolution, the Soviets adopted the Gregorian Calendar and the October Revolution landed in early November.

I got up early to catch a good place from where I would be able to see and photograph the procession of military equipment. I ended up near a group of Germans from the Communist German DDR, who had a female cheer leader. These folks were constantly chanting uplifting paroles and mottos such as but not limited to “Peace and friendship” (мир и дружба). I thought that there was something missing. So, every time they shouted “Peace and friendship” I added “and freedom!” (и свобода). Clearly, a provocation and it was understood as such by the German Communists. To my left and in front of me stood a huge city policeman in a grey uniform. The cheer lady approached him demanding that he silence this capitalist provocateur. The policemen did not seem inclined to do her bidding.

Now, the cheer lady became outright hysterical and began to yell at the policeman. At this point, I tapped the policeman on his back. He turned around. “Excuse my question, Officer,” I asked, “is it really prohibited in the great Soviet Union to say the word ‘freedom’ in public?”. The policemen looked at me and then at the hysterical cheer leader from Communist Germany, who was obviously trying to be more papal than the pope. His head went back and forth. Finally, a broad smile appeared on his face: “Surely, you can say the word ‘freedom’ in public in the Great Soviet Union.” He said. It was plain to see that he preferred an immature juvenile capitalist to the 150%-ers from Communist Germany.

The next day, I went to visit the Lenin-Stalin Mausoleum. I had to wait endlessly in a long queue of visitors. A middle-aged woman was moving closer and closer to me. She finally ended up next to me and spoke to me in broken German. She was with a Group of Volga-Germans. During the entire time we shuffled toward the two formaldehyde corpses, she told me about her oppressed life. How they were treated like slaves and shunned for holding on to the German language and culture. I felt a bit sheepish since there was not much I could do for her except nodding my head to signal understanding and commiseration. I also could not be sure that she was not a KGB provocateur tasked with making me say or do something that could be construed as “anti-Soviet” and that could have brought me in trouble.

Several days later, I was walking through the streets of down-town Moscow in my Army parka talking German to a co-tourist, when a man on crutches attacked me. He identified himself as a former Russian soldier who had lost his leg in the war against the Nazis. He had identified me as a German and decided to beat me up with his crutch. I was quick enough on my feet at age 18 to easily evade his attacks. But he made a big racket and people started running into the street to see what was going on. Some intervened and tried to calm the old soldier down.

He did calm down eventually and I approached him again, laying my hand on his shoulder. I looked him right in his eyes and said: “Sir, I was born in 1940. Please do not blame me for the mistakes of my parents. But even though I am not responsible for the evil deeds of my ancestors, I hereby apologize to you for what they did to you and I ask your forgiveness for the injustice they inflicted upon you.” The old man started to cry. I kept my arm around his shoulder. He put his head on mine. Somebody asked us all inside his house, where he opened a big bottle of Vodka and we all started drinking. After two hours, everybody was drunk. Someone had a balalaika and started playing it and the one-legged soldier started dancing on his one leg and singing Russian folk and war songs. “Sing us a German song!” they demanded. The only song that came to mind was a rather lyric and sentimental song about a red rose, which is broken by a boy – metaphor of a man deflowering a girl. All the Russian men sat there and cried. In the end, so did I. We parted as friends.

I noticed that there were many very pretty girls in Moscow. And they seemed to be mostly rather inviting and forthcoming. Tempting as it was, I stayed away from them, since I had read that prostitution was rampant in the Soviet Union. “Free love” having been a key tenant of early Communism, the Soviet Union at the time did not have any prostitution control. It was in fact one of the few last fields in which people could exercise entrepreneurial spirit and make some money on the side and past the Soviet taxman. It was also a serious threat to public health since venereal diseases were out of control.

My daily bus debates had not gone unnoticed by the authorities. To my surprise, one day the “tourist guide” appeared at the hotel Ostankina and brought me an invitation from the Lomonosov University to debate Marxism-Leninism with several of its professors. WOW! I had not thought they would take me that seriously. In fact, I felt greatly honored by the invitation and gladly accepted.

The debate took place in a giant conference hall with a long wooden table and many chairs around it. At one end, about 15 professors sat down – obviously my opponents – and I sat down at the other end, which made me look like a student who was to be examined. The professors wasted no time and started right away explaining what they considered great and wonderful about Marxism, Communism and the Soviet System and they monologued away without stopping until I knocked my fist on the table.

“Gentlemen, I thank you for laying out your views, but I thought we were having a discussion. A discussion implies that you lay out your thoughts and then I lay out mine and then you again and so forth. Let it now be my turn to explain my perspective of Marxism-Leninism.” And I did. And then they countered. And I responded and they spoke again, and the event developed into a meaningful civilized debate.

After two hours, I had not converted them to my views, nor had they convinced me of theirs. It was obvious, however, that the professors had enjoyed the genuine debate. We parted with assurances of mutual respect. One of the debaters, Yekaterina Karpitskaya, approached me after the debate. She said she was a candidate of Marxism-Leninism and would like to correspond with me. We exchanged addresses.

She kept writing me for several years. Initially on stationary. Later, on packaging paper. Never attempted to convert me or sell me propaganda. Then suddenly she stopped writing. Perhaps, because she ran out of packaging paper. But perhaps there was a more sinister cause. I never found out.

Back in Germany, I made good on my promise to report to the school about my impressions from the trip. I predicted that the Soviet Union would likely fall apart when the Gorbachev generation I had met on the Nevsky Prospect would move into decision-making positions. Nobody believed me.

You all know what happened. Today, looking at the Russian horror show Mr. Putin is staging, one wonders, if the world might have been better off, if the Soviet Union had not fallen apart.

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