Why I thought of visiting Soviet Russia escapes me now. I’d read Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy but there was no fascination left over from the 1800’s. In 1982, I tried for about a year to get a visa with application to their embassy through the mails and had quite a collection of the necessary documents I had sent with no answer. No one in Russia had asked me to visit, of course, though I did have some things they might have wanted to see.
As I was doing quite a number of tricks with the early videodiscs in the 1980s, including the CPR Learning System, the word got around and I found myself speaking at a computer show in Helsinki, Finland. I carried a videodisc to show the crowd — as most had never even imagined one, large and round and exceptionally mirror like. I also took the baby manikin and an Apple 3 computer along with the Sony Videodisc player, to give a small approximation of the program to audiences in Europe. I had a couple of blank videodiscs just to hold up and show. In a fit of good Karma, the audience of about 500 from all over Europe was treated to a pass-around of my blank videodisc, being carefully transferred like a collection plate from hand to hand. About two-thirds through the rows, one of the audience members took opposite edges of the videodisc in his two hands, and snapped it in two. He looked up with some wonderment, as if anything so shining and solid could have a brittle character as well.
The managers of the show were beside themselves, and hurried the troubled soul out of the room blubbering. I wasn’t too worried, as it was a blank videodisc provided by Sony to show people what a videodisc looked like, but my Finnish hosts apologized over and over and gave me his current troubled story. He’d been a respected professor but his wife left him and his mind crumbled. Even though he could not teach classes, his university considered him part of the family, and let him go to events such as mine.
I finished my presentation , including showing the baby manikin demonstration. While the crowd was still intact, the show managers announced that their special Russia trip by train needed its registered participants to check in this afternoon for the trip tomorrow. On the stage, I expressed my regret I could not go with them for the two-day trip. The travel agent, who had been selling those trips from one of the vendor booths, said she was sorry as well. She mentioned that if I had kept the application papers with the proper notaries etc, which I had sent to the Russian Embassy, she could have done something. I quickly ran to my bag, and pulled out copies of all the documents had I had been instructed to send the past year. They were the ones which the Soviet Embassy had never acknowledged receipt of. The travel agent looked over my documents, surprised.
“I can work with these.” She said. “I know the right people.”
“You mean I can get on the train trip with everyone else?”
“Well, no, but I can get you a visa to fly to Leningrad for an overnight stay.”
“On a Soviet plane?”
“Right, and where would you like to stay?”
Ah, I had the answer. When things were going well for Hitler and he felt Russia was almost sewn up, he boldly sent out gold engraved invitations to all the world leaders, friend and foe, to meet him for breakfast on a day in June at the Astoria Hotel. “I want to stay at the Astoria.”
“Done. I will have the tickets and papers delivered to your hotel room tonight, and your flight will be at 10 am tomorrow.”
That night a wildly sodden Finnish bus driver drove our group of speakers in a Greyhound-sized bus at 50 miles per hour over narrow dirt roads that must have been used for logging trucks. Luckily we had a free cocktail hour before, so this dangerous excursion was actually entertaining. The bus bounded along weaving through ruts and knocking off branches which overhung each side of the road. Finally after about ten miles into the deep dark forest he stopped at a lake. There were sauna cabins with smoke pouring out. We were given towels and a little bag for our clothes and this true Finish sauna included a jump in the icy lake afterward. Unfortunately, the icy plunge left us stone sober for the harrowing trip back with the daredevil driver.
The next morning I boarded one of those Aeroflot twin-engine passenger planes that left from the sparkling English speaking airport at Helsinki, managed to squeeze in a black bread snack, and landed half an hour later at the drab, totally Russian speaking airport in Leningrad. I had left the Apple 3 computer and the the baby manikin in storage at the Helsinki hotel, and was glad of it. In the Leningrad terminal I was interviewed by one of those 6 foot 5 inch Russians whose milkman hat made him look taller, and his wool felt overcoat with epaulets made his shoulders look much wider. He squinted at my Astoria hotel reservation with cool, bland impatience. And said “Nyet.”
“But I’ve paid for the room.”
“You’re sending me back?”
“So did I do something wrong?” Geopolitical etiquette not being my forte, perhaps I did not burp appropriately after my little airplane meal. The Soviets, I had heard, were always out to get Americans.
And then with an officiously loud stamp on my Astoria reservation, he said, “You will stay at the tourist hotel,” and he pointed toward a line of similarly confused and dismayed travelers.
Our bus full of confused and dismayed travelers rolled out of the drab Leningrad Airport, rife with rumor and speculation. “They’re rounding up all foreigners…” “Where is this bus going…We’re headed outside the city, not into it.” “Why won’t they tell us anything?” The same words were likely being spoken in French, German, Chinese, and probably even Uzbek.
We crossed a drawbridge onto an island. These islands were not unusual. The Leningrad area is laced with rivers and canals leading to the ocean. And then, out of the mist, sitting on 1000 unkempt acres, rose a sort of futuristic marble palace. We gasped in 10 languages (Sacre Bleu, etc.). The uniformed drivers and monitors guided us into this ten-story palace. Inside were many reception desks that recalled the Hilton in New York. Apparently some modern Swedish architect made this creation for Soviet Russia’s latest tourism campaign.
“Welcome to the Lenigrad Intourist Hotel. Our concierges will assist you in your visit to Leningrad, and assure your every comfort.” This pleasant loudspeaker repeated itself in several languages. There were attractive young Russians in Hotel uniforms everywhere as we checked in, and we found we had clean modern rooms, in a brand new full-function hotel. But I wanted to go into the city, to see St. Peter’s Square and The Hermitage Art museum, where so many of the paintings of art history books are stored in reality. My flight back to Helsinki was at noon the next day, so I knew I would have to see something now. Luckily I had a little note pad, and the helpful concierge wrote down The Hermitage in Russian, and said they would have a Limosine for me outside, for which I would pay $40 here inside the hotel. Ah, capitalism smells the same everywhere.
“Hey, come with me. I go here before.” I guess he was Italian, but I went with him past the rows of Mercedes limos and a few blocks away into the surrounding village where most of the staff and their families lived. There were a few old Russian taxis languishing near the bus terminal. The taxi to The Hermitage cost me 75 cents. The Italian friend had changed a ten dollar bill into god knows how many rubles for me, and they seemed to spend just fine.
St. Peter’s Square was immense, and empty midday, but The Hermitage Museum was open. The lobby was a bit disheveled, the guides questioned to about 40 of us standing there as to who needed English. 10 of us did, and were herded up a stairway to a second floor. Herded is really what we were at the InTourist Hotel as well, though they were extremely organized and pleasant about it. Here less so. We were given a precise amount of time in each room and then moved on unceremoniously. The guides seem bothered by our questions as we stood in absolute awe looking at the walls.
The Hermitage was like a gigantic warehouse of impossibly great painting. They were up there with no extravagant frames and just the even, though adequate, room lighting. Most were hung edge to edge and corner to corner, almost like a huge quilt hung on each wall. Each room of The Hermitage was jammed on all four walls with the most famous paintings from the most famous painters in the world. Apparently Peter the Great dipped deep into the national treasury of Russia and went on a buying sprees for art in Paris. (This while serfs were freezing and starving through all of his reign.) There were walls of Rembrandts and Gaugins and everyone back to the cave painters who had ever made an impact on Europe and the world with their paintings. The Hermitage was an overload at warp speed and we had finished in two hours, breathless, our eyesight assaulted with excellence.
And then there was getting back. I tried to ask the guide in English how to say InTourist Hotel in Russian, but she was off with another crowd at once. As people filed out to buses and cabs and limos I tried to find the way to say my hotel in Russian. I had not thought even to get a card there. It was as if I was in outer space. This Russian language dominated in a way I had not been exposed to before, because they allowed so few English or Americans into Russia, I suspect. Finally a kind Algerian offered to let me pay for the cab because he needed to go near the InTourist hotel himself. It was a bargain, assuming I would not be kidnapped.
Back to Helsinki, and off to other escapades around Europe with my baby manikin, but this was the last of Russia for a while. I was so shocked at the outer-space feeling of having no way to communicate, I swore that I would learn a bit of Russian if I ever came back. I did come back ten years later, and I did arm myself with a few months study that time.
That first time, in 1983 under the Soviets, we were warned not to take any rubles out of Russia. So I slipped a few bills in between pages a book. That way I could plausibly offer apologies if they searched that far. (With inflation that hit a few years later, they would probably become virtually worthless.) I gave those paper rubles to my two young sons, Liam and Galen, saying I got them at great risk and could have been years in a Russian jail just for having them. Probably the boys showed them at their grade school. Probably for years I should have been watching around dark corners in case some communist-sympathizing elementary teacher in Dallas tipped them off, and — all that way — the Soviets came after me.
Probably I am safe now.