Wednesday, August 5, 2009
"Dear mom, Please send blankets. And mittens."
And a warm coat. "We just crossed the border and saw the gigantic red CCCP and a sign that said, I think, 'Welcome, crazy Americans!' "And now we've stopped to let a squadron of Soviet soldiers onto the train. The scene outside my window is peaceful, a blanket of snow, frosted drifts piled high against the pale pink horizon. Russia is simply beautiful. We just saw and heard the romantic chuffing of a steam-engine go chugging off down the track, huffing, puffing, and belching smoke. Forgive me but, as I peer out past these red velvety curtains, I have the sense of being in Dr. Zhivago's world. Cue music. "We stopped a few moments ago at the edge of a woods, birch and fir. So clean, clear, and fresh. The air looks chilly but not frigid. Darkness comes quickly now, creating a stunning contrast between the wide expanses of brilliant white snow and the deep dark trees. Long shadows are fading into the night. "On the hills beyond us an occasional spotlight casts a purple glow, glistening crystals of light, frozen snowflakes caught in slow motion. We heard the boots of the soldiers squeaking, even through the glass windows of our sleeper car, as they approached the train. Maybe it is colder than it looks. "Schmaltzy, I know, I know. But arriving in Russia, the Soviet Union, but really, this is Russia, in this way feels hopelessly romantic. This beautiful, snowy countryside is breathtaking. I am sure the reality will strike sooner or later. Perhaps if I paid more attention to... Ah, whoa, it is time for reality therapy: they've told us to get off the train. Here we go." It was November, 1980. Entering the USSR for the first time. Fences, gates and spotlights and uniformed guards with flashlights and dogs checking under the train. A lone soldier standing guard at his post at the frontier, rifle in hand, spotlight trained along the concrete wall alongside the track...that is the reality. Before the curt announcment, "you must go out now," there were border patrols on the train, politely -- politely! -- asking to see our money and to go through our bags. "You will open, please," she said pointing to my ugly hard-shell, yellow Samsonite case. She actually seemed more embarrassed to have to do it than I was to have her spend several minutes carefully pawing and sifting through my clothes, papers, electric rollers. Those puzzled her. There was no station in sight as we climbed down the metal, grated steps off the train and began our forced march through the snow. An icy path was stretched out before us. Our motley crew of six slipped and slid and grabbed on to one another for support. And not only to stay on the track. We walked on in silence at first. Then, as there seemed to be no end in sight, we got a bit jittery. A few nervous jokes. Ed got us singing, "We are marching to Siberia. Siberia. Siberia. We are marching to Siberia. Siberia, ola!" More than a mile. "Dear mom, please send mittens," Fran joked. "Dear mom," Steve continued, "please send dollars. In small bills." Bribery came to mind. A faint light in the distance, finally. But what kind of building was it? Where were we going? To what fate? Seriously, we had visas, official initations from high-placed officials. What could be wrong? We slid down an incline and trundled through a narrow tunnel under train tracks and struggled up a steep flight of 30 stairs into a brightly lit, huge room that was filled to bursting with the most gorgeous men I'd ever seen. Over 300 Soviet soldiers, officers, decked out in full winter dress uniform, long wool coats with epaulets on the shoulders, shiny black boots, and hats, oh, my god, the hats. Furry Russian hats with striking red insignia. I swooned. Seriously. They stood as one, all eyes on the six of us, and Harris, just behind me, mumbled, as if to the assembly, "I suppose you're wondering why we called you all here." They parted to make way for us to pass through and Ed began to hum in my ear, "Hail to the Chief." I started to snicker. Then to giggle. And then I just lost it. As we walked through the stately gathering, a formal old-European high-ceilinged train station with curled sculpture on granite pillars, under the gaze of the Soviet Army, I began to laugh absolutely uncontrollably. Out of control. We've all had those moments. At the worst possible time, high pressure, terribly serious. A friend had a fit of uncontrollable hilarity at his doctoral exam. Another at his wedding. Another on stage. It happens. But in front of a regiment of Soviet military officers? Not good form. But I couldn't stop. Could. Not. Stop. We did not get marched off to the gulag. We did not languish in a Soviet prison. I was not lashed about the knees for my insubordinate behavior. Turns out, we had to get off the train because Americans were not allowed to witness in any fashion the mechanical rite required whenever trains from outside entered into the Soviet Union. The wheels have to be taken off and new ones put on. I thought this was a joke the first time I heard it. But it's true. The gauge is different between Europe and Russia, always has been, to thwart invasions by rail. We were ushered into a warm, comfortable room where we had light refreshments and watched two ancient babushkas mop the floor. "I can't decide which method I like better," I wrote in my journal, "one wets a rag in her bucket and wrings it out over the floor to dampen it, then mops with a big wide push mop. The other method is more entertaining. She walks along flinging water out of the pail with her hand, then goes back and mops it up." They were the quintessential peasants, old drab dresses with rips in the seams and black cotton tights and wooly scarves. No teeth. But very smiley and friendly, "grateful for our putting our feet up as they mopped under our seats. The one in front of me is chattering away to herself and I am dying to know, what is she talking about? What does keep all these round old ladies chattering and puttering?" After a chance to read Pravda and Izvestia and look at a photo exhibit of the boycotted Moscow Olympics from that summer, we got an escort for the walk back through the snow and across the slippery path back to the train. The Soviet officers had gone, too, on their own troop train. Later, I learned that they were preparing for an invasion of Poland. I have no idea what Laura Ling and Euna Lee endured through their months of North Korean captivity. But I cried as I saw them come off the plane this morning. And I remembered that night in Brest, "Dear mom, I am in the gulag. Please send boots."