Chapter 8. From Russia With Love



The Belorus soldiers working as passport control agents were kind and courteous -- and very young. They were just barely older than my own son. It was hard to dislike them even though they were escorting us off the comfortable and modern Lithuanian train -- just for trying to enter their country without a visa. The soldiers helped us carry our suitcases through the snow and stood with us in the fenced compound. I was not completely sure that they knew what to do with us next. Inside the compound there was a small wooden building in which some officials worked on our situation. There was some talk of sending us back to Lithuania. I hoped that wouldn't happen. My other suitcases, possessions and money were all in Leah's Moscow apartment. What's more, we had two parties to attend in Moscow and they were going to be fun -- one was even our Russia farewell party! It'd be appropriate if we were there! Plus, Leah, Timus, Inna, Dora, Elena, Val, Nadya and the others were all expecting us to arrive at the train station in the morning. They'd be so worried. How could we let them know that we were OK? For the first and perhaps only time in my life, gray, snowy Moscow seemed like home and I wasn't sure I'd be getting there any time soon. I wished I could just click my heels together....

Inside the wooden building, the officials made up there minds. They issued us transit visas which would allow us to cross Belorus legally. Because the trains do not stop at the border between Belorus and Russia, we would get to Moscow even though we would be in Russia without a visa. Essentially, we'd be in Russia as illegal aliens. (Go to Siberia. Do not pass GO.)

We bought new tickets and were able to wedge our way onto the next train, a crowded Russian train with Russian-style sleeping facilities. The occupants of our train car included happy and partially drunk soldiers who had just been discharged from the army, an assortment of old men and women and a couple of families. Loud talking, dim lights, women crocheting, men playing cards while drinking vodka and beer, scattered pillows, blankets and sheets more or less defined the atmosphere of the train car. An unhappy provodnik stomped up and down the corridor because her already full car now had three more travelers and they were ladened with too many suitcases. She groused at us about us and I wished I could have expressed in Russian "Listen, don't start with me! You have no idea what kind of day I've had!” But instead I just ordered tea and found a place to read my book. At 9 PM we stopped at Minsk and got off the train to buy some bread. We were very hungry and even though the bread tasted like it had some sort of grit in it, we ate it anyway. The travelers at my end of the train car were mostly old-timers and by 10 PM they were settled down and going to sleep. Ed and Sergei were a lot closer to the drunken soldiers who were certainly more entertaining earlier in the evening, but by 11 PM they were starting to loose their curious appeal faster than they were losing their energy. Some time in the middle of the night, while I slept contentedly to the rocking train, we crossed into Russia and simultaneously went from being Americans, legally in Belorus with a transit visa to Americans in Russia without documents. Fugitives! In Soviet days we would have been assumed spies. A predictable trial and a firing squad -- or visa versa, the order wasn't important.

The train pulled into Moscow by mid-morning on March 7th. My fears that there would be police or soldiers to meet us at the station were not fulfilled. Instead there was Elena and her driver. I gave Elena quite a large hug -- she must have wondered about me! So, it was good to be "home” in Moscow. The thoughts of being fugitives quickly disappeared and we set about deciding how to spend our day. Because the next day, March 8th, was a national holiday (International Women's Day) the stores would all be closed tomorrow and we were to leave Russia on the 9th -- so today was our last day to power shop! We did call the American Embassy regarding the visas (or lack thereof) and they painted a gloomy picture. Basically they told us to bring all of our money to the airport and be willing to buy our way out of the country! Emergency visas could cost $150 - $500 each! In the meantime, we must not forget that we were in Russia illegally so we must avoid situations in which someone might ask to see our passports and visas.

Power shopping was fun and productive. The seriousness of our predicament faded as the hours passed. Leah and Dora prepared a large feast for us and we ate it at 3 PM. At 4 PM Elena picked us up again to bring us to our farewell party at her office at the Russian Association for Advancement of Chemical Education.

The farewell party was well attended. Many of the important people we had met during our month in Russia were present. Most of the people were women with the exception of Yuri Ustinov, a distinguished scientist from the Moscow State University, an editor of a chemistry pedagogical journal (who's name I've forgotten), Ed and me. Lyudmila from Tver even rode the train for four hours to attend. There were many delicious foods and a few exotic treats such as caviar. Most Americans associate caviar with Russia but for three generations, few Russians ever tasted it. In Soviet times caviar was exported for hard currency as were the salmon themselves. (Timus once explained that the Russians who worked in the salmon canneries were told that the fish were used to feed prisoners.) I will remember the party for several reasons. The number of toasts boggled the mind. I think we toasted every situation and condition imaginable. Sometime during the evening, Yuri may have reached a semi-toxic level of the smoked fish and drink combo. He soon became the entertainment! He asked Ed to please explain, after a month in Russia, what he thought was the single fault of the Russian women. For the first time in 27 years, I looked at a speechless Ed Carberry! Yuri didn't allow Ed too much time to stew before he winked and told us that their single fault was that they were too intelligent. Many of the toasts had a theme appropriate to honor women because this was the eve of International Women's Day. Our trip itself had a strong connection with women. The key facilitator was Elena Rotina, head of the Russian Association for Advancement of Chemical Education. Women also organized our trip in each of the five cities we visited. Most of the important people we met were women and over 90% of the people that attended our presentations were women.

Sometime during the evening, concerns for our visa dilemma began to creep into the festivities. Between toasts and awards and lively conversation, Elena dictated a few letters, while others gave her on-line feedback. A few phone calls were made and everyone remained silent during these, hoping to hear some whiff of optimism from the individual on the phone. Yuri's charm came forth again as he explained that they were all "trying hard to find a way for us to leave Russia -- but not trying TOO hard!" He also suggested an extended itinerary if we could not leave. Through the evening Elena quietly developed a secret plan that would, indeed, prove Yuri's point about Russian women!

International Women's Day is one of the three most important Russian holidays. Its a bit like Mother's Day in the USA except that every women over the age of approximately 20 is honored. Interestingly, the holiday got its start with a women's labor strike in Chicago ages ago. On this holiday, women are honored with flowers, chocolates and similar gifts. Ed and I each had gifts for the many women that we would encounter this day. I also had a new cat dish for Hustis because he ate his food from an oval ham tin. After I presented Hustis with his new blue plastic bowl, Timus started laughing. He explained that Hustis was so ignorant that he didn't even realize how embarrassing it must be for a male to receive a gift on International Women's Day. I told him not to laugh too hard because I had a gift for him, too! We had two large dinners this day. Leah and Dora outdid themselves again. Immediately after that dinner we boarded the metro (subway) for another dinner at Val and Nadya Traven's apartment. (Recall that Val and Nadya are Sergei's parents.) Dinner at the Traven's was much fun. There was more caviar and many toasts. Little gifts were exchanged again. Because this was our last evening in Russia, we were all feeling a bit nostalgic. Our worries about or visa problems seemed to fade as the happiness of the evening developed. (Earlier in the day, I packed my carry-on suitcase for three scenarios: (1) spending Saturday night in Minneapolis; (2) spending Saturday night back at Leah's awaiting Russian government offices to open on Monday; and (3) spending Saturday night in a Russian jail for being in Russia illegally!) Sometime during the evening Elena called and reported that our visa worries were taken care of. She had traveled with another women out to the Sheremetyvo International Airport to speak to the Russian passport officials. Their offices were closed for business in honor of the holiday but when they noticed two women trying to speak to them on this important holiday for women, they understood the urgency and importance of the trip and couldn't turn them away! Remember what Yuri said about the "single fault" of Russian women? Sergei once told me that its more important to appeal to a Russian's sense of passion than it is to his common sense.

Saturday morning was a melancholy time for me. I was packed but certainly not anxious to say good-bye to my Russian family. The "real world" with its many problems was only a plane flight away. Farewell customs have always interested me. Back in my native Minnesota, guests put on their coats, gloves and hats and then open the door and proceed to visit for another 20-30 minutes! In Russia, it goes like this: The departing individuals put on their coats (but never their hats while indoors!) and then everybody sits around a table. There is a minute of silence and then the guests get up and leave. For me the minute was spent wondering exactly what I was supposed to be thinking. It was a bit prayerful for me. I thanked God for giving me this opportunity to be a part of this wonderful Russian family. A thick lump was forming in my throat and I was thankful that we were all silent. After the silence we all got up and hugged each other. I hugged Leah last. I knew that I'd miss her the most. The others were already down the steps and loading the van. As I turned to leave, Hustis rounded the corner and stood solemnly in the middle of the hall rug. Leah exclaimed, "Hustis Comes To Say Da Svee Danya!" How could I have forgotten Hustis?

Going through Passport Control at Sheremetyvo was completely anticlimactic but I'm sure that you want to know what happened. In a word: Nothing! We went through Customs and Passport Control as if we didn't realize there was a problem. The passport agent that looked at my passport clearly saw that I had entered and exited Russia once. A baby cried nearby and that caught her attention. A bit later she stamped a second "exit" stamp near the first one. So now my passport clearly documents the fact that I have entered Russia once and left twice.

Omaha. The following e-Mail message was awaiting for me from Timus upon returning to my office.

Moscow, Russia
March, 1996

Dear Bruce!

We were very glad to get message from Edvard
and to know that your traveling has been finished
and everything is all right now.  Days we had together
here at Moskow stay in our memory as the nice days.
Happy Springdays to you and your family!

With the best wishes,
Liya, Tajmas, Roza, Inna, Dora and also Hjustos.

So Dear Reader, this concludes my great adventure to Russia. I would like to thank several people. To start, I thank Ed Carberry, my friend and colleague who was inspirational to the success of this trip. It was fun traveling with him. I thank my new friend Sergei Traven who interpreted English/Russian for most of his waking hours. Sergei also understood Russian customs and traditions and did so much to help us enjoy ourselves and appreciate the trip even more. He also prevented us from embarrassing ourselves and offending our hosts on more than one occasion. I thank Noelle Beyer who traveled with us for four programs and helped organize and set up and take down. I must certainly express my sincerest appreciation to Elena Rotina and Mikhail Goldfeld who together planned and coordinated much of the trip. I especially thank Patti Karl who forwarded these messages to the e-Mail list as well as edited them and printed them in ChemMem. Although they will never see this, I want to thank all of my wonderful new friends and acquaintances in Russia and Lithuania: Zina, Maxime, Sasha, Nikita, Boris, two Lyudmilas, Regina, Remus, Gervidas and others. It was great to see my "old friends" Val and Nadya again and once more enjoy the hospitality of their home. And of course, I extend the most heartfelt thanks to Leah, Timus, Rosa, Inna, Dora (and Hustis) for opening their hearts and home to Ed and me for a month. I will never forget them and sincerely wish I could repay their generous hospitality here someday. I want to thank the many friends and family who kept me up to date with e-Mail messages from home. And finally I thank Michelle Douskey for sending me a package of chocolate chip cookies which lasted for most of the trip. They were, to the best of my knowledge, the only such cookies in all of Russia and early in the trip I had briefly considered sharing them.

I extend my sincerest appreciation to Fr. Proterra, the dean of Creighton's College of Arts and Sciences for the College's financial support of this trip as part of my sabbatical project.

Through these stories I have tried to introduce you to just a few of the Russian people. I hope you have noticed that they are quite like us in the things that matter. We all share the same hopes, dreams and fears. Human nature with all of its qualities and an innate goodness are the common threads that make us all basically alike.

Finally, I want to thank you, Dear Reader, for vicariously sharing my wonderful experiences in Russia through these stories. I trust you've enjoyed them since you are still reading them. So I will close now with the words of Timus: "Happy Springdays to you and your family!"

Da Svee Danya,

Bruce


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