MY TWO YEARS AS A RELUCTANT RUSSIAN
Walter Soroka was a tourist but the USSR insisted he was a repatriate. So he got a job and discovered the bread and circuses of life as a Soviet technician: mixed (but chaste) camping, and more drinking parties than he’s ever known at home in Canada
FOR THE FIRST FEW MILES of the bus ride from Buchach to Ternopol I sat on the edge of my seat. I had two reasons to be nervous. In the first place it was my first experience with the Russian custom of driving at night without lights. In the second place I was leaving Buchach illegally. The visitor’s visa stamped in my Canadian passport was good only in this region of the Ukraine. But I had decided that I had to get to Moscow, to the Canadian embassy, in a hurry.
The reason for my “escape” from Buchach was that I had received a letter from my sister in Toronto telling me that Soviet officials, had written to my parents in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., urging them to return to the Ukraine, where 1 was described as “happily settled.” As far as I was concerned my visit to the Ukraine was just part of a summer’s wandering through Europe — a side trip to the homeland my parents had left more than twenty years ago, before I was born. So on that day in October, 1959, 1 was in a hurry to get to the Canadian embassy in Moscow to have a cable sent to my parents telling them to stay in Canada — and to get an exit visa for myself. (1 could not know then, of course, that the second project would take a year and a half.)
In Ternopol I boarded a train for the 800-
mile journey to Moscow, which was uneventful, uncomfortable (wooden seats) and interesting to me because it was my first look at the great industrial-agricultural heartland of Russia. In Moscow I took a subway from the railway station to Red Square because I had been told that the Canadian embassy, at 23 Starokonyushenny Pereulok, was not far from the square. In Red Square I hailed a taxi (Moscow is full of taxis although private-car traffic is negligible). I had also been warned that the Russian authorities kept a guard posted at the corner outside the embassy building to check up on visitors, so before the taxi stopped I had paid off the driver and was running up the embassy steps. Sure enough, there was a uniformed guard on the sidewalk at the corner. He came to life as I ran through the gateway and trotted toward me.
ADVICE TO MY PARENTS: STAY HOME
“Hey, grazhdanin ;— citizen,” he called. “Where do you think you’re going? Come back here ...”
I tried the doorknob. It turned. I slipped in and slammed the door.
The embassy attaché who heard my story was Jack Montpetit, third secretary, a cheerful young French Canadian who had the delicate and often frustrating job of negotiating with
the Soviet authorities for exit permits for “repatriates” who change their minds and want to return to Canada.
Montpetit immediately drafted a cable to my parents advising them to stay in Canada. He examined my passport with its ten-day visitor’s visa and six-month extension, and told me I should have no trouble getting exit papers.
“The only thing not in order is your presence in Moscow without a permit to leave Buchach,” Montpetit said. “We’ll have to plead for you on that point but they probably won’t make a fuss since you’re on your way out of the country.”
Montpetit made a reservation for me at the Ostankino hotel and sent me there in an embassy Ford driven by a Russian chauffeur who took advantage of his diplomatic immunity to drive at top speed, scattering pedestrians as we went. The Ostankino with its five radiating wings was fairly luxurious by Western standards, except for one thing: it was infested by crickets. I could scarcely sleep for their chirping. I killed one in my room but the chorus continued.
Next morning I telephoned the Canadian embassy. Montpetit told me it would be three or four days before my exit permit could come through. On the third CONTINUED ON PAGE 47
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MáS continued from paite 30
“Why not settle down, marry, raise some little comrades?”
morning when 1 came down to the lobby the desk clerk pointed to a man who was waiting to see me. He was a husky middle-aged red-faced man w'ho wore civilian clothes with a military bearing. He told me his name was Victorov. that he belonged to the interior ministry of the Soviet government. He asked politely hou 1 had slept, how 1 was enjoying my stay in Russia, and bought me breakfast.
Victorov invited me to visit the AllSoviet Exposition of Achievement with him. "Canadians call their CNE (he biggest annual exhibition in the world,” he said, "but here we have a permanent exhibition that could swallow' up the CNE in one corner."
Victorov had once served at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa and knew a good deal about Canada—more about some things than I did. He rattled off the names of Canadian authors and artists. Only one or two of them were familiar to me. Victorov shrugged. "Canadians are culturally deaf people,” he said.
He took me in his chauffeur-driven car to the exposition. It w'as a mammoth affair indeed, with its 205 buildings exhibiting everything from new' experiments in hybrid corn to a nuclear power station that serves the buildings to full-scale models of all the outer-space vehicles the Soviets have launched.
“Stay away from those black sheep”
At lunch Victorov dropped his bombshell. He asked me why 1 was trying to get an exit permit. "Why not?” I said. "I came here as a tourist and now 1 want to go back home.” Victorov said: “That is not my information. At the border you signed an application for repatriation and Soviet citizenship.”
I was shocked. I told Victorov angrily that the only paper I had signed at the border w'as a receipt for five hundred rubles an official had given me for spending money.
Victorov shrugged. “Nevertheless we have your application for citizenship," he said. 1 told him that the Canadian embassy had assured me they could get an exit permit.
Victorov scowled. “Stay away from those black sheep at the embassy," he said. “They will fill you with lies.“
As soon as Victorov dropped me off at the hotel I telephoned Montpetit. He did not seem very worried. “Even if you signed something you didn't understand." he said, "we will point out to the authorities that you are under twenty-one and cannot make a decision that affects your citizenship."
Next morning Victorov was waiting for me in the hotel lobby, his smiling self: “How did you sleep? How did you enjoy the exposition? I have brought you a gift"—it w'as a pocketbook murder mystery in English, a rare item in Moscow. He also had a ticket for the circus. It was a fabulous performance—as Canadians discover-
ed when the circus toured this country recently.
Next morning Victorov was waiting for me in the lobby. He started right in on the citizenship discussion.
"Why do you want to return to Canada?”
"Because 1 am a Canadian."
“Nonsense. At heart you are a Ukrainian. Why don’t you pick a nice place to live and well set you up there. Marry a nice girl and raise a family . . .”
"A nice place like Buchach?” I asked.
"Buchach—no. that is a hole of a place. There are many fine cities you could settle in.”
"1 know one I’d like to he in now." 1 said. "It is St. Catharines."
"St. Catharines?" repeated Victorov. "That must be the old name. We do not have such names now. Where is it?"
"In Ontario, Canada."
Victorov became exasperated. He
lit a cigarette, something he had not done before. For the rest of my stay in Moscow he smoked incessantly.
I was enjoying myself, even these incessant arguments with Victorov. After all. I was living high, enjoying the best entertainment free, and the attention 1 was getting from this government official made me feel pretty important. It would only be a day or two before 1 took off for home, anyway.
Next day everything changed.
Montpetit told me the application for my exit permit had been turned down. Even the argument that I was a minor meant nothing—in Russia the age of responsibility is eighteen, and I was nineteen. Montpetit advised me to return to Buchach, where at least I had a legal right to be, and wait for developments. "We’ll keep working on your exit permit,” he assured me.
Victorov knew my application had been turned down, of course, and took a slightly triumphant i-toid-you-so attitude. But he still handed out gifts and tree tickets. He even took over my hotel bill anti periodically gave me a hundred-ruble note (old rubles, worth ten cents each) to spend.
But he became tougher and more insistent about my acceptance of Soviet citizenship and application for settlement in some city to be mutually agreed on. He pointed out that now my business with the Canadian embassy was over, there was no excuse for my being in Moscow. When I tried to argue the point, he lost his patience and pounded the table. “In one more day we will have you thrown out of the hotel,” he shouted, “and you will be escorted back to Buchach where you can spend the rest of your life as far as I am concerned.”
I knew I was licked. “All right,” I told Victorov, “I will go to Kiev.” I knew some Ukrainian-Canadian repatriates who had settled in Kiev.
"Oh, no,” said Victorov. “Not so fast. No matter where you end up, you first must go back to Buchach and start from the beginning.”
After Moscow, Buchach looked more than ever what Victorov had
called it—“that hole.” My cousin Anton gave me a mixed welcome. “My God,” he said, “what we have been through on your account—every day questioning at the militia.”
The militia captain himself barged in, looking grim. "Pack your clothes,” he said, “you are leaving for Kiev.”
“But I just came from Kiev, en route from Moscow,” I said.
“Those are my instructions,” he said.
The bus depot was crowded and there wasn't a ticket to be bought for Ternopol, not even standing room. I went back to the militia office and told the captain I would have to stay in Buchach overnight.
“Like hell you will,” he said, and hustled me out to his jeep and rushed me down to the bus depot. He stationed me near the door of the Ternopol bus and disappeared into the depot. In minutes he was back with a ticket —for a seat, no less. Later, on the bus ride a fellow passenger told me that the militia captain had paid double fare for another traveler’s ticket. He really wanted to see the last of me, that nacholnik militsii.
In Ternopol almost the same thing happened. A plainclothes militiaman took me to the railway station. One look at the line-up for the Kiev train told us that I would never get aboard. I suggested that I spend the night in Ternopol, but once more I got the hot-potato treatment. He trotted off. In half an hour he was back, triumphantly waving a piece of paper.
It was a military train that he put me aboard. This surprised me because at Lvov, on my way into Russia, I had
wandered over to have a look at a -■military train in the station and had been shooed away. The train was literally filled to overflowing. We had to sleep in shifts; some on the floor, some on the two tiers of bunks that let down from the walls, some in the baggage racks.
Anybody who has traveled on a Canadian train with soldiers knows what goes on—heavy traffic in the aisles, boisterous and even rowdy behavior, considerable drinking. The Russian soldiers were a Sunday school bunch by comparison, undoubtedly because there was no drinking. In a nation where drinking is practically a way of life, the Russian serviceman is probably the most sober on earth. For one thing, service pay is so low that it barely affords one pack of cigarettes a week, and doesn't stretch to liquor. More important, Soviet military rules prohibit drinking—on or off duty— during the first two years of training.
Later in Kiev I met a man who had been thrown out of the Russian navy for taking one drink, after two years of intensive training in nuclear submarines. “I went to a wedding,” he told me, “and had one drink — one lousy drink—and when I got back to the base I couldn’t pass the breathsniffing test that they always hold. That was the end of my navy career.”
A Canadian cell in Kiev
In Kiev I found myself in the midst of a small colony of Canadian repatriates and students. I stayed with Bill Biley, a former Montrealer who married a Russian girl and has a small son, Bill junior. He is taking journalism at Kiev university and on the side works as interviewer of English-speaking visitors on a radio station. He also “packages” taped musical programs for the radio station, taking the songs from foreign short-wave broadcasts. Harry Belafonte’s Caribbean songs were very big in Kiev, but strangely enough the folk songs of Peter Seegar, who in the U. S. is regarded as strongly leftist, were banned by the Kiev radio censors.
“They probably think Seegar’s ideas are too revolutionary,” said Biley. At a party in Biley's apartment 1 met several young Canadian-Ukrainians who were studying various arts— and incidentally relearning the language, which most of them spoke quite badly.
After three days in Kiev I was summoned to an interview with the minister of the interior for the Ukraine, Palamarchuk. At the time Palamarchuk was a special celebrity in the Ukraine, because he had been chosen to accompany Khrushchov on his visit to the United Nations.
Palamarchuk received me in his huge, gloomy office. It was the Victorov business all over again—“you claim to be a Canadian tourist, we say you are a repatriate.” Except that Palamarchuk had twice the personality—and persuasiveness—of Victorov. Finally he said: “In that village you did not see the real life of the Ukraine. I propose that we find you a job suited to your talents in the fine historic city of Zaporozhe. After you have lived and worked with people of your own age and education, if you still want to return to Canada we will . see what we can do.”
It was the best offer 1 had heard for a long time, so I took the train to Zaporozhe. The chief feature of Zaporozhe is the huge Lenin dam, built by an American engineer named Winter after World War I. Winter is one of the few Americans revered by the Soviets. The streets between the dam and Zaporozhe's main thoroughfare is still named Vinter Boulevard (the Russians have no W in their alphabet) and some of Winter's personal possessions, notebooks, eyeglasses, engineer-
ing instruments and the like, are on display in the city's museum.
I was met at the Zaporozhe railway station by the inevitable guide, equipped with car and chauffeur. He showed me my apartment, then took me for a tour of the city. Zaporozhe, a city of 200,000 population, is long and narrow. It stretches seven miles along the Dnieper, above and below the Lenin dam which provides the power for its numerous metal-processing industries. Like all large Soviet
cities I saw, Zaporozhe is spotlessly clean—which isn't easy, because of a spectacularly bad bit of planning, the residential and commercial sections of the city are located downwind from the factory chimneys.
The guide next drove me to a huge complex of buildings which turned out to be ZTZ — Zaporzheskyi Transformator!! i Zavod, or The People’s Transformer Factory of Zaporozhe. He turned me over to Grigori Korenevsky, boss of the factory’s 130-person
laboratory section. Korenevsky questioned me about my education and seemed much impressed that 1 had worked in a battery factory in Niagara Falls, Ont., had completed grade twelve and had taken two years of chemistry and assorted shopwork. The truth is that a Russian student who could give the same description of his school work would know three or four times more than the smattering of “science” taught to Canadians in secondary school.
Korenevsky told me that the chemistry section of his laboratory was overmanned, and placed me in an experimental section under Ivan Vasilyevich Ryadinsky. My first assignment was an experiment in the aging process in lubricants used in transformers. The proposition w'as simple enough. Lubricant is sealed into power transformers. It loses some of its lubricating power after ten or fifteen years. Why? That’s what I was supposed to find out without waiting fifteen years.
I asked Ryadinsky, my section boss, "Where do I start?” He answered, "In our technical library, of course.” I went to the library and came out with a volume on the techniques of aging lubricants artificially. It was, amazingly enough, a bound volume of photostats from the British Bureau of Standards giving precise specifications for sealed lubricants and “methods of testing same.” I built a piece of equipment on instructions from the British photostats, and Ryadinsky seemed satisfied.
Ivan Ivanovich, our laboratory handyman, was a philosopher and humorist. One day 1 was trying to get a piece of equipment to fit and Ivanovich whispered to me: “Don’t force it—use a bigger hammer.” Once I watched him performing a delicate job with rough tools and said to him: “In Canada we use precision tools where you Russians use an axe.” After that, whenever I had a mechanical problem, Ivanovich would shout across the laboratory to me: “Use an axe, Soroka!”
When I was shifted to another laboratory where instruments were repaired and tested, I was required to
make my own tools. This requirement was partly to test my skill, but largely for a more practical reason: in Russia precision tools are scarce.
In fact, many of the everyday things for which Canadians shop without a second thought are lacking in Russia. To get a suit cleaned takes two months, w'hich probably explains why so many Russians look as if they had slept in their clothes. The water supply in my apartment was uncertain. At one time I had to set my alarm clock at 2 a.m. to be sure of getting a supply of water.
Shopping for food w'as an ordeal. There were no supermarkets or even general grocery stores in Zaporozhe, and housewives had to spend half a day going from store to store for their supplies. 1 didn't even try cooking. I ate in the factory cafeteria, where the food was plentiful, wholesome, but extremely monotonous. The Americans think they are versatile with hamburger, but the Russians carry the use of hamburg to extremes. Day after day this was the menu in the factory cafeteria:
Bifshtek: hamburger steaks, plain.
Cutlet: hamburger, oval shape,
Schnitzel: hamburger, flat, with
more breading than cutlet.
Betoshki: two fried meat balls.
Teftelyi: two stewed meat balls.
With that choice of meats were served two kinds of macaroni—short and long. And every meal started with a huge bowl of borsch.
Although I was being especially favored by having an apartment, it was far from the factory and the other residents were married couples who weren’t much fun. Most of my friends lived in a big hostel for single workers, near the factory and conveniently across the street from a girls’ hostel. So I moved in.
There was a party to celebrate that. In fact, there was a party just about every night to celebrate something or other. One day my roommate Peter Shtepta said there was going to be a party that night. “To celebrate what this time?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he answered. “We’re going to have a party to celebrate the
First stop on one man's too-well-guided Moscow tour
fact that we have nothing to celebrate.”
Stories that suggest that Russians live drab lives of quiet desperation are away ofr beam. Certainly among people like the factory workers of Zaporozhe it would be an exhausting business to take part in a fraction of the organized and private activities that went on all the time — sports, theatre parties, musical evenings: you name it, they had it.
Camping is a very big pastime in
Russia. I joined a factory camping group with my other roommate, Tolya Shulba. (Tolya had a kidney ailment so he kept a big cactus plant in our room and every morning he nipped off a few leaves and chewed them. Someone had told him this was good medicine.) The first time we went camping there were five boys, nine girls—and three tents. It turned out that in Russia boys and girls sleep together—quite chastely—on camping trips. “It's the accepted thing,” Tolya
told me. “When we go camping we go camping. Nothing else.” It was a new experience to me, anyway.
And, of course, there were parades and “demonstrations” at the drop of a hat. The May Day parade was the biggest, but the Russians will form ranks and march to celebrate—or protest—just about anything. When Cuba was invaded there was a rally; when the Russian astronauts cireled the earth we streamed from the factory and marched. How spontaneous arc
these affairs? Anti-Russian propaganda says they are forced on the people; the Russians say they are spontaneous. The truth lies somewhere between. You are not forced to turn out, but your fellow workers expect it of you and there are raised eyebrows if you beg off too many parades.
One worker who hated parades came into the shop one morning and said: “Last night at the movies I saw a real parade — clowns and dancing girls and confetti. Now if we had that kind of parade I'd gladly come.” He had seen a newsreel of the Rio de Janeiro Mardi gras.
1 won't pretend I didn't enjoy my eighteen months in Zaporozhe, but I still kept trying to get an exit visa. Twice during that time I slipped off to Moscow, illegally, and badgered the Canadian embassy without success. 1 kept in touch with Jack Montpetit, the embassy attache, by telephone at least once a month.
Every few weeks I'd go down to the Zaporozhe office of the interior ministry and apply for a form on which to apply for an exit permit. It always was refused. Meanwhile 1 kept renewing my visitor’s visa every six months.
In September, I960, the Soviet authorities and I reached an impasse. My application for renewal of the visitor's visa was refused. This was a serious situation—I was without legal status of any kind. I was warned at the factory and at the hostel that I could not continue to work and live without getting a Russian “internal passport.” In other words, without accepting Soviet citizenship.
I telephoned Montpetit. “Well,” he said, “you’ve been getting nowhere as a visitor. It can't do any harm to accept the internal passport and then apply for exit.” He assured me that this would not make me lose my Canadian citizenship as far as the embassy was concerned.
So—I became a Soviet citizen. And immediately I was allowed to apply for an exit permit. This didn't mean it would be granted, of course, but at least it was a step I had not been allowed to take before.
In my last few weeks in Russia I saw the worst and the best of life in that country. First, an unforgettable camping trip to the Crimea, where a 120-mile coastline has been set aside as a holiday resort for Soviet workers, and no factories or even trains are allowed.
Finally, three weeks of misery on an unsuccessful collective farm, where the food was indescribable and working conditions under the blazing sun were intolerable.
When I returned to Zaporozhe, sore and depressed, there was a telegram from the Canadian embassy waiting for me. Incredibly, the Soviet government had granted my exit permit.
In a few days, I finally took the ride on a TU-104 jet that Victorov had promised me. I left Moscow a Soviet citizen with permission to emigrate. When I drove around Orly airport near Paris to the TCA offices, I became once more a Canadian, homeward bound from a trip abroad that had lasted somewhat longer than I had intended. ★
This is the second of two articles about Walter Soroka’s life in Russia.