A Russian's-eye view of Russia—by a Canadian

Walter Soroka October 6 1962

A Russian's-eye view of Russia—by a Canadian

Walter Soroka October 6 1962

A Russian's-eye view of Russia—by a Canadian

Walter Soroka hoped to spend ten days in the Soviet Union. But he ivas caught there by the world's reddest red tape, and it was two years befoi'e he got home to Canada. This is his account of the life he led as a “typical young Russian" in the factories, farms and huge summer resorts behind the Iron Curtain with Eric Hutton

Eric Hutton

ON AUGUST 13, 1959, I rode in a train across the Polish border into Soviet Russia with a ten-day visitor’s visa issued by the Soviet embassy in Warsaw. It was nearly two years before I could get out of Russia again.

What kept me there so long was one moment of confusion in the paper work at the border, followed by twenty-three months of frustrating inability—mine and the Canadian embassy's— to solve the enigma of Soviet red tape.

I became part of a grim little game of repatriation and re-repatriation that Canada and Russia have been engaged in for several years. During that time about live thousand Ukrainian-Canadians have returned to the Soviet Ukraine. About 150 of them have succeeded in getting back to Canada when they found conditions in the Ukraine not at all what they had been led to expect. At the Canadian embassy in Moscow I was told that I was one of the five hundred "repatriates'' of Ukrainian birth pz origin who were actively trying to get exit visas to Canada.

During my two years in Russia 1 met several Canadian-Ukrainians. About half of them would give anything to get back to Canada; the rest were happy with their new life and had no intention of returning. Sometimes families were divided on the question.

My own intention w'hen I entered Russia had been to have a quick look at the country my parents had come from—hence the ten-day visa. But the authorities claimed that a paper 1 signed at the border ( it w as in Russian so 1 had no idea what it said) was an "application for repatriation." They never confronted me with that document, but for twenty-three

months they stuck to their story and treated me accordingly. 1 was in no sense a prisoner. I lived and worked as a typical young Russian does today; in the primitive Ukrainian village of Buchach, in the busy industrial city of Zaporozhe on the Dnieper river, and as a "volunteer" on a corn and sunflower-seed collective farm near the Sea of Azov.

Only once did a policeman lay a hand on me, and that, ironically enough, was when 1 had finally got my exit papers and was legally in Moscow on my way back to Canada.


True, because 1 persistently declined to accept Soviet citizenship, I had frequent encounters, loud and often angry but never physically menacing, with assorted civil and police officials, and my freedom to travel was restricted. But then, the average Soviet citizen's life is considerably involved with officialdom, and he isn't free to live and work just anywhere he w'ants, either. On the other hand, as a potential repatriate 1 was assigned as good an apartment as the senior technician in the laboratory unit in the Zaporozhe transformer factory where I worked, and was paid the top w'age ($90 a month) in my classification of laboratory technician.

What did I see in my two years as a Soviet worker?

1 saw incredible filth—and frenzied cleanliness. The customers at Buchach's bar-restaurant don't use the washroom fixtures, they use the floor. But on Zaporozhe's main street a druzhina — volunteer policeman — bawled me out and threatened me with a fine for drop-

ping a match on the sidewalk. The manufacture of trash cans must be one of the Soviet Union's busiest industries. There’s one every few yards on the city streets.

I saw squalid overcrowding — and spacious luxury living. In Buchach I preferred to move out to a hayloft when a third occupant turned up to share one narrow bed in the house. But a few' months later I was vacationing in what must be the most beautiful and certainly the largest and least expensive public resort on earth. If the Crimea's 120 miles of sparkling chalets, hostels and hotels, piers and pleasure parks, playgrounds, beaches, restaurants and gaily-painted wine kiosks, existed in a Western country, they would be publicized as a wonder of the world. But the Soviets seem a little sensitive about publicizing this proletarian magnificence, from which all industry is banned and where pleasure is the only purpose. They prefer to show foreign visitors their purposeful factories and collective farms.

The food I ate for two years was bad and scarce on the collective farm and in the village, plentiful but monotonous in the city. (Boiled potatoes mashed with boiled onions isn't a Canadian's idea of a tasty breakfast, but that's what I was served every morning in Buchach.) Two items were never lacking: bread and booze. Bread that was usually coarse, soggy and heavy as lead, and alcoholic drinks that ranged from undrinkable to excellent, but were enormously available and enormously consumed.

1 have sat at breakfast with men who started by downing a tumbler of vodka as casually as a Canadian would drink his orange juice.



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In a Russian clinic, even death is expected to wait till the inevitable torm is filled in

people to whom education—learning for the sake of learning—is a hobby, a pleasure, a way of life. 1 attended night-school classes in which grade ten students worked out advanced algebra problems in their heads — problems which I, who was usually in the top three or four in my grade twelve classes at Niagara Falls Collegiate and Technical School, couldn’t solve on paper. I taught an after-hours class in English at the factory, and among my pupils w'cre women workers in their sixties who never would make any practical use of what little English they learned, but who attended faithfully for the simple purpose of acquiring knowledge. Incidentally, as a teacher I entered the ranks of elite workers, and my pay on an hourly basis w'as twice as much as what I made as a laboratory technician.

In the Zaporozhe factory the sports and entertainment program for the four thousand workers was probably better organized than the production program. There w'as literally no form of entertainment, from parachute jumping to chess, from camping to ski-jumping to track, target shooting, boating and dramatics, that wasn’t encouraged and subsidized.

When the factory's sports organizer showed me the interminable list of activities available, I cracked, “What, no hopscotch?"

He answered, deadpan, “Tovarishch Soroka, you find five colleagues who wish to form such a club and we will provide the facilities.”

Minor sports and mediocre players were confined to factory leagues or inter-factory competition, but in major sports our best athletes competed as far as their ability could take them, from city to regional to national championships—and on to the Soviet Olympic team and other international competitions. The West has been surprised and worried by Russia's sports domination in recent years. What else could be expected when ten million or so young men and women train and compete hard even after they leave school?

At high school in Canada I was pretty good at track and at rifle shooting. When 1 had graduated I had the choice of seeking out a private club or dropping out of organized sport. I dropped out. as the great majority of Canadians do after leaving school. Russian athletes have been called professionals. My own experience is that they are subsidized only to this modest extent. They are given time off to compete, travel expenses are paid and equipment is provided. Equipment for expensive sports like parachute jumping and motorcycle racing is lent by a nationwide sports organization of the armed services.

What went on inside the factory during working hours would be both the envy and the despair of a Canadian plant manager. In our laboratories we had a “man-made lightning” division that was experimentally producing the highest voltages in Europe

—up to eight million. And we consistently met or passed our production quotas of hydro transformers, as 1 knew from the huge bulletin board posted in the factory grounds and from my periodic cash bonuses.

But to procure raw' material and semi-processed parts from other factories in Zaporozhe we were often delayed for days by a maddening rigmarole of paper work involving numerous signatures from both the requisitioning and the supplying factories. The book of rules which dictates the procedure of every factory in Russia says that so-and-so must sign requisitions. If so-and-so is busy or sick or on vacation, the whole procedure w'aits until he’s available.

When — and if — the materials are delivered they come either in a horsedrawn wagon or in a small hand cart incongruously hitched to an enormous tractor capable of bulldozing a small mountain.

1 encountered loving kindness from strangers—and a sort of callous cruelty from others that usually turned out to be caused by the fact that almost everything a Russian does officially is based on inflexible written directives.

One morning at work 1 became violently ill from food poisoning. I staggered from my section boss’ office to that of the over-all laboratory chief, getting their signatures to a form permitting me to visit the plant hospital. I reached the hospital in a state of collapse.

"I need a doctor,” 1 managed to gasp to the receptionist, although it must have been pretty obvious. She calmly started to fill in the inevitable form. “Department?” she asked.


She stopped writing. “Laboratory personnel are seen in the afternoon,” she said.

“But I need a doctor now,” I said. “I may be dying.”

She brought out a schedule. “See for yourself,” she said. “ ‘Laboratory personnel are seen in the afternoons.’ ”

I managed to get back to my lab, told the boss what had happened, and passed out. It took an angry telephone call from him—including a reminder that I was a foreigner—to get me past that receptionist. The doctor decided

that my condition called for immediate use of a stomach pump.

But two days later, when I lay at home weak and alone (on a three-day sick-leave pass duly signed by assorted plant officials) a middle-aged woman who scarcely knew my name took me to her own home, fed me delicate broths and quantities of vitamin pills, secured an extension of my sick leave, and nursed me back to health. That woman, incidentally, had an occupational status unknown in Canada. Nadya Chervinska, incidentally, was more than a nurse, less than a doctor.

In Russia I found an appalling ignorance among average intelligent people of Western life and thought. Admittedly, it was an ignorance no greater than my own about life in Russia up to that August Thursday when the train took me across the border.

I should explain briefly how I came to be in Europe in the first place. In the spring of 1959 I decided to spend a few months roaming around Europe, including visits to some Polish-Ukrainian aunts and uncles I had never seen. Eike my parents they were Ukrainians who found themselves living in Poland because of a border "adjustment" after World War I. (For a time they had been subjects of the AustroHungarian empire.) My parents emigrated to Canada between wars, settled first in Saskatchewan w'here I was born, and then on a farm in Niagaraon-the-Lake, Ont. I had got my junior matriculation in 1957 and wanted to take chemical engineering at university, but family finances didn't permit. So I worked for a year in a Niagara Falls battery factory, saved money, and had $350 in cash after buying a one-way ship passage to England.

I thought I spoke Ukrainian well enough to get along. (I was to find, though, that a Canadian-Ukrainian speaking to a Russian-Ukrainian is like a Scotsman and a Texan trying to understand each other. One dialect has been infiltrated by English words, the other by Russian.)

After I visited my relatives I wanted to see the real Ukraine. At the Soviet embassy in Warsaw they told me that I should name a specific place as my destination for my ten-day trip. My aunts and uncles had told me that we had a distant cousin, Anton Oleniuk, who lived in the village of Buchach, forty miles due south of the regional capital of Ternopol in the northwest part of the Ukraine.

The train was crowded with Polish trade emissaries, wdth Russian officials and with Ukrainian repatriates returning from as far away as Argentina. Undoubtedly the presence of those repatriates on the train had something to do with what was to happen to me.

The land does not change between Poland and Russia, of course, but the traveler knows when he has crossed the border because red stars appear everywhere — on the locomotives, on trackside barns, even in the gardens of wayside railway depots.

As the train crossed the border, a small mild man in civilian clothes examined my papers. Then he asked: “Have you any rubles?"

“No,” I said, not feeling it necessary to add that I had $60 in other currency. He handed me five hundred rubles in notes about the size of handbills. “This will tide you over — just

sign this paper." So. casually, I signed myself into Russian “captivity" for fifty dollars. This w'as the “confusion in paperwork at the border," referred to earlier. (During my stay the Russians revalued the rubje to increase its value tenfold. The “new" ruble is worth nominally a little more than one dollar.)

At Lvov, an ancient Polish city now' within the Ukraine, I changed trains to Ternopol and then rode a crowded bus forty miles to Buchach.

Buchach, which the Russians call a village, was in Canadian terms a fair-sized town of four thousand population. It looked drab, dusty and depressing, especially after Ternopol. Ternopol, the administrative centre for the province that included Buchach, was, like many Russian cities, largely destroyed during the war. The Russians have made a sort of model city of it. The modern shining-clean buildings downtown are built not on streets but on park-like squares as broad as they are long. In Ternopol was the only new church I saw in all the time I was in Russia.

Buchach, which came through the war almost unscathed, was decaying from poverty and neglect. It is not surprising in the past year the authorities have been steering visitors away from the villages and issuing visas only for stays in the cities.

“My cousin, the American spy”

In Buchach I first encountered a phenomenon which is an important part of Russian life—the rumor-andgossip grapevine. In Canada, rumors of disasters, crimes and scandals remain alive only until the next edition of the newspaper or the next newscast tells the facts. In Russia, where “unconstructive” news is seldom printed or broadcast, the grapevine feeds and grows on this information.

When the bus stopped at its depot in Buchach, the driver pointed out the militia post where I was required to report immediately on arrival. A militia captain with a brisk manner and short crewcut, wearing baggy breeches pushed into shiny boots ( I was to have several unpleasant dealings with him in the next few weeks) checked my papers, entered particulars on a sheet of paper, and directed me to Anton Oleniuk's house three uphill blocks away.

Anton answered the door. He was a lean, worn man in his forties. Although he was not expecting me and had never heard of me, he welcomed me matter-of-factly when I introduced myself. Then he paused and thought a moment. He laughed.

“Why, you must be the American spy!" he said.

“Huh?” I said.

Anton explained. Although it was scarcely ten minutes since I had left the bus and walked to the militia post and then to Anton's house, Buchach's grapevine had already launched a sensational story: An American spy had sneaked into town, but the alert militia had arrested him before he could carry out his dastardly work, and he was safely in chains in the militia post. During the next week Anton would proudly introduce me to visitors as “my cousin, the American spy."

Anton took it as a matter of course that I would stay with his family in

(heir four-room house, although there were eight people living in it already, and another son was expected home from veterinary school. In one room were billeted two sturdy tanned girls who worked in a forestry corps in the timberlands near Buchach. They did their own housekeeping in their small room and spent their spare time studying surveying and telling each other's fortunes endlessly with a pack of worn cards. Although communist ideology regards such frippery as superstition and frowns on it. I found that fortunetelling was a favorite pastime among Russian girls.

Anton’s wife, whom I called Aunty, was a prematurely lined woman in her early forties. The Oleniuks had had a rough time during the war and afterward as displaced persons, and still showed the marks of privation. Their children, though, were husky cheerful youngsters, except their only daughter, fifteen-year-old Marussya, who was home from school convalescing from a serious illness.

"On the collective farm where she sometimes works they make them go into the fields before the dew is off the ground,” Aunty explained to me. "So she had w'et feet every day and caught pneumonia.”

Twelve-year-old Mikhail and nineyear-old Ivan w'ere primary-school students; Pyotr. 24, was just back from his army hitch, and the absent member was nineteen-year-old Pavel, learning to be a veterinarian at the collective farm where Marussya caught her pneumonia.

The three rooms left to the Oleniuks consisted of an alcove kitchen, a small bedroom, and a large room that served as living room, dining room and bedroom. Somehow at night the w'hole family bedded down in this space. I shared a narrow' bed with one of the boys. Everyone knelt in prayer before retiring.

The Oleniuks were devout people, although they seldom went to church. "Religion is good, but priests are not,” Aunty told me. "They do no work, produce nothing.” In Buchach there were three churches, but only one was used for religious purposes. The other two had been converted into tractor repair stations for the nearby collective farm.

On the first morning of my stay with the Oleniuks, after seven bodies had disentangled thefhselves from their sleeping stations, Aunty Oleniuk set big plates of potatoes mashed w ith onions before us. "Eat all you want,” she said. "There is plenty.”

"This is breakfast?” 1 asked myself —and ate hungrily. There was milk, too, and bread, dark and heavy as a cannonball. The Oleniuks were not poor people, by village standards. They owned a cow—hence the milk. Actually the luxury of owning a cow cost Anton more than the rent of his house. As a carpenter in Buchach’s truck-body centre. Anton paid a nominal rent—but his cow was taxed at seventy ( new' ) rubles a year, the equivalent of a month’s salary.

The whole family came home for a midday dinner of macaroni. Supper was a small piece of sausage boiled with cabbage and any available vegetable to make soup. This menu never varied, except for meat once a week and butter twice a week. The butter was rancid because there was no re-

frigeration. but it is surprising how good rancid butter tastes when one is hungry.

Anton, as I have said, was one of the minor plutocrats of the village. He did not depend entirely on his seventy - rubles - a - month salary, but "moonlighted” on the side as a cabinet maker. In a lean-to with a leaky roof Anton secretly made beautiful chests and bureaus and kitchen cabinets which he sold, equally secretly, to the citizens of Buchach. His tools

were utterly primitive — adzes and axes and hand saws — yet he could match a pair of veneer doors to a cabinet more exactly than anything you could find in the T. Eaton company's furniture department, and his products were much in demand.

Anton's sideline, of course, broke the Soviet laws against private enterprise. From time to time the militia captain in the shiny boots, the nachalnik militsii, would visit Anton and warn him that what he was doing was

illegal. Anton woulu say mi Tovarishch nachalnik milit. stop making these cabinets t! state agrees to feed my fam pay.”

The first time 1 heard this was the first time 1 realized adays Soviet authority car lenged without immediate E to Siberia, or worse.

After 1 had been at Anton s no

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a weck the nachalnik militsii sent for me. He told me my ten-day visa was about to expire and I would have to leave or apply for an extension. I told him I would apply, since I wanted to visit Odessa.

"You will have to apply for that too," he said.

"You mean I can't go to Odessa without a permit?" I asked.

“That is correct. Your visa is for Buchach only. It is illegal for you to be anywhere else unless you obtain permission."

If I had been smart I would have dropped the whole matter there and taken the nachalnik's first alternative, to get out of the country on the expiry of my ten-day visa. But I thought all this was typical Russian red tape and would straighten itself out.

Twelve days later the militia chief sent for me again. "I have good news for you," he said, "your visa has been extended for six months."

"What about the trip to Odessa?"

"Nyc vozmozhno." he answered. "It is not possible."


"I have not been informed."

( For the next tw o years my way of life would hinge on that phrase, nyc vozmozhno. Seldom was anything vozmozhno for me. )

I had no intention of being cooped up in Buchach for the rest of my stay in Russia, so I told the militia chief that 1 would apply for an exit permit immediately.

"That will take time," he said. "Perhaps two months. After all, you have just voluntarily applied to stay six months.”

For the first time since I entered Russia I felt trapped. Just howtightly trapped I did not realize at the time, because the militia captain had said nothing about the “application for repatriation" I had supposedly signed at the border. In fact. I doubt he even knew about it at that time. He was simply going through the motions of bureaucracy, which were frustrating enough to the recipient.

More ominous events were soon to happen. One day a member of the Buchach grapevine ran from house to house with a hot piece of news: a family of Amcrikantsi had just arrived at Zhiznomira. a collective farm village near Buchach. They were staying at the home of a relative, the village stonemason. The unofficial town crier told me that the visitors had a son about my age, and I might be interested in meeting him. I walked across the fields to Zhiznomira.

On the village street I met the son of the visiting family and introduced myself. "Soroka?" he asked in surprise. "Canadian — from Niagara-onthe-Lake?" I told him yes, and he said. "My mother knows you. She used to work on your farm."

The visitors weren't Americans, but the Kossak family from Palermo. Out., where Kossak, senior, was for many years caretaker of Shevchenko Park, a Ukrainian cultural and recreation centre named in honor of the great Ukrainian patriot and poet.

I recognized Mrs. Kossak imnie' ¡tely. She had picked strawberries s>ur farm during several harvests, ctcd me w ith sobs, ooor boy," she said. “They you as they caught us." her that I had not been

"caught," that I was in the Ukraine as a visitor, with a Canadian passport.

“Do not give up that passport under any circumstances," she begged me. "And when you get back to Canada you must tell those families who are thinking of coming here not to leave their homes in Canada. I will give you their names."

The Kossaks' experience had been an unhappy one. In his forty years :i Canada Mr. Kossak had always dreamed of returning to his homeland. And in 1958 a wonderful opportunity had come up. Through the Russian embassy in Ottawa the Kossaks had been offered a farm, with house and orchard, in the Soviet frontier region of Novosibirsk. The Kossaks and their 24-year-old son John had eagerly accepted.

The promise had proved to be no more than that. There was no house or farm awaiting them in Novosibirsk. and as for the orchard, that would be planted some time during the current seven-year plan which ends in 1965.

The chorus was only a record

Disillusioned, the Kossaks had made their way back to Moscow and sought help from the Canadian embassy. But the embassy could do nothing. The Soviet authorities refused the Kossaks an exit permit to return to Canada. They had been shuttled from government department to government department in what John Kossak described as "as big a job of buck-passing as you ever could imagine.”

Finally in desperation the Kossaks had agreed to be sent to Zhiznomira, where lived their only relative in the Soviet Union.

"That Naumenko!" cried Mrs. Kossak bitterly. "If I could only get my hands on him . . ."

Naumenko. 1 had met the man. Ivan S. Naumenko, second secretary of the Soviet embassy in Ottaw'a, was the man in charge of the campaign to persuade Canadian-Ukrainians to return to their homelands. He was a persuasive talker and writer of letters that painted beautiful pictures of life in the Soviet Union — and a great maker of unfulfilled promises. He had spoken to me before 1 left Canada. He had not mentioned repatriation, hut had urged me to "go and sec our wonderful country and decide for yourself."

When the Kossaks reached Ternopol on their way to Zhiznomira they

had received an ironical welcome—a special broadcast from the collective village directed at them. Their stonemason relative made a speech in which he congratulated the Kossaks for "breathing the air of freedom for the first time in forty years.” The program concluded with songs from "Zhiznomira’s 200-voice chorus."

"Hell.” said John Kossak. "there aren't a hundred people here. It was a recording.”

As I walked back to Buchach along the wagon track, I thanked God that I wasn't in the same situation as the Kossaks.

At the house there was a letter for me—a letter that thoroughly frightened me. It was from my sister in Toronto. The family, she said, had received a letter from the Soviet embassy in Ottawa urging them to apply for repatriation to the Ukraine.

"Now that your son Walter is happily settled there," the letter added, "we think it w'ould be wonderful if the family were reunited in their pros-" porous homeland. You have no doubt also heard favorably from your son."

They had not heard from me. None of the five letters I had written from Buchach—none of which would have persuaded them to leave Canadá—had been delivered.

I knew now what I had to do—and fast. 1 had to get to Moscow, to the Canadian embassy. First, to send a cable to my parents telling them not to think of leaving Canada; second, to get an, exit permit for myself.

I knew I was taking a big risk in leaving Buchach without permission, but 1 had no intention of going to the militia captain with any request that would tip him off to my plan. And when I thought of the unhappy Kossaks the risk of leaving Buchach illegally seemed trivial in comparison with the risk of doing nothing and perhaps letting my family get into the same mess as the Kossaks.

I told only one friend of my plan. He lent me a long coat that reached almost to my ankles and concealed the narrow-cut Canadian trousers that made me conspicuous among people who w'ore wide, flapping trousers. We went down to the Buchach bus depot in time to catch the night bus. He bought my ticket, and seconds before the bus left I whipped off his coat, he gave me the ticket, and I swung aboard as the bus started down the road to Ternopol and the Moscow train. ★

First of two parts.