THE MANY WORLDS OF SOVIET RUSSIA
An editor of the United Church Observer spent five weeks in Russia. traveling from Moscow to Siberia to Central Asia. Here's what he saw and heard in a once-closed world, where tough-minded inquiring people live with the past—and the twist
IT IS eight o'clock of a warm Moscow evening and I am strolling with a young Russian and his girl friend. They are taking me to a jazz concert in Sokolniki Recreation Park. We pay the equivalent of $1.75, give our tickets to an old lady and sit on one of the green benches in a long corridor of poplars. There must be two thousand people here.
The orchestra, from East Berlin, is already playing the opening piece. It is Begin The Beguine. A young man in front of us leans over and says, “The Fascists were better.” He means the West German orchestra which drew ten thousand a couple of months ago. Now' Blue Moon floats through the clearing and then The Lady Is A Tramp. They play a Yugoslav piece and the crowd talks all through it.
But then they announce another American number and the applause is like heavy rain. It stops instantly as the first notes drift over the silent crowd. People lean forward. An old man beside me places an arm on his wife’s shoulder. She is dabbing her eyes. The piece is Rhapsody In Blue.
After intermission the male vocalist appears in a green cowboy suit and sings in German. His only English line is, “I’m a rootin tootin cowboy man . . . ” They encore him twice. Then, just across the aisle.
a fight breaks out. A loud drunk is annoying a man in front of him who has just turned around and hit him in the mouth. They stand up swinging, but no one else even looks. For a pretty girl has just started singing Over The Rainbow.
Then the leader makes his best-received announcement. He will play Glen Miller. The girl beside me says, “Maybe they play my favoreet. The Chattanooga. Tell me, the Chattanooga, what is it?” I explain and in a few minutes they play it. Then it is time for the final piece. The Peppermint Twist. As the first notes sound, hundreds of teen-agers pour down the aisles and start twisting.
We get up to leave. It is 10.30, but a flicker of light is still in the sky, for summer nights are long in Moscow. We ride the Metro back to The Metropole Hotel and I ask them in for food. But they say no, they must go home. I thank them and watch them walk off. The girl is snapping her fingers sofdy and singing Chattanooga Choo Choo.
Next morning, since I leave for Siberia in five days, I check arrangements. The Service Bureau (the name of Intourist's office in each hotel) is jammed as usual and I am learning a basic rule for travel in the Soviet Union: never rush. The eight women behind the desks are studiously
impersonal, yet never hostile. Eventually I find one free and present a voucher, certifying I have paid in Canada for a flight to Siberia. She takes it, records it and advises that a car will pick me up three hours in advance.
In the afternoon, I go to a funeral with my guide Valentina. She is a twenty-one-year-old student at Moscow University. Her hair is dyed red, and she wears it in a bouffant style. When I smile and say it is nice to see Russian girls wearing Western styles, she neither stiffens nor smiles, but says simply, “It is the way our mothers wore their hair.” She comes as part of Intourist's Deluxe plan. For thirty dollars a day,
1 get an excellent suite at the Metropole, three meals and afternoon tea, plus a guide, car and driver for three hours.
The funeral to which we go is for Samuel Marshak, Russia's Hans Christian Andersen. He is also world renowned for his translations of
Shakespeare and Robert Burns. But it is as a storyteller tor children that he is mourned. “1 miss him in my heart.” says Valentina, "for I have known his stories since I am five years.”
We are standing inside the gate of the cemetery, which is beside Novo-Devichii convent. The eulogies have been given by Marshak's friends in The Writers’ Union. His body has lain in their hall for two days in a casket that cost fifteen dollars. It is a sweltering day and hundreds of people line the black walks of the cemetery. 1 he elite of Moscow lie here, their pictures permanently set in the shiny stones above their graves. "See them," says Valentina, “they are great people. I hey died unafraid and needed no God to take them to another life.”
Now the procession is coming in the gate. First the flower bearers carrying wreaths as large as themselves. All have red streamers. Now here is his family, all of them weeping loudly and openly. 1 hen the lid of the casket, carried by six young men. It is scarlet red. Now. on the shoulders of his friends, his wide grey face swaying slightly, comes the poet. Valentina is weeping. A woman lifts a little boy to see, but she cries so much she cannot hold him. The band is playing The Internationale. The musicians finish and march away. The militia clear the cemetery quickly and the children's poet is left to the soil.
i STAY in Moscow another few days and Valentina takes me to parks, museums, stores, libraries, and to the Metro.
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“In America,” the Russian told me, “they say, ‘Go west, young man. Here it is, ‘Go east!’ ”
Moscow's subw a y. As wc walk, Valentina talks about Canada. She has heard of the great unemployment here, she says, and of the plight of young doctors. "They must work for older doctors, who wall exploit them."
All wealthy people arc inhuman, she says. Except John Kennedy. "Tell me,” she is saying, "you do not think Mrs. Kennedy will remarry, do you? She must not.” She talks for a long time about the assassination and tells me how the university closed that day since no one could do any work. "I could not keep from crying. It was his face. His kind of person is as rare as thunder beneath the sun.”
She does not want me to photograph old people. Whenever I try she laughs and puts her hands in front of the camera. “You should take pictures of the young,” she says, “with the look of expectancy upon their faces. That is the new Russia people want to see.” I reply that I have done so. but want the old as well. "We do not understand each other,” she replies, "not until the day of socialism will we truly understand each other.”
She is deeply shocked that I am a believer in God. “And you are so young,” she gasps. "How can you?" And she begins to tease me gently. If a church door is locked she will say, "The God has come out of the sky and done it. He is mad at you for being with a Communist.” And one day after my prolonged defense of capitalism, she puts her head in her hands and shouts, "My God, my God, will you stop such foolish talk! You must be sick in the head."
Then one morning at six I drive to the airport and leave for Siberia. There are only seven passengers, though the plane seats more than fifty. Just as 1 enter, a young man with a dark ascetic face hears my
English and invites me to join him. He is a writer on his way to see the rivers of Siberia.
It is four thousand miles from east to west in Siberia, he says, and the temperature can slide to eighty below. We peer at the immense terrifying geography and he wonders if 1 know that beneath it is a world of oil and gold. It is, he says, the frontier. "In America," he laughs, "they say, 'Go west, young man.' Here it is. 'Go east, young man!’ Over three million people have done so.”
His English is refined, though like most Russians he keeps apologizing that it isn't better. As we eat. he begins talking about Thurber, Mailer and Jack Kerouac, whose book The Dharma Bums he carries. He wanted to translate Salinger into Russian he says, but someone had already begun. One of his friends is now doing John Updike and he talks eagerly of Updike's style. “He learned it from The New Yorker." The stewardess joins us for meals and that evening after dinner, we help her wash the cutlery. An officer walks by and, seeing me putting away the spoons, laughs, takes off his hat and puts it on my head.
MY GUIDE in Siberia is a fifty-threeyear-old war veteran with sandy hair and a tiny mustache, named Leonid. He has a grade-seven education and studied English as a hobby ten years ago while working at the local airport. On dull evenings he listened to the BBC and took a correspondence course from Moscow' University. He lives with his wife in one room in the centre of Irkutsk, a city with a half million people and the capital of Western Siberia. They share a kitchen and bath wdth a four-member family beside them. He spends the wunter reading English novels — mainly by Drieser, Steinbeck and Sherwood Anderson. And he has many old copies of the Reader's Digest. “It is a wee bit reactionary in its politics, but the stories on medicine — very good."
We are together a week and they are the best days I spend in Russia. The air is warm and light — Irkutsk
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is about the same latitude as Saskatoon — and Leon is an excellent companion. Though the city is three thousand miles east of Moscow, it is more like the West than any part of the Soviet Union. There is less chill in the air and less rust in the machinery. Siberians laugh easily. Most Muscovites deny secret policemen are even around, but in Siberia they laugh about it and say, “Yes, but not so many anymore.”
The ballet is in town from AlmaAta performing Swan Lake; the repertory theatre is in rehearsal for next week's performance of Hamlet; and the local cinema is showing Secrets Of Paris, starring Jean Marie. Canvas canoes are selling for $190 and a winter Siberian overcoat with lamb collar and cuffs is going for $225. Here is a long queue of people at a meat store buying chicken for three dollars a kilogram, or about two pounds.
Just past a golden-domed Orthodox church — one of two still left from the city's forty-four — is 25th Of October St., its wooden houses looking as though they came from a fairy tale. They are covered with fretwork and their tiny lace-curtained windows are filled with tin cans out of w'hich leap daisies and geraniums.
Just behind the street is the Central Park Of Culture And Rest. There is a dance floor, mechanical swings and statues of poets in beds of pansies. Leon explains that it was once a cemetery. "But the authorities took the headstones and turned them into the front for public buildings. Very beautiful.” We stop at the Orthodox Cathedral and a little boy, w'ho says his father is a priest, runs to call him. He is the best-paid man I shall meet anywhere in Russia. I ask his salary and he tells me it is five hundred rubles a month — about six hundred dollars — all paid, of course, by the state. Some is for his work as a priest, some for leading the choir, and some for managing the candle factory. Who uses the candles? "The church.” How often does he go to the factory? "Not much.” Is he embarrassed at so much money when his people are often old pensioners? “No, I pay taxes.” Leon looks at me and says, “Too much money. I get a hundred rubles. It is plenty.”
ONE DAY, I rise early and we go to Listvyanka, a village in the hills by Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake. About fifteen hundred people live here in huts, with backyards sweeping up into mountains w'hich eventually are tipped with unmelting snow. 1 point to a house and ask Leon if we might go in. He raps and an old lady welcomes us. The kitchen is about six feet square, the other two rooms smaller. The house is immaculate.
She pours us a drink of Baikal water, which is the best I've ever tasted. We talk awhile and she says she is living here with her son and his wife. We thank her and w-alk on up the hill, from where the lake looks like a piece of spun glass. It is fed by no fewer than 336 springs and rivers, and so clear is it, that even in winter the bottom can be seen through the ice in places.
It is evening when we leave and almost time to return to the city.
But I want to see the priest of the little church before 1 go. We wander through the back streets, over old bicycle tires, tin cans and leather mitts. Then we see the church. It is orange and white and is enveloped in pines. An old lady goes next door and summons the priest. He is very old and limps badly from bombs that fell on the Ukraine. He tells me that ten percent of the villagers attend. There is a dish with last Sunday’s offering. There are thirteen kopeks, about fifteen cents. We talk, he asks me to kneel for a blessing, and then as 1 turn to leave he begins to weep. Leon is embarrassed. The old man is saying something and I ask Leon what it is. "He wants you to remember that even when church bells ring softly, they still ring.”
i ELY back to Moscow, stay a couple of days and then begin my journey through Central Asia. The land around Alma-Ata, where 1 shall start is fretted with mountains. From the air, they break everywhere, range after range, eventually diminishing into low' hills and the brown flat farmlands of Russia's Texas, the republic of Kazakhstan. Here — so close to China, that Mao Tse-tung includes it on his map — is the city of Alma-Ata, which means Father Of Apples. Some of its apples weigh tw'o pounds each.
In the mid-fifties, the population was 330,000; now it is 600,000. Its houses peek out through front yards green with apple, apricot and cherry trees. Along the broad streets children swim in irrigation furrows w'hich bring fertility to the land and coolness to the air. Outside the city tractors burrow into the earth, reborn w'ith water from the soaring Mountains Of Heaven which tower over the city. Herdsmen in the sheltered plains arc leading their flocks from pasture to pasture. I drive past them to AlmaAta’s Pioneer Camp.
Here, hid between green hills are 325 children, nine to fourteen. They are the youngsters of the city's railway workers and this is their month at camp. The director, a greying middle-aged man, says the monthly cost for each one is about forty dollars. “But most is paid by the union." We have lunch with them and then they perform songs, and dances. One song is about the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp and how little children should be on their guard. Behind them is a wall-size mural of Lenin, his hand upon the head of a child. They finish and we walk through one of their dormitories. Above the tiny beds are posters. I ask my interpreter to explain them. They read, “The Victory of Communism is Inevitable.”
THREE DAYS later 1 fly westward to Tashkent, the capital of the Republic of Uzbekistan and for all purposes the unofficial capital of Central Asia. This is the richest of all fifteen republics, mostly because of cotton, but also through steel, oil and coal. There is an air of business at the airport. A man is saying good-by to two glamorous women. They are, I am told, Moscow movie stars. My hotel is The Hotel Tashkent, a rectangular building like all the rest, but this time there is a square where hundreds mill in the
evenings, sitting beside the fountain, or walking slowly beneath the trees.
Three of us — my interpreter, a local journalist who speaks English and I — dine that evening in the rooftop restaurant. Most of the people are tourists from Moscow. We talk of the republic and I begin to sense how all over the Soviet Union people of the republics have strong provincial loyalties. I recall the reporter who came to my room that afternoon. His first question w'as not, what do 1 think of the Soviet Union, but what do l think of Uzbekistan?
The journalist at the table asks if 1 realize there are 212 newspapers in the Republic. Do I know' that Uzbek and Russian are both compulsory for school children: that 40 years ago only one Uzbek had a college degree in Tashkent and now there are 35 institutions of higher learning in the republic?
In the square far below, the crowd is thinning. It is almost midnight and the fountain is turned off. Suddenly, the squeak of a trolley drifts up from the distance and Kactha. the interpreter, stares soberly in its direction and asks, “1 wonder if the trolleys in San Francisco squeak that way?" She has never been there, but longs to go.
Next day I meet with several journalists at the local Press Club — this one in the government building. They are cordial, though not exactly unpredictable. They want to adjourn to go to a football game and one takes me along. Tashkent is playing Lithuania and there are sixty thousand jammed into the stadium.
THF. FLIGHT to the remote city of Bokhara is in a two-motor plane over baked and lonely desert. Once or tw'ice I see an encampment in the chocolate plain below. Then toward the west, shimmering in the heat, is Bokhara, where Alexander the Great once wrestled a lion and whose monuments Marco Polo called “flowers of stone," and w'hcrc slaves were sold until 1920.
We land in a dusty field. There is a deep silence over the land. When 1 put up at the Hotel Bokhara, my door won’t shut, unless it is hooked. The tiles in the bathroom across the hall are in a heap on the floor and the walls are chipped and paint is peeling. It must, I think, be as old as the city, and some archeologists talk in terms of five thousand years. So I ask. It was built in 1959.
Outside, Bokharians sit watching the tourists, for in such a remote city they are still worth a look. We sit in a tiny park. Women walk by, many wearing the khalat, a national dress of flaming rcd-and-ycllow stripes. Men wear the national skullcap or tibiteika. Others are simply in shirtsleeves.
The next day is the Jewish sabbath and I am anxious to go to the synagogue. for Bokhara is the secondoldest continuing Jewish communityin the world, after Baghdad. Of the ninety thousand population there are seven thousand Jews. There are twenty-six men at the service, a couple of them over a hundred; the rest over eighty, except for one teen-ager. The synagogue is a dreary memento of a great past, when Bokhara was the re-
ligious light of Asia. Now the walls are cracked, the colors are bleached and the service drones. A few men doze. The rabbi reads from torn, curled scriptures. I ask him how his work is going and he shrugs, “Can't you see?"
Once there were a hundred religious colleges here, now there is one. Once there were four hundred mosques, now there are three. The sites they show me are not reminders of religion, but of conquest. There is the Death
Pit where people were thrown to the snakes as late as 1860; there is the Tower of Death with its 105 steps, once used to call people to prayer, then to execute the condemned. There is a stork's nest on top of it now and as 1 stare at it, I can hear the noise from the market where the slaves were sold. Now children run through it and craftsmen shout their wares. And over it all sounds the clip clip of the hammer as workmen build another rectangular apartment in this old
world of mosques and minarets where once the loudest sound was the call to prayer.
BUT IT is in Samarkand that 1 find the past lying most heavily upon the land. The Russians have been kind to its history. Its spiked minarets prick the sky and the domes of its mosques float like blue bubbles in a blue sea.
It is 110 when 1 land but I walk the streets anyway, for even its name, Samarkand, entrances me. Perfume
drifts from every syllable. I ask what it means, but no one is certain. There are two hundred thousand people here. Uzbeks, Russians, Armenians and Jews. Most — in fact, seventy percent — are Uzbeks. I wander through the Shahezande, a street of stairs beside which are thirteen small mosques and tombs. Even I, who am seldom moved by antiquities, am deeply touched, staring at work that goes back to the eighth century. They are covered with mosaics, their tiles, white, coral, yellow and sea blue.
Many old customs still obtain in Samarkand and if they do not collide with Soviet intent, they flourish. At funerals, only the men attend as in Moslem tradition. And at weddings, the parents officiate at both, one at the bride's home, the other at the groom's. It was here that women first wore the Moslem veil, though 1 saw none in sight.
The most moving sight of all was the tomb of Tamerlane himself. When he died of fever in battle at seventy, he held sway over a slice of the earth from Mongolia to the Danube. Upon his coffin are inscribed the words, “If I w'cre alive now, mankind would tremble.” Yet cheek by jowl with such antiquity are the tools of modernity. Trucks lumber past the mausoleums and the skyline is part mosque, part modern apartment.
One night I find a park filled with young people with their own orchestra. I ask them to play Moscow Nights, but language gets in the way. and they play In The Mood. A young man with too much Vodka keeps shouting. “I love Canadians.” A crowd of a hundred gathers and they shout for me to start twisting. A policeman tries to quell them but one boy takes him by the arm, sits him on a bench and tells him to stay there. He does. They keep shouting, "Tweest. tw'eest.” I am embarrassed for I'm not sure how. Finally 1 oblige and there, amid the ruins of the magic city. I do a decadent dance of the West and the crowd yells its approval.
i AM on my way to the Republic of Tadzhikistan and the air becomes colder and a grey mist veils the mountains which hold the city of Dushanbeh in their palm. Ninety-three percent of the republic is mountainous and their tips are dusted with permanent snow. This is a new city — only forty years old in October — and the apartments are the most attractive I
have seen. Instead of the soapy yellow' that prevails everywhere else, the Tadzhiks have tried grey with panels of red and blue.
My guide has arranged a meeting with more journalists and we walk to the publishing house where there are twelve present. The talk lasts for more than an hour and, as in Uzbekistan, they seem most interested, not in my impressions of their country, but of their republic. When they talk of Canada, one man asks. "Have you been in Pugwash? We are informed of Pugwash Conference and Cyrus Eaton.” We talk of penology and I say I am against the death penalty. But I am alone. "If a man steals a hundred rubles here he will be shot,” says one. "We believe it is better to shoot him than hang him. More humane.” I ask where their prisoners are. but as in Siberia and elsew'here, they say they don’t know. I notice one woman, who speaks perfect English. She is writing dow'n all my questions.
1 drive back to my hotel in the grey Asian darkness. The next day I fly the twenty-five hundred miles back to Moscow.
ON ONE of my last nights, I go to the Moscow Baptist Church, an obscure yellow' building on a dreary back street. The service is already underway and the church is packed. An usher takes me to the gallery and an old man with a white handlebar moustache gets up and insists I take his seat. It is the visitors’ pew, he explains, and he moves to sit on the stairway.
Below me. people are standing four deep in the aisles. The door at the side is open and at least 50 people are on the sidewalk singing with the congregation. The church has 4.700 members and between January and March added 140 new ones. 15 percent of them under 30. Three ministers preach and as they do. people make notes, sometimes exchanging pencils.
Then, it is time for the last hymn. It is to be the most moving of all my experiences in Russia. Halfway through the hymn, as if on cue, hundreds of people turn their heads upward to the pew where I sit. They wave their handkerchiefs, some weep, others throw kisses as they sing. The sound is deafening and I do not know the hymn. Then the usher leans over and shouts in my ear. They are singing. he says, God Be With Yon Till We Meet Again. ★