Memoir on Communism

The following is a short memoir I wrote for my mom regarding our trip across Russia during the Cold War when the Iron Curtain was still up. For those who think Communism or Socialism is great, here is a bit of reality from the perspective of an American Family in Communist Russia.

Train Ride through Tyranny.

It was June of 1970. The Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union was ongoing. My husband, Don Moline, and I, with our three children, had just completed three years of service at the Okinawa Christian School in Okinawa, Japan. We were preparing to leave for the US. But Don had a dream – to circle the globe.The journey had begun when we left Michigan for Okinawa aboard the SS President Wilson. Now his plan was to return by way of the Soviet Union and Europe, then across the Atlantic Ocean to New York. This was not an impulsive idea. The Asian travel agency had assured him that there was little danger to American tourists. After all, they had money to spend, and wasn’t that the bottom line?

It was a tired old albatross of a ship that carried us from Japan to the Siberian port city of Nakhodka in the most southeastern corner of the Soviet Union, not too many miles from the border with China. We met our tourist guide in a small cafe there. He was to assist us on our trip across the continent (disguised surveillance). He had just graduated from the University of Moscow with majors in English and history, and he had been assigned this summer job. He was going to be teaching in the fall. We asked where he would be going. “I don’t know,” he replied. “I do not choose; the government will tell me.” I am afraid our faces showed a bit of shock, which in turn embarrassed him. We realized we needed to be more guarded in our responses.

Almost immediately we were directed to the train which was to take us to the airport in Vladivostok for the flight to Moscow. Regulations regarding train stations were strict, no photos of the depots or any railroad crossings were permitted. The view from the train windows were like scenes from Old West movies – small wooden houses, horse-drawn farm equipment, no paved roads, a few small villages set in a sparse, bleak landscape.

If regulations for travel by train were strict, those for air travel were even more stringent. We were instructed not to leave the holding area that we were herded into. We were also informed that even Soviet citizens were not allowed to travel farther than seven miles from home without a government permit.

Moscow greeted us with dismal, cold rain. We were directed to an ancient noisy bus and transported to a large hotel in the downtown area. Once a magnificent edifice from the time of the Czars, it was now only a shadow of its former self. Threadbare carpeting, faded drapes, and sparse furniture spoke loudly of hard times. People on the streets were generally shabbily dressed in mostly dark colors. They were not friendly – you did not see them congregating on the streets laughing and talking. This was discouraged by the ever-present military personnel (couldn’t risk an uprising you know).

We visited the usual tourist attractions – the enormous Red Square, the ornate, towering cathedrals and palaces of the past, the Grand Circus, The Children’s Theatre, and the only real store (by our standards) the GUM Department Store. The problem with that was that the ordinary citizen could not afford its products, nor were they in plentiful supply. The real markets were small family stalls where people waited in long lines to purchase daily necessities. Another evidence of underlying poverty was the city zoo. That set of wire cages would have been immediately shut down in the US. For most animals the cages were far too small and there seemed to be no effort to create any resemblance to their natural habitats.

During our stay in Moscow, I had an opportunity to try out the healthcare system. I had a bronchial infection and was very congested. The state-operated clinic was on the second floor of a very plain older building almost devoid of any of the amenities that would make it a welcoming place. The woman doctor spoke little English so she communicated with pictures of the body. I was to point to the picture that indicated where the problem was, even though I thought it was rather obvious without any pictures. However, better safe than sorry. I was given a bottle of some type of powder to sniff. No charge, but no opportunity for a second opinion if needed. The powder did help to a limited extent.

On the fourth day in Moscow we boarded a bus which would take us to the city of Kiev (capital city of the Ukraine) to connect with a train that would eventually take us to Austria, a non-Communist country. It was here the tyranny referred to in the title of this account became frightfully apparent. The train station was crowded with people and trains – people who spoke another language and trains with unreadable (to us) destinations. We showed our tickets to passers-by but all they would do is say “Nyet” (no). We joined the long line at the ticket window but time was running out. Finally, in desperation Don jumped up and down yelling, “I need help!” Immediately the police were there, hustling us off to the proper train. The rules of etiquette seem to be that people should not assert themselves and disturb the sense of order and routine.

All the trains were the green color of the old Pullmans of the mid-1900s in the US. Some had compartments with bunk beds that folded down into seats. We had one of those. Soon after we boarded, the officers came. They examined everything we had carried on. They wanted to know why we had so many Bibles (each of us had our own) probably guessing we were Bible smugglers. I had a book I was in the process of reading which they considered propaganda. We were under suspicion. I noted that one of the inspectors showed an interest in a Pogo cartoon book and a math book I had. I offered them to him and suddenly our inspection was over.

As we neared the Czechoslovakian border an interesting phenomenon occurred. Our train car was raised up and new wheels placed under it. The tracks for the Soviet trains are a different width than the European ones and to be able to continue, the wheels had to be changed. When we crossed the border there were new inspections. The military police lined the tracks with their dogs and guns as we pulled into the border check point. They searched the roofs of the cars, the undersides, the insides. They even insisted on taking my purse (allowing me to keep a bit of money) and it was not returned until we arrived at Prague.

That was only the beginning. We were the only Americans in that car (and perhaps on the entire train) so the Military Police requested quite firmly that Don leave the car – not moving yet – and go with them to a small building some yards away. He was gone for about ten minutes when the train began revving up its engine. This time I went into action. “This train is not leaving without my husband,” I shouted to anyone who would listen. There were numerous Germany-bound passengers who kept repeating, “Hab kein angst,” have no fear, but they also had their noses pressed against the window panes with anxious faces.

As the train began to move we spotted Don running desperately towards the still open car door. Just as it seemed he wouldn’t make it, two of the men reached out that door and pulled him up. Thank the Lord for these Good Samaritans! During that brief interrogation in that little shed Don was accused of having a faulty passport. Don’s reply was that it must be legal; their government had issued it. After a bit more harassment they let him go, but invalidated a permit he had to stay overnight in Prague, the capitol of Czechoslovakia.

In the meantime, Czech soldiers had entered one of the forward cars for the change-over. After we had crossed the border into their country they came to our car and again Don was requested to leave with military officers. This time he came back with a different story. The Czechs called on him in order to apologize for the behavior of the Russians who had also overrun their country. “We love Nixon,” they said. “We love America.”

The brief stop in Prague was very revealing as well. Russian soldiers, dogs, and rifles where everywhere. A man selling flowers in the train station told us his story. After the Russian take-over he determined to get his son out of the country. He was the owner of a large manufacturing company and got permission to do business in Vienna, Austria. On some pretense he managed to get permission for his son to accompany him. He came back, but his son did not. His son went to America and at that time was attending MIT. The father’s factory was confiscated and he was permitted only this flower stand in the railroad station. “I will never see my son again,” he said. “But he is free! He is free!”

We were now in the last segment of our journey through tyranny – Prague to Vienna. We had found the praises of Lenin coming through the loud speakers at railroad stations and public places rather depressing. So had many of the Czech citizenry. On that train an elderly woman who had lived in her country when it was still free suddenly clapped her hands over her ears and screamed, “I can’t take it anymore. They took everything from me – everything.” Soon soldiers came, opened up her suitcase, rifled through it and scattered its contents. Total desecration of human dignity.

A few hours later we crossed the border into Austria – no inspections, no interrogations, no military police or dogs. Just the precious breath of freedom! There was only one moment more overwhelming than this – the sight of the Statue of Liberty as we flew over New York Harbor. That lady in the harbor spoke not only of freedom, but of HOME!

As my brother and I reviewed this story, we remembered some things that struck us enough at the time to be remembered years later. My brother recalls the Russians offering our father vodka, my mother remembered this also when my brother brought the incident up. Neither of them could remember if he actually took a drink or not, however at that time it would have been offensive to turn down an offer of Russian vodka.

As for myself, I have always remembered the changing of the train’s gauge so it could finish the journey on different size tracks. I clearly recall laying on the top bunk in the train car and watching the men work. One of the guards noticed this and came in and we were told that we could not watch. We were not allowed to look out the window at all.

I also remember the small, dirty cages at the zoo as my mother has previously mentioned. The conditions were not fit for such large animals. The things that struck me the most was Red Square, the Kremlin, and most of all, St. Basil’s Cathedral. What a contrast here. St. Basil’s Cathedral was very colorful and had accents and highlights of real gold, while the Russian people and most of Russia seemed drab and colorless.

Lastly, I have never gotten the smell of the sea out of my system. Any time I am near water and ships I recall the voyage from Japan to Russia by ship. That smell sticks with you. I can see why sailors love the sea, there is just something about the smell of sea that you cannot describe. It has to be experienced.