By David Chorlton
In 1971, when I still lived in England, I realized the Soviet Union was accessible for just over one hundred English pounds. So, filled with curiosity and an appetite for the exotic, I boarded an Aeroflot flight with the ambition of seeing the May Day Parade firsthand.
Freedom can be boring. I'm nostalgic for those dull men in their overcoats who used to stand on Lenin's tomb and salute red flags. I miss their square-jawed dedication to order and their thick eyebrows. Mostly, I miss knowing that I'm a visa away from being able to visit enemy territory and feel the crackle in my nervous system when everything around me is strange.
There was an undeniable attraction in visiting the USSR, and it amounted to more than the luscious exchange rate. It was that cold splash of someone else's reality that began when the Aeroflot plane descended over a thin layer of snow and birch forests. It was the feel of thin pages in the writings of Marx and Lenin available in every conceivable language at Moscow airport, it was the unsmiling attention of the official who hammered a stamp onto a page of my passport, and it was the adventure of ascetic tourism that only a trip behind the Iron Curtain could provide.
How wonderfully tense was the bus ride through the suburbs to the Hotel Bukarest, and how intimidating was the greeting from our Intourist guide back in 1971 when I spent a mere one hundred English pounds to experience three Soviet cities in all their sub-zero glory. The skies were bleak, but the streets were red with May Day decorations and illustrated by the massive paint-by-number profiles of the men who designed communism. The hotel buffet wilted beneath artificial lighting and each meal was measured to the gram but served with military precision intended to impress. Meanwhile, across Red Square, the interminable line of pilgrims braved all weather to view the embalmer's craft and the comrade of all comrades. It was impossible not to be moved by such dedication, or to ignore the fact that we lived in a world built on differences.
Stay in your groups and don't talk to strangers, Miss Intourist intoned as we spooned the last of our desserts. Being either too headstrong or too na´ve to take orders from our designated supervisor, I spent those few days wandering alone in out-of-the-way streets with a guide book I couldn't read. Whenever I was lost, I stopped a Moscovite and pointed at a picture of whichever landmark I wanted see. The language of hands was enough to lead me back on track. But even in my shabby corduroy coat, I could not be anonymous. My westerner's shoes made it obvious that I was visiting from far away, and this drew the attention of dealers in the exotic who wanted to buy my jeans and pajamas at what seemed to be wildly inflated prices. Being a bad capitalist, I never sold them.
Inconvenience only added to my pleasures. After all, this was somebody else's system I had come here to enjoy and I had to put up with it for twelve days rather than endure poor service as a life sentence. First I stood in line to select the type of cheese I wanted for lunch, then I stood in line again to pay for it. Finally, I stood in line again to pick it up. What a wonderful lesson in patience, I thought, and how refreshing to see people reading novels while they did their shopping. Cold War be damned, one had to admire a system that built character.
At twenty-three, I still refused to allow politics to define my world view. So fearlessly did I tread those frozen pavements that even when a policeman pulled me up for crossing a yellow line inside the Kremlin, I accepted his attentions as being just more local color. He waved me on with a wag of his finger and stood back at attention. The long streets seemed to harbor thunder. No advertisements interrupted the flow of stone that had a certain aesthetic. Here was a world with something other than buying and selling on its mind. A harsh world it may have been, but it was so different from the one I had come from that I thrilled at its chill obedience to necessity.
Then came the May Day Parade and a red spectacle of rippling linen. When it was over, there was the Bolshoi and a concert. Russians in the audience liked to spot foreigners and hug them. They gave us little red badges and their gestures said We don't want to bomb you; that's all a big show. Of course, once in our seats we were no longer under the control of Miss Intourist whose job it was to subject us to her own version of the glorious revolution in bad English. It would have been the supreme attraction to share glasses of reckless vodka with more real people at their local bars, but bars did not exist. A jovial Irishman from my tour group joined me on an extensive search for local drinking atmosphere, and the only bars were in hotels where the only drinkers were boring foreigners like us.
My fearless state of mind led me to accept an invitation from strangers who took me, along with an extravagantly dressed Canadian architect, in a taxi to a forbidden corner of the city where we entered a creaking elevator and ended up in an apartment where our hosts offered a deal on icons. Five dollars a panel. This was the only time I felt any apprehension, and the thought of the customs officials fumbling through my suitcase full of underwear and finding icons kept me on the straight and narrow. I declined. We were delivered back to Hotel Bukarest in good shape with the satisfaction that we'd penetrated a Soviet home despite Miss Intourist's stern commands.
How could I not feel nostalgic for this experience? It is one I can never return to. How could I have known that the harsh Russia I saw was really the bride waiting to marry her capitalist groom when the time was right? I wonder whether I could summon the same carefree attitude to brave the commercial version of Mother Russia. Going to Leningrad was so much more exciting than going to Saint Petersburg. I like the idea of getting away from the constant barrage of selling for a while, even if it means there will be only one flavor of everything and all the milk is sour. Variety, goes the old adage, is the spice of life, and the lack of it was the absolute spice of communist life. We were happy to be there as long as we knew we could come back with our selective memories and suitcases weighted down with inexpensive art books and twelve-inch discs of Tchaikovsky recordings. I still have those, but I somehow managed to lose the quaint little books in their myriad languages.
David Chorlton's bio: "I grew up in Manchester, England, and lived there until late 1971. For seven more years I called Vienna, Austria, home until 1978 when I moved to Arizona, my wife's home state. My time here has been divided between painting and writing. I have two books and several chapbooks of poetry, and a growing interest in extending my range to include essays."