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The Russians Move West

May 2024
4min read

Early in January, as I roamed the shopping mall, a "50% off” sign caught my eye. Stacked on the counter was a pile of small gray boxes. They held souvenir pieces of the now-defunct Berlin Wall. These innocent objects jerked me back to the closest I ever came to being trapped on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

In July 1961 we were driving east from Prague in a new Peugeot crammed with a month’s luggage for the four of us, my husband and I and another couple from our home university in Virginia. We were headed for Moscow and the International Congress of Biochemistry, one of the first postwar scientific meetings held in the U.S.S.R. A brash sense of adventure kindled our chatter as we sped over the Czech countryside toward the Soviet border that fair summer day.

For months we had been filling out visa applications and preparing to submit our exact thirty-day itinerary based on an Intourist map showing only those hotels and gas stations serving foreigners. Of course we didn’t want to waste a minute, since we hoped to justify the hours of planning and steep cost by seeing as much as possible on our preconference side trip to the Crimea and the long drive through the Ukraine to the capital. It was all there on our Intourist outline, perfectly clear.

Just at twilight we cleared the border, and then we drove on to Lvov, grateful to reach our plain but adequate rooms for a good night’s sleep before an early start in the morning. The next stopover was Kiev, more than three hundred miles down the road, and we had been told that travel on the two-lane highways crowded with trucks would be slow. So we rose early, took a light breakfast of tea and bread to bypass the glacial service in the dining room, and headed for the desk to reclaim our passports.

None of us liked giving up our sole proof of identity in this strange land to a nameless clerk, but we had no choice. Lifting our passports gave Intourist total control of our movements. That morning they gave us a sample of their power when the desk clerk refused us our documents. We appealed to the Intourist office on the second floor as fast as our legs could take us there. Nyet was the reply. Our arguments brought only absurd excuses.

Finally our party returned to the overstuffed chairs of the lounge. What a blow! All those demands for an exact itinerary, and now Intourist was wrecking the plan on our first day in the U.S.S.R. We groused for about an hour and then agreed to break out the bridge deck. It was now nearly lunchtime, and we had no idea where else we could eat except right there in the hotel. Maybe after lunch. . . .

Inducing the only waiter to bring us some token nourishment consumed nearly two hours. Though the menu took up a good five pages, we soon learned that there was only one dish for lunch that day—a greasy meat patty and some cast-iron french fries. But finally black bread and sliced tomatoes emerged from the kitchen. After devouring these, we stormed the Intourist office again.

The Intourist staff must have found us slow learners. We got no passports, no explanations, and no idea how long we would stay in Lvov. My husband, Bruce, and I decided to get some exercise by walking around the block and checking on our car parked in the street. Our friends agreed to call us just as soon as there was any news.

Outside we scanned the curb for our shiny new Peugeot. All we could see was a crowd of nearly thirty people bunched near the spot. Bruce and I stared at each other, wondering what would happen to us without either passports or a car.

Then the crowd parted to let a fellow crawling on his hands and knees stand up. We caught sight of the bright green fender of our Peugeot. Suddenly we knew—they were all staring at the car, this marvel from afar, with its sun roof, its streamlined design, and its bright paint. It was one of the first Western cars to come through, the vanguard of what would become a wave of tourists tasting the exotic, long-forbidden tang of the workers’ paradise. Strange as it all seemed to us, we were far, far stranger to these folk, who drew back as we walked toward them. They were neither hostile nor friendly, just humbly curious. The car suffered nothing more than hundreds of fingerprints as they peered through the windows and ran their hands over the chrome and satiny finish. The fellow on hands and knees had been under the car, trying to learn who-knows-what about its mechanism. We soon found that the easiest way to draw a crowd on a Russian street was to use the automatic windshield washers. One squirt from under the hood and they were hooked.

After we all realized that conversation required a common language, we turned back to the hotel. Nothing had changed inside.

The long summer day had yielded to dark when the Intourist officer found us in the lounge and returned our passports. “You can go now. Drive on to the hotel in Rovno.” More than a hundred miles to drive. Just like that. We didn’t remind her that foreigners were forbidden to travel at night in the Soviet Union.

As we turned onto the highway leading northeast to Rovno, we found the westbound lane crammed. Not just the usual green trucks but huge, clanking tanks belching heavy diesel fumes, and vans full of soldiers. In contrast, our lane was empty. We picked up speed and hoped we would soon leave this military array behind. But hour after hour we skirted an endless procession. Our little car seemed tiny and exposed next to all that might. We didn’t say much; we sat stiff and staring into the road pierced by our headlights, hardly daring to move for fear of attracting some unwelcome attention from those in the opposite lane.

Finally we spotted the turnoff for Rovno. At the tourist hotel we found that our rooms had been given to someone else. We had no choice but to drive all night to Kiev, where we had rooms for the following night. People were already on their way to work the next morning when we arrived.

The Intourist office showed little sympathy when we asked for our rooms so that we could catch up on sleep. But when we threatened to turn the hotel lounge into a bedchamber, they gave in. Only in the late afternoon, when we learned that the East Germans had closed their borders “to keep spies and saboteurs out,” did we guess the import of yesterday’s delay. The Soviet Union was moving troops west to back up their ally in case NATO chose a military response. We came that close to being enemy aliens in the U.S.S.R. at the opening of the Third World War.

In a week the Berlin Wall began to go up. Twenty-nine years later I stood looking down at a pile of neatly boxed pieces of the structure that nearly ignited such disaster. I turned away. No thanks. Not even at 50% off.

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