IN THE HEART OF THE BEAR–1978

Our student group with several professors from my college and other colleges landed at the Moscow (Mockba) International Airport sometime in August, 1978, about thirty years into the Cold War.  The entire group was staying in a hotel in Moscow and traveling with an interpreter who had been cleared as a loyal member of the Russian Communist Party. I was a student in the group. My wife was traveling with the group although she was not a student at the time of the trip.

Tamara was the group’s interpreter: a friendly, cute, small Ukrainian woman who clearly understood Americans.  My wife, although we later divorced because she thought I would never make more money than a social worker, knew that I was who I was and that there was no sense in arguing with me about it.

When we arrived at the hotel, we were told to return to the lobby after we had checked into our rooms.  We were instructed to return to the hotel lobby because we were scheduled to visit a Soviet House of Friendship. The visit to the House of Friendship was a mandatory requirement for our visit to the Soviet Union.

My wife and I had a hotel room which was located on the twentieth floor of the hotel.  The hallway leading to all the rooms on the twentieth floor was covered with a red, flat, thin carpet.  The carpet was decorated with large Soviet stars.  The stars were placed approximately every three feet from each other in a line running down the center of the carpet.

When we left our room and were returning to the lobby, we had to board an elevator.  When the elevator, on the way down, stopped at the twentieth floor, we entered the elevator to discover we were riding to the Lobby by ourselves with ten Japanese men, also tourists.  The only “things” we had in common with the Japanese men were our immediate destination, the Lobby, and the fact that we had the same essential body parts.

Suddenly, much to everyone in the elevator’s chagrin, the elevator broke down inbetween floors.  My wife was beautiful and the ten men began to speak in two languages; one which I didn’t understand, Japanese, the other which I did understand: leering, ogling and laughing at “what they’d like to do with my wife.”  These comments were clearly exiting their mouths with the “tells” being their eyes.

My wife became uncomfortable with their banter.  Their banter which made my wife uncomfortable quickly pissed me off,  so I began mentioning aloud the Rape of Nanking, Midway, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Hiroshima, the Atom Bomb,”boom,” Nagasaki, Admiral William “Bull” Halsey and his famous quote, “KILL JAPS! KILL JAPS! KILL MORE JAPS!” which was mounted on a sign on the island of Tulagi and the Japanese Unconditional Surrender on the USS Missouri to the Allies to end World War II.

The Japanese men stopped talking and stared at me with anger and hostility in their eyes. I figured they understood some of what I was saying.  “Fuck them,” I thought.

When we reached the Lobby, we were directed to a tour bus for the ride to visit the House of Friendship.  Tamara was in the lead.  When we arrived at the House of Friendship, we, professors and students, all disembarked from the bus and entered the House of Friendship through what I presume was the front door of the House.  In the House of Friendship, we were greeted with the site of what appeared to be beautiful, antique Russian furnishings on the floor and paintings of  idealized Soviet life and great Soviet leaders, mostly Lenin, hanging on the walls.

We were walked down a corridor and directed to a large conference room which contained a large, beautiful, wooden table with matching French styled wooden chairs. The room in its entirety appeared like a huge dining room.  We were instructed in a pleasant tone of voice by Tamara to please sit around the table. We did as instructed and chatted amongst ourselves as Tamara closed the conference room doors.

After about ten minutes,  the conference door slammed open and a tall grey haired gentlemen dressed in an expensive black suit and an open collared white shirt briskly walked into the room.  He went directly to the front of the room, introduced himself quickly and began to speak of Soviet/United States relations.  His major complaint concerned the United States being war mongers and forcing the Soviet Union into a defensive posture.  He described how the United States had forced the Soviet Union to create the Eastern European buffer zone to protect it from American imperialism and aggression after World War II.

When a couple of students politely attempted to ask questions, the President of the College Russian Club and a personal friend of mine specifically, the Russian anti-American speaker “shot them down” quickly with more anti-American rhetoric. I became irritated, and with my Japanese conversational warm-up having recently occurred, I raised my hand to ask a question.  The anti-American speaker called on me.

“Sir,” I said politely, “Let’s omit for arguments sake that Leonid Brezhnev has a private residence in Moscow, collects expensive cars, has a private cottage in the countryside and that the top members of the Communist Party live far better than the working man, and assume that the Soviet Union is philosophically and practically a true Marxist-Leninist society.  If the philosophy of your nation is that Communism will triumph over Capitalism and the United States is considered a true Capitalist nation, why shouldn’t we arm ourselves to protect our country from your country since your country’s ultimate goal is to destroy our way of life?”

I admit it was a long question, but he proceeded to go through a long litany of anti-American offenses committed against the Soviet Union, starting with American political behavior in World War II up to and including the then present.  I let him finish his diatribe. I then raised my hand again.  He called on me again.

“Sir,”  I said politely, “I appreciate all you have just said, but you didn’t answer my question.”  He started speaking again.  He essentially spewed out the same “bullshit” he had just finished saying.

I raised my hand a third time; he called on me again. To this day I am not sure why he called on me a third time, but he did.  I again stated, “Sir, you just repeated yourself, could you please answer my question.”  He stared at me with anger this time and informed me that, “He must speak in his mother tongue!”

He started speaking in Russian far faster than I could understand it, but Tamara was translating his rhetoric for the group and me specifically.  He again presented a long anti-American diatribe.  When he finished, I again raised my hand.  He stared at me angrily, and left the room extremely irritated.  A break was then announced for our group’s visit to the House of Friendship.

I proceeded downstairs to the bathroom and was standing next to a college professor while we were both urinating.  He asked me, “Do you know with whom you just had your conversation?”  I responded, “No.”  He informed that the gentlemen was the ninth highest member of the Soviet Communist Party, and that I had just made the group’s visit to the Soviet Union more difficult. I apologized to him and told him I just should have kept my mouth shut.

He looked at me and replied, “No way, it was great to see someone not take “shit” from the Russians.”  My two peers who had been butchered by the anti-American Russian in conversation thanked me, and I became a bit of a trip hero.  Of course, my luggage was ripped apart and searched at every hotel from that point forward, the KGB approached me on the street regularly, and I was detained in a Riga, Latvia, House of Friendship to discuss my opinions with a Soviet ideologue.  Thankfully, my wife would not leave me there alone even though the Soviets told her she could leave. The group was not permitted to view Lenin’s tomb, and the group was made to wait in line while other groups were moved past us at a host of different historical sites, except for Babi Yar, the site of a series of Russian massacres by the Germans in the the Ukraine during World War II.

I still don’t have a problem with having pissed off the Japanese for talking about my wife like she was a common whore, and I still don’t have problem with having wrestled verbally with a big Russian Bear.

 

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