10 Mar To Russia with Love
Years ago, Kevin brought home a Russian soldier he’d met who was staying the YMCA in New York City. This was in May before the coup, and the man had come for a conference that he only learned was canceled once he arrived. Communication was poor in the USSR, so he’d never been notified. I quickly threw together a simple meal to share with him in our apartment on the Upper West Side. I was honestly somewhat embarrassed, because I only had the ingredients for spaghetti, a salad and bread. He ate heartily and thanked me profusely. He marveled at our furnishings – mostly antiques from our families – and asked if we were wealthy, which we most assuredly were not.
As it happened, I was leaving the next week to fly to Leningrad and then to Moscow with a small group of journalists. We all had assignments on the fact that the Soviet market was beginning to open slightly, and the focus was to explore what it was like to do business in Russia. Our new friend kindly contacted his girlfriend to alert her that I was coming.
Once our flight landed in Leningrad – now St. Petersburg — I was astonished at the poverty I saw everywhere. It was overwhelming. The city’s faded beauty reminded me of a stunning woman, who wasn’t aging well. Our hosts were obviously trying to roll out the proverbial red carpet (pun intended) for us, but food was scarce. I wept for the people every night I was there. Their eyes held such sadness.
At our high-end hotel in Moscow – a partnership with a French entrepreneur – one of the hotel managers told me that she had been allowed to leave work for three hours earlier that day to go stand in line to buy a bag of oranges – half of which were rotten. “There are lines for everything,” she said. At a shopping “mall” in Moscow, makeshift stalls held scant merchandise. One booth sold plastic combs. Another stall that was mobbed had just gotten in a shipment of Chinese toothpaste. I asked one of the men in line why everyone was so excited about this toothpaste. “Have you ever had Russian toothpaste?” he asked smiling. When I saw a brief window in our whirlwind tour, I called the number that our new friend the soldier had given us. His girlfriend made the enormous effort to meet me on a corner. When she arrived, she held out an abundant bouquet of flowers for me. By this time, I knew how much people struggled in her country, so I was stunned by her kindness to a stranger. I’d brought a copy of the Bible in Russian, because her boyfriend had said that there was a deep hunger to know about God. She wept when I gave it to her.
I’d grown up during the Cold War era when we regularly had drills where we practiced hiding under our desks in case the leaders went nuclear. Experiencing Russia firsthand was a revelation. In these times, I am reminded that travel helps break down walls, opens your eyes and your heart.