Back In The USSR is a true story when I flew from Bangkok-New Delhi-Moscow.
“It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance” -Tomas Sowell
PULP FICTION PROPAGANDA
I took the aisle seat and acknowledged my well-dressed seatmate with a nod, not realizing then who he really was. The long flight, New Delhi to Moscow, was a very cheap ticket, but I hadn’t expected the price to reflect the condition of the aircraft. Its engines roared with an incredible howl, forcing passengers to raise their voices, adding to the noise. When we hit turbulence, the seats shook, making me wish I had a socket set to cinch them down. Most of the wall panels overlapped or were crooked. That was what I could see. I didn’t want to think of what I couldn’t see–like the wing rivets through the grimy window. Perhaps Iluyshin meant ‘illusion’ of an aircraft, one on its final flight before crash landing in a scrap yard.
Jutting limbs were at risk when the burly Aeroflot stewardess powered down the narrow center aisle with her cart, stopping at the headwaters of a vodka river to serve my seatmate. After a half hour or so, my seat mate became aware of my existence. In a heavily accented English, he asked where I was from.
“Canada,” I answered, as we regarded each other.
“And your comrades?” He glanced around.
“Friends I met in hostels, backpackers.”
He introduced himself to me as Aleks and stood to acquaint himself with others in the immediate vicinity. He was about thirty-five and wore a decent blue suit. That’s where the GQ look stopped. Obviously, he had his hair cut in a pet shop with dull clippers. Flakes of dandruff peppered his shoulders. His body odor filled by nose when he lifted his arms.
He looked at me and saw a budget traveler; a backpacker wearing jeans and a long sleeve shirt, yet had a much better haircut. We struck up a conversation. Aleks told me he worked for his government.
“He’s a Commie,” said my Aussie friend from across the aisle.
Aleks lifted his drink in acknowledgement. “Da, this is so. I work at embassy in India for five years,” he said. “I go home today.”
My knowledge of the Soviet Union and Communism was limited to the nuclear arms race, the present Cold War (which I had little knowledge of), and an endless source of ranting and raving from my father and his friends.
Olga, the biggest of the plus-sized stewardess herd, stood near the front of the cabin, her radar locked on Aleks’ every nuance. With his one hand and two fingers raised, she’d trundle down the aisle with the cart at breakneck speed to deliver his vodka–compliments of Premier Breshnev.
Aleks proudly admitted to being a party worker–the Red Party–and therefore a favored member of Russian society. His favorite tune was Back in the USSR by the Beatles; especially the lyrics ‘….Moscow chicks make me sing and shout…’
I asked him how he liked India.
He frowned deeply and leaned toward me, whispering, “You know…was me, I would nuke the place.”
That threw me for a loop. I didn’t know how to respond. Did Aleks have access to the nuclear button? Would he push it because of a bad case of Delhi-Belly?
“Drinks for my new comrades!” Aleks loosened his tie and the party was on. Up went his hand and down the aisle charged Olga.
Aeroflot Airlines had grouped westerners in one section, where about a dozen of us quickly became comrades with Aleks and sailed down a river of vodka. Olga was run ragged by the two-finger signal, singing Back In The USSR ad nauseum, and a whopper hangover. Aleks had a tin ear, but he sure could drink and dance, in spite of the narrow aisle. He eventually passed out, drooling over a Playboy magazine and the party ended. The vodka worked to block out the jet engine howl, allowing us some sleep.
Fog surrounded Moscow airport we flew to St. Petersburg where we dropped off a few passengers including Aleks, who awakened in a foul mood. He mumbled goodbyes and was whisked off by the second biggest stewardess. Thanks for the hangovers, comrade Aleks.
Back in the air, a sudden flurry of book swapping began as English language books were hard to come by in the USSR. Up until now, youth hostels provided book swaps. I paid little attention to what was in my new stack of reading material.
At most airports, a few police casually strolled around, in Moscow airport the Russkies were prepared for an all-out assault with helmets, vests, and automatic rifles. All foreigners were herded into a large anteroom surrounded by pamphlets and books, many with testimonials from defectors proclaiming how wonderful Communism is and how terrible everyone and everything else is–blah, blah, blah. I was getting an education on ists: Communists, Socialists, Imperialists, etc. And on isms: capitalism, Marxism, colonialism, etc.
Outside, a battalion of women wearing babushkas shoveled spring snow from the tarmac, lending credibility to everyone having a job in the socialist paradise. Sort of like former U.S. president Hoover’s ‘chicken in every pot’–only Soviet-style, with a shovel.
We sat and leafed through the propaganda until our baggage arrived–or we succumbed to the propaganda–and we were beckoned onward. At a long, waist-high counter, we lined up for a baggage inspection. The customs men were expressionless droids, obviously groomed at the same pet shop as Aleks. They also kept a sidearm on their hip in a button holster. The puke green wall behind them was peppered with gouges from missing plaster and paint scratches. Open-topped boxes against the base of the wall were full of books and magazines. I had a feeling I’d be keeping very few of my books.
The agent unceremoniously upended my backpack, spilling out my clothes, toiletries, the new books I’d swapped for on the plane–and Playboy’s Miss December, who looked up at us alluringly. He frowned at me, murmuring about ‘decadence’ and ‘bourgeoisie’. Had Miss December ever been called such names? He gripped her savagely and tossed her over his shoulder against the wall to drop unceremoniously into a box, his eyes unmoving.
“Naked women,” I said with a shrug. Where’s Comrade Aleks when you needed him? Okay, so the Playboy was not allowed. They confiscated it, and that was that. I was a bit relieved not to get arrested or get the electrode welcome.
Except for one particular paperback, one of my ‘new’ books.
The cover had a picture of a James Bond-type fellow vaulting over a wall, pistol drawn, while fur-hatted soldiers fell before his blazing gun. Some sort of a pulp fiction, action, espionage thriller.
A red hammer and sickle emblem burned in the background.
I swallowed dryly, sweating bullets, hoping this wasn’t enough to brand me as a ‘subversive element’.
It seems the protagonist Johnny Power, super U.S. secret Agent, was going behind the Iron Curtain to fight the Red Threat. Meanwhile, I fought a hangover behind the Iron Curtain facing the Red Threat personified: a uniformed man who looked a lot like the soldier on the cover taking one in the chest from Johnny Power’s pistol. I’m no literary critic but it was a bit too pulp fiction for me.
He flipped the book this way and that as he translated, comprehended, and analyzed, making it difficult for me to read. However, I did manage to stew over that great synopsis, while he processed its Movie-of-the-Week potential.
I stood like a dummy wondering how I might look with a Soviet haircut like his and Aleks’. My fellow travelers were also undergoing their own censorship, the odd book falling into a box.
When the Red Threat finally finished his examination, he looked up and eyed me with a ‘you read this crap?’ expression that needed no interpretation.
“Propaganda,” he said, flatly.
“Well, it’s fiction, but uh, I suppose it could be propaganda.” I was thoroughly embarrassed and tried to explain how I was an innocent victim of a book swapping conspiracy on the plane by ists–western imperialists.
“Nyet!” he said.
Without taking his eyes off me, he whipped the book over his shoulder, knocking a chunk of plaster from the wall creating a momentary silence.
Even his comrades turned to see the damage. My traveler friends were on the verge of a laughing fit. Obviously, they conspired to give me this book.
The incident would probably be joked about in the airport commissary at lunchtime.
“How bad was spy book, Comrade Branko?”
“So bad it crack wall in half!”
I half expected to be taken into a small room surrounded by Aleks’ party faithful and indoctrinated. They might not nail me as an enemy of the state, but I was definitely guilty of possession of bad literature which would surely attract the attention of the SLS, Soviet Library Police, or the Dogs of Imperialism (an ism I’d read about).
The agent thrust out his arm and pointed, which I thought might be either a sort of salute requiring a click of my heels, or a signal to release the hounds. No one else around me was saluting. No dogs growled.
He thrust it out again and said, “Go!”
I turned to follow his insistent finger and spotted a door where other passengers filed through, minus a few books. I hurriedly stuffed the books he didn’t steal into my backpack and dashed through the door.
Ahh, into the cavernous arrivals terminal and freedom…or at least freedom from the book snatchers. Until I was greeted by a huge picture of Vladmir Illyich Lenin, one eyebrow a bit downcast, perhaps in disapproval at my book selection.
And so I naively stepped into the land of the Hammer and Sickle, complete with a monster hangover and Beatles lyrics ringing in my ears.
You don’t know how lucky you are, boy.
I’m back in the USSR.