I took the aisle seat and nodded politely to my well-dressed seatmate not realizing who he really was. The long flight, New Delhi to Moscow, was a very cheap ticket, but I had not expected the price to reflect the condition of the Soviet-built Iluyshin with its incredibly loud engine howl and loose seats that shook when we hit turbulence. 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. I wasn’t sure if this was the plane’s standard condition, or its final run to the scrap yard. Perhaps Iluyshin meant ‘illusion’ of an aircraft. When the burly Aeroflot stewardess powered down the narrow center aisle with her cart, it endangered jutting limbs. And half the passengers smoked.
After a half-hour or so, my straw-haired seat mate became aware of my existence and asked, in a Russian accent, where I was from.
“Canada,” I answered, as we regarded each other.
He was about thirty-five, wore a decent suit, and obviously had his hair cut in a pet shop with dull scissors. Flakes of dandruff peppered his shoulders, and body odor was evident. He looked at me and saw a backpacker wearing jeans and a long sleeved T-shirt, with a much better haircut. We struck up a conversation and he told me he was Aleks, and worked for his government.
“He’s a Commie,” said my Aussie friend from the seat across the aisle.
Aleks lifted his drink in acknowledgement. “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 didn’t understand), and an endless source of ranting and raving from my father. Olga, the biggest of the plus-sized stewardess herd, stood near the front of the cabin, her attention 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 was a favored member of Russian society. Party favors apparently are an altogether different beast. 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 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. This meant rivers of vodka, Olga run ragged by the two-finger signal, singing Back In The USSR ad nauseum, and a whopper hangover. Aleks couldn’t hold a tune well, but he sure could drink and dance, in spite of the narrow aisle. The air exchange system couldn’t catch up with the smokers and stinking Russian black tobacco permeated everything. Alexs passed out drooling over a Playboy magazine, ending the party. The vodka blocked out the jet engine howl, allowing us some sleep.
Fog surrounded Moscow airport so it was decided we’d continue on to St. Petersburg and drop off a few others including Aleks, who awakened in a foul mood and was whisked away with mumbled goodbyes. English books were hard to come by in the USSR, so a flurry of book swapping began on our approach to Moscow.
In the terminal, all foreigners were herded into a large anteroom surrounded by pamphlets and books, many with testimonials 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 isms: capitalism, Marxism, colonialism, etc. Outside, an army of babushka’d women shoveled snow from the tarmac, lending some 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.
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. A wall behind them was peppered with gouges from missing plaster and paint scratches. Open-topped boxes against the base were full of books and magazines. I had a feeling I’d be keeping very few books.
The agent unceremoniously upended my backpack, spilling out my clothes, the new books, and Playboy’s Miss December, who looked up at us very 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 in a box.
“Naked women,” I said with a shrug. Where’s Comrade Aleks when you needed him?
The customs area filled with the sounds of books and flapping magazines smacking the wall. The agent examined my new books and set them down, except for one particular paperback. The cover had a picture of a James Bond-type fellow leaping over a wall, pistol drawn, while fur-hatted soldiers fell before his blazing gun. Some sort of a pulp fiction espionage thriller. A 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’.
He flipped the book this way and that making it difficult for me to read; however, I did catch enough to find out Johnny Power, super U.S. secret Agent, was going behind the Iron Curtain to fight the Red Threat.
Uh oh. Here I stood, 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. That’s one book I must have missed in the room of ism’s and ist’s. I had time to stew over that great synopsis, while he translated, comprehended, and analyzed. I stood there wondering how I might look with a Soviet haircut like his and Aleks’.
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.”
“Nyet!” he said.
Without taking his eyes off me, he whipped the book over his shoulder, knocking a chunk of plaster from the wall, eliciting looks from his adjacent comrades. The incident would probably be joked about in the commissary at lunchtime.
“How bad was that book, Comrade Branko?”
“So bad it nearly cracked the wall in half!”
I half expected to be taken into a small room with 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 Soviet library police, or the Dogs of Imperialism.
The agent thrust out his arm and pointed, which I thought was 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. I hurriedly stuffed my backpack and dashed through the door. In the cavernous terminal, I was greeted by a huge picture of Vladmir Illyich Lenin, one eyebrow a bit downcast; perhaps in disapproval.
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.