Aeroflot: a Memoir
A memoir of Aeroflot, and travel in the USSR.
April 17, 2010 - 12:00 am
In the early 1980s, while employed by the Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations, I had to travel to Lvov, then still part of the USSR’s Ukraine. We traveled, not on diplomatic passports, but rather on something known as an official passport, which gave us no protection but allowed us to travel a bit more freely than tourists. Some special requirements still prevailed. For example, once at our work station we were accompanied most of the time by an Intourist guide, generally a chatty younger person assigned frankly to spy on us when we were out of the reach of our colleagues in the procurator’s office or the sight and sound of the ubiquitous dzhernias. These ladies sat in the hotel corridors all day and night and listened in on the happenings in our rooms through the radios located there and spied on and recorded our comings and goings.
Another rule was that wherever we traveled in the USSR, our trips had to begin and end in Moscow. I always assumed that was so that our belongings could be more thoroughly searched by the professionals in the then-KGVD. In any event, this trip began there.
We were housed in the Ukraina Hotel, a monstrous edifice of juggernaut appearance constructed under Stalin. It matched another famous building in Moscow, the university, built in the same monstrous and unappealing fashion. It doesn’t appear to be taking guests at the moment, but its website gives an overly flattering view of the place. Our trials and tribulations there are a story for another time, but as you can see, to approach the lobby one had to climb many steps. The porters then took no tips. They were paid whether they worked or not. As a result they spent their time chatting with each other in the cavernous, if rather threadbare, smoky lobby.
I mention the steps because our work required that we travel with a great deal of equipment. We were there to take depositions under oath of witnesses to Holocaust atrocities for use in U.S. courtrooms, the government of the USSR having refused to allow its citizens to travel to the U.S. to testify. In those days video and audio equipment was large and cumbersome.
And then we had our own needs. It was folly to expect medical or dental treatment there because it was so awful. Foreign service people told tales of disposable syringes being swished about in warm soapy water and used countless times even if dull and bent on countless patients. Dental work was even worse, as the stainless steel teeth of rather uniform appearance on Soviet citizens evinced. Ordinary toiletries were really unobtainable either at the hotels or in any place to which we had access. As the leader of the delegation, therefore, I had to pack health items — bandages, oil of cloves for toothaches, aspirin, antiseptic, and tampons — which members of the team might need. If anyone really became ill, he was to be flown out as quickly as possible to Finland for treatment.