I visited the Soviet Union twice back in the eighties. Fascinating place. Loved the Russian orthodox churches and the gorgeous icons, the quaint dachas in Peredelkino where Boris Pasternak used to live. The caviar and blini was terrific too, washed down by endless shots of Russian Standard vodka. And, because I was on cultural exchanges, I met brilliant people like Yevgeny Yevtushenko and a dozen or so other well known Soviet writers and filmmakers.
Funnily enough, most of them would eventually take me aside and ask me if I could help them get out of there. I couldn’t, unfortunately, but I could well understand why they wanted to leave. At the end of both of my trips of about two weeks each, I desperately wanted to get the Hell out myself. I hated the place.
The Soviet Union was like one giant jail. You had no privacy. You had no life. KGB minders followed you everywhere — even, in my case, straight into the lobby men’s room of Moscow’s Cosmos Hotel to watch me tinkle. My Yalta hotel room was so obviously bugged that the painting bulged out at about a thirty degree angle to fit the microphone. (Yes, I peeked.) The Bulgarian mystery novelist in our entourage ran a whole roomful of reel-to-reel tape recorders on the fourth floor of that same hotel, smiling and blushing when I accidentally walked in on him with our Italian delegate. The young woman who interviewed me for Soviet Screen was also a spy, as was my interpreter, Oleg, who accompanied me everywhere. He kept close tabs on anything I was writing, taking notes and reporting back to his superiors.
Sound familiar? I’ve been thinking about it a lot these days because what with the IRS evidently watching our every move and the Associated Press and who knows who else under surveillance, I feel quite literally like I’m back in the USSR. And I haven’t even left home.