The news from the Sochi Olympics — poisonous yellow water in hotel faucets, hackers and spies at every turn, the unsurprising dearth of foreign tourists — brought back memories of my three trips to Russia, twice when it was still the Soviet Union and once in its quasi-captialist current incarnation.
The first visit — as it often is — was the most interesting, with the most powerful memories. On that trip, in the late eighties, I was with a delegation from the International Association of Crime Writers, the first writers’ group with members on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Only most of the members from our side of the curtain, including me at that time, were lefties.
Lefty though I was, however, it didn’t stop me from seeing the USSR, almost from arrival, as a giant jail. Minders, i.e., spies, were everywhere. And I mean EVERYWHERE. It was practically the national occupation. It was how they solved their unemployment problem.
I remember sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Cosmos, a decaying pseudo-futurist joint replete with model sputniks for chandeliers, when Laura Grimaldi, the Italian delegate, leaned over to me and said, “Watch this.” (We had been talking about the plethora of spies.) She then proceeded to stand and walk across the huge lobby toward the rest rooms. Three babushka ladies with brooms and buckets, each one in separate corners of the room, immediately stopped what they were doing, propped their brooms against the wall, and headed after her straight into the ladies’ room. As soon as Laura was finished, they followed her out again and duly resumed sweeping. It was sort of like a silent comedy, but it was the Soviet Union in a nutshell.