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Aeroflot: a Memoir

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.

Finally, as a preface I need to note that there really was no dry cleaning available, even in Moscow. Foreigners living there shipped their things to Finland to be cleaned. We were not going to be there long enough to do that, so even though it was winter and we needed woolen clothing to stay warm, we had to stay as clean as possible and pack some simple cleaning supplies to deal with accidents.

I mention this because getting into and out of the Ukraina with all this stuff and no porters willing to share the load was quite a tribulation. Given that and the laborious Soviet-style checkout procedures, it was some time before we could get our van loaded and head off to the airport to Lvov. We were rather tired when we got there and faced the same hard struggle to get our baggage unloaded and checked in.

From the check-in counter we were escorted to a special waiting area just for foreigners. It was a mercy to be in this place. It had bathroom facilities -- not terribly clean or well-appointed, but they certainly beat what was available in the rest of the airport.

Once there, we were informed there was a delay and that we were free to purchase food from the hard currency café on site. I remember the delay lasted about 6-8 hours, after which the tea, hard-boiled eggs, caviar, rolls, butter, and tea on hand had long lost their appeal. Apparently there was some storm somewhere along the route -- or so we were told when we questioned the lengthy delay. (Later someone told me that planes along that route did not have radar because of the fear of defection. Again, this is something I had no way of confirming, but it seemed a very long delay.)

Half asleep by now, and aware that work was scheduled to start early the next morning, we were told the plane was ready to depart. We were led out to the tarmac to what was a glass-nosed, very old Aeroflot plane. Someone in our party told me it was a World War II craft. I was in no position then or now to dispute that, but it was clear this was a military plane of some sort, cheaply retrofitted for commercial use. There was no carpeting on the metal floor and the seats seemed to be of a sort that just snapped out. There were no toilet facilities onboard that I could see. We were all wearing our coats, as there were no overhead bins to put anything in. The stewardess was kind enough to place our briefcases with the official legal documents upfront in the pilot’s cabin for the trip when I explained why they had not been checked. There were no tray tables and not even water was served on the trip.

I always carry a small tote bag with essentials just in case my luggage is lost or misplaced. I was seated next to what would be the window wall but I recall no windows being there.  In any event, I put the tote next to the wall and shortly afterward we took off.

Most of the passengers seemed to be flying for the first time. (It apparently was not easy for citizens to get permission to travel then.) Many were queasy and some looked as though they were about to vomit. (There were no bags provided for that purpose.) Trying to imagine how I’d deal with clothes covered with vomit and no dry cleaning for the rest of the trip was disconcerting.

I tried to ignore what was going on around me by reading. But it I was unable to pry my tote bag from the side of the plane. It seemed that as the air cabin pressure changed upon being airborne, the seam of the wall where I’d placed it had closed in around it locking the handles to the plane’s inner skin. I fished out a nail clipper from my handbag to cut away the handle of the tote and tried to read.

By the time we landed in Lvov it was quite late and dark out. We were escorted through a large wood-walled room filled with plain wooden benches, packed with people who looked like something out of a Tolstoy novel. They all seemed to be wearing fur hats, long black coats, and thick, high, black felt boots. They all looked as though they’d been there forever. Waiting. There seemed to be no food. There was certainly no entertainment. Just benches for sitting and waiting.

At the end of the room was a smaller closed room for foreigners. It was unbelievably hot. Steam heat was pumped into the buildings in Lvov from a central location, and however cold it might be outside, inside was often steamy, almost tropical. The single window in the room was covered with some sort of drapery so it was impossible to see out.

The minder there kept an eye on us until our escort appeared to take us to our hotel.