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.
I have many similar stories and of course, these days they have more efficient technological means to do the same thing. But on that same trip, in Yalta, not all that far from Sochi, come to think of it, an attractive reporter from Soviet Screen attempted to recruit me for the KGB. I won’t disclose here whether she succeeded, though the whole experience almost made me incontinent. You can read the details here.
My next trip was with a group of screenwriters from here in Tinseltown (that was at the height of glasnost — I saw Yeltsin speak) and my third visit was at the invitation of some once-Soviet, now-Russian filmmakers to be on the jury of a film festival in Siberia. By then, everyone was driving Jeep Cherokees in the snow and Russian actresses were in minks, but it wasn’t much different. As on every other trip, my assigned personal interpreter was unquestionably a spy, reporting back on my every word and watching everywhere I went.
Communist, socialist, capitalist or something not yet invented, Russia will always be Russia — at least in most of our lifetimes anyway. It’s a fascinating place with an amazing culture of many of history’s greatest writers and musicians, but no one would ever want to live there or go there for a fun recreational vacation. It’s just nerve-wracking. (Don’t ask about the time I stayed in the Hotel Ukraina and the whole place had just been covered with heavily leaded paint and you couldn’t open the windows.)
So when I heard that Sochi had been chosen for the Winter Olympics, I laughed and said to myself — this I’ve got to see. And apparently we are. Good luck to Team USA. I hope they packed some extra cases of Pellegrino or Evian, like five hundred bottles per athlete. It sounds as if they’re going to need it for showers.