A Shock: The Soviet Union Was Not a Country…Was Many Countries!

Now, in 2011 the Soviet Union is part of history, not a country anymore. for us, the older generation will always be remembered as the enemy next door. We, the older generation remember the horror, the fear, the feeling of hopelessness that we could be swallowed by the powerful neighboring country, the Soviet Union.

Older people whispered the Soviet Union really didn’t liberate us, the Romanians on August 23, 1944 and yet, for as long as I remembered this was our National Day, the day everyone was off and went to Parades, and sang patriotic songs and  slogans praising the Communist Party, Ceausescu and our “friends, the Soviets,” whom we all hated secretly, or perhaps not so secretly. Jokes about them weren’t punished as harsh as if we, for instance, said something about “the son of our people, Ceausescu.”

Be it as it may, a while after my mother’s death. Cristian announced he was signing us up for a trip to the Soviet Union. Other communist countries were the only countries where we, Romanians, were allowed to travel without a real passport.  All we needed was to belong in a group who traveled together and have our I.D (Buletinul de identitate). This booklet contained the same basic information as a Driver’s License, only that in Romania of those years, few people drove or had cars.

“It’s going to be good for you, it will take your mind away from mom’s death,” he said and we embarked on a trip to the Soviet Union. Our trip was scheduled after the 1980 Olympics and the itinerary included Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union and many cities in Central Asia: Samarkand, Buhara, Tashent and Alma-Ata.

We landed ona spotless airport, near Moscow, built from an abundance of white and black marble.

The guide, a young woman from the Moldova Republic,  who spoke Romanian, explained that the airport was built together with architects from Germany for the Olympics. She explained that because the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the Western countries boycotted the Olympics and refused to participate, still the advantages stayed there, and the airport was one of them.

Katia, our guide, was young, pleasant woman and spoke fluent Romania. She was from Moldova, the part of Romania which was assigned to the  Soviet Union after World War II. After all, they liberated us! Coming from another communist country we knew she was under obligation to report to a KGB agent every move we made, every word we spoke, as we could have been spies!.  Katia told us  from the beginning that a few Romanian goods were in demand on the Soviet black market and selling, would allow us to get enough rubles, the Soviet currency, to buy gold jewelry. However, she warned us, this was illegal and if discovered, we’d be severely punished. The message was clear: Do it, but don’t get caught! Some of the items in demand, she told us,  were plastic bags on which American Brand names were written, such as Kent, not just any bag!  Before we left Romania, someone told me furs were also in demand in the Soviet Union, so I dragged with me a coat which was two sizes larger for me, and I couldn’t wear.  I was hoping to sell it to a cold Russian and buy a ring for myself and some souvenirs for friends back home.

Soon, it became clear, selling anything was going to be a challenge. almost impossible. In addition to the receptionist downstairs, at the main entrance, each floor had their own receptionist and one could not leave the hotel alone. We were allowed out only in groups of at least four.  When we left the hotel we signed out at the floor receptionist, who in turn gave us a ticket, so we may return.  When we returned, we weren’t allowed in unless we first showed the ticket to the downstairs receptionist. Then, in a final act of caution, we gave back the ticket to the floor receptionist, who smiled with satisfaction and signed us back in!

How were we going to sell anything? We whispered turning the facets on. Another communist trick we knew from back home. We assumed the rooms were bugged and the KGB was listening. One easy way was to let the water running and make enough background noise that they couldn’t hear.

We sold nothing in Moscow! We did sightsee a lot, and I will always remember the spotless Moscow Metro, which looked more as an underground palace, the Lomonosov University, so similar in architectural style to the main Romanian printing-house, Casa Scinteii (The House of the Spark), and the immensity of Kremlin and the number of churches everywhere. We even asked Katia, but she said they were now either deserted or turned into factories. Out of the about 1,600 churches in Moscow, only about 40 were functioning as churches. We left Moscow, the capital of Russia, the seat of communist power with the feeling we went on a guided tour in which it was revealed what the officials wanted revealed.  However, as much as they tried, they couldn’t hide all the drunks at the corner of streets, but alcoholism wasn’t something to try to hide, was part of Russia’s famous history.

Our flight to Samarkand was in the evening. Officially we were explained we saved time by traveling at night, but the truth was, the Soviets didn’t want foreigners to travel during the day for fear the spies would photograph the topography of their land.  I don’t know if this was true, but when we arrived at the airport two men in military uniforms ran toward us shouting something in Russian. Katia whispered something with them in a corner, then she turned to us and said:

“Everyone, face the wall.  It’s an order!” Her face became very serious, the smile disappeared.

We turned without asking, we knew better to keep quiet, but wondered what was all about. At least, I did!

“Do not turn your head, or you’ll be sent back to Bucharest!” Katia said as if guessing my thought. I still tried to turn my head slowly and look from the corner of my eye, and  saw a group of very young Russians in military uniforms, almost boys…

“You! You looked. I saw you!”

I felt sweat dripping down my spite but it wasn’t me they caught looking, but the friend next to me.  He was taken in a special room and we did not see him again. I assumed he was shipped back to Bucharest, never to be allowed to leave Romania again.

The rest of us, continued our trip and the incident was never mentioned again.

Samarkand, the start of our Central Asian trip. Samarkand, the 25-century old city in which we landed first was definitely not Moscow! They were worlds apart, centuries apart, cultures apart. How could these two cities beong in the same pot? It was absurd!

Moscow, clean, impersonal, gloomy. Samarkand, colorful,  enveloped in mystery and legends.  Stepping in Central Asia was like stepping into a different world which had nothing to do with communism, the Soviet Union, the boys marching in secret on the airport. It was like we stepped inside a fairy tale.

The century-old mausoleums, the legends of Alexander the Great of Ulug-Bek, Ghengis Khan and Timur.  A world which officially belonged to the Soviet Union but by tradition and power of faith still belonged to Mohamed and the Korah, and no comunists could take that away from them, and they knew it.

However, even in this land apparently untouched by the evils of communism and the modern world, we were soon to discover the presence of the black market, which penetrated even in the world of Mohammed!

One afternoon, five of us from the group of about 15, got permission to sightsee alone.   We were in another ancient city, the city of Buhara, eager to sneak in the forbidden mausoleums, perhaps speak with a native or two… in some sign language? Most importantly, we were unsupervised! Sweet freedom!

We were walking and singing in Romanian, and giggling and…

” Buna  ziua, doamnelor si domnilor!!” a voice whispered behind us.

We froze! Not only this person was speaking in Romanian but he was calling us ladies and gentlemen not comrades!

Oh, it must be a spy, a bait! How else to explain such negligence?

Cristian, the bravest of all, turned around:

“Good day, comrade!, You seem to have forgotten the rules, We are Romanians, we are brother communists… comrade!”

The man blushed and we could see his teary eyes.

“I am so sorry… please don’t tell on me. I didn’t mean it to call you that!” He blurted a long explanation about how he had a Romanian fiance who was kept prisoner in Romania, not allowed to marry him…

It was so convincing.  It made so much sense. We apologized and I gave him my handkerchief to blow his nose.

He seemed to recover quickly:

“By the way, do you guys have anything to sell? Plastic bags? Clothes? Furs?

Oh, yes, we certainly did, but it was so hard, so dangerous… who could one trust…

We explained to him our fears of punishment and he assured us he knew “ways”.

The plan, he said was to outsmart the KGB who was watching us! We were smarter than they were, right? We ll agreed by nodding in unison.

The plan was simple: The following night we, the same five people were to ask for permission again. Now, they already trusted us since we returned the first time, as if there was anywhere to run!

He and his friend and the five of us were to meet in an alley, behind a restaurant, not far from the Hotel.  The transaction, he assured us, will be quick:  He will give us the money, we will give him the goods. And off we’ll go. Five minutes tops!

We agreed and even discussed the price of each item. He was to give us all the money owned in a package and we were to divide it later.  That’s why it was important  to know who owned what.

The following day, all went according to plan. Because my fir was too large to carry as a bag, I put it on although it was summer and the receptionist gave me a suspicious look.

He really offered us generous prices and we were congratulating each other we couldn’t sell in Moscow, at much lower rates. There was a God after all, the God of black markets!.

We went into the alley. It was dusk and I was getting nervous. Too much silence and they were late…

Oh, at last he showed up, but not his friend. He grabbed the gags and my coat and handed Cristian a thick bunch of rubles.

“Wait, let’s see if they are rubles!” Cristian said.

He looked at the first few on the bottom and t few at the top.

Suddenly the guy’s friend came running out of breath, as we heard Police sirens coming in our direction:

:Go, go! They are after us! ” He said and we ran as fast as we could to our hotel.

OH! Such a scare, but who cared? We did the transaction we had all these hundreds of rubles to buy Russian gold and vacuum cleaners. That’s all they had which we, Romanians wanted.

At the hotel we went to our room, turned on the water and Cristian cut the string holding the banknotes together.  We took out the list to make sure we divide everything correctly:

“One ruble, two, three…” blank Blank paper, and more blank paper!

There were a few rubles on the top and a few on the bottom, the rest was cut, blank white paper!

At first, I cried. But later,  the more I thought, the more I  thought it was funny! We were robbed in the most controlled country in the world!

I guess when there is a will there is a way!

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