The Guest Room
Musings, Memories & Epiphanies Inspired by Place
Back in the USSR
Russia’s customs booths are the world’s worst hospitality program. They literally could care less that you are coming to their country. In fact, just go away. We shuffled into “passport control,” a Dante-esque line through Soviet immigration and customs which, I had yet to discover, would become a regular waiting room for much of my life. Landing in Leningrad airport circa 1990 felt like Newark circa 1950—industrial, raining, grey, with very little natural or artificial light. The architecture was mostly studies in Brutalism, with the smell of old-world cafeteria. The Sovs didn’t like us, that was for sure. The first beehived lady in passport control wore neon pink lipstick and a harsh stare. She stamped my passport only after making me take off my glasses. I hadn’t slept much, none of us had.
“Wow,” I said. “Pozhalsto,” you’re welcome, she said frostily.
Old women pushed dirt around with their mops in the baggage claim floors, and the guards picked their nails. Baggage claim was just a broken-down elevator belt anyway. This was the evil Soviet Union? They didn’t even x-ray our luggage on the way into the country. Too much work. (On the way out the Soviet Union, security and customs made sure to hold us up, but only for money. This was our best lesson in Soviet-style capitalism, which was essentially reaching into your pocket to pay someone every 50 feet).
It wasn’t until we were on the dirty bus bound for the Chaika, our student dormitory way outside of downtown, that Darcy and I saw each other again. She and Tamara, from Arkansas, had shacked up as roommates, and we agreed to share what we believed would be a spacious suite. The driver first swung by Leningrad State University, an Italianate monster on the Neva River. By this point, the late afternoon sun bathed its stucco and plaster walls with gas-orange light. This was where we would be spending the autumn semester taking language and literature classes along with other foreign students (there turned out to be very few, except some Japanese). We stopped at the cafeteria, where everything was free to eat—watery white borscht, “makaron,” essentially buttery pasta, and sweet tea in sweaty glasses that appeared unwashed. On a table, I spied what I thought was sugar and poured some in my drink, to the giggles of Russian students sitting next to me. I drank my tea and promptly spit it out. Salty.
“Wow.” Back on the bus. We passed what appear to be lines for a movie or a show on Nevsky Prospekt, the main drag in downtown Leningrad. It was a line for bread.
An hour snailed by. By the time the bus reached our “dormitory,” I realized Russia would be a place of letdowns. Our building was a high-rise still under construction, and the imported Eastern European workers usually kicked off at 10am and were gone after lunch. The building was still mostly unbuilt. Our apartments were the only ones finished in the structure. We overlooked the Finnish Gulf on one side and a cement pit on the other.
My roommate had already smited her new beau on the bus, and he promptly moved in a few days after she and I split the room. I endured them having sex every morning, either trying to sleep or hiding under the covers. “Spasibo,” thank you.
Our first Russian lesson was basic by necessity. The teacher, a lovely patient instructor, couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Not a single one of her American students had learned the essential Russian necessary for daily survival.
“Vy seychas vykhoditye?” Are you getting out now?
This was standard protocol for any Russian trying to squeeze in or out of a crowded bus, subway car, or tramcar, called a “tramvai”, which essentially translates to a “go-tram.” All transportation was free with a monthly pass, which cost us at that time around 30 cents. But no one ever checked our monthly passes, which encouraged freeloaders. Nearly everything in Russia was free, but there was nothing to pay for.
I got to practice this survival Russian pretty much every day on the hour-long bus trip from the Chaika, our unfinished “dorm”, to Leningrad State. Darcy and I, and sometime Mike and Tim, our buddies from across the hall, would wait in the darkness of the Leningrad autumn morning for the No. 47 bus. Once we were crammed inside like herring in a cream sauce, deep in the armpit of some elderly babushka, here was our chance to practice our best Petersburg accents.
“You getting off now?” And we would squeeze out of pools of body odor, ready for Russian class.
We were also learning Pushkin, the party-boy poet of Russia who wrote elegantly about Leningrad’s atmospherics: the misty streetlamps, midnight rising bridges, lazy Neva river, the city’s Venice-like islands. Except he had lived under the czars, when it was St. Petersburg, a place of serfdom and royalty, and he was on the right side of the powers that were. Except now we were living in the same city, a post-Soviet meltdown with skanky, crowded metros, little food, few prospects, and nation of highly-educated, angry, xenophobic poor people.
Pretty quickly, away from the steamy student cafeteria, we were having trouble finding food, and finally getting a taste of how ordinary Russians lived. Everyone was treated equally lousy in the great Socialist utopia—unless you were high up in the Communist Party ranks, and in that case, got all the caviar and champagne you wanted, paid vacations at the beach on the Black Sea, the best doctors, biggest apartments, and of course, chow whenever you wanted. A brand new Lada, if you were lucky enough to get one from the factory, generally had to be disassembled by its new owner and put back together again so it wouldn’t die on the road.
The teachers at Leningrad State started handing out our weekly “taloni,” or ration tickets, to line up for bread, salt, whatever we were allotted. The tickets probably would have been better used as toilet paper.
Across from the high-rise dorm where we lived was a pretend supermarket. In fact, there was nothing for sale there. Shelves cried out for cans. There was a cat napping in the freezer, Darcy reported back one day. I purchased some Pepsi in bottles and apples to eat. That was it. Not even bread.
Finally, one day Lyuba, a kind Russian lady in her 40s who desperately wanted to leave her husband and, oh by the way, emigrate to Poland to be with her lover, befriended me and Tim at the bus stop. She invited us over each week for chicken legs, hot soup, black bread, the cultural works. In the meantime, she explained the black market. “There’s no food in the stores, I don’t know why you even bother going!” She shook her head over our stupidity, and said she had a source for meat. With her meat she bartered with friends for other things like butter and cooking oil. Basically, just eating and finding food for her and her family was her full-time job. Why she took pity on us I don’t know, except we likely gave her hope about one day taking the train across the border into Warsaw and never coming back. (The Berlin Wall still hadn’t yet come down, Poland was still under Soviet yoke and the Baltics also were chafing under Russian rule).
Finally a few of our students discovered an open-air market and a hotel down the highway that took hard currency, like Deutsche marks and dollars (no rubles allowed). On each floor were cafes that sold eggs, cheese and ham sandwiches, so Darcy and I would hit each floor and buy in bulk, stuffing them in our handbags. Then we’d go to the gift shop and buy Toblerone chocolate in sleek gold triangle boxes and run home to gorge.
A few of Russian students we befriended were early “fartsovchiki,” or illegal currency traders. They were looking to buy dollars for rubles, for obvious reasons, and we both won out on the deal. Mike in particular attracted friends who gave us a good exchange rate, many more rubles above the official rate of 5 or 6 per dollar. They’d give us 30 or even 35 rubles per dollar.
It was a struggle to live each day, and it was clear most Russians were suffering under Soviet rule. By November 1990 rumblings among the people, our Russian friends and their children, were cresting, and now it was almost time for us to go home. Each weekday we shuffled through the darkness and snow—it got dark at 3pm every day by now, and the little sun that shone felt nuclear—and every weeknight we got drunk and defaced a portrait of Lenin hanging in the hallway.
Thanksgiving: Russians had never even heard of turkey, so we made a pilgrimage to an open-air market where farmers and vendors from the Central Asiatic states like Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan sold fly-covered sides of beef and whole chickens. At last! This was where all the food was…nothing in the stores, which of course, were government controlled. Any sort of trade or survival depended on the black market, and it was not cheap. Lyuba was trading on her connections with friends, her husband, her lover; our Russian friends were buying hard currency where they could to exchange for the worthless rubles that the government kept issuing into the pretend economy, where people pretended to work, and the state pretended to pay them. No wonder everyone hated this place.
Darcy and I remained close friends after we returned home. Christmas break came and went, and in January we reconvened at Tufts. She had gone to the Acme supermarket in New Jersey with her mother just after getting home, walked down the salad dressing aisle and promptly wept.
I was hooked on Russia after all of that suffering. It was obvious that the political system wasn’t going to hold for much longer, and I couldn’t wait to go back and witness all the changes. Plus it was a terrific escape from real life, I discovered—by focusing on other people’s misery I could avoid my own.
By 1991, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and I was looking for a way back in as a reporter once I graduated from college.
In 1996, I finally got my chance.