Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
All this talk of Russia, and I tumble into memories of my one trip there was I was twenty. I’d learned of a cut-rate tour from London underwritten by the Communist Party, which bless their red hearts, made it affordable for the likes of me. It was to be a festive New Year tour.
At the time that place was still the USSR, and Leonid Brezhnev was the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (president, basically). I had a feeling the general slant of the tour would be toward recruiting young minds for the benefit of workers around the world, and I can’t say that I wasn’t up for that, having already voted futiley once in my life (for Eugene McCarthy, believe it or not, in ‘76). I had a perspective, and I’d learned the Russian alphabet too.
Just a few days before the scheduled flight from Heathrow to Moscow via the horrifying Russian airline, Aeroflot, I got back from a pre-Christmas trip to Ireland where the rain had turned my soul into a pot of mucilage. I hardly had time to regroup before packing up my warmest sweaters and a pair of long johns (with butt flap), my denim overalls, my Peanuts shirt, and a sadly inadequate pair of desert boots, is the closest term for what they were. More like flaps of suede wrapped around my feet with cardboard for soles. Welcome to the USSR, Tovaritch!
The flight was uneventful, though my meal was burned to its foil tray and I still don’t know what it was. Some kind of noodle with some kind of meat. The Russian flight attendants were not the burly Georgian gals I envisioned but slim blondes with gleaming smiles like beauty pageant contestants. That boded well, I thought. Landing on sheer ice was a little frightening, but it was dark out so the full complement of terror didn’t strike me. I was more terrified by the customs official who looked like he’d been carved from a pillar of ivory and dressed in a uniform so crisp I thought I could crack off a corner of his jacket and nibble on it like hardtack. He wore one of those brimmed military hats as big around on top as a sewer lid, and his eyes were ice balls. Luckily he let me in despite my library copy of Swann’s Way, decadent western literature for sure.
Our accommodations weren’t exactly in central Moscow. In fact, the hotel was ten miles out, in a place called VDNKh, where there was a giant monument to the Soviet space program. My room, which I shared with a randomly assigned roommate who also happened to be American, was like a mop closet with two beds jigsawed in and a black-and-white TV showing a weird drama I was able to recognize as Gogol’s The Overcoat (or was it The Nose?). Highbrow! I was too tired to go out exploring with the roomie that night, and it turned out he got laid by one of the other young-mind recruits on the tour and I already had one regret the next day besides drinking the tall glass of “yogurt” that passed as breakfast.
After that we piled onto a coach and made a beeline for Red Square, which was what we were all there to see. The day was gray and salted with flurries, and we had to trudge through coffee-colored slush up the passage to the square, where St. Basil’s looked like it had been sprayed with gray flocking. Lenin’s tomb was closed.
I didn’t have enough money for Giselle that night, so my destitute group got the cut-rate variety show featuring Soviet comics making jokes in Russian.There was dancing and singing and acrobats and a bear, of course. I sincerely hope that this guy appeared and I just don’t remember.
I couldn’t wait for the show to be over so we could get back on the subway, where the stations looked like Donald Trump designed them, all the gilt and Baroque touches, and I had to ask a sad-looking attendant which platform would get me to VDNKh and she just shrugged and gave me a tired proletarian smirk. Fortunately I picked the right train, sat across from a man and his little girl who both looked at my coat as if I were Donald Trump flaunting something impossibly expensive. Maybe all Americans seemed like Donald Trump to them.
Tomorrow: Leningrad/St. Petersburg.