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Author’s note


By 1986, I had managed to see practically the whole world except the Soviet Union. This was very odd for a fanatical traveller, especially one who was partly Serbian -- for Serbs are often Russophiles. So was I, yet I long delayed getting to know Russians on their native soil in the context of a communist construction that I detested even more than its little brother in the country of my birth, Yugoslavia. Finally, in 1986, I dived in. From Finland Station to Finland is an account of me as I was then and of the slice of the Soviet Union that I encountered. It is a document.


Very little in this story or travelogue is fictional, except for changed names. “Nina” still exists, now 34 years old. She is still a friend. Her mother lives in Taganrog, on the Sea of Azov -- a fine town of Anton Pavlovich, Hyppolite Chaikovsky, and Czar Alexander I.


I am now a different person, with different views. If I have become a better person, much of the credit must go to Russia and her people whom I have grown to know and love in over 50 trips through all her vastness. I believe that only the Serbs, Jews, and artists can love Russia more than even the Russians do.



Vladimir J. Konečni

Solana Beach, California

October 18, 2004



From Finland Station to Finland

(Notes from a journey)


Vladimir J. Konečni

© 1992

"11 May 1987"
(Codex; San Diego, California, 1997)
by Vladimir J. Konečni




          It is early October, 1986, and the end of yet another titanic match for the world chess title between Karpov and Kasparov is approaching. Muscovites hold their breath and quietly root for Kasparov. He is arrogant and allegedly half-Jewish, but not a good Party boy like his rival. Every evening, in one of the bars of Hotel Nacional, a stone's throw from the Red Square, I watch the game on television along with other foreigners, local police agents, and chic prostitutes. Some of the games last for five hours, but are nevertheless presented uninterrupted. No cute vignettes from the players' private lives nor mindless commentary disturb the silence that reigns over the wall demonstration board showing the current position. For variety, this shot is alternated with one of the two combatants seen from the profile, deep in thought. They lean forward, their heads mere inches apart, bodies taut as if locked in an evenly-matched arm-wrestling bout.

          Bobby Fischer used to sit like that and beat Karpov's and Kasparov's predecessors by margins never seen before or since in world-class chess matches. For Americans, he was a patriotic fad, but mostly a vaguely bizzare brat. In contrast, the Russians have regarded him with awe ever since he humiliated their grandmasters Mark Taimanov and Tigran Petrosian, and demolished Boris Spassky in the final match in Reykjavik in 1972. With the possible exception of the pianist Van Clibum, Fischer is arguably still the most admired American in the Soviet Union. To an unusual extent, the Russians respect people who beat them at their own game.

          Occasionally, one of the players gets up and stares at the board from a few feet away. His body language is monitored by the audience as closely as if he were a Stanislavskian actor. When a player moves a piece, there are a few moments of suspense until the move is manually executed by an official on the demonstration board. One imagines the move replayed by countless kibitzers across the Soviet Union. The sparseness of the visual display and its raison d'être, the ancient, profound game of chess, are in stark contrast with the Westerners' short attention spans, lack of will, and commercial ostentation. The deceptively simple board with 64 black-and-white squares and 32 wooden soldiers divided into two armies is a perfect symbol of the means and values by which the Soviet strategists intend to conquer the West.

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          On the afternoon train from Moscow to Leningrad, I take the seat assigned to me by the inevitable Intourist. After a while, my neighbor and I begin to chat. He is a formally dressed man in his late thirties, with regular, chiseled features. The conversation begins in Russian. I have had no formal schooling in it, but somehow manage on the basis of my knowledge of Serbo-Croat and a lifelong reading of Russian chess-books. Soon, the conversation changes to more serious topics.

          (These were still the early days of Gorbachev, who had not yet topped President Reagan in West-European popularity polls. Dan Rather was about to master the pronunciation of glasnost and the Reykjavik Summit was imminent. The arrest of the U.S. News and World Report journalist Daniloff had already happened, but Mathias Rust was yet to fly into the Red Square.)

          The gentleman next to me appears uneasy about speaking Russian — he motions subtly to people around us. I do not find this odd: Even if my neighbor were a KGB agent, he would be reluctant to be overheard by other agents on or off duty. I try English and find that he speaks it, but again there is a slight head movement indicating the passengers seated in front of us. He suddenly switches to fluent Spanish and luckily I speak it moderately well, so for the next seven and a half hours we converse in that language alone.

          I tell him that I am a university professor, a psychologist, and learn that he is a Major in the Soviet Army, specializing in Spanish-language cryptography. What good timing in choosing a specialty, I think - as much work as the heart desires regarding Central America, and so on. I ask no further questions in this regard, and he does not seem to expect them. He did not tell me much, but he told me more than he had to. The fact that such experts exist is obviously no news. A possible conclusion is that he told me the truth.

          After a while, he asks me about my political-party preference. On being told, he smiles broadly: "¡Me dió mucho gusto conocer a un Yankee Republicano!" A cynic hearing this would probably say: "Of course, the two super-armies need each other, the Republicans are in favor of military spending more than the Democrats are, so that's why he was pleased to meet you." But when I inquire about the reasons for his remark, he explains that he has always thought of Republicans as stodgy, septuagenarian, and uninterested in other cultures, and that my profession, age (approximately his own), and some familiarity with a few backwoods of the Soviet Union (Lake Baikal, for example) are a surprise to him.

          Why does the Soviet Union keep its citizens in a virtual prison? He is not in the least offended by the question and simply answers that there is fear of the brain-drain. I point out that since even the poorest and most persecuted Russians seem to have a great love for their country -- judging both by their literature and ordinary people's everyday behavior -- my prediction is that with completely open borders only a very small number would leave. He perks up and says: "Are you sure? Why do you think the Berlin Wall was built?" My response is that when East Germans escape, they do so to a country that is just as German as the one they left. I mention the great problems of adjustment to the West experienced by both the White Russian émigrés after the Bolshevik Revolution and the present-day voluntary Russian exiles. In any case, I continue, the Soviet Union has to open up or burst from the accumulated internal pressures.

          I then venture to ask for his opinion of the reasons for the Soviet Union's insistence on enslaving peoples by whom it is hated, both outside and inside its borders. "Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, Armenia, Afghanistan, Mongolia ...,"I intone. "It is -- as you are doubtless aware -- a buffer zone, a cordon sanitaire, that would buy us time and save Russian lives in case of an attack," he says matter-of-factly. But what about all those oppressed people? He looks for a long time through the window, then says: "It's very unfortunate, but it's a fact, a strategy that was decided long ago, and one on which many other elements depend." Mercifully, he wastes not a word on pretenses about the "international communist brotherhood" or the allegedly improved living conditions in countries under Soviet control. He is clearly neither a Soviet ideologue nor a Western communist, but rather a realist, a soldier, and an honest one at that.

          A little later, he produces a small, shake-proof chess set (one of those where squares on the board have holes and each piece a peg that fits into them) and asks me with a hopeful expression whether I play. Since he is dealing with an American, his apparent doubts about my knowledge of the game are well-founded — the odds are ostensibly against it. It occurs to me that this is good: If he were a KGB agent, he would know that I had spent my childhood in Yugoslavia, a place that breathes chess. Then, again, perhaps it is the knowledge of this fact that made him think of playing with me.

          We both try to use quasi-military encircling maneuvers, blockades, and strategic sacrifices. In the last of the games, a key pawn of the Major succumbs to pressure by numerous pieces from different directions, foretelling the collapse of his entire defense. The Major shrugs it off and treats me lavishly, in the dining car apres-chess, to vodka, caviar, cucumbers, and black bread, firmly rejecting the idea of going Dutch. An officer, a gentleman, and — judging from the precious little I know about cryptography — a scholar as well. Perhaps even a romantic poet (at least in Spanish): His effusiveness about the reflections of slender white birches in lakes and ponds as we approach Leningrad at sunset is contagious. On arrival, as we part (warmly, yet both aware of the pointlessness of exchanging even first names), he says unexpectedly: "Who knows? One day it may be your country and mine — together, against all others." in the Intourist taxi, "... en contra de todos" still rings in my ears.

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          Hotel Pribaltiyskaya in Leningrad, built by a Swedish company, is touted as the most elegant modem hotel in the Soviet Union, but the spatious marble lobby is cold to the skin and the eye, as is my room. No. 5032, despite the obligatory wood details. Many of the design features are awkward and the functions are slightly, but irritatingly, out of kilter. What sort of aesthetics is this? Not "l'art pour l'art". Not "l'art pour le dessin". Not "le dessin qui peut passer pour l'art'. Rather, Scandinavian "mauvais dessin qui se promène comme art mediocre". Poor design masquerading as mediocre art. It is nevertheless preferable to the socialist-realist monstrosity of Hotel Rossiya in Moscow.

          There is one interesting design feature that would not be found in Scandinavian hotels. The window curtain cannot be closed completely, and a gap of about thirty inches remains in the middle. My room is high up, on the 5th floor, but there is a wing perpendicular to the one in which it is located. The gap allows me a beautiful view of the Neva Delta, while also giving a possible KGB telescope a fair view of the interior of the room. (Stranger instruments and procedures have been encountered in Soviet hotels.) Why spy on me? Why not? I am a foreigner, an American, traveling alone the length of the Soviet Union for no apparent reason. That is cause enough to observe me — at least my paranoia suggests so. But paranoiacs may have flesh-and-blood enemies, too.

          The presence of various tour groups is evident only in the hotel lobby, as they are shunted in and out for sightseeing purposes. One group whose members are conspicuous in various restaurants and bars, however, is the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts -- a fraternity of lawyers, doctors, pilots, and other male professionals from the Boston area who travel to a different place each year apparently to explore, get away from their wives, and raise hell. One of them gives me a lapel button that reads "I love you Pete"; it presumably refers to Czar Peter the Great in whose city we are. Another asks me if I was named after Lenin. I explain that being named in honor of St. Vladimir (Prince Vladimir Sviatoslavich of Kiev, who converted Russia to Christianity in 988) is closer to the truth.

          One also sees many Finns — quite a few of them tipsily staggering about — who are employed in Leningrad in various technical capacities. Then, there is a mind-boggling variety of exotic-looking aparatchiks from various comers of the Soviet global empire, as well as functionaries from "fraternal" communist parties in the West — all easy to identify by combinations of language, attire, and skin color. It is an interesting melange, matching ancient Rome's in its heyday or New York City's at the United Nations Building, but politically perhaps somewhat more skewed to the left.

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          One evening, as I emerge from the elevator on the 15th floor, where there is a foreign-currency bar frequented by the Artillery Company soldiers, a young woman hands me a piece of paper. At first, I think that she does not speak English and has found a new way to solicit. (There are literally no male Russian customers in the valuta bars in the hotel -- the KGB duties are presumably carried out by bartenders -- but one often sees Russian filles de joie that are allowed there for obvious reasons.) This girl seems different. She is no more than eighteen and has a striking beauty, unique to very young Russian girls: Blond hair, wide-set, dark-blue eyes, a perfect skin, fragile features, an aristocratic manner. She is interesting, all right, but less interesting than the mimeographed message: "Please help us free Sakharov."

          Sakharov is still confined to the city of Gorky, the Reykjavik Summit is due to start within days, so this makes some sense. "I have to do something for a couple of minutes, but if you are still here when I return, we can have a cup of tea, if you like," I say to her and go to the restroom to collect myself and put things in perspective. I flush the piece of paper down -- a naïve, meaningless precaution that seemed important at the time -- and decide that it is worth the risk to find out a little more about this young woman.

          When I return, I see her hand a note to another American who takes one look at it, gives it back, and disappears into an elevator. (No risks, but no epiphanies either.) Nina Mikhailovna(1) and I talk for about twenty minutes in the bar. She turns out to be sixteen, even younger than I thought, and says that she and a few like-minded school-friends decided to pass out the "Free Sakharov" leaflets. She seems idealistic, serious, pure. I reflect how silly it is, considering her maturity and commitment, to call Nina a "child" — as she would be treated under the U.S. law. One gets the impression that our teenagers are infantilized, for self-serving reasons, by the swelling ranks of the social-services industry. Parents and legislators perhaps find it difficult to resist patronizing psycho-babble.

          Nina and I agree to go to the Hermitage Museum and the Kazan Cathedral on Nevsky Prospekt the next day. I escort her out of the bar, carrying her lit cigarette, and to my shock see two gorillas in uniforms (one with a white motorcycle helmet) blocking our way. Without touching me, they take her under the arms and drag her into a waiting elevator. As the door closes, her cigarette still burning between my fingers, I see a sight that is hard to forget and of which I am now always reminded when I hear Westerners make complimentary remarks about the Soviet Union — inanities that ooze with good intentions, but are criminally naïve: Nina's huge eyes are fixed on me, she is screaming "Let me go!", and the gorillas are boxing her hard on the head.

          I run back to the bar, to the table of some Bostonian "soldiers," and tell them that I saw the police beating a young woman. It is to the credit of two of them, a prominent Boston lawyer and an Eastern Airlines pilot, that they rise instantly and follow me to the elevators. We go to the front desk and tell a clerk what happened, omitting the Sakharov part. In the lobby of the most prestigious hotel in Russia, full of foreigners from all over the world, we speak in a loud voice about the brutality of the police. My decision is to make everything as public as possible, with the idea that the threat of a scandal might save Nina (and me). It is easy to have doubts about this strategy in retrospect, but it seemed right at the time.

          The front-desk lady, Polina Andreyevna, makes several telephone calls, which, after a delay of about ten minutes, produce one of the two policemen to the front desk. In front of us, in Russian (which the Boston lawyer also understands), she calmly asks the policeman whether he beat a young girl: "Vi bili dyevushku?" He never faces us and speaks softly to Polina, who then tells us that Nina was arrested for "disorderly conduct" To this I say that we intend to pursue the matter and that we hope that she will be out of jail by tomorrow, without a single hair missing from her head. I add: "Polinushka, please ask the police officer to tell us which Soviet law permits him to beat young girls for whatever reason." A strange, almost defiant look in her eyes, Polina translates — rather too sympathetically for her own good, I think. The policeman leaves without a word and I thank Polina for her kindness.

          The next day in the early afternoon, I call Nina. I do this purposefully not from my room, but publicly, with the help of a clerk at the hotel post-office. Nina's mother, Olga Sergeyevna, answers and gives me Nina without hesitation. She has been released from jail and is apparently glad to hear from me. We decide against the museum (too much risk of being framed) and instead Nina is to meet me in the most public place possible, the large square in front of the hotel.

          The hotel entrance is high above the street, as on a pedestal, built in the charmless, grandiose style with which the Russians try to impress their own people and the Third World. At exactly 7 p.m., as I walk out of the hotel, I see Nina standing in the doorway of the Beriozhka store (for foreigners only), some 250 yards away across the square. We run toward each other and I study her face for bruises and signs of fear or suspicion. She says she was not beaten in jail. As we walk towards the hotel entrance, to assert Nina's right to be there, one of the gorillas from the night before appears as if from the ground. Nina gasps and grabs me under the arm, an instant before he lays his hand on her elbow. I gently remove his hand, saying "She is with me," and he, presumably acting on orders to avoid another commotion, gives up. We proceed without further obstruction.

          "Gone for five days," we are told brusquely at the front desk when we ask for Polina Andreyevna. Speaking Russian, calling her "Polinushka" (a diminutive the warmth of which only a Slavic speaker can sense), being kind to her - - and thus perhaps arousing Polina's sympathy - - resulted in her, one hopes only temporary, removal. (A government-paid vacation at the Black Sea just now seems unlikely.) I say to the new clerk: "Yesterday, this young lady was beaten in my presence and arrested for no reason in this hotel. I don't wish this to happen again. Is there a law that can be applied against her for being with me now?" "No, but she must be out of the hotel by 11 p.m." "She may well be, but please show me where is it written in the statute books that a Soviet citizen must be out of a hotel by 11 p.m.?" The clerk looks glum.

          We proceed to have dinner and many cups of tea, and even go to my room, where Nina pins the curtain together, just for fun, and I show her some slides of Big Sur. At 11:15 p.m. -- late enough to irritate the powers that be, but not break the law in a major way -- we go to the front desk: "My friend is leaving the hotel now. Please call a taxi." The clerk snaps: "A taxi cannot be obtained at this time of night"

          Letting Nina take a bus alone is out of the question under the circumstances, yet I am not going to be a hero and accompany her. We walk out of the hotel and notice that there is a car resembling a taxicab parked underneath the ramp leading to the entrance. We climb into it, but after one glance at the driver, we look at each other and scramble out by the opposite doors. The driver's face is that of a guard from the Gulag, in charge of a special-purpose "taxi". We return to the lobby and patiently wait for further developments, making the clerks uneasy.

          Twenty minutes later, a taxi stops in front of the hotel and a man gets out and hurries to the front desk. I ask him if he is an American. He nods and says that he needs change to pay his driver. Before die clerks can react, I grab his right arm, Nina's left, and we run out to the taxi. I slam the door behind Nina, toss three rubles and five dollars to the cabbie, and ask him to get going fast. He is a young man in a black leather jacket and Levis, who seems pleased with the dollars, and who must have seen a quick getaway in one movie or another - - so he leaps into the task with alacrity, Moskvich's tires screeching.

          The American from the taxi turns out to be yet another Boston "soldier", so when we arrive at the 15th-floor bar, I am offered an honorary membership in the Ancient Artillery Company. Later, we drink toasts to Czar Peter the Great, to St. Petersburg, and to Petrograd. We end the evening with a raucous rendition of "God Bless America." The well-tipped KGB bartenders join in, I have no idea how gleefully.

          It is the frosty, windy, late afternoon of the next day when I meet Nina again. We feel happy, but vulnerable and insignificant, in the absolutely deserted Gray Square in front of the hotel. I have a sense of admiration and protectiveness for this courageous girl, and of helplessness. I cannot give her money to replace the threadbare coat she wears every day, because it would be dangerous for both of us and the money might be simply taken away from her. Nor can I take her for a short trip to the relatively close-by Helsinki, so that she can have a glimpse of the West that supposedly stands for the values — freedom, justice — that she upholds, at age sixteen and without the benefit of a Western education.

          Even though the resident square gorilla is not in evidence today, we decide that it is unwise to push the authorities further by going to the hotel again. The point, such as it is, has either already been made or can never be made. Instead, Nina and I go for a walk along the waterfront behind the hotel. Here, the waters of the Neva and the Gulf of Finland begin to mix. I bring some water to my lips, as I have done at Lake Baikal -- and Nina joins me in this ritual.

          Her conscience is her own, I tell her, and she should do what it dictates to her, but if I am to give her advice, as her father or brother (she has neither), it is to stop putting herself in jeopardy. I show her how I sign my first name in both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets — naïve amateurs trying to outsmart a formidable foe that likes to read and forge mail, but this ritual, too, means something to us. Our parting is quick: Tears streaming from her eyes and mine thoroughly wet.

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          When I return to the hotel, I inquire at the front desk about the policeman, wondering aloud whether he has perhaps been sent to Siberia for reeducation. The answer is: "No, not Siberia, but he has been removed from duty during your stay here." A Pyrrhic victory indeed.

          The Artillery Company leaves a few hours later and I feel very alone, yet reluctant to walk around Leningrad, in view, among other things, of what happened to Daniloff. An "incident", followed by being pushed into an unmarked KGB car, is too easy to arrange. I am objectively of no interest to these people, but the problem is that they cannot be absolutely certain that this is so without probing further. And I am not about to make it easy for them to probe.

          My suspicions increase further in the afternoon and evening. I am accosted, on the flimsiest pretexts, by strange men who address me first in poor Russian and then, when I decline to acknowledge that I understand them, proceed to speak to me, respectively, in native Andalusian Spanish, Algarve Portuguese, and Parisian French (all parts of the world in which I have spent considerable amounts of time). The guys from Cádiz want to talk about Felipe Gonzales and the role of N.A.T.O. in Spain, the Portuguese about the gang-rape trial of some fishermen, originally from the Azores, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and the Frenchman is curious about the American opinion of Le Pen, the right-wing National Front leader. Instead of going along, I question these people about the names and precise locations of villages in which they were born and about their families and professions, then abruptly switch to the query of whether or not they work for the Soviet police. It is probably hard to convince the reader of this, but not one of these gentlemen seems offended by the latter question. A few of them explicitly acknowledge doing police work, while others semi-admit it, sometimes with a sense of humor and a wink.

          When at the end of the evening, in the 15th floor bar (looking desolate without the Bostonians), a combination of Anna Karenina and Nabokov's Ada offers to buy a bottle of champagne for the two of us, I have had enough machinations. I prop a chair against the door of my room, sleep fitfully, photograph the dawn break out over the water, and call the U.S. Consulate General at 9:15 a.m. Time has come to increase my visibility (and, thus, safety).

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          The Consulate's treatment of me belies the various media and tourist accounts of the indifference of the State Department (and CIA?) officials abroad. They immediately send a large, black Chevrolet to pick me up in front of the hotel. KGB doormen and bellhops gawk, as the driver. Firs, gives me a big smile and comes around to open the rear right door smartly. Instead, I sit next to him, as one would in a cab in friendly, "populist" places like Eau Claire, Wisconsin, or Christchurch, New Zealand. He seems surprised and pleased by this. As we drive, the passersby furtively stare at the car. All of Leningrad knows that the U.S. Consulate cars have white-on-red D004... license plates.

          What does the magnificence of the 18th-century St. Petersburg that Firs is driving me through mean to Nina? She is proud of it. Is it important to her to be assured of a job, a roof over her head, and health insurance over a lifetime? She is too young to think of such things. What does she think of? Freedom to travel and freedom for an old man whom she has never met. Nina probably does not give a hoot about Sakharov's role in the development of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. She cares, simply and idealistically, for a symbol of resistance.

          Firs warns that before entering the Consulate, it is required to get out of the car and show one's passport. There are two young Soviet policemen in immaculate uniforms at the gate. I reflect on how carefully picked they must be and on the frequency with which each must inform on the behavior of the other. So close, for so long, to the gate to the West. If one tried to slip in, would the other shoot him or would he slip in also?

          One of them studies my picture for an eternity, and we exchange a look -- long, but without hostility. A smart military salute and a click of the heels executed by both of them, and then Firs and I drive into the Consulate's courtyard through a tunnel that must have witnessed splendid horses and carriages in the times of the Czars.

          Inside, I experience nothing but courtesy and a good deal of support for my interpretation of various events. I am asked whether I wish to leave on the first possible flight. I consider this, but only for a moment Why change one's laboriously made plans because of bullies? Besides, I have never seen Karelian woods in late fall. So, I ask the Consulate to arrange a safe-conduct pass instead and am assured this will be done.

          During the drive back from Ul. Petra Lavrova to the hotel. Firs tells me that it is hard to work for Americans in the USSR. I ask him, with a smile, how often he has to report to the KGB. He says with a shrug: "You know how that goes." Poor Firs now has a different job (if any). People like him were caught in the crossfire between an act of the U.S. Congress dictating that foreign nationals in sensitive legations be replaced by U.S. citizens, the Soviet pre-emptive "withdrawal" of their citizens from the U.S. Moscow Embassy and Leningrad Consulate, and the Marine Guard spy scandal in both places. One forgets how many such casualties there are in the ups-and-downs of the American-Soviet relations.

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          My scheduled departure is a few days away, which I spend mostly in my room, reading. Izvestiya and Pravda pile up on the floor. I am sorely tempted to set down on paper the events that have transpired, but decide that it is too risky to make complete entries. Thank God that I have never been in a political prison where I would have undoubtedly learned how to outsmart the censors and lectors of my letters and diaries.

          In the International Herald Tribune for October 11/12,1986, that I picked up at the Consulate, I see a news item about the release of the poet Irina Ratushinskaya from prison. She was sentenced in 1983 to seven years in a labor camp and five years of internal exile for "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda." A poem of hers is quoted:

    I will live and survive and be
    How they slammed my head
against a trestle,
    How I had to freeze at night,
    How my hair started to turn grey
    I will smile. And will crack some
   And brush away the encroaching

          (The following month, I am in Israel and see an item in the Jerusalem Post for November 20,1986: "Albert (Haim) Burshtein, 21, a leading activist among Leningrad refuseniks, was arrested by the KGB earlier this week and jailed for 15 days. Burshtein has been under increasing pressure from the Soviet authorities, and it is feared that the arrest may be a prelude to more severe moves against him. Burshtein, who gathers information on Prisoners of Zion and tries to help their families, was dragged from a taxi last week by five KGB men and severely beaten. He was warned. 'It'll be much worse for you next time'.")

          Indeed, how much worse would it be for Nina and me if we were Jewish? The KGB pressure makes everyone feel Jewish, or should. But in the hotel, to protect myself, I use my partially Slavic heritage, knowledge of the Russian language, familiarity with the Russian literature and customs, my first name -- all of that in combination with being an American and tipping the correct amount at the right time -- to enlist the loyalty of various members of the staff. With Yasha, a good man who can arrange for the late-night room-service if he feels like it, I discuss Beg, Bulgakov's film about the momentous, fratricidal clash of the Whites and Reds and its treatment of the Karamazovian expanse of the Russian soul -- from the infinitely tender to the bestial (as he puts it). An elderly lady, Marina, takes my laundry away every few days after sorting it into white and colored piles in the pre-1861-style, on her knees. She calls me "Volodya," I call her "Babushka." The day I am to leave, she appears with a present, mittens she knitted for me. I kiss her hollow cheeks, she grabs me by the hands and attempts to kiss them. I do not let her and instead bring her wrinkled, rough hands to my lips. She cries, "Volodya, you are more Russian than we are."

          There are serious estimates that every sixth citizen of the USSR works for the KGB directly or indirectly. Perhaps one could survive in this country by befriending the other five-sixths.

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          Finally, the day of departure. The Consulate offers me a ride, but I see no point in that, and so am driven by an Intourist chauffeur in the usual black Volga to Finlandskiy Vokzal, Finland Station, where Lenin arrived from Zurich on April 3, 1917, to change the world -- at least temporarily. There are no more than about twenty people on the whole train and I have an entire car to myself, or rather a reserved sleeping compartment within an empty car -- for a five-hour daytime journey. One of the reasons for this is that the Intourist always books the most expensive accommodations possible for Western travelers, and especially those traveling alone (one has no choice over this). Another is the privacy of the search at the border, which is what I dread in this empty car.

          I watch the handsome tree-lined suburbs of Leningrad recede and then there is an endless succession of lakes and forests. The autumnal colors are just a notch below those of Central Siberia in splendor, which are, in turn, an exact match for the riot of nuances one sees in Vermont. I stand at the open window and inhale deeply.

          A little later, I walk to the dining-car to have my last cup of strong Russian tea. Car after car, all eerily empty. It is with relief that I come upon four burly Rumanians from Ploesti who are partaking in a home-made meal fit for Gargantua: Stacks of pork chops, slabs of bacon with barely perceptible layers of meat in it, thick slices of dark Russian bread. One of these gentlemen has arranged five garlic cloves in a geometric design on his arm-rest They offer me grapes the likes of which I have not tasted since I was last in Yugoslavia, and I am grateful.

          The train stops in front of a grey building in the last Soviet town before the border. A chill goes down my spine, as multitudes in uniform empty out of the building and climb onto the train. A young officer appears and motions me into my compartment. His job is to collect passports, lock all the windows, and check the restrooms for hidden people. I sit, trying to concentrate on some reading matter, and dread what I know will be an ordeal. I have crossed many notorious borders without ever feeling quite this way -- and not because of anything in my luggage, but because of Nina. Somehow I feel that the Soviet way of dealing with troublesome foreigners is to delay physical techniques until the psychological arsenal has been fully exhausted.

          The roof of the car is checked and so is its underbelly. As at Checkpoint Charlie between East and West Berlin, each of these actions is a move in an endless game of chess between those who wish to escape and their captors.

          The train lurches forward and moves slowly out of the station. For a brief instant, my heart leaps with wild hope that, against all odds, there will be no search. I know that this is absurd and indeed hope is soon replaced by even more intense trepidation when the train comes to a standstill in the middle of an open field. I have been brought a quarter of a mile closer to Finland, only to be further from it, because the search and interrogation can be conducted in even greater seclusion. This brutal emotional jag, a sharp increase in hope followed by despair, must have been experienced, magnified a thousand times, by untold numbers of refugees the world over from time immemorial,

          Doors, footsteps, voices saying "Amerikanets..." A three-person team arrives. The point man, I will call him Solyony, is large, hard-eyed, and hard-jawed. I stand in the middle of my compartment and refuse to budge when he barges in. Spatial relations between people are very important in psychology, as they are in the theater. My compartment is a sleeper for one person, and so the standing space is limited. Therefore, the two other members of the team stand in the hallway. At the door is a good-looking, dark-haired woman in her thirties, Natalya Ivanovna. She has delicate features, a polite tone of voice, and fine, long, piano fingers. Her English is fluent, so she translates for Solyony who at first pretends not to understand it. The third man, Fedotik, is older and has a kindly face. He stands in the hallway and does not speak. To this day, I do not know his role. Perhaps Fedotik was trained in the observation of human behavior, as border officials sometimes are. Perhaps he was to be Mutt, in addition to Natalya's Muttette, in contrast to Solyony's Jeff. Perhaps three-person teams are necessary to insure that bribes are not accepted. Or perhaps the KGB union regulations stipulate three people on the job at all times.

          Having carefully thought about it in Leningrad, I have a detailed strategy for the situation. For a start, I speak English only. When Natalya says: "But you speak Russian, no?" (the word from Leningrad has reached them, needless to say), I answer: "Of course I do. It is easy for a Yugoslav-born person to have some command of it." She quizzes me gently: "So?" "I choose not to speak it now." Rule#l: Do not be obliging or ingratiating.

          Solyony wants to open a suitcase lying on the bed (located at face level -- a sofa for day use is below it), but finds it locked. He addresses not me, but Natalya, who asks me to unlock the suitcase, and I do. Rule #2: Wear them down, as they try to do to you; make them work each step of the way.

          As Solyony begins to go through the suitcase, Natalya inquires about my purchase and currency-exchange receipts. I give her a large envelope stuffed with little bits of paper pertaining to these matters. Rule #3: Document everything to the last kopeck. One deals with these people as one does with the IRS, but to the power of six. The envelope is taken away and subsequently returned to me in good order.

          After rummaging through the suitcase for a while, Solyony fishes out a canvas bag (for dirty linen, "borrowed" from a Shanghai hotel) full of undeveloped films. As he begins to open the black plastic boxes, I say to Natalya: "There are exactly 29 rolls of film, and I wish them to be 29 in number after your colleague is through." She almost chuckles. I say: "Please translate," and she does. Soon, Solyony becomes irritated and returns the bag with films into the suitcase. There is then a lengthy examination of each fold and pocket of my clothes, and a scrutiny of countless small items, before the suitcase is finally shut.

          Solyony now decides to switch to polite English. He points to another suitcase, standing on the floor, and says: "Open." I answer: "You wish to see it. You open it. It is not locked." With a resigned shrug, he jerks one suitcase to the floor and heaves the other to the bed. This suitcase is crammed with papers of all kinds: Personal correspondence, diaries, scientific articles, note books, dozens of business cards and addresses written on pieces of paper. Information explodes into Solyony's unhappy face as he begins to realize that it would take him a year to get through it all.

          I try to help him: "See, this is my curriculum vitae. It describes everything I have done and published. Read it and you will know who I am." Rule #4: Perplex them with honesty. Solyony answers: "Do you think I am stupid? I want to know who you really are." Since it is possible that in the Soviet Union not a single person has a complete curriculum vitae on paper, except in somebody else's file, I can sympathize with his stupefaction.

          Then I say: "Yes, I think you are stupid. Do you really believe that I'm going to have something illegal in this suitcase when I know that it's going to be searched? The only way you can find something is if you put it there yourself and that would mean that your Government wants another Daniloff case. The American Consulate General is well aware of this. Let me tell you, I don't break the law in my country and I don't break it in yours." Solyony gives me a wry smile: "You don't, hunh?" I look him straight in the eye: "No." Rule #5: Define right and wrong by your own ethics, not the opponent's.

          As he keeps searching, Solyony says peevishly: "I have to do this. It's my job." Inwardly, I emit a sigh of relief.

          Solyony tries to shake off the despondency of defeat by picking up a notebook off the top of a stack of diaries I kept during the previous five months in Asia. As he begins to open it, I snap it shut with two fingers. "No. Private. My diary." He thinks hard and fast, and finally puts it back. I then show him, with a smirk, that the last entry was in Erlian on the Chinese-Mongolian border. Rule #6 and coup de grâce: Predict their behavior and make sure they know you have done it.

          As the team finally leaves, Natalya tells me courteously that my passport would be returned soon. I look at my watch: It took them over an hour for two suitcases. I stare through the window, time passes. About ten minutes later, footfalls again. I look up expectantly, hoping to receive my passport. Wrong. They take one more swipe at decency, make one more attempt at psychological harassment. The young officer who first locked the windows enters my compartment and motions to me to get up. When I do, he opens the sofa on which I was sitting. Unbeknownst to me, it contains a storage bin for linen large enough for Nina to hide in. But it is free even of lint.

          After a few more minutes, Fedotik arrives, hands me the passport, and salutes, clicking his heels. The train moves, picks up speed, stops again. A man in blue appears at the door of my compartment. I say : "Finland?" He nods and smiles - the Russians must have delivered people this exhausted to him many times before. I show him my passport and he does not even open it. "Welcome to Finland" he says instead and, when leaving, does not click his heels.

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          Later, from the dining-car, I stare at the sun-lit, sodden beauty of Karelia, or rather what Finland has left of it after large chunks were appropriated by the Soviet Union. Two young Finnish women, sitting across the aisle, engage me in a conversation regarding camera f-stops. They arc exceptionally well-dressed and self-assured. I ask them what they did in the Soviet Union. With a haughty air, one of them tells me that they were attending seminars in Moscow. When I inquire what the seminars were about, she reveals that she had been elected the General Secretary of the Finnish Youth Peace League and that the Moscow trip was her first in that capacity. The F.Y.P.L., I know, and friends in Finland later confirm, is a Soviet-sponsored, virulently anti-American front for a youth communist organization with international connections. The girls next tell me that they are seventeen.

          One can draw a comparison of two teenage European girls. One, from the East: Wearing old clothes, unfree to travel, beaten by the police and risking her freedom and future for an elusive cause of justice in the Western mould. The other, from the West, at least the prostrated, appeasing, Finlandized West that the Finland of the Urho Kekkonen line has given direction to for forty years: Well-off, exquisitely dressed, and free to travel -- pretending to be unaware that others cannot; flirting with an ideology that would destroy the source of her own freedom; bulldozing for Western surrender behind a "PEACE" cardboard placard -- a Trojan horse with great emotional appeal for Western naïfs.

          In the Helsinki train station, a fine 1914 building designed by Eliel Saarinen, I am met by friends. I ask them if my Russo-Asian trip has aged me noticeably and they laugh. I lift Paulina, their four-year old daughter with golden hair, onto the porter's cart and she also laughs -- far less disingenuously than her parents. The little girl does not yet know that she lives close to a very strange border.

          When we arrive at my friends' house in the suburbs of Helsinki, I call the American Embassy. The Marine Guard on duty says: "Welcome, Sir! We were beginning to worry about you. Your train arrived 34 minutes ago." I feel properly chastised and grateful for the fatherly care of this man only a couple of years older than Nina and the F.Y.P.L. General Secretary.

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          In the end, what did it all mean with Nina? Did I help her or did I make it worse for her? Did she inadvertendy put me in danger from the start? Was I actually in danger? To what extent was I helped by the intervention of the American Consulate and the fortuitous riming of the Reykjavik Summit? In my most self-flattering moments, I like to think that Nina and I have contributed, in however puny a way, to the fact that Sakharov is now in Moscow and able to speak more freely, and that the Daniloff type of case is less likely to occur. None of these things is likely to be clarified even when, and if, Nina is allowed to come for a visit, as both my wife and I wish will happen.

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          I wrote the previous sentence in the Junction Motel, Sturgis, South Dakota, at 8:45 p.m. on Wednesday, October 19,1988, and then switched on the television set. There instantly appeared, on Donahue, the face of Vladimir Pozner, a Soviet correspondent who is occasionally allowed remarks that maintain the pretense of his independence from the Soviet government. By a mind-boggling coincidence, the very first words I hear Pozner say are: "I think our policy on emigration is wrong. I think everybody who wants to leave ought to be allowed to do so. Not just the Jews."



          Since October 1986, I received a score of letters from Nina -- in West Berlin, Jerusalem, Cape Town, and San Diego. Some excerpts:

          November 5, 1986: "My mother... told you much thanks because you made me to change my behavior."

          December 4, 1986: "My dear Vladimir, last night I received your letter (3 weeks!) and you can't imagine how I was happy. You will not believe me but I was jumping around the room and told much good words my mother, who had brought me your letter. It happens at the worst moment in my life, as I thought, but changes everything at one second. I can't write you what the trouble was, but you must know that I had much troubles during last two weeks, connected with my previous actions ... I didn't know what can I do plus there was no your letter, too long, I thought."

          January 1987: "I can't practise my English... I can't study it now and I risk to forget the little I know. So I began to translate songs and video-films for my friends. My friends think me to be a great specialist of English language. If they had known how much mistakes I find checking myself at home with dictionary..."

          February 3, 1987: "Your letter went more than a month ... and it's very difficult for me... because I'm always afraid you didn't receive my letter, especially when you were in Israel... "

          March 16, 1987: "I received your letter in which you describe the accident in Kalahari desert. I'm so happy that you are alive, but I worry about your health."

          May 6, 1987: "... when I return to Leningrad, I'll go to study. And I don't like to work here, where everybody knows about my problems with Soviet law."

          September 14, 1987: "Next year I'll try to enter the university. But I don't know what study... I have abilities for almost everything, but can't choose something for serious studying. What do you think about psychology? You, as psychologist, must know, can I or can't? If you say 'no', I'll never try it."

          November 28, 1987: "Some days ago, Olga, my mother, saw American psychologist in the bookstore. She said he was from the University of California. It was a moment when I thought: wasn't it you, come here and told nothing about it. I'm foolish. Then I learnt his name, thank God."

          January 25, 1988: "I live in sanatorium now. I take here ultra-violet rays, oxygen cocktails and warm my throat. I live in room with three women. When I resented something they did, they said they'll hang me into the wardrobe -- feet up, head down, in the pose of bat, as they said. The number of my room is 6, so we name it 'Ward No. 6,' after Chekhov."

          March 30, 1988: "I'm out of sanatorium now and preparing to examinations in the university... At the sanatorium, we had one shower on the floor, and administration gave only one hour a day for shower-bathes ... I send you a postcard with Chekhov's birth-house in Taganrog, on the Sea of Azov."

          June 27, 1988: "I received the psychology book you sent. It's very interesting... I never before read real American book."

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          It is now November, 1988, and Andrey Sakharov has arrived for a three-week visit to the U.S.A. — unaware, of course, that Nina Mikhailovna exists.

(1) I have changed all names into Chekhovian ones, but am under no illusion that I have thus concealed the identity of the people in question from the Soviet authorities. Rather, this might protect their privacy from those to whom they chose not to disclose the described events.


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