Being Foreign in the Soviet Union in the 1960s

David McDuff‘s series finishes off with a few posts about what it was like to be a foreigner in the Soviet Union in the 1960s. The following are only short excerpts from each post.

Going Back IX

Writing this now, nearly forty years later, I’m conscious that much has changed in the world and in Moscow since those slightly eerie days of the mid-Cold War. Back then, the mere sight of anything “Western” – nye nash – on a Moscow street was enough to arouse suspicion, and alert the ubiquitous enforcers of order and discipline as well as those who sought to elude them. If one wore jeans, one was likely to be asked to sell them; if one was discovered to be carrying a bag full of Kellogg’s cornflakes boxes, Kit-Kat biscuits, cartons of sterilized milk and jars of Nescafe (shopping was often done for several members of the group), one was likely to get a similar request, or even simply have the things taken away by an officious “citizen”. At GUM (the large universal department store) or along Gorky Street, it was usual to be approached by touts trying to conduct the illegal exchange of Western currency for rubles. There was therefore quite a strong motivation to remain anonymous and nondescript – being conspicuously Western was not such a good idea….

One morning, while shopping at GUM with a friend, I witnessed something I hadn’t seen before: from a point on the second tier of the balconies around the store, a young woman suddenly threw a bunch of leaflets into the air, and there was a brief flash of metal as she chained herself to the railings. The leaflets fell among the crowd of shoppers below. No one picked them up. Suddenly, I heard two or three voices chanting what later turned to have been slogans. Then the young woman was gone, and the chanting stopped. It was all over within about a minute. The demonstrators were removed by police, and the crowds went on with their shopping as if nothing had happened.

Going Back X

The strangeness and massiveness of the university environment and also of the urban environment in Moscow itself led to a certain degree of alienation, which in turn prompted many of us to withdraw into private rituals. After a morning and early afternoon session at the Library, for example, a few of us would often repair to one of the large hotels in the vicinity – usually the National or the Moskva – for “lunch”. I put the word in quotes, as it was really the Russian obed. For the equivalent of about six dollars, one could eat a perfectly decent four-course meal with Soviet champagne in the vast and almost deserted tourist restaurant of the National, looking out at the snowy square. In the restaurant it was warm and comfortable, and I think we saw it as a kind of escape from the travails of Zone V, where there weren’t even the basic prerequisites of comfort – not even a laundry that was anywhere within reasonable walking distance: clothes were generally washed in the shower, with soap powder brought from the embassy store. So there we sat, while the snow fell outside, and the light began to fail, and we passed the hours in pleasant conversation. It was really a kind of withdrawal.

Going Back XI

I’d met quite a few Russians during my stay – in particular, there were Tolya and Aida: they had links with dissident painters and sculptors, whose studios we visited. I was always struck by the intensity and passion with which Russians discussed art and literature – it was quite unlike anything I had ever come across in the West. There was a genuine hunger for information about life in the West – even “dissident” Russians had many strange preconceptions about it, which was inevitable given the almost total block on such factual matter in the official media, and the lack of knowledge of West European languages: most Russians we met knew practically no English, for example…. In general, the political climate in the Soviet Union climate at that time was such that it was almost impossible to strike up real and lasting friendships with ordinary Soviet citizens. The degree of suspicion and fear was palpable: even on an informal night out, there was always the possibility of being followed and spied on, and I witnessed this on several occasions. It was also generally impossible to discuss Soviet politics, even with those Russians who considered themselves “freethinking”: the reality of eavesdropping and surveillance was everywhere. Only in the more than slightly Dostoyevskian atmosphere of Viktor’s room back at MGU did I ever witness political discussions that were completely uninhibited: but then the participants were often working hand-in-hand with the authorities, and “provocation” was the watchword of the hour.

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