I spent a couple weeks in Kiev in 1966 as well as in 1990. The city was not unattractive in either year, but a bit shabbier in 1990. Shabbier maybe, but much, much more enlightened, more thrilling, a much more wonderful place to be. The human spirit had been reborn in this part of the good old USSR.
Funny. I can’t remember either hotel name, but I remember events at the earlier hotel much better, especially the night they locked me out.
The 1966 hotel was new…newer looking than it was. It had been built a full year earlier, yet the scaffolding, tons of construction debris had never made it out of the main lobby and reception area. It was a seventeen floor structure, one elevator, capacity 4. Furthermore the lift ran infrequently. I am not sure whether the slowness was according to Government plan or simply a freak of nature, or both, but it seldom operated and when it did operate it rose slowly, very slowly.
I asked various employees and those seemingly in charge why all the debris and scaffolding hadn’t been taken away. Why was the construction dust all over everywhere? Why wasn’t it swept away, at least? Answered all…”It’s not my job.” Couldn’t you call someone who’s in charge?..”It’s not my job.”
I lived on the twelfth floor. I dragged my bags up the stairs the first night we arrived, and dragged them down when I checked out. I decided to spend as much time away from the stairways and therefore the hotel as possible. In each corner of each floor sat the inevitable dezhurnaia spying and recording comings and goings of those she was assigned to “serve”, by guarding guest’s keys. I have no idea if, as in the Hotel Europa, the same key fit all rooms of the same floor. My main suitcase had no lock, for the lock had been cut off the bag after my first night in Leningrad.
I did alot of people hunting in Kiev in 1966. Chairman Khrushchev had been ousted recently. That had deeply interested me. I had so many interesting conversations with people I met in the parks, once on the beach here in Kiev, in some restaurants, and on the streets. People waiting, sitting on benches. They were very reluctant to start talking. Maybe it was because so few other people talked in public simply from habit. I picked my “victims”. I was rebuffed by many.
One afternoon I just decided to see what would happen if I wore my stylish American sport jacket, chartreuse, yes, but not loud, summer hat of matching chartreuse, a first rate off-gray dress shirt, dark green summer slacks well fitting and wearing my American sunglasses. I looked Hollywood. I would not have looked Hollywood if I had worked downtown Minneapolis in 1966, however.
All eyes were on me before I even left the hotel. I got about 25 feet away from the entrance and the black market boys started to call out prices what they would pay for articles of clothing which I was actually wearing. When I laughed and returned responses to them in Russian, they more or less dispersed.. With the exception of three guys who persisted pursuing. They were dressed rather sharply themselves and I noticed they had rather bullied away a few of their perceived competitors. I sat down to talk with them. They did have a sense of humor. I wanted to know who they were, because they acted differently…so sure of themselves. Their dress, their carriage. They talked loud and proud. Very unRussian characteristics. Yet, my heart was pounding.. I was worried, but not as much as I was curious.
Even they were shocked when I told them I was American. They said they had never met an American. They thought me German by looks, but I didn’t speak Russian with any accent. One of them did say that I sounded like those “out of date” people. Although my pronounciation was at that time immaculate, I did know that some of my words were too perfect and stiff. We actually had a good discussion. They were about 20 to 23 years old. So on top of the world. I knew what they were after…some clothing …something I owned. Not to sell, but to own and wear.
How much money did I make? Have I ever been to New York? What was it like there? What about California. Did I come from money? How big was my house? Did my wife work? What kind of car did I own? Why didn’t I drive a convertible?..I teased them and they would laugh. They finally told me they were Komsomoltsi..Young Communist League members. Which meant their fathers were active Party members and that gave them the confidence they were free to display. Their future as Party members would be assured. It also would mean that if they got into a bit of trouble their fathers would be able to cover for them. And they joked about it. They bragged about some such experiences.
Finally I told them I had to go. They approached me with a favor. They would take me out to a top spot restaurant of Kiev, if I would agree to wear the clothes I was wearing with one additional twist…”Please don’t let on that you speak Russian”.
“Whatever for”, I asked.
“We’ll tell them you’re from America. We’ll get the best table. They’ve got a good show there. You’ll like it.” I accepted. We went the very next evening. Yes, I was treated like a king from the moment I entered the place. The imperious receptionist proudly waved us past all the tables to the very front, about fifteen feet from a very pleasant sounding quasi jazz quintet. The Komsomoltsi were disappointed. Although they claimed they had never been there before, they had expected music something “younger”.
Somehow I believed them. I was really enjoying myself, but I was quietly nervous. No one there seemed to recognize them. Food was quite good. Something like salmon. I told them I would buy wine because in America no one drank vodka. So we had wine accompanying our three or four course meal leading off with a very good borscht. Crowd was good..dressed quite well for a State Socialist country. No one wore chartreuse, so I did steal the visual show for the evening. Toilets weren’t fragrant. A young gal sang along with the quintet for awhile, which turned more nostalgic than jazz. It would have been an enjoyable evening anywhere. I insisted on paying. They argued. I won.
I didn’t see these young Communists for several days. They said they were going to a family’s dacha. Some folks are more equal than others in the good old USSR, and these more equal folks are Party members.
During the following evenings I stayed out till an hour or two after midnight. When I returned to the hotel the same quiet old man would let me in without any fuss. About the fourth evening I returned about 3AM and the same fellow was on duty. I did ask him if this was inconvenient for him. He replied it was not. I spent these times in a nearby park picking out someone to talk to. Some gals going to beauty school, a student jounalist. This was late July. There were many people there in small groups till late hours of the night, talking. Not much drinking. I don’t remember seeing any, as a matter of fact. If so, it was all very quiet. In 1990 there were drunks everywhere.
Finally one night about 12:45 I returned to the hotel. The door was locked. Some of the lights were turned off. I wrapped and wrapped on the door. Then I pounded and pounded. The same man on duty for the ten or more days I had lived at the hotel, slowly and reluctantly shuffled toward the door.
“Go away”, he both ordered and motioned. “We close at midnight sharp!”….
“That’s not true, and you know that’s not true!” I reasoned rather loudly. “You have let me in after twelve every single night since I got here and never made a fuss. Don’t lie. “Go away”…and then..”Come back in the morning!” It went on and on…but I noticed he was weakening. Then I changed tactics. I was getting cold. “Who told you to lock me out?” “Tell me..Who told you to pretend you don’t know who I am?….Then he said, “Wait a moment”, and left the entryway with the door locking as it shut.
At least an hour later with me sitting against the entryway of Kiev’s major newest “downtown” hotel, the old man asked, “Are you the American on the twelfth floor”…He knew darned well who I was all the time. I had talked with him nearly every night since I had arrived. “Yes, indeed.” He let me in, locked the door and turned away quietly. The door was not locked at midnight the next evening, nor the next. This little two and a half hour delay getting into my hotel would never be forgotten.