In summer 1966 I went off to the good old Soviet Union as part of program sponsored by the National Defense Education Act. The USSR dictatorship was out of money and so, for a certain fee agreed to in Washington, succumbed to permit certain American teachers of Russian to travel as a group to a number of cities, even to visit kolkhozes in European USSR. I was a teacher of Russian in a Minneapolis high school at the time, and had recently earned a graduate degree in Soviet Studies at the time, and was very fortunate to be chosen for the summer visit in European USSR. The following is from a series of writings I recorded from this incredible visit.
On my way to the USSR the flight stopped off at Copenhagen, Denmark. Since this was my first foreign trip outside of Canada, I didn’t sleep much nor did I try. So, while in the taxi to my first USSR residence, the Hotel Europa in Leningrad, about 4:30 AM, the city was awakening, the sun didn’t ever really set, but I hardly noticed, for I was beat. I was stationed on the third floor in a room by myself ready to lie on a cot- like bed with the traditional Russian bed roll….
Before bed and rest, however, I had to check in with the dezhurnaia, the one closest to my room, and one of four each located at the corners of this very square clean yet shabby rooming building. The job of the dezhurnaia, always a gal, was to “guard” your key while you were out, and record all times of your comings and goings. That was part of the job description, but not often told to foreigners. After a week or so, I discovered that one key fit all of the doors on my floor, and at least one, if not all on the second floor.
I fell asleep outside the bed roll. The excitement was too overwhelming for I slept for only two hours. Workers clanging bottles from the floors below set me off to find Boris.
I looked on the back of the note he had slipped into my pocket earlier that morning and I noticed he had sketched a map. His penmanship was very Russian, but the park marked next to his office building was clearly written. I had one item to take care of first. When I first left the hotel before I reached the public walk, I was accosted by black marketeers, young men after my suit jacket, my shoes, my wrist watch, my hat…all of which looked quite foreign and rich, I am sure. Officially the monetary exchange was one to one, ruble to dollar. On the black market, I could get 14 rubles per dollar, sometimes more…But it was illegal for guests to the country to deal on the black market, such as selling clothes, and trading goods or money. Eventually, I befriended one of these free market traders, but that is another story.
I found a clothing store and bought a white shirt, black shoes, black pants, slightly baggy, black socks and a rather loose formless brown sweater. After paying the gal at the abacus, I hustled back to my room, and once so clothed was never bothered by these corner entrepreneurs again.
The State did not allow customers to try on clothing to check the fit. All goods were encased in glass fixtures…The customer pointed to the item and announced to the clerk the style desired. I had to ask the only other customer in the shop what his size of pants and shirt was, for tagged sizes were in numbers unfamiliar to me as sizes. He politely answered, for I was still in foreigner clothing. I received a ticket for each item I wanted to purchase. I was given a ticket with the price of each item and walked over to the lady at the abacus, the beaded box which determined your final price. One usually would wait in long lines, but in this case there standing was the one guy I had asked about the sizes. Then after making my payment for goods purchased, I had to return to the clerk with my receipt showing payment. She would now check to see if she could find my sizes. She couldn’t find any pants my size. I asked if she had the next size larger. She did and wrapped it up for me. But, I forgot to buy a belt. To my luck there were four to choose from. First I had to get the clerk’s ticket of price, go again to the abacus lady, have her bead up the amount, I paid, and returned with the receipt, but I didn’t know my size, and this, I knew might be very critical… I explained to the clerk I really didn’t know my size. She looked disgusted, but just for a moment….and let me try one on. It was too tight. She told me the size I needed and she handed me the belt. My first business transaction in the good old USSR.
When I returned to my hotel room, I noticed the locked padlock to my largest suitcase had been cut off and placed neatly on my dresser. Someone wanted me to know I had made a mistake.