Reflections On Russia

A journalist's view of the light and the dark of the Soviet Union

One of the articles in USSR/USA (IC#15)
Originally published in Winter 1987 on page 23
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

Alice Tallmadge is a graduate student in journalism at the University of Oregon. Last year she was part of the "Women’s Journey for Peace" to the Soviet Union, sponsored by the Earthstewards Network. This article first appeared in Connections Journal and Resource Directory (P.O. Box 10367, Eugene OR), and is reprinted with permission. Subscriptions to the quarterly are $8/year.

As the plane crossed over the Gulf of Finland and headed southeast toward Moscow, the excitement began to rise in me, unexpected and producing a fluttering in my stomach. Images that had lain dormant since my 50s childhood woke, clear and bright as if they had never slept. Here I was, piercing the Iron Curtain I was taught about then: that vast wall that sliced the globe in half, beyond which colors had been drained, people were stern, formidable, unforgiving, where darkness ruled. I was entering the land I had been taught to fear, the country we had to protect ourselves against, regardless of the cost. I remembered sitting at the base of a hill, the sun all around us, our feet drying off from another bout in a small creek that was our summer refuge and delight. "What would you do right now," one of the older girls challenged us, "if right now the Russians were to come over that hill?"

The iciness of that possibility never left me, despite my maturation into political analysis, trust in an endless information bank, and disgust at my own country’s attempt to corral political evil and place its source on the other side of that ideological curtain. And here I was sailing through that curtain, the land below us green, sparse of cities, cut by rivers, pushed up, leveled, solid and innocent as earth anywhere else.

As the plane dropped toward land, the stewardess reminded us that it was forbidden to take photographs from the airplane, or of the airport. Our first official restriction. I leaned toward the windows to drink in what I could of this landscape that couldn’t be photographed: the sloped roofs of old barns, neat, green gardens, narrow, unpaved streets, a quiet, uncrowded airfield.

I arranged myself for customs tentatively, yet alert to guard my film from the high level Soviet X-rays. A young guard, maybe 22 or 23, snapped us through the customs line. His body language was strong, terse, used to being obeyed. I entered the customs booth and closed the gate — my first face-to- face encounter with Soviet authority. This man could find an error in my visa, question that I am who I am, forbid my entry into his mysterious land. I mustered my courage and blurted out "Hello" in Russian. He looked up, surprised, and I looked back at him, surprised. He was about 17. His teeth were dark and spotted. He had pimples, bright eyes. I could see him pitching hay somewhere in the summer, or heaving rocks at tree stumps with his buddies to break up a slow, hot afternoon. Something in my eyes let go. He found nothing amiss in my papers, gave them back with a smile and an English "Thank you." I give him a Russian "Spahseba (thank you)." He smiled again, and I went out the gate, a little wobbly from this unexpected exchange.

Throughout my two and a half weeks in the Soviet Union, I was buffeted between the images I brought with me and the ones I met there. I expected severity from the people on the streets and experienced warmth. I expected quiet streets without zest or color and saw streets full of pedestrians dressed in colors, laughing, talking, arguing, holding hands. I expected huge red banners honoring military conquest and found huge artful posters exhorting peace.

But alongside the unexpected vitality was another dimension of Soviet life that was harder to detect and, once I felt it, harder to define. No American is prepared for the experience of a closed society. Nothing we live with even approximates the infiltration of government restrictions into everyday lives that is taken for granted in the Soviet Union.

The Soviet people have a history of secrecy, information protection and control of their self-expression that predates their present government by centuries and is as rooted in them as is our belief in our right to seek out facts, communicate them, and battle their veracity in a wide-open public. In the Soviet Union, information is a precious commodity, filtered, published, and disseminated by the government. Our tour group was given a great deal of carefully delivered information from our official guide — reams of dates, statistics, accomplishments and recent legislation — all demonstrating the unqualified success and forward-moving direction of the Soviet Union.

The Soviets are rightfully proud of their accomplishments over the last 40 years; they have rebuilt their war-ravaged cities, industrialized their economy, provided cheap, functional housing for their population and solidified their identity as a superpower, while moving from a feudal to a modern society. These accomplishments are evident and impressive.

But after a few of our tour guide’s talks, it became clear that something was missing. The continual emphasis on the positive, our guide’s artful sliding around probing questions with answers such as "because it is the law" or "we do not have that problem in our country," made me uncomfortable. Answers were too pat, solutions too simple. I became restless and realized that I needed other sources of information to provide balance and perspective to our guide’s one-sided, pre-approved source. I took my small cache of memorized Russian phrases and a pocketful of balloons and went to the streets, gathering comments, opinions, experiences and whispered confidences like a bag lady picking up treasures from off the streets and stuffing them indiscriminately into her shopping cart.

The men, women, and children I met on the street provided, however subjectively, and however linguistically chopped or hurriedly delivered, that balance I needed so badly. Their voices gave depth and heart to my experience of the Soviet Union and gave me a glimpse of that nation’s complexity, history, pride, shames, and delights.

Over and over, in every city I visited, one of the strongest consistencies I encountered was how close to the surface of Soviet hearts are the scars of the last world war, known there as the Great Patriotic War. Our tour was a tour for peace and citizen diplomacy, and from the hotel lobby in Moscow to the mountain city of Alma Ata in Central Asia, from the vacation city of Odessa to the monument honoring the half million who perished during the 900-day siege of Leningrad, the response we received from our greeting of "peace and friendship" was instantaneous. The words sliced through suspicious attitudes like the stroke of a samurai, leaving people open and articulate through their hearts. Emphatic Russian came pouring out of wrinkled mouths. Hands beat upon hearts, tears welled in cloudy eyes, and heads nodded with finality. Another war like that war must never happen again.

On the back side of one open market, we asked a man standing on the corner for directions. He had huge, red, bushy eyebrows and fingers thick as cigars, and he wore a shabby sports jacket which proudly sported his war medals. Holding a metal watering can full of daisies, he pointed the way for us. Charmed by his presence, I asked to take his picture, pointing to the medals on his jacket. His demeanor changed instantly. He explained how he had spent four years in the last war, how he had walked with the army from Moscow to Berlin, how he had returned to find that his wife had died. He was crying by the time he finished his story, in the midst of the crowds with their bundles of onions and potatoes, loaves of dark bread and jars of sour cream, pushing their way down the muddy sidewalk.

"This thing must never, ever happen again," he told us in Russian, wiping his eyes. "Never."

Going off on my own also led me to experience parts of Soviet life that were less heart-warming. Some of what I experienced was a direct result of not knowing the language, but some of it was simply a conflict of cultural values. My free-wheeling, information-gathering behavior, with its paraphernalia of microphone, tape recorder, front-slung camera and assorted lenses, while natural to me as the way to document what I saw, was not seen by Soviet authorities and some citizens as natural, my right, or my privilege. "You have no permission," I was told frequently. "It is forbidden to take such photographs."

"Ya Amerikanka. I don’t understand," was a phrase I used and thought often during my time in the Soviet Union. I spoke it when the infuriated church keeper grabbed my taping equipment during an early morning church service and ordered me out of the church. I thought it when an uneasy day care worker urged me on from giving balloons to her charges through a fence when she saw a policeman lingering at the corner. I thought it when the carrot-seller who had agreed to let me take his picture was immediately surrounded by a group of wary, gesticulating vendors, angry that he had not refused me. I used it when a steely-eyed policeman stopped me and showered me with authoritarian remonstrance as I was about to photograph children playing in the gentle shadows of early morning light. I used it when he insisted I follow him back to a hotel (not mine), when he insisted I remain in the lobby until my tour guide came and met me, when he paced back and forth across the entrance of the hotel, preventing my exit.

Some people explain that the Soviets are afraid Americans document only the most backward parts of their country and then return home to show these pictures as the whole truth about the Soviet Union. Others say the Soviets are sensitive about their nation’s awkward developmental stage and want only the modern aspects of their society photographed.

Whatever the truth, it was apparent that the other side of this collective society which houses its people and assures that they have employment, food and education, is that people are watched closely for any deviation from approved behavior. This watchfulness is both vertical and horizontal: not only do the authorities keep an eye on citizens, but citizens keep an eye on each other and on camera-clicking tourists.

Sometimes I pondered this perception objectively. My experiences of being watched were minor and brief, but occasionally the consequences of this watchfulness on peoples’ lives hit home hard. One man who had repeatedly declined to answer my questions about Chernobyl, his work and his life in the Soviet Union, finally opened up to me on a busy street, safely backgrounded by noisy tram cars. Seeing an unarmed policeman, I had pointed, wanting to compare his unthreatening appearance with the armed, leather-inflated uniform of American police. Exploding into vehement, broken English, the man railed to me against the penal system in the Soviet Union, about how individuals are punished severely for minor legal infractions, how citizens are held in check because of their fear of the overwhelming power of the authorities.

A few minutes later he turned to me again, his passion changing focus. "You must promise me you won’t use my name, or where I live, or what I do. Please. I beg you." I told him I didn’t know his name, or where he lived. "Don’t worry," I said. "Trust me."

"But you see," he insisted, "now you have my opinions. You have my opinions."

And so my experience alternated between the openness of the gold-toothed babushkas on the trams, the accepting children with their round, luminous eyes, the proud veterans with their lapels full of medals, and the specter of control which I glimpsed in moments so fleeting I remember them as dreams. "Fire and ice," one of our tour members said. "This place is just like fire and ice."

On my return to Eugene, I went to see two women who had grown up in the Soviet Union but chose to leave and live in the U.S. I was uneasy about the paranoia I had felt while I was there and thought perhaps I had made unfounded conclusions from a few isolated incidents.

The women received me joyfully. They rubbed my body because I had so recently come from their homeland. They savored the smell of the familiar dark bread I brought them as if it were a rare fragrance. Their lips tightened as I told them about my experiences photographing and trying to gather information on my trip. When they derided the strict controls of the Soviet government over travel and information, I suggested that both the U.S. and Soviet governments were like that, invested in keeping certain information away from the public, or in preventing certain groups from entering their respective countries.

They both immediately sat up in disgusted unison. "There is no comparison," they said. "Your government does some things, and maybe they are unjust or not so good. But it is nothing like it is over there. You cannot imagine. You are an American. You cannot understand."

Perhaps I cannot. Americans don’t experience that specter of governmental control or watchfulness, but we do have our own culturally-created oppressions. In our society, money splits us apart from each other, creates its own suspicion, watchfulness, limitations. Soviet people have maintained an openness to emotion in spite of their culture’s institutionalized watchfulness. But we Americans, with our houses, our cars, our freedom to speak and travel, seem to have lost a sense of our hearts. Veterans with sausage-shaped fingers don’t break down in the supermarket, grandmothers don’t glow when strangers promise to work for global peace for their cherished grandchildren.

I’ve wondered since I returned from the Soviet Union whether my tentative parting of the Iron Curtain was more a meeting with a mirror, a mirror which reflected not only a culture very different from my own but also less obvious traits of my own culture. I’ve thought about the Biblical admonition to remove the motes in our own eyes before demanding that our neighbors take care of theirs. And I’ve thought that if any of the Soviets I had met had ever come over that childhood hill, they probably would have done so itching with curiosity. Approaching cautiously, they would have opened their string bags, offered us dark rye bread, apologized for having no butter, and, using emphatic hand motions, asked us where on earth we had left our shoes.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!