Gimbling in the Wabe – The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

by Sharon Browning

This, it turns out, is the second of three Gimblings that recount a trip I made to Moscow, Russia in May of 1989, memories spurred on by the 2014 Sochi Olympics.babushka scarves

I was well into the second week of my stay in Moscow, and the bloom was definitely off the rose by then.  It was May 1989, and the Soviet Union still held tight sway, even though I was to learn later that its very core was crumbling even as we shared a hotel with the congressional delegates who would eventually disband this Empire that had existed since 1922.  Had I known, the historical impact may have rallied me some.  But it still probably would not have done much to lighten my despair.

When we left the United States, we had been warned to toe the line, to not question authority, and to not do anything considered illegal, such as pay for goods with US currency or stray out after curfew.  Things that might have warranted a hand slap by US authorities could very well be used as international incidents in Soviet Russia.  We had also been warned that we would encounter shortages (such a toilet paper – many of us used precious suitcase space for a few rolls of Charmin, and that turned out to be a very good thing, as were the packets of penny-a-piece bubble gum which were coveted especially by the children who loved to trade us pins for candy).  But the depth and breadth of what we would be leaving behind was something we novice travelers could not fathom, until it was too late.

It’s not that the Soviet people were stingy.  Quite the opposite:  all of the people – ALL of them – with whom we could interact were friendly, and almost rabidly interested in interacting with Americans.  We were in Moscow just at the point of a real thaw in the Cold War; they knew that what they had been told of us was just as skewed as our notions of them, and they were excited to encounter “real” Americans.

Many Muscovites could speak a passable English, or at least make themselves understood to us ashamedly uni-lingual Minnesotans.  Yes, we were given Russian language tapes to study before the trip, but most of us didn’t get too far beyond “puzhalsta” (please) and  “spaciba” (thank you); conquering “zdrastvooyte” (hello) in and of itself was quite an accomplishment for most of us (although goodbye – “da sveedaneeya” was a piece of cake – a phrase our Russian hosts cackled at when we explained it to them).  To this day, I still think of “horrorshow” (as in A Clockwork Orange) as the Russian “khorosho”, which means “wonderful”.

Since I had no official duties during my stay in Moscow (my husband was part of a group of actors and artists from the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre Company, traveling to Moscow as one of the first cultural exchanges made possible by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policies, but I was tagging along simply because I could), I spent the days walking around the Russian capital.  During the day, life was amazing.  Our hotel, the huge Rossiya, was situated right next to Red Square, and although we could not access the Square itself (as it was cordoned off due to the Congress of People’s Deputies being in session), there was plenty to see within walking distance.

I could spend entire days walking the Alexander Gardens, a public park that ran alongside the Kremlin.  It was here that I marveled at lines of lace-clad brides and their dapper grooms (often in Soviet uniform) waiting to make the traditional offering of flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  I didn’t have to go far to find someone who was willing to share with me that the six urns next to the monument contained soil of the six “hero cities” that resisted the German onslaught in 1941, or that the ornate iron gates in the middle of the garden commemorated Russian victories over Napoleon, along with an ancient style grotto that was built from the rubble of the buildings damaged by Napoleon’s troops.  Russians are extremely proud of their role in history, it shines in their faces when they tell their stories.  Every one of them could relate very intimately events that we Americans only read about in history books; the sense of the enormity of their heritage is overwhelming.

I also often wandered through the Tainitsky Gardens to the south of the Kremlin, bordering the Moskva River.  Those gardens were teeming with Muscovites of all ages out for a stroll, always with a greeting and a smile, often with a yearning for conversation.  It was here that I met a woman and her daughter who were as interested in my life in America as I was in theirs in Moscow.  Days later, they attended one of the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre’s performances, and found their way backstage after the show to give me a box full of the pins that the Russians loved to trade, and a few Soviet medals that were heavy with antiquity.  I was incredibly touched, but they assured me that it was their honor to have been given the gift of my acquaintance.

On other days, I took a ride down the Moskva River on one of the slow moving pleasure boats that are a favorite pastime of the city’s citizenry, or wandered around town to see sights such as the Orthodox church where Tchaikovsky worshipped.  Or I visited the chaotic aisles of the mighty GUM: the state “department store” which housed stall after stall of goods being sold, from cheeses and vinegars, to umbrellas and paintings and dishware, and booths full of cast off and surplus military goods.  Haggling there was expected, but I didn’t have the heart for it; I paid full price for the lovely babushka scarf that I bought (the traditional head covering of Russian women that I saw everywhere around me) which still holds a place of honor in my home today.  This made me an easy mark for the merchants, who tried very hard to convince me to buy their wares, but I was somewhat stingy with my souvenir buying as I had little room to bring things back to the States.

GUM (which stands for Glavnyi Universalnyi Magazin; literal translation: “main universal store”)  was the only place one could buy consumer goods in Moscow, all other places of business, as far as I was aware, were not set up for casual commerce.  GUM held the only real supermarket that I ever learned of, and if you happened to arrive there by afternoon, most of their shelves were empty; often they closed hours before the main doors were shut.  We were warned to not buy foodstuffs there; most of their wares were “fresh”, but suspect, according to our handlers.  Besides, we had no way to prepare any food in our hotel rooms.

And herein lies the entrance of darkness into my story.  While my days in Moscow were enjoyable, there were trials:  one of my main challenges was the food.  Yes, there you have it – there simply was not the amount or variety of food in Soviet Moscow that we were used to in the States.  There were no fast food restaurants; no delis or restaurants of any kind, and no shops or stores to sell the typical packaged food and snacks that we take for granted.  No bags of chips or nuts, no candy bars, no bottles of water or soda.  Not even a place that might potentially hold these items.  These types of establishments simply did not exist in Moscow in 1989; the natives did not even have a concept of a corner shop or convenience store.  There were automated beverage machines scattered throughout Moscow, but they dispensed a kind of fermented apple juice which was warm and thick and grainy – and served in a communal glass.  You put in your rubles and held the glass under a spigot, the juice would dribble out (lukewarm, of course).  Once you were done, you were supposed to rinse the glass out in a tub of water on a counter of the machine, but not everyone did that and often the rinsing water was itself gray and murky.  Not a good idea.

Since there was nothing even remotely resembling eateries, we were served all our meals at the hotel – that really was my only option for food.  And the food that was there terrified me.

In the evenings, dinner, served in a communal dining hall, would invariably consist of a thin slab of grey, tough meat, presumably beef, that had been broiled with no flavoring or spices whatsoever (no salt or pepper at the table, even).  There would be an accompaniment of soup, alternating between a barley soup or a frighteningly purple borsht swimming with cabbage.  Often, but not always, there was also a small boiled potato (no broth, no butter, no sour cream) and a “salad” consisting of half a leaf of iceberg lettuce with a sliver of small tomato placed on top, no dressing; some days there were no tomatoes at all.  To drink, there was a very strong coffee, tea, or a choice of two pops:  orange Fanta or “Peepsie”.  Both of those choices generally came flat and at room temperature.  You could ask for water, but would  get strange looks for doing so (and sometimes if you asked for it, it would never arrive); water was not a default drink anywhere that we went in Moscow.  And there was no ice.  None.  Not even if you asked for it.

That was it; no second helpings, no extras, no desserts.  If you missed dinner, you didn’t eat.  And you couldn’t complain.  Not only would that have been rude (we were cautioned that we were ambassadors, and needed to always be gracious) but there simply was nothing better to be had.  In fact, we were told, through channels, that this was as good as it got, and compared to what the general populace had, it was a feast so we should be thankful for it.  In fact, we were eating the same food that was served to the congressional Soviet delegates who were also staying at the hotel.

It started to become very clear to me just how much I had to take for granted.

Breakfasts were a blur. Served lunchroom style, I can’t remember much of what was usually served, but I do remember that I couldn’t eat much of it.  There was some kind of cheese filled pastry, like a puffed blintz, but they were incredibly popular so they disappeared quickly, and once they were gone, they were gone.  My husband remembers there being bread and some type of marmalade, but I cannot recall it.  There was tea or thick coffee to drink; no milk, no juice, and of course, no water.  I often started my days hungry, and since I did not attend rehearsals at the theater, I had no lunch.  And the dinner was simply not enough.

Now, to be fair, I had an additional challenge when it came to the food at the Rossiya (and lack of food anywhere else).  I had come to suspect, shortly upon arrival, that I was pregnant.  As each day progressed, I was more convinced this was so (and it turned out I was correct; my son, Andy, was born in January 1990).  So my stomach was already jumpy and irritated, making things like borscht (which I was told was quite good) unpalatable, even as my hunger was insatiable.

Had it not been for ice cream, I would have been in a true world of hurt.  At 2:00 in the afternoon, outside of the few creameries that operated in the city, a young and lovely women would emerge carrying large trays in which holes had been drilled, perhaps three dozen holes in all.  In each hole was placed a sugar cone filled with sweet, freshly churned, flavorful, pure, wholesome, delicious vanilla ice cream.  The cones weren’t for sale – they were free, for those who could get to them (a smart bit of publicity, that!).  And they were the absolutely only thing in all of Moscow that my stomach didn’t seize up at the thought of; some days that one small scoop of heavenly fresh ice cream was all I could keep down.  It got to be that my husband would find the time to wait outside the creamery with me until the young women appeared, and then he would elbow through the crowd (literally, the competition for the cones was vicious) and then fight his way back to me with the precious confection.  If he could, he would get one for me and one for himself – and then let me have his.  How gallant, my husband, my hero!

But most nights, even if I could keep down the food served in the dining hall, I was ravenously hungry.  Yet it was not the lack of food that most devastated me during my stay.  What truly caused me the most distress – and it was a cruel, despairing, heart-rending distress – was isolation.

Although I had taken to heart the warnings about a lack of services and creatures comforts that we, in our capitalistic lives, had taken for granted, I did not make the connection between going without and being completely and utterly isolated.  And I also hadn’t made the connection between not having official duties and not having anything really to do.  Physical deprivation I was ready for; mental deprivation took its toll.  Once the artists and performers in my husband’s theater troupe had finished dinner, they returned to the theater for more rehearsals; I was not allowed to go with them.  And, since it was against the law for Westerners to be in the homes of citizens, or to be out after dusk, my only option was to return to my hotel room, and wait.

No biggie, right?  Watch some TV, peruse a newspaper, read a book, spend some time online…. But again, this was Soviet Russia, in 1989.  There were no laptops, no smart phones – no cell phones at all, no hand held electronics, no internet.  There were no available magazines – no places sold them.  There were newspapers in the hotel, but only the Soviet newspapers written in Cyrillic (and I was told they only had party-approved articles, read with open skepticism by rank and file Muscovites).  There were no televisions, not in the rooms, not anywhere that I had seen.  The room did have a radio, but it only tuned in to one station, and when there were not loud, brusque male voices declaiming something I could not understand, they played military marches.  Period.  Stern voices and military marches.  I could see a sliver of the city out of my window (which would not open) but the streets were deserted, at least until the very early morning, when the street sweepers, often older women, would appear with the dawn, with their twig brooms.

And I had no books – I honestly believed I would have scant time for reading, so had decided to leave behind any books in order to leave more suitcase space for bags of bubble gum and rolls of toilet paper.  I didn’t even had paper, or pens or pencils to write with.  When I asked for some at the hotel lobby, they looked at me like I was crazy, but politely said they would see what they could do.  Apparently, they couldn’t do anything.

So not only was I going stir crazy, but I was doing it in a very confined space.  There were no places set aside in the hotel to “hang out”; no lounges, no bars, not even any corner alcoves.  The lobby was not meant for loitering.  There were no gardens, no benches out front, even if there was anything to watch.  There was only the room.  The room, with a small refrigerator, but no refrigeration.  With dim, yellow lights.  No air conditioning in the heat of the day, nor heat in the cold of the night (and yes, it was cold at night).  There was no desk, no easy chair, no amenities in the bathroom, no greenery, no carpeting.  The wallpaper was beautiful, but everything was threadbare.  The bed was large, but just a frame, and the mattress was thin, and uneven.  There were only two flat pillows, one oversheet, and a bedspread (I wouldn’t call it a blanket, it was too thin) that had, for some inexplicable reason, a huge, round hole, about 2 feet across removed from the middle of it.  I would huddle in the bed, with the spread scrunched up under my chin, and shiver, my feet chilled, my body cold, and my spirit miserable.

It wasn’t what I was going without that was so difficult; it was that I saw no way out of the nightly funk I found myself in.  The next night would be the same, and the night after that, and the night after that.  This hour was unbearable, but the next hour would be just as disheartening, and the hour after that.  I would have some respite when my husband finally came back from rehearsal, but he would be tired, and wouldn’t want to listen to me complain about my free time.  He was sympathetic, but tired, and stressed.  He didn’t need my whining, even if it was whining edged in despair.

I clung to one thing – a can of Pringles potato crisps.  On a whim, I had packed a can of Pringles in my suitcase.  I thought that it might come in handy for trading, or as a gift, or perhaps a contribution to some kind of celebration.  Instead, it became a lifeline.  Those Pringles represented what I had back home, and what I would return to; they were a taste of what I was not only missing, but craving.  Knowing my own penchant for obsession, I disciplined myself to only eat a certain amount of crisps a day; rationing them by number of days, and even for specific times within those days.  I tried to make them a rallying point.  Then one miserable, dark, cold night, when the walls of my hotel room were closing in, and I was cold and alone, I impulsively ate the rest of crisps even though they were  supposed to last, even though it meant I would be left with nothing for the future.  I hated what I was doing, my brain kept screaming to control myself, but I couldn’t stop eating, not until every one of them was gone, even the crumbs.

Looking back, it seems silly.  Embarrassing, to admit how close I came to the edge of despair and used a reconstituted potato product as a touchstone.  Ashamed to think of how I shrank into myself, and was unable to not only overcome civilized challenges, but to even cope with the recognizable obstacles that came my way.  But I honestly can’t deny even now how very demoralizing the whole of that isolating experience was, and must admit that what I felt those evenings was dark and terrifying and something I hope to never encounter again.

Perhaps those black and white times in Moscow, where the days were so wonderful and the nights were so horrid, gave me the perspective I have today: to never assume that what you are going through now is what you will be going through tomorrow.  But I can remember the cold, the hunger, the utter sense of isolation with no way out, even over two decades later, even as other details fade away.

Yet how quickly change comes, often in ways totally unforeseen.  In the third week of our stay in Moscow, things turned sublime, passing all possible understanding, eschewing explanation, beyond my wildest imaging, and still in ways that blow my mind when I think back on them – or when I drag out the photo albums (yes, boys and girls, this was before digital photography was the norm and when clouds were just moisture bearing vapors that sometimes drop rain).  So while I think back to Moscow in May of 1989, and compare that to the best of times and the worst of times, it ended up being the most surreal and wonderful and amazing of times.  But what followed those first few weeks in Soviet Russia for me, for my husband, for our company… well, that’s a story for another day.

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