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Twenty-five years ago this week, I had the opportunity to visit a mysterious land then known as the Soviet Union, spending the better part of two weeks sampling their rather bleak lifestyle, gaining exposure to their unique customs and visiting some truly incredible places.
Memories today seem just as vivid.
A draining 29-hour one-way travel timetable set the stage then, taking us from our Duncan base to three world capitals (Washington, London and Moscow) in a single day.
Stepping into a Soviet Aeroflot airliner and walking on Soviet soil added stark touches of quick reality to our voyage.
Fears of a dreaded customs inspection were easily bypassed. Our luggage inexplicably disappeared for seven days, causing us to wear only our travel clothes that first week.
I remember the stick of chewing gum that led to a conversation with a burly Russian and an exchange of pleasantries on a bumpy flight from Moscow to Tallinn.
That our Hotel Viru suite in the Estonian city was modern surprised my Campus Crusade for Christ friends and me.
So did the 28-inch wide beds that were so narrow a sudden roll would put you on the floor. And I’ll never forget bolting from bed that first evening with a semi-conscious thought of “What am I doing here?”
A breakfast strange looking meats, boiled eggs, cheeses, herring and other fish, a few wonder-what that-is items, apple juice hot tea and sour milk made an impression.
So did the rugged-faced natives who lined the flagstone streets of the city, selling flowers, fruits and pastries from kiosks.
Picturesque Tallinn itself was spectacular with its magnificent old buildings, tiled roofs, high triangular gables, spires, steeples, spacious courtyards and trademark weather vanes providing a marvelous setting for starry-eyed visitors.
The experience of meeting Yuri, the friendly and ever helpful Estonian resident who turned out to be a KGB agent, or listening to Natasha (not her real name), the witty and polite Intourist guide, talk about the country’s lack of incentive to work, her skepticism of the government-directed glasnost program and her blunt discussion of the many needed changes was both surprising and inspiring.
Watching people stand in winding, long lines to purchase what we’d consider substandard items at terribly high prices; ordering food from a menu printed in five languages while listening to Chattanooga Choo Choo; realizing our rooms were monitored by surveillance cameras that occupied two hotel floors; seeing happy, giggling kids playing on a school playground; being followed for several days by my own KGB agent; looking at high rise apartments that housed thousands of people; learning Tallinn residents could own apartments but not land; and gawking at a massive amphitheatre where 30,000 singers and dancers perform for 250,000 guests every five years remain visions etched in my mind.
So, too, does the experience ofbeing handed a church bulletin from the First United Methodist Church of Duncan (honest); using a translator in sharing worship services with Estonian Methodists and Baptists on the same day; sensing the sincerity of Christians who knew the true meaning of sacrifice; watching the Russian version of The Jesus Film; having lunch in the basement of a church fellowship hall, knowing the two men across from you became Christians in a Siberian work camp; and hearing angelic sounds of a talented youth choir.
Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) offered an abrupt change, taking us from a westernized, fashionable area to a drab, depressing environment that oozed of history.
I’ve seen nothing to rival The Hermitage, its three million pieces of remarkable paintings, sculptor and art, the 40,000-ton Alexander Column, St. Isaacs Cathedral that took 40 years to build and accommodates 7,000 people, the Winter Palace, the cruiser Aurora that fired the shot that began a revolution or the ever-present scaffolding linked to constant false façade renovation.
Mockba (Moscow) was different still, offering insights to yet another world, particularly as it celebrated its 840th anniversary as a city with huge banners, symphonic music, opera-voiced choirs; and large throngs of humanity, celebrations and parades.
Walking the bricks of massive Red Square, seeing the goose-stepping changing of the guard at Lenin’s Mausoleum, shopping with thousands at GUMs department store, visiting underneath the onion-shaped domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral, watching brides place bouquets of flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown, strolling the 1.6-mile distance around the Kremlin’s giant yellow walls, sensing the power of communism inside that eerie place, seeing the hammer and sickle flag floating against the backdrop of a stormy, black cloud, peering at the majestic statue of a god-like Lenin and looking at the ruby red star atop the clock tower all are lasting visions not erased by time.
Nor was the cleansing feeling brought on by the boarding of a British Airliner to leave, the lifting off to the applause of happy, relieved passengers who seemingly in union felt the removal of a heavy burden in departing a strange place cut off from the rest of the world.
There have been changes since, of course, but what was the Soviet Union remains a land of mystery. Perhaps it always will.
But the unforgettable opportunity to live, at least temporarily, among the Russian people offered a slice of better understanding, maybe even compassion, for the common man there.
And it certainly rekindles a sense of pride for the good fortune we enjoy here.
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