My father was still a teenager when he first traveled to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1964. He had just graduated from high school where he had taken both English and Russian. Russian, not a usual pick, was mostly his own father’s choice. My left-leaning grandfather was not an affiliated Communist but he was a fellow traveler of sorts. He also was a practical pessimist : he considered an invasion of western Europe by the Soviet Union not unlikely and he figured speaking Russian would be a plus for his son in that kind of scenario.
My father went to Moscow by train with a group of Russian language students from all around France. The trip had a linguistic component. They had class every day. They also had ample time to stroll around the city and to grow crushes on fellow students…
The summer of 1964 was the sunset of the Khrushchev era but the sense of freedom he had gradually brought in after the death of Stalin was still there to be experienced by my father. He remembers roaming freely around Moscow and having relaxed conversations with young Russians he would come across. They were eager to talk with foreigners and did not seem to fear this might get them into trouble. Likewise, the friendly young guide who was in charge of their group did little to rein them in, even though his role most probably included some degree of watching and reporting to the Soviet authorities.
The hotel where they were staying was in one of the signature skyscrapers built around Moscow during the Stalin era. It made quite an impression on my father. The grandiose architecture. The radio inserted in the bedpost that played the state anthem, pompous and moving at once, at midnight. The hours spent talking in other students’ rooms. The dezhurnayas, the sternly benevolent elderly floor keepers that would watch over them and make them tea.
He also loved exploring the city by himself. So much so that he once lost himself and ended up in a distant neighborhood. There he found a cemetery where he saw many graves of young men who had died around his own age merely two decades before. He remembers how this sight made him grasp the toll of World War II on the USSR in a way a history class never could have. He missed the hotel’s late curfew that night. The next morning, he was let in by a hotel employee who was sure he had slept out because of a girl.
When I picture him walking around Moscow that summer I find it easy to relate to his younger self because he has remained someone for whom strolling and observing is an essential, pleasurable, way of perceiving the world around. No wonder he has vivid, granular memories and he sees things most people overlook.
Back then my father had budding doubts about Communism. During his trip he could see first hand how official statements departed from the reality of the Soviet Union. But it did not prevent him from playing along and delivering a laudatory farewell speech when the trip organizers picked him for his Russian skills. He made two more similar trips to the USSR the next two summers. It took him until another trip, in the1970s, to strike real friendships with Russians and have in-depth conversations about the Soviet system with them.
Meanwhile, he had become a Russian teacher and grown his own personal connection with the country, its language, and its culture. What started as a parental decision became one of the cornerstones of his life on his own terms. From his Russian connection was born mine. Another story for another post…