My Russia

Of course it’s not really my Russia. I’m not pretending I’m Putin or Josef Stalin or Ivan the Terrible, although I have been accused of having delusions of grandeur; I won’t tell you by whom. My wife and I took a high school group of twelve students and two other adults to the then-Soviet Union in March of 1988. I thought that was pretty cool at the time; U.S. President Ronald Reagan was still calling it the ‘evil empire’. ‘Perestroika’ and ‘glasnost’ were the two buzzwords Soviet Premier Gorbachev was using; perestroika meant restructuring and I forget what glasnost meant. Between the sixteen of us on the trip we knew exactly two words of Russian: dosvedanya which means good-bye and shaibu which means ‘get the puck’. We knew ‘dosvedanya’ because we had spent an evening at the house of an ex-pat family of Russian-Jews and I knew ‘shaibu’ because I was a hockey fan. One of these words proved more useful than the other while we were on the trip.
I had been fascinated with Russia since I was a kid and watched those Soviet hockey teams roll over our best amateurs at the Olympics and whenever they made a playing tour through Canada. I remember a comment my grandfather who was in his late seventies, made to my uncle and my cousin as we were all returning from watching an exhibition game between the Soviets and a Sherbrooke senior amateur team in 1968.
“You know,” he said, “I think that those Russians will soon be able to take on and maybe even beat our NHL guys.”
“Don’t be silly,” my uncle and cousin guffawed, both self-proclaimed hockey experts. “That’ll never happen.”
And I loved reading about the czars in my Grade Eleven World History course as a student: about Peter the Great building the city of St. Petersburg in a swamp over the bodies of tens of thousands of Russians who died in the effort, about Ivan the Terrible throwing his baby son out of a palace window into the courtyard many stories below and about Catherine the Great having sex with a horse. In Canada, most of the news about our leaders consisted of them arguing over whether the Canadian flag would picture one or would it be three maple leaves and whether it was acceptable or not to have our Members of Parliament pounding their desks during Question Period.
Of course, we on the trip all had our different reasons for wanting to make the ten day journey to Mother Russia during our March break. I remember a kid named Kevin Finney asking another student, Jim Duquette, on why he wanted to go to Russia, of all places, during his holiday, as they left my history class at the end of a schoolday.
“For the babes,” answered Duquette, which cracked me up. For us at that time Russian women meant ‘Big Olga’, the stereotypical Russian shotputter, or else we thought of the grandmotherly babushkas, sweeping the streets with those ancient fairy-tale looking brooms.
Although the Russians may have respected our ability to play hockey it was the American dollar which they revered. At Soviet customs our little group of sixteen changed money from the American greenback to the Russian ruble. The Soviets proved that they were no rubes when it came to making a business deal; their official rate of exchange was two American dollars to one Russian ruble. We were warned in the strictest terms possible that this was inviolate. What we had exchanged was registered; that and our purchases would be checked again as we left the country and any incongruity would be…. the stern-looking official shook his head menacingly, and in my mind’s eye I could see myself in a Soviet gulag in the middle of the Russian taiga forest, not far from the Mongolian border. When I returned to my group of innocents I was upset enough to launch into an impassioned speech. It was a story of Russian crime and punishment, based not on Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, but by Harry Sinden’s account of the 1972 Soviet-Canada Summit Series.
“These guys don’t fool around,” I stammered , my eyes wild and my mouth probably splattering saliva on those students so unwise as to be standing too close to me. “They aren’t like me and my namby-pamby classroom discipline. I’m going to tell you a story.”
I could see eyes roll. They were used to my stories, usually accompanied by a coffee and a muffin as I recounted some forgettable vignette from the 1960s. “No, this is important…and it’s true,” furthering distancing this parable from most of my other tales. “Harry Sinden, Team Canada’s coach in 1972, wrote about it. It seems that some guy from Montreal, over in Moscow with the 3000 Canadian fans who went there to cheer on Team Canada, celebrated a little too late into the night after our first win over there. He was playing his trumpet in the hotel lobby, ‘O Canada’ I think it was, when some of these Soviet police grabbed him. Maybe it was the KGB… Sinden didn’t really say. Anyway, they took him away, tattooed his heels to show that he was a prisoner of the Red Army, and then stuck him in a cold shower for six hours. He had almost disappeared when the Canadian embassy was able to find him and promised to return him home to Canada right away and he and his trumpet would never be heard from again.” I looked around to make sure that my story, true this time, had had its desired affect. For the most part I saw blank, glazed-over looks. We had flown first to New York City that day because our tour company couldn’t arrange a direct flight to Moscow. We had spent the day on a bus touring Manhattan and the incongruity between Times Square and a Soviet cell hadn’t quite sunk in. We were to meet our tour guide in a matter of minutes. Putin wasn’t waiting, but Leonid Brezhnev was.
To Be Continued.

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