My Russia (Part II)

Brezhnev must have been busy with other things because we rolled through customs at the Moscow airport after the authorities checked the amount of rubles we had to spend. Maybe President Reagan was coming through on the next flight or Brezhnev himself had been detained at the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks because the only one to greet us was a tall, blonde, skinny English guy who said his name was Peter. I was suspicious of him from the start. I wondered what a pale Englishman would know about Russia.
“I’ve been here for two years. I first came as an exchange student taking Russian Studies and after one year I decided I could learn more about the Russian language and culture by working for the E.F. Tour company.” Peter sat one seat in front of my wife Brenda and I as the bus pulled out of the airport parking lot.
“Oh… good,” I replied without enthusiasm, not really wanting to listen this tour guide’s freakin’ life story. “What night are we going to the Central Red Army-Moscow Dynamo hockey game?”
That was my main interest in coming to Mother Russia. As real as was my enthusiasm for all subjects Soviet, I was most intrigued with watching Valery Kharlomov and Alexander Yakushev play again, two superbly-skilled Soviet forwards who seemingly scored at will for the first half of the series. Team Canada only figured out how to stop them by breaking Kharlomov’s ankle with a brutal slash and by repeatedly pounding Yakushev into the boards. It made me proud to be a Canadian.
Truth be told, the Soviet team had practiced at the Pointe Claire Arena near my home on the eve of their departure from Canada on September 10, 1972. As rinkrats, my friend Doug Duke and I had volunteered to help out in the visitors’ dressing room after practice. This was 1972, remember, and security was considered something practiced in the U.S. by the FBI. We were let into the dressing room by arena staff minutes before the team trooped in following practice. Seeing his main chance, Dougie stuffed star goalie Vladislav Tretiak’s game sweater up the sleeve of his hockey jacket. Inspired by my friend’s bold move I looked around for Kharlomov’s sweater, but was stopped as I heard clumping skates coming down the corridor. Doug still has the jersey to this day and even showed it to Tretiak on one of the ex-goalie’s trips to Canada. He had it priced by a sports memorabilia outfit and told me he plans to put at least one grandchild through university with the proceeds. I don’t have any grandchildren but had I been quicker and/or more dishonest I might have been able to retire a little earlier.
“The game’s been cancelled.” Peter’s stunning words yanked me from September of 1972 back to the here-and-now.
“What do you mean…cancelled?” I was outraged. “Has the arena roof caved in or something?”
Peter just shrugged nonchalantly. “No,” he smiled casually. I wanted to wrap my two hands around his skinny neck and strangle him slowly. “That’s just what I heard.” Later on in the week after a couple more ‘cancellations’ and changes in the itinerary we found out that Peter had been exchanging our tickets and other passes on the Russian black market and then pocketing whatever the profit was he made. We had just met Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger, transplanted to the streets of Moscow.
I did manage to control my homicidal instincts while Peter provided a rundown of the events of the next eight days. A night at the Bolshoi Ballet, the Kremlin and the obligatory trooping by Lenin’s tomb, then on to Leningrad as it was still called until 1991, and visits to the Peter and Paul Museum and the Summer Palace on the Bay of Finland. Not a hockey game in sight. I think that’s where I picked up my habit of grinding my teeth.
But that was only when I wasn’t smiling. It was an experience to join the thousands of Russians who dutifully trooped by Lenin’s Tomb everyday. The line moved exceedingly quickly, probably because of the letdown of disappointment. For a larger-than-life historical figure, Lenin was surprisingly short. And I’m no expert on cadavers, but I’ve seen more realistic-looking wax-job celebrities in the museums of Niagara Falls. But it was in Moscow’s Arbat that led us down the seamy path into Russia’s underworld.
The Arbat was the upscale market of Moscow, sort-of-like an expanded version Of Quebec City’s Rue de Tresors. Our little troupe of adventurous tourists first contented ourselves with trading Wrigley’s chewing gum for all manner of trinkets, mostly pins. There was a lot of art on display in the market, but one or two articles would have taken most of the meagre amount of rubles the Russian authorities had ripped us off for with their exorbitant exchange rates. Even a tight-fisted tourist such as myself wanted to return to Canada with more than a Soviet flag decorated with a few trading pins. After the collapse of Soviet Communism in 1991 I was not surprised to hear of the overnight birth and meteoric growth of a Russian Mafia. They were probably more generous in their dealing with the Russian people than their own government had been.
“Pssst….American?…. trade money?” I was viewing what remained of a splattered cat on the cobblestones that had been accidentally knocked off its narrow ledge high above street-level when her owner had quickly slammed shut the window’s wooden shutter. At least, I hoped it was an accident. But the young Russian’s hissing in my ear diverted my attention from the sorry sight.
“Ah, no, Canadian… I’m here with….” The Russian’s impatience with my geography lesson was apparent as he pulled out a wad of rubles. He was here to do business. “Five to one?”
Music to my ears. We had officially paid two American dollars to receive one ruble. This was a veritable windfall. No more would I only have to windowshop. The treasures of Peter the Great would now be available at a cut-rate price. But Brenda and I would have to be discreet, and not only to avoid the attention of the authorities. Our innocent students had to be sheltered from the vice of the marketplace.
It didn’t take long for even my dim powers of perception, however, to realize that as usual, my students were way out in front. Jarret, a particular shy and earnest young fellow, showed us his day’s purchases on the bus back to the hotel late one afternoon. It was apparent that what he had bought would have taken ten times the number of rubles with which he entered the country.I was curious.
“Okay, Jarret… you were trading on the black market.” I confronted him. “Did you get a 5-1 rate?” I wanted to make sure that if the young man was going to run afoul of the Soviet system, that he was at least getting his money’s worth.
“Ten to one,” he answered.
The path to crime is a slippery abyss. We couldn’t have a meal in a nice restaurant without the waiters approaching us, bartering exchange rates along with our order, and slipping the rubles under our teacup as I slipped them a tip in American dollars. Even the Soviet soldiers were observed trading currency. The black market for American dollars, I was told, was in circulation as far away as Poland.
Our last night before leaving the evil empire was when we probably found our best return on our American dollars. Back in Moscow, Brenda and I and five of our students were strolling a Moscow street when we approached a restaurant reverbating with revelry. Intrigued, we questioned the doorman. It was a wedding, we were told. Any chance of us getting in, we inquired. How many rubles?
“We don’t take rubles,” we were told. “Only American dollars.” Interesting, since we were in the middle of Moscow.
“How much?”
“Fifty American dollars. For all seven of you. There is beluga caviar, beef, champagne, lots of vodka and Ukrainian dancing. Have good time.”
Deal. It was one of the unforgettable evenings of my life. If you ever run into an official of the Trillium Lakelands School Commission, don’t let them know that David and Brenda Perras led seven innocent and naïve Ontario students into the fleshpots of Moscow night life. They probably received more education there in a couple of hours than in several years in a Lindsay, Ontario classroom.
And we were not the only ones to have a good time. How could I tell ? As we were leaving with the crowd the young fellow just in front of us stumbled and then tumbled down the stairs. The trip down was particularly hard. His face must have hit the stair runners several times because he knocked out at least two teeth on the way down. And the vodka and caviar didn’t let him off any easier. He threw up at the bottom of the stairs, and then passed out in a pool of his own blood, teeth and vomit. It must not have been an unusual occurrence after a Russian get-together, however. Seemingly everyone just stepped over him, as unconcerned as you or I would be seeing a dropped mitten on the floor. Someone must have helped him out by now, I hope.
Brenda and I could not focus too long on the unfortunate reveller, however. The next morning in the Moscow airport found us stressing in case the authorities checked out the incongruities between the amount of rubles we had brought into the country compared with the treasures we were now carting out of the motherland. There is a God, however, as I was once more reminded. There was a huge swath of humanity, from Georgia in the Soviet Union we were told, camped out on the floor, waiting to be processed. The authorities had more pressing concerns than to go through the backpacks of some innocents from Canada. We, and our illicit souvenirs, were saved.
Dosvedanya, Russka.

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