Behind the Iron Curtain

No automatic dryers in the USSR in 1987. Photo courtesy of Olga Kaczmar
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By Olga Kaczmar, Newhall Community Contribtor

In 1987 my boyfriend Andy and I went to USSR, because I had relatives in Ukraine and I could speak the language. At that time Ukraine was sucked up by USSR; whereas today Ukraine is a free country; although constantly being attacked by Russia.

Stopping first in Pittsburgh, my mother loaded me down with five suitcases of clothing to share with the aunts and cousins (eight total counting mine and Andy’s). She had been sending them packages since 1956. Our plane landed in Austria, then we had a 24-hour train to Lviv. Our luggage was searched at several checkpoints and we offered the searchers cigarettes.  In Lviv, we checked into a hotel, and relatives came to visit us.  They gave me presents in return so I was loaded down again.

In the cities, restaurants were a joke. I was expecting to find good ol’ Ukraininan food like at our church dinners in Pittsburgh. We had two good meals in hotels and two good meals at my relatives’ homes. The rest of the food was fatty, accented with dry bread and totally unappetizing. I actually lost weight in 13 days.  Water was sold from a vending machine, where everyone used the same glass.

Unwrapped bread and barren store shelves in the USSR in 1987. Photo courtesy of Olga Kaczmar

In stores, the shelves were barely stocked, and bread was unwrapped.  A paper shortage means no litter–nothing was wrapped.  Lines were everywhere.  You had to select your purchase; the clerk wrote it up and then you had to stand in line to pay for it, and then stand in the last line to pick it up. Construction was really crude; not by our safety standards. Cheap paint covered ancient medieval architecture.

I talked with everyone and they laughed at my Ukrainian slang.  They were curious about Americans, hearing from TV that we were unemployed and waiting in food lines.  They were astonished at our wages, that we all owned at least one car and especially that I owned my own house. I shared menthol cigarettes, danced rock-n-roll with teenagers on a harbor tour ship and drank bootleg liquor with the Russians on the train.

On a Dneiper River Tour in 1987. Photo courtesy of Olga Kaczmar

There were four TV channels: 2 Russian, 1 Polish and some other.  Traffic had the right-of-way; so pedestrians jumped out of the way. No railroad crossings. No lawn mowers–weeds everywhere. Women sported a gold tooth as a status symbol. Women didn’t drive cars, except for the bus driver. Liquor bars had been converted to juice bars instead.  I photographed all the bathrooms and outhouses. Except for the hotel bathrooms with flush toilets, most facilities were a hole in the floor: so stinky and unbelievable for the 20th century.

Workers were still laying cobblestone in sand by hand everywhere in Lviv– looked nice but hard to walk on. The sand sank and I twisted my ankle. Inside a car, it jarred our insides when we drove over it.

We traveled to Sochi and I lay on the black pebble beach. We heard Barbara Streisand, Rod Stewart playing through the loud speakers on the beach and I got homesick. I stood in a long line for ice cream but they were out of ice cream when I got to the window. Okay, I’m done.  I’m ready to go home to America.

Then we traveled by train to Zaporhiznia where we met with my cousin, Victor.  He took us sightseeing.  He was so thrilled that I came to visit him; he rented a car and driver that took Andy and me to the village to see his father.  This was forbidden by the Communists.  I was warned at the hotel to stick to the itinerary, stay in town and not go to the villages.

At night in the car, my uncle sat in the rear seat with me, kissed me and toasted me with liquor.  Tears streamed from his eyes that his brother’s child made the trip to see him.  That made me tear up too.

When we returned to the hotel; I gave Victor a suitcase with shoes and men’s clothing and $1000 American money. The next day when we were leaving, Victor brought me a gift, an ancient icon from the churches the Communist tore down.  He said he was a collector.  I told him absolutely not; I knew it was illegal for me to take art treasure out of the country.  He kept insisting I should give it to my mother.  He insisted they don’t check.

Ha! I was a wreck going through the customs’ line. Can everyone hear my heart beat?

I had wrapped this small icon in my dirty clothes and wouldn’t you know it, they searched every bit of it.

They pulled me out of line and ushered me into the interrogation room.  I was so scared.

I’m going to be jailed in Russia!  Holy God, help!

“Where did you get this?  Tell me!” they scolded me in Russian.  I should have—I could have made up a story, Tell them you bought it from the cabbie.  But I was too scared to lie.

Behind enemy lines—I trembled. I shook.  I stuttered.  I told the truth

“My cousin gave it to me.”  Of course they wanted to know who he was and where he lived.

They kept me sitting there a long time.  My plane left without me.  Andy left me to rot in Russian.  God help me.  I don’t know what to do.   I signed the statement.

The guards came back and escorted me to the plane. They said you are welcomed back but don’t take any more icons. No kidding! I was shocked. They actually held the plane until I could get on. I sat down in the only empty seat beside Andy. He wanted to know what had transpired.

In Moscow I was pulled aside again and interrogated again. He challenged me in Russia.  I said I don’t speak Russian; I speak Ukrainian.  I’m tired. I’m irritated with the Russians. In Germany, I was interrogated again.

Wait! My story is not over.

At LAX airport, Andy’s girlfriend met him.  Yes, I said his girlfriend.  Naturally, I thought I was his girlfriend…but he had another relationship going.  Check out her surprise to see he travelled to Russia with me and not with a guy. Now that explains why he wouldn’t take any photos of me.  In silence we drove to his house to get my car.

In the meantime, Andy’s landlady had my car towed from his driveway.  He didn’t tell her either!  Now all three of us, in silence, were on the way to the impound yard.  When we got there we couldn’t collect my car because the keys were on his table at home.  With all the silent stress, no one remembered the keys.  Darn again.

Is this nightmare ever going to end? I was so drained, nothing mattered. I wanted to kiss the American earth.

Andy drove back home to fetch the keys but Girlfriend #2 didn’t want to go with him; she wanted to stay with me at the impound yard.  We talked.  We made friends.  She was another equestrian.  We had more in common than sharing the same boyfriend.  We even agreed to go horseback riding together.

So we were both angry at Andy for being such a weasel.  He returned with the keys and realized we became friends and he was the lone man out.  He had been caught with his pants down and was very uncomfortable.  Goodbyes were exchanged.

Later the FBI came to my door and wanted to know everything.  They didn’t care about the icon. I told them I was blessed for coming back to America.

Time passed and I found out that the Russians stripped Victor of all his collection of icons, his job as a teacher, his right to travel and the $1000 I gave him. Poor dear man. He was punished for one bad judgment of giving me that precious icon, which I didn’t want.  Poor Victor died shortly after that.  Seems he bled from the mouth.  I don’t know what disease that was.  I have fond memories of Victor. And blessed for being a select few allowed to come to the USA in 1947. And that is another story.

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