Secret. Nocturnal. Intercourse.




I must admit to not paying as much attention to Russia as I should have these past few decades.

I spent a lot of time studying the Soviet Union in grad school at Georgetown. I even took Russian during my undergrad at Illinois, because back then, in the early 1980s, if you were into foreign affairs, Russia was it.

I was consumed with the Soviet Union since an early age. For some, back in those days, their anti-communism was rooted in pro-militarism. For me, it was rooted in my sense of (in)justice.

The other day I was going through my things and I found a letter I wrote, in high school, to the Soviet premier, I don’t recall which, protesting his treatment of some leading Jewish dissident. The place always irked me.

Soviet hat via Shutterstock

Soviet hat via Shutterstock

It didn’t help when I finally got to visit the Soviet Union in mid-winter, 1984.

It was a fascinating time to be there.  The relatively-new leader, Andropov, had just died after only 15 months in office, and Chernenko had just taken over.  And relations with the West were not great, as these were the Reagan years.

I was in the middle of my junior-year-abroad in Paris, and the local travel agents (the French still use travel agents, by the way) had ridiculously cheap all-inclusive excursions to Moscow and Leningrad. It was several hundred dollars, I believe, for the entire trip. So I jetted off to Russia for an eye-opening ten days.

And yeah, it was a police state as bad as American propaganda had claimed.

People on the street were scared to the death of talking to us. I’d have people sidle up next to me on public buses, and carefully whisper in my ear, so no one near them would know they were engaging in conversation with a westerner.  (I’ll never forget the one very tall, blonde, hot Russian man in the fur hat, squeezed up against me in a packed Moscow bus, who shocked the hell out of me by whispering, out of nowhere, at point-blank-range to my ear, wonderfully trilling his Rs like Chekov on Star Trek as he asked, “Does Mr. Reagan really want nuclear war?”)

Then there were the three deaf-mute black market traders we met hanging out at our hotel in Moscow.  The lead guy was named Yevgeny Morozov (or perhaps Mozorov, I don’t recall which – I remember his father was someone decently important at the time, it would be neat to find him again).  Yevgeny and friends would trade Russian fur hats, or matryoshka dolls, for American blue jeans and cigarettes – it was totally illegal, but a lot of kids did it.

Our group quickly befriended Yevgeny and company, and they hung out with us during most of our visit. Until finally, one night, they were taken away, before our very eyes, by the secret police.  And boy did we raise a stink with our “tour guide.”  (Fortunately, the boys were later released. But that evening left an indelible mark on us all.)

For all things Yevgeny, I was nominated class interpreter, by default.  I’d had only a year of Russian in college, with a horrible Russian-born professor, but I was always generally good at languages, so with my rudimentary Russian, Yevgeny’s equally rudimentary knowledge of English (he’d write key words down on a small piece of paper), and a lot of possibly-sign-language hand gestures I picked up from Yevgeny and the boys (things like touching your forehead to mean “think” or “know”), we got pretty good at conversing,

I’ll never forget the time that one of the girls in our tour group asked me to help her translate something one of Yevgeny’s friends was desperately trying to say to her.  She couldn’t make heads or tails of it.  (We were all American in our group, which tended to befuddle our official Russian interpreter/guide/police spy, who only spoke French. We were a tour group from Paris, and the Russians figured, incorrectly, that we’d all be French.)  So with the help of Yevgeny and me, and our trusty pocket Russian-English “slovar” (dictionary), I started very slowly translating the Russian boy’s VERYIMPORTANTMESSAGE for his new American friend.

The pages of the dictionary turned slowly until we had our first word.

SECRET.

An auspicious beginning.  The American girl urged me to continue.

Next word…

NOCTURNAL.

Huh, that was an odd one.  But I persevered.

Then finally we had our third word:

INTERCOURSE.

I almost burst out laughing, while my poor American friend turned pale.

The two of us, clearly in synch, both pretended not to understand what the phrase could possibly mean.  In the meantime, the Russian boy, increasingly frustrated, kept repeating the phrase over and over, thinking if he said it just a few more times, perhaps we’d finally understand.

So over and over, the poor kid kept repeating, louder and louder: “Secret nocturnal intercourse. Secret nocturnal intercourse!”
__________

My other favorite story from my time in the Soviet Union is about a Soviet soldier we encountered on an Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Leningrad (flying that airline was a harrowing experience in and of itself).

I was in the aisle seat on the right, he was in the aisle seat on my left, and he was utterly adorable.  Probably around 19 years old, like the rest of us.  In full uniform.  And we all immediately had a crush on him.  So I tried to engage him in conversation.

Soviet medal via Shutterstock

Soviet medal via Shutterstock

Our little soldier wasn’t budging.  There was no way he was going to engage us (only later we noticed that several senior officers were seated a few rows behind).

As we landed in Leningrad, I had an idea: I’d offer him a piece of gum.  No good Russian could refuse a choice piece of western chewing gum, right?  And, mind you, this was French chewing gum – and the popular brand at the time was called “HOLLYWOOD,” just to add to the western glamor of it all.

So, as we all got up to get our overhead luggage, I pulled out a piece of Hollywood and offered it to my deliciously blonde Russian.  He ignored it, and kept getting his bag.

Damn.

Dejected, I turned my back to grab my carry-on.

Just then, I felt a hand from behind reach into my palm, and carefully take the stick of gum.

Without saying a word, the young Soviet soldier then picked up his bag, walked off the plane, and never looked back.
__________

I was, and am, glad I visited the Soviet Union.  I had some great experiences, and met some neat people.  But it was a freaky, disturbing place – and yes, it really was a police state.

In the mid-to-late 1990s, a lot of us regretted spending so much time studying the Soviet Union.  The USSR was no more, and suddenly the-most-important-field-in-the-world felt a bit like having gotten a doctorate in Latin.

But now that so much is going so wrong in Russia, and I’m seeing more than a few glimpses of my old Soviet friends in Putin’s crackdown on his gay and trans citizens, it seems I’m finally, sadly, getting a chance to put my education to good use.


CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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