There was ‘power’ here, too
Just as he was openly curious about American techniques, Alexander was also uniquely open about Russian life. He once asked our group if we had brought along a radiation detector, so that he could verify the “official word” about nominal radiation in Sosnovka. And he described the Sosnovka of ten years before:
“There was vlast even here in Sosnovka,” Alexander told me gravely. I looked at him without understanding. Vlast: power?
“Yes,” he said, “they watched everyone and everything.” So “power” is the euphemism for those prying eyes of yesteryear.
“Only ten years ago,” he said, “the power still controlled Sosnovka. And years ago — much worse. There was a woman from Sosnovka who had met an American during World War II and went to America with him to get mar· ried. They allowed her no contact with her mother or family here, though they often tried to contact each other. Finally, in the 1960s, when her mother was on her death bed, the power let the woman come for a visit.
“They picked her up in a car with curtains on the windows, and drove her straight to her mother’s house. She was told she could see no one but her mother, speak to no one else, and not even leave the house until they came for her.
“Now here you are, Americans, and every day you walk these streets as if this were your home town, freely and happily.” He paused, a bit choked up. “Do you understand what it’s like to see all of you here, walking freely about our town, talking freely with us? That we can be friends?”
As we walked about town, people would often greet us by saying, “l hope there will never be war between our countries.” War was so often on their minds. And sometimes people would hold up their hands together in the sign of international brotherhood.
Someone once asked me what I missed most about the U.S., and one answer just slipped out of my mouth before I had time to think about it: “convenience.” And I can think of no better illustration of Russian inconvenience than its telephone system.
An intercity call within Russia requires a trip to the intercity phone bureau, where callers either wait in line for up to an hour-and-a-half to place a call themselves or wait up to two hours while a switchboard operator places the call for them (if she remembers and isn’t in a bad mood). Naturally, one cannot choose; some bureaus operate one way, some operate another.
And as for intemational calls, a few pay phones in Moscow offer hassle-free calling for a mere $12 a minute otherwise expect to wait up to four hours to make a single international call, whether from someone’s home or the Central Telegraph.
Perhaps even more harrowing than trying to make a phone call in Russia is the process of shopping, even for the most basic goods. A visit to a state store just to buy eggs, milk, and bread can take an hour and a half. There is one line to pay, another to receive the item you’ve paid for. Each department — dairy, bread, meat — has its own lines. Shouts of frustration and anger are often heard in these lines, not because these people are particularly nasty by nature, but because their system is giving them a collective migraine. Certainly, they haven’t much to smile about in those shops.
Once when I had waited in line for three hours to buy a train ticket only to have the ticket window close just before I got there, I yelled, in English, “This country sucks!” The man in front of me in line turned to me, and understanding only the exasperation in my voice replied in Russian, “You speak the truth, friend.”