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Essay: Great Moments

| By Stuart R. Grover | From Kevin Spacey, Jan/Feb 02

You probably cannot imagine what it was like to live in 1970 Moscow. You cannot comprehend the city's dreariness, the grayness of a city without neon, without decent restaurants, without any life or vitality. You cannot understand what it was like to be a pariah, living in a society where speaking with you put friends or acquaintances in jeopardy.

It was the height of the Cold War. U.S. troops were in Vietnam fighting in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive. Russians had no access to Western news or music other than the usually jammed Voice of America. It was before the Internet and CNN; there were no fax machines, and even copiers were carefully controlled. Muscovites got their news from Pravda, Izvestia and Radio Moscow.

Political repression was one aspect of the dreariness. Sensual deprivation was another. If a book had not received official approval, it was unavailable. My Soviet friends assumed that Sinclair Lewis and Jack London were the very latest in American fiction. Foreign movies did not arrive in Moscow -- ever. Restaurants served starchy, fatty food when you could get in. Red wine translated as vin rouge d'Algerie, which stung your throat and left you peeing pink the next day. Meat meant sausage with quarter-sized fat globules; vegetables meant onions, beets, potatoes and turnips. Caviar was available at a price, but there were no lemons to squeeze over it.

The weather offered little solace. The summer was humid and dull, before quickly turning into a wet autumn that yielded snow and freezing weather by early November. As the winter settled in, the snow covered everything, preventing running, touch football games or even easy walking. If skis had been available, cross-country skiing might have offered some respite.

I was living at Moscow State University, a hideous Stalin-Gothic building on the city's outskirts. Like my fellow American graduate students and post-docs, I received a full bloc -- two tiny rooms with a private toilet and shower. Each apartment featured forest-green bedspreads, dirty-green drapes and splintery wooden floors that reeked from the insecticide applied to discourage persistent roaches. The resident cats did an excellent job of mouse control until they began to disappear at the hands of the North Vietnamese students' desire for fresh meat.

My research provided continued frustration as well. The authorities kept me away from the archives I wanted to use. Each day I went to the Lenin Library to use published materials, enjoying access to the First Hall, a reading room reserved for high-ranking Soviet scholars and bureaucrats and foreign researchers. Along with everyone else, I took notes with a quill pen and ink from an inkwell sunk into an ancient desk. Each day, some elderly party functionary would overturn his inkwell, destroying a priceless source. Even in this sanctuary, politics reigned. The pages of the 1925 Great Soviet Encyclopedia devoted to the banned Trotsky had been removed, sliced out with a razor blade.

My most vivid memory of the First Hall involves former Soviet deputy premier Vyacheslav Molotov. He came to the Lenin Library daily to work on his memoirs, an elderly man scratching away with his quill pen.

Even a former premier had to use the toilets, placing him in a compromising position. On good days, overflowing toilets resulted in two inches of standing water; on bad days, the water was ankle-deep in most spots. The urinals were bad enough, since you had to stand on tiptoes to avoid getting your pants soaked. The toilets were worse, lacking seats or doors -- and this was in the private bathroom reserved for users of the First Hall.

Mid-morning I waded into the men's room, the inevitable response to the wretched coffee of earlier that morning. As I passed by the stalls, there was Molotov, a small, elegantly goateed man of 79 years. He perched precariously on the rim of the toilet, balanced on his small black shoes. His face, with its sharp features, stared forward in resignation. He was holding a few tearings from Pravda in his hand, sharing with the rest of us the absence of toilet paper.

Every day at the library, and everywhere else, was a battle. Although I was part of an official exchange with quasi-diplomatic status, the Soviet archivists and librarians felt no need to help me. They refused to offer access to the materials I needed for my research. I was forbidden to take notes while reading. As a result I developed prodigious abilities at memorizing Russian texts. Every hour I would descend to the café to record my research while trying to appear inconspicuous. I might have eaten a slice of torte had I not realized that what might be thought to be sprinkles were in fact moving -- small beetles migrating across the pastry case.

Lunch was a battle rather than relief. Service at the most primitive sausage stand took an eternity; often they ran out of food while I was waiting. My weight dropped steadily and I couldn't shake the cold I developed. I resisted the state one of my fellow Americans fell into. (He was convinced the Soviets were out to drown and poison him -- he stopped going to the waterlogged bathroom and ate only peanut butter). I found, however, that I was sliding into depression and despair.

Toward Christmas, I made several discoveries that improved my state of mind and somehow my health. Throughout the huge university building, various kiosks offered odd delights. Although it was forbidden to drink alcoholic beverages in the building, 151 proof Cuban rum was available at several spots. So were Havana cigars. The Soviets, in their desire to prop up the Cuban economy, imported their ally's few salable commodities. I had tried both the rum and the cigars earlier, but the rum had abraded my throat and the cigars had been stale.

In December, a new batch of each appeared. I bought a liter of high-octane rum and several Romeo & Julietas.

My depression was at its depth late in December, and I found myself unable to sleep. I turned on my short-wave radio and tuned into ORTF, the unjammed French national radio station. It was playing the Woodstock album, starting with the Fish cheer by Country Joe. There I was in Moscow at 2 a.m., listening to Joe lead the crowd in signature chant - Give me an F. Give me a U…and so on to K. I listened astonished, ignorant of the whole Woodstock phenomenon and wondering what had befallen American popular culture.

I sipped gingerly at the lethal rum and lit up the cigar. The rum slid down easily and the cigar was fresh, fragrant, aromatic. I leaned back against the bedstead, relaxing and enjoying unadulterated pleasure for the first time in almost six months. As the music continued and the rum smoothed my jagged edges, the cigar offered the ultimate relaxation. Each puff increased my sense of well being. In the semidarkness of late night, the smoke was gray and purple, forming phantasmal shapes that only enhanced the experience.

The cigar lasted an hour, remaining smooth and mild to the end. The smooth, even ash restored order to my thinking and offered me the belief that survival was possible. By the end of the ORTF broadcast, the rum and cigar had given me peace for the first time in months. I fell asleep and remained undisturbed for eight hours. I arrived at the library the next day later than usual, but prepared to deal with whatever the bureaucrats might dish out. Interestingly, they awarded me access to materials I had requested weeks before. They also let me know I could request photocopies of whatever I desired.

The remaining six months passed quickly and pleasantly. The skies cleared and the weather became cold but brilliantly sunny. I learned to ice skate and to enjoy swimming in a heated outdoor pool. I learned to manipulate the system and traveled to Kiev, Leningrad and Odessa, while also visiting a dozen small towns supposedly off-limits to Americans. I gained access to sensitive sources, including the very intimate correspondence in French between my research subject and his mistress: "Dear pussycat…your daddy cat can't wait to show you the new tricks he's learned…"

My digestion improved and my weight increased. Soviet friends steered me toward a few decent restaurants, where the waiters actually provided service. I gained access to Soviet dissident circles and saw art and writing closed to all but a few privileged foreigners. By the time I headed back to the States, I was prepared to stay in Russia longer and regretted coming home before my work was complete.

This all might have occurred without that perfect Havana, but all of what was positive about my year in Russia traces back to that single late night. During the remainder of the year, I enjoyed many more great cigars. Each served to remind me of what is important in life and offered the opportunity to relax and quietly reflect. Each let me find my center and helped me go beyond the immediate frustrations that Cold War Russia provided. The first cigar led to a return of perspective on the world and ensured that I survived an otherwise impossible year.


Stuart R. Grover is president of the Collins Group, a consulting firm for nonprofit groups, based in Seattle, Washington.