Saturday, September 1, 2007

Soap Opera Sunday - The KGB and Me - pt. 1

Soap Opera Sunday from Brillig and Kate - find the other participants on their blogs today, and join the fun!

The KGB and Me - pt. 1

I sat across from Tanya, swirling the coffee dregs in my cup. The sun was astonishingly brilliant, the sky was blue and cloudless, and the boulevard below was covered in flowers and darting shoppers. Everyone was smiling. It was that sort of day.

Tanya and I had stopped for an after-school snack of Turkish coffee and ice cream, the two edible café items. The ice cream was delicious, if vanilla, vanilla, and vanilla, and the folks in Krasnodar were justly proud of their ice cream factory. “Is our ice cream not delicious?” was a question I was asked with some frequency.

“There was one thing I didn’t understand. Don’t understand,” Tanya slouched a bit. Her cheeks became vaguely rose. “Why do you Americans think we spy on you whenever you come here? Why would we care what you do? You’re Americans. You’re our guests; we’re happy to see you. It’s as simple as that.”

I had scoured the Soviet bookstores for a gift for Tanya. We were becoming really good friends and I wanted to share some of my favorite authors with her. Unfortunately, the foreign language literature selection at the Tsentralnaya Biblioteka was slim. Jerome K. Jerome was one of the most popular authors, and at that point, I hadn’t even heard of him. I did, however, find I Wonder as I Wander by Langston Hughes. Hughes had visited the Soviet Union during the height of its industrial glory in the early thirties. He was extremely impressed by it all; he hadn’t been taken to the bread basket of the Ukraine, where between 2.5 and 5 million people were slowly starving due to Stalin’s policies and ineptitude.

He did, however, mention the tracking that took place by the NKVD (the predecessor of the KGB), and he complained of it in the book. Tanya was puzzled by this.

“But Tanya, it’s true! We’re always followed here. Maybe not each tourist, but an important poet like Hughes, or Paul Robeson when he came here, or someone like me on a new exchange.” I put my coffee cup back in its saucer. The cheap china screeched as I did so.

“Oh don’t be ridiculous.” Tanya leaned back as far as she was able to in her uncomfortable, straight-backed chair. She crossed her arms and looked petulant. It was an odd sight, as she was wearing her usual, blue polyester, “teaching” suit. Given how stiff the fabric was, parts of the suit stood away from her body, as if trying to divorce themselves from what she was saying. “Why would anyone follow you? You’re a teacher. What do they think, you’d be carrying state secrets?”

“I have no idea what they think, but I know I’ve been checked on.” I traced the lace placemats with my forefinger. I tried to make my voice light. I’d already managed to offend Tanya in other settings; there was information that was simply kept from the general populace, and some things I’d said in the past had challenged her sensibilities.

Tanya leaned forward and gripped the edges of the front of her chair. “How do you know?” She almost hissed this. I couldn’t tell if she was angry or frightened.

I looked at the street below. A well-dressed woman was having an altercation with one of the “babushkas” (grandmas, pensioners) whose job it was to sweep the streets with tiny brooms. Possibly the babushka had swept up some dust toward the official’s bags or clothing, as certainly, only a high level official, or the wife of one, would be dressed as she was. Another contradiction in this “classless” society.

“Well, there was the day that a woman called across the lobby, loudly, and asked if I would bring letters to the U.S. in my luggage. And you know that’s illegal.” I looked at Tanya. She was still pressed forward in her seat.

“But that doesn’t prove anything. Maybe she was incredibly stupid.”

“Maybe, but the desk folks didn’t look shocked. Or anything. It was like it was expected. And we’d been warned during our orientation that this sort of thing would happen.”

“It still doesn’t prove anything.” Tanya’s arms and legs crossed. “So what did you do when she did that?”

“I called back, equally loudly, that I couldn’t possibly do that because it was illegal and I certainly wouldn’t break any laws in the wonderful country that was hosting my exchange.” I smiled.

“Oh, you’re learning, alright.” Tanya laughed. “Yes, we’ll make a good comrade citizen of you, yet. Come on, let’s go. It’s a beautiful day for walking the boulevard.”

We gathered up our things and started for the stairs to the street level. I was looking forward to getting out of the café and off of this conversation. I still hadn’t told Tanya the real reason I knew I was being followed.


anno said...

Oh, gosh, this brings back memories. I'm glad mine were limited to a single day's excursion into East Berlin.

Looking forward to finding out the real reason you knew you were being followed...!

Dedee said...

I can't wait for next week! Yippee!

Goofball said...

oh real KGB encounters! So how did you know??

I was in Moscow in 2004 and I also remember talking with the neighbour woman on how shocked they were afterwards to realise that the red army wasn't always all good but that they had also committed crimes towards their own people. She was pointing at a new mosaik in the cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. On it you saw the red army soldiers shooting innocent civilians. They had not known and could not imagine before that this would have been happening. So she told me.

Unknown said...

Ooh, this is great! Can't wait for next week...

robkroese said...

Wow, I wanna know the real reason.

Rebecca said...

really? wow - can't wait for more!

....have you read The Siege by Helen Dunmore? It's the story of a family trying to survive during the siege of Leningrad. Brilliant. I know next to nothing about Russia and I absolutely loved it. I think you'd like it too.

Betsy said...

The KGB, one of my favorite topics!

Oh, and the ice cream! YUUUUUM! Coincidentally I was just reminiscing about that vanilla ice cream to my kids last week. Totally addictive!

When were you there? (Apparently before 1991 if you were scouring Soviet bookstores...) Don't know much about Krasnodar but am assuming you ate lots of Khatchapuri while you were there? How long did you stay?

Oh no. Now I'm grilling you. Just like the KGB... ;-)

Looking forward to the next installment!

Jen said...

Thanks, everyone, for reading!

Goofball, your story is very typical. When I was there it was the beginning of Glasnost - "openness" and people were shocked by the revelations coming out.

I haven't read The Siege, Rebecca, but it sounds fascinating!

Madam Crunchypants said...

Oooh! I'm looking forward to the next part!!

Anonymous said...

You are so good at building suspense. Can't wait to hear more!

Brillig said...

Wow, Jen. This is incredible. I'm sorry it's taken me so long to get here to read it. I'm glad I didn't miss it all together--this is really fantastic stuff. I'm off to read this week's installment....

Fourier Analyst said...

I'm with Brilling. How did I miss this? I know I did not get to reading every day as last week was start-of-school! Glad I went back and now I get to read part II already!!