At the tail end of the Cold War, I found myself in a closed Soviet city being treated like a rock star by some Russians and suspected of being a spy by others. For one brief shining moment, I just may have been cool.
Twenty years ago this week, I was a young Navy chief journalist, the Sixth Fleet’s senior photojournalist during the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late eighties, and as such got to cover the first visit of U.S. Navy ships to the home of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. The heroic city of Sevastopol had been closed to the West — and to most Russians — since the end of the Great Patriotic War, which we prosaically call WWII. Only the oldest veterans had ever seen an American, but they and their sons revered us all as allies and brothers-in-arms. We were made welcome like old friends.
“Let the politicians fight,” they said, “We all love Americans.” By the thousand, they swarmed the piers to surround every single sailor and hug us, shake our hands, try to speak English with us and invite us home with them.
It was, to say the least, an extraordinary week. The crews of a cruiser and a destroyer, plus a token admiral, his staff, the Sixth Fleet Band and assorted intelligence types and interpreters walked down into the crowds and were swarmed like rock stars.
I met a young couple that day who took me under their wing. Yelena was an English teacher from Odessa who, in a sad Cold War irony, had never spoken with a native English speaker. She begged me to let her interpret for me all week if I’d promise to help her American pronunciation, idiom and slang. Her husband, a German-language teacher and car nut named Yuri, would drive, in a car they’d waited 10 years to be delivered.
How could I not? Being a wordsmith and raconteur, I just had to take her up on it. Being a son of a Southerner, I’d try to leave her with a bit of a Junior League accent if I could.
Now, I had to assume everything I said to Yelena and Yuri would go straight to the KGB or the GRU. Their real names might be Boris and Natasha, if you get my drift. Who knows, they may have been told I was a double-naught spy just pretending to take photos. Whether they did or not, I reckon there’s a file on me somewhere in Moscow. How cool is that?
If we were all spies, we stunk at it. As we talked through the week of concerts, parades and receptions, my new friends never once asked me about missile systems or radar capabilities. They wanted to know, they said, the truth about America, the pravda about everything they suspected that Soviet government media was lying about.
Every evening, we sat at their kitchen table with the whole family, drinking Cuban coffee and Crimean plum brandy. “Look me in my eyes and tell me,” Yelena often said. “I know what you say is true or not, and I will tell my friends and they will tell theirs.”
After dinner that week we would sit and talk long into the Russian summer night, such was their hunger to hear the truth about the West. It wasn’t war, or religion, or politics, or imperialist dogs that my new Russian friends wanted to talk about, though. It was shopping for groceries and cars.
One evening, Yelena especially wanted me to tell her how my wife shopped for groceries – in great detail. She’d heard about and seen pictures of our big, clean, well-lit stores with full shelves and rows of fresh vegetables, but she had to hear it from me, and look me in the eye while I told her.
Well, I summoned the Muse and did my best to describe a trip to the grocery store in loving detail: the store’s size, the lighting and music, the displays, the bright colors of packages, the stacked fruits and groomed vegetables. I must have waxed pretty lyrical about picking out steaks at the meat counter, because I noticed there were tears in Yelena’s eyes as she imagined shopping at the Piggly-Wiggly, despite the fact that “Piggly-Wiggly” does not translate well into Russian.
“Tell me again about the lines,” she said, savoring a favorite part and translating it for her parents.
“Well,” I’d say, “in America, if a grocery store’s check-out line gets more than five or six people in it, the store manager quickly opens another line, because no American is going to wait more than 10 minutes or they’ll take their business to another store.”
“America,” Yelena would murmur, “sounds like heaven.”
All week long, her husband Yuri and I had talked cars, cars I’d had and cars he had only dreamed of seeing, much less driving, or – beyond thought – actually owning. When I showed him a recent photo of my sons, he’d declared I was a very lucky man, perhaps, I realized, as much for our BMW and my Yamaha bike in the background, as for the boys.
One evening, he wanted me to describe how American men buy their cars. He’d heard that there were four-lane highways in each American city that are lined with dozens of new car dealers, with thousands of shiny cars to choose from and competing for your attention.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s true.” And I talked him down that highway, pointing to a Chevy dealership here, a Mercedes dealer there. He had us stop at the Chevrolet dealer to see his dream car, a Corvette. The Muse and I led him dramatically through a test drive of the brand-new bright red Vette, going far faster in the Mitty world of imagination. The idea of test driving a new car made him breathe heavily and drink vodka. “You tell me, sir, they let you drive Corvette before you buy?”
“Yes, it’s true.” Then I took them from the sublime to the ridiculous – something absolutely beyond his Soviet frame of reference. I sat him down to horse-trade on the Corvette, to make the deal with the Chevy dealer’s sales manager. Yuri very nearly lost it.
He looked right and left, then stared me hard in the eye. “No! No! You want to argue with them about the price of my Corvette?” he said in a strained whisper. “They will call the police! Pay them! My God!”
At that point I realized that I’d just told more truth than perestroika could handle, that Yuri was about to glasnost in his pants. For the first time I lied. “Yeah,” I said, “Of course. We have to pay thousands over full price for the Corvette, plus we have to bribe the manager, and even then have to wait a year for delivery.”
Yuri regained his composure, and sipped his vodka. “Only a year?” he sighed. “America truly is heaven.”
So in the files of the old KGB, they have me nailed, and I confess. Journalist or spy, I did my part to pull down the Iron Curtain by looking my enemy in the eye and telling the truth about shopping at the Piggly-Wiggly.
Top photo: We were all rock stars — the Navy’s Sixth Fleet Band rocked a crowd of thousands during their visit to the Soviet Union. Photo by Kip Burke
Bottom photo: A U.S. Navy sailor draws a Rockwell-esque crowd of curious Russians in Sevastopol, August 1989. Photo by Scott Allen