Chapter 24: Connecting in Moscow and Leningrad

Connecting in Moscow and Leningrad

Mennonites in Moscow

After a four-hour flight, we came to Moscow. Again, we were not tourists; we were traveling like Russian people travel. It was a bit crowded in the Moscow airport. We did not come to the international side of the airport where it's quite roomy. We came to the national side and experienced pushing through a crowd to the place we thought we should go. The signs helped us figure that out.

After waiting for our baggage a while, we greeted our friend, Volodya Teterin, who showed up and told us that, while we were on the Russian side, our baggage had been transferred to the tourist side. So he already had our baggage. He informed us that we would not be going to a hotel at this time but that we had a dinner engagement at a professor's home. So he took us to a university professor's house, where we were to have dinner with a number of guests.

A Canadian couple was there that we had met previously at the Bible Institute in Maikop; and John Esau, also a Canadian, representing Arthur DeFehr, a Christian businessman. He and Alvin Peters had common business interests, and that is why we were invited to this home.

We had a lovely evening. After a very fine dinner, the professor gave us a blow-by-blow account of what had happened in Moscow, how the coup had been started and how it had been squelched. He said people took turns to make sure the protest was kept going around the clock, with thousands of people participating. He too had participated. They were there for a certain number of hours and then other people came. He portrayed for us the intensity of the standoff. They were there to block the military from taking over the White House. He told us that many orders were never carried out. The military captains and even generals did not obey the orders they received because they were not willing to massacre the crowd. And thus it was over. His account of the revolution demonstrated that our papers at home were surprisingly accurate.

Reminders of Ultimate Sacrifice

After dinner, they took us downtown to show us theWhite House. The barricades at the American Embassy, in close proximity to the White House, were still up. They showed us the spots where five young men had fallen. Three were sons of Army officers who had tried to stop the tanks from moving. One of them was simply run over, while another was shot. Large wreaths of flowers still marked the spot where each had fallen. A bus that stopped the onslaught had been hit by a tank. It was still standing in the middle of the street. The evidence of momentous events was very real and very fresh. It showed that the conservative Communists who wanted to take over when they kept Gorbachev prisoner in the Kremlin had failed.
Odyssey to Leningrad

That same evening, after our tour of downtown, we boarded the train and went to Leningrad on an overnight ride in a sleeper, a very enjoyable experience. Before we retired, a lady knocked on the door of our compartment and asked if we would like to have some hot tea. So we were served delicious hot tea, and then we slept through the night. The train rolled along at a somewhat moderate speed, scheduled to arrive at Leningrad at eight o'clock in the morning, a very nice overnight ride. People from Moscow can commute to Leningrad and, after a night's sleep, be ready to do whatever business they have.

We saw the countryside, the villages and towns, as well as the woods and plains. I believe it is a country rich in resources and rich in possibilities, if only they would implement a good system to run the country.

Volodya Teterin told us in Moscow, "When you get to Leningrad, look for someone to meet you. If there is no one there, just take a taxi and go to the Hotel Russia on the  Moscow Boulevard. There you can stay and pay with rubles." When we arrived, we didn't see anyone with a "Logos" sign, which was the identification by which we recognized our contacts, so we just engaged a taxi. When we came to the hotel and I asked if they had room and whether it would be possible to pay with rubles, they said, "Yes, but are you

I said, "Yes."
And the clerk said, "Where are you from?"
I said, "From America."
Then she said, "You can't stay here."
"Why not?"
She said, "You need to go to a tourist hotel."
So I asked which hotel. She said, "You need to go to the Pulskaya Hotel."
I said, "All right."
So we went out and told our taxi driver we needed to go to the Pulskaya, and he said, "Fine."

He took us there. When we arrived, we saw that everything was western, absolutely western. There were large German buses sitting outside, filling with crowds of people getting on board. Inside the hotel, it was beautiful, and there were even advertisements for rental cars.
An Expensive Proposition

I went to the desk and asked for a room. They said yes, we could have a room and that would be $155 a night per person. Alvin Peters said, "This is too much. Why should we be paying that kind of money?" I was inclined to stay and indulge ourselves, because we hadn't spent very much money on the whole tour. Everywhere we had gone, we had been guests, and our hosts would not accept pay, other than that which we left behind without their knowledge. So I was ready to give in. But my partner said "No, why should we pay that much money? That is more than I pay when I go to Washington D. C. Why can't we stay at the other place?" I said fine, "Let's go back and try again."

We went back there and told the clerk that we were not tourists, but visitors on cultural exchange. We urged her to take a look at our visas. She said, "I saw your visas, but you still can't stay here."

Another clerk came and said, "Well, if they had a priglashenie [an invitation] they could stay."

They agreed on that. Our clerk said, "Here's a paper." She wrote a message on it and said, "Go to the Oktober Hotel and present this paper at an office there.
If someone there will sign it, then you can come back and stay here."

We said, "Fine."

We went out and told our taxi driver to go the October Hotel, and he knew exactly where it was. He even showed me the office where we needed to go. There the receptionist asked us what we desired. I gave her the paper and said that we were from America and would like to stay at the Hotel Russia.

She checked the note and said, "You would like to stay at the Russia? Fine…." and she signed it.

We went back to the Hotel Russia and they said, "Fine, now you're welcome to stay here." Then they figured out the cost: it was 287 rubles for two nights and amounted to about $7 each for both nights. The hotel was an ornate, impressive building, built before the Communist Revolution, featuring a lot of marble in the hallways. Still, it was rather bare.

We had a clean room, good beds, private bath, all in all, a good place to stay. We had succeeded in staying in a hotel where Russian people stay, and had avoided being treated as tourists.

We even got boiled water to drink. We never drank any raw water. We asked for mineral water or boiled water. Every floor has a receptionist at a desk. When I asked ours for boiled water, she said, "There in the hallway is a "samovar," a self- cooker, and that water is always boiled."
Adventures in the City of the Czars

However, we ran into one situation that we thought was a little unpleasant. There was a nice dining room where we went to have dinner and waited to be seated. We were standing and waiting, but no one came to seat us. When I finally asked for service, the manager hedged and didn't give us a clear answer. The American Way—that a customer is always served with a smile—rose up in me. I said, "If you'd rather not have us eat here, then we won't."
He said, "Frankly, no."
So we went out, a bit offended, but in the hallway was someone who could speak English and who had overheard our exchange. She said, "This dining room is actually a nightclub and they have programs and shows that they are not anxious to have foreigners attend."

There was another dining hall, and in that one we could have our dinner. We went in and the receptionist seated us politely. We had a little difficulty in ordering just what we wanted. My Russian sort of failed me a little bit there. Mr. Peters wanted to have a goose dinner. We had seen flocks of geese in the countryside. He said they must have geese, so he was going to have a goose dinner. I could not think of the name for a goose, so he drew a picture of a goose on a napkin, but that didn't register with the waiter. He in turn, drew a picture of a cow and a pig on a napkin so we could order that. We finally had a beef dinner.  However, I did know the words for cow and pig.

Later in the evening, as the custom is, they had a program of folk singing, music and some folk dancing. We enjoyed this brief taste of cultural folklore, another benefit of not being in a tourist hotel.

On the following day, we went out to look for another taxi and saw a row of them right in front of the hotel. I inquired about the fare and they quoted prices in dollars, I said, "No, in rubles." But they insisted on being paid with dollars. I said, "As long as I am in Russia, I pay with Russian money."

Finally one driver stepped forward and said, "Alright, 600 rubles for the day." He told us that the taxi drivers had bought their cars from the government and were now running their own businesses.

We took the regular tourist route in Leningrad, starting with the Czarist Plaza, the Winter Palace of the Czars, and the Hermitage Museum, adjoining the palace. One could spend days in that museum, but I usually don't last quite that long. I had seen all of this in my 1978 visit, but Peters hadn't, and one has not been to Russia if one does not see the beauties of Leningrad, (St. Petersburg). The palace of Catharine II, or Catharine the Great, is of special interest to us. Her statue, with an historic inscription, stands in front of her palace.

The whole city is captivating. It is built on the banks of the Neva River. Down by the water is a memorial statue depicting the launching of a boat. According to the story I learned in school, Peter the Great as a prince, put off his royal robes and traveled to a foreign country while a young man. He learned the art of shipbuilding and came back to teach his people. The memorial celebrates the launching of their early boats, and since then, they have become a shipbuilding nation.

The whole area around Leningrad used to be Swedish territory; Russia took it from Sweden in a war because they said it would provide them a window to the west. It is also built on many islands and has many canals running through the city.

It is but a short ride by hydroplane, skimming the waters of the Gulf of Finland, to "Petrodvoretz," the summer palace. This is on an island in the Gulf of Finland where the Czars spent the summer months. The biggest attractions there are the hundreds of fountains—I believe 280 fountains in all. Lots of woods remain, and everything is natural. Even the fountains are said to operate on natural water pressure. The grass is native. It's not lawn grass like we have but natural grass, which they keep neatly mowed.

Abundant beds of flowers and the ever-present fountains line the long walkways. It is a serene area where people can come and relax. Groups of people were walking along the sand paths and visiting with each other, as well as individuals walking around in solitude.

I had been there in 1978. I wanted to see it again and to have Alvin Peters see the whole scene. But it appeared to me that the fountains and some of the grounds had deteriorated a little since 1978. The Communist economy and their whole structure had been on a downward path for a number of years. What happened in 1991 was not a sudden thing. It had been coming for some time. That is probably why Mr. Gorbachev had started the restructuring, and the new openness, hoping to save the old union and the old system.
One Last Loved One

The first thing after we were settled in the hotel, I sent a telegram to my niece's oldest son, Alexander Obholz, a military man stationed near Leningrad. I had no telephone number, but the family had given me the address and asked that I send a telegram so he could come to see me at the hotel. I was not sure whether a Red Army officer would be interested in coming to see an old distant American relative, but I sent the telegram in the morning, inviting him to come to see me at the Hotel Russia. I said that we would be in the hotel by eight o'clock that evening.

When we arrived there I saw a man and a little girl sitting in the lobby. I looked around a bit and then walked over and asked whether he was Alexander. Indeed he was. We had a wonderful meeting and a very friendly visit. He spoke perfect German. He had been in East Germany for five years with the occupation army.

We went to my room. We talked some more and tried to figure out his rank, comparing the ranks of the Russian Army to the American. He said he was a "Polkovnik." He was familiar with the rank of an American captain and a major, and said that his was just above a major, which would translate to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Airborne Division of the Red Army. He didn't tell me whether he had been involved in stopping the coup or not, but I know it was the Airborne Division that was supposed to enter the White House. I didn't know how freely I should discuss these things. I just said to him that it was very good that they did not get involved in a civil war. He agreed with me and was very glad that had not happened.

We had about an hour-and-a-half visit, and he said he had a little over two hours to drive home. Just before leaving he said he had a little souvenir for me. He took out a Russian-made short-wave portable radio that he wanted me to take home as a remembrance from him and his family.

The daughter who was with him was very friendly and pleasant. They also have a teenage son who was attending the military academy. This was the last contact I had with any of my people in Russia before leaving for home.
Conversations with the Locals

We noticed that there was a barbershop in the hotel. I hadn't seen it, but Peters had seen the sign. He had been nagging me about my long hair for a long time. So the next morning, I found the shop in the back of the hotel and went in to get a haircut. There was a young lady barber. While cutting my hair she said, "Not many tourists get haircuts in Russia."

I asked, "Why is that, do you think?"
She said, "We don't have good equipment like they have at home, and so they just don't trust it."
I said, "You're doing very well."
It was true: she had but one scissor and a comb, with one end broken off, and one old clipper. But she did a nice job.
She said, "It appears that our great October experiment was a big mistake."
"It's interesting to hear you say that," I said.
"Why is it interesting?"
"Because you have grown up under this Communist system. You have never known anything else. When I was a child, the Party members always told us that
when the new generation came along, everyone would be all for it."
She said, "It's not only me. Everyone else says this." She conveyed the impression that now the entire country just wanted to get away from communism.

This agreed with conversations that we had with a couple of taxi drivers. One of them said that their system wasn't good, etc., so I joshed a little with him and
said there is no system that is a hundred-percent good. There are some desirable aspects in every system. There are even some things to be desired in your system.
"Yes," he said, "but our system is 99% bad and maybe 1% good—that's not good enough."
The Mood of the Man in the Street

Another taxi driver pointed out, as we were driving along the street, that the old Russian flag was flying over the naval building. I noticed he also had an old Russian flag—not the Communist flag, but the Czarist flag—on his dashboard.
I said, "I understand that you have had a vote to change the name of this city."
He said, "Yes, it's not final yet, but we probably will change it back to St. Petersburg."
"What do you think it should be?"
He said, "Who gave the city life? It was Peter I, Peter the Great, and therefore, it ought to have his name, the one who gave it life."
"But why was it called Saint Petersburg?"
He said, "It was not acceptable to name a city after a living person and, therefore, he called it St. Petersburg."
I said, "But that sounds so German—the "burg" part."
He agreed.

I continued, "You could have gone back to what it was changed to later. I believe it was after the First World War when it was changed to Petrograd. You could have named it that."

"Yes," he said, "we could have, but everything is going back to the original."

This seemed to be the mood all over the country. They wanted to go back to the original, back to Czarist times. They are not interested in the kind of reforms Gorbachev had started. Gorbachev did not seem to be that popular among the people, though they realized that he had given them more freedom than they had ever had before.

This was also true with the people that Alvin Peters visited on the streets in the German village. Speaking Low German to him, they said, "Gorbachev…we're not sure. He talks a lot. He has many words. But his economics were not that good. We do not know what he will come up with."

So Peters asked them how they felt since he had come back after the coup, whether they were glad. They said, "Of course, we're glad. If he had lost, then the conservative Communists would have taken over, and it would have been as bad as ever, or worse."

So it seemed that Gorbachev was not as popular among his people as he was in the West, though they were glad that he had returned.

Thieves in the Market

The only unpleasant experience we had upset me severely for a while. On our last day in the city, just before leaving, we were finished with all of our tours and going to the hotel for a night's rest before our homeward flight the next day. We stopped at one more bazaar to look for souvenirs. I walked around, not really interested in buying much, just looking at things.

A young man showed me different items: T-shirts, books, pictures—all kinds of things. Then, suddenly, another young man came and held a T-shirt right in front of my eyes. Others swarmed around holding more items up to me, saying, "Buy this, buy this." I was totally surrounded, yet I thought it was just fun and laughed with them. Finally, I had to yell: "You're crowding me, get away from me."

I was carrying my camera in a pouch around my waist, and when I looked down, I saw that my camera was gone. Everybody had backed off, and all were standing by their wares like nothing had happened. I was angry, not only because of the loss of the camera, but I was humiliated that I had been so naïve in allowing these hoodlums to surround me and rob me like that.  I turned around and looked at all of them and said, "You stole
my camera."

Nobody responded. Then I walked out of the market to the car and told my taxi driver, and he was angry. He first got out of the car like he was going to go out there and get it. Then he changed his mind, because he couldn't do anything about it anyway. He said, "Professionals. They know how to do this."

This bothered me quite a lot. It threatened to spoil my tour, but I finally got victory and I said, "Lord, help me to overcome this so I will not let one incident spoil my whole trip!" It had been so pleasant all the way through.
Winging Homeward

That evening we called Volodya Teterin once more in Moscow. He wanted us to know that there had been somebody at the depot to meet us when we arrived, but we had missed each other. He was going to call him and have him take us to the airport. After a while we received a telephone call from Victor Avdeev, who said he would come pick us up at nine in the morning.

He brought his helper along. Victor introduced him as the president of the Leningrad Bible Society, and the name of his endeavor was "Bibles for Everyone." It was not a Bible Society that printed Bibles and literature, but rather a distribution center. He said they  made it their goal to try to get Bibles to as many people as possible, wherever and whenever possible. So we had a very pleasant send off.

They took us to the airport, helped us register, and got through customs, which was again easy. No problem at all—no one checked any of our wares. After a two-hour flight, we were in Helsinki about noon. We had only a few minutes to catch our plane for Los Angeles.

Without difficulty, we started our westward journey. This time it was the opposite of flying out there. Leaving shortly after noon, the sun seemed to stand still. There are ten time zones between Helsinki and Los Angeles, and we flew something like eleven hours, so we got to Los Angeles at 2:3O in the afternoon. This was early enough for us to catch a plane for home in Sacramento.

We just got into the airport, and there was my son Paul. He came to meet me and asked how the trip had been, and I said it was great—all but the last day. "The worst thing that happened to me was yesterday. I was foolish enough to allow someone to steal my camera."

Paul said, "Is that all that happened to you? You ought to be thankful—you could have been hurt. Don't worry, we'll get you a better camera."

Well, it wasn't the camera; it was my self-esteem that was hurt. However, he made good on his promise the following Christmas. I have a better camera now. It was a joy to speak with my wife by telephone and to tell her that I was safe and sound on American soil. And, I would be in Sacramento in an hour and fifteen minutes.

Arriving in Sacramento, I was met by Kathryn and a friend from our church, Oral Balzer, who took me home. I arrived back home on Saturday afternoon, and was glad to be home.

Far Away but Unforgettable

It was the end of and action-packed three weeks travel, seeing different cultures first-hand and reliving some history. It was a very historic segment of my life: to see different parts of Russia that I had not seen before.

The most important part, of course, was seeing my relatives. These were all the descendants of my brother Peter who was fifteen years older than I. Now I have such gratitude that I have had the opportunity to visit with his daughter, and fifteen grandchildren and their families. The ones I did not see were his son Jakob's family. We saw him in 1978, but he had passed away before my return. He suffered from a lung disease even then, which he contracted by working in the coalmines for many years as forced labor. His family lives in the city of Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan and we did not get there. Hopefully, one of these days, if the Lord gives us health, we may still see them as well. So, this trip was a wonderful experience in life.

At home, I was glad to find my family in good health, although they had some anxious moments when they could not contact us, nor hear from us for a time. This wasn't all because of the coup, but because of the general Russian system.

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