Chapter 16: Return to My Native Land

Return to My Native Land   

In June of 1978, we ventured on our first visit to my native land after forty-nine years. Never had I expected that we would be able to return to Russia, and I certainly did not want to unless I had reasonable confidence that we would not have trouble getting back home to the United States. This is my home, and the country that I love.

It was my privilege to lead a tour group of nine people on the trip. Among them were my brother Jake and his wife, Elizabeth; two of my nieces, Katherine Sylvester and Anna Simon, daughters of my sister, Anna Rogalsky. They had been five and two years of age, respectively, when we left Russia.

We stopped in Amsterdam and London before arriving in Stockholm, Sweden, our last stop before Leningrad. In Stockholm I observed the servicing of a jet from Aero Flot, the government-owned Russian airline. It drove home to me a sense of our nearness to the Soviet Union and heightened the intensity of our excitement.
A Soviet Welcome

After an hour's flight, every fiber in my body began to throb when I realized our aircraft was descending—the treetops were coming closer and closer. Soon we would be face to face with the people from whom we had fled forty-nine years earlier. How would we fare? Would our passports, clearly stamped "born in Russia" be cleared? Or would that information present a problem? Before we left home, we had been assured by some people who preceded us that it would not.

U. S. Senator Allen Cranston of California also had advised that there should be no problem. The Soviets considered whatever had happened before the Second World War as history. Therefore I was confident, but still tense.

No problems arose, though, and everything seemed to go fine. That is, until we were going through Customs. Back in Sacramento, people in a Russian Baptist church had told us that each one of us could take two Bibles along without a problem. Because visitors were allowed to take gifts, a number of people in their congregation had done it. They also furnished us with Russian language Bibles.

We had limited ourselves to one Bible each; we didn't try to conceal them. We wanted to be above board and not smuggle them. My two nieces, Katherine Sylvester and Anna Simon, went through the customs check ahead of us. When they got through, they smiled at me; when I saw them smiling, I knew that everything had gone well. However, when Katherine Braun of Minnesota showed them her luggage, an official noticed a Russian Bible. The first officer asked,
"What's this?"

He called another officer and they called a third one. Finally they called a supervisor, a lieutenant colonel, and asked him what to do. In Russian, (for he did not speak English, as the other inspectors did) he asked Katherine Braun, "Is this for sale?"

I was near—from the end of the line I had moved up to join Katherine because she was scared. I didn't let on that I could understand what they said because my Russian wasn't good enough to hold a conversation, and it certainly wasn't good enough to explain or defend. I replied in English that the Bible was for a gift.
The Inspector translated for me. The supervisor then asked, "For whom?"
"For friends," I said.
"Who are your friends?" he asked.
I said, "People whom we may meet."

After more discussion, we were held back, and others were allowed to pass us. The Supervisor took the Bible and went up to another office. The inspectors soon found another Bible, and another one, and so on. All of us except by my brother Jake and his wife had Bibles in their suitcases. The supervisor returned and took the other Bibles to the office also.

Since I was the tour leader, one of the officers told me to stay where I was. While we were waiting for the supervisor to return from the office, the inspector said to me, "You see, everyone is through and you still stand there."
I replied, "That is what you told me to do."
He asked me, "Why did you do this?"

I said that we had been confidently told in our country that it was legal to bring gifts for friends. We did not intend to break any laws.

Whereupon he replied, "You didn't break any laws, but you must understand the rules."

Whatever that meant! One can only surmise that it was actually legal to bring Christian literature into the country, but in practice they did not allow it.

They asked me if I had a Bible, too. I told them that I had one Russian Bible and one German Bible. The officer asked, "Why the German Bible?"
I said, "Because I read German; it is my own personal Bible."
He asked, "Why German? Why not English?"
I said, "Well, sometimes I read English and sometimes I read German," which, of course, was true.

When the supervisor returned, he was informed of my two Bibles. He motioned for me to put the German Bible in my suitcase, then took the Russian Bible and went back to the office. He returned shortly and asked us to sign a document. We did not want to sign a document that we did not understand.

By this time Natasha, our guide, had found us and introduced herself. She would be our guide during our whole tour in their country. She was a lovely young lady, who spoke beautiful English, almost like an American. Now she stepped forward and translated the document for us. It stated that we had brought illegal material into the country and had voluntarily surrendered it. We told her that we did not think we brought illegal material, but we did not want to spoil our tour, therefore we would sign it.

She explained to the officers that we did not want to sign it but would do it under protest. I had taken the German Bible upon the pleading of friends in Sacramento. They wanted me to take it to the Baptist Church in Moscow to be sent to an uncle.

But until I turned it over to those for whom it was intended, I used it as my personal Bible.
Sights and Symbols of Leningrad

Once the customs procedures were behind us, a bus was provided by Intourist along with our friendly guide, Natasha. We started sightseeing even before we got to our hotel. On the way, the bus stopped at an impressive monument that had been erected to commemorate the freeing of Leningrad from the Nazis in World
War II.

When we arrived at the hotel, my nieces came to me and said they would like to get rid of the "hot merchandise" in their suitcases. I went to their room and got the Bibles and carried them to my room.

After a delicious dinner and some classical music provided by an orchestra at the hotel, we sampled the streets. Jake and Elizabeth and I had only gone a few blocks when someone approached and asked for "blue jeans?" And some children came up and asked for "gumma, gumma?" (Chewing gum.) Opportunities for black marketeering with blue jeans and money exchanges were always at hand, but we had decided none of that should tempt us.

The next day we were treated to usual tourist attractions: the Czar's Winter Palace, and the Hermitage Museum with all its masters of Europe—German, French, and, especially, Italian art. The Winter Palace of the Czars was fifteen years in building, under the supervision of a French architect. Begun in 1754, it was completed in 1769 with a total of 200 rooms. The adjoining Hermitage Museum, built by Catharine the Second (also called "Catharine the Great"), was completed in 1765. It houses the world's finest collection of Greek and Roman art. The column standing in its square commemorates the victory over Napoleon. It is of polished granite, one hundred feet tall; it is said to be the greatest freestanding monolith in the world.

In the afternoon we gathered at the boat dock. Soon we were skimming the waters of the Bay of Finland on a hydrofoil en route to Petrodvoretz, the Czar's Summer Palace. The palace is surrounded by more than 200 fountains which all operate by natural water pressures. Various fountains commemorate historic events, such as the victory over Sweden, and other similar triumphs.

Leningrad also houses the Smolney Cathedral, and what was originally a girls' finishing school built by Catharine II. It is here that the Communist Revolution began. It housed the Communist Committee, and from there the order was given to storm the prisons. We were told that once this order went out, there was no stopping the revolution. In front of the Girls' School stood a statue of Lenin pointing into the distance.

While I stood looking at the Palace Gate and the large square in front of the Palace, I was reminded of a history lesson in school about the "Red Sunday" of 1905. Thousands of Russian peasants and laborers had marched in peaceful protest to the palace, voicing their grievances over their living conditions. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, Cossacks on horseback swooped in, surrounding them, and began cutting them down with their swords and cannon fire.

It has long been debated whether the Czar ordered the massacre. His defendants claim he was not at the palace at the time. But all of that is academic now. As I thought about this tragedy, I couldn't help but imagine that if a different policy had been in place then, maybe the larger tragedy of Communism might never have happened.
Reunion in Moscow

A short flight from Leningrad brought us to Moscow. After we arrived at our hotel around 5 p.m., we were required to deposit our passports with the clerk at the desk.

Katherine Braun expected her sister to meet her there. The sister arrived with her daughter shortly after we did. Katherine had wanted so much to bring her sister a Bible, but hers had been taken from her in Customs. Since I had two with me that my nieces had brought through, I put one inside my camera case and took it to her. I went to the desk with Katherine Braun's niece to arrange for Katherine to go home with them. She would visit with her family for several days while we toured Moscow and Novosibirsk, and rejoin us upon our return to Moscow.

There was no problem with going for a visit, but they required her to leave her passport at the hotel. In that way, they kept visitors from wandering around too far.
Around and About in Moscow

After having dinner where we were staying in the National Hotel, we visited Red Square just across the street. There we met a couple of Americans who had come by train from Western Europe, and we were able to share some observations. The second evening in Moscow, we wanted to attend the Baptist Church for a service.

Natasha had withdrawn to her room, so I went to the hotel desk to see what kind of arrangement we had to make to go to the church, or whether they could contact Natasha. The clerk told me, "Don't ask anybody, just go anywhere you want to go."

I felt good that there was at least a semblance of freedom, and that my limited Russian was sufficient to get me around. Outside, several taxis were waiting for passengers. When I showed them the address on a paper, one said, "Yes, we know the Baptists."

Two taxis took us to the church. When I asked the drivers if they would return in about an hour-and-a-half, they said, "We'll wait right here until you want to go back."

I had placed the German Bible in my camera case, and at the church I gave it to one of the pastors to give to the family of one of our group.  I gave him the address where it was to be sent, and I was assured that it would be delivered.

We also had the opportunity to meet with Victor Adrian, a Mennonite representative on the staff of the Baptist church in Moscow. Fortunately, he spoke Low German and our communication problem was solved. He informed us that they had services on Sunday and on three evenings during the week, with additional Bible study and prayer meetings.

The church was a part of the "registered church" and as such had the freedom to preach the Bible, but they were kept under constant surveillance. They were also forbidden to baptize anyone under the age of eighteen.

From them we obtained the address and phone number of Jakob Fast, the pastor of the Baptist church in Novosibirsk. After a 30-minute visit, we went into the service. We found standing-room-only, but after a while some people moved closer together in the pews and we were seated.

The speaker was a visitor from Germany. He complimented them on their fine country and praised their government for the freedom they enjoyed. We got a bit uneasy, and Katherine Sylvester said, "Uncle John, let's get out of here, this is a farce."
But I said, "Let's just wait and see."
The speaker did get to the Bible, but we felt less than a real presence of the Lord. Yet, all in all, we were glad that preaching the Gospel was possible. At the close of the service, our taxis were still waiting for us.
Red Square and the Kremlin

The National Hotel in Moscow is directly across the street from Red Square and the site of Lenin's tomb—the most prominent attraction there. Visitors stand in line for blocks to pass by it.

The changing of the guard rivaled the similar event at London's Buckingham Palace. Elite young men stood for two hours at a time, seemingly without moving a muscle, looking only straight ahead. When I remarked to Natasha that these were certainly fine specimens of young manhood, she replied that only "our choicest soldiers are given this honor."

Outside the Kremlin Wall stands St. Basil's Cathedral, which commemorates the victory over the Tartars in A.D. 1561. Inside the Kremlin are numerous cathedrals marking other historical events, such as the birth of a Czar's child. The "onion" domes stand out against the skyline.

The Kremlin is surrounded by a red brick wall on three sides and a moat on the other. It was built on the site of the original village of Moscow from which the city has developed. Long ago, it was surrounded by a wooden wall, which burned down in the fifteenth century. Its first historical mention dates back to the eleventh century. At the time of this visit, it housed the Soviet Government. Another feature is the "King of Bells," which is said to weigh 200 tons. It was cracked by fire at some point.

In the evenings, a major attraction is the Moscow Circus. We were fortunate to be entertained there by performances with animals and clowns, aimed at relieving the public of their cares and the burdens of life.
A Vast but Static Megalopolis

The city of Moscow houses eight million people during the day. Red Square, Moscow University, and the great theaters impressed me with a sense of awesomeness and history. Most of the display of wealth and power date from pre-revolutionary times, and most modern achievement seems to date from before 1960.

The famous Moscow subway was started in 1935 and completed in 1955. Its tracks extend 165 kilometers; it has 130 stations, many of which are ornately decorated. The decorations tell the history of the nation and the major Communist achievements. We almost missed getting to ride on it. It was omitted from our itinerary, and our local guide did not want to add it. She gave the excuse that someone might get lost. I assured her that we were all responsible individuals. The experience was well worth my insistence.

The Exposition of Economic Achievement of the Soviet Republics was begun as an agricultural fair in 1937. It was interrupted by World War II and reinstituted in 1949. It now houses the "Sputnik" aircraft as well as other space equipment, such as "Luna Chod," a moon walker—a strange-looking four-wheel, wagon-like contraption. The local guide emphasized that he did not mean to brag, but they had been the first to "walk on the moon" in an unmanned landing.

In front of the Palace of Economic Achievements is a circle of fountains representing each of the fourteen Soviet Republics. Some of them are gilded and ornately decorated. It appeared that no additional great achievements have been displayed since the Fifties.

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