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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Friendship: Key to Survival In Soviet Days

For no particular reason at all, I have been reminiscing recently about my first trip to Moscow. Which is a little strange, because that first trip to the U.S.S.R. was so long ago you would think I had forgotten it with all the lasting impressions that two coups and market reforms have left.


But your first trip is something never to be forgotten, even if it was as long ago as 1983. I was an eager college graduate who had never been to the Soviet Union. I had come with all sorts of advice: watch out for the KGB, and don't make friends with people who want to buy your jeans and who offer to exchange four rubles to the dollar (four rubles to the dollar?!) on the black market.


My residence for the summer was the hotel dormitory of the Pushkin Russian Language Institute in southwestern Moscow -- one of the few places that American students in the Cold War early 1980s were welcome. The Pushkin institute welcomes students to this day -- but in a sign of the times, fewer Americans go there and the driveway has been taken over by a Mercedes dealership.


Back then your greatest danger was to be snagged by one of the strange men from the neighboring geography or Marxist indoctrination institutes who lurked in the hallways of our dorm, hoping for a date, preferably with a girl from a kapstran, or capitalist country. Years later, I learned that the institute is known locally as the yarmarka nevest, or "brides' fair." Next to these men on the danger list came the roaches and the cafeteria.


But you avoided them as much as you could. You would have died, anyway, if you relied on the institute cafeteria for food: My first breakfast there consisted of a grayish hard-boiled egg and a Fanta I scored from a sympathetic dezhurnaya.


Instead, the idea was to get out of the institute doors as quickly as possible and into the real world. And the most important thing was to make friends.


That is what I remember about my first summer -- Inna and Josif, Zhenya, and two teenage girls I met at Novodevichy.


Inna and Josif no longer live in Moscow: After one of perestroika's many waves of anti-Semitism, they finally left. Zhenya has also left, and now goes from one part-time job to another in New York. The two teenagers I sometimes wonder about -- they would be in their mid 20s now, wherever they are.


Back then, with fears of KGB vinyl-coated thugs in your mind, you would never call friends from the bugged institute phones. I would trudge up the street to a phone booth -- they all worked back then -- at an appointed time and call to arrange our next meeting.


Then, afraid my friends could be arrested if others saw a foreigner going into their apartments (there actually was a law forbidding Soviets to host foreigners in their homes), I would dress inconspicuously and set off to see them.


It was in visits like these, around Inna and Josif's laden table, that I learned what was important about being here. It was as if time was suspended. The cares of the world outside abated as we discussed philosophy and politics and I slowly grasped Russian words.


Back in those days, living in an institute dorm was the only way an American could be here. Now students come and live with families, becoming a part of their lives. I envy them.