Now that the winter Olympics has just begun in Sochi, Russia, I’ve been thinking back with nostalgia to a time when I was a freshman at SUNY Potsdam in WAY upstate New York living in Draime Extension on the fourth floor, watching the Olympics unfold before me on a black-and-white Zenith that had seen better days. None of the people living on my floor were Music Majors, they were mostly Comp Sci. with me the only History/English student, but we took great pride in the fact that our classmates and fellow students who were getting their education from the Crane School of Music were at the Olympics providing all of the music for the entire event.
US 4- Soviet Union 3
As the Olympics started the drama was solely centered on whether Eric Heiden could win gold in all of his events. As the Olympics moved forward, the US Men’s Hockey Team started to become the focal point of the entire 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. Once the US team had made the medal round my Draime-mates and I (inclusive of Glenn, Tim, Randy, Dave, Jim, Dave M., Jim O., And Todd) all sat around watching the US Hockey Team’s meteoric rise to greatness. For the US/Soviet game, there was a huge throng of people who filled our lounge to watch. The rest of the story is history; the US beat the Soviets 4-3 and went on to beat Finland in the gold-medal game. In 1980 I was also set to travel to Russia but the State Department alerted our Trip Leader, Dr. Steven Carol, that due to the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, they did not recommend the travel itinerary that was proposed. We were cancelled from our trip to Russia.
Dr. Carol, West Islip’s James Bond Gets Us In!
Seven years after the Olympics at Lake Placid, and three years after I left Potsdam to start my career in publishing, I had the opportunity that had eluded me in 1980 and traveled to the Soviet Union for 15 days. I was 25 years old and this was the biggest event in my life to that point. For a guy who had never been outside the United States, this was a pretty gutsy first trip. We spent five days in Tallinn, Estonia, we also spent five days in Leningrad(now reverted to St. Petersburg), and we spent five days in Moscow. Tallinn was a beautiful city that reminded me of what Germanic cities in central Europe looked like from pictures I had seen. The cultural difference between Estonia and Russia could not have been starker than in the contrast of the architecture. Also the features of the people were more central European than Eastern European, many with blonde hair and blue eyes which is not the norm in Leningrad or Moscow.
Ah, ha ha ha ha ha… Wipe Out!
The toilet paper situation was one where we had advance knowledge that we should bring rolls of toilet paper with us. We had been informed that the Soviet toilet paper was akin to sandpaper. American toilet paper must have been in high demand as one of the cleaning staff stole all of my toilet paper from my bag when I was out touring Tallinn. Luckily, a fellow trip member was nice enough to let me have an extra roll. I can commiserate with what’s going on in Sochi with the toilet restrictions. People are supposed to put the used toilet paper in a waste-bin rather than flushing it down. We were also told to bring our own drinking water to avoid the “Trotsky Trots”. We were told to bring mouthwash to use for brushing our teeth without putting any water on the brush. Since Chernobyl had occurred the previous year, we refrained from drinking any Vodka as well.
Lenin In His Tomb: Photos NO!
The people who I met on my trip were all warm and embracing. The Russian people themselves have nothing but respect and admiration for Americans. The people of Estonia were incredibly friendly and liked Americans. I was in the Soviet Union during late June and early July 1987. Mikhail Gorbachev had announced “Glasnost” in May 1987. The people were just beginning to warm up to the idea that they were allowed to have more freedoms. The KGB was still in existence and also still monitoring foreigners closely. One nighttime incident in Red Square was indicative of this fact. We were standing in the center of Red Square chatting, when a Russian national walked over and stood in the middle of our conversation smiling at us the whole time. This is a little unnerving, but not as unnerving as the incident that occurred when we went through Lenin’s tomb. I always wanted to be prepared and would keep folded toilet paper in my pocket as a precaution. The militia that guarded Lenin’s tomb was explicitly looking for people who had cameras that were not allowed to go into the tomb. These militiamen were armed with submachine guns and as my part of the line started to snake towards the entrance a militiamen came up to me and with the butt end of his submachine gun hit me on the pocket while exclaiming, “Photo-Camera?” Now one thing I can tell you without reservation is that when you get hit on the pocket with the butt end of a submachine gun you will wake up PDQ! My quick thinking response was, “No, No… Toilet paper!” as I pulled it out of my pocket.
Back in the USSR
I love the memory of my trip to Russia and Estonia. I wish the Russian people nothing but good luck in their drive towards an evolutionary change in their government. They are good people, they are friendly people and the people themselves are not our enemy. I went to Russia because I wanted to see for myself the difference between the systems. I saw exactly what they wanted me to see, but luckily, as an American, I could read between the lines.