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Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered
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Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered
  Moscow Travel Tale

by Lorry Patton ...

The following is a story I did after a visit to Russia in 1990, just before the Soviet Union dismantled.

It was my first visit to the Soviet Union. I arrived excited, slightly nervous, and, since this was the land of my ancestors, more than mildly curious. I left, two weeks later, bewitched by the arts, bothered by the lack of hope and joy, and bewildered by the fact that a dominate world power didn't offer its people simple luxuries such as a telephone book or soft toilet paper.

We sped Mexican-style from the airport. Bump, bump, over ruts and holes, squeezing, pushing, and edging in and out of four lanes of traffic where only three should be, past block after block of tall, grey buildings.

Long lines of people stood in front of obscure entrances, their clothing the only color in the monotonous landscape.

"Soon the ruble will be useless, so, we are gathering gold. " said the driver, explaining the lines. " Two years ago, we had no soap. Last year we had no sugar. This year we have nothing."

We drove past McDonald's where the line stretched across two blocks. From a distance it could have been a lineup for a movie; however, there were no designer jeans or Gucci shoes here. Most of the women wore traditional head scarfs. Most of the men wore dark ill-fitting suits.

A short distance from McDonald's, a truck load of bananas backed onto the sidewalk and set up shop. A human chain mushroomed instantly; the faces void of emotion. In sharp contrast to the faces at an outdoor market in Siberia the following week where I stopped to take pictures of heaping bushels of apricots, plums and cherries.

"Go. Go.", the woman said with glee. " Tell your people we have lots of fruit!". "But ," she added, hardly able to control her laughter, " Tell them no one buys the fruit! Everybody has a fruit tree! "

Why couldn't they ship the fruit to Moscow where it was needed, I asked?

How, foolish woman, in a convoy?

Transportation between cities seemed nonexistent. If roads did exist between Moscow and villages in Siberia, it is not common knowledge. Maps are rare and inaccurate.

The Kremlin, on the other hand, is astonishing. Maintained, guarded and guided. The museums are rich with jeweled artifacts from the past. The cathedrals are glorious, but vacant and silent, their walls covered with solemn faces of Jesus and his disciples staring grimly at the empty pews. In comparison, the old Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Siberia was filled with vocal people. Their clear voices soothed the frescos and the icons and bounced from pillar to pillar in hypnotic harmony.

Stooped old women, wrapped in shawls and flowered kerchiefs, lit candles, crossed their hearts and chanted in unison. Their somber faces looked vaguely familiar. I started to cry. They could have been faces from my mother's album. I touched the shoulder of the woman beside me. She eyed me suspiciously as I wiped away my tears.

Outside the church, beggar ladies waited with their hands outstretched. Outside the church, the eyes of Lenin, the God whom they had worshiped these past seven decades, stared grimly into empty space from a billboard. Free to speak their minds at last, the Russians shared their frustrations.

"Ever since I was a youngster I was told the party would protect me. I was told to worship Lenin. Now I am told my protector and father is a monster. I am frightened and confused", said a young teenager, looking frightened and confused.

"Communism has had over seventy years to bring about a brilliant future", one dour man offered . Apparently, in a survey only 6% percent said yes to communism. "That is probably less than in Canada", he concluded.

A waitress offered her opinion as she watched the flies crawling across the bread plate. "Gorbachev is a party puppet. He has done nothing for us. All he says is we must stick together and be patient. "

"But", I said, "he has opened the world to you".

"He had no choice", she answered. " Perestroika is letting steam escape from the kettle before it explodes. The kettle still boils. "

We sped Mexican-style across the Siberian Steppes. Bump, bump, over ruts and holes, passing cars and motorcycles recklessly, flying by cattle that had wandered onto the road, rushing past fields of corn and watermelon, speeding past crystal-clear lakes and thick stands of timber, whizzing by state farms and giant billboards.

What does that sign say? I wanted to know.

" The party is our brain; our pride; our conscience ... "




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