Letters from Russia
A Pen Pal's Tales of Life in the Former Soviet Union
OCTOBER 01, 1997 by DENNIS L. PETERSON
Mr. Peterson is a homeschooling parent and a frequent contributor to The Freeman, Teaching Home, and other periodicals.
Grigory enjoyed studying English. He also wanted to write, especially if it would help him improve his English. One day, near the end of 1979, his love of the language and his desire to write led to a clash with Soviet authorities.
“I was at the post office,” Grigory recalls, “and suddenly noticed that a woman in front of me in the line was having her letter registered with the address written in English on the envelope. She was mailing a letter to someone in the USA!”
Grigory had long dreamed of corresponding with an American. An idea flashed into his head, and he began to memorize the name and address on the envelope. When he got back home, he immediately wrote a short letter to the man, a John Geiss, asking for his help in finding an American pen pal.
“Of course, I never received any reply,” Grigory explained in a letter to me, “for the simple reason that my letter never got to that man, and, as I understood later, it had not reached any farther than the Krasnodar Territorial KGB department.”
Later, in the summer of 1980, a short, bald man visited Grigory at his home and “invited” him to the local police station for a “conversation.” Right away, Grigory knew that the man was a KGB officer from the nearby city of Krasnodar.
“At first, he asked me a few questions about my life, about the amount of my disability pension, about my service in the Soviet Army, and about [an] accident that happened to me in the Far East. Then he asked me about why and how I had learned English and what kind of books I liked to read.
“I already knew what I should answer him. I told him that I enjoyed reading books by Soviet writers translated into English, then I named the titles of some very ‘Soviet’ books that proclaimed the communist ideals and several procommunist newspapers, such as the Moscow News Weekly and the British Morning Star.
“The man seemed quite satisfied. But then, toward what I thought was to be the end of our ‘conversation,’ he asked me straight, ‘Who is John Geiss?’ I told him almost the whole truth about getting the address at the post office and of my desire ‘to brush up on my English’ by exchanging letters with a native speaker.”
Grigory’s “conversation” with the KGB lasted for two hours before they were finally convinced that he was not a dangerous criminal or an enemy of the state and released him. But their method had been effective in subduing yet another innocent but inquisitive citizen; Grigory did not try again to write to anyone outside the Soviet Union until 1994, well after the fall of the Soviet regime.
I first became acquainted with Grigory (“My friends call me Grisha or Greg”) when in 1994 I responded to a notice in Focus on the Family magazine seeking people interested in helping common Russian families by becoming their pen pals. Greg’s application to the program revealed that he was my age, was married, and had two young children—very similar to my own family situation. Most importantly, he added, “I’m fond of reading (I can’t live without books).” Upon our first exchange of letters, we became friends, and our correspondence continues to this day.
Greg was born November 22, 1954, in Krasnoarmeiskaya, a small town about 50 miles southwest of Krasnodar, Russia, about an hour’s drive from the Black Sea. His mother died of cancer when he was a teenager, and his father died five years later. As a teenager, he worked for a brick mason by day and at night listened surreptitiously to broadcasts by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the Voice of America, and Radio Free Europe. He also was able to obtain underground literature (manuscripts and photocopies) that found its way into Russia in one way or another.
“Even as a teenager, I could sense that everything was not really that which the ‘officialdom’ had been trying to ‘feed’ into my mind,” he wrote in one letter. “I was puzzled that so many Russians had been leaving for ‘the rotting West’ but almost none had been coming over to ‘the Socialist paradise’ from Western countries. Why was the KGB jamming mercilessly the Russian-language programs of the BBC, the Voice of America, and Radio Free Europe? I was inclined to think that they had done the jamming because they didn’t want us to hear the truth. . . . And they succeeded in it all right because many things have become known to us only after the perestroyka had begun. It made me so uneasy that I decided to start learning English.”
In 1973, Greg was drafted into the Soviet armed forces. There he served in a special unit called a “team special” of the “internal troops,” which were responsible for tracking and capturing dangerous criminals accused of murder and robbery. During his military years (through 1977), the doubts that he had first had as a teenager about the Soviet economic and political system only intensified. Also, in 1976 and 1977, he experienced an “adventure” that was to change his life forever.
A Young Soldier’s Ordeal
One day, while he was stationed in the Far East, his unit was ordered to pursue and recapture “two dangerous criminals who had escaped from jail.” During their escape, the two men had killed a taxi driver, stolen his cab, and used it to speed their escape. They also robbed several shops along the way and killed a shop assistant. They fled into the taiga, an area of dense forests between the tundra and the steppes. Nature intervened, however, and they were caught in a terrible snowstorm. Their corpses were found later in the taiga.
Meanwhile, Greg and three of his fellow servicemen had also been lost in the storm. Fortunately, they stumbled upon a hut in the wilderness, and all but one of them survived the storm and were rescued three days later. They were taken to a hospital suffering severe frostbite, especially on their hands and feet. Each of them lost digits or limbs as a result of their ordeal. Greg spent 20 days in the intensive-care unit. Over the next four months, he underwent three operations on his hands, leaving him with no fingers, only stubs.
While in the hospital, Greg became deeply depressed and even considered committing suicide. What could he do with such a handicap? How could he marry, rear children, and have a normal family life when no woman would want a husband with such an appearance and physical limitations? But a nurse in the hospital encouraged him to continue his struggle despite his handicap. It was then that he decided to pursue with gusto his study of English.
Later, he met his wife, Valya, who was a saleswoman in a local public catering establishment. They now have two young children, a daughter, Natasha, and a son, Vasya. On Greg’s meager disability pension of approximately $100 a month and what little income he can derive from teaching martial arts to local students (a “forbidden” activity that resulted in his arrest several times in 1985-86), teaching English, and translating various consumer product manuals from English to Russian, they live on a plot of land in Krasnoarmeiskaya. They manage to get through the winters on the yield of their vegetable garden, fruit orchard, and various poultry they raise.
In spite of economic hardships, Greg always finds ways to further his pursuit of English, primarily through reading books, many of which were forbidden during the “stagnation period” of Leonid Brezhnev.
“It is no joke,” Greg emphasizes, “to have lived so many years under the pressure of the ‘Soviet ideology,’ which, in essence, was an ideology of the herd: ‘the whole country is building socialism, and you are sticking out with your selfish and petty problems!’ That idea was often suggested in the Soviet literature and in the Soviet cinema, putting the individual good aside and proclaiming and eulogizing the nebulous good of ‘the entire Soviet people/nation.’ There was no room in that ideology for an individual with his own concerns and problems.”
Today he reports, however, that “the information is more truthful than it has ever been; owing to the ‘glasnost,’ there are no ‘forbidden themes.’ It is very easy to get any books in Russian on almost any subject that may interest me, but it is extremely difficult, next to impossible, to get good books (especially original works by American authors) in English.”
That’s why he is so eager to maintain a fervent correspondence with me. I have tried to supply him with a regular flow of good reading material: newspaper and magazine clippings, classic American novels, religious and philosophical works, copies of The Freeman, Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, and more.
“I seem to have become ‘addicted’ to our correspondence,” he once wrote, “and I begin to feel uneasy if I haven’t received a letter from you within a certain period of time. Each of your letters is just like a good ‘dose’ of a drug, indeed, which makes me experience some kind of euphoria and lifts my spirits for the next few days.”
Greg especially wants to know of any mistakes he might make in his letters. He regularly asks me to critique his letters and to point out any errors in his usage and vocabulary, a difficult task because he commits so few errors.
Much of what Greg writes concerns the economic and political conditions in his country.
“I hope that these reforms are becoming irreversible,” he states. “I am all for these reforms even just because I may read whichever books I wish to read, watch any movies I choose to watch, do my kung-fu exercises without making a secret of it. . . .”
“Today, many people are complaining in Russia that the life has become more difficult than it had been under the ‘Soviet Power.’ (Those who had endured much suffering during the communist regime don’t think so!) They are now sitting around and doing nothing, waiting for President Yeltsin and his government to guarantee them a new and happy life, having become accustomed to the promises of the communists to lead the Soviet people ‘through all the temporary difficulties straight to the radiant future.’”
“Of course, there are a lot of problems in Russia today,” Greg concedes, “and many people have to rack their brains about solving their ‘meat-and-potatoes’ problems of everyday living. Nevertheless, life is going on. Frankly, I prefer to be ‘a free man conducting my own life’ rather than live like a rabbit in a cage, which has a lot to eat and a lot to drink but has no freedom.”
Optimism and Realism
Greg is eternally an optimist: “Although my financial situation has changed but very little (for the better) since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, I think that life, on the whole, has turned for the better in Russia.”
He is also quick to recognize the problems that have accompanied the coming of the new freedom: “Too many people have mistaken freedom for permissiveness, and a lot of them take advantage of the situation. You know, this rapid ‘switchover’ from communism to capitalism has been like ‘a bucket of cold water pouring over one’s head’ for many people. Some people who had been quite satisfied and self-assured under Soviet power are at a loss now; many of them have become frustrated and have gone ‘on the sauce,’ becoming alcoholics and drug addicts, but others (mostly those people who had been ‘losers’ in Soviet times) have become rich during the ‘transitional period.’ It is rather interesting to observe this process. . . . In my opinion, the free market gives people more chances to succeed in life than our ‘developed socialism’ had given to the Soviet people. (One has only to have ‘a good head on one’s shoulders’ and not be a sluggard—‘consider the ant.’)”
“Our Russian tragedy over the decades,” Greg speculates, “is perhaps due to our ‘short memories’ and ‘unlimited patience.’ Just a few years have passed, but many people must have already forgotten the empty shelves in shops, the food cards, the soap cards, etc. There were times when we couldn’t even buy a bar of soap without a special ‘soap card’ permitting one to buy one bar of soap per month for each member of a family. That was the condition to which the communists had brought our country!
“The individual’s rights, interests, and aspirations were considered ‘low and selfish’ in the great light of ‘building socialism’ on the way to the ‘radiant future.’ Where is that future now? It is almost as far away as it had been before, and if ‘the glorious communist party’ takes over again, there may be such a horrible bloodshed as the world has never seen.
“Perhaps it isn’t easy for you to understand how an entire nation could put up with the regime,” Greg suggests, “because you’ve never experienced that kind of oppression and never lived in Soviet Russia (God forbid!). The ‘all-powerful tentacles’ of the KGB had eyes and ears in practically every community, enterprise, and office. Any dissidence was nipped in the bud mercilessly and (I must admit) most effectively, even to the point of arresting anyone who made the slightest negative comment.
“There was also another factor: it had been some kind of mass hypnosis, some kind of psychic phenomenon. Many people truly believed in the ‘glorious communist party and its great achievements on the way to the well- being of all the Soviet people.’ Communism was the religion; to be more exact, a very wisely and adroitly (cunningly) designed substitute for religion.”
Hope for the Future
As much as Greg favors the economic reforms, he fears that they are going too slowly “and not quite the way they should be going.”
“I’m inclined to think that what we now have in Russia is neither communism nor capitalism. Some people will call the current situation bardak, a very strong Russian term meaning ‘discord’ or ‘chaos.’”
In the midst of these confusing times, however, Greg’s love of learning and language and his desire for self-improvement continue to sustain him.
“It had been my dream for years to have pen friends in the United States, in fact, since the day when I started learning English. Who would have been able to foresee that 24 years later (in spite of the so-called Iron Curtain, Cold War, and arms race) I would have gotten pen friends in America! Can you imagine that just six or seven years ago I might have been arrested for any connections with Americans? When I first started learning your language in 1970, the Soviet communist power was very strong, and it was just incredible to imagine that some day one would be able to correspond with Americans and, all the more, to receive boxes, packages, or parcels from America!”
In another recent letter, he revealed that he was planning to use his enthusiasm and abilities with English to improve his economic situation.
“I’ve decided that I should do what I can do best—teach your language to those who would want to learn it. I’m going to insert an ad on local TV, the so-called ‘running line,’ which will say something like this: ‘English lessons. Special method and program. Speak, read, and write English. Experienced teacher.’”
Somehow, I believed, he would succeed as an educational entrepreneur. My faith in him and the free market were not misplaced. In the most recent letter from Russia, Greg reported with pride that as the result of running his TV ad, he had garnered three students for his private language lessons. When his next disability check arrives, he plans to run the ad again. Meanwhile, his kung-fu classes are opening for a new season. And he’s planning to write an article for The Freeman.
Who knows how many more fellows like Grigory there are in the former Soviet countries, just waiting for a continuing contact with someone in the West who will help them learn and apply the freedom philosophy. An entire generation suffered under totalitarianism; now we have the opportunity to help the new generation make the most of their fledgling freedoms. Perhaps they will be the ones who will develop Russia into an example of freedom in action from whom even Americans can learn some valuable lessons.