Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pain, Yes?

I've gotten a couple requests for more stories about being a diplo-brat in Moscow back in the Cold War days, when my dad was an assistant Army attache at the embassy.  We were there from 1978-1980, during which time I was in the sixth and seventh grade.

 Ukraina Hotel, Moscow 1979

I have to walk with a cane for a couple days now.  Maybe a week.  I blame it on my new boots.

We got to go to Helsinki last month, and my parents let me buy some really cool black cowboy boots with straps on the back, just above the heel, that have metal studs on them.  I was surprised that they let me buy them, and even more surprised that they let me buy the black vinyl pants.

It was my money, but still.  They don't always let me spend it on whatever I want.  It's kind of not fair; but on the other hand, they're the ones who gave me Finnish markkas at just under the official exchange rate for the worthless rubles I raked in selling jeans and stuff to Russians on the black market.  So I shouldn't complain, I guess.  I think they felt sorry for me because I got kind of depressed over the winter.  I mean, there were a lot of days when it was fifty below zero, and only light out for a few hours, and the heat kept shutting off in our cruddy apartment.  That stuff can get to you.  But mostly it was just boring. 

Helsinki is a capitalist paradise, in case you didn't know.  And every once in a while, a train goes out of Moscow with the "diplomatic pouch" from the embassy, and some lucky American family gets to go with it.  It was our turn last month.

They have this store in Helsinki called Stockmann, where you can buy just about anything.  And everything is clean and shiny and new there, and doesn't look like it's about to break, or is already broken.  Not like here.  Also, in Helsinki, they have a restaurant called Carol's that's just like a McDonald's back home.  I ate their version of the Big Mac every day that we were there.  They also have good grocery stores there, with fresh fruits and vegetables.  Not just wilted old cabbage, like here. We brought an empty suitcase with us and filled it with iceberg lettuce and bananas to bring back to Moscow.

So my friends and I were messing around at the Ukraina hotel the other day.  It's just down the street from our apartment building, called K-14, on Kutuzovsky Prospect.  The hotel is one of those big buildings that's kind of like a palace or a castle, with a spire on top and everything.  On New Year's and May Day and other Soviet holidays, they shoot fireworks from all seven of those buildings and we can see them from our balcony.  You have to hand it to the Russkies: they can put on a good fireworks display.  They have these big artillery trucks that they shoot them off with. The Russians call the Ukraina and the other buildings "The Seven Sisters."  We call them "The Seven Ugly Sisters," or "Stalin's Wedding Cakes."  I don't really think they're that ugly though, compared to the rest of Moscow.  Most of the other buildings, except for the old churches and the stuff in Red Square, are just big gray blocks.  They look like prisons to me.

Ukraina Hotel.  Kutuzovsky Prospect is on the right.

My friends and I sometimes go to the Ukraina or other hotels, just out of boredom.  We'll run around in the lobby, or buy useless crap from the gift shop if it's open.  That's one of the things about Moscow: you never know if a business is going to be open, or if it's going to have anything in it.  And sometimes it seems like they have stuff that you could buy, but they just don't feel like selling it to you.

When I run around with my friends, somebody always has a lot of money, either from selling Western stuff to Russians or because they're from a country that doesn't care if they use "soft" rubles.  Americans are only supposed to use rubles that they get at the official exchange rate.  I guess it looks bad if we go around spending their currency like it's worthless, which it is.  We never hang out with Russian kids, except maybe to play a pick-up hockey game or something, because they're not supposed to hang out with Western diplomats.

So even though we have a lot of "funny money," usually there's nothing worth buying with it.  The only places that sometimes have a lot of stuff are the hotel gift shops, and it's all decorative vases and lacquer boxes and those "nesting" dolls.  After your apartment is filled with that crap and you've sent souvenirs to your family back home, there's not much left to spend it on.  The restaurants are terrible, if they even feel like serving you.  There's a little coffee shop right next to our apartment, and it's had the same display in the window--a plate with a fried egg on it--since we moved here almost two years ago.  We got some pastries there once and they tasted like cardboard.  A while ago I had a bunch of rubles burning a hole in my pocket and I bought a full-length rabbit fur coat from a hotel gift shop, just for the hell of it.  I don't wear it all that much, but it sure was nice on those days when the heat didn't work.

Anyway, we were doing this thing that we sometimes do at the Ukraina, which was playing in the revolving door in the lobby.  There are never many people around, so no one tells us to stop.  The door is probably ten feet tall, and it's made of these thick slabs of wood with glass panels in them and big steel bars over the panels.  They're really heavy, and it's kind of hard to push your way through the door.  But if you get two or three guys in there pushing, you can really get it going fast.

We'll have a couple guys spinning the door, and everybody else stands around in the lobby, waiting their turn to jump into the...chamber, I guess you'd call it, between the panels of the door.  If you time it right, when you jump into it, the door kind of picks you off of your feet and spits you out onto the sidewalk.

So I was standing there like a sprinter, waiting to jump into the spinning door, watching it go around a couple times to make sure I went at just the right moment.  I made a kind of song in my head with a beat every time a door panel passed the wall: bum-bum-bum-bum.

I let it go around three or four times.  Bum-bum-bum-bum.

Then: bum-bum-bum--I jumped into the opening!

But because I was wearing my new boots, instead of my Adidas, my ankle turned just a little bit and I stumbled and had to recover.  My timing was way off.

Thud!  It sounded like someone had jammed the door with a big piece of lumber.

But it wasn't lumber; it was me.

The door stopped its hyperspeed counter-clockwise revolutions, and started slowly going the other direction until it hit my limp body and stopped altogether.

I couldn't move.  I wasn't bawling or anything, but I have to admit I was pretty scared.  I guess I was in shock or something, because I couldn't feel much of anything.

One of my friends who speaks Russian tracked down some grownups to help us as my other friends dragged me into the lobby, away from the door.

It seemed like the grownups weren't in any hurry to help me.  A couple people walked by and shook their heads.

Finally, a huge middle-aged Russian lady in a white dress and hat showed up, carrying a small brown suitcase.

"Pain, yes?" She said.

"What?" I said.

"Pain!  Yes?"

"Yes," I said.  "Pain."

She opened her case and pulled out a syringe that looked about the right size to tranquilize a horse, with a needle that was a good eight inches long.  Then she pulled out a glass bottle of clear liquid.

As she plunged the needle into the bottle, I suddenly found myself standing up.  I swear I don't remember getting to my feet, but there I was, saying, "Come on!  Let's get out of here!" to my friends.

My friends half-carried, half-dragged me back to my apartment.  My parents were both at work at the embassy, and eventually I was able to get in touch with my mom.  She sent a driver from the embassy to pick me up and take me to the clinic.

It turns out that I'm okay after all.  I just have a bruised hip, and there's nothing you can do about that really.  The doctor gave me a cane to use for a while, and aspirin for the pain.  It doesn't even hurt that much anymore.

Also, the cane makes a pretty cool accessory.


  1. This is really fascinting; an such a cool hotel in a huge scale Communist way. I wonder how much Moscow has changed.

  2. It must have been a shocker when you finally returned stateside. Sounds like and interesting couple of years.

  3. Fascinating post. How long were you over there for? As Michelle said it must of been quite a culture shock when you returned home!

  4. Good instincts. She may well have been offering instead of asking.

    You still have that coat?

  5. Whoa!! Scary lady with a big scary needle!! Have you been back since the change?

  6. I'm pretty sure I've seen that horror movie, but I remember it ending differently. Yeesh!

  7. @David--I guess Moscow is barely recognizable now, compared to when I was kid. I looked at Google Maps streetview, and my old street is full of high-end Western retailers. The Ukraina is now a Raddison property!

    @Michelle--Yeah, it was weird coming home. Nobody understood why I had been in Moscow, so I just stopped talking about it.

    @Rachel--We were there for two long years!

    @Homemaker Man--Sadly, no, I don't have the coat any more. It shed about half of it's fur before we left, so I think stuffed it down the trash chute.

    @Jo--Nope. Haven't been back. I would love to go some time, though.

    @jack s--Hahaha...I had to look up the name. Yeah, pretty much.

    @Elly--It could have ended much worse.

  8. I love your Diplobrat (diplobrat? awesome.) posts, but this one had me seriously laughing when the adults were just walking by and shaking their heads. I'm playing that scene over and over in my head and giggling.

  9. Very interesting post!

  10. Was that lady my grandma?! She ALWAYS carried around giant syringes with bottles of clear liquid marked with a skull-and-crossbones.

  11. Great story. Our old minister, before he was a minister, spent a few years there teaching diplomats' kids, and I always love hearing his stories too. So completely foreign to my own comparably posh upbringing.

  12. so interesting! thoroughly enjoyed reading. :)

  13. I loved this. Fascinating stuff. I was in Russia in 1994 and it was still pretty Eastern and grim in many ways then. I can't imagine it in the seventies! Jeez.

  14. I can't help thinking that if it weren't for the adult indifference, you would never have been allowed to play in the doors at all and since you came out of it with just a bruised hip, I'd say it was worth it.

    I'm guessing that syringe may have been representative of your new status, via your injury, as disposable. Running away was probably a very good idea.

  15. I remember that incident! AND whatever happened you did not want to end up in a Russian hospital.

  16. I can't get the image of you wearing black cowboy boots with studs, vinyl pants, and full length rabbit fur coat out of my head.

  17. @Steamy--Yeah, that was real funny. I could have died. Those Russians are definitely not the coddling kind.

    @Doc C.--It could well have been her!

    @Inadequatethings--If he was there in the same era as me, I'll bet I knew him.


    @VegAss--It's funny. I've always managed to find things to like about the places that I lived. By the time I left Moscow, it seemed pretty okay to me. But when I see old pictures of our apartment, it is bleak indeed.

    @Nari--Well...I guess I did learn a few lessons. I don't know if I would agree that it was worth it though. Maybe for the story.

    @Shannon--Yeah, it was pretty much agreed that you were better off taking your chances with home remedies than going to a Soviet doc.

    @Anna--I don't know if I ever wore all those things at once, but I suspect that I did. What I didn't mention in the story was that I also had a suede cowboy hat with a peacock feather in it (later sold it for 400 rubles--about 600 bucks at the time) and a perm (long story that merits its own post). Snoop Dogg has nothing on me.

  18. Did you ever figure out what the hell was in that syringe? And where you could get some if you were inclined?

  19. Did you keep a journal when you were 13, or is this recall from a 30 year old memory?

    If it's from a 13 year olds journal, good job kid. Some day you'll make blog of note or something.

    50 degrees below zero without electricity is beyond ridiculous.

  20. I'm sure i wanted to say something about the post (other than 'excellent," which it is) but I can't get the perm out of my head. Or, off of your head. Either way, I'm looking forward to that post now.

  21. The moral: never trust Helsinki footwear.

    A great story, though! I love when you dig these gems up.

  22. This is fascinating yet it is a dividing line for generations. Some of the guys I play ball with are in their twenties.

    I find more and more moments where they look at me as if I am a dinosaur. They are not old enough to remember the Cold War the way some of us do. They don't remember when the wall came down.

    I don't feel old, but when I talk to them....

  23. A perm?? I think I may have known that, but definitely forgot it. Heh.

    I've since found it odd that we spent lots of time together around when the Wall came down, yet it was never (to my recall) a topic of conversation. How is that? Especially given that you were taking German at the time. I remember watching the U.S. capture of Noriega with your mother much more clearly.

    Maybe it was those $4.99 cases of Schlitz beer. The bottles that gashed your thumb if you crossed them...or at least didn't open them properly.

  24. @Stephanie--I think the stuff in the syringe was the same juice they gave the East German Women's Swim Team that made them grow beards and webbed feet.

    @David--I never successfully kept a journal. If I had, it would surely be way to embarrassing to share with anyone else. When I write from my adolescent POV, I just make up whatever details I can't remember, and try to channel Holden Caulfield for a voice that's much cooler than mine would have been at that age.

    @Nicole--Yeah. I'll have to write the perm post one of these days. It was one of the most humiliating experiences ever.

    @Jack--I know. It really does make you feel old to have lived through an era that's in the history books now.

    @Paul--I don't think I would have ever copped to the perm when we were in college. It was still too raw.

    As far as the Cold War stuff, I really think I blocked that topic out after coming back to the States to find that it was impossible to talk to my peers about it.

  25. Communism. Can't live with it. Really. Because people stick you with big needles and stuff.

  26. It sounds very different, but still also kinda the same - from the Moscow that I lived in for the winter of 1998. I was 17 at that time, there for a high school exchange. And while I can see some similarities to your description, I did certainly feel a good bit of Western influence there. Also, I was pretty much immersed with the Russians there (going to their school, hanging out at the malls, going out drinking, etc) as opposed to living in the sort of pseudo-culture of diplomats.

    St. Petersburg, on the other hand, felt just like Europe but colder.. the "Window to the West" didn't seem to have nearly so much of a Slavic tint to it as Moscow, which I suppose is fitting.

    At any rate, definitely an interesting post. It must have given you a really open perspective as a kid living over there for a few years during that time, whether you were conscious of it or not.

  27. Wow. You have thought about putting this in a book?

  28. Great post! It's fun to hear the stories from that period. I've really forgotten a lot from that time but I have some memories of you wearing both that cowboy hat and the fur.

  29. This is cool. Like Holden Caulfield written by John Le Carre'.

  30.'s pretty shocking how crappy things can get when there's no profit motive.

    @Liam--That must have been a cool experience. We had a few opportunities to hang out with Russian kids, but it was always very staged, like visits to the Young Pioneer camp, etc. St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) definitely seemed like Western Europe, even back then.

    @The Lissst--I would love to! You're a publisher, right? Can you just put the advance into my Paypal account?

    @Lars--Haha...I definitely went to extremes to be the weirdest kid in school. I guess I succeeded in leaving an impression, in any case.

    @Jason--That's precisely what I was going for!

  31. Interestingly, I went to the Soviet Union in 1979 with my high school choir. We spent most of our time drinking vodka in bars (there didn't seem to be a drinking age, and "vodka" is the same in all languages) and selling our American stuff. Jeans and Adidas were prime commodities, as were cassettes of The Cars or The Police. I remember that one guy traded a pair of old white athletic socks for a mink ushanka.I still have a lacquered box and some nesting dolls!

  32. @Gretchen--That's really cool! I'm surprised you guys didn't do a gig at the embassy or the "Anglo-American School." I'm sure I would have remembered if you had, because--hello--American high school girls? I would have been all over that action as a 7th grader.

  33. Maybe she was just motivating you to get up and get out on your own. Tough love sometimes includes massive syringes, I'm told.


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