What we see in movies is often very different from being involved an actual account of an incident or incidents. This story is factual. Nothing is changed to augment or otherwise 'Hollywoodize' the events. This particular event can be viewed from the newspapers of Arizona Daily Star, Tucson Citizen and University of Arizona Papers of Jan.1980 (Copies on archives)
I was invited in Jan 1980 to visit the Soviet Union accompanying my father, Pianist Ozan Marsh on a tour of the former USSR to the cities of Moscow, Leningrad, Belarus, Ukraine and Baltic states.
Leaving from Tucson Arizona my father (Ozan Marsh)and I flew to New York City and then via London to Frankfurt Germany. The flight from there took us via Prague to Moscow.
It was during a blizzard and the plane was not filled and the flight rather rough, several fly-overs before the final landing at Moscow.
We arrived and went through the big hassle known as "control" at the Moscow airport. (Control may be similar to what one goes through on flights today. They go through the luggage and separate items as well as ask questions, provide a packet of paperwork, visas etc before leaving a mustard colored room with guards in every corner. They were often rude, no smiling faces in this troupe, rather the ghost-like, poker faced Soviet guards each armed and officially well dressed. I could only think about something in the order of "Operation Smile" which would be something like- Welcome to the Soviet Union, we are so happy to see you, please fall directly on the floor and spread your hands and legs and we will be with you shortly...oh you can keep your shoes on during this phase of search and interrogation since we are not trained in removing soiled socks..." When one goes through the control one is expected at most times to encounter one problem or another. They were efficient and got to the point. "Any religious articles, bibles etc or books of a certain (abstract) nature...a copy of the capitalist times or Playboy"? Since this was the Soviet Union they had strict moral standards in vetting what came in to the USSR. No Bibles, Religious Material and No Art, Artifact or things of that nature . It was a strict environment and forceful. They went through our luggage and found....a Bible and another book of religious nature.
"Ahhhh what do we have here!!!" One Commando questioned. He was taken aside by another.."Its ok...all is well (stamp..stamp-paperwork moved aside) We were not the common tourists on this trip. Raising above and through the crowd was a lady wearing a perfectly fitting blue dress of rayon or some similar fabric. She was an official and sent to us from GOSK Koncert...(The National Arts Agency which is similar to a combination of Police State meets Hollywood)
The former USSR was an interesting place to remember. Everything was done and moved in a rank and file manner. Everyone had their place. (similar to a visit to the Phoenix MVD...only positively no pictures of smiling faces or advertisings of promises or postings of new license plate styles...everything was forcibly exactly the same...now one can get a gist of just how things were)
One knew their place in this society. It was in many ways similar to the way a truck stop is run...they call for drivers, deliver by numbers and if anyone complains...well it simply comes to lined against a wall) No Complaint!!! Dont even dare to try!!!
About the Society
It had a feeling of being stone cold in many ways. There was little decoration to anything. Efficiency seemed to be the name of the game and everything seemed to air of this with things lagging. It was obvious that there were people of class though this was seemingly discouraged. Union suits and workers outfits seemed to prevail marking the different classes. There were the officials (wearing simple gray suits or those of similar nature..badges and-or military khaki. People generally walked with their heads turned down with little eye contact. It was obvious there was little choice among what you could or could not buy. Everything was self-service oriented. State stores were like a conglomerate of all stores. Fashion was only limited to a very few types of durable fashion. Since the common people could not afford much...everything they could find in the store was more or less durable, big and fashion less. I never forgot my visit to GUM. It was like a gigantic Wal-, well there we have it..only most things were in faded colors and selection of style was not an inclination...no style was. There were hundreds of people in line for shoes, even more in line for medical prescriptions. (It is similar to a state of general welfare...if one was not sick enough to stand in line, perhaps some friend could stand in line for one) It was obvious that food and such commodities were controlled. One picked a number when visiting the meat shop. When all the chicken was gone...there was pork, beef or various other animals on hooks to purchase. (One town I visited I saw...well cat on a rack and horse head) Generally people were poor...very poor and could only purchase what was available. Foreign goods could be bought! Yes foreign goods could be bought too...at great expense from small shops that were importing these. They were at least 10X the expense as anything domestic and one had to have a coupon to purchase these. Amazing enough there were people purchasing! And there were people with clout. Needless to say everyone had a job and earned relatively the same amount of money and were provided with suitable living conditions (by western standards maybe a room that would have a bed in it for singles, possibly even shared) Families would have more options. People with certain clout would have their choice (sometimes). If one was an artist or scientist one had more privileges sometimes yet the ditch diggers and trough makers were paid more. It was a assisted living state...for everyone. There was little unemployment too. By fact of law everyone had to work. (A Workers State) If there were no positions available the State would make a position sweeping floors or washing windows...or simply as a guard for a door or monitoring washrooms. Ones education generally gave privilege. The State payed for education and found jobs for their educated through a system of rewards which started in grammar school through gymnasium (high school) The system and incentives were based on intensive competition for any field that involved State education. It was quite obvious most everyone was well educated except for those who couldn't compete or were not offered this possibility. A PhD earned a PhD job. A Mill worker was a mill worker. A trucker, a trucker. Sometimes family status determined the outcome of the next generation. (there was not money...but status...and this was a determining factor) A person who was a construction worker had little or no opportunity to do anything better with his life. It was a fixed position...his children were more than likely to be determined the same path in life (unless they were determined Brilliant at some trade or craft that would see the favorable light of State sponsorship-aka scholarship)
Communism of the Soviet type is a strange bed fellow-Imagine being under the force of the State at all times to comply with each order and directive or else punished. Not just a fine...but trouble made for ones family and then one!
Its no wonder why this type of centrally directed system called Communism wouldn't last. The word fear was written on every post and in every human face except for those in charge and in control. (It was not a classless system...but seemed to be)
Of course this is my observation....
Minsk Belarus January 1980
The story is set as a cold cold day of -15 degrees F. in the city of Minsk Belarus.
Snowbanks of 4 feet cover the sidewalks and roads. There are numerous snowplows that one can hear in the distance scraping the pavement to clear the liquid cold. It was a rough flight on an Anatov 12 from Vilnius Lithuania and we had just landed. The doors open to the tarmac as my father and I make our way to the bus which will take us into the terminal.
We took a car to the hotel after meeting our guide, Nina Moresova who greeted us everywhere but would often travel on a different flight than us.
A Snack and then rest
The first rehearsal with the Bela-Russian USSR Symphony at 7:00
The following day:
Meetings with Goskoncert
Solo Concert at 3:00pm Solo Recital Hall.
Second orchestral rehearsal in the afternoon
Concert in the evening at 7:30 at the Symphony Hall in Minsk.
The third day:
Meetings in the morning with local dignitaries
Leave for Kiev Ukraine.
On the second day after morning meetings with Goskoncert- I had a guided tour of Minsk provided to me by the Intourist Authorities. I visited the Academy of Arts and art museums as well as was introduced to other artist students and teachers at the academy. There were some adventures here. I met several of the best artists that were visiting from Moscow as well as 'premier' students of the academy where I had coffee and some conversation. Normally as a “tourist” I would not be afforded this possibility.
I returned to the hotel after the tour dressed in my Russian fashion with the rabbit hat and heavy wool coat about 3:00 pm. Already it was beginning to get dark. I took a short walk down the street and saw some interesting material, an obelisk of granite that was inscribed in English-Hebrew-German. I returned to the hotel to grab my equipment a 35mm and motion picture camera. My father was interested in history and so I suggested he come out from a busy day of practicing for a walk. We both bundled up for the short walk that would take us to a park about ¼ mile from the hotel. It was terribly cold and he didn't have the coat or proper gloves to go out into the 'extreme' as I had prepared to. So he saw the obelisk and quickly refrained from any more walks as the sidewalks were slick with ice also. He returned to the hotel and I continued my journey..equip with a great assortment of gear as well as 4 extra cartridges of about 20 rolls of motion picture film for low exposure lighting.
I saw a road that headed back into some old sector of town which had traditional looking wood houses. I needed footage of traditional culture for my film on the trip. So despite the cold I traveled back on an icy path that was not really cleared, and took footage of the houses etc etc as well as numerous stills in B&W.
It seemed all harmless enough. There were even some young ladies that waved to me as well as an old gentleman. I followed the trail back to a unique sector of authentic traditional Russian buildings.
From time to time I would take some photos...clearing the steam from the lens or warming the equipment with my coat or scarf.
I walked on. There were a lot of roads here, one turned left and another right...one straight ahead to a field. I took the right road...seemed interesting enough...which took me over a hill and through a patch of trees to some more 2 story dwellings and to what seemed like a intersection. There was this giant hammer and sickle that daunted this intersection, yet no traffic and the roads were not really cleared either.
I walked on. All of a sudden I noticed a fellow walking behind me about a block and a half. I had heard of instances when there were “hoodlums” that would rob one if they had the chance and so I took steps to see if I could lose this prospect...good or bad. Every corner...he was there. I dodged quickly between two buildings that came out in a concrete walled lot. Nothing spectacular I assure...it was very cold and very sterile. I turned around and he was gone. Ahead were some other streets and trucks, the same variety that one often sees at truck stops hauling coal etc. Nothing great at all...and totally not worthy of comment. This old fellow was carrying some machinery that looked to be a counter of some sort..archaic, electronic..1950's stuff. I followed a path where I found myself amidst some large electronic modules that were flashing lights, etc...Dr. Frankensteins band set..enough! I didnt stick around. It was getting cold and darker and so I decided to return to the hotel, and attempted to do so with some measure of speed. I passed to the intersection among the cold gray buildings...one topped with the hammer and sickle. Some soldiers were walking along the opposide side of the street away from my presence sporting Kalinikov machine guns...and one crossed the street in front of me as I crossed. There were no lights or signs. This was 1980 Soviet Russia. As I passed him he commanded in Russian “Stop!” And so I did. He went on to ask for something in Russian and (that I didnt understand because it was so quick) so I nodded my head and tried to proceed on) He turned....again and asked for some documents etc in a very quick and gruff tone. I explained to him I didnt understand etc etc...I am American and have lost my way to the Hotel! I tried to say in Russian, but tripped up. I smiled but at the general nozzle of a Kalashnikov pointed right at me. “Um, some gun!” I thought to myself , trying to think rationally. He commanded me to move forward...”March!” And so I did after trying to control the situation by asking some questions as to why? We walked through a field and trees along a little trail that lead to a far off “Stalag”...so it looked. A wooden building with bars over the windows and some Cyrillic propaganda and a face...whose? I simply didnt know” We walked in through an open door to a large wooden floor meeting room with long tables made of wood! “Stop!” He commanded. “Right there!...Sit” and pointed to a chair... Three other people were attending the place and looked rather gruff, shall I say really gruff.
They all came around me and demanded my coat off and equipment on the table. I tried to explain my situation...not a good idea. When I attempted to stand, one fellow pushed me down. When I said I needed my coat because it was cold as geezer in there (just a coal stove) he pushed me back in the chair and grabbed my jaw and spoke to me in a cruel tone some Russian...then laughed. One fellow played around with my equipment...he picked it up and gave some sort of motion...and laughed...”Hollywood!” Then he placed it back and pretended to smash it...”You American!, you trouble” he said, as I tried to make conversation...”Stop!” . I asked if I could use the toilet...and they said...”In your chair? But no toilet here...and made some gesture” grabbing a pistol and playing with it. The first soldier left and returned some ½ hour later with support. It was a long half hour. I finally got them to allow me to use the restroom which was a hole in the floor...and of course I was being monitored and badly “psyched” during the situation, somewhat rudely.
A half hour or so later the first soldier came in with a well suited (for soviet) carrying a briefcase and wearing a daunting had...something para-military. He sat down and started to ask questions. I told him I was from the hotel and demanded Intourist translation...I knew there was big trouble. He stated that quite well in smooth English, “Big Problem....You...go now...we” something like that. The other soldier brought his gun out and I walked in front of them down a long trail through the snow. I saw a car the pulled up with covered windows. I had hoped I wouldn't see Siberia this time around...there were parts of me that just wanted to run! Gosh...yikes! The fellow talked a few seconds to the man in the car and they drove away...we walked through a razor wire fence with a guard posted and down a long series of steps. I realized this was the basement of the hotel I was staying. Finally I thought I would get to the bottom of this craziness.
Back, Back, Back through a guarded door into the basement of the hotel. (incidently where I was staying). There was a room with a posted star on it. I wanted to joke that it was my time for glory " a special place for stars only!" but it was far too serious. (Sometimes humor within one can disarm ones feelings of dread) There was another fellow with a Kahinikov right outside. The door opened and I marched in to the large pale-mustard colored room with a state emblem of ha hammer and sickle on one end over a desk...to the right a picture of the beloved Mr.VI Lenin (the former icon of communism and ideological god head) I was guided to a row of chairs on one side of the room and told to sit down. I tried to act casualy although I was nervous an worried...a 20 year old young man from America that is now going to be used as a "test subject' to KGB methods of grilling...Well I was soon to know, but not to know then. "Sit down!" the fellow demanded.."put your had and coat over there on the table.."
So as Simon says, I sat, he had a Kahinikov and I wasnt ready to play roulette with these temperments. Were they mean? Lets just imagine a visit to some nightmare...similar, very similar to what one can imagine in movies of old 'Germany'. At this point they were directive. I sat and the fellow entered who came with me. The door closed. He looked at me directly and started to speak really fast Russian in a mono-tone. I replied in English. He stopped, left and returned a few minutes later with a lady. She was about 6 feet tall and well built at the shoulders. Her demeanor was one of a very flat iron that had just been cured in a 5,000 degree fire. Her hair was blonde and eyes a very pale blue.
She was wearing a blue dress of rayon or synthetic material that was pressed to precision. (In Russia one would see this wear commonly on stewardess' with Aerflot-Russian Airlines. The material itself would be stiff and without wrinkle) One would say she was not unattractive in some ways but had a feeling of impending doom by the look on her unblinking and unthinking face. She talked to me in Russian and when I didnt respond, turned to a plesant but abrupt English tone. I tried to explain myself...Intourist! Please! I asked. I tried to communicate. She was swift and abrupt. "There, sit in that chair..no that one". and left. Seconds later the door opened. I could see a collection of people outside. She walked in and immediately stood before me. The other official looking fellow followed and they both marched me down to a table at the end of the room, "Sit here!" she commanded. He took his place behind the desk and opened up a satchle that contained documents and grabbed them, smacked them together on the table in an official way and brought out his pen. She stood before me.
"How do you like the Soviet Union?" She asked in a plesant tone her face turning from a radio automatron to the essence of a well groomed Russian tour guide.
I responded in an affirmative tone, "oh, very nice..." trying to keep the edge off anything negative. "Where have you go and seen, dis place, where you visit from" She questioned. I answered with my background and tried to initiate the conversation on a visitor-information level. "What did you seee" she questioned. I told her about the museums and art galleries and that I visited the academy and loved the archetecture..etc ect. "Why did you visit Minsk?" she questioned, and repeated the question from above". "No what did you see?" she questioned, her face turning a little more brittle. "Well I have visited Moscow, Leningrad..."and told her of the reason I was there in Russia, as a photographer and artist. I panned the room for something we could talk about..a picture or place. There was a large picture of Lenin right across from me. "Oh yes and when I was in Moscow...I saw Lenins tomb" The discussion continued. "What do you know about Lenin..." she said in a slow methodic tone daunting a razor-slit upper lip as I sensed she was annoyed wtih my responses. "Nice guy..but I never really knew him..." I responded in a way almost like 'Bean', in order to keep the conversation on places visited and travels etc. She was growing annoyed. She left and he left soon and they returned again. She asked the same questions over requesting my name and the reason I came to Minsk. "What is your name and place of residence.." she continued. I think this was the third time I answered that question. "The United States of America...What City?" She questioned. "What city?" she repeated. "Tucson Arizona" I responded. "Where is this Tucson Arizona?" she questioned, "How far is it from Washington?" . I remember to this day talking about the mene distance from Washington to Tucson as well as where Tucson was actually located..."Arizona"
"Now why are you in Minsk?" she repeated. It was starting to go in circles and she was asking the same questions over and over. "Where do you go to college?", she asked. I told her about my interests in photography and art and I complimented her on some of the art I had seen in the museums etc. "I am a junior at the University of Arizona in Tucson" answering her question. " And why would a 3rd year University student come to Minsk?" she questioned. I told her of my father, and the invitation to come to the USSR as well as all information she needed to run a background check. Both the fellow who was taking notes and her talked and left for a few moments. I viewed a recorder behind the desk. The moving reels from where I sat were just seen through a pile of papers. They came back and all questions were asked and repeated again. "What is this?" I asked "Ive told you everything...now why am I here?" Both the fellow and her talked a bit, and he left. She returned solo and stood in front of me. Her demeanor was different, not so polite but edgy and abrupt. "What is your name...and where do you come from!" she sifted. "I already told you this!", I responded, "Say it again...tell me!" she interogated. I answered and she went on. "Your in the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics she went on...demanded of you is full cooperation, and you will not be punished for your answers" she directed. "You have everything?, Now why am I being detained?" I questioned. She went silent, and held her head up making two silent circle about the room. "What is it that you do...these are professional machines" she pointed to my equipment on the desk.
"Answer me and we well not go any furthur.." I told her again.
She went silent and stood beforme me breathing down an edge of dread. "What is your name!" she demanded "Where do you come from...(In Russian) What is your name...(In another Language too). "Ok...we have a problem...a serious problem, your not cooperating" she cinged. "I have answered your questions now, ten-twenty times!" I responded feeling my legs shake and beginning to be really nervous. "Did you hear me? We have a serious problem...you are in that chair and I am here! Im State authority and your not...nothing here". I became seriously worried. "Do you understand that there is a reason you are here? Do you understand why we are asking you these questions?" she snyed. "Why were you taking pictures?" she questioned. "Answer this!!!" I told her in my interest in art and older archetecture as replied nervously to the interrogation that was getting a bit heated now. "Your internal security agency...do you work for them?" She asked. "Oh you mean the CIA...no I dont work for any agency, Im an independant photographer here because I was invited to visit.." I responded. "Your lying!!!! Repeat do you have an affiliation with National Press or your internal security..CIA" she lashed. I answered no of course and all of a sudden there was dead silence, she turned and huffed and walked out, returning a second later with the fellow who (had to be KGB...but I didnt want to think of it at that time...I just had a tear come to my eye after the last jolt. They both sat down and we went through the session again beginning in a straight tone...what is your name through a series of old questions and of course the tidal wave of fear demanding me to flinch. "What is this? Why am I here?"
"We ask the questions! You make the answers!"
We went on for another 20 minutes with this, half way through the fellow behind the desk left.
From there I then felt extreme fear...my eyes were watery and I was really worried that I was not going to see another day. She stood above me making waves with her hand. Asking more questions. Getting really brutal with her inquiriys and suggesting that I was a Spy.
At times I thought this lady was going to give me a back-hand. Her face was smack against mine and she made some dramatic gestures to try to get information...that was simply...nothing..nada..non existent. A couple of times she beared her hand looking at me fiercly. "Now you take these pictures...why?...you work for foreign intelligence, your a spy?..." All of the stuff of a Bond movie. At the end of this she just left and returned minutes later with a different look on her face as the fellow came in with her stacked his paper...shaked my hand and left having a purely foiled academic look of embarrasment on his face. She remained though. "You Americans" she went on,"Napoleon couldnt conquer Russia, Hitler couldnt conquer Russia, yet you Americans come in here with your liberty and freedom and rock and roll and say this is AMERICA!" (almost verbatim) she shot forward stirring around the room," Do you know what Russia is capable of doing!!...she said, going into a emotional upheaval and then continued to tell me...and break forward with humiliating remarks. I endured ten minutes of this that ended in silence as the door opened and the other fellow peered inside...She stopped, commanded me to give all my film and cameras an inspection. These will be developed and may or may not be returned. "They are important" I told her...and she looked at me with a foolish face that had been embarrassed but ego still intact. "We tell what is important here.. Go Now...You go!!
I left the interrogation room and went through the cooridor to be directed upstairs to the main lobby by some military soldiers.
The entire lobby was filled with soldiers armed to the teeth and meandering around with their guns and other material...I had wondered what happened. I had no energy left, not a bit..I continued up to my room and knocked on my fathers door. "Where were you! Its been 3 hours!" he responded. The first words in tears that tore through me "I have just been detained by the KGB!!!"
Stock was taken in the situation and official government authorites were contacted regarding the incident which became a balloon. There was a comittee meeting among the representatives of the Intourist, Goskoncert (Which paid for the trip and hotels) and of course those who had implemented this event.
As we walked down into the lobby of the hotel the troops were just clearing. Apparently I had caused quite a stir among local officials.
Apologies were demandes as well as the quick return of my materials which was promised the next morning after they were developed.
(Im going to try to get some actual footage from this event available in the near future for people to see on internet)
I received a call from the US Officials in Moscow and Leningrad regarding the incident, and meetings were made between us and US Officials (Assistant Ambassador) when we landed in Leningrad in several days.
Upon arrival in Leningrad I had dinner with the assistant Ambassador as well as another US Official regarding this particular incident. There was much said over the table. Apparently there were others, like myself, who they were still looking for and whom the knew disappeared to Siberia.
Siberia! Yes, and it was not for much more than what I had done...taking pictures. Of course the finality of this was a little quirk.
I had been taking pictures on a Russian Military Base and somehow just walked in...the official report.
During this time of the Cold War we were also dealing with the Russian invasion of Afganistan which augmented the entire political situation...Needless to say I was extremely happy to have been released as the wire had come immediately to the Embassy when I was interrogated.
When I returned to Tucson there were news reporters right off the plane. My situation was in all the papers and on television. It would have seemed that I was a "celebrity"Unfortunately this situation often repeats itself in my nightmares to this day having feelings of what true freedom is all about..being able to express ones own feelings and throughts through ones art.
I did an entire painting series on this incident, but unfortunately it was never exhibited.
A few days after arrival I was de-briefed by FBI-CIA investigators and went through this incident enough times to have it a permanent memory. After one de-debriefing I was asked to talk to military intelligence regarding the incident and did. Although I was offered some ROTC (Reserve Officers Training to support me through school) or possible perks to get me interested, and after I talked to a hall of 50, I remain a peaceful and peace loving citizen that knows of some instances what people went through during the period of the cold war and appreciate the honest and simple freedom of being able to speak of this in hindsight.
I have had quite a few interesting events that run in this catagory, but to make a list one would need to publish a book.