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How we warmed to cold-war Russia

By Takashi Oka / November 24, 2003

When my employer transferred me from Hong Kong to Moscow at the height of the cold war, I made the move with great trepidation. From my base in Hong Kong, I had covered much of East and Southeast Asia during the preceding seven years, including riots in Seoul, demonstrations in Japan, civil war in Laos, and the early stages of the American involvement in Vietnam. In most of these assignments, communism was the enemy.

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Now, I was about to take my family into the heartland of a social and political system that most Westerners, including myself, regarded as cruel, oppressive, and evil. When the pilot announced that we had just crossed into the Soviet Union, I smiled at my wife and two small daughters, but could not repress a sense of panic welling up within me.

The plane landed. Inside a dingy concrete hall smelling of disinfectant, a succession of unsmiling border guards in khaki stamped our passports, inspected our baggage, and allowed us to exit into the arrivals hall, where a waiting colleague greeted us and loaded us into his sleek green Ford.

He had booked us into the Ukraina, a Stalin-era tower-shaped hotel, and managed to wangle us a special treat on our first day in Moscow: breakfast brought up to our room, with caviar on buttered toast. Our daughters loved the caviar, and had to be quickly disillusioned when they expected it for every subsequent breakfast.

We settled down fairly quickly into the routine of being American journalists in a communist society. The only Russians we could contact, however humble, had all been vetted by the powers that be.

Once, I visited a "typical" family: the husband a violinist, the wife a worker in a watch factory. They were warm and friendly, with children a few years older than ours. We met several times for lunch in a restaurant, and the husband expansively invited us to go mushroom-hunting in the fall. But when I explained that, as foreigners, we could not travel outside Moscow without police permits, they turned thoughtful. That was, in fact, the end of our relationship.

As foreigners from a capitalist country, we were carefully cocooned from Russian society. Throughout our two-year stay, it was difficult not to feel that the whole country was one huge concentration camp.

And yet, our experience in Russia gave us a totally unexpected bonus. It introduced us to Europe.

I mean, of course, the cultural dimension, not the political one. Quite frankly, in the 1960s Hong Kong was a wonderful place to shop, but it was a cultural desert. Money brought Americans, Europeans, and Chinese to Hong Kong, and money kept them there. There was no public money or philanthropy to nurture cultural institutions. When Margot Fonteyn came to Hong Kong, she had to dance in a cinema. Even Tokyo was still building its way out of wartime destruction, with little money to spare and only occasional visits by the great orchestras or museums of Europe.

But in Moscow, whenever we wanted to see some of the top French impressionists, we had only to go to the Pushkin Museum. For Rembrandt, we took the overnight train to St. Petersburg - even then the most Western of Russia's great cities. The first live performance of Mendelssohn's violin concerto I attended was in Moscow, with Leonid Kogan as the soloist. Pianist Emil Gilels and violinist David Oistrakh were in their prime.