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Chaim Ingram
Chaim Ingram

Our 1984 Trip to the USSR (Part Two)

With hindsight, we should not have been taken by surprise.  Even when we were going for an innocent walk around the environs of Hotel Leningrad, Judith said she felt eyes staring at us.  Once she turned around and was sure she saw in the distance four men sporting heavy Russian fur hats, one with a pair of binoculars pointed in our direction.

So it was that when we entered the building where I was to give a private concert to a small, invited group of proud Soviet Jews – which was perfectly permissible – we were surrounded by KGB agents and placed under arrest.  The agents kept shouting “Narcotics, narcotics!” This was merely to intimidate us, as we later discovered. We were led into a darkened vehicle and driven to the local police headquarters.

There we were thoroughly searched. Of course, they found no incriminating evidence (only one loose Panadol). But they would not let us go, Instead, one of the KGB agents in a broken English accused us of acting in a hostile fashion towards the Soviet State.

When we inquired what exactly they meant, they were quite specific. They accused us of distributing “Zionist pamphlets and literature” to Soviet Jews.

This we were quite truthfully able to deny! We had come with no literature whatsoever about Israel. I replied: “We were seeking only to engage with our Jewish brothers and sisters, much as we do whenever we travel to cities with a Jewish population”.

Still, they persisted with the “Zionist” charge. They asked us if we were members of any Zionist organisation. Again, we were truthfully able to say “No!” (We had both once been members of youth Zionist groups but currently were not subscribed to any group specifically promoting Zionism.).

They were making no headway with us. Still, they were determined to embarrass us – and, in so doing, succeed in ingratiating themselves with the new President-elect for their strong-armed tactics in support of Soviet repressive ideals.

So they decided to blow their ‘story’ up in a big way – not that we realised at the time what was happening!

We were driven back to our hotel in the same cloak-and-dagger way we were picked up. Bizarrely, we were frogmarched across the foyer, much to the consternation of our fellow-guests (another part of their staged routine, though at the time it was extremely unnerving) and placed in the hotel interrogation room. (Apparently every major hotel in the USSR was ‘graced’ with a designated interrogation room ☹)

A journalist from Tass (the Soviet news agency) was there as well as our interrogator and also an interpreter/translator. Other officials stood by to further intimidate us.

We were yet again accused of hostile activity against the state and interrogated at length. The questions were variations ad nauseam on the same theme as those we had been asked at the police headquarters. The interrogation seemed to go on forever, but this was partly because of the time taken for each question to be asked, translated, responded to by us and noted down. It didn’t help their cause that the interpreter was having great difficulty in formulating the questions to us in English.

The One Above was truly with us, putting the right words into our mouths!  We managed to keep calm and led them around in circles – to their great frustration. They were hoping to trip us up big time!  

Eventually they realised they could get no more out of us. And so the psychological mind-games started. They told us we were under house arrest. We were free to go anywhere in the hotel but not step foot outside, until the “corridors of power” would decide what should be done with us.

This was late Wednesday evening – the 29th of February 1984.  We had been due to fly to Moscow the following day. This would sadly no longer transpire. But that now had to be the least of our concerns.

Left alone in our rooms, the full impact of our situation hit us.  We knew we had done nothing wrong. But we were in a repressive, immoral country which presently found itself without a leader. The KGB made up the rules as they went along!

There were peculiar contraptions hanging from the ceiling. We felt certain that the room was bugged. So whenever we spoke, we put the bathroom tap on full pelt.  This drowned out our voices sufficiently!

I cannot remember much about that night, but I don’t think we slept much. I am sure I must have said fervent tehilim before retiring.

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Morning dawned. We comforted ourselves somewhat in that we knew our story would soon be public knowledge via Tass. The 35s and our community back home would learn of our situation and would surely be able to aid us in our plight

However, we knew we also had to help ourselves. Our briefers had given us the phone number of the British Embassy. We had no choice but to ring from the hotel telephone.

We spoke to an embassy official and advised her as dispassionately as we could of our plight, while being careful not to speak a word against the Soviet authorities.  The Embassy official appeared very curt and said very little to encourage us. Our unease grew as the day wore on. It was not lessened by the continuous presence of a man just outside our window reading a newspaper (the same one) all day in the freezing weather. We felt sure he was there because of us – to ensure we did not try to leave the building. Not that we had any plans to. They held the cards – and our passports!

The day wore on. We still did not know what our fate would be. The tension mounted. We didn’t want to stay cooped up in our room playing Uno all day. We acted as normally and unobtrusively as possible. At one stage we made our way to the shops which were housed in the hotel complex and bought a white Russian fur hat (which I still call my streimel)  and some other souvenirs. For a few blissful moments, we forgot that we were anything but run-of-the-mill tourists!   We returned to our room.  Still no word.

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Eventually as the day was waning, there was a rap on the door. We were taken down to an office where a large, poker-faced uniformed lady sitting behind an oversize imposing desk informed us imperiously that our visitors’ visas were being cancelled.  She proceeded to slam a big stamp marked CANCELLED on our visa and handed us our passports. We had a plane ticket from Moscow to London but that was no use to us. She told us we would need to take the first available plane to Helsinki (the nearest port outside the USSR) at our own expense. Credit card was unacceptable.  Cash was the only commodity that would be accepted.

When told the price of the airfare to Helsinki, we told her, quite truthfully, that we did not have enough cash to cover it. Her response was that they would put us on a train. The train was due to leave the following morning. Friday. Erev Shabbos!

We quickly checked the departure time of the train, the duration of the trip and the time of sunset. We estimated that we would arrive in Helsinki with more than ninety minutes to spare before candle-lighting.

We were still in a daze. But at least we knew when and where we were bound. Our disappointment at not being able to visit our Moscow refuseniks were tempered with our longing to get out of that repressive country. However, we were very concerned about the refuseniks we had met and hoped they were not being singled out for “treatment”. We continued to daven.

In the morning, we were summoned early. We were escorted to one of a fleet of waiting Black Mariahs all of which drove away in consort at top speed with a loud screeching of tyres. It could have been a scene out of a James Bond movie. But we were the hapless leading ‘actors’ in a real-life drama of which we didn’t choose to be a part.

The tension did not lift when we boarded the train. We were assigned to a carriage by ourselves for which we were grateful. But we saw several authority-figures pass our carriage plus a few passengers. All looked as grim and as tense as we did.

And then we remembered something that increased our tension levels to new heights.

Among the books that the airport bureaucrats had listed was the Guide to Family Purity which we had loaned to the refuseniks, intending to retrieve it at the venue for the concert. But we were apprehended prior. So we didn’t have the book.

What sort of major drama were the KGB going to create over that? Would we be detained for more questioning? And then what? This time we had no defence!  What were we going to do?

To be continued

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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