Reminiscences of life under communism: Soviet Show trials.

Author:Brown, Norma
Position:Foreign Service Life - Personal account

January/February 2017

Alexander Solzhenitsyn as Gulag inmate

The title is totally misleading and not at all misleading. First, my apologies to all those who actually lived under communism, because I only lived for in the USSR for a little while (three years). So these are vignettes from a life under the shadow of Marx and Stalin from someone who was free to leave at will.

It was early-1980s Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was known under communism, practically on the doorstep of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but so deep in the slough of communism that nobody would have considered it possible that a monumental change was in the offing. Bustling Moscow, where my then-future husband was serving at the same time, had a reasonable KGB to foreigner ratio. In the backwater of the one-time capital of the Russian Empire, the ratio was out of sight, more than 10-1. Still, it didn't matter if you had five KGB thugs in black leather jackets dogging your footsteps or fifty. They always got what they wanted in the Soviet Union.

Today's vignette (for I hope to add one every so often) involves a brave man or a fool, depending on your point of view, and a foolhardy American (yours truly) trying to evade the KGB long enough to get the truth out.

At the time of these events, perhaps it was 1984. (Oh, yes! I have a photo of a Russian tv screen that notable New Year's Eve in Leningrad. Across a black background in stark white letters was only the year, 1984). This was a time when the struggling powers-that-be in the Soviet Union (struggling more than we knew) were dealing with the fall-out from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's long-distance activism in Russia through The Solzhenitsyn Fund. I knew little about the organization beyond its fundamental purpose, to assist political prisoners and their families in the Soviet Union. But the Soviet authorities knew all about the group and its members and in 1983-1984 the first of the show trials for those who aided the cause began. While the Moscow head of the organization was in the dock, the KGB set up and arrested the Leningrad head. In preparation for the public spectacle, the Soviets aired via the state media the lie that the US Consulate in Leningrad had used the sacrosanct diplomatic pouch (once just a leather mail pouch and today bales and bales of diplomatic mail) to smuggle prohibited copies of the Gulag Archipelago into the USSR. It thus came to be that my superior officer, the Consul General, asked me to attend the public trial and to report to Washington on what the accusations were.

I showed up at the trial in my Chrysler K-car, a disastrous buy made to support the US auto workers (I, the conservative) and parked it on the street amid a handful of tiny beat-up Soviet cars, the ubiquitous Ladas. I went with the Consulate Regional Security Officer, who spoke only rudimentary Russian, so the burden was on me to report accurately on the proceedings. As we sat cooling our heels waiting for the show to get going, I observed our fellow attendees. They were all clearly dissidents, many Jews, long hair, dirty clothes, deliberately provocative to the authorities. For my part, I sat as quiet as a mouse, hoping to escape detection. No doubt the officials there saw me and said "Georgian," since the Georgians said the same. In any event, I was unmolested as long as there was nothing to do but sit with my mouth shut.

Finally, an officious man came into the room and told everybody to line up to pass into the courtroom. I watched with growing anxiety as everybody was searched (no doubt for the weapons nobody could have). When it came my turn, the man told me to leave the purse and get it back when I was leaving.

I wasn't born yesterday.

"Here," I said. "Take the purse, I'll hold the id." That was it. The man went off to speak to someone and then there appeared a bigger cheese to deal with me.

"You have to leave," he told me, all those dissidents watching with avid interest. Resistance!

"Why do I have to leave?" I asked. "The papers said it was a public trial, it didn't say only Russian citizens, so here I am. Why am I prohibited from attending?"

"Oh," he replied with an easy smile, "you are not prohibited from attending. It's just that it is impossible."

This was life in the Soviet Union.

And so I left, annoyed beyond expression. My friend, meanwhile, who spoke only pidgen Russian, was left behind because he carried no purse. I went to my K-car and circled the block endlessly, vowing to wait until one of the dissident...

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