by Jo Ann Skousen
It was the final day of our trip to Russia, and our worst fears were being realized: as the children and I rushed toward the Moscow airport and home, my husband, Mark Skousen, was being taken to the police station at Red Square. And time was running out.
Two days before our departure had started innocently enough, with typical plans for a day of sightseeing — Red Square, Lenin’s tomb, and St. Basil’s Cathedral in the morning, followed by shopping at the massive state-run GUM department store in the afternoon before attending the Moscow circus that evening. But the morning had barely begun when we found ourselves hurried through twisting alleys in the drizzling rain by two unknown Russians toward every conservative American’s nightmare: the Soviet police station at Red Square. Instinctively I pulled the children closer, keeping them between my husband and myself. Then we stopped, and the head inspector looked up, eyeing each of us in turn. “How can I help you?” he asked through our interpreter. Our video camera had been left in the taxi, and the two young Russians we had met the night before, Igor and Sergei, horrified at the thought of a loss so dear, had insisted that we report it to the police.
To our surprise, the police station was not the somber fortress we had expected it to be. I looked around at the peeling yellow paint, the dilapidated veneer-topped desks, the fist-sized hole punched through a door. The inspector, who appeared to be about 30 years old, was not even wearing a uniform, but was dressed instead in a striped knit sports shirt, the kind you might buy at J.C. Penney.
We gave our report, and our Russian friend assured us privately that, if we brought the inspector a couple of cartons of American cigarettes, our camera would very likely be recovered and restored to us. The black market, we were discovering, was the only system keeping this crumbling ship afloat.
Igor and Sergei spent the next two days as our personal guides, driving us all over the city and even inviting us to their tiny but clean apartment. Igor had been to the United States on a visit and now his life’s goal was to get out of Russian permanently. To leave would require money–dollars, not rubles — and lots of it. He had smuggled a personal computer back with him, and sold it for an amount equal to three years’ salary — no wonder he felt the loss of our expensive video camera so keenly! With his profits he was able to quit his government job and become an entrepreneur, mostly exchanging currency for tourists at ten times the official rate, and providing other services. The penalty for changing money was a minimum of five years in jail, so we were amazed at how freely the two moved among the tourists, entering hotels and restaurants where local Muscovites were clearly forbidden. There was a buoyant brightness about them, in stark contrast to the vast majority of beaten down Russians standing in lines wherever we went. Imagine having to get your drivers license renewed every day of your life, and you get some idea of what it is like to be a Soviet citizen.
Even more amazing was the immediate trust our two friends put in us. After exchanging our money and selling us several hundred dollars worth of art objects, they gave all the dollars back to us, asking us to deposit the money in an account Igor had set up in the States during his visit. Even now my heart swells as I think of their courage and friendship.
We were saying our farewells at the hotel when the call came from the police station. They had found our taxi driver and insisted that Mark come down to the station to identify him, even though our plane was scheduled to leave in less than two hours. It seemed innocent enough, but as the car took him away, a lifetime of fearing “the Reds” overtook me. Did they know about Mark’s CIA background? Had this whole experience been an elaborate hoax to keep him there? Finally, with only minutes to spare, he came running through the airport, Igor and Sergei clearing the way. The police had indeed found our taxi driver, but when Mark learned what they planned to do to him — accuse him of money exchanging so they could sentence him to five years in prison — Mark’s memory faltered and he just wasn’t able to identify the fellow.
(It is now a year since our visit to Moscow. Igor is living with his wife in Norfolk Virginia, and Sergei is living in Paris, hoping for a visa to the States. They are all working hard at whatever jobs they can find, grateful to be in the West where they know that someday they will be extremely successful.)
MARCH 1991 INVESTOR GUIDE