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Sneaking Behind The Information Wall

February 2024
4min read

The fog had finally cleared, and our departure from Russia had been set for July 8, 1974, our son’s third birthday. We had three weeks to gather our meager possessions, exchange our rubles for dollars (maximum of $90.00 per person, which came to $360.00 for our small family—myself, my wife Alia, and our two baby sons), and pack the books we would take with us into crates. Then we would bring our belongings to customs, where the books would be checked one by one, first, to see if they were eligible to be taken out of the country (any book published before 1946 was considered the property of the Soviet people and had to be left behind), and second, to see if any cash or anti-Soviet texts might be concealed between the pages, in which case our exit visas would be immediately revoked and we all would remain lifelong prisoners of the largest and most efficient maximum-security prison in the world, otherwise known as the Soviet Union.

We were living behind a wall that was taller, thicker, and much deadlier than the Berlin Wall had ever been. This wall had two dimensions—one physical, ensuring that no living creature ever could cross the border of the Soviet Union unnoticed, neither in nor out; the other existential, keeping the flow of information from and to the West under total control of the authorities, thus molding people’s thinking and behavior into the required pattern of total submission.

For me, handing over the books to the KGB for perusal presented a serious problem. In my collection of quite innocent volumes there was one that, if discovered by the authorities, would not only ruin my chances for emigration but would also set me arrested on the spot. It was a catalogue of books prohibited in stores and public libraries. Its over five hundred pages of small print contained a multitude of authors whose names were known to every child and adult in the country, great revolutionaries threatened and killed by Stalin during the purges of the 1930s, people like Bukharin, Kamenev, Zinovyev, Rykov, Trotsky. I even stumbled on Lenin’s name there. Officially, such a book didn’t exist. In reality, however, every library in the Soviet Union, however big or small, kept a copy. Every request for a book in every library throughout the country first had to be cross-checked against this catalogue, and if the title was listed there, the inquirer would be told that it was not available. (The inqurer’s name meanwhile was turned over to a local KGB operative for a follow-up investigation.) To an independent researcher, such a catalogue would be a gold mine, and since Sovietology was my intended occupation in the United States, I had decided to have this book delivered to me after my family settled down in our new homeland. But how? I had no idea until a friend suggested I ask the consul in the American Embassy to do the honor. He even supplied the consul’s phone number so that I could set up an appointment.

Among my quite innocent books was one that, if discovered by the authorities, would get me arrested on the spot.

I dialed the number, hoping the embassy people spoke Russian, for I didn’t know a word of English. They did.

At the appointed time, my wife Alia and I rode the B trolley bus along the Garden ring of Moscow to Insurrection Square, then walked one block down Tchaikovsky Street to the massive building that housed the American Embassy. Alia went to wait for me across the street. Carrying the book in an old briefcase, I approached the main gate, which was guarded by three uniformed sentries. “What is your business here?” one of them asked. “I have an appointment with the consul,” I answered. Even before I had finished, a massive figure appeared clad in a police major’s uniform, his collar bearing the blue chevrons of the KGB. “Follow me,” he barked, striding toward the side of the building and around the corner to a small shed, the size of a typical office cubicle, hidden in a stand of trees and invisible to passersby. The major opened the door with a key and walked in. I followed. There was a small table against the wall and two chairs, nothing else. The major sat in a chair, motioning me to the one opposite him. At this point I had to decide where to put the briefcase. Without thinking, I did something that seemed stupid, but that may have saved my life: I put the briefcase on top of the table, right in front of him. All he needed to do was to snap the latch open, and the book would jump out at him. He never did.

Instead, the major asked to see my exit visa, and staring at it intently, told me that he could tear it to pieces right there. He asked me what business I had at the American Embassy, since we were going to Israel. (This was the game everybody had to play: only Jews were allowed to emigrate, and only to Israel; the rare request for emigration to the United States was routinely denied.) I was unprepared for the question, and had to think fast. Luckily, the ability to do so had bailed me out many times before during college exams, and did so once again. I said that since I was going to another country without language, money, or occupation, but with two little children, I would need help from my American relatives; I hoped the consul would help me locate them. The major looked at me for a minute, then said, “Okay, you can go. Just don’t do anything stupid.”

“I won’t,” I said, and picking up the briefcase nonchalantly, I walked out, my heart beating faster than Carl Lewis’s after his Olympic sprint, my knees shaking violently. I was very lucky, and I knew it.

What happened next was that the consul flatly refused to take the book. Patiently I explained my circumstances; after forty-five minutes he finally relented. When I came out, Alia stood waiting across the street, her beautiful face not pale but chalk white; she was practically resigned to the thought of never seeing me again.

While I was in Rome, waiting for permission to enter the United States, I was interviewed by someone in the American Embassy. The reason? My affiliation with the most influential Soviet newspaper this side of Pravda , and the reward was handsome, to my mind: stacks of Russian books censured in the Soviet Union, including the best works of Solzhenitsyn.

A year later we were living in Charlotte, North Carolina. I made a few calls to Washington, D.C., and the book I had given to the consul arrived in the mail. It lay peacefully on my desk for several months until a man came to visit and interview me; his business card listed Bethesda as his address. How far is it from Langley? I wondered. I gave him the book. He gave me $200.00.

I landed a job, not as a Soviet analyst, but sweeping floors in a Pic N Pay warehouse; Alia started her new life folding drapes at a textile plant for $2.10 an hour. But we were happy day in and day out because we were free and our future was in our own hands. Within a few years, I was a manager, and before long, Alia had her own advertising agency. Our sons are college graduates now, building their own lives. We still feel lucky.

My wife stood waiting across the street, her face not pale but chalk white. She hadn’t expected to see me again.

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