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First DND Student Trip to the Soviet Union

Sat, May 1st, 1999
Submitted by: Bruce Corbett


Many teachers at Baden Senior wanted to take students to the Soviet Union, Peter Barbour in particular. They were always refused on the grounds of security, particularly the concern that the children of personnel might be detained or 'turned' to give information to the Soviets. Teachers were allowed to go, and I went on a tour to Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg) which I found quite an eye-opener. I too wanted to take students, and since Peter Barbour had repatted to the land of the round doorknobs, I applied.

Luckily for me, the famous Canadian/USSR hockey series had just been played with Henderson and company. Unknown even today by many Canadians is the fact that the seats allocated to Canadians for the tournament were not being filled. Someone panicked that our national pride was at stake - not to mention possible empty seats, or worse, seats filled with partisan Soviets. That same someone had a solution. Offer the seats to the rabid fans in CFB Europe! All concerns for national security, spying, enticement etc seemed to vaporize overnight, and personnel of all ranks in large numbers attended the games. Oh, the power of hockey!

Naturally my submission for the tour alluded to the fact that if their parents could go to the USSR for a hockey game with all the security risks, then surely their kids could go on a tour. Permission was granted and 25 students signed up. We spent a few evenings explaining the tour, learning the Cyrillic alphabet and setting a few ground rules. Off we went for a week in Moscow/Leningrad.

I proposed that Hans Schulz organize the tour and accompany us, since his expertise in handling communist types was well known. Hans worked for the Canadians when we were in northern Germany, and was a very competent individual. He registered our group as German rather than Canadian for fee purposes. At the time, the Soviet world charged North Americans the highest fees, followed by Europeans. (Communist countries and Third World countries paid the least.) the parents/kids saved a lot through this little white lie.

They saved money in another way. One secret that can now be told is that there was a black market exchange of rubles based in Switzerland. Rubles left the USSR through Austria to Switzerland where they were exchanged for hard currencies. Some of these monies went to finance espionage, I suppose, but much of it went into numbered accounts for the soviet hierarchy. At the time, the official exchange rate was $1US=1Ruble. The unofficial rate in Switzerland was about $1US=6Rubles. Somehow Hans had access to these rubles, and smuggled them into the USSR. Unlike many visitors to the Iron Curtain countries who tried to trade money within the country, and were often caught and severely dealt with, Hans' scheme was almost foolproof. The reason was that the Soviets wanted to project an open society to visitors, and so their searches of people entering the USSR were perfunctory, whereas the searches when you left were very thorough - to make sure you weren't taking out documents, art etc.

We left Baden in Hans' bus and drove to Berlin, crossing to East Berlin to catch the flight to Moscow from Schoenfeld airport in E. Berlin. We flew Areoflot Illusyian planes, jokingly referred to as "AreoFlop Illusions" by the kids. Along with the obvious militarism they encountered in crossing the border, the kids got there first shock when they saw that their plan had a transparent nose. One student asked why, and Hans and I told them that the seats in the plane were the quick release type. The plane could be converted to a bomber in a matter of minutes. It was the first lesson, one that I wanted them to learn, on why their parents and their country were a presence in Europe.

When we arrived in Moscow we were met by Tanya, our stunningly beautiful Sputnik guide. (Older groups were handled by Intourist, a group of old-line communists who were boring. In order to try and attract young people to their cause, Sputnik was less dogmatic and run by younger people.) We learned through the trip that Tanya was representative of a new wave of Russians and others in Iron Curtain countries who wanted to emulate the West and discard the communist system, which they knew was not really working. Compared to other Russians, she was a revelation, even to Hans, who had conducted so many tours to the USSR. When we left Moscow by overnight train, for example, Tanya was nowhere to be seen while we sat on the bus to go to the train. I asked the kids, and those at the back of the bus started laughing. She was in a passionate embrace with a young man behind the bus, and it took some time before she boarded. When we arrived in Leningrad the next morning, she was met by a young man in jeans who embraced her just as passionately!

I haven't time to go into all we saw on the trip, but two incidents may interest the reader. In Leningrad, the obligatory tour of some of the revolutionary sites took us to the battleship Aurora - the ship that fired a few rounds and threatened to destroy loyalist strongholds by shelling, which led to their capitulation. I was standing there watching the kids look it over when a black Volga drove up and four men in black coats got out and started walking around. One of them came up to me and in German asked if I wanted to change money. I understood what he was saying, but I told him - in English - that I didn't understand German. He repeated his spiel in perfect English. I replied that trading money in the Soviet Union was illegal and that he should leave immediately or I would call the police. It was an obvious entrapment scheme and when I told Hans, he said be prepared for a second attempt.

It came the last night of the tour when we took the kids to the Europa Hotel. It was the finest restaurant in Leningrad with an international reputation and wonderful entertainment. Under normal circumstances, we couldn't have afforded it, but with Hans' black market rubles, it only cost us 10DM each! It was a set seven course dinner with all alcoholic drinks included and served regardless of age. I recall that the youngest in the group was 12 or 13 and that the oldest was 19. I told the kids that I wasn't going to supervise what they did and that I trusted them to do what their parents would have expected of them and not to do something that would embarrass themselves, their parents or their country. They were great. Many other groups and individuals became very drunk, bur our kids were perfectly behaved.

Anyway, when we got up to leave, our bus wasn't there. Hans felt this unusual, but we went out on the street looking for transportation. The city busses were not running (for the average Soviet at this time, there was very little night life after 10:30 or so, and this was around midnight. There were police everywhere and taxicabs galore - unlike trying to find one during the day. The taxis were an integral part of the spy system and were allowed to run with the meter engaged all night. When we tried to use taxis, many of them had 7 or 8 rubles on the meter. Since we had used our black market rubles to pay for the meal, we resisted the exorbitant charges. While we were walking, a shabbily dressed man came up to me and asked, in English, if I wanted to trade money. He had a gold tooth, which immediately indicated he wasn't what he seemed. I told him the same thing: this is illegal, leave before I call the police. He left and 'magically' our bus appeared to take us back to the hotel.

The next day, we had to stop at the Europa to pick up a coat that a student had left there. When I went through the lobby a saw a man in a blue blazer with gray flannel pants who looked vaguely familiar. As I stared at him he smiled to reveal his gold tooth. I silently mouthed the words "You bastard" to him and he laughed.

After the trip was over I mentioned what had happened to Baden's Top Cop in the mess. The next day I had a long session with SIU describing the incidents and the individuals. Yes Virginia, there really was a Cold War. I believe that the kids on that trip gained a new respect for what their parents and their government were trying to do in Europe. Without any prompting from me or the other teachers on the tour, they could see the Soviet police state for what it was - inefficient, bullying and fear-ridden.

One last anecdote from Moscow sums it up. We were in the city for a few days when the kids went out on their own. Most used the wonderful subway and got off at a few stops to look around at communities that would never be included on a tour. The subways were filled with older women who wore Sam Brown type white belts and held a coloured paddle to direct passengers. All of them seem to be very chunky and sour individuals who seem to love being in authority. One of the kids was chewing bubble gum and blowing bubbles - something unavailable and unknown to most Muscovites. One of the "subway nannies" shook her head at him and shouted "Nyet! Nyet". He knew what she was saying but not what she meant. Before he knew it, he was picked up by the elbows by two men in uniform and was taken away. Another student told us, and Hans and I took off to find him. We arrived at a grimy small smoke-laden room containing five military types standing up around our seated Canadian, who was quite frightened. Hans, with his few words in Russian and a lot of German, worked his magic. He offered cigarettes to each of the soldiers, and to the highest ranking 'forgot' to take the pack back. The fix was in, and we left with the boy and everyone smiling. When the rest of the kids heard what had happened, they couldn't get over being arrested for chewing gum. It was an incident that revealed to them, on terms that they could understand, the difference between their life and that of a kid in the USSR.

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