U.S.S.R. Trip Memories and Current Thoughts

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My eighth-grade social-studies class had an enterprising teacher. Very enterprising. My parents trusted him, and they trusted 12 1/2-year-old me. So I got to join a student group that traveled for eight days in the Soviet Union, in March 1983.

The Cold War was in its waning days, but no one knew it yet. The U.S.S.R. was the enemy; Russia was a strange and sinister nation of unintelligible commies. That is, until I learned: they have churches and subways and stuff, just like we do in Washington, D.C. They have poems and books. And their strange alphabet isn’t so different from ours, really.

As I remember, there were about twenty of us on the trip: ten or so eighth-graders, a bunch of high-school students who also tagged along, and our teacher and his wife as chaperones.

We flew on Pan Am from Washington, to New York, to Helsinki, Finland, to Moscow. After a few days in the grimy capital, we took a night train to Kiev, now commonly called Kyiv. (We gained an hour that night, I believe, crossing from GMT+3 backward to GMT+2.) After a couple days in ‘the Ukraine,’ as it was called then, a then-‘Soviet republic,’ we flew by Aeroflot to what was known as Leningrad, the city of St. Petersburg, in western Russia.

In Moscow we stayed at what we came to call “the Cocmock,” the Cosmos Hotel.

Cosmos rendered in the Cyrillic alphabet is Kocmoc. As I mentioned, our agile young minds made quick work of deciphering the Russian letters: the Moscow streets near Red Square were lined with pectopah‘s and кафе‘s–restaurants and cafes.

We couldn’t visit those establishments, though. We had to make our peace with borscht three times a day in hotel cafeterias.

But as American tourists we had two privileges. The first was the assistance of a full-time Soviet handler. The second was a genuine privilege: We got to visit the historic churches, which Soviet citizens were then prohibited from entering.

We stood in line and saw Lenin in his tomb. We toured the Kremlin, and saw the dusty yet splendid chapels inside it. We even had a trip out to see Catherine the Great’s summer palace–also forbidden to Soviet citizens at the time.

We interacted with our Russian and Ukrainian peers, on both sanctioned and ‘unofficial’ occasions. The sanctioned meetings involved friendly chess matches in the Soviet after-school youth clubs, called “Frontier Scout” troops (which were co-ed).

billie-jean-jacksonThe unsanctioned occasions involved handing over a Sony Walkman for a few moments, so that some Russian middle-schoolers could listen to the coveted Michael Jackson’s Thriller cassette tape.

For that offense, some of us were detained by Moscow police for an hour.

Believe it or not, we had one free afternoon in Moscow, and I decided to ride the subway by myself, to take a second look at Red Square. My parents let me ride the Washington subway by myself at that age, and the Moscow system seemed quite similar. (The escalators traveled twice as fast, though, which was fun.)

When I didn’t have the correct change for the return trip to the hotel, a Muscovite commuter handed me the necessary kopecks with a kind smile. Central Moscow reminded me a lot of Manhattan (which I had seen a couple years earlier). It was just that in Moscow the citizens had to wait in long lines to buy new underwear or a loaf of bread.

In addition to learning to love borscht, we travelers admired the ubiquitous statues and posters of Lenin and ‘the noble Soviet worker.’

The sun never came out while we were in Moscow–just clouds and cold. But Kiev greeted us with fresh greenness, its hills covered with lush old trees. The churches there were homier, made of wood, rather than stone.

Then on to Leningrad. Majestic, with its classical buildings lining the iridescent river. We toured the Hermitage gallery, housed in the czar’s old Winter Palace. I fell in love with oil paintings of Christ.

And I remember weeping quietly when we visited the mass graves at the cemetery for the WWII siege of the city. Tens of thousands, dead from starvation, buried together in grassy fields, each marked by only one stone, indicating the year of death. 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944.

…A decade later, I went with some friends to the famous Veselka’s Ukrainian cafe, on the lower-East side in New York. Ukraine was newly liberated from the Soviet grasp then, in the early 90’s. Ebullience in the air, over the sauteed pirogis.

The Ukrainian Catholic seminary in Washington was right up the street from the one I went to, and I became good friends with one of the seminarians there. I had the privilege of concelebrating some Ukrainian-Catholic Masses when I was a newly ordained priest.

My friend taught me about Ukrainian national heroes like Bohdan Kmelnytsky and Josyf Card. Slipyj.

Some crucial ecclesiastical-history facts we need to know:

In 1590, a re-union of some Byzantine churches with Rome occurred in Brest, in what is now Belarus. This union was interpreted politically by Russians and many Ukrainians as an incursion of Polish/western control. But from our point-of-view, as (hopefully) genuine Catholics, the Union of Brest had a supernatural significance which was altogether good (see John 17).

st-nick-icon
Icon of St. Nicholas

Soviet premier Joseph Stalin did cruel things to the Ukraine before and after WWII. He starved almost 4 million Ukrainians to death. And he forcibly removed the Ukrainian Catholic Church from communion with Rome.

Vladimir Putin has justified this latest act of violence against Ukraine by claiming that Ukraine is not a real, independent nation. The irony there is: If Ukraine is not a real, independent nation, then neither is Russia.

It is true that the histories of the two nations have been intertwined from the days of Saints Cyril and Methodius, 1200 years ago. And it is true that Ukraine was part of the Russian empire before the advent of communism.

But, if you go back 1,000 years, the Ukrainians actually have more reason to say that Russia is a renegade part of Ukraine, than Russia has to say that Ukraine is a renegade part of Russia. Russian culture is a daughter of Ukrainian culture, not the other way around.

So, yes: This latest Russian invasion of Ukraine is merely the newest chapter in a centuries’-long book. But that doesn’t make it any less horrible.

The exploitation of raw power by an isolated autocrat, to try to subjugate an imaginary ‘threat’–who was actually just doing his thing, in good conscience–that has a familiar ring to me, in my own recent personal life.

May God deliver us all. Let’s pray hard. The Ukrainians do not deserve the misery they face. And the Russian people, for that matter, don’t deserve their particular misery, either.

May the Lord show His mighty Hand, to bring peace.

5 thoughts on “U.S.S.R. Trip Memories and Current Thoughts

  1. Must have been a wonderful trip… i have thought a lot about my days in the russian program these last few days… real borscht is something to truly appreciate…ive thought about the gulags and those imprisoned for writing books not exactly in line with the political situation…how there were ukrainian people in the program with us… they didnt seem to struggle with the language as much… i pray for this to end soon for the peace of the ordinary people of both countries.. for the military… for ukraine to keep its sovereignty and for russia to take its toys and go home…and certainly for God to intervene sooner than later because i do not believe it will happen without that….

  2. That’s an amazing story. I think the “Cockmoc Hotel” was also the name of McCarrick’s beach house.

    I’ve been puzzled for a while about a USSR angle to the child rape scandal in the Church. Recently you mentioned Benedict’s dealings in Munich, and I couldn’t help think that there wouldn’t have been a lot of desire in (West) Germany at the time to throw mud in the eye of the Catholic Church. After all, we were perceived as doing the heavy lifting in the war against those behind the Iron Curtain, which was only about 100 miles from Munich. I couldn’t help think that innocent kids might have gotten thrown under the bus for the “greater good” of the war against communism.

    Many in our generation of Catholics grew up with the creed that Ronald Reagan and John Paul II teamed up to bring down communism. Now, maybe in the household of a DC-based lawyer who attends Carter’s inauguration and sends his impressionable young son on a field trip to the Soviet Union, “Ronald Reagan” was a curse word. Hopefully the same wouldn’t have been true for JP2.

    In any event, the question vexing me is this: if the Catholic Church truly played such a pivotal role in tearing down the Soviet Union, then ex-KGB officials like Putin must be kicking themselves furiously that with their big budgets and sophisticated methods they weren’t able to uncover the child rape cover-up before the gumshoes at the Boston Globe did. How was it that they failed to exploit even one ounce of the kompromat against John Paul II that subsequent history would expose?! Even if they weren’t able to prove anything directly against JP2, they would have opened a gaping wound in the Church’s credibility before the world, thus smearing JP2 by association, and neutralizing any moral authority from him that gave him a platform to attack communism. Were they really the fearsome spy agency of 80’s-movie lore, or just a bunch of underfunded nincompoops who actually wanted to other side to win so their kids could have blue jeans?

    The whole thing doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

  3. All I know is the day is fast approaching when Pope St. Francis will FINALLY consecrate specifically and only Russia, in union with all the bishops of the world, to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

    All snark aside, this has to happen or the cycle of shite will go on and on and on.

  4. My beef with JP2 centers on two things:

    World Day of Prayer, Assisi, 10-27-1986
    and
    coddling/ignoring pedo priests & prelates

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