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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

The Way It Was

Red Wedding III
Third in a three-part series by Helen Womack

Learning of our plans to marry, the Soviet authorities sent army recruiters to Kostya’s house in Leningrad region. Were they really going to take him on the eve of his 27th birthday, when he was almost too old for conscription?

Kostya had successfully dodged military service for the previous nine years. He never actually refused to serve but played on the essential laziness and incompetence of Soviet officials. Call-up papers would arrive through the post every spring and autumn and in these seasons, Kostya would go off to Siberia or wherever. He would return when he reckoned that Colonel Rakitin of the Kirovsk recruitment office had had time to fill his quota for the six months ahead. “Sorry I’m late, sir,” he would say and Rakitin would wave his hand and promise to include him in the next batch. This went on, year in, year out, and Colonel Rakitin went to his grave without ever managing to recruit Kostya.

Fooling Rakitin was one thing but now the KGB were on his heels. Fortunately, Kostya was not at home on the morning the press gang arrived and his father tipped him off to stay away from the house.

The next thing I knew the telephone was ringing at six o’clock in the morning in my flat in “Sad Sam”, the foreigners’ compound. The guard at the gate told me I had a visitor. I went out into the cold and saw Kostya standing there with a rucksack on his back. “I’m moving in with you,” he said. The guard could not actually prevent this, as I was free to invite whoever I wanted to visit me. Most Russians, of course, would not come within a mile of the compound but Kostya no longer cared about identifying himself, as he had nothing to lose.

I took him into the flat, which seemed small to me but which he found palatial. He drank a Coke from my fridge and said it was his first.

That day, Kostya crossed the line and became a dissident, joining a small community of Russians who had claimed asylum inside “Sad Sam”. There was Lyuda Yevsyukova, whose brother Sima was in an Arctic labour camp because he’d refused to do military service lest he learnt state secrets that would prevent his family from migrating to America. The others – Lena Kaplan, Matvei Finkel, I can’t remember all of them now – were members of a group called the “divided spouses”. They had married Westerners but been separated because their partners were not allowed to stay in the Soviet Union and they were denied the right of exit. In some cases, they had not seen their loved ones for years. It looked as if Kostya and I were about to find our names at the bottom of that sad list.

In desperation, I went to see the British consul. He took me into a small, padded room where he said the KGB could not overhear our conversation and listened with concern as I told him our story. To this day, I do not know exactly what the British did but Margaret Thatcher was due to visit Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow and I imagine the diplomats preparing the meeting suggested to the Russians that it was not in their interests to have another human rights case.

So we had a wedding instead. Benefitting from the love affair between Maggie and Gorby, Kostya and I were able to become man and wife. After the wedding, as I’ve already mentioned, Kostya began spelling his name with a C.

Now a married man, Costya reported to the army recruitment office in Kirovsk, where an officer took his “military ticket”, the document all Soviet men carried to show whether they had served or been exempted from the army, and burnt it in an ashtray in front of him. “Now that you are married to a foreigner, you are no longer fit to serve the Fatherland,” the officer said.

Other officials promised that Costya would be allowed an exit visa to visit Britain later in the year.

That should have been the happy ending to the story but it wasn’t. We fell into a new trap through our own youthful foolishness.

We’d already had a lovely, modest wedding but decided to gild the lily by throwing a huge housewarming party for all our friends. We were starting married life in a new flat in the October Square compound. This was still reserved for foreigners but the atmosphere was more relaxed, as there was a greater mix of nationalities including Yugoslavs Chinese and Africans. If “Sad Sam”, with its Anglo-Saxon contingent, resembled an Ivy League or Oxbridge college, then October Square was more like a modern, international university.

Costya’s eyes nearly popped out of his head when we went to the Beriozka (hard currency store) to stock up on booze for the party. The system of segregated shops really was as iniquitous as apartheid in South Africa. Along with our wedding certificate, Costya had been given a document saying he was legally entitled to carry dollars in his pocket. He had become an honorary foreigner in his own country, a “white” because of his association with me. We bought wine, beer and spirits and all kinds of food, unavailable in ordinary Soviet shops.

Our party got under way and soon became merry. The British consul dropped in to wish us well. He had asked me what the dress code would be and I’d said casual, so he arrived in a tee shirt and jeans. The Russian guests might have been poor but they came in the very best clothes they possessed. They refused to believe this could be the consul. “He’s so scruffy,” they kept whispering, “but he’s nice, isn’t he?”

More guests kept arriving. My American friend and colleague, Meg Bortin, came with a homemade, tiered chocolate cake topped with a model of St. Basil’s Cathedral. Other Western journalists attended and there were dozens of Costya’s friends from all over the country.

While I was chatting to guests in the back room, Costya came in and said he was going out for a walk with Genya, a rock musician from Leningrad. About half an hour later, the telephone rang. It was Costya. In a shaking voice, he said he had taken my brand new red Volvo and crashed it into another car. The other driver was not hurt but there was some damage to his Lada. The GAI (traffic police) had breathalysed Costya and not only found him over the limit but also discovered that he did not possess a driving licence; indeed he did not know how to drive a car. We were in deep trouble.

After a miserable honeymoon in Ukraine, we returned to Moscow to face the music at the traffic police headquarters.

At the interrogation, it rapidly became clear that the GAI inspector was less important than his pudgy, leather-jacketed “translator” and he was far more interested in me than in Costya, who was sent outside to sit in the corridor.

Again he softened and switched on the charm. “You love Russia, don’t you? I’m sure if the Soviet Union was in danger, you would want to help us, wouldn’t you?” “Certainly,” I said, “if I see a fire, you can be sure I’ll call the fire brigade.”

I then had one of the most frightening experiences of my life, an interview with a recruiting officer from the KGB. He leered and introduced himself as Sergei. We talked for what seemed like hours. I could not just get up and leave because Costya had committed an offence. It was like a debate with the devil. I knew if I made one false step, I would be damned.

“We could send your husband to jail for three years,” Sergei said.

“Charge him then and we’ll get a lawyer,” I replied.

“I’m sure there’s no need for that, Ms. Womack. How would you like to go to parts of the Soviet Union that other correspondents cannot visit? You could go and see your new in-laws in Kirovsk. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

I said I didn’t want any privileges other correspondents didn’t have.

“We do have this,” Sergei said then, pulling out a thick file. “Let’s see, February 12, Helen Womack arrived in Leningrad, checked into the Astoria Hotel, didn’t stay the night; March 25, Helen Womack went to Tallinn, registered at the Hotel Viru, didn’t stay the night. And in Riga, I see, you were in trouble with the local police for visiting a dacha outside the city limits. We could call that spying. We could send an official protest to the Foreign Ministry and have you expelled.”

“Do it,” I said.

Again he softened and switched on the charm.

“You love Russia, don’t you? I’m sure if the Soviet Union was in danger, you would want to help us, wouldn’t you?”

“Certainly,” I said, “if I see a fire, you can be sure I’ll call the fire brigade.”

And with that, the KGB gave up and washed their hands of me. The GAI fined Costya 400 roubles (then worth 400 dollars) and deprived me of my driving licence for two years.

I was furious with Costya. He was mortified. But we still had reserves of love and we put the disaster behind us. I realised I had married a loveable hooligan. He said being with me was like living with the Queen of England. We did well to keep our marriage going for 15 years and we remain good friends.

As for the driving ban, the KGB did me a favour. Forced from the world of chauffeur-driven cars, I descended into the metro and saw how ordinary Soviet people lived. I went on to make my name and my living, walking with the “narod” (people) rather than with “vlast” (power) and describing life from the citizens’ point of view.

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