A rodent flight

We flew what the 1989 Soviet press branded a rodent flight.
March 12, 2015

We flew what the 1989 Soviet press branded a rodent flight. “Rats run for their lives when the ship is sinking,” the newspapers mused, “much like those of our citizens who have decided to abandon the Motherland when the country is going through difficult times.” The difficult times were the turmoils of Gorbachev’s glastnost and perestroika and rats were the Jewish passengers of every flight on the Moscow-Vienna route. In those days the Austrian capital served as the first stop on Soviet Jewry’s emigration itinerary.

To the crew of our plane we probably looked like the very picture of rodents. Emigrating under a strict limit of two suitcases per person and with knowledge that our journey could last months, we’d filled whatever plastic bags we could find with the clothes, memorabilia, and canned meat that didn’t make it into our luggage. On boarding we crammed them into overhead compartments like rats’ close relatives, hamsters, stuff their cheeks. Whatever didn’t fit overhead, we wedged under and between the seats. Our flight attendants wrinkled their noses and shook their heads. They prided themselves on flying a route that had previously only carried members of the Politburo, select Soviet intelligentsia, and the informers accompanying them. Catering to escaping Jews with smoked sausages in washed-out plastic bags wasn’t why they paid top-level bribes for their positions.

We were used to the loathing. In the year leading to this flight we spent our weeks gathering paperwork, requesting permissions, and filling out the forms that would become part of our application for an exit visa. Corridors of Soviet bureaucracy—never an atmosphere for deep, tea-sipping friendships—brimmed with resentment the Soviet peerage harbored towards Jews. This resentment resulted in documents annulled for a missed comma, hunts for paperwork that didn’t exist, and chiding lectures reminiscent of early Communist-era films on Bolshevik’s moral superiority.

“Which division were you in?” My grandfather was once asked by a grey-haired OVIR (Office-of-Visas-and-Registrations) clerk as he stood in front of the clerk’s desk after three hours on his feet waiting in the queue. Dedushka was wearing the only suit jacket he owned, the jacket decorated with his World War II medals.

“269th airborne,” he responded.

The clerk put down the piece of paper my grandfather handed him and leaned back in the chair.

“How can you?” he asked.

“How can I what?”

“How can you leave?” the clerk said, his heavy glance resting on my grandfather’s medals. “After fighting for this country, how can you leave it? And go to live among the enemies?”

Dedushka pulled over the only chair that stood near the opposite wall.

“What’s your surname, Comrade?” he asked the clerk after he sat down.

“Krasnov,” the clerk responded.

“Mine is Brushteyn,” my grandfather said. “And my name is Israel. With names like these I am better of living in the land of the enemy. ”

The clerk emitted a long sigh. Then he shifted his eyes towards the paperwork in front of him. The audience was over.

My grandfather’s candor earned him a scolding from my grandmother who feared that if orthographic mistakes were enough for OVIR to reject a document, criticizing the state could probably qualify us for the status of refusniks—Soviet Jews whose exit visas were denied for no apparent reason. And even though refusniks made news on the Voice of America, attracted the attention of human rights organizations, and garnered fame among their peers, we had no interest in joining their ranks.

Several months after dedushka made a solemn promise never to speak his mind again within the borders of the Soviet Union, we opened our mailbox to find a note from the OVIR. Our solicitation to emigrate had been approved. We spent that evening raising shots of vodka to the moment when neither our last names nor things we said would beget the anxiety so familiar to a Soviet Jew. For me that moment commenced when the pilot announced our descent into Vienna. I glued my nose to the window lifting my glasses just enough to make an already weak prescription stronger so that I could see the city as soon as the plane pierced the cloud cover. But the flight attendant didn’t share my enthusiasm. “All blinds must be closed on landing,” she barked and began walking through the aisle to ensure that we followed her order. I lowered my shade, but as soon as she cleared our row I raised it. There was no way I was going to miss my very first sighting of the West.

All through my childhood and adolescence I, along with my friends, daydreamed about the life beyond the Iron Curtain. Soviet media treated us to a constant stream of reports about starving people, exploited masses, and bulbous capitalists with vampire tendencies. Yet all we saw were the Levi’s. Segments in which the press preached the values of Communism while keeping their cameras focused on the homeless outside of the White House achieved the opposite of what propaganda intended. It showed us that even people without a home had jeans.

And then there was the smiling. The selected few of our countrymen who had a chance to travel outside of the Warsaw pact states often brought back booklets with photos of well-dressed, smiling people. Because the concept of a department store catalogue didn’t exist in the Soviet Union we saw those booklets as representations of life in the West. With reverence we passed them around and gawked at the glossy paper and at how happy everyone seemed to be. No one ever looked as delighted in the Soviet Union. We concluded that if that many people had something to smile about, life must be much better outside of our Communist paradise.

 “Shut it!” The flight attendant was back and now stood in front of our row drilling into me with her dark eyes.

“But it’s only a sliver,” I protested. “Please.” 

“No,” she hissed.

My mother elbowed me. “Just close it,” she mouthed.

I complied while at the same time fighting both the tears and the desire to swear with an expletive I’d have never before dared to use with an adult. My mother noticed my reddened eyes and whispered: “We are almost there. Don’t worry, you’ll see it soon. Just hang in there a little longer.”

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and thought that ten minutes from now we would land, leave this plane—the last bastion of Terra Sovietica—and be rats no more.

When the aircraft came to a complete stop the crew disembarked even before we had a chance to collect our plastic bags. They gave us no instructions nor was there a KGB organizing committee to guide us as would have been normal on any other flight full of Soviet citizens going to the West. With zero experience of airports that didn’t work according to Communist party orders we descended into the cold October air and stopped at the foot of the stairs, clutching our bags and looking around for someone to tell us what to do.

Five minutes later with no help forthcoming, an émigré with a Russian fur hat perched on top of his head and another one in his plastic bag spoke up.

“I think there is supposed to be someone from Sokhnut meeting us here,” he said. Sokhnut, the Jewish Agency for Israel, met every plane arriving from Moscow to Vienna.

“There should be,” someone echoed him. “But where?”

“There’s some guy standing over there,” a third émigré said, looking behind the plane.

We turned around to look. A man in a dark coat and shoes that were too light for Vienna’s cold weather stood there beating one foot against the other.

“Let’s go then,” the émigré in the fur hat said.

We picked up our bundles and started excitedly towards the man. Finally, we hoped, there was someone to instruct us.

But he wasn’t there to give us instructions. He spoke only one word and asked only one question of every family unit that approached him.

“Israel?” he asked in heavily accented Russian and, upon hearing the answer, gesticulated to the left or to the right. Those who answered in the affirmative—a small minority—went to stand on his right and the rest were directed inside the airport.

Back in Moscow we had heard of this step of the immigration process. Because USSR and Israel had no diplomatic relations, there was no direct flight between the two countries. Thus Soviet Jews, allowed by the authorities to emigrate only to Israel, had to fly through a third country. While an inconvenience to those going to Israel, this diplomatic raft became a loophole that Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (HIAS) exploited to help the Jews who wanted to go to the United States. HIAS chose Vienna for its offices and, thus, the Austrian capital became both the transfer point where Israel-bound émigrés switched flights and the place where US-bound émigrés could announce their intention without the fear of being locked up in Lubyanka.

We knew our answer already a year ago when we decided that emigrating to America would give my father, an oil and gas engineer, more chances at employment. We also hoped that starting our lives anew would be an easier task with family near by. My grandfather’s nephew, Victor, had emigrated to the United States ten years earlier and promised advice, support, and general handholding during first years of adjustment. So when our turn came to answer the man’s question, we said No. He lost interest in us immediately and we followed other discards inside the airport.

Because of the catalogues with well-dressed people, I’d put a lot of thought into choosing the clothes for my first travel to the wondrous West. I wore a pair of jeans my father brought me from Poland years ago, a leather jacket Victor sent to my grandfather (ignoring that the sleeves were much too long for me), and I had my lucky scarf. Yet when I walked inside that airport I immediately wanted to hide. Compared with the glitz of shops selling goods at prices that approached the cost of a used Lada and with people garbed in the equivalent of what those shops sold we looked destitute. Our clothes, our shoes, our plastic bags, and even our glasses screamed outsiders. Passers -by stared and for the first time since we conceived, planned, and implemented our escape from Soviet reality I felt doubt. Could I ever become part of this highly groomed society? Would they accept me? Or would I remain a rat here too?

When we picked up our luggage we discovered that my father had been wise to bribe the Sheremetievo airport luggage handlers in Moscow. Our bags arrived intact while other people’s suitcases were slashed open with contents, mostly food, missing. Yet even with the smoked sausage safe inside, our excitement had ebbed away as soon as we were directed outside and sent to wait behind the corner, away from regular passengers for our transport.

We stood at, and eventually sat on, the curb for five hours. Hungry, thirsty, and cold under the drizzle that intermittently changed from rain to snow, we wondered if we’d been forgotten. With no one to call and no idea on how to buy water or food, those of us whose luggage had survived the trip, opened their suitcases and shared the food we’d packed. I bit into a stalk of smoked meat and looked around. I no longer had to close my eyes and imagine the West. I was in the West. And I was eating my food like a rat. 

The van to collect us finally showed up at dusk and brought us to a small boarding house in the center of Vienna. We dragged our suitcases up three flights of stairs to our room, dreaming of quietness after an arduous day.  When we got there we opened the door to find six single beds. Three of them looked like they were occupied.

“There is no way this is happening,” my father said as soon as he stepped inside. “Who do they think we are?” It was one thing for an intelligentsia-bred family to give into desperation and eat sausages outside without a knife and fork. It was completely another to room with strangers in dorm-like conditions—especially for an educated Soviet professional the rank of my parents.

My mother pursed her lips, scandalized. We didn’t hope for Intourist-style accommodation—Soviet hotels for foreigners with upgraded furniture, working hot showers, and old ladies on each floor responsible for distributing toilet paper and collecting intelligence. But the least we expected was privacy. Even kommunalkas, USSR’s communal apartments that often housed five families under one roof, always allotted a separate room for each family.

“I am going to speak to the reception downstairs,” my father announced, the pallor of his skin matching the walls.

Five minutes later he was back. “There are no other rooms,” he said. “None.”

My mother looked around. “Maybe it’ll be okay?” she said.

The sigh my father emitted was so deep that it sounded more like a last breath. “It’ll have to be,” he said. “We don’t have a choice.” And he threw the bag he was carrying onto an empty bed.

My mother nodded and began to unpack. I followed suit.

Our first day in the West—the land for which I held so much hope—was coming to an end. I may have left behind the rodent epithet and landed in a place where jeans filled the streets and people smiled. Yet it turned out that crossing the border wasn’t enough to belong.

Margarita Gokun Silver is a writer and an artist living in Madrid. You can follow her on Twitter and on her blog. 

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