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SUNDAY READING

Second-Guessing : On a Sneak Visit to Long-Lost Relatives, the Specter of the KGB Loomed Large

August 31, 1986|LINDA A. BLACK | Linda A. Black is a Santa Monica writer.

"Come meet our Ameri cousin!" my relatives called out as we strolled through their small Soviet city. Soon, I was surrounded by a crowd of admiring strangers who told me how happy they were to meet me and to please tell my President that they wanted peace. I told them I couldn't promise contact with the Administration but that I would certainly tell someone . But as the walking tour continued and more and more people gathered around me, I started to get nervous. This was neither the time nor the place to play the Pied Piper--I didn't have a travel permit to be in this city.

When I'd made my plans and filled out the visa application, I hadn't mentioned any intention of deviating from the tour itinerary. My travel agent and Soviet emigre friends told me it would be easier to get permission to visit my relatives--whom I'd only recently located--once I was in the country. They were wrong. When I went to the Intourist desk in my hotel, a serious-looking woman with thick turquoise eye shadow shuffled through papers and said, "You are here for three days. Too bad. Preparations take four." I informed her that I would be glad to extend my visit. Yet no matter how long I said I would stay, permission always required one more day.

"I can't go with you," I told my cousin Leonid (who speaks English) when he and two other cousins came for me. Unimpressed by my protests, they picked me up by the elbows and deposited me in their waiting car. I decided that if I just kept a low profile, everything would be all right.

But my relatives, who bore a striking resemblance to their American counterparts despite outweighing them by a ton, ignored my fears. I was paraded around like an exotic bird. My discomfort reached its zenith when a police officer walked toward us. I cowered behind one of my larger cousins, Svetlana, but she pulled me from behind her thigh as he approached. I broke into a cold sweat. The policeman studied me for a moment before saying in perfect English: "Please have a nice time while you are our guest." He then shook my hand and returned to his post. Leonid gently put his hand beneath my chin and closed my mouth.

Any sense of safety I felt, though, diminished again over the next few hours. I looked at my watch and told Leonid: "I really do have to go back to my hotel. Now . I'll take the train." His ever cheerful demeanor cracked for the first time. "You cannot go by train. There are no tickets left," he said apologetically. "Cousin Vladimir, a hero of our great patriotic war, went for bus tickets. He is wearing all his medals."

Visions of deportation, Siberia and the Lubianka prison danced in my head. There was a knock at the door. I jumped. Had the militia found out about me? The door opened, and there stood Vladimir--his chest ablaze with bronze, silver and gold--but empty-handed. The bus, too, was sold out.

Leonid assured me that he and my cousin, Misha, would get me to my hotel. "Speak no English," he instructed me as Misha handed me a head scarf, a sweater to cover my American T-shirt, and a mesh shopping bag filled with apples. "You look very Soviet now," he said approvingly. I was not thrilled.

At the depot, Misha and I squeezed to the back of a waiting bus, pushing our way through the men and women carrying their mesh sacks. Leonid shook the bus driver's hand and slipped him a wad of rubles. The driver smiled, and I thought: Our two systems are not so very different after all.

I was silent and extremely jittery all the way back, but we had no trouble. I said goodby to my cousins outside my hotel and gave them back the scarf, sweater and mesh bag. I felt as though I were giving back a part of me--the woman I might have been if my grandmother had not emigrated to America 80 years ago.

As I walked through the lobby, I saw my tour guide and group. My head raced with excuses. But no one said anything to me at all. Hadn't they even noticed I was gone? At first I was relieved, and then I was a bit hurt. There is a certain sense of pride and self-importance among American travelers to the Soviet Union, who brag that they were followed by the KGB. I, apparently, was not. I tried to take my insignificance in stride and to chuckle at my paranoia. Still, my ego was bruised--so I turned on the radio and the water taps before talking to anyone in my room.

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