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The beginning of the end

In the spring of 1989, I had the good fortune to travel to the city still known at the time as Leningrad. My brother Doug was working as a Political Officer at the US Consulate in Leningrad, and as a family member, I was able to secure a visa that permitted a longer stay than a typical tourist visa, and considerably more freedom to move around. I can't claim to be clairvoyant, but from all that I had heard from my brother, I had the sense that long repressed discontent could no longer be contained -- either by the government or by people who had once hesitated to say much of anything that was on their minds.


I arrived in early May, with no real plan but very much intending to view the Soviet Union as a journalist rather than a tourist. And with that in mind, I benefited enormously from my brother’s work. He was, in a sense, an “above ground” intelligence officer; it was his job to understand what was happening politically in the Soviet Union, to get to know people who were involved in the nascent democratic movements in Russia and the other Soviet republics, and to report on what he learned to the State Department. Everything he did was open and above board, and he had numerous “official” contacts, but he had gotten to know dozens of activists and dissidents, and at the time he was probably as knowledgeable as any foreigner about the dynamics of official and unofficial politics in the Soviet Union.


I was expecting my girlfriend at the time to join me a month or so after my arrival, and in the meantime, I had plenty of time to wander around Leningrad – by foot, by bicycle, and via the city’s well-developed (and dirt-cheap) public transit system. From time to time, I ventured out of town with my brother or on my own. About a month after I arrived, my parents came over for a visit, and we took a trip to Tallinn for several days, and another one to Tbilisi. Later on, when Gigi finally arrived, we went on a long rail trip to Riga, Vilnius, Minsk, and Moscow, and then later, we flew to Armenia and Georgia. Towards the end of August we left by rail for Warsaw, and traveled on to Prague and Hungary, just as the Soviet bloc was beginning to come apart at the seams.


Wherever I went, I discovered that Soviet citizens were hungry to meet westerners, and were surprisingly willing to express their deep dissatisfaction with the status quo. It was the time of “glasnost” and “perestroika” – the opening of Soviet society under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. One of the things I found particularly strange was the fact that I could easily see, as a fairly casual observer, that the Soviet Union in its state of disintegration and demoralization, was unsustainable, and yet the West lived in fear of this superpower.

My brother, in his typically low-key manner, tried to warn me abut the risks of being tailed by the KGB. I wasn’t convinced that his concerns were legitimate, but I relished the idea that they would expend manpower and resources following me around Leningrad as I meandered, altogether aimlessly, from point to point, first on the bus, then by foot, then again by metro, and then by electric trolley bus, only to resume my explorations the following day by bicycle.


What I discovered as I wandered around was that the people of Leningrad were quite like the people of any large American city, except that, forcibly excluded from meaningful contacts with westerners for years and years, they were hungry for any sort of contacts they could make. That meant that for me it was easy to meet people (although you could never be certain of their motivations), even if the little bit of Russian I had acquired in preparing for the trip was wholly inadequate to the task.


Through Doug I did meet quite an interesting cast of characters ranging from young democratic activists to Jewish cultural advocates to radical feminists. And on my own, I constantly stumbled into strange and wonderful (and sometimes suspect) people nearly every day.


That was a time of hope and fear, often at the same time. People wouldn't quite allow themselves to believe that things could change, but much was changing. Just a few weeks after I arrived, the first truly contested parliamentary elections since before the Revolution were held, and the Communist party suffered embarrassing defeats all over the country. In some cases, Communists ran unopposed, but people crossed out all the names on their ballots, so the Communist candidates still failed to win the 50 percent of the votes required to take office.


Even though the political climate was much more open than it had been in the past, the KGB was still active, and a number of the people I met told me of their brushes with the authorities, including getting locked up for a few days simply to get them off the streets. And several Russians, with their gloomy sense of the dramatic, assured me that the country was headed for an awful disaster.


I found it all fascinating, and exciting, and I felt as well that I was in the middle of something quite extraordinary. I had a couple of cameras and a huge zoom lens that I used to get closer to people than I had any right to, and I snapped away everywhere I went. Only once in Russia, when I photographed some clearly illegal trading in black market razor blades, did I ever have any difficulty with the authorities (later, in Prague, I almost got arrested for taking pictures during a demonstration). These pages are a distillation of the many hundreds of photographs I recently re-discovered with a mixed sense of nostalgia and wonder, reflecting on the fact that a quarter century had passed since that summer when I more or less stumbled into an amazing moment in time.


And now, twenty-five years later, the hopes for democratic reforms and a more "normal" life that were first expressed around the time of my visit seem to have been frustrated if not smothered by the cynicism of the Putin regime. The living standards of the former Soviet citizens are undoubtedly better now than they were in 1989, and the big cities are full of fancy shops selling global brands, but what might have been has been largely squandered. But only for now -- I can't believe that the same forces that worked to bring down the Soviet Union won't reassert themselves again -- if not next year, than in ten or twenty years.


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