Soviet Stamps and Regrets...
Updated: Apr 7, 2021
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This essay was selected a finalist in the Adelaide Literary Magazine's "Best of 2019 Essays" contest. It was first published (print only) in March 2020, in Adelaide Literary Award Anthology 2019: Essays.
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In May 1992, five months after the collapse of the Soviet Union, my plane finally landed at Moscow airport. My first flight to Moscow had been a long one, and I was quite nervous. After going through passport control and customs, I found myself in the arrival area among a large sea of people. In Washington, I had been cautioned about the high crime rate in Moscow at the time, and I was specifically advised not to take a taxi, unless it had a proper taxi sign. However, no one had warned me about the large crowd I might find at the airport, so I was a little surprised. There was not an inch of unoccupied space in the arrival area. Compounding this uncomfortable situation was the fact that the people there were quite disorderly and moving in all directions. I did not know how to find an exit door, nor did I know how I would make my way through the crowd to such an exit. I desperately looked for signs in English but could not see any. In the end, my suitcase and I fought our way through the dense crowd, hoping to find an exit. I started gently pushing people blocking my way saying, “Excuse me, excuse me.” After a few minutes and very little progress, I stopped to see if there was an alternative. There was none.
In my head, I started seriously questioning the wisdom of being there. Not that I had much say on the matter. I was on a business trip. At the international organization where I worked, by tradition, our business trips are called missions, and the mission at hand was quite important – it needed to be accomplished rather urgently. That’s why I was in Moscow. I knew this trip was going to be difficult, and I had mentally prepared myself for it. However, I did not expect the difficulties to begin at the airport. There I was, struggling to get out of the arrival area and to find a taxi which would take me safely to my hotel.
After catching my breath for a few minutes, I concluded there was no other way: I needed to push my way through the crowd as if I really meant it. That’s what I did. About ten minutes later, I was finally outside. Much to my dismay, the outside was just as crowded as the inside. The moment I stepped outside the exit door a disheveled, sweat-soaked man wearing a singlet, grabbed my suitcase and said, “Taxi Madam?” I tried desperately to get my suitcase back from him, but he was already walking away with it. I asked him in English “Are you an official taxi?” I doubt he understood my question because he responded in Russian. I only made out of the word “taxi.” I had no other choice but to follow him.
By now, I was beginning to get really worried. Crazy thoughts started swirling through my mind. Will I ever see my husband and daughter again, or will I become a simple crime statistic in Moscow? Then, I remembered an expression I had heard from my elders many times as I was growing up, “Fear does not help prolong life.” The moral of the expression is that I could not just worry about my fate; I had to do something about it. I quickened my steps and caught up with the man. I began communicating in an impromptu, made-up sign language using hand gestures. I asked if there was a taxi sign on his car. After some initial difficulty, he understood my question. He said “Yes Madam.” He briefly put my suitcase down, and made a taxi sign using his hands (just like I had done). It was not a good situation, but I figured there was no harm in walking up to the man’s car and checking it out.
After a 5-10 minutes’ walk through a place which looked like a parking lot, but did not have any signs or proper rows, just a bunch of vehicles parked at random, the disorderly man wearing a singlet stopped next to a car and started to open the trunk, presumably to place my suitcase in it. I was somewhat relieved when I saw a big taxi sign on his car. Now I had no excuse to refuse to go with him. I sat in the back of the car and asked him to take me to Hotel Metropol in Moscow. He got in the driver’s seat and started to drive.
As soon as the driver sat in his seat and started to drive, a strong smell of alcohol wafted through the back of the taxi, and I became even more worried and uncomfortable. I could not tell if the smell was coming from the taxi driver’s breath or whether there was an open bottle of alcohol somewhere in the vehicle. Perhaps some alcohol had spilled in the car previously and the stain had not been properly cleaned up. It was hard to tell, but the smell was so strong, I had to literally cover my nose with my hand to block it. I must confess, my sense of smell is more developed than that of most people. Nonetheless, I was stuck with a strong unpleasant smell, a disorderly man in a singlet for a taxi driver, and a terrible concern about how my ride would end. Then, more scary thoughts started crossing my mind.
In Washington, I had been told to take a lot of cash with me, in US dollars, and especially single dollar bills. This was because the vendors in Moscow were unlikely to give me change back if I were to give them 20- or 50-dollar bills for even the smallest purchases. I had followed this advice, and instead of carrying unsigned Thomas Cook Travelers Checks, which I normally used back then when travelling on business, I had US dollar bills with me. I was going to be in Moscow for three weeks, a fairly long time, so I needed quite a bit of cash – although later I would discover everything in Moscow was dirt-cheap at the time. It occurred to me that the taxi driver would certainly know I was carrying cash. As my paranoia tipped the scales of reason, I imagined the taxi driver making a detour to some dark and lonely place, strangling me, taking my money, and dumping my body into some ditch. Who would find me there, and who would bother to identify the body?
This thought distressed me deeply, and I started to regret coming to Moscow, although I had not been given much choice. Because of my technical expertise, I was one of the first staff members in my organization to travel to Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it was my job to collect information from various government agencies, including the Vneshekconombank (Russia’s Central Bank at the time) and help establish the level, and the composition, of the newly formed Russian Federation’s public debt so the desperately needed debt reorganization and debt relief negotiations could be started with external creditors. A lot of work needed to be done to accomplish this difficult objective. I was prepared for the hard work, but not for this daunting ride from the airport to my hotel in a black taxi with an alcohol-ridden driver wearing a sweaty singlet. I had been caught by surprise and deeply regretted that I had not asked my counterparts in the government to arrange for me to be picked up from the airport; I had not foreseen the need. As I sat panic-stricken in the back of the taxi, many bad scenarios began playing through my imagination. The more I thought about the possibilities, the more scared and nervous I became.
After about 30 minutes’ drive, we made it to the outskirts of Moscow. I began watching the city’s streets and huge boulevards with amazement. I could not believe I was there, in the very country I had read so much about as a teenager. This was the country of Pushkin, Gorky, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and so many more of my old friends. Yes, yes, they were my friends. In fact, they had been my only friends as I was growing up. For years, they had kept me good company in a small library in Nicosia, my hometown. Their stories had entranced me and drawn me into other worlds. And now, I was in their country, in one of their beloved cities, breathing the same air as they had done years ago. Soon after, my excitement over being in Moscow took over and made me forget my worries about being murdered and my body being dumped in a remote ditch where nobody could find me – well, at least, not for a long time.
My ordeal with the taxi driver, however, was not entirely over yet. He was driving very fast, certainly too fast for comfort, and to make matters worse, there were many huge potholes on the roads which needed to be avoided, or else the consequences would have been catastrophic. My taxi driver would be speeding along until we came close to a pothole, and just inches before we reached it, as I was getting ready to jump out of my skin, he would press the brakes hard to stop in time and avoid rolling into it. He would then make a slight left or right detour to avoid the pothole and immediately start speeding again until we reached another pothole. Eventually, we arrived at Hotel Metropol and I got out of the taxi, a bit shaken but glad my “ride from hell” was finally over. I paid the taxi driver and checked into the hotel.
The next morning when I went down to the lobby I was pleasantly surprised. My colleague, Mary, with whom I was going to work on this mission and who had arrived in Moscow a day earlier than I, was waiting for me in the lobby with our assigned local interpreter, Boris, from the Moscow Institute of Economics. Boris had brought with him two bunches of wild lilies-of-the-valley, one for me and one for Mary. He introduced himself and presented the flowers to us in the most polite manner. That was quite a nice touch and it brightened our morning.
The three of us had breakfast together at the hotel, and agreed on a detailed work plan for completing our mission within the allocated timeframe. Boris was going to work with us closely throughout our stay, and he would assist us in every way possible, especially in setting up the necessary appointments with the various branches of government and in securing and translating the large number of documents and electronic files we needed to access and review. Mary and I instantly felt comfortable with Boris and knew he would be very helpful to our mission. We were not wrong. Three weeks later, when we were leaving Moscow, there was no question in our minds that without Boris we would not have completed our work.
During the next three weeks, besides a lot of grueling work, we also shared some good times. Economically, this was a very bad time for the Russians. With the recent collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly established Russian Federation was buckling under very heavy external debts inherited from the Soviets. The Muscovites, like most other Russians, were living under austere conditions, and there was a shortage of practically all consumer goods, especially food. The situation was so bad, many Muscovites had started gardening and growing their own vegetables in their backyards or dachas in the suburbs. Because of the limited supply of food most of the restaurants in Moscow were closed. Those that did manage to open insisted on being paid in US dollars or Deutsche marks. For our lunches and dinners, Boris made a list of restaurants that might be open and called them ahead of time, assuring them there would be three customers coming and that we would pay in US dollars. With this guarantee, we were able to go to a few select restaurants, featuring mostly Georgian cuisine. Most of the time, we were the only clients in these restaurants, which was quite disheartening.
Three weeks went by quickly. It was our last weekend in Moscow. Having completed our work and wrapped things up on a Friday, we had the whole of Saturday and Sunday for ourselves before I flew back to the US. Boris had become our good friend, and offered to take Mary and me shopping for souvenirs, and perhaps some small presents for our families. We accepted his offer and met him on the Saturday morning. Together, we visited several shopping venues and bought a few typical Russian souvenirs (nesting Matryoshka dolls, painted Easter eggs, and so on).
For me, the most memorable part of the day was our visit to a flea market later that afternoon. I still remember that market and how, quite unexpectedly, it became memorable for all the wrong reasons.
At the flea market, we were casually looking around for interesting gifts to take back to the US. I never liked buying gifts during business trips, and it was difficult to find appropriate gifts for my husband and daughter because they usually did not like what I bought for them. I had pretty much given up buying personal gifts, and instead, bought small souvenirs that could be displayed in our home – objects to remind me of the countries I had visited. In any case, more often than not, I was too busy working and did not have time for shopping. That day at the flea market, I was simply trying to enjoy the outdoors and the beautiful spring weather and browse through the interesting items on sale, many of which could not be found in the US.
After looking around for a while and soaking in the vibrant buzz of the market, I saw a boy – a seller, about 12-13 years old. He was sitting on the ground and had only a few items for sale: an album full of stamps and a few small posters, all in Russian. The boy had spread a small black-and-white checkered tablecloth next to him on the ground, and was displaying these items on it. I did not care for the posters, but the stamp album caught my attention. It was carefully preserved in a plastic bag and seemed to be in very good shape. The boy had removed a few of the stamps from the album and placed them on top of it, so they could be better seen and inspected by potential buyers.
I stopped and looked at the few stamps placed outside the album. They were interesting to me because they were all related to space and space exploration, and my husband is an avid collector of such stamps. He too keeps his stamps in an album. While looking at those stamps, I remembered how my husband had told me it was difficult to find interesting space-related stamps which were worth collecting. Almost all of my husband’s stamps were related to NASA’s space exploration projects and they had been issued by the US government to honor various achievements and milestones of those programs. The stamps I was looking at in Moscow were related to the Soviet space program, and they all looked intriguing.
The boy immediately began telling us about the stamps and removed the album from its protective plastic cover so I could inspect the pages more closely. The pages were full of beautiful, well-preserved stamps from the late 1950s to the present day, commemorating various achievements of the Soviet space program. The boy was speaking in Russian, and Boris was translating. We learned that the album belonged to the boy’s father, who until recently had worked in the space industry but had lost his job after the Soviet Union collapsed. The boy also told us his father valued the album a great deal and was selling it only out of great necessity.
After inspecting the album more closely, I could tell it must have taken years to collect the stamps, which had been kept meticulously in chronological order, according to their issue date. They all conveyed interesting messages about the various Soviet space exploration programs. After admiring the album for a few minutes, I knew it would make a good gift for my husband. I told Boris I wanted to buy the album. He said “Okay,” and asked Mary and me to walk away and leave the bargaining to him, so we went off to look at other merchandise at the flea market.
A few minutes later, Boris caught up with us with the album. He handed the album to me and said he had bought it for 20 US dollars. I was quite surprised to hear how little Boris had paid for the album. I had been prepared to pay much more – at least three or four times more. I turned and looked at the boy, the seller, in the distance. He seemed sad, almost in tears. I paid Boris the 20 US dollars and we started to leave the market. But, I could not. I felt uncomfortable, almost guilty. I wanted to do something to correct the wrong that had been done.
I told Boris I wanted to go back and pay more for the beautiful album. Realizing I was serious, he said, “Okay, let’s go.” We went back to find the boy. We looked all around, but he had vanished. It had only been five minutes since I had seen him looking so sad. But now, he was gone. I left the flea market that day with a great deal of regret for paying so little for the stamp album, and to this day, whenever I look at that album I remember the tear-streaked face of the boy at the flea market.
I left Moscow the next afternoon. After I was seated in the plane, I thought how pleasant my trip had turned out after all. We had managed to accomplish our business objective, and despite the existing local economic difficulties, had enjoyed a comfortable stay in Moscow. But still, I was full of regrets; I was feeling guilty, and it all revolved around one sad boy in a flea market, who had sold his father’s most prized possession for a song. However, I did learn an important lesson from that incident: when it comes to making decisions in life, it is always better to be guided by a generous outcome.
About the author: Aysel K. Basci is a nonfiction writer and literary translator. She was born in Nicosia, Cyprus and moved to the United States, in 1975. She holds a BS from American University and an MS from George Washington University. Before retiring from the World Bank Group, where she worked for over 25 years, Aysel traveled and worked extensively in the poorest regions of the world including Sub-Saharan Africa, Central America and South Asia.