Back in 1972, my boss rewarded my wife and me with a trip around the world. The trip included an auto trip from Leningrad to Moscow, followed by a 5,600-mile train trip across the Soviet Union via the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Our first stop, which included an overnight stay, was in the city of Novosibirsk.
We became friends with Tamara, our Intourist travel agency guide, and in the years following the trip, we corresponded with her as we tried to send her creature comfort items such as nylons and American candy bars.
In August 1991, I received a phone call in the middle of the night asking if I had received a fax. The caller said Tamara had been talking about us for years. A new corporation called Odvest wanted me to come back to Novosibirsk to teach capitalism, as communism was collapsing and they had nothing to replace it.
I had to pinch myself, as it seemed too good to be true. I recruited a fellow Rotarian from Portland and together we scoured the area in search of anything that would help tell the story of capitalism. When we left, I got special permission from the airline to check eight pieces of luggage, which included a TV set and a jillion film strips from railroads, Northwest ports, McDonald’s, Burger King and many other businesses.
Our adventures trying to lecture 60 students through translators is a story by itself. I had called the manufacturer of Monopoly, and four games were donated. I told my students that I was going to explain the evils of capitalism and they said, “No way. We can see American movies now and everyone in America has a car, a swimming pool,” and so on. There were four youngsters that spoke a little English, so we appointed them to take a group of 14 classmates and a Monopoly game home over the weekend. They said nothing can be wrong with capitalism, and I replied: “Just wait until your opponent places four hotels on Boardwalk.”
When they came back to class, they said, “You were right.”
I couldn’t believe I was standing on the stage of the October Revolution Palace, under a statue of Lenin, in the middle of Siberia, and delivering lectures on the free market economy.
After our teaching sessions, the students wanted to reward us, and they presented each of us with the most beautiful samovars we had ever seen. My assistant and I had ours rewired so they operate on American current.
The students asked me if there was anything else I would like as a going-away gift. I laughed and replied, “a Red Army uniform,” knowing that would be impossible. I couldn’t believe it when two Red Army uniforms showed up at our hotel. My translator called a friend who was an inspector at our point of departure from Russia into Poland and, sure enough, when the customs officers came through our train, they deliberately skipped our compartment.
I have made good use of my ‘souvenir.’ It has been an attention-getter at masquerade parties.
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