In 1977 my family and I spent six months traveling through Europe in a VW camper; six weeks of that time was spent driving 3,800 miles through the Soviet Union, from Finland to the Black Sea.
It was an amazing adventure that left indelible memories. Now, with the help of our journals, photos, and audio tapes made at the time, I've written a memoir about that unforgettable experience.
If you've forgotten (or never knew) what it was like to live with MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) or if you suddenly find yourself missing the iron curtain, join us as we struggle with the Soviet bureaucracy, come face to face with the KGB, steal toilet paper, smuggle a diamond, and say Nyet! to the border guards.
Camping with the Communists: The Adventures of an American Family in the Soviet Union, is, as one reader wrote: "smart, compelling, personal, deep, funny." Below, you'll find the preface and first chapter. If you want more—and I hope you will—you can find it in local bookstores, on Amazon.com, or as an e-book at most online retailers.
Read Chapters one and three below.
BEGINNINGS (Chapter 1)
Question to Radio Armenia: “What is the definition of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR?”
Answer: “The Supreme Soviet is a collective organ of Soviet authority, consisting of two types of people: those who are absolutely incapable of anything, and those who are capable of absolutely everything.” 
THE MOSCOW AIR is smoggy, humid, and hot, but it doesn’t matter; we have much to discuss and the park is quiet. There are few people about and no one follows us. Here, our Russian hosts assure us, we can speak freely. They take comfort in this because they have many questions.
It is August, 1977, and five of us stroll along the park’s graveled path, the crunch of pebbles providing a baseline for our conversation. The questions spill out—what do we do at home? How do we live and what is America really like? What is President Carter thinking, with his neutron bomb? How do I come to speak Russian? Where else will our journey take us? And how did we come to be here, in the USSR, traveling on our own?
It is Ilya who asks that question. A fit-looking man in his fifties, he is a translator for a popular Soviet magazine, Literaturnaya Gazeta, and much of our conversation earlier today was about English idioms and the problems of translation.
The “how?” question makes us smile because it is one we’ve heard throughout our long journey. How did we—a half-time secretary, a railroad clerk, and our eleven-year-old daughter—manage a six-month trip through Europe and the Soviet Union? Of course, we must be rich! Or perhaps we are academics on sabbatical? Or maybe we secretly work for the CIA? We have heard all those assumptions. But Ilya didn’t assume, he just asked. “How?”
“Oh, well,” I say, laughing. “It was just an idea that grew. We planned and saved—and here we are!”
“Ah,” says Ilya, and after a pause, “You know, we too can have thousands of ideas, but they all die within us.”
The Soviet Union was a locked society in 1977 and Ilya wasn’t the only person we met who felt trapped and hopeless. Indeed, they were trapped. The totalitarian regime, led then by Leonid Breshnev, was corrupt, mismanaged, criminal, and cruel, but it was successful in at least two things: propaganda and the destruction of optimism. Even we, who carried permission to leave the Soviet Union in our pockets, found the country oppressive, and occasionally frightening. The stifling air in Moscow that day was the physical embodiment of the emotionally gray and omnipresent constraint that weighed on us, week after week.
Nevertheless, we continued to celebrate the idea that had taken us to Moscow and beyond. Ideas, we had learned, deserve our attention, and good ideas—the ones that inspire us—require care and food and water to see them through the seedling stage and into the garden. How do we encourage those ideas or prevent them, as Ilya said, from dying within us? And just how did we come to be traveling through the USSR in a Volkswagen camper-van in 1977?
As I write this, scientists at Yale, Stanford, and elsewhere are studying intentional thought. They are telling us that our bodies respond to how we think, and that visualization and intention can influence future actions. I’m aware that athletes use visualization to improve their techniques, and that sadness and anxiety can impair our immune system. Our thoughts, we are learning, have power.
None of this was known to me in the early 1970s when I found myself on hands and knees scrubbing our kitchen floor. We were living in Eugene, Oregon then, still new to the state after a move from California’s Bay Area. We loved Oregon and Eugene, and we had settled in quickly. So I was not unhappy that day, but I was disenchanted with the life I saw stretching before me. The feminist revolution was gaining ground, and like other women of my generation I was encouraged by news of growing opportunities, but felt restrained by my 1950s conditioning. It was confusing. I loved my husband and small daughter and had no interest in pursuing a life without them. But still, was this all there was?
It came to me then, sitting back on my heels and admiring my work, that Life—it was capitalized in my thoughts—was not going to hand me roses or wealth or adventure. Life was not a generous uncle. If I wanted Life to be exciting I was going to have to make it so myself.
This idea now seems embarrassingly mundane, but I was young and it hit me hard. I thought—well, I’m not sure what I thought. I only knew that I’d had an epiphany—and that something, somehow, was going to change.
Over the next few months I found myself observing my life, looking for cracks in its generally smooth surface, an opening to push through some chance for change—an idea, a place, a serendipitous moment. My one year in college had left me unprepared for a career, so I would have to look elsewhere for whatever it was I wanted.
An avid reader, I had been captivated by Russia since reading an abridged version of War and Peace in high school. The landscape, the culture: it was familiar yet strange and exotic. I felt I had been there, that I knew Sonia and the samovars and the sleds and the snow. Later I read other Russian novels, seeking them out under the dome of my hometown’s old Carnegie library. As an adult I remained fascinated, and as my library of books about Russia and the Soviet Union grew, I found myself wanting more.
That yearning led me to the Russian language itself and the finer points I suspected I was missing in translations. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I thought, to read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in the original? What I might do with that skill, besides entertain myself, remained a mystery, but with my new-found belief that only I could create my life, the idea of studying Russian became more and more intriguing. We lived in Eugene, home of the University of Oregon. The U of O had a Russian and East European Studies program. I wouldn’t even have to commute.
Ideas, as we shall see, are funny things. They make perfect sense to one person and sound alarming or unrealistic to another. That was what I found when I broached Ray on the subject of returning to school. Like me he was a college dropout, but he was solidly employed and had no interest in returning to school. My sudden ambition worried him. What if I found a world that excluded him? Couples grow together or they grow apart. It was not an unreasonable fear.
Seeing his concern I temporarily put the idea aside, but gently brought it out for airing whenever the time seemed right. And when I did start classes two years later Ray was incredibly supportive. My employer had agreed to let me work half days, so I spent mornings in the office as a secretary, and afternoons on campus. Returning to school as an older student (I was 33) was uncommon in 1974, and my classmates, with one exception, were much younger than I—a situation I found slightly intimidating. My Russian teacher, a brilliant but eccentric man, read 17 or 20 languages (he could never remember for sure) and could speak half that number. Our Russian language classes were two hours a day, four days a week.
It was soon clear that I was no natural at languages. Dr. B had the nasty habit of returning our daily quizzes to us in “best first” order, and it was quickly obvious who the star pupils were—not me. I spent hours every night on my Russian homework, memorizing verbs, writing exercises. Why was it so difficult? Dr. B was sympathetic. He kept telling me one day it would “click” and become obvious and easy. It never did.
Many of my other courses focused on contemporary life in the Soviet Union, and soon I was immersed in the dissident movement and press. This was the era of Sakharov and Solzhenitzyn; of Sinyavsky and samizdat. Andrew Amalrik’s thought-provoking book, Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? seemed like science fiction. I read everything I could and my interest in the country continued to grow. It was an exciting time to be studying Russian.
During my first year back at school we watched as several close friends made major changes in their lives. One, a political science professor, moved with his wife and three young children to New Zealand for a sabbatical year. Another couple, having both earned their Ph.Ds, gave up on Oregon’s rain and moved to San Diego. We envied their exciting changes and wished we had similar plans. After all, I was now 34 and Ray was 37 and oh my God, life was passing us by!
Not for long, though. One idea, one opening door, inevitably leads to another, and one day, browsing in a local bookshop, I spotted a paperback with an intriguing title: Europe With Two Kids and a Van. The book described a lengthy camping trip through several European countries. Wow, I thought, what a great idea.
”Look!” I said excitedly to Ray, waving the book at him. “Let’s do this!”
He looked at it skeptically. “You’re crazy,” he said. “We can’t do that. Where would we get the money? It’s impossible.”
I bought the book anyway.
He was right, of course. We had jobs, but almost nothing in savings. We had a ten-year-old daughter in school. We had house payments and car payments and other bills. We had a dog and two cats. We had responsibilities. We were stuck.
No, we weren’t.
You always have a choice, I said. Achieving a goal is just a matter of priorities, I insisted. We just need to reset ours, I declared. Life, I protested, was not meant to consist of working and buying. I do not want, I added, to reach my deathbed only to say, “how boring.”
I was annoyingly preachy and overly confident. I’m surprised I wasn’t also divorced.
I insisted Ray read the book—nagged really—and when he put it off I read parts of it aloud to him. In the meantime I found a second book: I left European Camping and Caravaning lying around in obvious places. I talked up the idea to our daughter, who was reluctant to leave her friends for more than a day. And “just for fun” I started ordering travel brochures from European tourist offices (this was, of course, long before the Internet). I was convinced that somehow every obstacle could be overcome if we all wanted this badly enough.
If Ray thought he was being manipulated he didn’t complain, and though he often told me I was nuts he agreed to at least talk about a trip to Europe. We knew that under his union rules he was eligible for up to a year’s leave of absence. I was prepared to quit my job if I had to; the pay was higher than average but I had no emotional investment in it. The hard part, discussed endlessly, was how to pay for the kind of trip we wanted. Then, a few months into our discussions I added a new twist—my Russian studies should be put to use—we could visit the Soviet Union! It was the pure adventure of this idea that finally excited Ray.
THE BORDER (Chapter 3)
Comrade Rabinowitz, why weren’t you present at the last meeting of the Communist Party?
No one told me that it would be the last one. If I had known that, I would have come with my whole family . . .
IT’S RAINING HARD when we leave our campground and drive to the Finnish-Soviet border. First stop, a guard house with two Finnish guards, who examine and stamp our passports without comment and open the gate for us. Then a second gate, with two more guards. Then a drive across a plowed and empty stretch of land, and in the distance tall wire fences and wooden towers guarding the Soviet border. Then two Soviet soldiers in heavy coats, who examine our passports and wave us on. Soon we’re in a line of three cars. The wait begins.
Crossing borders can be a tedious and somewhat nerve-wracking experience. Innocent you may be, but the presence of sullen guards waving machine guns can leave you shaking in your shoes. In this case we were entering a country that had imbued our childhood with anxiousness. This was the enemy from whom we hid under school desks during drills; who threatened to bury us; who had me believing—riding a San Francisco city bus in October, 1962—that my life might end before I reached home. The Soviet Union was the evil enigma whose existence had dominated U.S. foreign policy through eight presidencies.
Yet here we were with our eleven-year-old daughter, waiting in line at a border crossing, trying to be patient, wondering what to expect, but confident we would get through it. We watch as the cars ahead of us are searched, as the driver and passengers get out, enter and leave the building, pace, wait.
Directly ahead of us is a single woman in a car with French plates. We watch as the guards examine the car, poking long metal rods into every crevice and hole they can find. Suddenly the woman starts yelling. Non! Non! The guards insist, Da! Da! There is much hubbub, other guards come out of the building, mill around, discuss. The woman lets go a torrent of angry French. The Soviets, it appears, are preparing to slit her car seats with a knife. She threatens to turn around and go back to Finland. This bothers them not at all, but her defiance and firmness does defeat them (a powerful lesson for us) and she climbs into the car, seats intact, and drives off. We’re next.
We quickly realize that having our daughter with us will be an advantage. Families, it appears, are less threatening to the state than individuals, and children are highly regarded. Her presence doesn’t halt the ridiculous search that takes place, but it does make the guards a little more friendly. They actually permit her to wander around the guard post while our car is searched.
“What is this?” says a young soldier, holding a slim blue paperback with a Russian title. He has been examining all our books.
“It’s a textbook,” I say. “I’m a student of Russian language and I’m reading it, but it’s difficult.” We had decided it would be best if officials didn’t know I spoke some Russian, but in this case I’m found out.
“It’s about Russia?” he asks, flipping through the pages.
“Yes, it’s a history.”
He leans against the bus and begins to read. During most of our time at the border crossing he stands and reads his own country’s history and I know that it differs dramatically from what he was taught. I long to ask what he thinks but am reluctant to bring his attention back to us, so I leave him alone.
Other guards search the bus with their long wires, probing any hole the frame offers while ignoring our baggage, camera bags, even the cupboards of the bus, though they open the doors and briefly peer in. They are looking for black market rubles, Bibles, or other “illegal” literature; drugs maybe. One carefully examines our fruit and takes away a small houseplant I’d been babying. We are there about two hours and though it is stressful and tiresome, all goes smoothly. Finally, we are told to move on, but our passports haven’t been returned. I ask one of the female guards about it and she shrugs, looking at me with what I can only describe as hatred, which shakes me deeply. Is this what it’s going to be like? I wonder.
At last, our belongings are re-stowed, our passports are returned, and we’re on the road.
“Look, Jennifer,” says Ray, “there’s a Russian cow! And a Russian dog!” “And a Russian house,” I chime in. Thus do we convince ourselves that we’ve actually done this, that we’re driving east along a bumpy two-lane road into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—on our own without a tour or even a guide, toward an adventure few Americans have experienced. I marvel at our accomplishment, knowing that only determination and the power of an idea has brought us here.
Before long we’re stopped by a group of young boys who dash out of the shrubbery and hold hands across the road. They want chewing gum. We dig into our supply and hand it out. This happens again, and then again. Between chewing-gum stops we are twice passed by cars honking their horns while a grinning and slightly menacing passenger leans out the window and waves ruble bills at us. Who would dare buy black-market rubles this close to the border? I wonder, as we wave them off. Later a taxi stops us and again the driver wants to sell rubles. When we say no, he asks if we have anything to sell. No again. So he wishes us a safe journey, gets back in his taxi and drives off. All this is fun and fascinating; it’s exciting to be heading into this hidden world so unlike our own.
We are well prepared too. In addition to our passports, visas, and international driver’s licenses, we carry a camping card, an auto insurance card, a signed customs declaration (which states that we have no guns, Bibles, anti-Soviet tapes, films, or publications; no drugs, diamonds, lottery tickets, pornography, or live pigeons—who knew?); two signed currency certificates, a form pledging that we will not leave or sell our car, an official hand-written itinerary, four tourist cards—one for each type of overnight stay (camping, hotel, cabin, motel); 117 prepaid housing coupons, one for each overnight times three; and about 145 prepaid five-liter gasoline coupons.
We are told to keep strict records of any currency exchanges and to plan on showing receipts for all purchases when leaving the country. As we roll away from the Intourist office in Vyborg, near the Finnish border, we have about 275 pieces of paper to keep track of. We’ve only driven a few miles and already we are tightly enmeshed in the incomprehensible Soviet bureaucracy.
Northern Russia is flat and green, part of a wide plain marked by lakes and forests known as the taiga. Lake Ladoga, the largest in Europe at 107,000 square miles, lies just 60 miles east of Vyborg. If we were in any other country at least one of us would say, “Lets go see that big lake,” but since there is no approved route to Lake Ladoga our only option is to keep going. There are no mountains here, only a water-rich, wooded plain that rolls for miles toward the Ural mountains, the geographic boundary dividing east from west. From the Finnish border to Moscow we will see a rise of only 400 feet.
But despite the sameness of the northern scenery, boredom is never a threat. The panorama that rolls past our windows is filled with people, and it is there we find the variety, texture, and character missing in the landscape.
Our immediate impression is of shabbiness and hardship, a view that gains validity with each day of travel. The powerful country that has kept us cowering turns out to be a kind of Potemkin’s village —a grandiose false front hiding a peasant’s reality.
Before long we pass a wooden tower beside the road. I look back and see an officer leaning out the tower window, a phone to his ear as he follows our car with his eyes. So now we know they are keeping track of us.
It takes only a few hours of driving to realize our van is a major source of curiosity, and we try to accustom ourselves to being on the receiving end of constant, overt stares. People stop work to turn to watch us go past. Sometimes they run across fields to get a better view, so apparently strange is our vehicle. Passengers in passing cars turn and stare while we in turn examine the few Russian cars we see: mostly Zhigulis—Russian Fiats—and the slightly sleeker, slightly larger Volgas. Most look well used.
We make good time until we near Leningrad, where we confront what will become the greatest traffic impediment throughout our long trip: slow trucks. They resemble WWII army trucks or dump trucks; almost all have a single open bed. In my memory they are brown, but our photos show the cabs as pale blue; it is the rear of the truck that is brown. Our days will be spent following these underpowered trucks, sometimes dodging what drops off them, seeking to pass and finally passing, only to come up behind another slow truck.
Our first overnight stay is at a campground in Repino, 27 miles (44km) north of Leningrad. Our American’s Tourist Manual for the USSR (which makes everything sound much better than it is) tells us that Repino is known for its seaside resorts, which we never see, that 8,000 people live here, and that it was once a Finnish city, Kuokkala. The nearer we come to Repino the more nervous I am. The roads are not marked well; what if we can’t find the campground? What if we can’t work through the anticipated red tape? Will my two years of Russian be sufficient to the task?
My worry, of course, is wasted. We easily find the campground, drive past the two old men in street clothes guarding the gate, check in with the administration office, show our camping cards, hand over our passports, and are directed to a site.
The Repino campground was a good place to begin, for it was one of the worst we saw. The field was weedy and bumpy—we had a hard time finding a level parking spot. Overhead lights would shine all night and two uniformed policemen patrolled. And, according to other campers, four or five plainclothes policemen were also on site.
When we climbed out of the van to explore we found a bufe (buffet) that would be replicated in nearly every campground. It might stand alone or be connected to a larger cafe, but inevitably its contents were never-changing: a table or two surrounded by ubiquitous white plastic chairs, and a refrigerated cabinet holding cheese on bread, fatty sausage on bread, caviar (but rarely), kefir, champagne, wine, beer. Sometimes there would be vodka, sometimes Pepsi Cola—the only U.S. import we found. Sometimes there were two varieties of cheese or sausage, and sometimes eggs. But mostly it was a depressing and limited collection of tired cheese and greasy sausage.
We bought a couple of beers for later and headed to the restrooms to check the facilities. Alas, they also were tired and depressing and unclean, with “squat” toilets and dirty floors. Anyone wearing long pants had to roll them up before entering, and then perform a jiggling little dance to keep the flies away. This was our first experience with squat toilets, a good indication of how naive we still were.
My first question on arrival at any campground was always “Are there hot showers?” and in this case there were. But when Jennifer and I peered in we decided we’d pass. Ray bravely walked down during the posted evening hours and showered, while an old, toothless man shoveled coal into a boiler.
“The water,” Ray said, “barely dribbled out.” The next day, as Jennifer and I were heading to the toilets, we passed a Polish man exiting who muttered, “Primitive. Very primitive!”
Our fellow campers were a wonderful source of information, always ready to share experiences and recommend or steer us away from restaurants or places to see. And since routes and campgrounds were limited—especially for westerners—we often crossed paths. We soon came to rely on a network of camper gossip for news about experiences other campers were having (run-ins with the police, for example), and how good or bad the next campground on our itinerary might be. In Repino we were quickly warned off the water, which was “Very bad, it will make you sick.” Fortunately, we had filled the van’s water tank in Finland. We also had water purification tablets that we used throughout our Soviet journey.
The Repino campground housed visitors from Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, West Germany, Sweden, Norway, Holland, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Egypt, and America. We were happy to meet other Americans, but disappointed to learn they were there only to see the Hermitage Museum, and would return to Finland in two days.
Soviet citizens were also camping in Repino, but they were separated from the foreigners. This wasn’t always the case, but it happened frequently. Even when it was the rule, the Russians and other Soviets managed to find their way into “foreigner” territory to talk and ask questions. And we were just as eager to meet and talk with them.
After we settled in Ray insisted we walk into town, though I would have been happy to stay safely in the campground. Repino wasn’t a pretty place, but we found everything worth seeing. We stumbled onto a wooden shelter that turned out to be a beer stand, and the bartender immediately asked Ray, who was wearing jeans, to exchange pants with him. His pleas continued throughout our hour-long stay but there was nothing we could do. We had been warned again and again not to sell things or deal in black market rubles, and at this point we were determined not to do so.
There were three or four other customers, all men, and we were soon engaged in conversation, with me working to translate, answering their questions and asking our own, and laughing at joint misunderstandings. Every traveler has had many such conversations; they could almost be scripted: where do you live, what is your job, how much money do you make, how much did your car (or house) cost, what is it like in America? And, of course, our fellow beer drinkers wondered why we were visiting and how long we would stay. Our questions, in turn, were similar. Generally, such conversations, if they go on long enough, veer into other areas of life, often politics, but in the Soviet Union people did not openly speak about their ideas or beliefs. Fear or habit kept them silent.
At some point the bartender gave me a tomato, a customer bought Jennifer ice cream, and a wizened little man, whom I liked greatly, pulled a small dried fish out of his pocket and gave it to me. I wasn’t much of a fish eater then and I stood there looking and feeling dumb, with no idea what to do. I also wondered how long it had been in his pocket. Another man laughed, took it from me, broke off the head and tail, peeled off the skin, and gave it back. I ate it and it was good.
This generosity was typical of Russians, and we would find it everywhere. We surely appeared wealthy to them, and to us they looked poor. But no matter what we did or said, gifts were thrust upon us throughout the trip, from precious black pepper wadded in newsprint to an electric samovar from someone’s sideboard. We had brought small gifts to give away: gum, pens, cigarettes, small notebooks, postcards, etc., but they were soon gone and we had little to give in return. We were frequently embarrassed because no matter how often we said “No, thank you,” our pleas went unheard.