September 20, 2017

“How M. Gorbachev Bought Me A Ticket to America”

This was written by my mother. I’ve translated it from Russian to English, and reposted it here, with her permission. I’ve also added a couple of footnotes, for the benefit of my Western readers.

Every word of it is true.

“Never”. That was the operative word, when our relatives, in the ’70s, would leave for Israel or America. We’ll never see each other again. We’ll never get a letter. We’ll never talk. Never, never, never.

My father was in the military, and a Border Guard, to boot—and those were KGB troops. Our relatives had decided to emigrate. The word “never” began and ended all conversations about it. They were carried on in whispers. Fear on a genetic level. My aunt and her family left. We were orphaned, and tried not to speak of them, because it was sad and painful.

Who, in those years, could’ve thought that Gorbachev would come, and that our life, in a moment, would change so much?

I remember well how, one evening, I was sitting in front of the television, and suddenly realized that I was NOT SCARED. That was it. Not afraid. Not afraid to speak aloud. Not afraid to discuss family in America. Not afraid… yes, not afraid at all to write them a letter.

So I wrote it. In a mere couple of weeks, my cousin Rita called us from New York. What “ohs” and “ahs” there were! Ten years. We had not seen each other, nor spoken, for ten years! And suddenly, at the end of the conversation, Rita asked, “Do you want to come here? For a visit?”

The first moment—the feeling of absolute confusion—is that possible?! It was the same as asking: “Would you like to fly to Mars?” But at once I remembered that these were different times—that I wasn’t afraid anymore, and that damnit, why not pop over to America for a couple of weeks?

“Yes”, I said to my cousin. “Send an invitation.”

Somewhere deep within was the thought that this can’t be, because it simply couldn’t be, ever. And so I wasn’t really worried about it, and didn’t even check the mailbox much.

But in about ten days, to my amazement, I found in the mailbox a “foreign” envelope—an invitation to come to America as a tourist.

And it started! OVIR1, the authorization, the visa, exchange of currency… it was all done so easily and quickly that it was as if the Soviet bureaucracy had transformed from the ugly Baba Yaga into a beautiful fairy godmother. Hooray!!! I’m flying to AMERICA! (Years earlier, I wasn’t even allowed to go to “friendly” Bulgaria—I hadn’t proven my political reliability!) All that remained was to buy the ticket—and…!

And here, as they say these days, was the fail:

“There are no tickets, and there won’t be any!”

“What do you mean? I have a visa!”

“No tickets.”

“But I’ve got the authorization!”

“No tickets.”

“But they’re waiting for me!”

“NO tickets! For the next year.”

“So what am I supposed to do?”

The girl took pity on me: “Come by every day to check in—” (???) “maybe someone will give up their ticket. Don’t forget to take your queue number.” What was this…? The blockade? The war? A line for bread?

And from that day, my wonderful father, every day before work, would ride down to Gogol Street, where the Aeroflot ticket office was, and “check in” for the ticket queue. This was his mission now, his overarching quest. Day after day, week after week. There were NO TICKETS.

But I had a friend named Tanya. Wise, clever, resourceful. So there I am, crying to Tanya on the phone yet again, complaining of life and of Aeroflot. And suddenly Tanya says: “Idea! I’m coming over, we’ll discuss it!”

We’re drinking coffee in my kitchen and discussing Tanya’s “genius” plan:

“Your aunt lives in New York. She has nothing to fear there. Let her write a letter to Gorbachev—who knows—it might work? At worst, you’ll say that you knew nothing about it.”

Said and done. The same day I call my aunt. She’s excited about our plan. We don’t believe it’ll work, but again—who knows?

(When we came to America for good, my aunt presented me a copy of this missive, as a gift for a “new American”.)

“Moscow. Kremlin. To Gorbachev.” —was written on the envelope.

“Dear Mikhail Sergeyevich,

“I, an old woman, left the Soviet Union ten years ago. In those days I was certain that I would never”—again that word!—“see my favorite niece. But then you came. The country has changed amazingly. I started believing that people in Russia may live like human beings, be free, visit their family in other countries. I have faith in you and in your dreams. And can it be that because of the” [word redacted—but it really was there, in the letter!] “Aeroflot, which can’t find one ticket to New York, I will lose this faith?!!” Date, our address in Leningrad, signature.

Incredibly, about a week later, our home phone rang: “Would you be able, tomorrow or on any day convenient for you, to come to the Aeroflot ticket office?”

Baba Yaga had once again turned into the fairy godmother…

“There’s a ticket reserved for you, first class [?!], to New York. Your ticket number… This will cost… Come to window number… no line; just tell them your name. We’re very much looking forward to seeing you.”

“You’ll receive a confirmation letter from the Ministry of Aviation in about two days.”

That’s how I took a trip to America. The ticket was for a luxurious seat on the second floor of the plane (one of those two-story Boeings). I spent an unforgettable month with my relatives. A year later we decided to come to America for good. We still have the letter to Gorbachev, as a family relic and a memento of my wonderful aunt.

By the way, that plane to New York was half-empty… where were all those passengers who had purchased ALL the tickets for the next year? “Who would grasp Russia with the mind?”2

Mila Dragushanskaya

* * *

[1] The Soviet Union’s visa and travel registration bureau.

[2] The first line of Fyodor Tyutchev’s famous verse:

Who would grasp Russia with the mind?
For her no yardstick was created;
Her soul is of a special kind,
By faith alone appreciated.


  1. September 27, 2017shanthi said... What a lovely story! Keep going

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