The Soviet Union was a closed society, which meant the government was as disinclined to let in foreigners as it was to allow its citizens out. The grandeur statues of Lenin showed us the way to the great future and the political powers made sure we didn’t deviate from the path. At best, one could get a two-week tourist visa to Poland, Hungary, or Czechoslovakia, but my dissident, long-fallen-out-of-favor family had never been able to achieve even that. The authorities were afraid that as soon as we crossed the borders, we would defect, seek political asylum at the American embassy, and catch the first plane to New York. It wasn’t really that simple, yet it wasn’t totally improbable either. Anyway as a result, I never left the country until the Iron Curtain fell under Gorbachev’s heavy pounding, and my family was allowed to go as they pleased. I was twenty one.
Life loves irony because my first foreign destination was the USA, and my first flight out of the country was to New York. Only it wasn’t a two-week trip with a medium-size suitcase in tow. We were leaving for good, our huge ripping-at-the-seams bags stuffed with clothes, mementos we couldn’t bear to leave behind, and voluminous English dictionaries, which back in those days came only in book form and weighed tons. Aeroflot regulations allowed two suitcases free of charge, while we averaged three mega-bags per person, meaning we would have to pay a steep fee for our dear tchotchkes, childhood toys, photo albums, and favorite old shoes.
Our mental state could hardly be compared to that of people who leave their country on vacation or for a family visit. Their mood is usually jovial and upbeat. Ours was a non-distillable fusion of euphoria and anxiety: we were beyond happy to break free from the oppressive regime, nervous about the future, and fraught with worry about the final departure moment – it wouldn’t be that unusual for the Soviets to change their mind at the last minute.
The airport check-in clerk took one look at our luggage pile and hit us with a statement that made history. “You crazy? The plane’s old, it barely makes it over the Atlantic. One bag per soul if you want that soul to land.” My mother, who had written her dissertation on airplane engineering, tried to argue that the make and the model of our carrier were modern enough to sustain at least the officially promised two pieces of luggage, but it was all in vain. The bags and the clerk stood between us and freedom so something had to give. What took us three weeks to choose and pack, was reprioritized, reshuffled, and re-crammed within thirty minutes. Two thirds of our life possessions were left behind, luckily picked up by family members who were seeing us off. Dictionaries got first priority, my sacred stuffed blue dog – the source of inspiration for many childhood stories I wrote, came close second, and my favorite red shoes didn’t make the cut. But we made the plane! When we stepped out of the airport building and walked to the potbellied IL-76 through the line of armed soldiers holding onto the snarling Alsatians, our losses didn’t seem that severe. And when the plane finally took off, we were too exhausted to worry about its supposedly inadequate flying abilities; we collapsed in our seats, barely able to believe that after fifteen years, we made it out.
We made it out of the country! For the first time and forever!