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Thoughts & Views: Flying with the ‘comrades’

Is “fugitive intelligence leaker” Edward Snowden still languishing at Moscow Airport? As of press time, he was, but things do change.

Perhaps he has finally finagled asylum somewhere and perhaps he is fool enough to accept it.

However, this column is really not about Snowden, other than (moral issues aside) the pity I have for anyone trapped that long in any airport.

Everytime the Snowden/ Moscow Airport story airs, I get the shivers. And I shall tell you why.

I am a child of the Cold War. I grew up expecting to be obliterated at any given moment by H-bombs dropped from Soviet planes. I know all about “Duck and Cover” and what the symbol indicating an air raid shelter looks like and I have vivid memories of huddling under my desk at school during air raid drills and wondering why the teachers thought this would offer any protection at all. We kids knew better. We knew we’d be toast.

When the Iron Curtain was lifted and I had a chance to visit Moscow, I jumped at it. How better to finally overcome my childhood terrors than to confront them in their homeland?

It turned out to be a terror-free trip, but tinged always with a sense of unreality.

When I was in the city, I was with a gaggle of other journalists from around the world. But I had to travel to and from Moscow by myself. Travel arrangements had been made for me, but I was otherwise on my own.

I also had the “luck” to be booked on a Aeroflot flight that the Russians referred to the state airline as Aeroflop.

Still, it could have been worse. I had been given a first-class ticket, though I was warned that on the return flight I’d be in coach. I could not imagine what coach was like, since (way back then; I am certain Aeroflot has improved vastly) “first class” was awful.

No movies, no headphones, no lights for most of the night, so you couldn’t even read. Did we get vodka? I can’t recall. Maybe we got too much. I also cannot recall what they fed us, though I had suspicions that somewhere back in coach, they were grilling goats.

In any case, I made it to Moscow safely, had a great time, and, the day before I was due to leave was told, wonder of wonders, that my return ticket had been upgraded and I would again be spared sitting in steerage.

In the pre-dawn dark next morning, once again all on my own, I got a taxi to the Moscow Airport. The driver was most friendly and I tipped him well, and he actually came into the airport with me to make sure I got to the right check-in counter. (Did I mention my Russian was limited to “Nyet” and “No problemo” and “Zhivago”?)

When it was my turn, I said to the counter clerk, “First class.” And she said, “Nyet!” We repeated this exchange several times, each of us getting more and more annoyed, until I finally gave up and entered the waiting area, convinced that’d I’d be soon grilling goats.

NOTHING in the airport was open. There were gates and bars on everything. You couldn’t even get a cup of coffee. So I just sat on a bench and studied the ticket that had betrayed me.

But lo! On the flight over, I had managed to decipher a cyrillic phrase that obviously indicated “First Class.” And there it was again!

The counter clerk had lied. She probably had expected a bribe, someone suggested later.

I lept to my feet and ran over to the steel fencing that separated the benches from an open area patrolled by soldiers or policemen (I couldn’t tell which; they all dressed alike and they all carried automatic rifles over their shoulders). One was walking by a few yards away, and I called out, in an angry voice: “EXCUUUSE me! Do you speak English?”

He stopped and said, quietly and in perfect English, “Do you speak Russian?”

He had gently put me in my place, and I couldn’t help but laugh, which broke the ice I had created. He came over, I explained my predicament and showed him my ticket, and he told me to follow him.

We walked, he on one side of the fence, me on the other, until we reached a gate. He let me out of my pen and guided me through a door. I found myself in what apparently was the airport police station.

My gallant rescuer began explaining things to the “desk sergeant,” in Russian of course, so I really had no idea what was being said. And then he told me I would be allowed back into the check-in area, but I first had to hand over my passport and visa. Which I did.

I was then shown to another door, walked through it alone, and it locked behind me. It was then I felt the jolt. One of my childhood nightmares had come true.

I was in Russia with no papers.

No proof of American citizenship.

No ID at all.

Visions of the gulag danced in my head.

Luckily, the witchy clerk must have been spoken to because, as soon as she saw me, she scurried over, spouting what sounded like apologies, took my ticket, circled that cyrillic phrase and stamped it.

I was vindicated, but I didn’t breathe again until I knocked on that locked door, was allowed entry and, finally, was given my documents.

My rescuer had gone back on his beat, so I could not thank him. But I shall never forget his kindness.

Or that momentary terror.

God bless the U.S.A.

–Karen Zautyk

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