Moths in the Iron Curtain, or Roaming in the USSR with Al Purdy and Ralph Gustafson

One may argue that that the Iron Curtain was not lifted, but simply that the West-East moths through decades of nibbling at it from both sides made holes in its fabric, holes so big that the curtain has become almost invisible.

In October of 1976, Al Purdy and Ralph Gustafson were parachuted behind the Iron Curtain under the aegis of an agreement between the Canadian Department of External Affairs and the Kremlin, with the USSR Writers’ Union playing the host. Their wives, Eurithe and Betty, introduced to me by Al as “the female chauvinist chaperones,” and by Ralph as “the indispensable,” came along and the Writers Union hired me, at the time a post-graduate student of American journalism at the Moscow University School of Journalism, to be their interpreter and travel companion for their twenty-one days of travelling.

Formally, the purpose of this three-week venture was for the first Canadian authors visiting the USSR to make contacts and familiarize themselves with the country. As Ralph put it, “humanness recovered, prejudice erased, misconceptions dismissed.” Accomplished or not, the mission resulted in two books, whose titles alone tell much about the characters of their authors. Al Purdy’s Moths in the Iron Curtain was first published in 1977 (by Black Rabbit Press in Ohio). Ralph Gustafson’s politically correct nineteen Soviet Poems, gracefully filled with his sensitive judgments, was published in 1978. As far as I know, neither was translated into Russian. However, Al’s book did attract Moscow’s attention even before it was printed. In fact, the Union of Soviet Writers would have loved to stop Al from publishing the book. A few months after Al returned to Canada, I received a call from an official of the Foreign Commission of the Writers’ Union.

“Do you and Purdy write to each other?”

We had. We exchanged letters and even smoker’s gifts. Al smoked cigars and I a pipe; I sent Al Cuban cigars that were inexpensive in Moscow during the era when friendship between the two communist states was at its highest, and Al sent me Dutch pipe tobacco, a rare luxury in communist Russia.

“Did he write to you about his new book?”

He had. A few months after the trip, Al sent me a letter with the introduction to his new book of Soviet poems: “I enclose an article,”—he wrote—“which will be published with the small book [of poems]. There may be some things you won’t agree with in it, but I’m sure you couldn’t say the piece expresses anything but friendly feelings.” I liked the article, but obviously some officials in the Union of Soviet Writers didn’t. They especially didn’t like the title.

“What exactly does he mean by the ‘Moths in the Iron Curtain?’ Who are those ‘moths?’ The Soviet people?”

“I don’t think he meant that.”

“We don’t care what he meant, but we do care what he writes about us. And if that was the impression he was left with after his trip, then all of us and especially you are in trouble. Perhaps, at least he’d consider changing the title. If he is your friend, he’ll understand.”

I couldn’t completely follow this “friendly” advice. My letter to Al was nothing but the usual “how are you”; only in the postscript, did I casually mention that the title seemed a little odd to the Writers’ Union.

Al got the hint right away. Not that he was prepared to change anything (I could hear his “the hell I will . . .”). He didn’t care much about his poems being translated into Russian, though he certainly remembered and even briefly mentioned in his introduction the story I told him about my experience with the translation of Arthur Miller’s story “Fitter’s Night.”

In 1969, Miller and his wife Inge Morath, a photographer, spent a few weeks travelling in the USSR. After the trip Miller published In Russia, a book that offered his impressions of Soviet society, and highlighted his campaign for the freedom of dissident writers. Soon all Miller’s stories and plays, even those that fully met all the requirements of “socialist realism” were banned in the USSR. Not aware of the ban, I translated his story, “Fitter’s Night,” and offered the translation to one of the national magazines. The editor liked it, but suggested we wait a few months and perhaps as he put it the wind of change from the “Old Square,” a nickname for the HQ of the Communist Party Central Committee located in the Old Square of Moscow, would bring Arthur Miller back to the Russians.

One night, over the usual nightcaps I told the story to Al. “If you see Miller, tell the story to him.” Al grinned and after a few more nightcaps added “I would, but Miller moves in much more cultured literary circles than me.”

Years later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, my translation of “Fitter’s Night” was published in one of the last strongholds of the country’s socialist past The Socialist Labour Magazine. But in 1978 when Al and I corresponded about his upcoming book, neither of us could have imagined that fifteen years later the wind of change would grow so strong that on its shoulders I’d relocate to Canada or that in the summer of 1993 Al and I would be laughing over our USSR memories in Ameliasburg sitting on the porch of his Roblin Lake house or that, much to my surprise, Al would be washing down his jokes with herb tea, not vodka.

Anyway, in his reply to my letter Al armed me with the interpretation that was meant to sweeten the pill for the Soviet officials. “Your postscript disturbs me,” he wrote, “and apparently I have to explain the title. I suppose ‘iron curtain’ is a Western term, denoting the difficulty of entering the Soviet Union and that the West thinks the Soviet Union has an inflexible rigidity. Okay . . . we [Purdy and Gustafson] were moths in the sense that we had no difficulty entering the S.U., and that we chewed up a little of the iron curtain since relations were cordial.”

Al’s introduction was the only part of the book I read at the time. Thirteen poems written by Al after the trip (as well as Gus’ nineteen poems) I read only eighteen years later when my family and I relocated to Canada. I was pleasantly surprised to see that my name was first in the list of those Al dedicated the book to “With cordial greetings . . .” Reading the poems brought back memories that seemed almost lost, and Al was right, the poems expressed nothing but friendly feelings, though some episodes we remembered differently.

Pre-impressions and Myths

Back in the USSR, we talked and joked about many things, trying to avoid politics: Al, because he thought that talking about the ways the Soviets conducted their affairs would be in bad taste from a guest, and I, because I realized that both Al and Gus would write about their experiences in the USSR and their conversations with the people they befriended. I had to watch what I said.

In Moths in the Iron Curtain Al wrote “Victor . . . and officials from the Writers’ Union quickly dispelled one pre-impression I had of the Russian character, that it was solemn and rather self-important.” On my part the pre-impression I had about the Canadian character, that it was a silent type, was quickly dispelled by Al’s openness and sense of humour.

In Moscow, the delegation stayed in the Sovietskaya Hotel, built around the once famous Yar Restaurant. Chekhov and Rasputin had dined there. In the Soviet days, the hotel was reserved for the communist apparatchiks and foreign dignitaries. As Al rightfully noted, “it was slightly old-fashioned, but provided solid bourgeois comfort.”

The first night we paid must-do visits to the Red Square, the Kremlin, and St. Basil’s Cathedral. Al described it in his book as “of a size not overwhelming, its colours . . . like a child’s first discovery of magic in ordinary things.” He couldn’t believe that “the supposedly dour Russian character have produced those flashing painted towers, so much like Disneyland without the vulgarity.” I dared not dispel his bewilderment with the mysterious Russian character. The official history insists that the cathedral was designed by Russian architect Posnik Yakovlev, nicknamed Barma, “the mumbler,” and that Ivan the Terrible put out his eyes so that he could never build anything so beautiful again. This may be no more than a myth. Between 1475 and 1510 Italian architects were employed by the Russian tsar to restore the Kremlin. Who knows, perhaps that explained “those flashing painted towers?”

Another Day, Another Myth Dispelled

For the trip to Yasnaya Polyana, Leo Tolstoy’s country estate, which had been preserved as a national monument, the Writers’ Union booked a Chaika, a big black powerful limousine usually used by high-ranking Communist officials and the military brass. Driven like a rocket by what Al called a “mad Soviet cosmonaut,” the limo cut left of our lane of traffic with cops standing at attention: “They salute you,” I pointed to one. “Finally,” grinned Al.

The estate museum safeguards the legends of Count Tolstoy’s last years when he tried on the roles of a simple plowman, a stove builder, a carpenter, and a boot maker as ways to escape the life of a wealthy count. Despite the murmur of the official guide, the hypocrisy did not escape Al’s sharp eyes. In his poem “Visiting Tolstoy,” a monologue for voices, he wrote: “Master the plow is ready – Vladimir is holding the horses – and the old bent-backed tiny behemoth of letters pretends he’s a character in his novels pretends he’s a peasant . . . Who’s he kidding?

International Incidents

Some episodes that Al called “international incidents” we remembered differently. But there was one that neither Al nor Ralph ever knew about. We landed in Tashkent late at night straight into the waiting arms of the Uzbekistan’s Branch of the USSR Writers Union and the “la fourchette” windy speeches lavishly sprinkled with vodka.

Despite the warning that the hordes of participants to the Afro-Asian writers’ conference which was scheduled for that week in the Soviet Uzbekistan would most likely flood the Samarkand hotels, Al and Ralph insisted on going, inspired by a quest to find the muse as great as the one that once possessed the fifteen-century Uzbek poet Alisher Navoi. In fact, it was I who badly needed lots of artistic inspiration in order to secure space in what I heard was the only decent Samarkand hotel (Al called it “crummy”). I asked the Writers’ Union head office for help, but the “hand of Moscow” failed us.

“Think of something” was all the advice I had. The Intourist office was in a small room on the second floor of the two-story building of the Samarkand Airport. It was September, but the nights were still hot and the sweat was trickling down the soiled collar of the only rep on duty. “Nyet” was the verdict. Poets, he said, were not on his priority list. In the hall a group of American tourists were sharing the wind from the only fan with the Purdys and the Gustafsons, all unaware of the ongoing clash. Suddenly, it dawned on me—Sharof Rashidov, a poet too, his portrait on the wall behind the rep’s back, was at the time the Communist Party leader in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic and a candidate member of the Politburo.

“These Canadians,” I lowered my voice, “are here on his personal invitation.” On my mention of Rashidov’s name, the rep rose from his chair, bent over the desk and narrowed his eyes at me. For a minute his hand rested in hesitation on the telephone. I did not blink. “The tall one,” I pointed to Al, “may be translating Rashidov’s poetry into English.” The rep hesitated for another minute, then asked for our passports and scribbled our names onto the hotel voucher. I knew there was neither way, nor will for him to verify my words. Al and Ralph never found out what true lies got us rooms in overcrowded Samarkand, but they were happy; especially Al for getting ahead of the bunch of American tourists. Once at the hotel Al went to bed and I took Eurithe, Betty and Ralph to look at the turquoise domes of Samarkand mausoleums by moonlight.

Early next morning, after the muezzins called the remaining faithful to prayer, Al wanted to see the local marketplace. It was Sunday and we walked the narrow time-battered streets passing donkey carts filled with local produce to what was then Kolhozniy Rynok, the collective farmers’ market. The day was getting hot. Al treated himself to a tongue-burning shish kebab and wanted to cool it down with a piece of freshly cut watermelon. Nearby, a farmer in black sateen tubeteika, an Uzbek skull-cap, and pale blue cotton gown tightly tied with a colourful waistband was slicing watermelons with a knife. Al took a piece, but then he saw the farmer’s little girl sitting in the shadow of a tree behind the cart, licking ice cream. Al put the watermelon back on the cart, quickly walked to the girl, his camera hanging from his neck, his finger pointing to her face. Communism or no communism, in some lost-in-time Central Asia villages, photographing women’s faces was taboo. Of course, all Al wanted was to know where he could buy an ice cream. Before I could interpret Al’s silent question, the farmer rushed towards him, bull’s anger in his red eyes, a whip in his hand. I grabbed the whip and for a minute or two we stood there looking into each other eyes; me trying to explain something about ice cream, him still suspicious of Al’s intentions. A few locals gathered around us and helped me to dispel the man’s fears and though reluctant, he let go of the whip.

Back in the hotel we joined the rest of the team for a quick tour of Samarkand that ended on a laughing note, erasing from memory the sour taste of the morning’s “international incident.” Valentina, our Intourist guide, was walking us through the ancient capital of Tamurlane’s empire to the remains of what was once the biggest mosque in Central Asia—Bibi Khanum Mosque. Amir Timur (Tamurlane) started erecting the mosque around 1399, after his successful campaign to India, but it was not finished before a new campaign required him to leave. His wife, Bibi Khanum finished the construction in his absence. “When Tamerlane returned,” summarized Valentina, “he went to see the mosque. In front of his look raised in their magnificence were the domes and minarets. Amazed that he possessed such a wonderful erection, he hurried to his wife.”

“I’d drink to that,” laughed Al and on this encouraging note we hurried to the airport to return to Tashkent and later take a five-hour flight to yet another ancient city, this time in Eastern Europe.

The scenery changed from the turquoise domes of mausoleums and mosques to the golden domes of Ukrainian churches. For three days in Kiev, the Purdys and the Gustafsons were imbibing culture and beer while touring the ancient monasteries, the Shevchenko Museum and the Conservatory. Craving for fruit in the fruitless Soviet Kiev we passed others with the same craving: “people cluster in queues to buy them” (“Make Watermelons Not Love,” Al Purdy). One hot afternoon Eurithe wanted to stop for a watermelon right under a “no stopping” sign. Guests’ wishes, especially those of foreign delegations, always came first in the USSR and the driver stopped. We joined about twenty locals queuing for the melons. Soon a traffic cop appeared and ordered our driver to move. Eurithe and the Gustafsons obediently headed back to the car ready to give up on the watermelons, but not Al. Looking down on the short figure of the cop he showed him his Canadian passport, and then pointed to the watermelons, declaiming something about freedom, Canada and human rights, and the meaning of true democracy.

Meanwhile, the vendor reached from behind the counter and put a watermelon in my arms ending another international incident. Watching Al challenging a traffic cop in Kiev made me believe that somewhere across the ocean there was a land of harmony between motorists and traffic cops. I parted with this illusion many years later when at 2 a.m. I was pulled over for driving fifteen kilometres over the limit on Bayview Avenue: reasoning with traffic cops turned out to be a bum show on either side of the ocean or political system.

On our last day in Kiev, before the official meeting and lunch at the Ukrainian Club of the USSR Writers Union, the local guide took us to Babi Yar, a ravine in Kiev, the site of the massacre of Jews by the German Nazis in 1941. About twenty percent of the almost one million people who lived in Kiev before the war were Jews and those who failed to escape the besieged city were shot in Babi Yar. Later, Soviet prisoners of war, Jewish and non-Jewish, and Roma, were also killed there. For political reasons, no official memorial was built at the site until 1976 and even then it did not even mention that most victims were Jews. Only a few poets and musicians dared to challenge the Soviet propaganda machine. In 1961, during “Khrushchev’s Thaw,” Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s powerful poem “Babi Yar” was published and echoed in 1962 by Dmitri Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony.

Al and Ralph were crushed by what Al called the “enormous not murder only, but a black cloud in the human brain. . . .” The story of a Russian sergeant whose soldiers found babies’ shoes even years later when training near the site made us feel hollow and sick inside—“all of us are their descendants,” Al wrote in his “At Babiiy Yar.”

At the hotel, Mark Pinchevsky, the editor of Vsesvit, the Ukrainian journal of world literature, was waiting for group to take us to the formal summing up meeting of the Ukrainian leg of our tour. The Writer’s Club was close and Mark offered to walk with Al and show him some interesting spots on the way. Worried about the “interesting” spots, I tried to talk Al out of it, but his settled policy at the time was “never refuse a drink. Mark assured me that it’d be “just a snifter for an appetite,” so we agreed to meet later at the meeting. Little did I know that a snifter would be a water glass of brandy on an empty stomach on a hot Kiev afternoon. When Mark and Al, both wearing dark glasses, showed up at the meeting, it had already descended into the usual “here is to peace” speech-toast smoothed down the irksome guests’ throats with black caviar and vodka. The pretentiousness of the situation did not go well with Al. “Peace . . . damn your eyes!” he cursed through gritted teeth: “They’d better leave their dissident writers alone and admit the truth about Babi Yar.”

A few days in Riga and Leningrad were very much the same, perhaps, with the exception of one episode in a small, but lavish, Baltic Writer’s Council brunch in an elite resort hidden from public eyes behind the pine trees and sandy dunes of Jurmala. After a dozen of “here is to . . . ” the carefully selected group of Latvian writers turned to singing. Suddenly, the communist consciousness cracked and a popular local stage director and repertoire Peteris Petersons, broke out off-key with “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” (“Germany, Germany above all”), once a Nazi anthem. Al, who during the war was with the RAF’s Military Police, bent over the table and stared down his throat. “I can see his tonsils, but not what he means,” he said turning to me. “Who is he aiming at?” Many years later, having read about the ex-Nazis parading in Latvia, I no longer wonder.

Back in Moscow, on the eve of the return flight home, Eurithe and Betty were shopping in the hard currency stores reserved for foreigners and the diplomatic community. Al and Ralph were drafting notes for the politically correct speeches required at the summing up meeting with the Soviet officials, were eager to hear appreciation of the Soviet way of life in the “Communist paradise.” It was decided that Ralph would do the talking.

At the end of the meeting Al added that Soviet tradition impressed him—the way the Soviets honoured their writers and academics. The cities we visited had squares and streets named after the most prominent ones. “I cannot think of a Canadian parallel,” he said.

Al and I corresponded for a few years. We met again only seventeen years later, after me, my wife Natasha, and our thirteen-year-old son relocated to Canada. One day, we read in a newspaper about Al Purdy’s readings in Toronto’s High Park. Eurithe was with him.

We waited behind the improvised park stage. That evening in the coffee shop at the York Hotel we laughed and talked about his USSR adventure and our future in Canada.

“How about a snifter to that, said Al, “Only now,” he added looking at Eurithe, “I toast with herb tea, damn it.”

Works Cited

Purdy, Al. Moths in the Iron Curtain. Illus. Eurithe Purdy. Sutton West: Paget, 1979. Print.

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