It was the summer of 1997: cash in-hand was money; the prolific use of debit cards didn’t exist; CDs were being ripped and sold on the black market (I definitely bought from that market); Celine Dion and Whitney Houston were still singing to us; Bill Clinton was at the start of his second term; Princess Diana would die at the end of this summer; DVDs were brand-new technology; the internet existed, but only just — access to the World Wide Web was limited to your dial-up connection and google had yet to be coined a verb.
In June of this year I moved back to Russia for what would become a summer never to be forgotten.
My US-based company had a teeny-tiny satellite office located in Moscow, Russia, employing two or three Russians max, plus one American expat and his wife, who were in their mid-20s like me and my husband. We all spoke fluent Russian. I was sent over to train the teeny-tiny office staff on some data entry work our US office wanted to delegate and we allowed three months in Moscow for that very purpose. The American expat would make arrangements for our housing while we were in-country and I just needed to show up, passport and work Visa in-hand, ready to work.
Having lived in Russia previously, although never in Moscow, I arrived with my rose-tinted glasses of loving everyone firmly perched on my nose and completely oblivious to the harsh fear-based system of what life in Russia actually looks like.
Newly-arrived in our rented for the summer apartment I was surprised to see the rooms literally bulging with the landlady’s belongings, as if we had a key to someone else’s home but I didn’t want permission to be there. Had they left in a hurry, carelessly cramming their personal effects underneath the mattress believing my lying on top of their pile wouldn’t disclose their secrets in full view? The lingering layer of grease atop every single surface in the flat belie their claims to cleanliness and order. Unpacking meant keeping my suitcases open and accessible because there was no space, nook or cranny available for my belonging or belongings.
Where to place my computer monitor and the beast of a tower needed to operate it? Plugging in to the local landline in order to connect, patiently, with the office nine hours behind me now required planning and hope that the phone here would be connected, dependent on a real life operator deciding my worthiness of connection.
And so it happened on a summer’s eve that we went for a walk, exploring our neighborhood, hoping to find a street vendor selling some of our favorite tasty treats and we realized we were walking distance from Gorky Park, known back in the heyday of the Soviet era as an amusement park and gathering place for families.
Our excitement quickly turned to disappointment and then concern as we found ourselves in a desolate has-been space, not kept up or even safe for after-dark strolling. Deciding quickly we would rather be in the grease-filled apartment figuring out supper than here in the middle of Gorky Park uncertain as to who or what we might encounter, we retraced our steps back to the flat where all of our possessions were locked behind two doors and five keys.
Placing the first of our five keys in door one, lock one, it was immediately apparent something was wrong. The door was locked, yes, but from the inside. Someone was inside the apartment and we couldn’t get in!
Knocking and banging on the door from the inside out to us we could discern the voice of our landlady and her husband — yelling at us that they would not let us in, they were calling the police, what was ours was now theirs and they knew what we were up to!
What in the actual HELL was happening?!
Remember, 1997. I’m in the middle of Moscow, Russia, where the KGB and the Mafia are interchanged for one another as seamlessly as tit for tat. This is the land where an American goes missing and no one blinks because they don’t even notice.
Heart pounding, I plead through the door for her to please open, please talk with me, please explain what happened, why is she upset? What is her concern? Can we discuss this?
No! The operator at the phone company called her, told her how frequently I’m plugging into “that computer thing” and “I know what you’re doing here! I know what you’re trying to do.”
Dear god, what is she talking about?!
“I have already called the police! They are on their way. You will be arrested. I am confiscating your computer.”
No discussion. No earlier call. No indication that this was coming. What is she afraid of? Accusing me of doing? Having me arrested for what?!
My heart is pounding louder than my thoughts.
Can I just have my stuff? My suitcase? Keep the damn computer; it doesn’t belong to me anyway. I swear I’m only working. I’m only connecting with my office in the US. Are you worried we won’t pay the phone bill? Is that what this is about?! Are the police really necessary?
Where can I go?
And then rushing up the stairs are my co-worker American expat and Sergei, the Russian who works with him. They received a tip-off phone call that something was going down at our apartment, that we were being used as pawns in the larger Mafia-played game of business in Moscow.
Quickly, go down and get in Sergei’s car. Leave the premises. Don’t worry about your things. Remove yourself before the police arrive. The rest will be taken care of. Go. NOW!
And heart-pounding crouched down from the back seat of the dark car I watch the police storm the building, a long pause of time, and then Sergei carrying my suitcases out and quietly placed in the trunk, and with a tap on the roof of the car the driver takes me away, only turning on his headlights when we are three streets gone.
Is Big Brother still watching? He definitely was in 1997.