LENINGRAD 1987

An Essay by Linda S. Gunther

An Essay by Linda S. Gunther

We were underground in the basement of an old stone church in Leningrad, attending a non-sanctioned concert, which meant it was considered illegal by the Soviet government to attend such an event. Six rock musicians were on stage, clad in black, all wearing gas masks. They played electric guitars and performed in a punk-rock style. One musician banged staccato on the piano, often using his bare feet.

I was one of seven Americans from California sitting on folding chairs in the front row. We were accompanied by four Russians: a newspaper photographer, a journalist and two young artists. The church basement was full of about a hundred young Russians smoking cigarettes and shouting with excitement. Our study group of about ten Americans had traveled to learn the fine art of portrait photography from professionals across six Soviet cities over a two-month period. I had taken an approved leave of absence from my corporate Human Resources job to take advantage of the unique travel-study experience.

Leningrad was our second stop after Moscow where we had been carefully escorted by government officials. This city felt less formal than Moscow as we were permitted to roam freely when not in class.

Zazou, the Russian TASS photographer, who accompanied our group to the underground concert stood up near the stage, taking close-ups with his 35 mm camera and telephoto lens. We clapped and cheered during each song along with the Russians.

The KGB came in fast and violent, five men, appearing to ignore the Americans sitting in the front row. One of them pushed Zazou, the photographer, up against the stage. He stumbled, his camera almost falling to the floor but was able to catch it. The music on stage stopped. The musicians froze in place. The KGB wore disheveled tan raincoats, and held metal badges out at arms-length. I felt anxious, scared, and bewildered all at the same time. But it was also exhilarating, as if I were in the middle of a James Bond movie.

Would our Soviet friends be arrested? Would we be in trouble?

I sat between Davide and Afrika; one, a Russian artist who painted wondrous art pieces on paper plates and napkins, the other an artist who painted on pieces of metal, both of them in their mid-twenties. When the taller KGB man grabbed both by their shirts from their seats, I jumped. He pushed each young man onto the floor close to where the journalist stood. A husky KGB with a large bald spot and a scowl on his face appeared to demand something. Davide and Africa scrambled inside their pockets. Each pulled out a small white card from their wallet and held it out to the man.

The shortest KGB man bellowed some words in Russian. Afrika and Davide turned flat on their stomachs, their hands clasped behind their backs. One of the other tan raincoats inspected the two white cards, made some notes on a pad and then motioned for Davide and Afrika to go. They rushed out towards the back of the room. Another KGB grabbed Zazou, our journalist friend, by the sleeve and pulled him up from the floor, kicked him in the shin and shooed him to leave.

The audience started to clamor out of the church, up the cracked stone steps from the church basement and out onto the street. It was a frenzied scene. We were the last to exit the back door to the church and noticed the KGB men were gone.

We did shots of vodka into the night at Zazou’s apartment a few blocks from the old church. Davide and Africa talked non-stop until after midnight. “We’re now officially fingered by the KGB,” Davide cried through vodka tears. Tears streamed down his face. His fears seemed to get worse as he drank more.

The next day, on the streets of Leningrad we saw no sign of the KGB. Teenage boys flogged American jeans on street corners. “Levi’s, you want nice jeans?” a boy yelled as my classmate and I walked past him. He held a pair of jeans close to my face. “Cheap price for you, Miss.” Damn near every corner featured a black-market extravaganza: chocolates, fur hats, amber jewelry, toys for sale. Some vendors followed us for several streets, pleading to sell us something in exchange for American dollars. We had been warned to use our American dollars only in government-approved beryozkas, shops reserved exclusively for tourists, where Russians were not allowed.

All Photographs by Linda S. Gunther

Cameras hung from the straps around our necks. We moved through the streets clicking; capturing smiles, a child crying, kids playing tag, a young couple arguing, a string of angry swear words from an elderly woman disgruntled with our photographic shenanigans. Long lines of people stood outside bakeries and food markets, scanty offerings on display in shop windows. On one street corner, we witnessed a citizens’ demonstration taking place outside a church.  Police watched the small gathering of people who held up wooden protest signs, paced in a circle and chanted in Russian. The uniformed men stood back, batons in hand, poised to take action if needed. Most people on the street went about their business, heads down but occasionally I saw a man or woman steal a quick glance at the protestors. I captured a few shots and was surprised that I wasn’t stopped by the policemen. It was 1987, and the country was about to snap, crackle and pop. I could feel the blend of normal life and tension all around us.

We went back to the hotel. I requested my room key from the floor lady who kept close watch on our passports and matched room keys, a mini-KGB of sorts. I opened the door to my extravagantly velvet draped yet sparsely furnished hotel room. A stout ruby-cheeked woman in her fifties, her hair tied up in a scarf, some strands of gray hanging down her face, was knelt down in the bathroom. She turned to me. At first, she seemed embarrassed but then burst into a broad electric smile. She sprung up from the floor, took my hands, jubilantly danced me across the room, inviting me with her eyes to join in with her every movement. “I love America. I love Americans,” she sang out. “We love your president.”

Oh my god, do they really feel this way?

The woman kissed the palm of my hand, snatched up her cleaning bucket and turned to leave the room, laughing and waving to me before closing the door behind her.

As I pulled back the heavy drapes, glanced out the window and looked across the Neva River, I saw dozens of pigeons fleeing from a rooftop. A man was letting each one go, about two or three seconds apart, whooshing them one by one up into the air with his arms. I grabbed my camera, attached the telephoto lens and snapped away. He seemed to bid each bird to be free, perform their deed well, and return to him.

That night, the Russian journalists and photographers, and Americans came together again in a suburb at an old house not too far from the center of the city. More stories, ugly stories from the Russians. A lot more vodka shots. There was extreme hatred for ‘all things’ government, passionate cries for revolutionary reform. Yet, they seemed to have an unrelenting hope for their country, a blend of disgust on one hand and cultural pride on the other. Africa and Davide appeared still shaken from the night before. Both spoke of genuine fear for the safety of their families.

It was May Day when I awoke the next morning, our last day in Leningrad before we flew to Odessa and then on to Tblisi, Georgia. Thousands of people, families, men in uniforms with medals hanging from their jackets, filled the streets along the Neva River. It was a photographic smorgasbord. Marching, singing, celebrating, band music, tulips everywhere in the hands of Leningrad’s young and old. Enormous pride beamed from the faces around us. Elderly men wearing their military uniforms hugged grandchildren. I snapped candid shots of babies, toddlers, teens, seniors, many eager to be immortalized on film. Their faces lit up as I handed each subject their individual polaroid. “For you, for you,” I said smiling. I took double shots, one with my 35-millimeter Canon and one with a polaroid camera. Some people embraced me. Others smiled and stared in wonder at their Polaroid picture. The crowd was dense as we made our way. My elbow jerked my camera. The thin color filter I like using fell from my lens onto the pavement. A waif of a small girl with long pigtails and a white-brimmed straw hat picked it up. She smiled up at me, a front tooth missing, the small filter in the palm of her hand.

“Spasibo,” I said.

She held out a long-stemmed red tulip for me to take. When I placed the Polaroid photo in her hand, her green eyes seemed to double in size. She giggled and hugged my waist. Her mom stood by her side and within a moment they both disappeared into the crowd. Vestiges of the impassioned conversations from the night before jostled through my mind. Ambiguity. They live in a cyclone of ambiguity just like us, I stood there thinking.

When I returned to California, I had dozens of my photographs printed and mounted on foam boards. I also assembled a slide show and presentation on Russia for the aerospace company I worked for. The faces I featured on the large screen, each one offering a unique window into Soviet life, seemed to move my audience of co-workers and executives. Americans are a curious people and so there were a lot of questions for me.

Glasnost was announced a few months after my return to the states. American TV, radio, and newspapers shouted the news. It was a big deal. Gorbachev described it as the government’s commitment to allow Soviet citizens to discuss publicly the problems of their system as well as offer potential solutions. He said that he wanted two-way conversation, a break-through in the Soviet culture.

I felt euphoric. What would this historic pivot mean for the Russians and for the rest of the world?

In 2021, I’m noticing how the pendulum has swung back and forth over the years since the 1980’s, not only in Russia but also in the United States. Can we learn and move forward without having to take giant steps backwards? I ask myself this question today.

Linda S. Gunther has written five novels: Ten Steps From The Hotel Inglaterra, Endangered Witness, Lost In The Wake, Finding Sandy Stonemeyer, and Dream Beach. She grew up in New York City. Linda’s passion for travel and continuous learning fuels her fire to create vivid fictional characters and unforgettable story lines.

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