By Salmon Friscia
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Pandemonium! The police swooped down on Red Square from all
directions, grabbing anyone who was buying or selling contraband.
I wouldn’t be in such a mess If they had only come five minutes
later. They hit just as I was handing over six brand new digital
cameras for a stack of rubles.
We took off in all directions, but didn’t stand a chance, there
were too many of them. Still clutching the cameras I ran smack into a
policeman who looked like a dancing bear. Yelling and struggling to get
free got me no where. He encircled me with his arms, lifted me off the
ground, and carried me like a sack of groats to where the others had
been rounded up. The cameras disappeared as if by magic.
I understood a little of what the jubilant policeman was saying when
reporting the raid on a cell phone. They had nabbed an American, a bit
of unexpected luck. While a few people stood by eight of us were
herded like animals and shoved into a van. The metal doors slammed shut,
someone grunted to the driver, we rumbled off.
No one said anything in the tenebrous interior. The other contrabandists
stared and smiled at me, as if to say we were all in this together. I
wanted no part of it.
It didn’t take long to reach our destination, a drab, dirt-streaked
concrete building. As we entered I was separated from the others by a
guard, then taken to a room where another guard waited. I emptied my
pockets and placed everything on a table. They patted me down.
My passport was the second thing to disappear. The rest of my stuff,
billfold, some change, handkerchief, notebook, pen, the contents of
every pocket, were scooped up by the guard into a paper bag after which
he made a phone call, then motioned me to follow.
Leading me down an ill lit corridor lined with doors set with opaque
glass squares like blind eyes from which no light shone he stopped
before the only one with a feeble light and knocked. A muffled voice
answered. Once inside, I was shoved towards a chair. Tired, anxious, I
sat down heavily. In the shadows, behind a heavy wooden desk, sat two
men. The room smelled of vodka. A light directed at the chair was
turned on. The glare blinded me; my head was spinning.
One of the men began speaking in a deep bass voice, which, despite my
predicament, I could not help but admire, It was so musical, so
distinctly Russian. His English was another story. Larded with a heavy
accent it took all my concentration to follow him. I kept making slow
down motions with my hand.
Didn’t I realize I had broken Russian laws, he said, that my actions
encouraged lawlessness, that I was ruining their economy, etc. etc.? It
could easily have been a sermon for misbehaving party members, not
someone in my situation.
Caught red-handed doesn’t leave much room to maneuver, but I decided to
Shouting in a voice loud enough to be heard at the Kremlin, I told them
not to forget I was an American citizen, with rights, they could not
hold me against my will, this is against international law, I demanded
they let me call my Embassy, and ended up pointing out that a Russian
would not be treated this way in my country. Absolutely no reaction,
complete silence. I had bombed.
My interlocutor came from behind the fierce light. Standing in front of
me, shaking his head in disbelief, he regarded me as if I were out of
my mind. A strange, condescending smile replaced the dull expression
He spoke slowly so I wouldn’t miss a word.
You are in Russia, my friend, not in your own country. You have
committed crimes. Your Embassy cannot help. Be sensible, my friend, and
stop this foolishness about rights.
We want only to ask you a few questions, he continued. It would be so
much better if you would answer, cooperate with us, his smile
broadening. I understood every word this time and got the feeling he
wasn’t kidding, especially the bit about it being better. I nodded my
head, OK. I’d listen, answer carefully. What else could I do?
He began interrogating in a slow, plodding way. His colleague kept
murmuring questions he should ask me. I knew enough get by Russian but
not enough to follow what they were saying.
He asked: How had I gotten the cameras past customs? Where had I hidden
them? Did I have any accomplices? Any Russian contacts? Why did I pick
Red Square in which to sell them? I remained silent while he droned on.
After enduring some minutes of this, without answering, I decided I’d
offer something in my defense and end the harangue.
Taking a deep breath, I began. The cameras were in my luggage when I
arrived, I said. No one asked for a declaration. Customs waved me
through without bothering to search my bag. I’ve never done anything
like this before in my life. I am a law-abiding citizen, gentlemen, an
ordinary tourist. Unfortunately, on this trip I was short of money,
that’s why I had the cameras. Don’t you realize, rising from the chair,
I love Russia. This is my third visit. Accomplices? That’s ridiculous,
out of the question. Ending up in Red Square was an accident, it just
happened. Everything I’ve said is the truth.
My delivery was faultless, there was a breathless theatrical quality
about it. Quite a performance by any standards.
But I was mistaken, hopelessly wrong, if I thought an explanation would
satisfy them. The questioning didn’t stop, it only changed direction.
They shifted, and went down a different road. They wanted personal
information, my education, profession, where had I last worked?
Where was this going? And what had this to do with the cameras? Why did
they persist with these resumé questions? It was getting late, I was
exhausted. About a half hour into the questioning I made a statement I
I shall pause here for a moment to make a confession.
An early and towering American statesman described it better than I
could ever hope to. He said of himself... “vanity, I am sensible, is my
cardinal vice and cardinal folly.” If it held true in the 1700’s it fit
me perfectly now. Vain, given to boasting, elevating myself continually,
I was driven, just couldn’t keep my mouth shut and it got me into
trouble all the time.
My answers to the Russians so far were vague. I was holding back
information, that was clear. They wanted to know over and over, what was
I could hold off no longer. Until a year ago, I began, swelling my
chest like a Pouter pigeon, I was the owner of a very successful
expresso bar in New York City, one of the best, I might add. My
pastries, my cappuccino and especially my expresso could vie with
anything in Little Italy, and.....bang, that’s where it stopped. Those
few words had an immediate effect on my tormentor. His reaction was so
swift he stumbled and almost fell as he pushed himself out of his chair.
He ordered the other person to watch me and ran out of the room.
What’s going on? I asked myself. Why that crazy reaction? The answer
walked in the door a few minutes later. He returned with another man,
older, with a cunning, porcine face and a body to match. He looked every
bit a well fed porker stuffed into an expensive Western suit ready for
market. Nevertheless, he carried himself with dignity and great
Pulling up an empty chair and smoothly easing himself into it, he
greeted me affably by name, beaming all the while. (After all they did
have my passport) His English was impeccable, like the suit. I am Vanya
he said with pride, and without ceremony began to probe.
The interest in the cameras was a thing of the past. All attention was
focused on the expresso bar. He lost no time sounding me out with a kind
of ruthlessness in the way he framed his questions.
When did I owned the bar? For how long? Was it a success? How many
people worked for me? Why did I give it up? Questions came tumbling out
of his snout one after the other covering every conceivable aspect of
the business. He must have had a sweet tooth because he seemed
especially eager to learn more about the pastries. About these Italian
pastries, he mused, did you bake them yourself? Do you know how to make
different kinds? Are they as good as the ones in Italy? As beautiful?
And so on.
Here arose one of those bifurcations in life where one’s destiny is
forever determined by which fork in the road one choses. I had two
choices. Undo what I had said, claiming my knowledge of expresso bars
was inflated, false, and moreover I was a rotten businessman, or go the
other way, arrogantly heaping praise on myself and my abilities.
Naturally, I chose the wrong fork.
Settling back in my chair and assuming, for the first time, a relaxed
attitude I began unwinding. The bar, I said with pride, was sold because
I received an attractive offer which I could not turn down. My place,
was, well, famous. It was packed all the time. And yes, I know all
there is to know about running this kind of a business and then some. My
pastries were, if not famous, memorable. The only thing missing in my
panegyric, was a snappy musical score.
I could have gone on but I was keeping an eye on Vanya who was listening
intently and slowly metamorphosing into a smiling pig with glints of
gold emanating from his dental work. I stopped and began to feel uneasy.
What was I doing? Why had I made it sound so rosy, pumping myself up
like some kind of Expresso Superman?
Placing the tips of his fingers together so they formed a kind of globe
held at arm’s length, and into which he raptly gazed, he gave every
appearance he was looking into a make believe crystal ball. What arcane
knowledge was he seeking? What profound question was being plumbed?
Whatever it was, he found it. Snapping suddenly from his reverie he
looked up at me and in the most friendly way began his indictment. There
was no need to do this, I already knew how much trouble I was in.
His voice, less melodious than his predecessor, had a certain quality, a
richness, which was soothing despite the danger I was in. His opening
salvo was about the sale of contraband. Then came the shocking
accusation that drugs had been found in my possession. I wasn’t going
to let him get away with that. It’s a lie, a frame-up, and you know it,
I roared, rising from the chair. He brushed my objection aside with a
careless, dismissive wave of a plump hand and motioned for me to sit
down. What else could I do? He was in control, absolute control.
Are you not aware, he asked, these are serious crimes, punishable
offenses, and your Embassy, my friend, is powerless to help? After a
long pause he dreamily went on. You are a lucky fellow he unctuously
affirmed. Here, sitting in front of you, is someone who wants to help,
who wants to do everything he can to keep you out of prison.
The falsity vanished, replaced by a friendly smile. Russian prisons are
notorious he lamented, shaking his head in halfhearted condemnation.
Everyone knows how bad they are. Believe me, this experience should be
avoided at all costs. He uttered those last words with so much emotion I
expected to hear him sob. From pathos he rapidly switched and became as
hard and cold as a Russian winter. If only I would cooperate with him a
little he would do everything in his power to save and protect me.
Soothingly he assured me everything can be arranged, you have only to
I could remain silent no longer. Fearing the worst I croaked, what can
be arranged, what’s this cooperation all about?
He straightened up and earnestly began what seemed like a rehearsed
Russia’s Siberia has a bad image throughout the West, isn’t that so? No
one understands the real nature of this vast, unique land. Its size
staggers the human mind. Imagine, six time zones. True, this ignorance
is partly our fault. We have not done enough to educate people. Still,
it remains a mystery why it is so. Mention Siberia and Westerners think
only of the Gulag, bleakness, temperatures below zero. They never
envision all the different peoples living there, in harmony and
voluntarily, I might add. All the myriad cultures existing side by side.
I’ll not mention the wild life, which you Americans love so much.
However, for Westerners, none of this exists. Siberia doesn’t have a
human face. Instead of conjuring up grand images in your minds, or
curiosity, or a desire to know more, its only contribution has been to
add a new word to your vocabulary...permafrost.
Coming to the end of his peroration, he leaned his body as far as his
stomach permitted, and fixing his gaze at me thundered, it is my job to
change that! Right then and there I figured he was nuts.
He slowly slid back into his chair completely composed once more. Ahhh.
How fortunate I am, he sighed. In my Russian soul I am certain that
seated in this room is the person who can help bring about that change.
I swung my head wildly from side to side vainly hoping to see someone
else. No, no, comrade, he laughed, leaning back in his chair. It is you,
comrade, you are my salvation. Suddenly, I felt sick.
He was all business again. Would you believe it? he asked. I doubt in
all of Russia there is a person with your experience. We have great
scientists, true, but lack anyone who can set up and operate a first
class expresso bar with American know how. Ahh, you Americans, he said
with a mixture of envy and disdain, you are so clever in business.
Forget the Italians.
Imagine for a moment there is a Russian who has these abilities. Do you
think he would go to Siberia? Out of the question, he shouted. Didn’t he
realize what he had just said? Could this be the same adorable Siberia
he had just described?
He settled down. Think of it, he purred, an expresso bar in Siberia. Not
in one of our cities. There is already too much of the good life there.
It has to be in a semi-remote area, where there is little social
activity for the workers and townspeople. Many of us in the Russian
Government still believe the workers come first. I was going to ask him
how much his suit cost but figured that would be looking for trouble.
Think of it, he repeated, an expresso bar in Siberia. Revolutionary, eh?
Comrade, he crooned, accept what I offer you. You have only to go to the
location, start and operate the bar until it can be taken over and we
will forget the smuggling and even the drug charges. You can’t refuse a
deal like that, can you? He opened his arms wide to embrace the new
Seeing the expression on my face and sensing a big nyet coming his way,
he adopted a different tone, one stripped of all mercy, irrevocably
deadly. You have a choice, he said. drawing out the last word. Make up
your mind, I have no time to waste. What’s it going to be
comrade....prison or cappuccino? I could hardly hold back the tears,