I just had the overwhelming compulsion that I was supposed to go to Russia. My father and I had sold the Russians several groups of Santa Gertrudis cattle, but I did not need to go there. They always came here for those purchases.
Also, in the early 1970’s most people from here were not especially welcome there. If you drew a chart of Russia’s meanness and their efforts to take over the whole world in the name of Communism, that would have been the time when the graph of meanness on the chart would have been at its peak. But I thought I should go.
Even though we had sold them cattle, you didn’t just apply for a visa and go on your own. That would have caused all kinds of suspicion and consternation. But I found a way (or was shown a way). There was a man from Houston who was getting together a small group of people to go to Russia for a “Cultural Tour”, mostly to listen to the Russian symphony orchestras and to particularly watch the Russian ballets. Russia had a long history in these areas and Communists were still proud of those traditions. In fact, in those days there, that was some of the only entertainment that they had.
So, my wife and I joined this cultural tour. A few of the people were from Houston and a few were from Dallas. We were to go to Moscow and St. Petersburg (called Leningrad under the Communists).
When you fly across Russia you realize just how huge that country is. As we were flying for hours and hours, I was thinking: How in the world could the Germans ever think they could conquer a place this huge.
In the early days of the 1970’s one of the first things you learned was that almost nothing had been built since the Communists took over in 1917. Most of the municipal buildings used by the Communist government are old palaces and the homes of formerly very wealthy people from pre-revolution days that have been converted to other uses. Even the main department store in Moscow was a converted palace.
The hotel where we stayed in Moscow was directly across the street from the huge Red Square. It and the room’s furniture was pre-1917. Our room even had a grand piano in it from those days.
Another thing that you had heard about and were now experiencing was that the government and the KGB controlled everything. They did not even check any of our luggage or belongings upon entering the country.
Their attitude was that if you brought in anything that you shouldn’t, they would know it because of their tight control. The floors on our four-story hotel were not very large, only a few rooms, but at the head of the stairs on every floor was a tough looking lady at a desk who just watched everything. Just for spite, I started leaving my room key with her whenever I left. She just kept it for me. She never said a word.
Another thing that you learned was that nothing worked. There was a small leak in my bathroom under the sink. I was told by the economics’ head of the US embassy in Moscow (with whom I had a most interesting visit) that I could come back years from now and that leak would still be there.
Our group did attend cultural events. One in particular was a “big deal”. Their most famous ballerina, their Prima Ballerina was about to retire. The ballet “Anna Karenina” was written just for her. It is based on the Russian novel by Tolstoy. She was going to dance it one more time and then it would never be danced again until after she died.
This was one of the biggest events in Moscow in many, many years. The wives of all the top officials in Moscow were there, dressed in their finest. However, I need to tell you about “their finest”. See, only recently every woman in all of Moscow had received a new coat from the government. The Russians love fur. But these were all cloth coats of different colors, but with only a fur collar. So, the wives of all these top officials could only have and wear these cloth coats with their fur collars; and they were no better than those same coats that the peasant ladies had gotten also.
We were given the best seats in the house. They were the very center seats in the first balcony. Sitting next to my wife was Mrs. Storey Stemmons from our group, whose husband had been the brother of John Stemmons. The big Stemmons Freeway leading into downtown Dallas is named after them. Mrs. Stemmons had on a full-length mink coat with a gorgeous sable collar. My wife had on a crimson dress with a wide gold belt and a full-length mink coat. I took a picture of all those hundreds of officials’ wives down below looking up and staring with envy.
In my book I tell much more about Russia as it was in those days. I tell about visiting in the Kremlin with the head of all animal husbandry in Russia who had been in Texas buying our cattle, and how I got lost inside the Kremlin and wandered into places that I never should have been. I also tell about meeting with some of their top leaders in the Kremlin and what they sincerely wanted from me, and also how I was officially detained by the KGB before leaving.
But who I really want to tell you about are two older ladies from Houston who went with us. At that time you could buy Russian rubles at a bank in the US for 17 cents. However, the Russians required you to pay $1.83 for each ruble there. They for sure did not want you to bring any rubles into the county from the outside. It was an automatic 8 years in prison if you were caught with contraband rubles. You didn’t even have a hearing. You just went.
However, these two ladies had brought a huge amount of rubles into Russia with them. They had brought them in their boots, in their coats and stuffed into all kinds of places. Like I mentioned earlier, the Russians did not check you upon coming in. Their attitude was that they had such control over their country that they did not need to check you upon entering. Later, these ladies informed me that all this money was for the Underground Church in Russia. That is all they said, except that……I was the one who was to pass all that money to the Underground church!!!!
Also, like I said earlier, I did not know why I thought I was compelled to go to Russia. Now I knew that this is probably why.
I did not know anything about the Underground Church. I did not even have a clue about where you might find it. I knew that the Russians had closed most all the churches and made atheist museums out of them. I had seen some of those. I also knew that they did have one Baptist Church in Moscow so that they could brag about having “religious freedom”, but I did not even have a clue about where it was or how to get there.
So, it was early-afternoon, and I just told God: “If I am really supposed to do this, You had better take over!”
And, so help me, and I cannot begin to explain it, but from that moment I was not in control of my own thoughts or my own actions. I walked out of the front of that hotel and down the street for about half a block. There across the street, in English, was a sign over a store front that read: “Tourist Information”.
I went in and asked this lady how one could get to the Christian Evangelical Church in Moscow? She said not a word but wrote this address down on a yellow slip of paper. I walked out into that wide street in front of our hotel, which was directly across from Red Square and the Kremlin, as I mentioned before.
I got several taxies to stop, but when I showed them the address, they all shook their heads, no. Then I looked over right in front of the hotel and there was a large black sedan with a fellow sitting in the driver’s seat. I showed him the address and he motioned for me to go back out and get a taxi. I tried several more taxies with the same lack of success.
I still cannot explain any of this, but I was just being led what to do. I went back to the big black sedan and said: “I think you are supposed to take me here”. He looked at the yellow slip of paper and motioned for me to get in. Off we went, way across Moscow. Every time we stopped at a stoplight, I noticed people starring at this big black car. Finally, we arrived at the church. I went in and was greeted by folks that spoke English. After some conversation they informed me that in a little more than an hour, they were going to have a full church service, and that I should get my wife and come attend.
I went back out and the black car was still there. I told him what I wanted in English, and he took me back to the hotel. But he never uttered a word. I got my wife and he took us all the way back to the church. They had us sit on the side of the balcony on its front row so we could look down at the congregation. It was packed full. And what was so interesting was that as they read the scripture from the pulpit, the people would hold their bibles up as high as their heads and the people behind would furiously copy the scripture.
When they sang, they did the same thing with the song books, and the people would furiously copy those words.
When this nice fellow came to escort us out, I could not believe it when these words came out of my mouth: “I need to find the Under Ground church people.” He looked at me and continued down this long hall. There were no windows or doors along that hall, but abruptly he stopped and pushed on a wooden panel of the wall to our right and it just opened up. There were all these young people in there. I knew instantly that I had contacted the Under Ground Church. I was brave enough to explain to them that I had money for them and that I needed someone to go with me to receive it.
A nice young man went outside with me and my wife. There was that big black car, patiently waiting on us. I don’t know if the guy was KGB or what, but it didn’t seem to matter. I asked him if I should pay him anything and he never said a word. I did reach over and stuff 20 rubles into his upper coat pocket.
We got back to the hotel and I went up to the ladies’ room while the young man waited outside. They had been taking a nap and were still a little groggy. I couldn’t seem to get through to them so I finally said: “I have come for the rubles!” They both put their fingers up to their lips to shush me. But I thought, oh really, there is no one listening to us.
They stuffed all those rubles into a shopping bag and handed it to me. I walked right past that lady at her desk at the head of the stairs with no problem. I handed it to the young man outside and he faded into the huge after work crowd.
Instantly, I was back into control and making my own decisions and actions again.
We were to have an early dinner so that we could attend another cultural function inside the Kremlin that night. The two ladies were a little late coming down to dinner; and, wow, did they look shaken. They said that no more and 15 minutes after I left their room, a KGB officer and some of his guys knocked on their door. They said that in his long leather coat, he looked just like one of the German Nazi Gestapo officers from a WWII movie, and that he was even holding his cigarette backwards in his hand just like the Nazi’s in the movies did.
They had heard my words. They searched every inch of that room, but found no contraband rubles, of course.
But then, mirabile dictu, at almost midnight when we got back to our room, the phone rang. Like, I don’t know anybody in Moscow. Who could possibly be calling?
This deep voice answered in quite good English and thanked me for our “interest in the Church of Moscow”. I immediately realized that he was talking so very officially and that I was supposed to “read between the lines”. He had once been out of the country to attend a Christian conference, so it was OK for him to call and talk to me.
Still talking very “officially” he wanted me to know that everything was cool and it was mission accomplished!
One thought on “Russia – a true tale”
Very interesting read!