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The Reminiscences of Toby Trister Gati

As to my background--my family comes from that part of the world. Honestly, perhaps I owe Tsarist Russia a "thank you" for the pogroms which drove out the Jews--if the pogroms hadn't happened and my family and millions of others hadn't left, the Nazis would have killed the entire family. History works in strange ways.

The first time I went to Russia was in college, as part of a language program with Ohio State University. We spent five weeks in Russia, traveling there on the Alexander Pushkin, which was called a cruise line. I think I actually put my life on the line, going on that thing from Montreal to Leningrad, in March. The Atlantic Ocean is not kind to travelers at that time of year.

But we got there and we started to study the language. We were kids, so somebody in authority saying to us you can't do something was the equivalent of saying, you must do it. So we met Russians despite the fact that our minders didn't want us to. From Leningrad, we went down to a Sputnik Camp in the Crimea for a few days. Actually, some people there are still my friends. It sounds strange, but Russians are like that. Once you're a friend, you're a friend forever--or you're an enemy forever. It can be either way.

I soon went back for another language program in Leningrad. The dormitory had five or six people in each room. We had hot water twice a week for two hours. The food was terrible. The Russians had to live on different floors, and our floors were guarded by a dezhurnaya [attendant]. But our view was of the Winter Palace, so it was pretty cool. Once you've made friends and gotten to understand some things about Russia's history, you get hooked on it.

I didn't have any money to ever consider going back on my own, certainly not as a tourist or student. So I took groups of sixteen and seventeen-year-olds to Russia, working with Putney Student Travel and other organizations. We would go on bike trips through Scandinavia and then into Russia, spending some time in Moscow, and then again go to Sochi or other places.

I was with American kids, and one of the biggest challenges was convincing them that they had to obey the laws. Their view is, "I'm an American, they can't touch me." I said, "You're in the Soviet Union, yes they can," and so this was a very interesting cultural experience.

Their upbringing and expectation of how the authorities would treat them was so different from how Russians knew government. I remember one kid sent home a postcard with a stamp that had a picture of Lenin on it. He put an eye patch over Lenin's eye and then he wrote under it, "Moshe Dayan," which he thought was really funny. Actually, everybody did, except for the woman in the post office, who reported him. They really did ask him to leave the country for desecrating an icon--the picture of Lenin on the stamp!

'Sapere aude'
by Oui (Oui) on Sat Jul 2nd, 2022 at 03:19:08 PM EST
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