Chasing the Ghost of Anya -- An opinion Feature
Thirty years ago Anya was a citizen of the U.S.S.R. who -- like her fearsome country and communism -- seemed to have a great future.
In her late 20s, she enjoyed privileges open only to her country’s Communist Party elite. She had a good job as a guide for Intourist, the Soviet Union’s state travel agency.
Smart, personable and pretty, she was a graduate of Moscow University who spoke English better than Orson Welles. And she lived in Manhattan with her husband, who worked for the Soviet mission to the United Nations.
In November of 1977, she was one of 200 lucky bureaucrats and KGB agents the Kremlin deployed to Southern California to put on the Soviet National Exhibition, a massive and embarrassingly inept communist propaganda show that occupied virtually the entire Los Angeles Convention Center.
But despite being stationed in sunny, exciting L.A. for a whole month, Anya was not a happy Communist. As she picked at her fruit salad during lunch in the cafeteria of the convention center, it was all she could do to keep from crying.
She was overworked, depressed and confused. And no wonder.
For five straight 11-hour workdays she had been standing behind a booth at the Soviet exhibition, handing out pamphlets, smiling and trying not to lie about what life was really like in the Soviet Union.
What Anya was most upset about, however, was being treated like a child by her own government.
She wanted to see Los Angeles at night and go to a jazz club. Just once. And on her own, not with a dozen of her comrades as they were led around by security chaperones, which is how they’d seen Beverly Hills and Disneyland.
Most of all, Anya wanted to see the Pacific Ocean -- and swim in it.
She, like all her colleagues, was forbidden to leave her downtown Holiday Inn alone, but she told me she might be able to sneak out late at night.
I reacted to that idea the way any single, patriotic, normal American male of 30 would -- I told her I’d pick her up in my topless 1961 MG Midget and drive her to any beach she wanted to go to.
Designed by the Soviets to show off the glorious scientific, industrial and cultural achievements of 60 years of Communist Party rule, and part of the Soviet Union’s 60th worldwide birthday party, the Soviet National Exhibition attracted 310,000 visitors during its Nov. 12-29 run in L.A.
An odd jumble of Soyuz spacecraft, arts and crafts from Russia’s 14 captive republics and scale models of bizarre things like BN-600 fast neutron reactors, it was part high school science fair, part government flea market.
With its heavy security inside and out, its surplus of cheesy 1930s Communist Party propaganda and its glaring shortage of consumer goods, the exhibit was a 150,000-square-foot microcosm of the nasty U.S.S.R. -- not that anyone in the welcoming L.A. media bothered to point that out.
I was no amateur Sovietologist. I was just a libertarian bartender and free-lance journalist living in Hollywood.
But even I could see the Soviet exhibition for what it was -- a marketing disaster that showed that the superpower many "experts" were certain was winning the Cold War in 1977 was really a clueless, backward and often silly police state that couldn’t make a decent portable TV set.
For the next few days, while I hoped Anya would decide to risk a night of illicit freedom, I played journalist/spy. I went to the Holiday Inn, where two Soviet security goons in stereotypically bad suits sat in the lobby pretending to read newspapers while monitoring the elevators.
The manager said the FBI told him not to tell anyone how many of the visiting "Russians" were staying there (nearly all 200, a maid told me) or what floor they were on (the 7th).
He said the Soviets were quiet, polite and well-behaved and didn’t hang out in the lounge. A room maid on the 7th floor said the "Russians" were neither especially clean nor dirty, and didn’t do any heavy boozing or partying in their rooms.
If this were a Russian fairy-tale, it would end with Anya sneaking out of her motel room, the two of us dancing till dawn in the surf at Zuma Beach, falling in love and living happily ever after under assumed names in Malibu.
If this were a bad TV docudrama, it would end with me helping Anya defect, getting in a shoot-out with KGB thugs on the Santa Monica Pier and creating an international incident that hastened the collapse of the evil Soviet Empire.
But this is a true story.
Anya’s complaints about being tired and unhappy finally got to her boss and he let her go back home to New York City early. Before she left, though, he took her out to Universal Studios and to Santa Monica, where she got her wish and swam in the Pacific.
I said goodbye to Anya on Nov. 21, 1977, on my final trip to the convention center. I mailed the best photos I took of her working at the Intourist booth to her New York City business address, but she never wrote back.
What became of her, how she fared when her Potemkin country collapsed, if she is in Russia today or is even still alive -- I don’t know.
Nor do I know whether her unhappiness was purely personal and an aberration or a sign that even privileged young people like her already were becoming disgruntled with the oppressive paternalism and lack of freedom they had under Soviet socialism.
To track down Anya for this story, I tried everything I could do from the U.S., including e-mailing people at Moscow University and Sistema, the private company that now owns Intourist. No luck.
At the Moscow bureau of the Los Angeles Times, reporter Sergei Loiko did some looking around for me but it only deepened the mystery. According to Intourist's records, no person named Anya Ryukhin ever worked there either in the 1970s or later.
So did Anya tell me details of her personal life, expose her fragile emotional state to me and consider sneaking out of her motel -- and then give me a phony last name? Not likely.
Was Ryukhin her maiden name? Was she KGB, as her husband probably was? Who knows? For now, Anya's fate is unknown to me and her trail is as cold as the great global war of capitalist and communist civilizations that brought us together.
Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.© Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.
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