The way to Leningrad


LENINGRAD, Jan. 11, 1973 (UPI) -- It was 3:30 a.m. when the overnight train from Helsinki to Leningrad crossed the Soviet border. The old man woke quickly when the border police flicked on the light.

He was an actor, one of Russia's best, and he managed to convey dignity even as he sat up in his bed in the two-berth compartment, rubbing his eyes and scratching at his long underwear. He explained that he had been in Helsinki attending a conference - a subtle statement that the government trusted him enough to let him travel abroad.


The customs guard, young enough to be the old man's grandson, was not impressed. He did not go to the theater, he said.

The guard finished quickly with the westerner sharing the old man's compartment - a look at the passport, a poke at the suitcase. Then he turned to the actor.

"Your suitcase," he said.

"Pozhaluista," said the old man. The word means either "please" or "suit yourself." Then he stood on his seat, pulled his suitcase down from the rack and opened it.

The guard asked for the origin of a piece of clothing, and another, and another. The old man told him. The guard kept on asking. He did not scold. He was just curious, he said. The old man rubbed his eyes and looked very tired.

"What's in that package?" the guard asked.

"Pozhaluista," the old man said and opened it. It was a new coat, bought in Helsinki. The guard fingered it, studied the label, looked at the sales slip.

"Unwrap that," he said.

"Pozhaluista," said the man and carefully took the bow knot off a roll of papers. A Finnish calendar, showing woodland scenes, and prints of ballerinas dancing. As he unrolled them, a dozen rolls of chewing gum fell out. "For my niece," he said, not smiling.

The guard sat down beside him. What was that scene, he wanted to know. And that ballerina? What was she doing? Where did he get the prints?

The old man, speaking very slowly, explained. The guard was not rude, only persistent, with a thoughtless confidence that the law gave him the right to wake up an old man and ask him questions about ballet pictures. The old man, who knew the law, never protested.

Abruptly, the young guard stood up and left. The inspection was over. The old man closed his suitcase, then picked up the calendar and pictures.

Slowly, very slowly, he rolled them up and retied the bow knot. Then he took a single rose that had been given him in Helsinki, removed it from the nightstand and pushed it inside the string. All but one petal fell off.

Then, one by one, the old man sat for a moment thinking, possibly about the importance of not jeopardizing a trip abroad by snapping at a young guard or by asserting an old man's right to sleep.

Then he turned off the light and lay down. It was 5 a.m. already and Leningrad lay barely three hours ahead, but it was still very dark.

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