During one of my many visits to Moscow I had met and befriended a Michigan State University language professor who, after listening to my story, asked whether he could be of any assistance to me. I asked if possible, would he contact my parents and tell them that I am in good health and in good spirits.
The professor, probably in his forties, who taught Russian (Slavic Languages) said that he would gladly carry the news back home. “Anything else?”
I thought for a moment, “No. Not really.”
He said he would be attending a program at the American House the following evening and asked if I would be his guest. I was flabbergasted by his invitation, and initially refused the generous offer. I had heard about the exclusive building from my Soviet friends and knew that it was a building that the KGB had in its sights twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. To get into the building, one had to produce an American passport. I again thanked the professor and reminded him that, though born in the United States, I did not have an American passport and was considered by the Soviets to be a Soviet, not an American, citizen.
“You would be my guest,” the professor repeated. “I don’t think the Soviets would want to create a scene on what is considered American property.”
That remark piqued my curiosity. If I was on US property could the Soviets demand that the Americans hand me over to them? I had had my run-ins with Stalin’s NKVD and Khrushchev’s KGB and was still standing on my two feet. I told the professor I was ready to risk it, if he was.
Although the professor spoke Russian fluently, I felt certain that he was not an informer. I trusted him implicitly because of his knowledge of Michigan. The Soviets knew that Detroit made cars but they didn’t know what state Detroit was in.
I accepted the professor’s invitation. He told me it would be best if I wore a suit, white shirt, and tie. It would draw less attention to me by the KGB who patrolled the area leading to American House.
I smiled and said I understood.
We breezed past the Soviet guards and reached the door where several people were waiting to get inside. We went in and I was greeted by a mysterious harmony of music and laughter – people actually laughing. My God how I had missed it. How I had forgotten the special joy that laughter brings to the heart. To the soul. People do laugh. People do smile. People do greet one another.
Into a dimly lit room I rushed like a child in Toyland. The door closed. I prayed that I would never have to go back into the street. I knew I had left the valley of the death. In one corner I spotted something that I had not seen in ages – and I rushed over and hugged it. It was a jukebox. I stood there listening. The songs and the singers were new – but it was American. Before me a buffet laden with the fruits and food of my past opened up. I rushed to the table and immediately learned that all was free. Eat all you want. And I did. I couldn’t stop. Somewhere between the jukebox and the food I lost the professor.
It was a crucial mistake to lose contact with my host. Seconds later, when I walked up to the bar and the bartender asked, “What will you have, sir?” the knell sounded for me. I had heard of, but never had Scotch and Soda, so I ordered it. The bartender asked, “Do you want that on the rocks?”
I paused for a second, not knowing what to say. “On the rocks?”…what did it mean? I did not want any rocks in my drink, I told him. He returned my puzzled look with a look of suspicion. I caught him looking over my shoulders into the dark corner of the room. Quickly I was surrounded by two muscular men. One asked if I was an American citizen.
I answered that I was born in Detroit.
“That’s not what I asked,” the man said with a tone that definitely meant business. He demanded to see my passport.
“I don’t have one on me.”
“Show me your driver’s license or any ID.”
The only identification I had was my Soviet internal passport and I surely wouldn’t show them that.
Both men looked at me and the one who was asking all the questions invited me to leave the premises. If fact, the other grabbed me by my arm and led me to the door.
I was fortunate; he didn’t toss me from the building.
I had not realized it at the time, but the prolonged absence from my native land created a cultural abyss that I would have to bridge before I would be accepted back into the culture I once knew so well.
Tom Mooradian was one of 151 Americans who traveled to Soviet Armenia to repatriate during the 1940’s. Thought to be a spy by the KGB, Tom miraculously survived 13 years behind the Iron Curtain winning the hearts of the Soviets through his basketball prowess. Filled with political drama, romance, and intrigue, Tom’s autobiography, The Repatriate reads like a novel, and will have you guessing how Tom managed to return to America alive.
The Second Edition is now available on Kindle and in Paperback!