An American in Vilnius

On the Soviet Basketball Court

It was an age of suspicion. It was a time within the Soviet Union that all foreigners, especially an English-speaking foreigner and more so an “American” came under immediate suspicion by the NKVD. Americans and those who knew or had relatives in the West had to be shunned, after all, the USSR was surrounded by its enemies.

Stalin and his sycophants had spoken, and their words were sacred to the Soviet masses.

Enter this young, naïve, 19-year-old American-born, educated in Detroit, into the Soviet world to learn about the Soviet culture. Ah, the lessons he would learn. Old textbooks would not help; Soviets played by different rules, rules they made up as the game of life was played out daily. This was a world of dialectic materialism, of “he who works, eats”; of socialism where everyone is paid according to his ability, not yet of communism when everyone will be compensated according to his needs (and who would determine my needs, dear comrade?)

It would take time for me to digest this and the black, sawdust-stuffed, water-drowned bread to digest.

Despite the intense and increasingly aggressive anti-American propaganda and its omnipresent billboards, depicting Americans as rattle snakes or rats, parasites crawling and gnawing at the carcasses of the working class, the word “American” continued to carry some respect among those who somehow knew the truth. No amount of Soviet propaganda apparently could erase from the minds of the Russian people the fact that had it not been for the United States and its Lend Lease program, the geography of Europe may have been different.

In the summer of 1950 as a member of the Institute of Physical Culture’s basketball team, I took my first trip into the heartland of the USSR. I traveled by train from Erevan to Vilnius, a journey of more than a thousand miles. Vilnius is the capital of what was then the Soviet Republic of Lithuania and remains the capital today of a free and independent Lithuania.

When we arrived in Vilnius, the Soviet capital, our team was driven from the train depot by bus to what appeared to me to be once the stables for Nicholas II’s cavalry unit. My teammates accepted the accommodations without comment. Even if I had known the language, I would not have complained. One just didn’t complain in Stalin’s Russia.

I placed my duffel bag on a cot and sat down and waited for further instructions from our coaching staff. As I sat there wondering where the other teams would be housed. My thoughts were interrupted by my coach who ordered the team to gather our belongings for we were going to be moved to another site. I was told that maybe our coach, a decorated World War II hero, had complained and the Lithuanians decided to upgrade us to the university’s facilities.

A few minutes later, a bus pulled up and we boarded it. The driver drove to a newly-opened hotel, located in the central business district in Vilnius, and our players got off the bus, entered a beautifully decorated hotel and were assigned two to a room with all the modern conveniences including running water and a toilet. The food was edible.

I was stunned at the reception our team would receive during the next 10 days. Later, I asked one of the players what caused the Lithuanians to change their attitude toward our team.

The player responded, “You did.”

“Me?” I was speechless. I had done nothing and, in fact, had stayed out of sight most of the time. My teammate explained…one of our team members let it be known to the hosts that “There was an American on the team.”

And that one word “American” apparently commanded the respect of the Lithuanians. It was obvious to me that no matter what the Soviet propaganda machine churned out here, there were those who remained profoundly grateful and respected the people of the United States for what they have done for them over the years.

***

bookTom 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!

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