As a stunned American U-2 spy pilot Francis Gary Powers was heading for the frozen tundra of the Siberian nether world, I was on a Soviet jet soaring high above the clouds over Moscow, flying to Copenhagen and to my freedom. Below me were blocks upon blocks of drab, depressing, monotonous Soviet-build apartment complexes that I had known so well.
After 13 years behind the Iron Curtain, someone in the elite Soviet oligarchy decided to set his – or her – signature on a piece of paper that would eventually set me free. I was returning to my birthplace, Detroit, after living in the Soviet Republic of Armenia for more than a decade.
I had had all of my earthly possessions with me before I arrived at the airport: $100 dollars and a one suitcase filled with clothing. That was what the Soviets allowed its citizens (former citizens) to take out of the country during the Khrushchev Era. But the $100 mysteriously disappeared from my wallet during a drinking party with some Iraq pilots training in the USSR.
It all seems like a dream now, but it wasn’t then; it was a nightmare. The question that continues to haunt me and had remained unanswered over the years: Why, during the height of the Cold War (The Cuban Crisis was still to come) did the Soviets allow me to leave the country? Rest assured that I am grateful everyday.
But as the plane touched down in the capital of Denmark, I could only say “Thank God I made it!”
Once safely inside the US Embassy in Copenhagen, I knew the 13 years of Soviet repression was behind me. I would be home soon. That was all I cared about.
The US Consulate official informed me that I would depart from Denmark that evening, for New York and then for Detroit. He asked if there was anything I needed or wanted and all I could think of at the time was that I wanted to go home. Since there was plenty of time before my departure, would I like to see the city? I hesitated to answer but found myself saying that it would give me a glimpse of what Europe looked like. The official offered to accompany me, but I said I would prefer to go alone. He nodded as if he understood.
I strolled onto the street and immediately everyone and everything looked strange. The people were better dressed, smiling and all seemed to be moving on bikes. There were only a few cars. Then, something very unusual caught my eyes. I came upon a bakery…there in the display window was bread. All kinds of bread. Cakes. All kinds of cakes. And pies and… there were no lines. No people pushing and shoving to get into the store to buy bread. And I moved closer to the window and pressed my nose to it. My God, the entire store is filled, there are no empty shelves. Only my pocket is empty. Not one ruble. Not one penny. Not one franc. My heart was pounding like a drum. I swear I could have eaten everything in that bakery.
I continued my stroll.
Men, women, old and young on bikes, whizzed past me as I strolled on the sidewalks of this fairy-tale city. I arrived at a park. Tired from my ordeal, I sat down on a bench to ponder my fate.
My eyes suddenly caught a glimpse of a bright object in the calm waters before me. There, bathing in the silence of a July afternoon was the copper statue of the Little Mermaid. She greets visitors with a subtle smile and listens to their secrets, never revealing or uttering a word. It is this glorious icon made immortal by Hans Christian Andersen that I would share the most unforgettable, most wonderful day in my life. I would share my most inner thoughts, my greatest joy…if only you could understand…that truly was the happiest days of my life.
Destiny had brought me there, before that sweet, gentle statue. If it was a dream, I begged that no one would shake me back into the world where I had been. I had aged much. Lost my youth. I felt like “Alice in Wonderland.” If I had awakened back in Erevan, I knew it would truly be the end.
I felt so alive there.
Before the sun would rise again, I was home. In America. And the nightmare that was the Soviet Union was no longer mine…yet there are times when the memories haunt me.
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.
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