Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Getting Edumacated

I had to suffer through most of the school year, anxiously awaiting departure. The date was set for late June / early July. Ten months of school seemed like an insurmountable barrier. And for a hyper 16 year-old, that was eleven months too long.
In late fall of 1988, those who had signed on were asked to attend an informational forum. I assumed it was to tell us the schedule of events, who to contact for things like passports and visas, and anything else that revolved around the trip. You can imagine the gasp of disbelief from the students when we learned that we had to attend classes.
More school. How utterly depressing.
But that’s how the Board of Education (remember, the morons?) wanted us to learn. We had to attend 90 hours of classes prior to departure. Assumedly, we would learn the background and theoretical information of our destination, which would then be backed up by actual experience. At the time, I thought the entire idea was hideously sadistic. (In retrospect, some eight years later, I see this as nothing but unadulterated genius.) My philosophy behind the affair was simple: we’d learn a lot on the trip, so why not do the 90 hours during the two weeks we were actually in the Soviet Union?
But Boards of Education rarely listen to the student body — something about lack of intelligence (though on whose part is up for debate). So the griping went on for only a short while before we accepted our fate, and waited longingly for the trip to start. Although with the classes in the way, our enthusiasm was diminished slightly.
When the final count was taken, there were 33 students, and 13 adults-cum-chaperones. (The adults didn’t have to attend the classes. Mrs. Pollitt did, only because she was taking the courses along with her son, Derek.) We came from various walks of life, and from all over Halton county (which at the time was a region of six or seven cities/towns/villages, with a combined population of around a half million people.)
Because we were so scattered, the classes were regularly moved between three schools, which were deemed “fair” for those traveling about. They were, in no particular order: White Oaks Secondary, an Oakville high school (though not mine) about 10 minutes from my home; Nelson High School, which was roughly in the middle of Burlington (a half hour drive) and accommodated the very large Burlington compliment of our troop; and E. C. Drury High School, situated in Milton (a little over a half hour drive), which accommodated everyone north of Oakville and Burlington. A fourth school in Acton (over 45 minutes from where I lived) was used in the last three days before the trip to cram as many hours into us as possible given what little time remained.
My mother, Ms. Organization, took it upon herself (amidst my objections, mostly due to shyness) to organize a carpool with everyone from my school — all four of us. It turned out to be a truly advantageous system. First of all, Kelly Hogan, Laila Singh, Pete Skrivanic, and I got to know each other much better (a large bonus in the first couple of classes, until we got to know others in the group). We particularly looked forward to the nights when Kelly drove (she was the only one with a driver’s license), as it allowed us to goof off in the car without fear of repercussions from our parents.
Our first class began on April 5th, 1989. There was one teeny-tiny little problem with our classes: we had to cover all the material that would normally be covered in five months, in fifteen two and a half hour classes. This is not humanly possible. And it gets repetitive. Very repetitive. Annoyingly repetitive. So repetitive, many us got bored after the first half hour. (Which, when you think about it, really doesn’t say much. I know of very few students who paid total attention in any class, regardless of what the subject was, or how long the class lasted.)
On the bright side, we only had two topics to cover: Russian History and Urban Geography. At least this made classes a little easier, as we all still had day school to contend with (which usually mean four to five more classes worth of work). Geography and history, at least for me, were easy topics. For some reason, I liked then both, and could easily pull high scores in tests (Skippy’s Canadian History classes excepted, but only because I slept through half the semester).
To guide us along that long and dark path of knowledge, we had four teachers (and three supervisors who kept an eye on us). Mr. Black was the Master of Ceremonies, and wasn’t directly involved with the course material ( without him, there would have been no trip at all). Performing the dirty work were our history and geography teachers, John Phillips and William O’Reilly (I often think that if there had been a hierarchy in all this, Mr. O’Reilly would be a staunch second or third). The last teacher was Mr. Hanson. He was more a gopher (e.g. “Go fer”) than a teacher, as the only thing he taught was Driver’s Ed, which few of us needed at the time.
Then there was our set of in-class supervisors. First off, we had an elderly couple, the Findlays. (Glen Findlay was my other choice for second or third in the hierarchy.) Mr. Findlay was a bit of a spoilsport, but he knew when to take control of things. We had no idea whether or not they had been teachers before or if they were just good friends of Mr. Black’s, but they were there anyway. They didn’t do much academically, but they were instrumental in getting our visas processed.
The other supervisor was a little off the wall. Greg Lane was a graduating student of Mr. Black’s, and was anything but supervisory. He would take cues from the other supervisors and teachers until such time as Greg was the only one. Then it became an all-out party. To this day, I still wonder what possessed Mr. Black to make Greg a person of supposed authority.
It was in the first few classes that we really needed the Findlays. We had to organize all our visas and passports, not to mention the pictures for them, in the first month. If you thought the Canadian Government (or whichever government you’re subjected to locally) was slow, guess again. The Canadian Government has to deal with some 25 million people, all at the same time. The Soviet Embassy only has to deal with probably a few hundred (give or take a few hundred), and we still didn’t get our visas until two days before we left.
We spent most of our class time absorbing information about the history of the Soviet Union, and the geographical theories that accompanied the studies of the areas we would be going to. The history was interesting, but the geography was snoresville! (Mr. O’Reilly was not exactly what I would call a riveting lecturer.) The history was very in-depth, most likely due to the short period of time we were studying. Prior to the classes (dating back into my childhood), I had gained a passion for documentaries, which probably fed my interest in history. But now I had a really large infatuation for documentaries on pre-World War Two Soviet Union. Some may find them dull, but I, for some reason, didn’t.
Our history lessons began around 1800’s Russia and progressed from there. We probably should have started a little earlier (about 800 AD probably would have been sufficient) but then we wouldn’t have been able to finish in time for the trip given the depth of detail we received. We started in the Czarist regime, just before Nicholas II popped his little head into the picture. (I had heard a little about Nicholas II, and I thought he was simply a moron. But it turned out he was a monarch who made a couple of bad mistakes, ones that cost him and his entire family their lives. And contrary to common belief, Anastasia wasn’t spared, she died with the rest of Romanov family.)
We also had a few lessons in speaking Russian. Pete Skrivanic’s family had emigrated from a Russian-speaking country, so he knew a bit of the language. Mr. Black coaxed him into giving the class a few key phrases and words that might get us through the country in one piece. (We even got the venerable “Where is the bathroom?”)
Our classes were aimed towards going on the trip. This was most evident when Mr. Black had a professional photographer come into tell us how to take good looking pictures. This woman was so pretentious, she had an entire forest firmly rooted in her rectum. She spent half her time telling us our pictures were crap (even before we took said pictures), and extolling her perfection. (Which, in my humble opinion, were at best average. Good looking, but average.)
The hardest time for the classes came in June, which for many people meant final exams. It was particularly bad for the four from my school — almost all the schools outside of Oakville started their exams earlier. And not all of them were at the same time. As one could expect, this caused a fair bit of trouble — we all ended up missing at least one class each. The worst part of the deal was that we were expected to make up for time lost. It seemed mildly unfair. We couldn’t control when the exams were scheduled. Why should we be punished for that? In the end it turned out that we weren’t the only four — a few others from other schools also fell victim.
The last three classes were held on June 27-29, at Acton High School. They were full-day classes, designed to cram that last few hundred facts and details into us before we left. It was an uncomfortable three days, if for only the fact that the room we used was air-conditioned. Painfully air-conditioned. During that time we reviewed the material we had studied, and watched a Soviet movie — Dr. Zhivago. Beautiful movie, but I saw little use in our courses. (For those of you unawares, Dr. Zhivago is a Hollywood production.)
Those last classes were also used to finalize the last of the details. Up until that point, we weren’t entirely sure what was going on. You see, when you went to the Soviet Union, you had to deal with Intourist, the Soviet Union’s tourism bureau. Unlike other countries where they simply give you information and you go where you please, Intourist tells you were you may go and arranges everything for you. They even changed our plans for outside of the Soviet Union. Originally, we were scheduled to pass through Berlin on our way east. But Intourist said “nyet”. Helsinki was put in as a replacement.
Once the classes were over, the next step was to pack, and prepare for the journey of a lifetime…
Well, almost.
There was one thing, that at least for me, was hindering some excitement. On June 9th, 1989, the Chinese Government cracked down on democracy supporters and students in Tianamen Square. So what did mean for me? After all, it was China, not the Soviet Union. Well, as history seems to indicate, Communism, like birds of a feather, tend to stick together with one another. Hence, I began to get a little worried. What if the crackdown soured some sentiments back in Moscow, which would in turn lead to problems for us? Whether anyone else had these same thoughts, I have no clue. (I never discussed any of my apprehensions with anyone else.)
Did we encounter any problems? Well, read the story, and you’ll know the whole truth.

Behind the Iron Curtain: My Trip to the Soviet Union, Introduction

High school, at least as it’s made out in the movies, is supposed to be the best (and worst, depending on where you fit into the social cliques) time of your life. (According to some of my university professors, post-secondary education is supposed to be the best time of your life, but I found it about the same as high school.) For me, it was just something else to go though.
My high school career, non-academically speaking, was pretty dull. I had a few friends, most of whom where classified as either “geeks”, “nerds”, or “weirdos” (I personally fell into the latter), but no friends by whom I could refer to as a “significant other”. To put it mildly, a rotting corpse saw more action than I did. But that’s a whole other story, and not what I’m trying to get at here.
Where was I? Right, high school.
It was dull. Following Grade 9, I figured out how the education system in high school worked, and how to get through it in one piece. Pattern is not a kind mistress however, and I soon found myself, well, unfulfilled. I don’t know how else to explain it, other than there was nothing there to truly interest me. Maybe it was the courses I was taking. Maybe it was the teachers. Maybe it was because our school was so old you could kick holes in the walls.
Everything was reasonably dull — until one fateful day in Grade 10.
My Canadian History course with Mr. Lloyd was one of my daily tortures. Don’t get me wrong – there was never a nicer man. But history is a dull enough subject without the Human Sleeping Pill as the teacher. Mr. Lloyd (whom his students called “Skippy”, alluding to an incident where an old student of his covered his treasured blue bicycle with peanut butter) was from England. (That in itself should be indicative, but I’ll continue nonetheless.) He had a heavy Welsh accent, and a very soft, airy voice. Even if you were strung out on caffeine and cocaine, he could put you to sleep in under five minutes. (I still wonder how in the world I ever passed one of his courses.
This particular day though, he was interrupted by a largish man by the name of Keith Black. Mr. Black hailed from Acton High School, about 45 minutes north of Oakville, which was where I lived. He was there to introduce us to the joys of learning abroad.
He ran a project in Halton County (my educational district) where students could earn up to two credits by traveling to another country (or set of countries). I was so rapt with attention, even Mr. Lloyd would have a tough time putting me to sleep. It was essentially summer school, which many of my fellow students balked at. But it was a summer (or part thereof) in the Orient.
The Orient! I’d never been there! I’d always wanted to go. At least ever since Mr. Black had mentioned it. Immediately any apprehensions I’d had of the six foot tall, two hundred and fifty pound teacher who looks right of the movies (the kind that’ll nail you with a detention if you so much as sneeze in class?) disappeared. He passed a sheet around, on which a few of us signed our names as wanting some more information. It was a signature that would eventually change my life. (Whether for better or for worse has still to be decided.
When he left the class, we returned to our history lesson. Whatever that lesson was, it sucked my mind out of my head, wrung it dry, and placed it back in without my ever knowing it had ever left. As much as I hate to admit it, I forgot all about Keith Black’s visit within a couple of weeks. Suffice to say, when on a dark night in July the phone rang with purpose, I was completely dumbfounded when a stranger called for me about a trip to the Orient.
It took some time for the rusty gears in my mind to start turning. This was due to several things: first, the presentation had been some ten months earlier, so I was less likely to remember; I was working for my father’s company as a general labourer (I essentially spent two months cleaning up the messes the workers left behind, a mind numbing task at best); and it was summer, when all students’ brains automatically begin to atrophy. I had to sift through ten months of trivial garbage before remembering the fateful encounter.
According to Mr. Black, everything was “go” for the trip to the Orient. My parents must’ve been somewhat concerned, as my body was vibrating with excitement. Then the other shoe dropped. The Directors at the Board of Education (euphemistically referred to as “morons”) failed to see any educational value in such a trip (unlike similar trips which had been ongoing for years), and had canceled the academic credits. The trip was still going, but without the possibility of gaining some ground in school, I knew the chances of convincing my parents to let me go were significantly lower (about the same odds as Canada taking over the United States in a military confrontation).
My body shifted from vibrating to implosion. I was not a happy camper. About to hang up on Mr. Black, he quickly interjected with an alternative: the Soviet Union. Behind the Iron Curtain. In Communist Territory. Needless to say, I started vibrating again. Unlike the Orient tour, this escapade did have academic backing (again I restate: morons). I spent the next 15 minutes writing furiously as Mr. Black gave me the low-down on the trip.
With the credits approved, it seemed more likely that I could get approval from my parents to go. Actually, approval wasn’t the only thing I needed. There was also the issue of $1,500 to cover the costs. (Remember, I was about to enter Grade 11. My $6.50/hr job didn’t afford me that kind of a luxury.) By the end, I was as excited as my little sister (who was excited only because she wanted to use the phone – but then, don’t little sisters always want to use the phone?). And so I started my master plan: Operation Beg.
For four months I begged, pleaded, dropped hints (both blatant and subliminal), attempted to save money, considered robbing a bank, anything that would get me the necessary funds to get me on that trip. In the end, I won, but only through the gracious generousity of my grandmother. I’m nearly certain that I caught the travel bug from her, and I can only assume that she recognized it in me. There’s something to be said about supporting what some might call a bad habit.
I was to be the first person from my family in God-only-knows how many generations to visit the Soviet Union (or Russia, for that matter). My parents were sold on a few things. Price for one, the trip was surprisingly inexpensive (when compared to other such trips). I would also get the two credits I needed for school. And last, but most certainly not least, my parents would be getting rid of me for two weeks.
There were obviously good parts in all this for me. For starters, I would be leaving North America for the first time in my life, and entering a country that hasn’t been completely commercialized. (Given, the Soviet Union “sanitized” their society from tourists – separate hotels, tourist-only gift shops, and so forth.) Maybe the best part was that it was behind the Iron Curtain. I would get to see first-hand the Communist society, and see how all of Gorbachev’s policies were really working.
The rest, as you can probably guess, is history.