Are you Douglas Zipes, the heart specialist from Indiana?” the deep voice over the phone asked, setting in motion the most terrifying yet rewarding series of events in my life.
I sat down on the bed in my tiny room in the Rossiya Hotel in Moscow. I had just checked in after a long flight from the States. Who could know I was here already? Were all the stories I had heard about being spied on in the USSR true?
It was Sunday morning, June 20, 1982, and I had arrived for the World Congress of Cardiology hosted by my friend Evgeny Chazov. I had met Chazov, head of Moscow’s All-Union Scientific Center of Cardiology and personal physician to heads of state, including Brezhnev and Yeltsin, five years earlier. In addition to being a leading clinician, he was the first to show that a clot-buster drug could interrupt a patient’s heart attack.
The Rossiya Hotel was huge, the largest in the world at that time, with more than 3,000 rooms. It sat adjacent to Red Square, a stone’s throw from the Kremlin, and even housed a secret police station with unmarked jail cells.
Little old ladies sat on each hotel floor 24 hours a day. They had a clear view of who walked into and out of each hotel room. When a guest left his room, he handed the LOL his hotel key, which she returned when he came back. She logged each entry and exit on a sheet of paper locked in a desk drawer.
“Are you Douglas Zipes?” the caller asked again.
“Who wants to know?” I responded.
“My name does not matter,” he replied. “Just that I am a refusenik. You know what that is?”
“Yes, a Jew who has tried to get an exit visa to leave the USSR and has been refused.”
“More than that — much more,” he said and went on to explain how they lost their jobs and could not do research or publish papers. “If we don’t get some sort of job,” he said, “the government labels us parasites or hooligans, and then they can do almost anything they want to us, like make us leave Moscow or put us in prison. So, we work in any position, cleaning toilets, sweeping streets, whatever.”
“I’m sorry for that. But why are you calling me?”
“How brave are you?”
I gulped. I didn’t like the way this conversation was going. This was the Soviet Union, and the phone line was likely tapped. The caller seemed to realize that also.
“I am calling from a pay station outside your hotel. I cannot enter the Rossiya — it is strictly forbidden for Russians without special permission papers. If you come down to the sidewalk now, we can talk more. I will approach you holding a folded magazine under my right arm so you will know it is me. Moscow’s Jewish scientists are depending on you. Please come.”
I knew there was a chance the caller would be caught, but he had to have known that and was still taking the risk. If he was willing to accept that, so was I.
The sidewalk around the Rossiya was busy with pedestrian traffic. Beryozka stores reserved for tourists had tables piled high with Russian fur hats, stacks of painted nesting dolls, and silver spoons bearing a Moscow city emblem. Lacquered boxes, pendants, and trays portrayed brightly colored figures on a black background, illustrating Russian fairy tales.
Street food kiosks sold stuffed potatoes and blinchiki, a toasted Russian crepe, and filled the air with delicious scents. The longest lines queued in front of the ice cream booths hawking rich, creamy scoops of vanilla or chocolate. They were flanked by stalls that peddled kvass, a fermented low-alcohol drink made from rye bread, out of large wooden barrels sitting on the sidewalk. The proprietor poured the sweet red liquid into a squat glass secured by a short chain to the kiosk. After each use, he rinsed the glass with water from a pitcher, wiped the rim with a rag that once was white, and refilled it with kvass for the next customer.
I stood in front of the kvass booth thinking how that would play with sanitation officials in the United States. A man with a hat low over his eyes bumped into me. He held a magazine under his right arm.
“Excuse me,” he said in Russian-accented English. “You are Dr. Zipes, yes?”
“I am Viktor. Please to walk alongside me so we can talk.”
I stood there, hesitant, studying his face. He was slim, clean-shaven, with brown eyes that seemed intelligent and kind. His lined face and wisps of gray hair beneath the brown cap put him in his mid-50s, although Russians often looked a lot older than their age.
As we walked, Viktor cast a wary look around and threw the magazine into a trashcan. He led the way with a nod. When the strollers thinned out, he said, “Here it is more quiet and we can talk. It is forbidden to talk to foreigners.” We walked along in silence for several minutes. Viktor glanced around a half-dozen times until we were totally alone on the street, away from all the hubbub.
He held out his hand and formally introduced himself. “I know you are a cardiologist, but you don’t know me. I am a mathematician — or was. I was chairman of my department at the university. A refusenik.
“I applied for an exit visa, but the government said I knew state secrets and could not be trusted to leave. So, they took away my job, and now I sweep city streets. They said I must wait 10 years until the secrets are no longer useful. Then I can reapply.”
“That’s awful,” I said.
He shrugged. “It happened to all of us.” He swept a hand around.
“All of whom?” I didn’t know what I was getting into and had to find out before this went any further. I was in Moscow to lecture at the World Congress of Cardiology, not to be involved in some sort of clandestine activity.
“I will explain,” he said. “Two years ago, we started the Sunday seminars.”
He looked at me to see if that registered. He continued when he saw my blank look.
“About 30 of us, all scientists of various kinds, all refuseniks denied access to our jobs and laboratories. Some of us were even members of the Russian Academy of Science. We could read no journals or newspapers. We could not attend scientific meetings of any kind.”
“Like this World Congress?”
“Exactly. So, when a major scientific meeting was going to be held in Moscow, one of us would invite a visiting scientist to give us a private lecture. We usually did this on Sundays. The subject didn’t matter — we’re all so starved for science, anything new would do. We did this in the apartment of my friend —”
He stopped short. His eyes were fixed, staring straight ahead.
A man approached from the opposite direction. He was tall and broad-shouldered, wearing a suit, tie, and hat despite the warm day. The man advanced, then stopped in front of us. He squinted at my friend and then me — long, penetrating stares. I could almost hear a camera clicking on and off in his head. He continued slowly, passing between us. He craned his head around for another look before he turned the corner.
I felt my heart race.
“What was that about?” I asked, a tremor in my voice.
My friend shook his head. “I don’t know, but there are KGB agents all around, and you have to be alert every minute. Like I said, we are not supposed to talk to foreigners. I could be arrested.”
Viktor was silent until we were well out of the man’s hearing.
“So, we held these Sunday seminars and learned all kinds of new things happening all over the world. It was wonderful.”
He paused. “And?” I prompted.
“The apartment was in the outskirts of Moscow, and we thought we were safe. But one evening during the lecture, the KGB burst in. They arrested us and kept us in jail overnight. But the owner of the apartment — a well-known physicist — was sent to Siberia. He has not been seen since. That ended the Sunday seminars.”
“I’m so sorry. That must’ve been difficult for all of you.”
“Yes. We lost a colleague and have had no seminars for two years. We feel so out of touch with the world. We’re starved for what is happening. That is why I wanted to talk with you.”
I could feel the adrenaline flow. He was sucking me in like quicksand, way over my head. I didn’t know this man from Adam, didn’t know if I could trust him, didn’t know if I was being set up.
I drew a deep breath to calm down and took another look at Viktor. He seemed honest and sincere.
He must’ve seen the initial panic on my face and patted my shoulder. “I know about you from your last visit,” he said. “One of our doctors met you in 1977 and said you could be trusted.”
“Trusted? To do what?” I asked, my voice tremulous.
“To be our first scientist to restart our Sunday seminars.”
I heard the words with a mixture of elation at being chosen by these scientists and fright at the risk it entailed.
“Come,” he said, taking my elbow and then linking his arm in mine. He guided me to a café buried among a small nest of trees. A green awning over its entrance blended with the foliage.
Viktor nodded in its direction. “A friend runs this. We can have a nice tea and talk without strangers to listen.”
We entered the tiny shop where the proprietor, a short, stout man with a long gray beard and bald head, stood behind a small counter. He glanced up from polishing glasses, inspecting each in the window’s light.
The proprietor came forward and greeted Viktor in Russian. Viktor replied and nodded at me. The man smiled, shook my hand, and led us to a table tucked in a secluded corner. Half a dozen empty tables filled the rest of the floor space.
In two minutes, steaming cups of very dark tea appeared on the table, along with a loaf of black bread and a large bottle without a label that looked like water. I knew better. Neither of us reached for the vodka at 11 in the morning.
Viktor ripped off a chunk of bread, dipped it in his tea, and began chewing. “Eat,” he said, nodding at the bread. “It is almost lunch time.
“Let me explain,” Viktor said, swallowing another chunk of bread. “I have a friend with an apartment on the outskirts of Moscow, a real quiet neighborhood where it is likely we would be left alone.”
“Likely? What about the story you just told me?”
He nodded with a sheepish smile.
“What’s different this time?” I asked.
He made circles with his tea cup. “Maybe nothing, maybe everything. It is two years later and maybe the KGB does not care anymore. I cannot give you a guarantee, but if the KGB comes, they will probably leave you alone. At most, you would get a gentle interrogation.”
“Just a little talking.”
“What happened to the visiting scientist two years ago when the KGB raided?” I asked.
“He was questioned for a few hours and released.”
“And what could happen to you?”
He blew on his tea and sipped. “There is no prediction. They could arrest us or just give us a warning and close down the apartment.”
“The owner two years ago has never been seen again?”
“Who would come to this Sunday seminar?” I asked.
“All refusenik scientists with no jobs, phones disconnected, mail intercepted, and no scientific meetings. We are hungry for new science of any kind.”
I thought about that. Why would they want a lecture from me? I was a clinical cardiologist who took care of patients. In college, I had had a difficult time getting an acceptable grade in physics, and now I was to lecture world-class Russian mathematicians and physicists? That gave me as much a chill as anticipating a KGB raid.
“I’m a cardiologist.”
“We know. We also know you have published basic research on the heart. That’s what we would like to hear about.”
I sat, took a sip of tea, and pushed the cup away. The tea had grown cold.
My thoughts were on my family, my wife and three children in Indiana. Here I was in Moscow, sitting in a tiny café on a side street near Red Square with a man I’d known for less than an hour asking me to do something my wife — and I guess I as well — would consider crazy.
I also had a responsibility to the World Congress organizers who had invited me to lecture. I could envision the KGB arresting me and the newspapers publishing a picture of me being led off in handcuffs. Delusions or a picture of reality?
The proprietor interrupted my thoughts with a fresh, hot cup of tea.
“Do you have enough courage to do this for us, Dr. Zipes?”
It was as if Viktor had read my mind. How terribly unjust for these scientists to be denied their life’s work simply because they were Jews and wanted to leave the USSR. I could bring them a bit of nourishment, some daylight from the outside world.
I took a moment to answer. “If I do, do you have enough courage to show up?”
He didn’t blink.
“I and 29 others will be there.”
“Where and when?”
“Tomorrow at 2:00.”
“Tomorrow’s Monday,” I said.
He smiled. “For you, we’ll rename them the Monday meetings.”
“The apartment is hard to find, and I would like to introduce you to a friend who will take you there.”
“Who is this?” I asked, suspicion surfacing again.
“You still don’t trust me, do you?”
“I’m sorry, it’s just —”
He interrupted with a wave of his hand. “I understand. The man I will take you to now will show you we are all friends you can trust.”
“Who is he?”
“Naum Meiman. Naum was awarded the Stalin Prize for his work in theoretical and experimental physics. Almost like the Nobel Prize. He lost all when he and his wife, Inna, applied for exit visas. He became a refusenik and a member of the Helsinki Watch Group.”
I shook my head.
“A human rights group in Moscow, formed after the Helsinki Accords in 1975. Naum wrote many documents for them — letters of protest that he published in the West. He smuggled them out somehow.”
My mind was ablaze. What in God’s name was I getting into? This was all moving too fast.
“Come,” Viktor said, gripping my arm. “It is a short ride on the underground to his apartment.”
Viktor put some rubles on the table and pushed his chair back. That brought the proprietor running over. He swept up the money and jammed it into Viktor’s pocket, saying something loud in Russian with a shake of his head and a waggled finger. Viktor shrugged, smiled his thanks, and they shook hands.
The open sincerity and trust reassured me. Even so, how dangerous would it be? I stood and shook hands with the proprietor. He held my hand a long time, then covered it with his other hand. The gesture spoke volumes.
I knew Viktor could not guarantee my safety, but whatever happened, I felt good, deep in my gut, that this was the right decision. I had to make my contribution, however tiny, to help these scientists.
Naum Meiman was several inches shorter than I, with a slight paunch and a big smile. Bushy gray eyebrows held almost more hair than his head, which showed a shiny forehead and a halo of gray. I guessed he was in his early 70s.
He and Viktor began speaking Russian in low tones when a stocky woman with an even larger smile interrupted them. Specks of gray flecked her full head of auburn hair. She looked younger than Naum.
“I’m Inna Meiman,” she said with no trace of a Russian accent. She put a hand on each of my shoulders. “I don’t know you yet, but I’m sure I’m going to like you,” she said, pulling me down to kiss each cheek.
I felt my awkwardness melt in the face of such genuine warmth and hospitality.
“Hi,” I said. “Where did you learn such impeccable English?”
“I’m an English teacher,” she replied. “Or was. I’ve written a textbook on advanced English for Russians. I’ve never been out of Russia, but I’ve listened to a lot of American tapes.
“Please sit down,” Inna said, motioning me to a sofa.
Naum sat beside me. Viktor pulled up a chair in front of us while Inna went off to the kitchen, returning with a tray of tea and cookies. Naum handed me a cup of tea and turned up the volume on the radio. I could barely hear him. But no one else could either.
“You have agreed to help us?” he asked.
“I have, but I must tell you, Naum, I have concerns for my safety and yours,” I said.
“As you should,” Naum replied. “But we cannot just sit and let the government prevent us from learning new science. Besides, if the KGB does come, they will be more interested in me than you. They watch me pretty closely these days, and I’m sure they have planted a bug in my apartment, so they may know already what we are planning.”
“Really?” I asked, my heart doing a flip-flop.
“What is your lecture for the World Congress?”
“Our latest studies on the calcium current.”
“That will be perfect,” Naum said. “I will meet you in front of your hotel tomorrow at 12:30.”
Inna came over, sat down beside me, and patted my hand. “It will be fine,” she said. “The authorities won’t want a big blow-up during the World Congress. You’re too important for something like that to happen.”
I raised one eyebrow, a bit skeptical about my own importance. “Will you be there?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I’m an English teacher and wouldn’t have any idea what you were talking about. But I will meet you after your lecture and will have a surprise waiting.”
“Inna, not now,” Naum said, a warning tone in his voice.
“Just a little bit of encouragement,” Inna said, smiling.
Frankly, I thought, if I came out of this okay, that would be surprise enough for me.
That evening, sleep wouldn’t come, despite a sleeping pill. I lay staring at the ceiling, asking myself if what I was doing was sane — not just for me, but for my family. Was I doing it for my ego, playing to the elusive Walter Mitty in me? I was sure that if the KGB did come and I was arrested — no matter how trivial the charges — there would be hell to pay at home, with my university, and with the exchange program, perhaps even with my cardiology practice.
But how could I turn my back on such courageous people who risked so much for a bit of scientific knowledge from the outside world? The question hung unanswered as I fell asleep at about 2:00 in the morning.
I spent the morning attending lectures at the World Congress, but it was hard to concentrate. I couldn’t stop thinking about the refuseniks not being allowed into these halls.
I met Naum at 12:30 outside the Rossiya, as planned. The metro took about 45 minutes, and we exited on the fringe of a small town and walked down a hill to an apartment building, where we started up the stairs. Naum paused at each landing to catch his breath. “Angina,” he said between huffs. He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his forehead. “I ran out of nitroglycerin. It is hard to get.”
On the third floor, he led the way and knocked three sharp raps. The peephole in the door flashed and the door swung wide and we walked into a crowd of people crammed into a tiny living room. Conversation halted as all eyes swung toward us. Then they applauded, I think for themselves as much as for me. Emotional tension showed on each face. I was sure they were remembering what had happened two years earlier.
As I scanned the room, the full significance of what I was doing hit me. This is the elite of the Jewish Russian scientific intelligentsia in Moscow. How incredibly brave they are, and how driven to take this chance for the sake of science. And I am playing a part of that history.
My heart beat like a trip hammer banging my ribs. I tried to slow my breathing, but I was so keyed up, I was almost panting.
Naum walked to the center of the room, his hand gripping my arm to pull me along. He introduced me to the group and said, “Let’s hold off individual introductions until the end of the lecture since we don’t know how much time we will have.” He looked meaningfully at me. “If all goes well, there’ll be plenty of opportunity later to meet Dr. Zipes and to chat.
“Remember, if we get interrupted, be courteous but courageous. We are doing nothing wrong, just meeting to talk about science. And finally, no political discussions. There could be ears all over.”
A small white screen was already set up at one end of the room, alongside a blackboard. At the other end, a slide projector sat on a small table. I loaded my slides, walked to the front of the room, said hello to the group, and began my lecture about cardiac electrophysiology. I started by explaining some fundamental physiology terms that I would ordinarily present to clinicians. Then I laughed, realizing who was in the audience. These scientists could explain those terms to me.
After about 10 minutes, a loud knock on the door interrupted my lecture. I froze in midsentence, and all heads swiveled toward the door. I think we all held our breaths.
Naum stood, patted the air with his hands to reassure everybody, and then put a finger to his lips. He went to the door and looked out the peephole. Then he laughed with a sigh of relief.
“It’s Igor,” he said, opening the door. “Why are you never on time?” he asked the new arrival, slapping him on the back.
The man shrugged with an embarrassed look and walked in. Two people made a space for him on the floor and I resumed my lecture.
Once I got immersed in the topic, the vastness of what I was doing diminished. I went on for almost an hour, came to the end of my first set of slides, and stopped. “Naum, I think this would be a good time for a break.”
“Good idea,” Naum said. Everyone stood. Some stretched, and others made their way to the bathroom in the hall.
A middle-aged woman emerged from the kitchen — I assumed it was the apartment owner’s wife — with a tray of glasses and cups and a cold pitcher of kvass. Beads of moisture had collected on its surface, coalescing into rivulets running down the side. It made me realize how hot the apartment was. More than 30 of us were jammed into a tiny space. Heavy blue drapes covered the one window.
The woman left everything on the coffee table and returned a moment later with a pot of hot tea and a tray of cookies. People helped themselves to the refreshments, but voices were subdued. We knew we weren’t out of the woods yet.
After about 10 minutes, Naum asked me, “Ready to go again?” I nodded. “How much longer?” he asked.
“Maybe 15 or 20 minutes,” I said. “I want to leave time for questions.”
Naum clapped his hands to get everyone’s attention. “Let’s reconvene,” he said. “Dr. Zipes has about 20 minutes left of his formal presentation. Then we can open it up for questions.”
When I finished, the questions came. They were sharp and demonstrated the grasp these scientists had of the subject matter — even though it was only peripherally related to their own fields. After the last question, they applauded again. Naum shushed them, nodding at the door, and the handclapping changed to pantomime. Then, one by one, they drifted toward me, introduced themselves, and began to talk — interestingly, no longer about science but about relatives they had in the States. Some asked me to deliver messages. By the time I left, my pocket bulged with messages I’d promised to deliver.
Naum advised everyone to leave in staggered groups of no more than two or three. We were the last to go.
Walking down the stairs was a lot easier than ascending, but we now faced hiking up the steep hill to the metro.
As if on cue, a taxi pulled up and the driver shouted something in Russian. Naum put a restraining hand on my arm as we walked toward the cab and mouthed, “KGB. Keep quiet.”
We were silent in the back of the cab. I was exhausted. I didn’t realize how much those two hours had taken out of me. But I felt good inside.
After about 30 minutes, Naum nudged me from my reverie and we exited the cab.
“What was that all about?” I asked.
“KGB tracking me,” Naum said. “They must have known about the seminar but for some reason did nothing. We were lucky. They wanted to find out where I was going next. We’ll walk a bit before we meet our friend. Not that it will do much good. They’re bound to find out.”
“What friend?” I asked. “Where are we going?”
“You’re about to meet one of the bravest women I know.”
Ida Nudel was a short, slender woman with chestnut hair, gray streaks, and intelligent eyes set off by round eyeglass frames. Inna Meiman was with her in the apartment Naum took me to.
“Thank you for what you just did for our friends,” Inna said. “That was very daring of you.”
My little deed was paltry compared to what Ida had accomplished. She had been released several months earlier after serving four years in Siberia for hanging a banner from her Moscow apartment window in 1978 that said, “KGB, give me my visa to Israel.” The government charges against her were “malicious hooliganism.” She had been a known activist since she was refused an exit visa in 1972, campaigning constantly for the other “prisoners of Zion.” They called her “Mama” and “the Angel of Mercy.”
Inna enveloped me in her arms. “I told you I had a surprise,” she said. Inna put her arm across Ida’s shoulder. “This lady is the personification of courage.”
Inna took me by the hand. “Come have some tea. I have sandwiches also. I expect you’re hungry after your lecture.”
Though I had missed lunch, that was the first time I had thought about food.
While we ate, Ida talked about her four years in Siberia. She’d lived alone in a frigid log hut and worked as a night guard at a truck yard. All village residents were warned not to associate with her. “It was hard,” she said. “Very cold and very lonely.” She shuddered at the memory and her eyes moistened.
“And now, I live a nomad’s life, wandering from friend to friend. The KGB will not let me return to my own flat or associate with other refuseniks or foreigners. If they knew I was here talking to you, I could be arrested again and sent back to Siberia. All I want is to join my sister, Elena, in Israel. She got an exit visa in 1972, but the authorities wouldn’t let me go. They said I knew state secrets while working for the Moscow Institute of Planning and Production.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
Naum took a letter from his coat pocket. He unfolded it and smoothed it out on the table. “You can help me get this letter published in an American journal,” he said. “It describes what we are living through, not just the scientists, but all of the refuseniks.”
“No problem,” I said, retrieving a camera from my briefcase. “I’ll take a picture of it to bring back to the States.”
Naum’s face paled. He looked about frantically, spied a radio on a table, flipped it on, and cranked up the volume.
He leaned close to my ear. “The KGB has certain limits,” he said. “Obviously, they must know we are all here, including our friend Ida.” He glanced at Ida, who smiled. “But I think they will leave her alone because of the international interest in what happened to her and that she just came back from Siberia. But they draw the line on some things.” He pointed to the ceiling. “My mistake.”
Directly overhead I saw a tiny metallic protuberance in the ceiling. “A microphone,” he mouthed. Then he said in a loud voice, “No, we don’t want you to take any pictures or to be involved in any way. I will handle this.”
I nodded and started to put my camera away.
He reached over and stopped my hand. “Take the picture,” he mouthed. “And get it published.”
It was almost 7 when I arrived back in Red Square. It had been an incredibly exhausting afternoon, and it felt good to stroll aimlessly past St. Basil’s Cathedral, stare at its flamboyant splendor, and then walk in front of Lenin’s mausoleum. The inevitable line of 40 or 50 people waited their turn to get in.
I continued north past the State Historical Museum, turned the corner to the right, and entered GUM, Moscow’s department store showcase of luxury items for the tourist trade. Rubles were worthless; only hard currency accepted.
I had a late dinner and went to the hotel around 10:00. When I asked for my key, the LOL on my floor gave me a strange look and then handed it to me. When I opened the door, I gasped.
The room had been trashed!
Drawers were pulled out and my clothes scattered about, pockets turned inside out. The mattress lay askew on the bedframe.
I was stunned. I sat down hard on the bed, my head in my hands.
I opened my briefcase and took out the camera. That was why. Someone obviously thought I had come back to the room after leaving Naum and was looking for the film.
What had I gotten myself into? It had all seemed like an exciting adventure — a bit scary to be sure, but still just an adventure. I didn’t think I’d come to any harm, though that was always a possibility — remote, but still a possibility. I was a U.S. citizen. They didn’t imprison U.S. citizens, did they? Of course they did.
I tried to calm down, but my hands shook and I was sweating. I had to get myself together for my lecture in the morning. Fortunately, I would be using the same slides I showed the refuseniks, so that much was done. But I needed some sleep. I took off my jacket and felt a bulge. The messages from all the refuseniks, with phone numbers and names of relatives! What was I going to do with them?
I made sure the door was locked and propped a chair against the doorknob. I undressed and got into bed. I put the film from my camera into the breast pocket of my pajama top. Finally, after much tossing and turning and two sleeping pills, I fell asleep.
The ring of the phone woke me. It seemed like I had just fallen asleep. I looked at the clock on the night table: 4:30 a.m. Who the hell could be calling?
I picked up the receiver and heard … nothing!
Nothing except heavy breathing on the other end — in and out, in and out, like someone straining to catch his breath, a sucked in innhhhhah and a drawn out agghhhah. Over and over.
“Hello? Hello.” No answer, just the deep, labored breaths.
I hung up. Now I was in a total state of panic. Obviously, someone was trying to frighten me — and they had succeeded. I was terrified.
I tried to think straight. What should I do? Call my wife? What good would that do? “Hello, Joan. The KGB just ransacked my room and woke me up early to frighten me. Can you help?” Not likely.
Call Chazov? No, I’d have to tell him where I’d been, what I’d done.
Call the police? Ha, I thought. They were the police — the instrument of supreme power. They imprisoned people. They tortured people. They killed them or had them killed. And here I was meeting with refuseniks — and not just anyrefuseniks. One who had just been released from Siberian exile and was warned not to meet with foreigners. Another who was under constant surveillance.
Oh, and don’t forget trying to smuggle a letter out to the West. I must have been out of my mind. What could I have been thinking? And what if I were caught with all the notes?
What in God’s name should I do? I had no coherent thought, just mental chaos.
I glanced at the clock. It was almost 5:00 a.m. Forget sleep. I was wound so tight I could explode. My heart was racing, I was in a cold sweat, and I was breathing so fast I was seeing spots in my peripheral vision. My lecture was at 9:00 a.m. I was the third speaker, but I had to be in the hall by 7:30 to give the projectionist my slides. Would I be able to concentrate and lecture? Suppose the KGB came in the middle to get me?
A shower. That’s what I needed to relax, a hot shower. I stayed in the spray for as long as the hot water lasted. That helped, and I began to think a little more rationally.
I would keep the film with me. If I were stopped, I would say they were tourist pictures, and if someone demanded I give up the film, I would try to expose the roll before handing it over. But, what about the refuseniks’ notes, what could I do with them?
I had been in the middle of writing a scientific manuscript in longhand on a yellow legal pad for my secretary to type when I returned to my office. I planned to finish it on the plane ride home. Suppose I incorporated their notes as part of the manuscript and then ripped their papers to bits?
Calmer, I set about incorporating the names, messages and phone numbers into my manuscript. My handwriting was terrible to begin with, and I made a conscious effort to make it even more illegible. When I finished, I pushed the sheets of manuscript into one of the folders in my briefcase. I doubted anyone would discover them. I tore the refuseniks’ notes into tiny fragments and put them in my pocket for later disposal.
I glanced at the clock: 6:30. I had better get dressed and leave for the lecture hall. It was a 20-minute walk.
I finished dressing, grabbed my slides and the film, and left. I crossed Red Square, but this time I paid no attention to the landmarks. I was looking for garbage receptacles. At each one, I deposited a little handful of paper shreds. Anyone watching me — were they? — would have thought I was crazy, zigzagging through Red Square from trash can to trash can. But I did it until my pocket was empty.
I finally reached the lecture hall, gave my slides to the projectionist. I couldn’t concentrate, thinking about the film in my pocket and how incriminating it would be if I were caught with it.
Just then a colleague sat down next to me.
Frank Marcus from Tucson was a fellow cardiologist I’d known for ages. A friend I could trust.
The film was burning a hole in my pocket. I could almost feel heat emanating from it. I blurted everything to Frank.
“Look,” he said. “I’ve been a model tourist. I’m leaving for home later today. When the lights dim for the next speaker, pass me the film. No one will suspect me of anything, so I won’t have any problem getting through customs. Once I get home, I’ll mail it to you. How’s that?”
I felt the weight of an elephant lift off my chest, and I wanted to hug him. “Thank you so much, Frank. You’ve saved my life.”
“I don’t know if it’s that dramatic, but I’m glad to help,” Frank said.
The lights went down for the first speaker and I slipped him the film. He put it in his inside coat pocket.
“One other thing, Frank, if it’s not too much trouble.”
“Sure, no problem. What is it?” Frank asked.
“July first is my wife’s birthday. I’m scheduled to go to Saint Petersburg tomorrow sightseeing with some of our colleagues for a few days, but I told Joan I would be back in the West by July first and would call her on her birthday. Would you call her, say, on July second or third, and make sure I have been in contact? If I haven’t, that would mean I’m in deep trouble with the KGB and will need some big-time help.”
“Happy to,” Frank said.
I could have kissed him, I was so relieved.
When it was my turn to present, I gave one of the most animated talks I’d ever given. I felt like a guy sentenced to death who’d been pardoned.
The morning session ended, I thanked Frank again and bolted for open space. I wanted to jump up, kick my heels, and shout, I felt so relieved. The sun was shining, the air was fresh, the grass was green — and I was free!
Or was I?
I left for the airport early the next morning. I was anxious to explore beautiful Saint Petersburg, especially to visit the Hermitage Museum.
When I checked in, the airline agent at the counter said, “Oh, yes, Dr. Zipes, we were expecting you.”
My heart sank. What had they found out?
My mind raced. Maybe Frank got stopped with the film. Unlikely, I thought. There was no reason to suspect him of anything.
It was also unlikely that the KGB had found my shredded notes. They would have had to retrieve them from five or six receptacles and then piece them together.
They must have proof of my lecturing to the refuseniks, I thought, and meeting with Ida Nudel. I hoped she was okay. Returning to Siberia would be horrible.
The young lady asked me to follow her to a VIP lounge. Would the KGB be waiting for me there?
We entered an empty room.
“Please have a seat,” she said. “We’ll come and get you. Help yourself to the refreshments.” She waved her hand toward the bar.
She was so pleasant, I relaxed a little. But maybe that was what the KGB wanted me to do. Have a few drinks and be ready to talk.
I sat stiffly on the edge of my seat and watched the door, waiting for some big guys to come rushing in. When nothing happened, I got up and started pacing. I searched the ceiling for microphones but couldn’t see any.
The ticking clock didn’t help. I was getting nervous I’d miss my flight. Maybe that’s what they intended.
Finally, with only 10 minutes left before takeoff, the young lady entered again, this time with a porter. He tied a large VIP tag to my suitcase and hefted the bag onto a trolley. The young lady said, “Please follow him to the car. Have a good trip.” She smiled and left.
I had no idea what was going on, so I followed the porter. He led me outside to a waiting van and put my bag inside. I had no choice but to get in. As soon as I did, we sped off onto the tarmac toward an Aeroflot plane. The driver stopped at the staircase leading up into the front of the plane. He got out, started up the stairs with my bag, and nodded for me to follow.
The flight attendant met me as I entered the plane. “Good morning, Dr. Zipes,” she said. “It’s a pleasure to have you join us on our flight to Saint Petersburg.” She nodded to the first seat in first class. “Please sit down. We’re ready to take off.”
I was speechless, astonished. Instead of being arrested by the KGB, I was being treated like royalty. I collapsed into the seat. In moments, I heard the roar of the engines.
I closed my eyes and tried to piece together an explanation. It had to have been Chazov. He must have saved me. Maybe he had bargained with the KGB, agreeing they could scare me but nothing more. Maybe the KGB had acted independently. Maybe… maybe… I could guess all I wanted, but I would never know.
Peter the Great founded Saint Petersburg, USSR’s second largest city, in the early 1700s. Situated on the Neva River with a Baltic Sea port, the beautiful city is the most westernized in Russia and is its cultural capital.
City officials had arranged a tour of the Hermitage Museum the afternoon we arrived. There were about 40 sightseers, mainly scientists from Europe and the U.S. Our “guide” was reputed to be a KGB agent, so I was particularly attentive to her directions.
“You will have three hours to tour the museum,” she said as we pulled to a stop. “The bus will remain parked in this lot until you return. Please be prompt.” She checked her watch. “It is precisely 2:00, so everyone must be back by 5.”
The Hermitage was mind blowing, with over 3 million objects (not all on display) housed in six historic buildings. The Winter Palace was one of the six, a spectacular baroque green-and-white edifice built in 1708 on a monumental scale to reflect the imperial power of Russia.
I could have spent days or even weeks at the Hermitage. The three hours evaporated in a flash, and I returned to the bus by 5:00 along with my colleagues — all but one.
Thirty-nine of us waited and waited on the bus until he returned 20 minutes late.
“I’m sorry,” he said, panting and sweating from his run to the bus. “I got lost and went to the wrong parking lot.”
Our guide, revealing her identity or at least her training, responded, “I hope you all see how the freedom of one imprisons many.”
All conversations in the bus halted as the intent of her statement struck home. After a few stunned moments, a guy on my left booed and someone across the aisle hissed. Then we all did. Our guide scrunched up her face, turned her back on the group, and plunked down in her seat in the front of the bus.
The following morning we toured more of the city with a different guide, and in the afternoon, I packed my things and boarded a bus to the airport. That’s when my troubles began — again.
The customs agent wore a face that fit his demeanor: anger. Slits for eyes, unshaven beard, creased forehead, and pockmarked cheeks — he also smelled of a dribbled lunch and body odor.
He started with my gold wedding band. When I had arrived in Moscow days before, I had to declare any valuables I brought with me. The Soviets kept tabs on what expensive items, like jewelry, came in and what when out. I had forgotten to list the ring.
“Where did you buy this ring?” he asked, his tone challenging.
“In the U.S., when I got married.”
“No, you didn’t. You didn’t write it on the entry form, so you didn’t have it when you entered the USSR.”
“I just forgot to write it down.”
“What else did you forget to write down?”
“I think that’s all.”
“We’ll see,” he said. His eyes glittered in anticipation as they locked onto mine. “Empty your pockets.”
A colleague who had waltzed through customs just before me and was waiting a few steps away asked the agent, “Why are you doing this? He’s a VIP. Can’t you see the label on his bag?”
The agent angrily spit on the ground as he answered. “VIP Moscow, not Saint Petersburg! Open everything!”
I had to empty the contents of my suitcase, then my wallet, and finally my briefcase. He had me turn my pockets inside out and then patted me down to be sure they were empty. The line behind me lengthened and the waiting passengers grew fidgety, but he ignored them. He fingered each item, held it to the overhead light for study, and carelessly flipped it back into my suitcase. I had a few rubles left in my wallet and I thought he would steal them, but he didn’t.
I had nothing to hide, but after Moscow, it was enough to make me break out in a cold sweat. I didn’t know whether he knew anything about what I had done, or whether he was just angry at the VIP luggage tag. There was no Chazov here to save me.
Finally, after an agonizing 10 minutes that seemed an eternity, he let me go. I didn’t stop shaking until we had cleared USSR airspace.
I called Joan right after we landed. It was a good thing I did. Frank Marcus had called her as soon as he landed, several days before her birthday. He told her he made it out safely with the film and that when he left Moscow, I was still okay — as far as he knew — and I would try to call her July 1. She had been waiting four days for me to call, frantic, imagining all sorts of horrors, until she heard my voice.
When I finally got home, Frank mailed me the film. Unfortunately, the letter was so blurred — I had taken the photo hurriedly — it was illegible and could not be salvaged. All that worry for nothing. However, I followed through on all the messages the refuseniks had given me. One call was very special — to Olga Plam, Naum’s daughter living in Boulder, Colorado. She had been allowed to emigrate to the U.S. with her husband and son in 1976. Naum had been refused because he knew “state secrets” from nuclear work 25 years earlier. Olga was very concerned about her father’s health, and I was able to reassure her he was doing well.
Around that time, I became chairman of a committee in our temple focused on the plight of the refuseniks. The problem was not generally known to the Indianapolis Jewish community. To highlight the issue, I suggested we call Naum in Moscow and have him address the congregation via a loudspeaker hooked to the phone so they could hear firsthand what he and other refuseniks were living through.
I wrote Naum and asked whether he would be able to accept a call from us in his apartment. He thought it might be possible since his phone was working again, though the “authorities” would certainly listen in and he couldn’t predict what would follow. We arranged a time and a date several weeks hence.
I contacted Olga and invited her to spend a weekend with us in Indianapolis. I would pay her expenses. She eagerly accepted a chance to surprise her father on the phone.
Excitement was palpable as we prepared for the call. We had filled the temple, and everyone was buzzing about whether the call would go through. Naum picked up, and I could hear the happiness in his voice as we said hello. Then I put Olga on. Oh, my goodness! We couldn’t understand a word because they were speaking Russian, but we could hear the joy in their voices.
After three or four minutes, the line suddenly went dead!
Olga’s face turned ashen and she held the receiver out to me with a helpless look, a silent plea to fix it.
With a constriction in my gut, I dialed again and again, but the connection would not go through. We imagined the worst, but found out later the KGB disconnected their phone but had left Naum and Inna alone.
Russian cardiologists invited me back to Moscow to lecture a few years after my 1982 trip, but the Soviet authorities refused to give me a visa. I checked with our local FBI for an explanation. They told me my name was on a black list.
“This is very bad,” they said. “Don’t even consider going. You’ll end up dead in a car accident or mugged in a dark alley.”
Naum contacted me in late 1985 to tell me that Inna had a tumor in her neck, which had been inadequately treated after four surgeries by Moscow physicians. Could I help get her a visa to receive treatment in the U.S.?
Through the efforts of many people — I was a minor player — including the press, prominent rabbis, senators (Ted Kennedy, among others), representatives, and a hunger strike by Inna’s close American friend Lisa Paul, Inna got her visa in January 1987. She was admitted to Georgetown University Hospital for chemotherapy. I spoke with her by phone after she arrived. The travel and the initial medical evaluation had left her exhausted. Before I had a chance to visit, she died.
In 1989, Naum was finally permitted to leave the Soviet Union and moved to Israel. He came to the States for a series of university lectures, and for a medical checkup I performed at Indiana University Medical Center. He died in Tel Aviv in March 2001.
In May 1999, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I was again invited to Moscow to lecture. The Russians — no longer the USSR — granted me a visa and let me back in. Virtually all the refuseniks who had wanted to leave had departed by then, and the trip was pleasant but uneventful.
My last Russian encounter was an unexpected but happy reunion with my friend Evgeny Chazov. In 1985, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, shared with Bernard Lown, for forming the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.
In 2013, the European Society of Cardiology bestowed its highest award, a gold medal, on both Chazov and me at their annual scientific meeting in Amsterdam for our contributions to cardiology. We shared the stage in a wonderful ceremony that highlighted our work in front of several thousand people.
Evgeny was as warm and friendly as he had been when we first met almost 40 years before, and we were both thrilled to receive the honor and to share it with each other. Though tempted, I did not bring up the refusenik incident. Neither did he.
This article is featured in the November/December 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.