“Any incidence of offense or insult directed against the Soviet Union or its institutions, irrespective of where the incident may take place (in the street, in a shop, at the theater or cinema, or elsewhere), must be reported immediately to a senior supervisor at the Soviet embassy or consulate. In the event such offense or insult should be directed at the traveler personally, he or she must, without losing patience, evade it or protest against it, not failing to report the incident to a senior supervisor at the Soviet embassy or consulate.”
I’m quoting from Clause 22 of an eighty-page instruction entitled Basic Rules of Conduct for Soviet Citizens Exiting to Capitalist or Developing Countries, a thorough familiarity with which, as late as the 1980’s, was part of a Kafkaesque ordeal my compatriots underwent when applying for exit visas. To see a magic place like New York or Paris, where pantyhose for the wife and stockings for the mistress – actually, it was the other way round back then, but fashion is a capricious deity – could be had for the asking, one had to be on good terms with the ruling party and its secret police, but that was merely a tacitly accepted prerequisite for foreign travel. Then the real ordeal began, involving numerous interviews, certificates, signatures, stamps, guarantees, affidavits and the like, and in the end many a perspiring paterfamilias must have thought, heck, anything’s better than this, even marital fidelity and homespun stockings of Uzbek cotton.
Yes, shadows of old Ninotchka, with Mel Douglas and Greta Garbo, remade as Silk Stockings, with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, in cold warrior 1957. I recall these iconic films because, among the Russian expatriate community in London and, intermittently, in Cyrillic cyberspace, rumors are rife that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is pressing to amend the freedom-of movement Article 27 of the Constitution which effectively abolished exit visas for Russian citizens, ushering in what is known as the post-Soviet era. Moreover, a survey last month by the pollster Levada has revealed that 49% of Russians “believe that the right to leave the country will be restricted by the state,” with only 22% believing that the opposite is likely. This, needless to say, would mean a full-scale return to the aboriginal, tribal-tamtam, ring-in-the-nose totalitarianism of my Brezhnevite youth, with few analogues in the geopolitical reality of today apart from North Korea.
In the conception of Hollywood anticommunists of the 30’s and 50’s, Garbo’s stockings were a symbol. In intervening years, fashion has turned that symbol inside out, so that the dreariest item of Soviet lingerie, were it to be photographed today for a cover story in the New York Times Sunday magazine, would produce an admiring furore to cries of retro chic. Politics has similarly turned on itself, with anticommunists now as prominent in the Kremlin as they are on the New York Times, though the volte face has made neither any less susceptible to the totalitarian temptation. But do the vagaries of fashion, whether sartorial or political, make the dawning reality of a new Iron Curtain any less chilling?
I can just see the editorial in the New York Times, explaining that Russia was historically a closed country – insert 35 column inches of lapidary blather about the Tatar-Mongol invasion, the persecution of Jews in eighteenth-century Poland, and the urgent need for a new Yalta Conference – and that making it a closed country once more is in the best traditions of anticommunism.