The author’s name is withheld to afford as much protection as possible to the Russian guide.
During our trip to Russia a year ago, we took a liking to one of our guides—a bright young man with a sense of humor. I shall call him Nicky, although that isn’t his real name.
We talked about free enterprise, religion, and other things. One day I spoke of being free, and Nicky said: "I am just as free as you are. What do you mean?"
"Well," I said, "for one thing, here I am free to leave my own country and come to Russia for travel and sightseeing. I didn’t have to ask permission of anybody and I don’t have to report to anybody when I get home. Nicky, why don’t you come to America and visit us and do some sightseeing?" When he explained that he couldn’t afford to, I said: "I’ll be glad to buy you a ticket and supply you travel money so that you can make the trip, travel around the United States, visit me in my home, and have a good time."
"Oh, but they would never give me permission to go," said Nicky. "Who are ‘they’?" I asked. "The government," he replied. It had not occurred to him until then that he was not free.
One day he expressed interest I our World Almanac, which once had been forbidden in Russia, possibly because it contained too much accurate information. Although we offered to give him our copy, he didn’t want to accept it until evening, and then carried it home under his coat. When we asked him if this were freedom, he replied: "It is everywhere this way."
During our travels we frequently consulted John Gunther’s Inside Russia, and read some pages aloud. Gunther describes at some length the cruelty and double-crossing of Stalin’s regime. Nicky wanted a peek at the book every chance he got; and, when we left, we gave him our copy. This, too, had to be well wrapped and concealed before he was willing to take it with him.
Outside Leningrad we visited the great Peter of Palace, which had been entirely destroyed in the 900-day siege by the Germans during World War II. In the past few years, the Russians have spent millions and millions restoring the palace, its fountains, and gardens. My wife said to Nicky: "I thought you Communists wanted to get rid of czars and palaces. Your housing is inadequate; your quarters are wretched and lack bathrooms; and yet you spend millions fixing up this old palace. What for?"
Nicky thought a minute and then said: "Well, I’ve often wondered about that one myself." This is the only time a dent showed in his brainwashed armor plate. Commenting on Moscow’s subways, I said: "These subways are very elaborate. They look like the anteroom to a king’s quarters. In America we have subways but they’re just concrete holes in the ground, built for the purpose of going places. We like to embellish our homes. Why do you lavish all this money down here in the subway?"
To this Nicky gave the stock answer: "Oh, we own all of this. It belongs to us. We are very proud of it."
One more anecdote. Nicky said to me: "Private ownership is inconceivable to me. Is it true that private citizens own your factories?"
When I replied in the affirmative, Nicky asked: "Don’t the stockholders cheat the workers? We would in this country."
I told him about the division of wealth between the stockholders and the workers and explained that nearly 90 per cent of the wealth created is divided among those that work while only a small percentage goes to the owners. Nicky shook his head and said: "I can’t understand it. Why would anyone want to be a stockholder if that is all they get?"