Ponary Death Pit (photo courtesy of Juliux from Wikipedia – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Courtesy of my driver Boris and his lead foot, fueled by my Al Green cassette tape, our Russian Volga sedan resumed its cruise down the A4 highway towards my lunch appointment with my father’s family in Varena, Lithuania. We had just survived a traffic stop a few moments earlier where Boris effectively told the zit-faced highway patroller to go fuck himself. The USSR seemed to have a great surfeit of immature officers populating the police, immigration, customs, animal control, and doubtlessly numerous other constabularies.
My very first experience of the Soviet Union the previous week was instructive of this very point. It was upon my arrival into the USSR on an Air France nonstop flight from Charles de Gaulle to Sheremetyevo airports.
It was May 1985, and, as a student of history and world politics, I was excited to be flying into a very different kind of country. I had had some extensive experiences in Europe already, but this, the USSR was to be verily alien. As a kicker, I would be meeting my Father’s family in Lithuania after a week in Moscow.
In preparation for my trip, I read everything I could about Russians (inhabitants of the world’s largest country), Lithuanians (great basketball players), and the Baltics (I would also be passing through Riga, Latvia). Hedrick Smith’s “The Russians” had earned a prized place in my personal library, with dog-ears on the dog-ears.