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Breathing Foreign Air

Author: Tamara Eidelman
Translation: Nora Seligman Favorov

May/June 2016
Soviet Era
Page 22   ( 3 pages)

Summary: 20 years ago this month, Soviets were first granted rights to unfettered foreign travel.


Yesterday I did my forging
And I made two sheets of tin.
Now my factory is saying
I can go where few have been.
Washed the soot off in the shower,
Gobbled up unheated ide,
Then I listened for an hour,
Dos and don’ts when I’m outside.

? ????? ???????? ?????,
? ??? ????? ???????
? ? ??????????????????
?? ?????? ??????.
??????, ???? ???? ??? ?????,
???? ????????? ???
? ?????????? ?????????,
??? ??? ?????, ??? ??????.

So begins a tongue-in-cheek song by Vladimir Vysotsky about a Soviet factory worker who is being sent on a trip abroad. Although the song’s storyline may seem a bit farfetched, the basic idea of workers being given overseas trips was nothing out of the ordinary. If anyone was going to be allowed to come out from behind the Iron Curtain, members of the working class were clearly the best candidates. Whether the purpose of the trip was work or play, they always had an easier time getting permission for foreign travel. Decadent members of the intelligentsia dreaming of Paris or London could only sigh in envy.

However, those fortunate enough to be given a chance to see the world had to go through a series of demeaning ordeals to prove their worthiness. They had to get recommendations from the labor union and party organization at their place of employment, and the party organization had a say in the matter whether or not the person in question was a party member. People who had a good relationship with their workplace’s party officials were lucky; those who did not paid the price.

Even if all the powers that be at work gave the go-ahead, you still had to get past the party committee in your residential district, which would grill you on all sorts of nonsense. Let’s say you’re in the running for a vacation in fraternal Bulgaria (which was barely even considered a foreign country, as attested to by the popular rhyme «?????? ?? ?????, ???????? ?? ?????????» [a chicken isn’t a bird and Bulgaria is not a foreign country]). Before you can bask in the Bulgarian sunshine, you have to know the names of the first secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party’s Central Committee, the chairman of its Council of Ministers, and other local officials. Even if you manage to rattle off the names of all these comrades, you are still confronted with insinuating interrogations such as this:

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