The Olympics have stirred many memories of my visit to Moscow with a mission team in 1996. I grew up during the height of the Cold War in the 1950’s and 60’s when some families were building their own fall out shelters for what they believed would eventually be a nuclear war. Those were scary times. Nobody (adult or child) should live with that kind of fear.
But this story is not about them. It is about a small town girl stepping foot on foreign soil where she never dreamed her feet would land. It’s about stepping outside my own comfort zone in an effort to encourage, share my Faith, and to make a positive difference in the lives and health of total strangers. Most importantly, it is about overcoming fear.
In July 1996, I agreed to participate as a Registered Nurse on a mission team to Moscow, Russia. Less than five years earlier, the dissolution of the Soviet Union had occurred in late December 1991. Around the world we had watched as anti-government protesters in Kiev, Ukraine toppled the city’s landmark statue of Russian leader Vladimir Lenin and decapitated his statue.
During that same period of time, we watched from the safety of our homes in the U.S. via live television as tanks of the Taman Divizion fired upon The White House of Russia (Belyi Dom), one of Moscow’s most notable landmarks. This structure, a focus point during the coup that ousted Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev from power, was left scarred and burned. Gorbachev had resigned declaring his office extinct, and handed over the Soviet nuclear missile launching codes to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. I remember breathing a little easier and feeling a little safer as I watched those historical events unfold. Many of my childhood fears had finally been laid to rest with the fall of the USSR.
There are many details I could include in this story. Among them would be the true beauty of the Moscow subway, St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Kremlin, St. Peter’s Square, and the Faberge egg collection.
I could write about our mission experience there, the doctors who earn the equivalent of $30 a month as well as the shortage of medicines and supplies in Russian hospitals. I could tantalize you reviews about the wonderful, salty soups that always included cabbage. I could break your heart with stories of old people trying to sell bread on the street just to survive. I could send chills up your spine with stories of the plethora of black Mercedes, members of the Russian mafia who owned them, and street vendors who paid protection fees for their booths. I could also caution you about how foolhardy it is to pull money out where strangers can see it, especially in Russia.
I could share heartwarming stories about Christian men who were exiled to Siberia because of their faith, leaving their wives to keep their families together with an unshakable faith they couldn’t publicly share.
I could tell you about our interactions with the Russian people who marveled at lighthearted spirit and laughter of our American team and their observations that we were always smiling. Their offer to us: In exchange for teaching them how to laugh, they would teach us how to cry.
Our team of about 21 stayed in “one of the better hotels” in Moscow. There were no elevators to lessen the struggle with personal luggage, our beds were narrower than twin bed size and the décor was modest at best. Faded, outdated draperies covered huge windows laden with the heavy film of pollution so thick I could hardly see out. Tiny 8 x 10 scenic photos of unknown Russian structures hung on otherwise bland and lifeless walls that hadn’t seen a coat of paint for at least a decade.
It was mid-July, and something of an oddity to logic was happening in Moscow. Amazingly, the buildings don’t have their own water heaters. Water is actually heated at a central location in the city and pumped to the point of use. As luck would have it, this precise time frame was when “summer” maintenance was occurring and hot water was shut off throughout the city. So for the 17 days I was there in Moscow (at least to this thin-blooded Southerner), it felt like those daily showers were taken in ice water.
Only for the sake of brevity, I have chosen to focus on one especially sleepless 2nd night in Moscow, when my body was still trying desperately to adapt to time zone differences.
My roommate (a college student) and I had just said our goodnights to other members of our team. I had picked up a local newspaper just for the curiosity factor. I looked first at the pictures, and since I couldn’t read a single word of Russian, laid it down on the floor at the foot of my bed. I remember carrying on a brief conversation with my roommate, then closing my eyes to try and sleep. Inevitably, she had remembered something she needed to ask another team member, went out briefly and later returned when I already had the lights out. She had also forgotten to lock our door.
I think I stirred every time she moved that night, which was unusual since I am a very sound sleeper. Literally, I believe I awakened to every single sound. It was about 2 a.m. when I heard a very slight rustle of the newspaper I had placed on the floor.
At first I thought my roommate had gotten up to the bathroom. Instead, I opened my eyes to see a man, on his hands and knees, dressed all in black and within a shoulder’s reach at the foot of my bed going through my personal belongings.
My primal instinct was to release a coarse, throaty blood-chilling, scream that woke up my team mates on the floor above us. Triggered by an intense and immediate fear I had never before experienced, that scream had come from deep in my diaphragm and translated even into the Russian language.
The would-be thief reacted by sprinting out of our room like the devil himself was on his heels. I was about mid-way down the hall, still screaming, when reality set in and I mentally asked myself what I would do if I actually caught him. (I’m sure he didn’t want to find out either.)
My roommate had awakened (of course), without her glasses and unable to see what I saw, believing I was having a nightmare. I quickly told her I had just chased my “nightmare” down the hall. Our teammates heard and came to our aid. Both of us were still visibly shaken and I could barely speak above a whisper for the next 3 days. I wanted to be anywhere but Russia that night.
I learned from the hotel receptionist the next morning that break-ins in area hotels and thefts from tourists were a common occurrence. All I know is that we barricaded our motel room door with furniture for the remainder of our stay in Moscow.
I believe there were Guardian angels watching over us that night. I actually thanked God later for a night of insomnia, otherwise all the money I had for my entire stay in Russia would have been stolen and perhaps my roommate would have been victim as well. Fortunately I had awakened and spoiled his plan and he got nothing. I venture a guess that wherever he is, nearly 18 years later, if he hasn’t reaped an untimely death brought about by his own life of crime, he remembers that scream.
I believe I’ve proven that insomnia is not always a bad thing and neither is fear. Fear, used positively can protect us or, if used negatively, can incapacitate us. I overcame a deeply embedded childhood fear by traveling to Russia. I reacted positively because of fear in the face of danger and became a more cautious traveler. The memories of this journey to Russia and interacting with the Russian people have enriched my life. If reading this story causes you to be more cautious about your surroundings resulting in safer travel, then I consider this experience worth sharing.
Pam Baker, RN
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