Frank Thoms

Gorbachev's Invitation

Jun 04, 2023 by Frank Thoms

my students cringed as I asked them to close their eyes and listen to BBs clinking into a metal bowl: one BB for Hiroshima, a pause; one for Nagasaki, another pause; and in the end the remaining one-thousand BBs that I dropped very, very slowly into the bowl embodying the world’s arsenals of hydrogen bombs.

Throughout those twenty-five years, I made efforts to piece together Russia’s real history. Soviet proclamations often exceeded reality. Five-year plans proclaimed successes that often fell short; another five-year plan would follow, and another. Stalin’s gulags tested the limits of our understanding of the Russians. And I disdained Soviet braggadocio about its space program, military might, expanding nuclear arsenal, and exemplary education system.

Because of my teaching, I hankered to pry into Russia behind its projected images to the world. The coming of Gorbachev in March, 1985, opened the door. I was living in Norwich, Vermont, where the travel organization, Bridges for Peace, had been sending ten percent of Americans visiting the USSR and hosted Soviets in return. I signed up for a tour in October. But I was skeptical about what I would be able to see in only two weeks. Intourist, the official Soviet travel agency, was sure to shepherd every minute of our trip. But having secured a rare leave from teaching was too good to pass up. And it was too good to pass up!

(This piece is part of collection of essays where I explore more deeply about the Russians and about my teaching.)