Jan. 6th, 2010

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Galina and I were married at the awkwardly named "Palace of Marriages No. 1," located on Griboedov Street in Moscow, back when there was still a Soviet Union. It was a Tuesday in late December. Galina's gown was white, my suit was gray, and the woman officiating under the bust of Lenin wore a bright red sash.

After we said the words and signed the forms, the woman looked at Galina and then at me, and concluded I was the apostate Soviet citizen marrying the foreigner. She leaned over and quietly admonished me, whispering "Do not forget your motherland!" I smiled and promised I wouldn't.

I thought it was a surprising move on her part, because for a Soviet to want to marry a foreigner in those days was very nearly tantamount to treason, and good citizens did not lightly treat with turncoats. Upon announcing our intention to get married, Galina lost her job, with no official reason given. Unofficially, we heard she was no longer considered "politically reliable," and that having her on staff was a liability to her employer. There was a darker side to such ostracism, as well.

On the day I left for home, some rough-mouthed men came by Galina's apartment late at night and pounded the door, demanding to be let in. "It's me, slut," shouted one of them, "I need you to give me back my suit." The door stayed shut. The pounding continued, and the verbal abuse intensified.

The door stayed shut.

Finally, as the men left for the night, one of them cried out, "You can't hide at home forever, bitch!" Whereupon a comrade of his added, "And life can be dangerous! You could slip and fall under a subway!" This elicited a laugh from his compatriots, and the bastards continued to laugh and curse as they retreated down the stairs.

When Galina related this incident to me during our first phone conversation after my return to the States after our whirlwind three-day honeymoon, my blood ran cold.

You see, I recalled having a drink with a guy named Mark, a fellow expat and "regular" at the second-floor, one-night-a-week Marine Bar at the US Embassy, about a month or so before I popped the question to Galina. That particular night, he looked like hell - desheveled hair, red-rimmed eyes - so I asked him what had happened.

"Lena's dead," he said. He'd broken up with Lena, his girlfriend, the week before. There had been a time they were considering getting married.

"Sorry to hear that," I said. "What happened?"

"Her friends say she jumped in front of a train in the Metro," he said. "But I can't find out anything official, because nobody'll talk to me."

I said nothing, but thought: Lena jump in front of a subway? Preposterous! Lena had been around the block a few times and was no stranger to disappointment. I couldn't imagine her doing the Dutch act over something like a failed relationship.

"Her roommate says she thinks Lena was pushed," added Mark, "to serve as 'an example'." He gulped down the rest of his drink and looked at me with haunted eyes. "What do you think, would someone do that?"

I took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. "I don't think so," I said. "Maybe you didn't know Lena as well as you thought," I added, "or maybe she lost her footing on the platform. At any rate, I wouldn't put too much stock in the 'example' angle. You've got to figure professional assassins have bigger plans, more important targets. Lena's roommate's just not thinking straight."

That seemed to quiet Mark, but I recall he still got very drunk that night. We fell out of touch by the time Galina and I decided to get married, and by that time, I had put our conversation out of my mind.

Hearing Galina summarize what had happened the night I left for the States hardened my resolve to do what what was necessary to get her out of the USSR and join me in the United States, but pronto. I was motivated, as we used to say in the Marines.

Once Galina assembled and submitted the necessary paperwork to emigrate from the USSR at her end, I filled in the appropriate immigration forms at mine and went to the Federal Building in downtown Manhattan to file them in person.

"Has your wife received her emigration papers from the Soviet government?" asked the clerk behind the counter, reviewing my paperwork.

"She's just applied for them," I answered. The clerk slid the papers back across the counter at me. "You file these only after she gets an answer from the Soviet authorities. It's basically a rubber stamp at our end." I collected the papers and went home.

What I should have done is gone to another clerk, because the papers could have - and should have - been filed when I had tried to do so, whereupon Galina could've come to the US as soon as the wheels of Soviet bureaucracy had finished turning. Instead, when I returned to file my paperwork (after Galina had been granted permission to emigrate), I was told the process would take two months, possibly longer!

I returned home, and I was pretty bummed out. Two more months! Was there anything I could do to accelerate the process? The answer seemed to be: no.

And then, as I opened my phone bill, it hit me...

The Helsinki Accords were a then-recent human-rights news item that kept getting a lot of press. The accords - a nonbinding agreement signed by (among others) the United States and the Soviet Union - affirmed a commitment on the part of the signatories to relax international tensions and, in particular, to facilitate the reunification of family members residing in different countries.

The USSR had come in for a lot of media criticism because they had made the emigration process something of a gauntlet to be run, often including strip searches and indiscriminate confiscation of property, typically involving old Jewish men and women leaving the Soviet Union for Israel and the United States.

As my plan gelled, I sat down with my old Moscow address book and called the phone company to set up a time for a phone call to Moscow, station-to-station, at $8 for the first three minutes. (That was the way things were done in those days, mostly because it gave an opportunity for the Soviets to monitor phone calls being made from abroad, which was essential to my plan.) I jotted down my talking points in preparation for the call.

At the appointed hour, my phone rang and the connection was made. In a few moments, I was speaking with a consular officer at the US Embassy. I introduced myself and then let fly.

"Why is the United States Government delaying my reunification with my wife?" I asked. "That would seem to be a clear violation of the Helsinki Accords, wouldn't it?"

"Well, sir..." said the officer.

"And after the stink we raise about how the Soviets violate human rights!" I very nearly shouted. "I'm not so sure the people at the Federal Building in Manhattan didn't deliberately 'misinform' me of the procedure for getting me wife out of the USSR! Do you know her life's been threatened because she married me?"

"Sir, I understand..." came the response.

I didn't let the poor fellow finish, I'm afraid, until I had laid out - with great emotion and in repetitive detail - what I hoped might be the outline for a minor public relations disaster for my own government (should any, um, eavesdroppers decide to make it an issue), whereupon the officer said he'd look into the case personally, took my contact information, and we cut the connection. It had been an expensive phone call, but I felt it had been worth the effort. I settled down to wait.

The next day, I got a phone call from someone at the Federal Building in Manhattan. I was told Galina's paperwork would be ready in two days!

Did my scheme work? I don't know.

I like to think the officer I spoke with just did the right thing, interceding on my behalf without considering anything else. Still...


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