Last of three parts.
In 1986, the Duluth News-Tribune sent Laurie Hertzel to the Soviet Union to accompany a group of 33 Duluthians who were hoping to establish a sister city with Petrozavodsk, the capital of the Soviet republic of Karelia on the Finnish border. Petrozavodsk city officials had not answered any of the letters or telexes from the Duluthians, who finally decided to just go to Russia and see what happened. And what happened…well, it was extraordinary.
The train trip to Petrozavodsk took twelve hours. We had sleeper compartments, but hardly anyone slept. A few tried, but the rest of us were too noisy. Someone had brought beer. Someone else had brought slivovitz, a strong plum brandy purchased during our seven hours in Yugoslavia. Someone else had brought Jack Daniel’s, wrapped in shirts and tucked in the bottom of a suitcase all the way from Minnesota. Despite the frowns of the babushka who tended the samovar at the end of the car, we left the doors to the compartments open and wandered up and down the narrow hallway, pouring drinks and laughing. The night pressed black against the windows as the train chugged north through bog land and forests, and I pushed the window down to feel the cool wind against my face and breathe in the piney fragrance. The babushka yelled at me, and I pushed the window up again. Tom Morgan, the Russian-speaking member of the Duluth delegation, was quiet; for him, perhaps more than for anyone else, the trip was about to change. Instead of exploring the city on his own, chatting with locals and going where he pleased, he knew that in Petrozavodsk he would have to become part of the group, under the control of Intourist. This quieted his cheerful nature, and he lay back on his bunk while all around him the rest of the group laughed and drank beer out of smuggled-in cans. In Petrozavodsk the trip would change for me too, but I was looking forward to it; my reporting would have to get sharper and more focused because I would have to file a story every evening for the next day’s paper.
Looming over all of us—but over Brooks Anderson, a minister in Duluth and the leader of the delegation to Petrozavodsk, especially—was the fact that we still had no idea how we would be received. Our itinerary called for four days in Petrozavodsk, but the details were still unknown. Would the mayor see us? Would the visit be nothing more than Intourist bus trips? Would the sister-city proposal be addressed—or be rejected? Shortly before leaving Duluth, Brooks had heard that the Soviets were opposed to the Duluth-Petrozavodsk matchup, but he had kept this information quiet and forged ahead. All of us were curious about what the next four days would hold. I think that uncertainty fueled the gaiety and celebration of the train ride: we knew the trip was about to become more serious.
I spent the early evening hours playing hangman with Tom Gildersleeve as the train rattled north through the forests of Karelia. Tom was a tall, cheerful sixteen-year-old who had come on this trip to practice his Russian, which he was studying at Duluth East High School. In Moscow, he kept disappearing into strange Ladas that drove off into the night, reappearing some time later with another fur hat; by now, he had acquired four of them and was down an equal number of pairs of jeans. He had brought along a Polaroid camera, and he planned to make friends in Petrozavodsk by what Brooks called “Polaroid diplomacy”—asking strangers if he could take their picture, and then letting them watch the image develop right before their eyes.
Late in the evening, word began trickling back that a man from Petrozavodsk was on the train. Eventually the man himself appeared, slender and serious, with neatly combed dark hair, dressed in a suit and tie, even though it was the middle of the night. His name was Oleg Ozhorovskii, and he was the deputy chairman of the Petrozavodsk city council. Could it be pure coincidence that put him on the same train with the happy delegation from Duluth? He and Brooks sat down to talk in one of the compartments. Neill Atkins and Richard Braun, two Duluth city councilors, crammed in as well. Tom Morgan and Masha Zhuravleva, our Intourist guide, were summoned to translate. I hung around the doorway, doing my best to listen. Ozhorovskii’s news was good. He told Brooks that Petrozavodsk had great plans for our visit—tours of a paper mill, a school, the Palace of Young Pioneers, and museums. Visits to the homes of ordinary citizens. Even better news was this: a meeting with the mayor. “The schedule is tight because we would like you to see as much of our city as possible,” he said.
I am not sure if the other people in that train car realized what momentous news this was. Brooks’s demeanor was as calm and low-key as usual, but inside, I know, he was filled with tremendous relief. Until that moment, he had not known if his big plan, if this grand gesture of just showing up was going to pay off; until that moment, he had not known if the mayor would receive us. I’m not sure if anyone else realized how much Brooks had put himself on the line. Neill Atkins pulled out the Jack Daniel’s. “A toast!” he said, but Oleg shook his head. Gorbachev had instituted a program to curb excessive drinking—for generations a serious problem in Russia—and he was taking it seriously. A few people held out their glasses anyway, and as we toasted, Oleg slipped away.
Outside the window, the sun began to rise. The forests looked like the forests of northern Minnesota, aspen and birch just beginning to turn gold. A light drizzle streaked the windows, and the rain came down harder as we pulled into Petrozavodsk station. I pushed the window down again and stuck my head out, trying to get a glimpse of the city, but all I could see was the platform, crowded with the usual old people you see hanging around train stations, waiting for loved ones to disembark. They stood under colorful umbrellas, many of them holding bunches of gladiolas.
We shuddered to a stop, and I hauled my duffle bag down from the shelf and stepped outside. The old people surged toward me, toward all of us. They thrust flowers in our direction. The thirty-three of us stood bewildered in the gentle morning rain as the kindly wrinkled faces pressed close. They chattered with excitement, all at once, interrupting each other, and it took me a few startled seconds to realize that they were chattering in English. “Hello, Duluth!” they said. “Are the hills still green? Does the Aerial Bridge still go up and down?” They handed flowers to each of the astonished Duluthians. I stared at them and tried to figure out who they were, why they were speaking English, why they might think the Aerial Bridge no longer worked, how they knew there even was an Aerial Bridge. I had completely forgotten Erkki Leppo and his tales of American Finns in the USSR. I touched one of the old people on the arm, to get her attention. “How do you know the Aerial Bridge?” I asked.
The woman smiled at me. “I was born in Cloquet,” she said.
Excerpted from “News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist,” University of Minnesota Press.