This story is by James Edwin Kee and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
They could make me disappear. Those were my first thoughts as I sat in a local police station in Kiev. My heart was pounding so loud I was sure that the officers could hear it and sense my fear. However, I was on my own; no one knew I was there. I could summon no help. Perhaps no one would ever know what happened to me.
The New York City Ballet was on its first tour of the Soviet Union in 15 years, a homecoming for its director George Balanchine. The tour included stops in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev and Tbilisi. It was 1972 and while glasnost was in the air, the heavy authoritarian Soviet presence was everywhere. My wife Suzanne Erlon was dancing with the ballet company and I joined her in Leningrad and Kiev. I was working as a legal counsel to New York State Assemblyman Andrew Stein, an active advocate for better treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union, and so I had a mission beyond the vacation.
The dance critic Clive Barnes’ wife Patricia had asked me to take a copy of a new book containing poems by Soviet dissidents. One of the major contributors was Sergei Kaminsky and I was tasked with presenting him with the book and asking him to set up a meeting with Valery and Galena Panov, dancers with the Leningrad Kirov Ballet, who had asked to immigrate to Israel and had been subsequently fired by the company. I also had prayer shawls and other Jewish religious items that I hoped to present to the Jewish community in Kiev. It was Suzanne who smuggled in the forbidden items as she was on a chartered flight from New York City to Moscow and it was less likely that her bags would be searched by customs than mine would as a single traveler.
My Aeroflot flight to Leningrad on Sunday was a nightmare. I had a cold and the plane was so badly insulated that it felt like I was in a wind tunnel; by the time we landed I was seriously sick. After going through customs and getting to the hotel where the company was staying I was exhausted and feverish. Control permeated the hotel. Each floor had a “key lady” from whom you received and left your key. The room’s radio could only be turned down, not off, and we all assumed it was recording what was said in the rooms. Suzanne insisted that I check at the front desk for a doctor and they sent me to a clinic where no one spoke English and I spoke no Russian. However, after examining my throat, they gave me some mystery pills that soon made me feel better.
On Wednesday, my third day in Leningrad, I went in search of Kaminsky. Unlike all other tourist groups at the time, I had no Soviet handler, since I was connected to the ballet company, and so was left with little oversight. I had a map and managed to find his apartment. He was a bigger than life character, over six feet tall with wild red hair that made him look even taller. He greeted me with a bear hug, thanked me for the book, and plied me with tea, vodka and sweets. His wife, who spoke less English, was also charming. I asked him about setting up a meeting with the Panovs. Suzanne had arranged a small delegation from the NYC Ballet, including principal dancer Edward Villella. It would have to be done secretly as Balanchine did not want any political conflicts to mar this trip. We had not asked him for permission, and there would be consequences if he found out.
Kaminsky agreed to set up the meeting and upon finding out that this was my first trip to Leningrad, which he referred to as St. Petersburg, he wanted to show me his city. I accepted. Although I assumed that he was being watched, he didn’t seem to care. Off we went, first picking up a friend of his that was stranger than Kaminsky. He was over six and a half feet tall and wore an Abe Lincoln-like long black coat and top hat. So the three of us were off, to the universal stares of the population—three very tall men, one with wild hair, another in a black top hat, and the obvious American. I loved Leningrad with its canals, churches, and history, both grand and tragic. We visited the home of Tolstoy and Kaminsky’s favorite coffee shop, where the air was heavy with smoke and animated debate.
Saturday was the day of our secret rendezvous. The company was taking a bus back to the hotel after a matinee performance and some of us asked to be let off at an important church that was a common tourist attraction. The bus driver agreed and our small delegation went into the church and out the back door for the short walk to Kaminsky’s apartment. We arrived before the Panovs, who joined us almost immediately. I suspected they were watching the apartment and making sure that we actually showed up before risking their involvement. There were greetings, more vodka and picture taking. Mr. Villella spoke for the dancers in expressing solidarity with the Panovs and wishing them well.
With the more difficult tasks safely behind me, I felt some relief as I joined the ballet company for the trip from Leningrad to Kiev. I planned to visit a prominent Jewish synagogue the next Saturday and did not feel that the risk of the visit was great. Kiev is a beautiful city and I enjoyed walking around and visiting famous and not-so-famous sites. I figured out the bus lines that I would need to take to the synagogue on Saturday. We still had the same controls in the hotel as in Leningrad, but the enforcement seemed softer. Perhaps the Ukrainian people, though subject to Soviet control, were able to enjoy a bit more freedom than the people in Russia.
The trip to the synagogue was uneventful. I managed to negotiate a bus transfer and found the synagogue that was outside of the downtown area. Services were going on but the Rabbi welcomed me in English and accepted my gifts from the United States. As a gentile, I did not understand much of the ceremony, but stayed for about an hour before saying my goodbyes.
As I walked out of the synagogue, two policemen were on either side of the entrance—they had not been there when I arrived. Were they there to intimidate others to not go in, or to take names? I did not know, but as I rounded a building, I thought I would take a picture of this police threat at the synagogue to show others in the United States. I took my camera from the case and slowly turned around and took a quick picture. I thought I had not been seen doing it, but I heard a yell to halt from the police and they immediately ran toward me and grabbed me, taking the camera, and ushering me to a local police station two blocks away.
They spoke no English; I spoke no Russian or Ukrainian. They were clearly perplexed by what to do with me but were rough and angry. I was placed in a room and waited and waited, my anxiety growing. Taking the picture was obviously a mistake; would it cost me more? Would I ever see Suzanne dance principal roles? Would we have had children? Where would my legal and political career have taken me? Would the Panovs ever dance again? Many such thoughts crowded my mind as I waited and wondered that if I disappeared would anyone know what happened or would it just be an unsolved mystery—an anguished spouse and a bureaucratic stone wall.
Finally, the door opened and another policeman, obviously in charge and wearing gloves, gave my camera back to me. He pointed to a button that I had on my shirt, saying NYC Ballet in English and in Russian and motioned for me to go. They had exposed the film, so I had lost all of my pictures, but I was free and alive. Later, I would speculate that the officer in charge decided that they risked a reprimand for possibly creating an international incident. They did not want to take that chance. Now, they could easily deny that my detention had occurred. That little NYC Ballet button was my passport to a future life.