Looking for Leningrad


Excerpt from Looking for Lenin

From Ch. 1 The Boyhood of a Sovietologist

“At Christ the King, my Catholic grade school nestled in a quiet, Republican voting corner of Minneapolis, we took the Russian threat seriously. I was in the first grade when our whole school watched a civil defense movie for children in schools, “Duck and Cover.” Produced by the Federal Civil Defense Administration, “Duck and Cover” was, in part, a cartoon featuring Bert the Turtle and chuckleheaded monkey and, in part, a preachy public service piece instructing schoolchildren on how to take cover when an atom bomb struck. While the monkey ignores the warning signs and flirts with disaster, the wise Bert the Turtle shows America’s boys and girls what to do. The film had a catchy jingle:

There was a turtle by the name of Bert
And this turtle was very alert.
When danger threatened him
He never got hurt.
He knew just what to do.
He’d duck and cover,
Duck and cover.
He did what we all must learn to do.
You, and you, and you.
Duck and cover.

Bert sniffs smoke and hides in his shell. Bert, of course, had an advantage, a shell that could also serve as his bomb shelter. For us kids, a bit of ingenuity was required. The public service portion of the film showed a series of various scenarios of children ducking and covering themselves under their school desks, in the hall ways, or beneath picnic blankets in the park. We got it. If you saw a burning light in the sky, immediately dive and take cover under a desk, a chair or anything available. A short time after we saw “Duck and Cover,” the school’s fire alarms went off in the middle of the day. My first grade teacher, Sr. Helen Marie visibly trembled as she ordered all of us in the class room to line up single file and move quickly to the gym on the mezzanine floor. Sr. Helen Marie always reminded me of Dorothy’s Auntie Em (Clara Blandick) in The Wizard of Oz. The kids in the nearby public schools were on their own in this fight. At Christ the King, we had a legion of Auntie Ems, nuns in long black habits and starched white wimples forming the frontline of defense against the Russian takeover of our schools. Nikita Khrushchev could bang his shoe all he wanted but these nuns would not be intimidated.

In the gym, Sr. Helen Marie was insistent on one point. We had to crouch down and wedge our faces between our knees and never, never look out the window. The glare of the a-bomb blast would melt our eyes. In my first act of dissent in the Cold War, I peeked at the windows. The temptation to see a Russian, perhaps the evil pilot of the plane, was irresistible. How could I resist the chance to see a Russian, a fiendish pilot in the sky set upon bombing Christ the King grade school in southwest Minneapolis? Now a lifetime later, this question remains for me the unsolved mystery of the Cold War. Why had the Russians targeted an atom-bomb attack on Christ the King Grade School in Minneapolis?

A number of families in my neighborhood took matters into their own hands. They built atom bomb shelters. I envied a few neighborhood kids whose families had built their own underground atom-bomb shelter. My family had made no such preparations. Once, when I asked my mother about where we should hide when the Russians attacked, the question seemed to annoy her. I didn’t take much comfort from her hastily improvised reply that we should go to the laundry room in the basement. My issue was not so much the fear of attack as my envy for the nifty bomb shelters my neighbors had. The interiors were about the size of my uncle’s small air stream camper. Inside, the shelves displayed a three week supply of canned Campbell soups, Hormel Chili and Dinty Moore Beef Stew. They would have a feast, I thought, for the three weeks they would have to wait until the radiation of the a-bomb attack had cleared. I had other motives than civil defense. An atom bomb shelter fed into my dreams of having a secret clubhouse, just like the Little Rascals on TV.

Minnesota was big on the civil defense movement. Established in 1951, the Minnesota Civil Defense Department by the end of the 1950s boasted one of the nation’s most successful campaigns to build bomb shelters. By the time common sense shut down the program in 1961, there were over 2500 public atom bomb shelters capable of accommodating 1.3 million people and around 12, 000 private home bomb shelters ready to protect up to 60,000. What is more, Minnesotans wanted to lend a hand to the cause. Over 14, 000 volunteers at 460 observation centers, the largest number in the nation, participated in “Operation Skywatch.” Equipped with binoculars, the volunteers searched the night skies for incoming Russian bombers and stood by to make the phone call warning us to take cover in the bomb shelters or evacuate the cities. The cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul also conducted “Operation Alert” drills in which the city populations were to evacuate Minneapolis or St. Paul according to the routes published in the newspapers, The Minneapolis Star and The Saint Paul Pioneer Press. At first, in grade school,


I took all of this quite seriously until one day in high school. It was a day for an “Operation Alert.” In my civics class, the teacher, a garrulous and rarely sober, Mr. Maroni picked up the newspaper, cast a bleary eye on the foldout section with maps guiding the residents to their assigned route for evacuating the city. ‘”Boys, so this is what they came up with. We all get in our cars and take the highway north. It’ll work for about a half an hour. Traffic will bring it to a halt. Then, some jackass will drive on the shoulder speed up the side, and all hell will break loose.”

This chapter – my year with my family as an IREX visiting professor at MGU, or Moscow State University – was my Russian baptism, an immersion baptism into Russian life. I arrived in Russia with my wife Marcia and our two children – Kevin aged twelve weeks and Patrick aged two and a half.  The rot of communism was then palpable.  At the moment of his arrival in the old Sheremeteva Airport through his entry into our “bloc,” or university dormitory rooms, Patrick screamed.  A colleague observed Patrick’s shrieks and commented, “Patrick was the only one who had the right, sane response to arriving in Russia.  Scream bloody hell!”  To be candid, my progress on research that year was marginal.  I did trudge Monday through Friday to the Academic Reading Room of the Lenin Library.  Its card catalogue contained around five entries for my research topics – Soviet political history in the 1920s.  Although I did manage to eek out enough to produce my first publication, perhaps the most memorable contribution of the Lenin library to my sense of Soviet history was that it was in that room where I met Molotov and shook his hand.

In actuality, I spent my energies in that year much as an ordinary Russian would have, standing in lines for shopping, searching the stores for anything, and negotiating with harsh Soviet realities for the daily needs of my family.  I became an expert on how to locate Soviet disposable diapers – which I learned the hard way were not called detskii pantilon but pod-guzniki.

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