My First Soviet Study

Monday, May 6, 1991, my first official workday out of “the family” arrived with a whimper. The FBI was now in the rearview mirror, and I wondered what the road ahead held for me. No one would be surprised to learn that those first few days continued to be filled with ambivalence and a sense of loss.

Typically, agents that l knew who had left the Bureau would spend considerable (Bureau) time lining up a new gig in order to monetize their experience. It was expected. I, on the other hand, had no desire to find another job. I really wanted to be left alone—for a long time.

Now that I was free, I had a growing sense that travel to the Soviet Union would figure prominently in my future, but I had no concrete idea how this might come about (nota bene, in May 1991, there was still no indication of the revolution that was to come).

Lo and behold, within two weeks of my resignation, I received in the mail a brochure inviting interested persons to join a large Christian mission group that was planning to travel to Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev (Ukraine) in early August. Wow! The timing of this mailer was uncanny. I couldn’t believe what I was reading: a safe and affordable opportunity to go to the very place(s) that I had dreamed about for several years. August couldn’t come soon enough.

A cousin of mine is often quoted as saying, “Experience is something you get when you expected something else.” In this case, my trip to the Soviet Union brought the kind of experiences I could never have imagined. I can’t exactly recall today what I expected back then on that first trip, but what I discovered was that Communism had, by and large, hardened the hearts of the people. The Soviet system robbed people of their humanity. However, as hope springs eternal, so there were incredible instances of affection and vulnerability from people who had suffered greatly under the Soviet regime. A truly remarkable thing.

One afternoon, I and another young woman are standing near a Moscow subway station entrance, silently cradling in our hands small white plastic crosses. We have to be careful not to actively engage people because of the laws prohibiting proselytization. The area is bustling with passers-by, folks going to and fro, up and down the stairs. A middle-aged man, slender and with chiseled features, brusquely passes in front of me and heads down the subway stairs. Suddenly, halfway down he stops, turns around, and ascends the crowded stairwell. He steps close to me—even intimidatingly so—and graciously accepts a small cross, kisses me lightly on the right cheek, and silently disappears back into the flow of the descending subway commuters.

Such an intimate moment—and in such an unlikely place! To say I was taken aback would be an understatement. Over the course of the next several days, various encounters would speak to a similar vulnerability. 

This was a unique people. They had much to teach me.

Barbara Van Driel