Choices – Part Two

As promised, here’s the story of my choice to not fight immediately and how that choice possibly averted an international incident between the United States and what was then the Soviet Union near the end of the Cold War.  I’m probably exaggerating my own importance, but it’s a fun story even though at the time I was literally running scared.  What I mean by fun is it’s like a ghost story – many of us like to feel that shiver down our spines as a good storyteller relates the events.  This story contrasts with my previous blog (below), in which I explained how I dealt with the emotional aftermath of my choice to use karate to end ongoing physical abuse.


Choices – Part Two

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In 1988, Russian speaking competitions were held throughout the United States (under the direction of the American Council of Teachers of Russian) and corresponding English speaking competitions were held in what was then the Soviet Union.  Twenty winners from each nation were sent to tour the other nation for a month.  This was the first nationwide exchange of high school students between the US and the USSR.  I was the winner for my region.  Tensions between the two superpowers were easing, President Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev were talking, but there were still indications of distrust of even us goofy high school kids.

We knew for a fact our hotel rooms were bugged.  Anyone who’s taken a basic course in electronics knows a speaker can be a microphone and vice versa, so one of us experimented on one of the the cable radios hardwired into the walls of our hotel rooms.  Within minutes a maid appeared, walked straight to the radio, and took away the towels used to muffle the radio.  I kid you not!  Either the KGB didn’t care that we knew they were listening, or the agents in charge that day deemed us stupid enough to think the maid was just popping in by chance.  Way to go, comrades 😛

One night at some awful hour in the morning, my room-mate was sick.  She wanted me to go get one of our American teachers.  I jogged down the barely-lit hallway of the hotel, thundered down the dim stairs, turned on a fairly wide landing and…

“I hear you.”  said a hoarse, creepy, male voice in Russian.

A man stood silhouetted against the floor-to-ceiling window of the landing.

I kept going – in fact I sped up and took the stairs down even faster.  In an instant without breaking stride I’d analyzed this was no place for a fight.  He was silhouetted against a window and therefore could see me just fine by the light of a street lamp.  All I could see was a black form.  The landing was about half the size of a karate tournament square, but the stairway was wide and very much a hazard.  I elected to choose the ground so the fight would be on my terms.  I raced down the barely-lit hallway.  The lighting was on my side now and my American teacher would hear any rumpus.

Scared as I was, I analyzed my opponent as I ran.  I was glad he’d made a tactical error in not grabbing me immediately.  I scoffed at the thought of him expecting me to freeze at the sound of his voice.  Clearly he’d underestimated me, and he would probably continue to do so.  I knew that was to my advantage.  At the same time, I kicked myself for not scanning the landing before I barelled down onto it.  I really wondered why the guy had addressed me using the formal  “you.”  Criminals would use the informal “you” as an insult – a way to demoralize a victim.

My first weapon was my position.  I could see him approaching and there was only one direction from which he could get at me.  As I mentioned earlier, my teacher would hear the rumpus.  My second weapon was my native language.  We were supposed to use Russian as much as possible, but I deliberately shouted in English as I pounded on my teacher’s door.  In the Soviet era, criminals would get in boatloads more trouble for attacking foreigners than their fellow countrymen.  I also had my ace in the hole – karate.

“Mrs. M – wake up!  Are you there?  It’s me…”  I turned to glare at the creep, who’d just appeared out of the gloom at the beginning of the hall, “Well, my roommate is sick and she’s asking for you…  Yeah, she’s feeling really bad…  Yes, she wants you to come.  Oh, and there’s this creep hanging around out here…”

I kept up a constant stream of English and maintained eye contact with the man, silently sending the message that this scrawny teenage girl was actually a force to be reckoned with.  I was glad he didn’t advance further than a few feet into the dim gloom of the hallway.  He stopped about ten yards away from me.

I was surprised at the man’s appearance.  He was clean and neat.  By American standards, his clothes were laughable – can we say polyester, boys and girls?  But by Soviet standards he was dressed in good stylish clothes found in the special stores where only the best little Comrades were allowed to shop.  His hair and mustache were trimmed neatly, but the style was from the mid 1970’s (darned good by Soviet standards).  He clearly wasn’t a street rat.

The man appeared to be listening intently, as people often do when they are following conversation in a language they don’t speak fluently.  When I shouted through my teacher’s door about my roommate being sick, his eyes widened, his head nodded, and I could see his mouth form an inaudible, “Ah!”  He grinned and disappeared after he heard enough about himself (believe me, I had plenty to say).  Finally, my teacher came out of her room.  I walked ahead of my teacher, as she was, shall we say, near retirement age.  I was alert, every sense strained, and I checked that landing in the stairwell thoroughly.  We didn’t encounter anyone on our way to my sick roommate. The man had evidently decided to lurk elsewhere.

The way I figure it, the man was a low-level KGB agent who’d drawn the short straw when it was time to assign someone to take the graveyard shift monitoring us American kids.  Fighting him would have been a very bad idea, and just might have ended with me shot dead.  There was plenty of room for a concealed firearm or two under his tacky dark brown polyester blazer.  Maybe it would’ve sparked ill will between America and the Soviet Union, given I was part of the first nationwide exchange of students.  Maybe not.  But it sure makes an interesting story.

Looking back years later, it’s clear I feel badly about the actual fight I was in and I feel much better about the incident when I ended up not having to fight.  The encounter with the KGB agent in the USSR is like a scary ghost story to be told around a campfire for the sheer joy of seeing chills run down the audience’s spines.  I’m still reluctant to open up about the other incident in which I chose to fight as a last resort.  When we use force, even minimal force, against another human being there are consequences even if it was the right thing to do.

I can reflect on both incidents and know that if I made the right choices when I was a kid, I can probably trust my adult self to make the right choice if I find myself in another bad situation.  But let’s face it – I’m human, I will blow it from time to time.  However, I can also trust my adult self to learn from bad decisions and do better next time.  That is what self confidence is all about, isn’t it?

Author: Joelle White

I began training in Karate in June of 2014 after a 27 year hiatus.

3 thoughts on “Choices – Part Two”

  1. Fascinating story.
    You are probably right on that the person in a stairwell was a KGB minder. Most likely, he meant you no harm. In fact, probably part of his job was to make sure that American kids (especially teenage girls) are not harmed by some idiot. Even though you probably stayed in Интурист hotel (reserved exclusively for foreigners), the Soviet regime was already deteriorating, and there could have been some criminal characters staying in the hotel, after paying off hotel administration. So, the local KGB bosses could have decided to put an extra guy in a stairwell just in case.

    Couple of things are interesting. First, that you were put on a different floor from your adult teachers. They usually tried to put such delegations together on the same floor, for ease of surveillance/protection. Second, Soviet hotels had a habit of having person (usually a middle aged woman) sit at a desk on every floor. They would be stationed such that you have to pass by them to get to the staircase/elevator. But she may have been asleep or maybe she stepped away when you passed by.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and reading! There was no клучная (if I remember the word for “key lady”) at that particular hotel, and I’m not sure if that particular hotel was Интурист or not (there were a few that definitely were not). It’s hard to remember – 1988 was a long time ago and we stayed in eight different cities 🙂 But I’ll never forget “Слушаю вас” in that hoarse voice. Oddly enough, our rooms were often separated from our teachers and from each other – I don’t know if it was poor planning or if they thought we’d be less likely to throw wild parties if we were separated 😉 Definitely a different era, and it’s one thing to read about it in books but quite another to walk among the people and speak their language, to enter buildings steeped with centuries of history, to gaze at imperial treasures bought with peasants’ blood, to feel the deep scars of wars, to sense the ever-present suffocating blanket of mistrust and suspicion, and to have to master fear in a stairwell at night.

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