Now in his 70s, and alarmed by the perverse sympathies toward communism and socialism he’s seeing in our new America, especially among Millennials, Cole in 2017 marked the centenary of communism by writing a memoir of his six surreal months in the USSR, in hopes of not only preserving that history but begging Americans to pay heed to the lessons of the failed communist experiment. He hopes to offer truth as an antidote to “mind-numbing propaganda,” then and still today.
Cole’s account is titled In Russian Wonderland, an engaging journey through unique remembrances of everything from Russia’s laughable but scary “Aeroflot” airlines, to the Russian people’s shocking abuse of “oceans of vodka,” to the omnipresence of state surveillance, to the grim behavior of Soviet workers from waitresses and waiters to hotel maids, to the diabolical annihilation of religion — from what the Kremlin called its approved “working churches” to the desecration and conversion of great holy places like Leningrad’s Kazan Cathedral into the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism.
On and on it went, this strange life in the worker’s paradise. Truly, it was a Wonderland, at times more bizarre than the oddest scenes from Lewis Carroll’s classic. Indeed, Alice might have found herself less confused in her weird Wonderland than this baffling Bolshevik rendition drawn up in Russian.
Among Cole’s many telling anecdotes, here are a few that beg our attention and remembrance:
At one exhibit in Kazan, which, as usual, was monitored by heckling KGB hacks pretending to be passersby, an elderly gentleman discreetly brought Charles a bag of freshly picked apples. He asked Charles to accept it as a gift from an old Russian who admired the United States. Before walking away, he winked at Charles and whispered, “The sweetest of these apples are toward the bottom of the bag.”
Charles later retrieved from the bottom a piece of paper folded into a tiny cube. He opened it to find this note from the old timer: “We have a totalitarian regime. If we had a democratic republic, we would have progressed further and achieved more. Nowadays the psychiatric hospitals are filled with dissidents. All the positive comments in your comments book are immediately torn out by the KGB. You should take pride in having such a democratic country and not be overly tolerant in the face of those who have been blinded and deceived by propaganda.”
The KGB plants were stationed at every exhibit — watching, staring, brooding. As soon as the American representative would strike up a conversation with curious Russians, the plants would start up with their canned litany of harassing questions, badgering the American about his country being rife with racism, sexism, unemployment, homelessness, excoriating U.S. foreign policy, especially in Vietnam, and on and on (what we’d call liberal talking points). “But you discriminate against black people.” “Why is your government killing babies in Vietnam?”
In one case, something tragic ensued that remains seared in Charles’ memory: During most Q&A sessions at the exhibits, everyday Russians quickly clamped up when the KGB plants started their antics and barrage of mendacity. They didn’t want trouble. One day in Leningrad, however, a young man couldn’t contain his rage at the masquerade of lies dished by the government propagandist. He responded, and then the plant responded, and back and forth it went. Fact vs. falsehood, fact vs. falsehood. The young man would not back down. The crowd watched nervously. The young man’s wife pleaded with him to stop, tugging at his coat to leave. She knew the danger, but the young man couldn’t help himself. This was too unjust. In short order, says Cole, a group of “dour-looking guys in black leather jackets” suddenly materialized, as did a black van at the rear door. A goon in the van got out, signaled to the thugs, and they seized the young man, speeding away.
Charles many times has wondered what happened to that poor kid — hauled off by scoundrels serving their police state.
And if that image doesn’t shake you, picture this scenario reported by Charles when finally departing commie wonderland as his train approached Finland: The locomotive came to an unexpected full stop on an elevated trestle. From the window, Charles and friends glimpsed a powerful searchlight from somewhere below the railroad bridge. It turned out that this was standard procedure for Soviet border guards. They fixed their beaming lights under the train cars to see if any desperate soul had somehow clung himself to the bottom of the locomotive to escape utopia.