Russian President Vladimir Putin has committed the full force of his country’s military to subdue and possibly destroy a neighboring democracy in a murdering, vainglorious attempt to recreate a 21st century Soviet Union. Or speculate some historians, to revive a new Russian empire based on an ethno-nationalist fantasy that originated in Tsarist Russia hundreds of years earlier.

I was in Russia in 1979, when the country was still the mothership of a geographically vast and politically powerful Soviet Union. My first wife and I were traveling from Japan (where we had lived and worked as English teachers), through Russia and Europe, on a leisurely, touristy trip back home to the United States. We had taken a boat from Yokohama, Japan, to Khabarovsk on the Russian mainland and caught a night train on a spur of the Trans-Siberian Railway. We then flew over the seemingly endless steppes of central Russia. It was on Aeroflot, the Russian national airline, that I got my first inkling of something amiss. For dinner, I was served a bright red, slick slab of animal protein that I was convinced was horse meat. While shocked, I was too embarrassed to ask the flight attendant for confirmation.

Back on a train to Moscow, we passed through some of the most beautiful pastoral country I’d ever seen, piquing my interest in the city of Red Square, the Kremlin and the Bolshoi Theater. Once there, we were in for more shocks. The city was a mess, despite the battalion of babushkas who daily swept and watered the sidewalks. Nothing in the city seemed to work properly, from our rust-spewing tub faucet in the Hotel Metropol to the lavish but overcrowded and poorly run subway stations.

Many of the people we met in our daily travels (organized and controlled by Intourist, the Soviet state travel agency) appeared miserable and unfriendly. A few were actively aggressive.

During a trip to the Soviet Union in 1979, Steven Price observed, ‘you could buy warm beer from an outdoor vending machine with a stained, reusable glass stein, but you couldn’t buy chewing gum anywhere except in your hotel lobby, and only with foreign currency.’ Associated Press/Alexander Zemlianichenko

We also experienced a number of strange cultural anomalies. For example, you could buy warm beer from an outdoor vending machine with a stained, reusable glass stein, but you couldn’t buy chewing gum anywhere except in your hotel lobby, and only with foreign currency. You couldn’t even buy gum in GUM (pronounced Goom), the giant state-run department store. Wandering inside the Russian box store, we found a sea of empty shelves. Needing some new shoes, I checked out the men’s shoe department, only to find a few styles and sizes. And what they did have were poorly constructed.

I’ve never been much of a political prognosticator, but I told my wife at the time (the height of the Cold War): “We don’t have to go to war with these people. Given time, this country is simply going to fall apart.”

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During our remaining time in Moscow, having discovered how highly valued hard-to-find chewing gum was, I started using it as a tip in restaurants and as a bargaining chip with street urchins who wanted to sell you everything from nesting dolls to fake icons. But the gum I had acquired in the hotel gift shop was most useful, and most satisfying, when we crossed the Austrian-Czechoslovakian border by train on our way to Vienna.

At each end of every train car stood a stone-faced soldier with a machine gun. One of them watched me suspiciously as I hung out in the windowed aisleway outside our compartment, watching the increasingly European scenery pass by in the morning light. Sensing his scrutiny, I slowly unwrapped a piece of Juicy Fruit gum and popped it into my mouth. The soldier stared at me, as if I’d just ingested a spoonful of Beluga caviar or black truffles.

I chewed. He glared. I smiled. He grimaced. His face let me know he’d love to shove me off the train, after he put a few bullets in me. Freedom never tasted so good.

Postscript: The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Putin has famously called the collapse, “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Today, for Ukraine, the taste of freedom is bittersweet. Bitter for the freedoms Russia is crushing in pursuit of its fantasy of greater global glory, and sweet for the freedoms brave Ukrainians are fighting for, and sometimes winning.

Steven Price is a Kennebunkport resident. He can be reached at [email protected]

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