Grace's Mosaic Moments

Sunday, September 23, 2012


A long time ago, during the Cold War, a group of twelve adventurous Americans traveled 10,000 miles in what was then known as the USSR, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. I was one of them. I had prepared for the trip by studying Russian one-on-one with a young woman at Yale. She and her husband had defected from the USSR at a time when one did not ask how they managed it. She was Moscow-born, and that is the Russian I learned. Not one word of English was spoken during my lessons, including the very first, so it was “learn conversational Russian or bust.”

My roommate on the trip had studied Russian too and was making her second trip to the USSR. Also with us was a man who had been a merchant seaman on the Murmansk Run during WWII. (For the youngsters among us - the Murmansk Run was the extremely hazardous northern route used to bring supplies to the Russians, who were our allies during WWII. If the German subs didn’t get you, the freezing conditions would.) Because he had been iced-in one winter in Murmansk, he too had a pretty good command or Russian. And all he had to do during our tour was mention “Murmansk,” and we were what those of us from New Haven called, “paesan.” We were, in fact, amazed at our welcome. At that time, stylish clothing hadn’t made it to Russia, and if a tourist was well-dressed, it was assumed he/she was German. When I replied each time, “Nyet, ya amerikanskaya,” I was welcomed with surprise and even joy. Our governments might have been at odds, but the Russians remembered American aid and took us to their hearts. Their most frequent question: “How do you live?” Try answering that one on five months of Russian instruction!

Those of us who spoke Russian made a point of leaving our group and sitting next to Russians on Aeroflot flights. We talked to people on street corners, anywhere we could strike up a conversation. The only time I couldn’t communicate with the “man on the street” was in Siberia, where an accent, which could be compared to a Texas drawl, reduced me to speaking with college students only. The most humorous of my Russian encounters was with a taxi driver - in Moscow, I think it was. I told him where we wanted to go in pretty good Russian and he returned a whole spate of words so fast I couldn’t follow. When I asked him to speak more slowly, he laughed and said: “Ah, you speak Russian, but you don’t understand it!” My only disaster - when I told a young military pilot he might fly to the United States one day and he thought I meant “defect.” I fished madly through my dictionary, trying to explain I meant as a tourist, but he abruptly got up and changed seats, obviously fearing my dreadful American influence.

Our tour took us places you can’t find in tourist brochures any more. In Moscow, we saw the Kremlin from its ancient churches and museum with its gorgeous array of Fabergé eggs to the modern government assembly hall. We visited the university in Novosibirsk, Siberia, and then on to Irkutsk, which is just north of Mongolia. Irkutsk is situated on Lake Baikal, the largest fresh water lake in the world due to its one-mile depth. And then we flew north to see the Bratsk dam, at the time the largest dam in the world. Bratsk is way up there in the Siberian wilderness. We turned back west to what was then Soviet Central Asia, Kazhakstan and Uzbekistan, where the architecture changed abruptly from ugly to exotic. Evidently, Stalin architecture made no inroads in the Muslim-influenced south. I’ve got to admit that standing in a square, looking up at a blue-domed mosque and thinking, “I’m in Samarkand!” was a special moment. (But, no, Baikonur and the Soviet space program were not on our tour of Kazhakstan.)

We ended our journey in Leningrad (which now has its original name again - St. Petersburg). What can I say about the Hermitage, the former royal palace and now one of the great art museums of the world, except that they sneaked us into the room where the Impressionist art was hidden in case it might pollute the minds of the populace (or give them ideas “outside the box”). And, oh yes, a very burly female guard scolded me for touching the malachite on one of the huge vases. Fortunately, she stopped short of wrestling me to the ground.

As for Petrodvoretz, Peterhof, Peter the Great’s castle by the sea - whatever you want to call it - if you’re ever in St. Petersburg, don’t miss it. The cascade running down to the Gulf of Finland and the garden full of artificial trees and innocent statuary that suddenly spray water over the unwary are absolute “musts” of any Russian tour. And I understand the palace has some furniture now. It did not when I saw it, the restoration yet in its infancy after long years of war and Stalin’s animosity toward Russia’s monarchist history.

Many years have gone by. It now takes me an age to read a word in Cyrillic, but I remember the events of that journey with astonishing clarity. It was a seminal moment in my life. Since then I’ve been to Machu Picchu twice, seen the ramparts at Coruña where Sir John Moore died, lunched in the main square at Salamanca while attempting to picture it when Wellington was beating at the walls. I’ve traveled the high passes of Switzerland on a mountain train and glided the canals of Venice in a gondola, not to mention seven trips to the British isles and standing in awe in the eerie silence of dusk on the field at Culloden. But none of my travels ever made a greater impression than those 10,000 miles in the USSR.

And, naturally, over the years that Russian connection has cropped up in my books. Here’s a list:


Shadowed Paradise. A subtle Russian connection through a hero whose father defected by jumping ship in the Cuban straits. Brad Blue speaks idiomatic Russian and was likely a spy before he zigged when he should have zagged. He’s now building a multi-million dollar development of “Key West” homes in the Gulf Coast resort and retirement community of Golden Beach, Florida.

Paradise Burning. Brad Blue gets to use his Russian background to assist an estranged husband and wife who are researching a book on international trafficking in women and children, only to discover that the Russian mafia has set up a brothel almost within their own backyard.


Orange Blossoms & Mayhem.  Laine Halliday, a troubleshooter for her family who own an exotic wedding and vacation business in Golden Beach, encounters a good deal more trouble than usual when a Russian mafioso wants his bride to step out of nesting Fabergé eggs! In a tale that ranges from Peru to Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France, Laine scrambles to keep one step ahead of gangsters and save a Russian bride. Not to mention a Brit Interpol agent.


Limbo Man. The strongest Russian connection of all. The amnesiac hero doesn’t know if he’s a good guy or a bad guy, Russian or American. He’s told he’s a Russian arms dealer, but that doesn’t feel right. What he does like is his “minder,” a female FBI agent on loan to Homeland Security. As his memory begins to creep back, they race to save the U.S. from the detonation of two antique Russian nukes.


Note: Only Limbo Man is not anchored by the not-so-imaginary town of Golden Beach, Florida. The settings for Limbo Man range from the U.S. to Siberia and Iran and back again. 

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Thanks for stopping by.


Coming soon: "Way Down Upon the Suwanee River . . ." or "There's Such a Thing as Too Far Away."  
Or "A Visit to Spider, Snake & Rodentville, Not Far South of the Okeefenokee."


  1. Grace, what an exciting life you've led! I grew up near New Haven, as did my mother and my husband. The only places I've been outside the U.S. are Ireland, England and Nova Scotia (for a couple of hours--LOL). Many of the places you've mentioned, I have on my "bucket list"--once the kids are moved out, hubby & I need to go on some grand adventures. :D

  2. Lynne, I've never really thought about it, but when you point it out, I have to admit I've been very fortunate in being able to travel so extensively and to some rather remarkable places - although I wish I'd never seen those five-story chain link & barbed wire fences around schools in Belfast. A horrid icon to man's inhumanity to man, including those who speak the same language.
    But looking back, it almost seems like a miracle that I was able to observe so much of the world. For which I am infinitely grateful.