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A Ride to Remember: Exploring Cold War Russia via the Trans-Siberian Railroad

It was unusual for any Americans during the Cold War to travel in the Soviet Union but Russell Sveda did just that in 1969. After serving for two years as a Peace Corps (PC) volunteer in Korea, he decided to make his way home by taking the path less traveled and riding the Trans-Siberian railroad. He talks about meeting ethnic Koreans in Samarkand, his offer of marriage by a woman he didn’t even know, and an hours-long “interview” with a KGB agent posing as a journalist.  He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2000.

Read about Naomi Collins’ experience in the USSR as a student and Sveda’s 14-year battle with the State Department after it was discovered that he was gay. Go here for other Moments on the USSR/Russia.


Koreans in the USSR

SVEDA: In 1969, I went from Seoul, Korea, where I was a PC volunteer to Japan and traveled around Japan a bit.

In fact, that was the summer that the Americans landed on the Moon. I remember watching that with astonishment from a Japanese inn. I really marveled at being able to watch this at all, and being able to watch it in Japan.

I went by boat from Yokohama to [Nakhodka] on a Soviet ship. My father was a naval officer. I should never have called that a “boat.” I went by a Soviet ship and my little odyssey began. I landed in [Nakhodka] and got off the ship and went to a little waiting area where they had a little souvenir stand. I was waiting to get on to the Trans-Siberian.

I leaned over one of the display cases and as I leaned back, I noticed to my horror that my arm was bleeding. I had brushed against the unsmoothed surface of cut glass. The women who were there began yelling at me like “What did you think you were doing leaning against that glass case?”

Of course, American that I was, it would never have occurred to me that anybody would put sharp glass as a glass case in a tourist area. That is where the whole thing began.

Basically, I went across the Soviet Union. The interesting thing was not so much where I was but how the Soviets reacted to a PC volunteer who spoke Korean going across.

At a certain point, I got the general idea of the Trans-Siberian. I took a plane from near [Irkutsk] to Samarkand. When I landed in Alma Ata [present-day Almaty, Kazakhstan] on the way over, I had this strange sense that I had a number of Koreans on the plane. They looked Korean. I thought, “Well, maybe it’s one of the minority people of Central Asia.” But I didn’t think they could be Koreans.

I got to Tashkent and saw more people who had that absolute distinctive Korean look. So, I asked the Intourist guide and she said, “Oh, yes, 11% of the population of Tashkent is Korean, 7% is this, 5% is this.”

I said, “Whoa, let’s go back to the Koreans. What are they doing here?”

She said, “Well, they have huge collective farms near Samarkand.”

I said, “Well, I’m going there on my next stop.”

She said, ‘Why are you interested?”

I said, “Well, I just lived in Korea for two years.” So, still doubting this, I went to the department store in Tashkent and in the ladies garment section, I saw unmistakable Korean traditional women’s clothing and underwear. Having lived with a Korean family, I certainly knew what the stuff looked like on the line. I just was astonished.

I got to Samarkand and found out that they were there, too. I asked the guide when I came in from the airport, “The Koreans, where do they live?”

She said, “Oh, there are two very large collective farms.”

I said, “I don’t really know if I’ll be able to get out there.” She said, “Well, probably not, but they’re also selling rice in the farmers market.”

I went down to the farmers market and I saw this Korean, an older lady sitting on a donkey smoking a cigarette. I went up to her and asked her in Korean, “How much is this rice?”

She answered me in Russian. I said to her in Korean, “I don’t speak Russian. I speak English. I’m an American. And I speak your language.”

We got into a little conversation. It turns out that she and her people were from Mokpo in southern Korea, in the southwestern part, a very small and rough town.

I said, “Well, I’ve been to Mokpo.” She said, “No, you haven’t.”

I said, “Well, I’ve climbed Yudalsan,” which is a mountain in the town. She was astonished that someone actually knew the name of this town.

She told me her story. They had been brought as slave laborers to Manchukuo by the Japanese in the 1930s. In 1937, they had escaped from Manchukuo across the border into Soviet Central Asia. Stalin, noticing these people who he probably thought looked Japanese moving into his territory, moved them as far away as he could think, which was Soviet Central Asia.

They arrived in Uzbekistan and places like that at a historically propitious moment. They were probably asked by the locals, “What can you do? Do you know how to grow rice?” It seems that the Central Asian peoples, whose main dish is rice pilaf (or as they call it, “rice plof”), didn’t really know how to grow rice but had gathered it from swamps historically where they got it in trade with China or with India.

But all that trade had been cut off. The population was rising. They really didn’t have any good supply of rice. The Koreans built these huge collective farms and even colleges and some of them became quite prominent in the Soviet Union.

Well, talking to Koreans in Korean excited the interest of the Soviet authorities. So, in my next stop in Volgograd (the old Stalingrad), as I got off the airplane, I noticed that there was not the usual Intourist guide, the usual woman, but there was a man who spoke flawless English with her and claimed to be a journalist and there were two other men who didn’t seem to speak any language whatsoever who just watched him and her and just sort of hung around.

The four of them took me on a tour of the battlefield but also brought me through a TV studio and wanted to interrogate me in a TV studio about my attitudes toward the Vietnam War. I sensed that there was something strange. I was only 23 years old.

So, I began to talk about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 as having been just as bad in my view as the war that was going on then in Vietnam. They didn’t seem to like this very much.

Marry Me

In my next town, which was Moscow, actually nothing happened. But I got to Leningrad after Moscow and outside of the Hermitage, a strawberry blonde woman came up to me and asked me if I was a foreigner and if I would marry her.

I asked her how she knew I was a foreigner. She said, “Well, you’re wearing jeans.”

I said, “Well, a lot of Soviets are wearing jeans.”

She said, “Well, you’re writing in a notebook.”

I said, “It’s a Soviet notebook.”

She said, “Why would you be writing in a notebook if you were a Soviet? You’re a foreigner.”

We palled around for three or four days and she became really importuning on marrying me.

I more or less said, “No, I don’t have the time to do that. I’m only going to be here for two or three days. I don’t have the money to come back to the Soviet Union.”

The KGB Welcome Wagon

So, my next stop, my final stop in the Soviet Union, was Kiev. I get to Kiev and I am picked up at the railway, as usual, by an Intourist guide, direct to the hotel.

As soon as I get into my hotel room, the phone rings. Who knows me in Kiev? So, I just let the phone ring.

But as the phone was ringing and ringing and ringing and ringing, I decided that maybe I ought to just pick it up to stop it from ringing.

There was a voice on the other end, somebody speaking very good English asking me if I would stay in my room because a reporter wished to interview me about my impressions of Kiev.

I said, “Well, I’ve only been here about half an hour. To tell you the truth, I don’t have any impressions. Why don’t we talk tomorrow?”

“Well, nevertheless, you will wait in your room and the reporter will be there.”

So, the reporter came in wearing a trench coat (it was summer) and was probably in his mid-30s and was smoking one of those Soviet cigarettes that stinks. He sat down and began asking me about my trip in the Soviet Union. He already knew my itinerary, of course. He was particularly interested in my trip to Central Asia and my discussions with the Koreans there.

Well, it was obvious that I was being interrogated. I guess it began around four in the afternoon and by around seven in the evening, I had told him everything I could about PC [the Peace Corps]. He was convinced that the PC was a CIA organization.

I looked at my watch and being the young American, I said, “Look, I have brought coupons for dinner and I must rush down to the restaurant because it opens at seven at closes at eight. If I don’t get there right away, I won’t get fed. It takes a half hour to get the lady’s attention, a half hour to get the food. You’re lucky to do it before closing time.”

He said, “Oh, well, no problem. We’ll stay here in the room and continue talking. We’ll just order up room service.”

I said, “Wait. I can’t get food in a Soviet hotel restaurant and you’re going to be ordering room service?”

He said, “What do you think? This is a normal and modern country.”

He picked up the phone. He asked me what kind of food I wanted. I figured I’d better make points at this point, so I said, “Ukrainian food, of course.” He said something on the phone and about five minutes later came this cart laden with food and bottles of cognac.

He signed for it and turned to me for a tip.

I said, “What do you mean?”

He said, “A tip. 50 kopeks is enough.” This really is a minimal amount of money. I realized that this guy was a government employee because he could sign the tab, but he couldn’t put on a tip.

So, we talked the whole evening. Then around midnight or so, he said, “Well, we’ll continue tomorrow morning.”

I said, “No, we won’t.”

He said, “What do you mean, we won’t?”

I said, “Because I will only be in Kiev for most of tomorrow and I really don’t want to miss Kiev.”

He said, “Oh, well, I have a friend who has a car and he can drive you around and save a lot of time.” I said, “Fine.”

It was a grey car, which was a distinctive color that was used only by the KGB. His friend had a two-grunt vocabulary and seemed to be interested only in driving this grey car. We sat in the back and while we went through Kiev — it was a pleasant enough visit — he asked me a lot of questions, more about PC and Korea.

He showed me a book which he said proved that PC was a CIA prop. It was a book in Russian, but I could read the Cyrillic a bit. It said that PC had been expelled from Mozambique for CIA activities and PC had been expelled from another left-leaning country in Africa for CIA activities.

I said, “That’s ridiculous. It would never work, not in this generation of PC volunteers. The unrest on the campus — if anybody ever thought for a second that PC was being used as a spy organization –”

When he came back to the hotel room, he repeated all the questions that he had asked me in the car in a kind of a summary fashion. So, obviously, the car wasn’t bugged but the hotel room was wired for sound. Then I left the Soviet Union.

Later on in my career, this interview was to be used against me by State Department security. They claimed that as a former PC volunteer and a perspective member of the Foreign Service, I put myself in a position that could have led to my being compromised.

This was one of the things that they used against me. The way they knew about this was because I told them about this interview during the Foreign Service and they went through my file and found this and used it against me. My response was very simple, that I was a former PC volunteer and was not a U.S. government employee at that point, and I did not know. Maybe it was in the mind of God, but I didn’t know that I would be a Foreign Service officer some six years later. But it was something that later wound up used against me…. 

I went next to Budapest by train. When I got there, there was this woman in the train station with a young son, who was about 15 or 16. She was Romanian. She asked me if I spoke French and I did speak French. She wanted to change money.

I was intensely suspicious at this point because I thought, “Well, I just got off the train and I don’t have a place to stay in Budapest and here is this woman asking to change money, which I knew was illegal.”

But her story was that she was a Romanian dentist and she had studied in France and desperately wanted to get her son to France to study before he reached draft age in the Romanian army. She really didn’t want him to be drafted. She would offer me a place to stay, but she needed the hard currency in order to buy a railroad ticket to Vienna. The Hungarians would only sell a Romanian a ticket if she were to give them hard currency.

So, I said, “Fine, I’ll do it.”

The next day or the day after, she met me as I went to the train and she said that she decided not to get on the train because somebody had told her that the Hungarian authorities would arrest any Romanians or anybody else from the Soviet Bloc who were trying to leave Hungary illegally to Austria.

I thought it was very, very sad but very real that people at that time could not travel the way I was traveling, freely.