Being With The People — A Diary by Kirk Edwards: Leningrad 1989 — Friday, June 23, 1989
For The Madera Tribune
CWO Kirk Edwards receiving the “Spirit of the Bear Award” from the Commandant of the Coast Guard with the Superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy (Admiral Burhoe) pictured on the left.
In 1989, Kirk Edwards, a 1973 MHS graduate, had an experience unique to Madera natives. He traveled as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Band to the Soviet Union — the first U.S. Band to do so. Throughout his stay, he kept a diary, an abridged copy of which is here published, in serial form, for the first time.
A rendezvous in the dark
I was anxious to run this morning because I missed running yesterday, but I turned around after a half an hour because my stomach rumblings from Thursday were now being manifest as the beginnings of diarrhea. I was very uncomfortable because of my stomach rumblings as I retraced my steps back to the hotel. I had breakfast in our hotel room after my run. My roommates pitched in to ensure that I had enough food from home to eat. Carroll was suffering from the same symptoms. Carroll and I were trying to decide whether we should go on the tour of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral that was planned for this morning. We decided that we should go on the tour because it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
A clandestine meeting
Our hotel room phone rang at 8:30 p.m. while I was in the middle of my graham cracker and peanut butter dinner. It was Arif, Sergey the artist’s friend. He said, “Kirk, I must see you.”
I left my dinner so that I could meet Arif. He did not provide any additional information concerning the nature of our meeting. Our destination was a building that looked like a warehouse. It was on the same street as the hotel, about a block and a half from the hotel and on the opposite side of the street. At this point I was uncertain of Arif’s motives. He opened the door and said, “Enter.” It was very dark inside of the huge building. Arif could see that I was hesitant about entering the dark building. He said, “Is not hold up,” in his strong Azerbaijan accent.
After closing the outer door, we walked a few feet in complete darkness. I could not see my hand in front of my face in the darkness of the room. Then we came to a huge metal door on the right side of the room that looked more like an industrial type door than the door of a residence.
Arif rang a doorbell to gain access to the inner room. The doorbell was odd and archaic in appearance. Then the door opened. It was so dark in the inner room that I couldn’t see anything. Then Arif said, “Enter.” Arif expressed himself in one-word sentences at times because of his limited command of the English language.
At this point I was afraid that I was going to be seriously “rolled.” But, I intuitively believed that I could trust Arif because of our previous interaction. I entered the room very cautiously. I thought that with two to one odds that I would have a chance to escape with my life if the situation got out of control.
After Arif closed the big metal door, darkness enveloped the room. Then they opened another door leading to another room on the right side of the inner room. As we entered the second inner room I could see two men seated in a dimly lit room as we approached through a short hallway.
Arif introduced the men once we had entered. Arif told me that one of the men was from East Germany. They seemed mutually fearful of me also. I am not sure if they seemed fearful of me because they feared being caught dealing in the black market or if they were just overwhelmed by meeting an American.
As I surveyed the dimly lit room, beautiful oil paintings lined all of its walls. There were also stacks of paintings leaning against the walls. Arif asked me, “Do you see anything that you like?” Now the purpose of this mysterious trip was clear.
I peered at the lovely paintings on the walls and then rummaged through the stacks. To my untrained eye, the quality of these paintings was exquisite. I certainly had not previously considered purchasing any more pieces of art, especially after acquiring the portrait and the two caricatures. Additionally, I did not want to spend any more money, with several days of our visit remaining. But, this mysterious scenario, and the beauty of the artwork captivated me.
I slowly made my way around the room. A painting of a Russian lady hung in a dimly lit, remote corner of the room, as if it was not part of the display. Her fiery eyes and her tragic expression immediately intrigued me. To me, this expression symbolized the many tragic events that the Russian people had endured, past and present. I told Arif that I really liked that particular painting.
My mind was now set on the painting of the Russian woman with the tragic expression on her face. No other paintings appealed to me quite as much. After a long uncomfortable silence, Arif told me that the artist asked how much that I would be willing to pay for the portrait of the Russian woman. I hesitated and did not respond immediately. After a while Arif said, “He says forty American dollars for the painting.” I was not prepared to spend that much on another work of art. I replied that I could not spend more than twenty dollars for the painting. After about five minutes of silence Arif said, “He says O.K.” So, they wrapped the painting in brown wrapping paper and tied it up securely with string.
I told the artist that I did not want to take his beautiful painting for twenty dollars. I began to look at other paintings. It seemed unfair, as though I was exploiting this fine artist by offering such a low price. But, the artist insisted that he was satisfied with the agreement.
After purchasing the painting, I was very concerned that the authorities might observe us as we emerged from the building with the painting. After we returned to the hotel, I told Arif that my roommates and I had plans for the evening. Arif told me that he would call on me on Saturday or Sunday. Then we shook hands and expressed our appreciation to one another and said “Das veedania.”
I couldn’t wait to unwrap my new painting after Arif departed to re-evaluate my new acquisition after I returned to my room. I was anxious to show it off to my roommates. Tony and Carroll thought that it was an interesting portrait. But, they were not as captivated as I was with the painting. I was still quite taken by her fiery eyes and her tragic expression.
It seemed as though I was dreaming. My experiences while in Leningrad were so very different than my life at home in the U.S. Leningraders were intrigued by the fact that I was an American first and then that I was an African American secondly. This attention made me very proud to be an American. I was very much captivated by the people of the Soviet Union. I wished that the dream would never end.