When I was a teenager in 1987, I went to the Soviet Union with a church youth group, during the era of Perestroyka. Posing as secular high school students, our sacred mission as “ambassadors of peace” was to smuggle Bibles to our Christian brothers and sisters trapped in the godless commie empire, and perhaps take in some sight-seeing. I was seventeen, the son of a minister from one of the sponsor churches, and not very pious. I more or less saw the trip as a good excuse to see some of the world.
On the Lufthansa flight, I sequestered myself to the rear of the plane as far from my co-ambassadors as I could get. They were clustered near the front, singing church camp songs. When I asked my eugenic Finnish stewardess for a 7-Up, I was delighted to learn that we were now over international waters and that my country’s prissy strictures against underage drinking need no longer apply. Eight hours later, when we landed for an overnight stop-over in Helsinki, I was very drunk. I would remain happily soused for the next two weeks, as I sampled Russia’s plethora of free-flowing vodkas.
That night in Helsinki, to break the ice, the missionary crew went out for a feast of broiled reindeer, holding hands around the table to pray both before and after our meal, and then we strolled around a Finnish mall where the porn was curiously on display with the hand soap. As I was examining the cover of a magazine where yet another Aryan blond was pressing her tongue down on the anus of what could have been her twin sister, someone came up behind me and said, “That’s not very Christian now is it?” I turned around to find Monica, the cute little 4-H punk chick whom I noticed would roll her eyes each time our lead chaperone, a bald frenzied man, said, “in God’s warm embrace” with arms outstretched.
Later, crowded into one of the chaperone’s rooms, during what would become our nightly prayer meeting, I sat behind Monica, waiting until everyone’s head was bowed in silence to lean forward and whisper, in my best impersonation of the deacon, “Let us now rejoice in God’s moist embrace.” Snorting violently, she dashed out of the room. Despite my being able to keep a straight face, everybody seemed to know it was my fault and from then on our fellow ambassadors dealt with Monica and me with trepidation.
We had only one other ally: a guy from Hoboken named Richie. More than once Monica and I had to help him stagger out of a prayer meeting. The chaperones tried to pray with us about our drinking, but their efforts had little effect. Our misfit conspiracy found sanctuary in my hotel room, where we were intoxicated as much by the formidable absence of Gideons as by our ready cocktails. We acquired a taste for the gamey black bread served at every meal, which we smuggled from the dining hall in Monica’s cargo pants. Chain-smoking the stale local cigarettes out of packs emblazoned with the image of Sputnik, we spoke with increasing disdain of Americans. Eventually, the mutual fantasy Monica and I shared of defecting and joining the communist party led to an effortless melancholic adolescent intimacy that soon suggested the removal of each other’s clothing whenever Richie left the room or passed out.
Occasionally we were forced into accompanying the rest of the group smuggling Bibles to the marginalized churches, always with great stealth, under cover of night. We followed circuitous routes that required us to change buses and then taxicabs, and then walk rapidly down twisty cobblestone alleyways. The entire trip was tinged with paranoia. During group meetings, whenever we discussed our itinerary or how best to transport our holy contraband, the chaperones actually turned up the radio and instructed us to huddle and whisper. The rooms, they told us, were bugged by the KGB.
One afternoon, after Monica and I had finished fucking on my hotel floor, she spied what she thought was a bug, planted under the radiator. Still undressed, she farted into the alleged listening device point-blank. Later, when Richie joined us for afternoon drinks, and with me egging her on, Monica got down on her hands and knees and began panting and moaning into the bug with comic mock lust. She clowned the part until she noticed the way I was watching her and her performance subtly shifted, turning more posed and serious. When Richie blacked out, I joined her back on the floor with a kind of zeal we were never able to conjur during the nightly prayer meetings. “We’re on a mission from God,” she said, unbuttoning my fly and pulling me on top of her. “Glasnost,” I said.
Despite countless warnings by our chaperones that we were forbidden to sell any personal belongings, Monica let me and Ritchie know that she’d brought inventory she wanted to unload. Clothes, especially blue jeans were highly coveted by the black market droogs who loitered outside the hotels and preyed on naïve and greedy tourists. We’d heard horror stories about previous trips where students had been detained and questioned for days after fooling with the black market. Richie made for the door as soon as he saw Monica pull four brand new pairs of Levis out of her suitcase. She told me that I could take a cut if I helped her find a buyer. When I balked, she wrestled me down to the mattress and, pinning my arms with her shins, she pushed the crotch of her own Levis hard against my face, and gnawed at me through my pants 69-style until I relented. However, when it came down to it, I refused to keep her company in the hotel lobby whenever she tried to drum up business.
The night before we left Leningrad, we visited a decrepit but magnificent Orthodox cathedral, where the pews were filled with old women who waved their arms in religious ecstasy and whose wrinkle-carved faces ran with rivulets of tears. Despite being a possible atheist, I was moved, but perhaps as much by my own spoiled American hypocrisy. I had never known the meaning of faith or sacrifice and it was overwhelming to witness these congregants who had sacrificed their precious rights of political citizenship for worship. Riding in the back of a taxi on the long way back to our hotel, Monica and I shared a flask of vodka, and moved by the secrecy of our black market heist, the old women’s passion, and the threat of being detained by the KGB, Monica brought herself off with my hand guided by her hand.
To get from Leningrad to Estonia we took an overnight train with dramatic brass railings and velvet-curtained windows along narrow oak paneled corridors that connected our private sleeping berths. Just as I was dozing off, Monica snuck into my berth. To keep from falling off my top bunk, while Richie snored below, we clung to each other, lulled by the racket-y-rack of the rails, intermittently touching and dropping off to sleep mid-grope. I remember waking to gentle kisses, or a nipple in my mouth or the sound of Monica faintly snoring.
Coming back from our last Bible smuggling operation, Monica and I ran into one of the droogs in the square outside our hotel. He was not the first; we’d been approached many times in Moscow and Leningrad by similar men wearing the same uniform: bright red Nike wind pants and matching sneakers. Smoking a rank cigarette, and tugging at a visible bulge in his crotch, he displayed for us a pocketful of medals emblazoned with images of Lenin. Even though you could get these from any street urchin for a stick of gum or a Marlboro, Monica acted interested, and as Richie and I moved off, she lingered behind, touching the pins that he held out for her in his upturned palm. A few minutes later she joined us, grinning mysteriously, wearing three Lenin pins on the lapel of her coat. An hour later when I went to her room, I found the man in the Nike wind pants kneeling in front of her bed (wind pants down around his ankles), the four pairs of jeans folded neatly on the chair beside him, another more rumpled and familiar pair on the floor by his shoes, and Monica underneath, getting pounded like a good little missionary.
That night we took a ferry across the Baltic Sea to return to Helsinki. It was a cold and moonless passage. Skipping the last prayer meeting, I was standing on the deck alone, staring into the black waves, eager to return home, when Monica appeared on the railing beside me. She gave me an envelope with a small stack of rubles.
Jay Kirk’s work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Chicago Reader, Saturday Night, and The Nation.
This article originally appeared in Nerve’s Personal Essays in 2002.