"You are already staying in Smolensk two days, Mr. Fisher?" she
asked. Gregory Fisher was no longer confused or amused by the
peculiar syntax and verb tenses of English as it was spoken in this
part of the world. "Yes," he replied, "I've been in Smolensk two
"Why don't I see you when you arrive?"
"You were out. So I saw the police-the militia."
"Yes?" She leafed through his papers on her desk, a worried look on
her face, then brightened. "Ah, yes. Good. You are staying here at
Fisher regarded the Intourist representative. She was about
twenty-five years old, a few years older than he. Not too bad
looking. But maybe he'd been on the road too long. "Yes, I stayed at
the Tsentralnaya last night." She looked at his visa. "Tourism?"
She asked, "Occupation?"
Fisher had become impatient with these internal control measures. He
felt as if he were making a major border crossing at each town in
which he was obliged to stop. He said, "Ex-college student,
She nodded. "Yes? There is much unemployment in America. And
homeless people." The Russians, Fisher had learned, were obsessed
with America's problems of unemployment, homeless people, crime,
drugs, and race. "I'm voluntarily unemployed."
"The Soviet constitution itself guarantees each citizen a job, a
place to live, and a forty-hour work week. Your constitution does
not guarantee this."
Fisher thought of several responses but said only, "I'll ask my
congressman about that."
"Yes." Fisher stood in the middle of the office with pale yellow
The woman folded her hands and leaned forward. "You are enjoying
your visit in Smolensk?"
"Super. Wish I could stay."
She spread his travel itinerary over her desk, then energetically
slapped a big red rubber stamp across the paperwork. "You visit our
cultural park?" "Shot a roll of film there."
"Yes? Do you visit the Local History Museum on Lenin Street?"
Fisher didn't want to push his credibility. "No. Missed that. Catch
it on the way back."
"Good." She eyed him curiously for a few moments. Fisher thought she
enjoyed the company. In fact, the whole Smolensk Intourist office
had a somewhat forlorn look about it, like a Chamber of Commerce
storefront in a small Midwestern town.
"We see not many Americans here."
"Hard to believe."
"Not many from the West. Buses from our Socialist brother
countries." "I'll spread the word around."
"Yes?" She tapped her fingers on the desk, then said thoughtfully,
"You may travel anywhere."
"An American is telling me this. Everyone is getting passport.
Thirty bucks. Two, three, four weeks."
"Could take longer. Can't go to Vietnam, North Korea, Cuba, few
other places." She nodded absently. After a few moments she
inquired, "You are interested in socialism?"
Fisher replied, "I am interested in Russia." "I am interested in
"Come on over."
"Yes. Someday." She looked down at a printed form and read, "You
have the required first aid kit and tool kit in your automobile?"
"Sure do. Same ones I had in Minsk."
"Good." She continued, "You must stay on the designated highways.
There are no authorized overnight stops between here and Moscow.
Night driving in the countryside is forbidden for foreign tourists.
You must be within the city of Moscow by nightfall."
"When you reach Moscow, you must report directly to the Intourist
representative at the Hotel Rossiya where you are staying. Before
you do this, you may stop only for petrol and to ask directions of
the militia." "And to use the tualet."
"Well, yes of course." She glanced at his itinerary. "You are
authorized one small detour to Borodino."
"Yes, I know."
"But I would advise against that."
"It is late in the day, Mr. Fisher. You will be hurrying to Moscow
before dark. I would advise you already to stay in Smolensk
"I am already checking out of my hotel. Yes?"
She didn't seem to notice his parody of her English and said, "I can
arrange for another room here. My job." She smiled for the first
time. "Thank you. But I'm sure I can make Moscow before dark."
She shrugged and pushed the paperwork toward him.
"Spasibo." Fisher stuffed it in his shoulder satchel. "Da
svedahnya," Greg Fisher said with a wave.
"Drive safely," she replied, adding, "Be cautious, Mr. Fisher."
Fisher walked out into the cool air of Smolensk, considering that
last cryptic remark. He took a deep breath and approached a crowd of
people surrounding his car. He sidled through the throng. "Excuse
me, folks...." He unlocked the door of his metallic blue Pontiac
Trans Am, smiled, gave a V-sign, slipped inside the car, and closed
the door. He started the engine and drove slowly through the parting
crowd. "Da svedahnya, Smolenskers."
He proceeded slowly through the center of Smolensk, referring to the
map on the seat beside him. Within ten minutes he was back on the
Minsk-Moscow highway, heading east toward the Soviet capitol. He saw
farm vehicles, trucks, and buses but not a single automobile. It was
a windy day, with grey clouds scudding past a weak sun.
Fisher saw that the farther east he drove, the more advanced the
autumn became. In contrast to the bustling agricultural activity
he'd seen in East Germany and Poland at the same latitudes, the
wheat here had been harvested on both sides of the highway, and the
occasional fruit orchards were bare. Greg Fisher thought about
things as the landscape rolled by. The restrictions and procedures
were not only annoying, he concluded, but a little scary. Yet, he'd
been treated well by the Soviet citizens he'd met. He'd written home
on a postcard to his parents, "Ironically this is one of the last
places where they still like Americans." And he rather liked them
and liked how his car literally stopped traffic and turned heads
wherever he went.
The Trans Am had Connecticut plates, had cast aluminum wheels, a
rear deck spoiler, and custom pin-striping; the quintessential
American muscle car, and he thought that nothing like it had ever
been seen on the road to Moscow.
From the backseat of the car came the aroma of fruits and vegetables
given him by villagers and peasants wherever he'd stopped. He in
turn had given out felt-tip pens, American calendars, disposable
razors, and other small luxuries he'd been advised to bring. Greg
Fisher felt like an ambassador of goodwill, and he was having a
A stone kilometer post informed him that he was 290 K from Moscow.
He looked at the digital dashboard clock: 2:16 p.m.
In his rearview mirror he saw a Red Army convoy gaining on him. The
lead vehicle, a dull green staff car, pulled up to his bumper.
"Hey," Fisher mumbled, "that's called tailgating."
The car flashed its headlights, but Fisher could see no place to
pull off the two-lane road bordered by a drainage ditch. Fisher
speeded up. The 5-liter, V-8 engine had tuned-port fuel injection,
but the local fuel didn't seem to agree with it, and the engine
knocked and backfired. "Damn it."
The staff car was still on his tail. Fisher looked at his
speedometer, which showed 110 kph, twenty over the limit.
Suddenly the staff car swung out and pulled alongside him. The
driver sounded his horn. The rear window lowered, and an officer in
gold braid stared at him. Fisher managed a grin as he eased off the
gas pedal. The long convoy of trucks, troop carriers, and cars
passed him, soldiers waving and giving him the traditional Red Army
The convoy disappeared ahead, and Greg Fisher drew a breath. "What
the hell am I doing here?" That was what his parents wanted to know.
They'd given him the car and the vacation as a graduation gift after
completing his MBA at Yale. He'd had the car shipped to Le Havre and
spent the summer touring Western Europe. Heading into the East Bloc
had been his own idea. Unfortunately the visa and auto permits had
taken longer than expected, and like Napoleon and Hitler before him,
he reflected, his Russian incursion was running about a month too
late into the bad season.
The landscape, Fisher noticed, had a well-deserved reputation for
being monotonous and infinite. And the sky seemed to be a reflection
of the terrain: grey and rolling, an unbroken expanse of monotony
for the last eight days. He could swear the weather changed from
sunshine to gloom at the Polish border.
The excitement of being a tourist in the Soviet Union, he decided,
had little to do with the land (dull), the people (drab), or the
climate (awful). The excitement derived from being where relatively
few Westerners went, from being in a country that didn't encourage
tourism, where xenophobia was a deep-rooted condition of the
national psyche; a nation that was a police state. The ultimate
vacation: a dangerous place.
Gregory Fisher turned on his car radio but couldn't find the Voice
of America or the BBC, both of which seemed to come in only at
night. He listened for a while to a man talking in a stentorian
voice to the accompaniment of martial music, and he could pick out
the words "Amerikanets" and "agressiya" being repeated. He snapped
off the radio. The highway had become wider and smoother as he left
Tumanovo, but there were no other indications that he was
approaching the great metropolis of Moscow. In fact, he thought,
there was a singular lack of any visible commercial activity that
one would associate with the twentieth century. "I'm having a Big
He put a Russian language tape in the deck, listened, and repeated,
"Ya-plo-kho-syebya-choo. I feel ill. Na-shto-zhaloo-yetyes? What's
the matter with you?"
Fisher listened to the tape as the Trans Am rolled along the
blacktop highway. In the fields women gleaned grain left by the
Ahead he saw the silhouette of a village that was not on his map.
He'd seen villages such as this one strung along the highway, and
he'd also seen clusters of more modern buildings set back at the end
of wide lanes, which he took to be state farms. But no solitary
farmhouses. And the villages weren't exactly picture-postcard
In contrast, throughout Western Europe, every village had been a
delight, each turn in the road revealed a new vista of pastoral
loveliness. Or so it seemed now. In some superficial ways, he
realized, rural Russia was not unlike rural America; there was
little that was quaint or historical in either heartland, no castles
or chateaux, few messages from the past. What he saw here was a
functional if inefficient agribusiness, whose headquarters was in
Moscow. "I don't like this," he said.
Fisher was in the village now. It consisted mostly of log cabins,
izbas, whose doors, window frames, and flower boxes were all of the
same blue. "People's Paint Factory Number Three is overfilling quota
on blue paint number two. Yes?" The entire village stretched along
both sides of the highway for a half kilometer or so, like some
elongated Kozy Kabin motel in the Adirondacks. He saw a few elderly
people and children digging root vegetables from their kitchen
gardens in the small fenced-in front yards. An old man was forcing
mortar into the chinks between two logs of an izba while a group of
children were gleefully terrorizing a flock of chickens. Everyone
stopped, turned, and watched as the metallic blue Trans Am rolled
by. Fisher gave a cursory wave and began accelerating as soon as he
passed the last cabin. He glanced over his right shoulder and saw a
glimpse of the sun hanging lower on the southwest horizon.
Some half hour later he turned off the highway onto a smaller
parallel route that had once been the principal western road out of
Moscow. In a few minutes he found himself on the outskirts of
Mozhaisk, 128 kilometers from Moscow, and he slowed to the urban
speed limit. His Intourist guidebook informed him this was a
thirteenth-century town of old Muscovy, but there weren't any signs
of antiquity evident in the plain concrete and wooden buildings. His
map showed a monastery somewhere in the area, and he saw the spire
of the Cathedral of St. Nicholas, but he didn't have the time or the
inclination to sightsee. There was a flip side to being an American
in a Pontiac Trans Am in deepest, darkest Russia. There were limits
to the amount of attention one could comfortably take.
He continued through Mozhaisk, affecting a nonchalance behind the
wheel, avoiding the stare of the State motor policeman directing
traffic through the only major intersection.
Finally, with the town behind him, he saw what he was looking for, a
petrol station, the petrol station, on the eastern end of Mozhaisk,
marked by a picture of a pump. He pulled onto the immaculate, white
concrete and stopped beside a yellow pump. A man in clean blue
overalls sat in a chair outside a white concrete-block building
reading a book. The man peered over the book. Fisher got out of the
car and approachedhim. "How's business?" Fisher handed him Intourist
coupons for thirty-five liters of 93-octane. "Okay?"
The man nodded. "Oo-kay."
Fisher went back to his car and began pumping gas. The man followed
and looked over his shoulder at the meter. Fisher did not wonder why
all petrol stations were self-service if the attendant stood there
watching you. Fisher had stopped wondering about such things. He hit
thirty-five liters, but the tank wasn't full, so he squeezed in
another four liters before he put the hose back. The attendant was
peering inside the Pontiac now and didn't seem to notice.
Fisher got into his car, started the big engine, and raced the
motor. He lowered the electric windows and handed the attendant a
packet of postcards from New York City. "Everyone is being homeless
The attendant flipped slowly through the cards. Fisher put a Bruce
Springsteen tape in the deck, popped the clutch, and left six feet
of rubber on the white concrete. He made a tight, hard U-turn and
accelerated up the road. "Surreal. Really."
He rolled up the windows and lost himself in the music.
Fisher pressed on the gas pedal until he was well past the speed
limit. "Haven't seen a traffic cop in the last thousand miles. They
never heard of radar here."
He thought about the Rossiya Hotel in Moscow. That would be his
first decent accommodation since Warsaw. "I need a steak and scotch
whiskey." He wondered what he was going to do with the fruits and
vegetables in the rear seat.
Another thought popped into his mind. "Avoid sexual entanglements."
That was what the embassy man in Bonn had told him when he'd gone
there to pick up his Soviet visa, and so far he'd avoided it, though
not by much in Warsaw. Still, he had fifteen pairs of panty hose and
a dozen tubes of lip gloss.
Excerpted from "The Charm School" by Nelson DeMille. Copyright © 1988 by Nelson DeMille. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.