"Do you have books, newspapers or magazines?" the custom official asked at the airport.
"Yes," I said cheerfully. "I have all of them." I dug into my bag and placed two books on the counter. Instantly, I knew I had made a mistake.
"This book," the official said. "What is this book?" The book in question was "Russia -- The People and the Power," written by my Washington Post colleague and former Moscow correspondent Robert G. Kaiser. I had the paperback version with its bright red cover showing a pastiche of Russian faces. The back cover was devoted to blurbs from the reviews of the hardcover edition. Business Week, for one, found the book "captivating."
The customs official obviously did not. He poked at the book and then picked it up. He looked at the front cover and then the back, and then he thumbed through the index. He closed the book and then opened it again and looked at some pages at random. He put it down on the counter next to another book and then picked it up again before finally setting it down for the last time. The other book was "A Hero of Our Time," a Russian classic by Mikhail Lermontov.
"You like Russian writing?" the customs official asked.
"Love it," said I.
He smiled. "You wait."
For a while I was not sure which of the two had evoked the suspicion of the customs agent. Kaiser had assured me that his book could be brought into the Soviet Union with no difficulty. As for the Lermontov, it was written in the 1830s, is an acclaimed Russian masterpiece and could hardly be the cause of the delay. My other reading materials -- files on refuseniks, reports on the human rights situation in Russia -- had been left on the plane.
Still, something was clearly wrong. By now, everyone else from my flight was gone from the terminal, and other customs officials, maybe with nothing else to do, drifted over. They talked among themselves and with the official who had stopped me, and poked from time to time at the Kaiser book. They moved it around as if it were a dead snake, harmless but -- who knows? -- maybe not.
A uniformed officer appeared. He, too, poked at the book and then picked it up. Next, a woman customs official of some evident rank showed up, looked at the book and made a comment. Then a male official of still higher rank appeared. By now, they had the book surrounded -- peering down at it, discussing it, wondering about it. There were six or seven of them, all uniformed, staring at the book. My original customs officer finally offered an explanation: "I am waiting for the supervisor."
I suppose I should say that the Kaiser book is critical of the Soviet system. That is to be expected of a book written by an American journalist. I suppose I should also say that the book is appreciative and understanding where many others are simply condemnatory. And I suppose I should say that the book prepares you for the Soviet system's epic suspicion of all things foreign and its determination to control all information.
Still, nothing prepares you for the sight of a book surrounded by uniformed men. They were on alert, on edge. This was the real thing. A book. A questionable book. It was, in other words, information -- truth -- which was an enemy, a threat to the state, and should be treated as such.
The supervisor appeared. He was a young man, dressed in a civilian suit, his hair very blond and slick. He went directly to the book and picked it up. A colleague of mine approached and talked to him in Russian. She reminded him of the provisions of the Helsinki treaty: I, as a journalist, was entitled to bring the book into the country. The supervisor disagreed: I was not an accredited journalist, but merely one visiting the country. The Helsinki Accords did not apply.
With that, the second most powerful country on Earth seized my paperback book. I could pick it up on the way out of the country.
But I won't. The customs supervisor is right about the book, right about all books: they really are dangerous, full of ideas and information, and this one is no exception. The Russians can have it, keep it, put it somewhere so that someday, maybe, one of the very customs officials who eyed the book as if it could bite will pick it up and read it.