Today, November 26, 2008, Zhanna Tebieva a Russian friend arrived at my Beverly Hills home after making a fifteen-hour journey from Beslan, North Ossetia, Russia. As I write this Zhanna is cooking borscht. The aroma is drifting down the stairs to my office in spirals of sense memory, causing me to salivate. I met Zhanna in 2005 when I went to Beslan to create a memorial in memory of three-hundred-fifty-children taken hostage by terrorists on the first day of school, a day of knowledge in Russia, and murdered three days later. In an attempt to rescue them the Russian army launched an attack. The terroists retaliated and hundreds of children as well as teachers, grandmothers, mothers and babies, there for the start of a new school year, were killed. I watched televised reports and horrific pictures every day for four days, crying the whole time, until I could no longer stand it. That’s when I decided to go to Beslan. Zhanna met me at the airport in Beslan and we became instant friends even though she is young enough to be my granddaughter. Zhanna is full of stories and keeps interrupting me while I’m trying to write. “Pat, do you know very big thing for Russian kids in 70’s was bubble gum,” she said. “We hoped big bad Americans to send bubble gum.”
“Oh,” I said. “Bubble gum.”
“And that time after Beslan when you took me to restaurant in Moscow with old line communist party boses, I could not believe meeting such big persons. Do you remember such?”
Oh yes, I sure remembered that.
Snow was sweeping across the Caucasus Mountains and into Moscow causing fir trees to bend with the weight. Deep drifts of snow were piled up against Kremlin walls. It was frigid and I shivered in spite of wearing a heavy coat and fur lined boots as I slogged from the car to the restaurant. The entrance to the posh restaurant Baloven’ on Komsomalasky Prospect, had been swept clean, the windows sparkled. This was a huge contrast to what I had experienced in the 80’s and 90’s during my thirty-seven peace trips to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. At that time there were no cafes or restaurants that I ever saw, and very little food except at dreary kiosks in drafty old hotels where one could buy stale bread and hard-boiled eggs. In those days of the Cold War between the USSR and the USA, I packed cans of tuna, bags of string cheese, tea and coffee, as well as cartons of Marlborough cigarettes for bribes, as routinely as I packed lingerie.
In my book Whispers From God I recount how I learned to think in terms of inducement after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the fall of President Mikhail Gorbachev and the rise of Boris Yeltsin. All was chaos.
And now, in 2005, I was expecting ten Cold War apparatchik friends to join me for dinner at a restaurant in the heart of Moscow. Would they finally tell me, eleven years after the fact, why they hadn’t helped me when the Russian Mafia had threatened my life? The threat came after I found the seventy-tons of food I had brought for starving Russian children, still in shrink-wrap and on wooden pallets, at a paratrooper base twenty miles from Moscow. Later I found out that the Russian Mafia had confiscated the goods because it was “worth a million US big bucks” on the black market.
At the American Embassy an official persuaded me to go into hiding after I refused to return home until I got the aid released. “If you don’t at least go into hiding,” he said, “you could be murdered.” I went into hiding.
It was a seriously dangerous time in Russia.That evening I planned to ask my friends what part they had played in that scary scenario. I felt sure they knew who the players were.
When my old communist buddies arrived they greeted me with hearty kisses, genuine smiles, as happy to see me, as I was to see them. We had shared a special time in world history. We sat at a long table, ate, laughed, remembered, drank bottles and bottles of Stoli, made flowery toasts, and even let a tear or two roll down our faces. They, like me, had been trying to survive in a world that in a lightening flash had become unfamiliar, uncharted, frightening. In most cases their lofty positions had disappeared as if they never existed. What they knew or didn’t know about what happened to me eleven years earlier did not matter. After all, I had had a life beyond imaginings.
Because of a Whisper and then acting on that whisper I now have friends throughout the world. On Thanksgiving day young people from Ethiopia, Vietnam, Russia, Norway, and Beverly Hills, (the true foreigners) are breaking bread, eating turkey, cranberry relish, and pecan pie together.
“You are like famous Russian dish solyanka,” Zhanna said, “every food in house you put in pot, cook, and end up with delicious meal. Pat, your ingredients are people. Your Whispers From God,” she laughed. “
Causes Pat Montandon Supports
PETA, Women for Women, Amnesty International, Children as the Peacemakers, Peace to The Planet