June 06, 2020

Tales about a troubled USSR

Richard Glueck of Hampden and Chris Chilelli of Old Town sampled life as self-appointed ambassadors for their country during a 10-day summer trip to the Soviet Union.

The sixth-grade teachers at Orono’s Asa Adams School traded ample supplies of pins, patches and other memorabilia they took across the ocean for a lifetime’s worth of memories and meetings with people on the streets of Moscow and Leningrad.

Glueck and Chilelli said the desperate living conditions of the Soviet people and hushed conversations they held with several local citizens gave them a definite preview to President Mikhail Gorbachev’s removal from office.

“They hated Gorbachev and they hated his wife Raisa for her imperialistic attitude,” Glick said.

The local educators joined 200 other teachers from the United States who exchanged ideas about education with 200 Soviet teachers gathered at Moscow State University. Avid fans of satellite and computer technology, Glueck and Chilelli were invited to take the trip by the National Science Teachers Association.

Between class sessions, when impoverished Soviet teachers scrambled for the maps and books Americans brought for display, Glueck and Chilelli met some colorful personalities. They included:

Konstatin, a young student cosmonaut, who translated English into Russian for the pair during an attempt to buy tickets for a tour boat. Overwhelmed at the teachers’ gift of appreciation — a $5 calculator — Konstatin vowed to remember the local teachers during future space orbits when he looked back to earth.

Jana, a teacher who had lost her job and who had been punished personally because she refused to teach the government’s curriculum. The woman had been relocated to several apartments, each one worse than the one before, and was anxious to come to the United States.

Sergey, a porter on a train to Leningrad, and his assistant, a heavy-set woman they nicknamed “Gordy Howe’s mother.” The pair, on request, produced severral bottles of champagne and joined the group in seveal toasts to the Soviet Union and the United States. Sergey refused, however, to offer a toast for Mikhail Gorbachev.

An artist, whose name they did not know, who overheard the pair explain they were from Maine. “Maine! Augusta! Brunswick! L.L. Bean!,” shouted the artist as he ran toward the teachers. The man knew of Maine because he had served on a Soviet fishing vessel that visited Rockland harbor, Glueck said.

The pair are hoping to arrange public speaking engagements to inform Maine citizens of their experiences in the Soviet Union.

A key message they want to get across, Glueck said, is that he and Chilelli returned to America with an overwhelming impression of Russians’ “great warmth, great love for the American people.”

The negative parts of Soviet life — a cockroach-infested hotel room, lack of toilet paper and poor-quality water — failed to dampen the teachers’ enthusiasm for the friendships they formed there.

Most of the weary teachers on the trip applauded when the airplane left Leningrad.

“As soon as we touched down in Helsinki (Finland, 200 miles away) there was a sinking feeling in my stomach that I had left some very fine people behind,” Chilelli said. “It makes you want to go back.”

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