Weep Not For Me: #10

Norm Gibbons

In 1963, during the height of the Cold War, a couple of months before the Oswald patsy killed JFK, I had been wandering “unsupervised” around the old USSR mainly by train, other times by bus, or private vehicle. Frequently, I walked happily from one small town to the next just to get exercise.

The Intourist Agency staff failed to keep track of my whereabouts and update my prescribed itinerary, even though my entry visa – made out in sextuplet by the Russian consulate bureaucrats  in Tehran – stipulated exactly where I could go, for how long I could stay, and listed mandatory check-in stations in every city along the way.

I pretty much went where I wanted. Let’s just say that the visa restrictions didn’t apply in my case, and I eventually learned that they didn’t apply in anyone’s case, spy or not, because the assigned “guides” were 24/7 too drunk to care or notice.

By the time I arrived in Moscow, I had acquired a packsack of roubles from blackmarket sales of anything I owned that looked remotely Western: running shoes, GWG jeans, cowboy belt and boots, pollo shirts, my highly-coveted, bright-red, James Dean jacket, a rat-tail comb, Dodger baseball hat, and so on. The most coveted items in my inventory were a few cases of Wrigley’s Spearmint Chewing Gum, each stick commanding a loftier amount the closer I got to the capital city.

I checked into the most expensive suite in the Moscva Hotel over-looking Red Square, Lenin’s Tomb, St. Basil’s Cathedral and the walled Kremlin. The management allowed me to convert my Wrigley’s into roubles: 1 stick = 10 roubles. Not a bad rate, but I bet they got 20 roubles. In real, U.S. money, 1 rouble on the official exchange then equalled $1.11. Of course outside the U.S.S.R. roubles were worthless.

I regularly ate at the hotel’s restaurant always ordering the most expensive item on the menu even if I didn’t know what I’d ordered. They put out a nice plate of pheasant under glass, outstanding fresh sturgeon, the best Vodka, pickled herring, and bucket loads of black caviar.

After a week of touring the city – did the Swan Lake thing at the Bolshoi three times – I calculated that I had enough Wrigley’s to get a first class train ticket to Finland and enough roubles to buy a few trinkets to take home for gifts. I needed a gift for my highly religious mother, who I hadn’t seen in years. There wasn’t much to buy in the stores, as the shelves were mostly empty. The only items that attracted my attention were the Eastern Orthodox Russian icons usually painted on wood panels, about a foot by a foot in size, and sold under the cover of darkness on the side-streets by enterprising crooks. These icons had been swiped from churches and monasteries, or were counterfeits. Evenually I decided I wanted one of the Virgin Mary and Christ, titled “Weep Not For Me.” The sales guy insisted that the art work had not been painted, but miraculously appeared on the wood panel. To make a long story short, I didn’t care what price I paid. We settled on 5000 roubles and then we shared his bottle of vodka.

Fifty years later, my mother passed away. Going through her belongs, I found the icon in her attic wrapped in an old, mildew blanket.  I kept the icon and sent the rest to her stuff to the Salvation Army. Out of curiosity, I had the miraculous painting appraised, and found that there was a distinct possibility the painting was authentic, however the only people who could perform the authentification were staff in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

I got one of my staff to research the shit out of icons. She learned that “Weep Not For Me” got swiped from the museum back in 1962 along with eight others. Only a few have been recovered. She also learned that returning these treasurers to the motherland has become a passion for the oligarchs, though not always done for patriotic reasons. They expect compensation in the form of undisclosed concessions.

I sent a digital image to a Russian construction contractor I do business with, who conveniently has the largest private collection of icons in Russia – I won’t give his name. Two days later, his icon guy and a few of his icon “assistants” showed up at my home to view, “Weep Not For Me.” We came to an arrangement, a deal you couldn’t refuse. Next time I’m in St. Petersburg, I’ll check out the Hermitage and see what’s what. I’m assuming that my mom has been following all this from heaven.


Author’s note: Many times an anonymous, unidentified black and white photograph suggests a story. I’m working on a B & W series.