A Travel to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in the Late Communist era
Today, I don’t know how I dared to leave my four young children behind to make a mission trip so far away. We lived in Sweden in an environment where mission trips were a normal thing to do. The church and bible school we attended had many missionaries accustomed to travelling in the former Soviet Union. We were a handful of young people, and I, at forty, had an experienced young leader to go with us for ten days.
It was a hot summer in Sweden, and the days before, the children and I visited a lake where the Swedes would bathe. An elderly British missionary sat at the beach with his family, and I asked him what I should bring: “Toilet paper if you need some”!
He also named the Russian Airways Aeroflop instead of Aeroflot. I had not yet begun to become nervous, but his sense of humour didn’t exactly make me calm.
We would meet a so-called hidden Pentecost church in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. As a Soviet state, the Christians were persecuted.
The day arrived for departure, and there was no way back. The first flight was civilised, going from Sweden to Moskow. In Moscow, we had about six hours to meet our interpreter and take a quick look at the city centre. An old bus collected us, and we got a first-hand impression of the chaotic traffic in Moscow. That meant that we were mostly stuck in traffic jams. The interpreter was fast asleep on the bus, exhausted from another mission.
The first McDonald’s restaurant had opened shortly before our arrival, and our leader wanted us to buy a cheap meal. It was affordable for us but not for the ordinary inhabitants of Moskow. I felt ashamed as we entered near the front of the people. They were standing around the corner for as long as our eyes could see.
We saw the Red Square, and some visited Lenin’s grave. I have always felt disgusted about everything from the communist era.
At Red Square, there was a storehouse only for Communist functionaries. We didn’t know then that only ten days later, the Soviet Union had fallen.
At one of the airports, our leader brought flowers to the ticket lady to get plane tickets to Tashkent. We sat for some hours on the floor with our luggage. There were no benches.
Finally, we could board the plane, and at that time, there was no security, and we had to carry our luggage to the aircraft ourselves and place it in the storage room. We would fly for many hours during the night to arrive in the morning at Tashkent. We were served a meal on board. I got a tomato which tasted off, and the fork was bent. We were not accustomed to that kind of standard at home.
My first impression of arriving in Tashkent was the sight of the same sparrows as we have at home. They looked and sounded the same, but I was far from home.
Our leader and a few others went on to get breakfast at the hotel directly upon arrival. I was so tired that I preferred a few hours of sleep in a proper bed. A good decision as those who took the breakfast got ill and fought with a stomach infection for at least half of our mission trip.
I never felt afraid during the week in this foreign country. The people we met were very kind. Like all former Soviet States, the population suffered from a lack of provision for essential food items. They grew many melons but didn’t have enough sugar to preserve them or other fruits. After one night at a hotel with people privately, they served us food that seemed the same at each meal. I am trying to remember what it was after so many years. Being used to drinking coffee at home, I got a severe headache after four days. I asked the lady in the house if she had a cup of coffee. She made me a cup of instant coffee, which cured my headache. I should have brought some coffee with me.
We walked through long and secret passages to get to the church meetings. We had to take different routes every time we went. I had read about the danger of meeting at churches in the 1970s, but at this time, before the fall of the communists, they must have loosened the grip. We never saw a police officer.
They had long church meetings where we sat without understanding a word. Then the local church leaders let our preacher speak. That was why we had come. An unforgettable moment was a meal in the open somewhere where church members had prepared a meal on an open fire for hours. Plates and knives, and forks were a scarcity, so we shared. It felt natural to me. Even the shed open-air toilet was natural to me in this situation. It was like everywhere else a hundred years ago.
As you can tell from the pictures, many Russian people look like us in the West. It proves that Stalin displaced people from the Baltic countries to the far Eastern Soviet States. The original people in Tashkent looked Asian.
Everybody wanted to speak with the Russian people, and we had only one interpreter. She could then decide who she preferred to help. Sometimes she was exhausted and not available to anybody. As a health visitor, I wanted to know about the mothers’ treatment at the hospitals when giving birth. I understood so much that the hostess we stayed with had traumatic experiences.
This trip gave me a burning longing to be able to communicate in Russian.
A few years later, I was able to study Russian at the University of Uppsala, and I took one more mission trip where I could speak and understand some more.
Getting back home demanded more faith than getting there. At the Tashkent International Airport, we got inconvenient information that there needed to be more fuel for the plane to return to Moskow. We waited hours with local Christians who wanted to see us off correctly. I will always remember that one of them followed us to Moscow to be sure we got to a suitable airport for our return to Sweden.
Categories: Christianity, Former Soviet Union, Memories, Mission travel
What a wonderful experience to have. It is sad that people were persecuted just for wanting go to church.
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That’s true. The more control the State want, the less freedom of thought and speech and ownership of private property
Quite a journey, Maria. I think I’m willing to try most anything, but a trip into that area during that era – is NOT one of them! haha.
Great post and give my best to Henry. Thank you.
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Thank you so much for reflecting on this post. I felt safe all the way but I didn’t like the uncertainty of how to get back.
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I can well understand that!!
Thanks so much Maria. Some of your time reminded me of things in Ethiopia. But there was a lot different as well. It is obviously an experience you can’t forget. Good on you for learning Russian.
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Thank Robin, to be able to study at the university was a dream come true. Only because I had studied Latin for three years at home in Denmark was I admitted to the Slavic Institute in Uppsala, Sweden