The day I snubbed Peter Gzowski
R. B. Fleming’s recent biography of Peter Gzowski ( 1934-2002) paints a rather candid portrait of the popular Canadian broadcaster.
“ Frankly,” Fleming told the Canadian Press earlier this year, “ Peter was not a terribly nice man in private.”
For good or ill, I have the dubious distinction of having snubbed Peter Gzowski.
On July 29, 1978, when I was 21, I departed Montreal for the USSR. I had won the all-expenses-paid trip in an essay contest sponsored by Radio Moscow and the Sputnik Youth Organization.
It was a bittersweet experience that, more than three decades later, still sends chills down my spine.
In Moscow, I was greeted with an incredible maze of intimidating red tape. The unbelievable hassles and confusion caused by bureaucratic foul-ups made my trip seem like a Marxist comedy of errors, more reminiscent of the Marx Brothers than Karl Marx. Mind you, this was well before the advent of glasnost and perestroika.
My troubles began as soon as I was notified I had won the prize. It took me six months to confirm the fact. Or had I even won a trip?
In Moscow, I discovered that the people, who had awarded the prize, seemed not to have heard of me. And this despite a letter from Radio Moscow I had informing me of my win. I was later assured by the folks at the station, “ No one ever wins a trip from us.”
Before leaving Montreal for the USSR, I had checked with a national bank about my $312 in American travellers cheques. The teller encouraged me to exchange my money for Russian rubles.
At Sheremetyevo International Airport, outside Moscow, I was required to report any Russian currency I had with me. I proudly wrote, “ 1,000 Russian rubles.”
The young female checking my luggage reviewed my statement with a shocked look on her face.
“ Where did you get all that money?” she demanded “ Don’t you know it’s illegal to carry Russian currency from another country into the Soviet Union?”
She helpfully added, “ If you didn’t report that money and it was discovered, you would’ve been eligible for an immediate, 10-year prison sentence.” With that, she took my rubles. At that moment, I lost my “marbles.” I was scared spitless. Over the next two weeks, I experienced a plethora of such incidents.
Once a young lady from the Canadian Embassy called me at my hotel and invited me to accompany her to a church service on Sunday. No sooner did she hang up than I received another call: “ If you have any plans of going anywhere on Sunday, please get it out of your mind.” My room was bugged.
Towards the end of my stay in the country, I agreed to an interview for the North American service of Radio Moscow. I was ill prepared for the tight security surrounding the building. My Russian tour guide and I could get no further than the inner door. We were met by two uniformed policemen who demanded a permit. As we had no written statement, we had to wait until Alexei, who had requested the interview, brought it to us. We were then whisked to the ninth floor.
How to answer Alexei’s questions? After all, I was in his country because of a trip his radio station had awarded me. Would I dare criticize Communism, or would I offer words of commendation on the Soviet state? Fearing for my safety — not to mention my eroding sanity — I opted for the latter. As I spoke, Alexei’s finger hovered over the “OFF” button.
It was with a sense of the surreal that, some weeks later, back in Canada, I listened to the interview I had given Radio Moscow, in effect telling listeners Communism was the next best thing to sliced bread.
By the time I left the country for home, following a three-day fast, I was petrified. I had lost weight. I was a nervous wreck. And I was paranoid, seeing the KGB behind every bush and around every corner.
Back in Montreal, I went to the home of friends. There I received a phone call from Peter Gzowski’s producer. She invited me to appear on a program with the media icon.
What an honour, I reflected for a moment.
Then, because of the fear that consumed me, I did what I thought was my only option at the time: I refused to appear on Gzowski’s show. I am probably poorer today for my decision.
Fleming’s tell-all biography of Gzowski is both riveting and revealing. However, he, like the rest of us, was a man of clay feet who, despite all his weaknesses, left an indelible imprint on Canadian broadcasting. I wish I had met him in person.