The day I snubbed Peter Gzowski

The Compass - - OPINION -

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.

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