TRANSIT POINT MOSCOW by Gerald & Bernard Asbell Amster


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A not-so-funny thing happened to Wandervogel and casual adventurer Amster on his way through customs at Sheremet'evo airport on June 27, 1976: he and two acquaintances were caught with 28 kilos of heroin in their luggage; he was arrested, questioned, tried, and sentenced to eight years of hard labor in Camp 5-1 (foreigners only) near Saransk in the Autonomous Republic of Mordovia. Four-and-a-half years later and much the worse for wear, he was granted an early release by virtue of his ""recidivistic reactive psychosis."" This as-told-to account of Amster's life in the Gulag is too rough-hewn and pop-journalistic to be admitted to the great Dostoevski-Solzhenitsyn tradition, but it works very well as a combination of prison diary, picaresque travelogue, and personal confession. The book is crammed with vivid episodes--a harrowing visit to the ""psycho-isolator,"" a thrilling escape to Moscow (though he had to surrender after months of hiding out)--and plenty of comic/horrible details, like the prisoners who had ""I am the slave of the Soviet Communist Party"" tattooed on their eyelids or the select Greek-Bulgarian-Mongolian group that lined up regularly to copulate with a mare. Amster learned Russian very quickly, and his observations on the Byzantine black market of the camp and the vagaries of the Soviet system in general are shrewd and entertaining. (Best are the negotiations with the KGB from his hiding place in Moscow, when he knew he couldn't make it out of the USSR, but wouldn't be sent back to Camp 5-1 because he'd be a dangerous influence.) Amster was tortured by the miserable prison diet, but he holds no grudges against the Russians for punishing him; and he seems to have been positively liberated by a brief affair with a woman doctor in the camp dispensary, as well as by the sessions with various Soviet psychiatrists where he relived and purged some traumatic childhood memories (a suicide attempt, etc.). ""Ahmstairr,"" as everyone called him, is a bright, believable, vulnerable rogue, with a dramatic (sometimes farcical) story to tell.

Pub Date: Jan. 25th, 1984
Publisher: Holt, Rinehart & Winston