The Confession of an Opium Smuggler (Opium des Volkes); Weird Travel Part-1

Oct 3, 2011 (Updated Oct 16, 2011)

The Bottom Line Literature is banned around the world. Be careful with what you bring when traveling. There are real and harmful book bans, but for other situations we need to be sensible.

Suddenly there was a lot of shouting and heavily armed soldiers poured into the platform and onto the train. We were forced to line up against the wall and we were taken one by one into the coup for interrogation and search. Our attempt to smuggle the "Opium of the People", as Karl Marx called it, had failed.

It was the 1980's and I was a high school kid. At the time I was a member of a Baptist church in Northern Sweden, and this church had made contact with an oppressed church in Riga in Latvia. They wanted us to visit and they wanted us to bring Russian Bibles if possible. A group of us, including a few high school kids, decided to go. We had been told by the Soviet embassy that we could bring one Bible per person and that would not constitute a crime. I guess you should not believe everything you are told. We also brought with us some equipment for underground printing presses. I should mention before I continue that I did not remain with my childhood religion, and I should also mention that I do not regard religion as Opium. That was said in jest.

I should also mention that I borrowed part of the title and the theme from Carstairs38's essay "Confessions of a Book Banner".

The plan was to travel from Northern Sweden to Stockholm, take the ferry to Tallinn in Estonia, and then take a bus to Riga. However, a ferry strike thwarted our plans and we were forced to take a bus northward and into Finnish Lapland and then go south to Helsinki and from Helsinki to Leningrad via train (now St. Petersburg) and then go by bus to Riga. The problem was that we had to go through the customs at the Finland Station in Leningrad, which was known to be harsh. I should add that it was at the Finland Station the Russian Revolution started in 1917.

As we entered the Soviet Union the scenery changed. First of all we saw the towers with armed soldiers and secondly we went from traveling through wealthy colorful western style villages and towns and into grey poor and heavily militarized villages and towns. We were told that no photography was allowed. One of us started to turn white and started to ramble nervously but otherwise we were fine.

I should add that most of us (from the church) sat together. However, we were mixed in with a few other people including a Sandinista who was traveling to the Soviet to receive military training. The nervous guy was also not the most educated among us and started chatting with the Sandinista, as if he was on "our side", not knowing what a Sandinista was.

We arrived at the Finland Station and the customs personnel started to go through the train cars. They asked people to take off their shoes; they looked in luggage, and knocked on walls. It was like flying post 9/11, except they were not looking for weapons but for religious literature and other offending material. Well our stuff was not very well hidden and was quickly found and this started quite a commotion. Soldiers were called in and the entire train, not just our car, was locked down. No one was allowed to leave.

We were asked to line up against the wall as officers with really cool hats with red stars inspected us. I said, in Swedish, "you are the cattle of dictatorship", which was something I've heard the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme say about the Soviets. My friend Michael elbowed me and told me to stop being so stupid. He told me that someone among the soldiers may speak Swedish. However, nothing happened.

They had an interrogator and we had to enter the train coup, where he was sitting, one by one. He didn't say "we have ways to make you talk", but that would have been cool. He asked questions and made us search through our own things and he basically just watched our reactions. I was learning German and French in school and they took the tapes I had brought with me and listened to all the lessons to make sure there were no religious messages on them.

They took most of our stuff and left, which was a relief. After all the commotion we thought we would be taken somewhere. The whole thing took several hours and the other passengers were quite annoyed. They were not allowed to leave the train and go to their hotels or connections because of us.

We were assigned a female Russian guide from the KGB who would keep an eye on us at the same time as she would take care of the guiding. She was pretty good actually, so I don't think it was a big loss compared to a regular tourist guide. Later during the trip we would meet a lot of people who had suffered enormously because they were religious.

That was my story,

Now to my point(s),

First, the US government does not criminalize the possession or sharing of literature, with some exceptions for classified material and child pornography. The right to free speech and free expression, the freedom of the press, etc, is held in high regard. That was not the case in the Soviet Union and it is not the case in many countries around the world today. The banning of literature, cartoons, or of art is real and violating those bans can be dangerous and can lead to death. It is a right that is far from self evident and that should be protected. It is a right all Americans should be thankful for.

However, with this fantastic freedom comes responsibility and respect for the freedom and rights of others. When you via a reading assignment force someone's children to read a book they may not want their children to read, they have the right to challenge the book/assignment. After all parents have rights too. When you walk through downtown Dallas naked to express yourself, you are violating the rights of parents who do not want to have their children exposed to that. The fact that concerned parents want a rating on music and movies is not a grave violation of artistic freedom (I remember that enormous hoopla). Sometimes one person's freedom removes the freedom and rights of another. There has to be a sensible balance, and I am pretty sure these examples were not what the founding fathers had in mind when instituting the freedom of the press and the freedom of speech.

My story about the foiled Bible smuggling attempt to the Soviet Union was to present a contrast to the relatively minor issues we are discussing when people are arguing what books kids should and should not be required to read in school. So except for blanket government bans, I think we should respect both sides when conflict arises. One side is not necessarily a "book banner".


(1) Literature is banned around the world. Be careful with what you bring when you travel.

(2) It is fine to have different opinions on what expression should or not should not be allowed and what kids should and should not be required to read. The fact that the government does not forbid us to hear about alternative opinions is what is the important with respect to our freedom of speech and expression. Keep things balanced and interpret the constitution in a reasonable and unselfish manner. This goes for artists, teachers, librarians and parents.

I am planning to write a few more weird travel essays

Part-2: About when I got amnesia in Germany

Part-3: When I helped plan the unification of Europe in Innsbruck, Austria

Part-4: Bizarre events while interailing in Europe

Finally, I would like to add this essay to Jennifer Kate's Geography write-off since it is about travel, which is related to Geography, and to Pestyside's (lead in books) banned book week write off as the story was about a banned book and the theme of the story was book banning.

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