By CNN's Debra Kocher
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(CNN) -- I never intended to study Russian. It was a total accident. Well sort of. I had taken four years of French in high school, and still, mysteriously, was unable to pass the French competency exam when I got to college.
That left me with two choices -- take French. Again. That seemed hardly tolerable, I was not enthusiastic or encouraged. Option two: Choose a new language and get good enough to reach competency as fast as possible.
So without barely a second thought I found myself signing up for Russian. WHAT?? my friends asked. And I had to ask myself as well - what do you think you are DOING? It's a fresh start, I told myself. So what if it's a whole new alphabet ... just go for it.
Three months into the semester I was still struggling with the alphabet, not to mention the pronunciation, and then one night it all just clicked. I got it. And I was cruising and I loved it.
This was 1977, and Russia was actually the Soviet Union, the dark evil empire across the water for American students. My Russian language requirement quickly became a Russian Area Studies major, and when I told friends their jaw slackened. And I loved it even more. I was an oddity, a bit of a rock star, and a bit of a freak.
Best of all, my advisor and the head of our department was a very cool professor ... he had a beard, and wore leather pants, and all the girls were crazy about him. College was turning out pretty good.
Fast forward two years and I wanted to go see this giant country I had been reading about. The tsars, the revolutions, the artwork, the peasants. How could I not want to see it for myself?
I applied for a study abroad program and began the paperwork. And then the Red Army marched into Kabul, Afghanistan. No surprise, all the programs were suspended. There was nothing to do but wait it out and hope detente would warm up the cold war.
Word came in late spring of 1980 that we should start packing. I made plans to travel around Europe before hooking up with my program in Paris, meeting my fellow students, and boarding that first Aeroflot plane.
It was a glorious month of beer in Hanover, crepes in Paris, and other stuff in Amsterdam. I felt free and alive. And I had no idea what I was about to experience in the coming four months in Leningrad. Yes, it was called Leningrad back then, in homage to Vladimir Ilych Lenin, the founder of the modern Soviet state.
Up next: My four months in the Soviet Union
"The tsars, the revolutions, the artwork, the peasants. How could I not want to see it for myself?"