Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Soviet Union 1981-82 Part I

The first time I went to Moscow it was July 1981 when the sun shown until after midnight and total darkness finally fell about 1:30 AM and after a brief scurry around the top of the world, it re-emerged, producing its first ray of light again at 4:30.  This fact was one of many that signaled I was in for a view of the world quite a stretch from my small town upbringing in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

My very first impression was at Sheremetyevo International airport during my first trip to Moscow in 1981.  Four of us from RCA arrived via Swiss Air through Zurich. My boss and two others managers were there to meet with our Soviet counterparts to exchange pleasantries and discuss the implementation of the contract RCA signed to allow NBC (part of RCA back then) to televise the 1980 Olympics. If you recall, President Carter was incensed that the Soviets went into Afghanistan to set up a secular puppet government and the United States boycotting the whole affair.  The Soviets wanted RCA to supply them with machinery and technology to produce color picture tubes and our job was to iron out the details of how all the pieces should fall into place. For the past year, we had been shipping equipment to the three separate sites that were to produce the components and tubes.

After stepping out of the plane, we got on a bus that dumped us off at the almost disserted terminal and walked about half a mile to passport control with our footsteps producing echoes bouncing off the high ceiling.  The youngish officer proceeded to look at my passport, then me, then the passport, and then me several times, long enough for me to be able to pick up his rhythm.  After about 5 minutes he finally reluctantly stamped my passport, then looked away with distain when he returned it to me.  “Okay, I get it”, I thought, “out countries are still cold war enemies”.

Our luggage took about an hour after that to arrive.  I don’t know it the passport guys called the baggage department and warned them to that Americans had arrived so let them sweat. But I dismissed this thought as being too paranoid. Even so I was to learn that being paranoid in the Soviet Union served a purpose.  I was to go through this procedure 4 more times in the future and the only variation I experienced was a record setting 45 minute wait.

Finally a sliding door rose and our luggage slid down.  Custom Control was in the same room so our bags were in view every second as we passed them through a Phillips X-ray machine, then onto long tables. Every single item in our luggage was looked at and I was happy that all my underwear was still clean and that I had left my latest copy of Playboy home.  Still, I made the mistake of picking up a copy of Time Magazine at the Swiss Airline club room in Zurich and it was confiscated due to the fact it was an issue about the Soviet Union and its problems.

Another time when I flew in, I was in the process of reading the murder mystery “Gorky Park” and although there was nothing derogatory said about Moscow except to describe it, well okay maybe that was enough, they took it gave me a receipt and said I could have it when I left.  When I left I showed my receipt and the man went off and after 30 minutes he came back told me it was no longer there.  So I pulled out a business card I had gotten from the U.S. Embassy and showed it to him and he told me to wait and off he went again.  Two minutes later he handled me my book.

Then there was the time I came in with some food including a box of raison bran flakes and the attractive lady customs officer dressed smartly in full uniform opened the box, lifted the cellophane package out and felt the cereal.  I wanted to ask her if she thought I had a full cup of raisons included as Kellogg promised in their advertising, but I decided it was not the time to make smart ass remarks for I feared some of my body cavities would be probed. She proceeded to question the contents of my tooth paste also.   But I was not about to show any signs that I was put out by her ongoing. When I finally was allowed to zip things up and repack I gave her my best smile and thanked her.  I made a comment to the driver who always picked me up what was going on as he was able to witness the whole thing.  He replied that I choose a woman and she wanted to know everything she could about a foreign man.  I had chosen a woman because I thought she would be more lenient, but the driver was right.  A man would not be comfortable being that invasive with another man.

My first breakfast in Moscow was at the Intourist Hotel.  Four of us found the breakfast area and paid the cashier 1.5 rubles and she gave us a thin paper receipt.  Sitting six feet away was another woman who job was to collect the receipts.  I almost laughed out loud, as in “you can’t be serious”, but the countenance of the woman was so severe, I decided to withhold any reason to be seen as an ugly American.  The breakfast options were typically European; cold cuts, cheeses, and anything that could be canned like pickles and fish.  No juice or hot food was available with the exception of hot water held in a large Samovar for tea.  I had never seen a Samovar before so I approached it cautiously giving it much respect. It was an old Samovar probably pre-revolutionary, and I wonder what history it could tell me.  I wish I had been smart enough to try to buy one similar to it because it was quite elegant.

It didn’t take me long to learn what a failed system Soviet Communism was. Gross inefficiencies, indifference to any customer, paranoia to foreign ideas, and spying on citizens were all immediately evident.


Rubles were Soviet currency and could be secured in the Soviet Union and spent there.  However, there was a vast black market at work where hard currency such as US dollars, British pounds, French francs, could be used to buy many items not available in any stores. By any international standards, the Soviet Union was a poor country and the government did all they could to obtain hard currency so they could use it to trade internationally.  The Beriozkas were special hard currency stores where foreigners could buy all kinds of things not available to the ordinary Russian citizen.  I bought two red fox fur hats for about $90 each which I still have.  I remember striking up a conversation with a dark skinned man once in a Beriozka while we were scanning selections of some red meats.  He asked me where I was from and I said “America” whereupon he announced he was from Libya and that our two countries were enemies. My impression was that he had to inform me because I might now there was a country called Libya let alone that we were not getting along.  I remember saying, “that is true for now but maybe the future will be different”.  I left thinking I had out maneuvered him by appearing wise beyond my years.

Russia citizens were not allowed in the Beriozkas so I received a few offers from Russians to buy something for them once inside the forbidden enterprise. I never did for a stranger though for fear I might get in trouble.

 I also had other young men come up to me at a restaurant or club and offer to buy the jeans I was wearing off me or my watch.  This also I avoided, not only because I would be embarrassed walking out of the toilet without pants, but because they were strangers and one of the things my girlfriend Natasha had pounded into my head was never to trust strangers. More about Natasha later.

Other goods

Purchasing goods in a retail store was always a hassle and another study of inefficiency.  First you have to wait in line, tell the clerk what you wanted (I usually had to point), then she gave you a piece of paper with the item and price written on it, then you went to the cashier line and paid and in return got your receipt stamped, then you went back to stand in line again to pick up your item.  These were not single file lines that Americans were familiar with, but more of a mob pushing and shoving within undefined social limits, where one kept ones elbows out and moved into a space as it developed, sometimes turning sideways to occupy it.  Body contact was expected.  It reminded me a basketball game where a rebound is up for grabs.

This of course was mild compared to riding the metro in the morning.  If the door opened and there appeared to be no room at all to step aboard, some comrade two people behind me would push until he was safely in.  The fact that I was somehow inside with all my limbs intact, I took as serendipity.

The clerks that worked in a store were anything but salespeople.  They put on their most dour and bored faces to make sure you understood that they didn’t want to acknowledge you if at all possible and they hated being there.

Once I made a bet that I could make one of them smile and the bet was accepted. I went up to this attractive enough young woman and grinned a broadly as I could.  Her eyes were downcast but once she sensed I had invaded her space she looked up and saw a tall handsome man with a maniacal grin on his face, and she smiled for at least a second but then immediately realizing she had slipped out of character returned to her role and refused to look at me again.  I admit I felt pretty cocky then because, dear readers, this was truly an accomplishment.

Corruption and inefficiency were ways of life from the black market to every day survival.  If word got out that a load of oranges were brought in from Georgia, people would sneak away from work and stand in long lines to get some.  Fresh fruit or vegetables other than root vegetables were difficult to acquire and one had to be aware that constipation was a real threat.  Russians complained that their shoes lasted only six months or less.  There were no replacement wind shield wipers available so car owners would remove theirs when they left their car so they would not be stolen, then reattach them.  Women were constantly on the prowl for hair dyes, make up, panty hose, and anything the least bit stylish.  To this day the red dye some women used to become a redhead stands out as the most dreadful color I have ever on top of a woman’s head.  If you saw this hair color in American you would find it on some young teen age girl or boy who dyed their hair choosing between blue, red, or green.. 

It is impossible to find a good cup of coffee anywhere as tea is the morning stimulant of choice.

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