June 1981 – Moribund Moscow

Red Square, Moscow

Red Square, Moscow (Photo credit: On The Go Tours)

“If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there’d be a shortage of sand.”
Milton Friedman

NOTE: May, 2013. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines moribund as “being in the state of dying: approaching death”.  Indeed, that was what I found when I took a tour from Helsinki to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) then on to Moscow.  It was the summer of 1981 and it was at depth of the Breznev era.  In fact, Leonid Breznev did die a year later and thus began the fall of the Soviet Union and the transformation of the Russian economy to a freer market. Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power in March of 1985 and by December 1991 all of the other countries that comprised the Soviet Union had gained their independence.  (see chart below). The next report on Leningrad and this report on Moscow came from notes taken during my visit there. What these two stories show is a snapshot of a system just before it died.

The lessons to be learned are obvious. Oppressive central governments that attempt to control all aspects of the economy are doomed to a similar fate.  Although the transformation for Russia was painful, per capita income has tripled since then. Many of the satellite countries of the Soviet Union are doing even better.  I visited Estonia later and they are thriving much like their Finnish cousins.  In Thailand where I am now living, we are overrun with Russian tourists flush with loads of money crowding the restaurants and taxis and buying up real estate.  In some areas of my beach town, half of the signs are in Russian. Although some parts of the Russian economy are still under tight government control, whether or not they are willing to admit it, ordinary Russians have been well served by the move to a market economy.  Those advocating more government control of the economy in western countries take note.

Leonid Brezhnev, portrait on stamp.

Leonid Brezhnev, portrait on stamp. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

June, 1981.  Moscow, like so many other capitals, has experienced a problem with people from the countryside migrating there. As a result, it has attempted to limit its growth. In order to move there,  a special permit is needed. Some people say this is a form of veiled racism, a way of keeping Moscow to the white Russians. But, nevertheless, after seeing Moscow, I couldn’t see why anybody would want to live there anyway. Aside from a few older buildings around Red Square, the Kremlin, for example, and  a few grotesque Stalin birthday-cake style buildings like the State Department Building, most of Moscow consists of broad,  gray expanses and mile after mile of ugly utilitarian-looking buildings.

We were put up at the Belgrade Hotel which was a bit south of town.  They gave us free time to look around Moscow before the planned tours began.  Never were we followed and our participation in the organized tours, for instance the trips to the ballet and the circus, were only voluntary. We had a young Jewish-American fellow on our tour and whenever we would go on one of the planned activities, he would tell the tour guide he was not feeling well and that he’d rather stay in the hotel.  Instead, he would go out and visit Jewish dissidents. He was given a list of phone numbers by the Congressman he was working for and he would phone the Jewish dissidents and check on their welfare and take any reports they wanted relayed back to the Congressman. As it turned out, the tour guide never asked us where he was and she wasn’t particularly concerned.

A couple of unusual things happened on this trip, however.  On one of the days when we had free time, I decided to visit the commercial attache, the business officer of the American Embassy.  When you check into a hotel, you are given a hotel card and they lock up your passport in their safe.  My only means of identification then, was the hotel card from the Hotel Belgrade.  I walked the several blocks to the US Embassy where I found three rather tall Soviet guards standing in front. I started to enter the main door of the Embassy and one of the guards shouted  “Ah!…ah!…Nyet. Where is your passport?  Pasaporte?”

And I said, “it’s at my hotel. All I have is a hotel card.”  “Nyet! Passport.” Indicating that I must have a passport. So it’s a catch twenty two…you can’t go in if you have no passport and you have no passport because it was locked at your hotel;  a clever way of restricting access to the US Embassy.  As I was hassling with them,  I happened tolook back in the doorway and there stood a Seventh Fleet US Marine guard.  I looked up and said “Hey, would you tell them to let me in?”

In a big voice that resembled God speaking from heaven, he made the whole tunnel rattle when he shouted, “Let him in!” They parted quietly and I walked into the Embassy.  I thanked the guard. He asked where I was from.  I told him San Diego, and of course being a marine, he had been to Camp Pendleton.  He said, “Oh, by the way, if you and any members of your tour are interested, this is Friday night and tonight, we have a disco going on at the Marine Snack bar and Canteen here in the Embassy compound.” I thanked him for the invitation and I thought to myself, sure, sure, if I want to drink with Marines,  I can do that in Oceanside near Camp Pendleton. I then went in to chat with the staff in the commercial attachés office about the problems of doing business in Russia and then went back to the hotel.PICT0375

Later, at the hotel, I was with several other people on the tour and we were drinking at what was known as the Foreign Currency Bar where only foreigners can drink and the drinks can only be bought with hard non-Soviet currency. It’s another way they have of acquiring foreign exchange money.  I was with a Dutchman and some Nicaraguans and we lost track of the time. It was getting dinner time, so we decided to have dinner on our own than rather in the hotel.

So, we set out to find a place to eat and the first place we came to had a long line at the door. We tried six different restaurants but could not get in because it was rather late in the evening. Basically, the system is that the restaurants are given a quota of meals to serve and once they serve that number of meals, then it’s finished; like say, a restaurant has a quota of two hundred meals and you are number two hundred one, you don’t get to eat. There is no profit motive to serve that additional customer. That’s what we ran into; we could not get into any restaurant. There was no incentive for them to serve extra meal, they don’t make another penny. It was a little bit late in the evening so guess where we ended up eating? At the Marine Snack Bar at the US Embassy. They welcomed in my Dutch friends and my Nicaraguan friends and we ended up spending the evening there with roast beef and sandwiches and dancing with the nannies of the French and English families who were working for the different diplomatic posts in Moscow.

Note: Four years later, Sgt. Clayton Lonetree and two other Marines assigned to the US Embassy in Moscow were arrested and tried for espionage. It seems Sgt. Lonetree was seduced by a beautiful Russian girl and he allowed her “Uncle Sasha” to come into the embassy and plant “bugs”.  The story can be read here http://www.spymuseum.com/pages/agent-lonetree-clayton.html

Coat of arms of the Union of Soviet Socialist ...

Coat of arms of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from 1958 to 1991 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After we’ve been there for a few days, Steve, the fellow who was working for the Congressman, began gathering stories from dissidents and was relaying them on to us.  Basically, the consensus was that dissidents felt the Soviet government was becoming more and more entrenched and more and removed from the people. They felt greater isolation. The Soviet elite were living in their special apartments and, in addition,  had special dachas or summer homes. Their children were sent to special schools and shopped at special stores and were having less and less contact with people and had less and less knowledge of what was going on.

A good example of the elite was our tour guide.  Her name was Irina. She was medium height with short, dark hair and she wore expensive imported clothes. She wore a purple, sort of valor pant suit and good quality Italian shoes and Italian purse.  She was a real contrast with that plain lady that was our tour guide in Leningrad, Natasha. I  got to know her rather well after the week that we were there. She began to confide in me.  So one day I asked her, “How was it that you dress so stylishly?”

“Well, my husband travels to Europe a great deal.”

“Really? What’s his job?”

“He’s a delegate to the world peace movement and his job is to go to Europe and organize anti-nuclear rallies.”  she answered straightforwardly. It was down to the fact that the nuclear rallies in Europe, by and large, were financed and staged by Soviet agents including Irina’s husband. Because he was a member of the elite, her husband was able to travel and Irina was able to have all these imported clothes, shoes, and so on. But for those people who did not have any connections, the other ninety eight percent (98%) of the population who weren’t high government officials or important sports figures or important scientists, they had to subsist on the meager, shoddy production that the system turned out. And if they could not get it through the normal means, then they had to resort to the black market.

What you have in the Soviet Union is approximately thirty per cent (30%) of the economy is black market So would call it the free market. Two good books were written on this.  In his book “The Russians”, Hedrick Smith talked extensively about this thriving black market.  He was a correspondent for the New York Times in Moscow. But even in the limited time I was there, the shortages and mismanagement of the economy are evident everywhere. You can’t walk down the street more than a couple of blocks without seeing a waiting line or queue of people trying to buy something-coffee, shoes, whatever.  It has been estimated that the average Soviet housewife spent three and a half (3-1/2) hours a day in waiting lines to buy things.  You can not travel anywhere without being accosted by someone.  If they see you’re a foreigner, either they want to buy something or to exchange money with you.  I recall walking down the center aisle of the GUM Department Store, the major department store in the Red Square, and being asked three or four times to exchange money. I really tried not to get involved into the blackmarket. I didn’t need the troubles that could arise. But in this one particular time I was walking down throug GUM, a young man pointed to the ballpoint pen that was sticking out of my pocket and offered me two rubles for it, which was something over three dollars. Well, I got this free from my bank and it had my bank’s name on it and, what the hell, I gave him the pen and took the two rubles.

GUM, Main (former State) Department Store, Mos...

GUM, Main (former State) Department Store, Moscow, Russia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This happened repeatedly. People in our party sold their jeans and other apparel.  Glenn sold the pair of white jeans to someone. Many people financed their trips in the Soviet Union through this thriving black market. In fact, I had two friends living in Imatra, Finland, Remo and Sally, and both of them told me that they frequently empty their dressers 0f their old clothes and book a tour down to Yalta or some other parts of the Soviet Union and those used clothes will finance their entire trip.  What the whole problem boils down to is that the free market is a much better planner than some bureaucrat in Moscow.  The whole process is left opened to mismanagement and that’s exactly what you have in the Soviet Union.

The entire time we were there, we had no fresh vegetables in our hotel meals. It was always boiled potatoes and boiled meat and sausages and so on; no green leafy salads like we’re used to in the States. They grow excellent vegetables in the Soviet Union, but the distribution is the problem. They don’t have that wonderful pricing mechanism that allows goods to be shipped from where they’re not receiving a high price to wherever they are receiving a higher price. The distribution system in the US is the most efficient in the world.

Red Square, Lenin's mausoleum

Red Square, Lenin’s mausoleum (Photo credit: veni markovski)

As part of our tour, we were taken to the Red Square and to Lenin’s tomb. Just outside Lenin’s tomb, we saw the grave of John Reed, the young American communist who was a part of the Russian revolution and they divided his body in half and sent part of it to the the United States. The other half is in Red Square and you can see his name “JOHN REED” inscribed there.  I think he was the subject of the movie “Reds” starring Warren Beatty.

To actually see Lenin’s body, it usually it takes about an hour. You  wait in a long line that winds around the Kremlin . You’re searched very thoroughly on the way in and then as you go down into the tomb you walk 30 or 40 feet and look through the glass. And there the famous man is lying, with his sloping forehead. You can’t help noticing his fingertips.  I don’t know how they embalmed him, but his fingertips appear to be turning blue.  This man had supplanted God in the Russian society.  For example, while we were standing in line, we heard some applause and someone rushing by us. It was a bride in a white gown with her groom in tow.  People were applauding them. Our guide told us that as a present from the State, they are allowed to go and view Lenin’s body without waiting in line on their wedding day. Where many Americans go to church on that special day,  Moscovites get to see Lenin’s dead body including his blue fingertips.  What a thrill! They then will usually go up above the city to the University of Moscow area overlooking Gorki Park and have their pictures taken. They are married in a wedding palace instead of the church. All of this, of course, is done very cheaply.

Around Moscow, you notice half of people are in uniform.  The reason is that every male between the ages of eighteen and twenty must serve in the military.  If you look on a typical street, you see a lot of military. After two weeks of traveling in Leningrad and Moscow,  if one were to ask me in which of the two I would like to return to,  I would say Leningrad, and, no, I would not return to Moscow.  Too many of the stereotypes you hear are true.  Living in Moscow would be like spending every day of your life at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

So after our two weeks was up, we took the overnight train back to Finland. We made the border crossing at Vainikola where money was counted out again and where our travel companion, Joaquin, was put under arrest and interrogated about his eight one-hundred dollar bills. (see earlier report on “Train to Leningrad”).   Finland never looked so clean and well-organized and the Finnish people never seemed friendlier.

Helsinki, Finland 1982 – Sisu and Saucers…

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Arctic Circle near Roveniemi, Finland

Note: As part of a sabbatical leave project, I visited this manufacturing facility in Helsinki. It was an interesting study in applying Japanese management techniques and effective communication.

The word “Sisu” in Finnish means strength, perseverance and outright stubbornness. This is the aspect of the Finnish character that enables Finns to survive long cold winters and probably explains why they ultimately were able to gain independence from Russia. Finnish women are especially known for their sisu.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming introduced a management technique to Japan just after World War II called quality control circles. Deming is given a lot of the credit for Japan’s manufacturing success.  Here in Helsinki, it took the introduction of Q.C. circles to reveal an internal problem that was arousing sentiments of sisu within a group of women workers.China Samples

Quality control circles are certainly not for every company. Quality control circles are groups of seven to ten employees who meet regularly to solve job related problems. Management is usually obliged to accept their recommendations. Companies who already have good upward communications get no benefit from the technique. Many firms have tried them and abandoned them as a fad. At the Arabia China factory in Helsinki, however, I encountered an excellent example of where they are best used. Arabia’s parent company, Wartsila, sent forty of its division managers to Japan to study Japanese Q.C. circles. When they returned, they were ordered to try out the techniques in some of the divisions. Arabia was selected for one of the earliest experiments. Arabia makes fine quality hand-painted china. Finnish design is prized throughout the world and Arabia China can be found in many upscale stores throughout the United States. The hand painting is done by Finnish women. The supervision, however, consists mainly of Swedish speaking males. Normally Finland is a very egalitarian place. In this case, however, the Swedish management was oblivious to what was going on in the plant.

Arabia Factory

Finland is a bilingual country. Because it was a colony of Sweden at one time, today, more than six per cent (6%) of the population speaks Swedish. All road signs, directions and public buildings must be written in both Finnish and Swedish to accommodate this pampered minority. Formerly the aristocracy of the country, many of these Swedish descendants now occupy managerial positions.

If ever natural barriers to communications existed, this was the case in the Arabia plant. What you had were Swedish-speaking male supervisors and Finnish-speaking female workers. Although the supervisors could speak Finnish well, the barriers of social class, gender, and to a lesser extent, language existed.

Now, the males were forced by top management to organize the workers into Q.C. circles. During my visit, they told me at first they resented the prospect of having to take suggestions from women, let alone Finnish women. But orders were orders. The women began to meet on company time for two hours each week to discuss production problems.

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Finnair landing on snow at the Arctic Circle

The first problem they were given to solve centered around the new ovens or kilns that were recently installed. Because the temperature and the heat pattern within these new ovens was different from the old ones, many of the cups and saucers would break during the firing process. This problem had been driving management crazy.

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Finnish Friends

After only two weeks of meetings, the workers came up with the solution.  They devised a different way of placing the cups and saucers in the oven. The net savings for the reduced breakage was US$15,000.00 per week. Management was stunned.

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Finnish Summer Home on Lake

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Finnish Sauna

When the President of Arabia asked the female workers “why didn’t you give us this idea before? We’ve been fighting that problem for weeks.”

Their reply was: “Because you never asked us…!”


Conclusion: Much of the imagination and creativity in many organizations is stifled by the autocratic leadership style of management. In most technical jobs, the person closest to the job knows it the best. For an organization to succeed and survive in today’s fast paced environment, management needs to adopt a communication style that draws out all of that imagination and creativity in the organization. The person in the boat with you seldom bores a hole in it.

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Skiing at the Arctic Circle


June 1981 – Train to Leningrad…

  “Where the people fear the government, you have tyranny. Where the government fears the people you have liberty.” – Thomas Jefferson

NOTE:  May, 2013 – The following travel report about Leningrad (having returned now to its pre-Soviet name of St. Petersburg) and the previous report about Moscow, were written just after my first visit to Russia when it was still the dominant power in the former Soviet Union (see map below). This report is a snapshot of a dysfunctional political and economic system on the verge of collapse. The Soviet border guards would make today’s TSA airport screeners look like choirboys. As I mentioned in the Moscow report, whether they are willing to admit it or not, ordinary Russians have been well-served by moving closer to a market economy and opening up the political system. Although they still have a long way to go on both accounts, the economic progress over the last three decades is undeniable. Some say Russia today is looking more like the US and with the massive growth of Federal government regulation since 9/11, we are looking more like them.

June, 1981 – They say you don’t enjoy the Soviet Union; you experience it.  For Americans of my generation, Russia was an enigma. In the 50’s we were taught in school to duck and cover in the event of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. In October of 1962, while working for the Air Force, I experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis. We came very close to mutual annihilation. I had formed strong opinions and stereotypes about what to expect. Some stereotypes were confirmed, but also my eyes were opened in many other ways. This is the beauty of travel.

Helsinki Central railway station, Helsinki, Fi...

Helsinki Central railway station, Helsinki, Finland Suomi: Helsingin päärautatieasema (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My experience began when I bought a copy of Newsweek Magazine in Helsinki’s Central station just before boarding the train to Leningrad. The magazine featured an article about Afghanistan. The Russians were in the process of getting their rear ends kicked at that time. I tucked the Newsweek into the inside breast pocket of my jacket for reading on the five-hour train ride to Leningrad.

I rarely take group tours, but this time it was by far the easiest way to see the Soviet Union. Independent travel took a mountain of paperwork. The tour guide was a young blond Finnish woman named Lisa. The tour group consisted of an assortment of nationalities; two or three from Holland, several from Colombia, a few Canadians, a Mexican civil servant named Joaquin and his wife, and several other Americans including a football player from Michigan State named Glenn and a recent college graduate named Steve.  Steve was a Jewish-American and had been working as an aide for a U.S. congressman from Philadelphia (as mentioned in the Moscow chapter, we learned later that he was on covert mission to communicate with Jewish dissidents). We sat four persons to a compartment on the Russian-built train. The fact that the train was allowed to enter Finland and pick up passengers at Helsinki was another example of the extraordinary relationship that Finland has had with the USSR. As soon as the train left the station, heavy-set Russian women served us tea in glasses encased with an antique-looking silver holder. Soon spirits were high and friendship began to bloom.

As the train made its three-hour ride to the Finnish/Soviet border, I removed my jacket and hung it on a hook inside the compartment. I looked out of the window at the brightly painted buildings as the train inched its way across Finland’s Karelian region.  I marveled again at the Finnish work ethic and cleanliness.  Remarkable for a people who have had the misfortune of living in a country that by some accident of nature was put too far north.

When we arrived at the Finnish City of Vainikla on the Soviet Border, the atmosphere changed abruptly. Forty-five thugish-looking Soviet border police instantly scrambled onto the train. We had been told to fill out customs and currency declarations and to have them ready. But we were not ready for what followed.

The border police went to every compartment, unscrewed every air conditioning vent, overturned every cushion in every compartment in the train. They had all the occupants vacate each compartment and stand at the passageway.  Then one at a time we were called into the compartment alone for interrogation about our customs and currency declaration. We had to show all the money in our possession and count out each bill one by one.  Every penny had to match what was declared.  Each suitcase was checked thoroughly. When it was my turn, they called me in to present my currency declaration and I counted each bill and fortunately this matched with my declaration. I showed them my luggage. They went through it thoroughly. Fortunately, I was traveling very light so that was no problem. Then the guard saw my jacket hanging on the hook in the compartment and pulled out the magazine protruding from its pocket. He opened the Newsweek and found the article about Afghanistan.

“What is this? One moment, I want to see my superior about this,” he said and stepped out of the compartment and called down the hallway in Russian. One moment later, his superior entered, looked over the magazine, looked at me and said, “Why are you bringing this into our country?” I looked hard at him and said,  “Are you joking? I read this every week. I just bought it in Helsinki.” They weren’t joking.  He gave me an icy stare and replied, “This is verboten in our country. You may not leave the train until you surrender this to us. I will have necessary forms prepared.”

“Okay, take it. No big thing.”

A few minutes later, a man appeared with a clipboard and document in Russian.  I signed the document and away went my Newsweek. Since we were in the last compartment, we were the last to be inspected and the soldiers then left the train and we continued on our journey until our first station stop, the Vyborg station.

I found out later from the staff at the U.S. Embassy that the confiscation of such reading material was a violation of the Helsinki Accords on the free flow of information.  Being very curious to find out what experiences the other passengers had with the Border police, I put my head in the next compartment. Everyone was sitting in stunned silence. They, too, had been subjected to the intimidating barrage.

“Does anybody have anything to read?” I asked.

After the laughter died down, I found out that they had confiscated not only my Newsweek, but also a book on the Berlin Wall and a current issue of Playboy magazine which undoubtedly would become good reading in the barracks that night.

The train eventually stopped in Vyborg. All of this region used to belong to Finland and was taken away by Stalin at the end of World War II. One could notice the contrast between the clean, well-painted buildings on the Finnish side of the border and the dilapidated conditions of the buildings that were now under Soviet control.  We all left the train and stood on the platform to stretch and to get ready for the two-hour ride to Leningrad. One young woman in the party took a photograph of the train station and immediately had a tap on her shoulder.  A soldier took away her camera, opened it up, jerked out the film and ripped it up. The shocked and surprised young woman learned the hard way that train stations are considered military facilities and no photography is allowed.

We did not know at that time that during the border crossing, the stage was set up for a final drama on our way back out again. Joaquin, the Mexican bureaucrat, wore a leather belt that had a zipper in the back and into it he had concealed, quite innocently, eight one hundred dollar bills as his emergency money. In the currency declaration procedure, he had neglected to declare those eight one hundred dollar bills zipped into the belt. Two weeks later, when we were back at the same crossing on the overnight train from Moscow, a sharp-eyed border policeman ordered him to turn his belt over and discovered the zipper. Joaquin was immediately put under arrest and taken out of the compartment to some kind of interrogation room at the end of the train. Lisa, our tour guide, accompanied him. For the entire time that our train was at Vyborg station, until we reached the crossing at Vainikla,  Joaquin was under intense questioning by the Soviet police. They accused him of playing the black market during the two weeks he was in the Soviet Union and then trying to conceal his profits in the belt.  Joaquin pointed out to them why would he be taking dollars out? If he was playing the black market, he would bring dollars in and exchange them for gold or other valuables at three or four times the unrealistic rate that the Soviets place on the ruble. He would be bringing out gold or others valuables, but not dollars. But they would have none of this and they confiscated all of the money. They told him that when they had conducted” further investigation”, he could place a claim for the money at the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City. I really doubt if he ever got the money back. But on this occasion, Joaquin was fortunate that he was able to leave the country, with or without the money. For nearly an hour, we all sat worrying whether they were going to let him come back with us at all. Intimidation was a highly practiced art.

When the train finally arrived in Leningrad, we were bussed to the Leningrad Hotel, a very unattractive structure of glass and concrete. Most of the common areas, the public areas, were clean. But, if you should step into the service areas, you would see that most of the walls had not been painted and the areas looked untidy.

I was asked to share a room with Glen, the football player from the Michigan State. He and I became quite good friends. He said, “let’s take a look at this town.” One of the first things we were told on the bus from the train station was, “do not drink the water.” Leningrad had some kind of amoeba in the water that seriously affected the digestive system of foreigners. Of course, my first thought was: “Here, we have a country that presumes to have the answers to all of the world’s problems and they can’t even provide clean water in their second largest city”.  So with this warning in mind, Glen and I set off to explore the town. Our organized sightseeing would not begin until the next day, but we had an evening on our own in Leningrad. We were also warned that if we get on the other side of the Neva River past two o’clock in the morning, the draw bridge is raised and no return is possible until six o’clock in the morning.

Dvortsovy Bridge in St Petersburg, Russia

Dvortsovy Bridge in St Petersburg, Russia (Photo credit: Wikipedia) first impression of Leningrad was that it is a beautiful city. It’s been called the Venice of the North.

One’s first impression of Leningrad was that of a beautiful city. It’s been called the Venice of the North and was probably the most European of all Russian cities until the time to the revolution. With broad expanses of rivers and waters, the ornate buildings were set on canals like Venice. I must say, however, that anything I saw that was impressive in Leningrad was put there before the 1918 revolution.

So, Glen and I walked out of the hotel, and in the space of fifteen minutes, we were accosted three times by people wanting to change money with us at more than the official rate or someone wanting to buy jeans. A pair of new Levi’s jeans would fetch US$100.00. Glenn had a pair of white ladies jeans up in the room in his suitcase and he’d heard about this big market for denim wear. He was planning to use this as a means of financing further travel. But I said, “leave me out of that one”, and suggested he take care of it later when I wasn’t around.

After extricating ourselves from these free-market types, we walked down the canal and across the drawbridge into the center of Leningrad. There were many people gathered along the banks of the river leaning against the wall, drinking some kind of alcoholic beverage. A couple of them motioned us to come over and offered us a drink from the bottles.

I must say that my first impression was that the average Russian citizen was very friendly and gregarious. Many of my old stereotypes started to be wiped away. Russian mothers love their babies every bit as much as American mothers do and the Russian family is probably even closer to each other than the American family.

While walking along one of these canal streets, we bumped into a fellow Velodian. We tried to ask him directions. He had a limited vocabulary in English, not as limited as our vocabulary in Russian, however.  Velodian said, “Americans?” “Yes, Yes,” we nodded our head. “Ah! Ah! “he said. “Americanski gooood” and he came up and gave each of us a hug.   He then pointed to himself, and he said, “Russki, Russki, gooood.” We nodded our heads and yes, that’s right. He said, “Come, come, come my house,” indicating he wanted us to visit him at his apartment. So the three of us walked down the canal a few blocks. During all of this, I noticed there was a man in a trench coat following us and I turned around and nodded my headed toward the man. I said to Velodian “KGB?” and Velodian began laughing a raucous laughter and said “nyet! Kay Gay Bay nyet!, come, come.” So we continued on and the man in the trench coat passed by as we turned into the doorway of Velodian’s apartment. Just some paranoia on my part.

The first impression I had of Velodian’s apartment building was the stench of urine in the doorway. Generally, throughout the Soviet Union, what you find is that common areas, areas that don’t belong to anyone, are not well take care of. So, we went inside his apartment, a modest place on the ground floor. We met his mother, who looked just like the ladies who served us the tea on the train. And we met his sister, a charming young woman. She was very shy and was in her robe, so she immediately left for another part of the apartment. We never saw her again. After meeting his family, Velodian brought us to his living room and showed us his books and his phonograph which looked like a 1950 model. I perused his library. He had a book shelf about six feet wide and six feet high at one end of the room. As I looked through the books, I found one thin book of English. About two thirds of the other of the books were, in some way or another, the works of Lenin. He explained that he finished his military service and was now a student at Leningrad University.

He asked us to be seated on the sofa and as I sat, I noticed that there was an electric cord behind the sofa. It was a fabric cord that came from behind the sofa, up the wall, out to the center of the ceiling of the living room and down to a bare light bulb. It served as the only light source for the living room. As I sat down the sofa, the light went out. I had to reposition myself on the sofa so that the light came back on. Meanwhile, Velodian was repeating his oft-used phrase “Americanski, good, Americanski strong, Russki good, Russki strong.”

Then, at this point, with Glenn and I sitting on the sofa, avoiding movement so that the light would stay on, our host brought out one of his treasures, a plain, unlabelled jug of a libation he called ‘spiritu’. It was some kind of a home-made vodka of much higher proof than a normal vodka. He also had a kettle full of water. Apparently, he didn’t have any glasses for us to drink from so he showed us his method of partaking. He took a swig of the spiritu from the jug. Then, he would pick up the kettle and drink straight from the spout to chase it with water. He croaked “spiritu gooood!”. He then brought it over to Glenn. “Drink, drink” he said. So Glenn took a belt, gasped and said “No, no, no water, can’t drink the water, no good for tourist”, remembering the earlier admonition. My turn came. I took a swig of spiritu. Instant flames shot down my throat. I gasped, I coughed, I choked, I sputtered. All I could hear was Velodian saying “spiritu good, spiritu good.” It was my only drink of spiritu. For the next week, I had a rasp in my throat and was afraid that somehow, I had injured it. I thought after the fact that I probably should have taken the water because I was certain whatever proof that spiritu was, it could have killed anything.

By this time, after visiting Velodian, enjoying his hospitality and exchanging addresses, we looked at our watches. It was thirty minutes past one o’clock in the morning. In summertime, with long daylight at this latitude, it begins getting dark around eleven o-clock at night. The evening slipped by without us even noticing how late it was. We had just a few minutes to cross back over the bridge to the Leningrad Hotel before the bridge was drawn. If we didn’t make it, we had to spend the remainder of the night on the other side, God know where. So, with Velodian showing us the way, sometimes jogging, sometimes running, we made it to the bridge with time to spare, and bade goodbye as we crossed. That was the last time I saw Velodian.

Saint Petersburg. Yachts on Neva river. On the...

Saint Petersburg. Yachts on Neva river. On the second plan: a complex of buildings of the Hermitage Museum (from right to left: the Winter palace, the Small Hermitage, the Old Hermitage with transitive gallery over the Winter canal, Hermitage theatre. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The next morning, we met our tour guide, Natasha. She was to take us on a city tour of Leningrad or St. Petersburg as it used to be called. Natasha was a tall, young woman with sandy colored hair. The entire three days we saw her, she wore the same dress, a kind of yellow and brown plaid. When asked what she thought about the United States, she replied that she had no love whatsoever for Ronald Reagan and was certain he was going to plunge the world into nuclear war.

The highlight of the the tour was Le Hermitage, a palace where the Czar and the Czarina had collected the finest works from Europe before their demise in the 1918 revolution. I saw fifteen paintings by Mattise, for example; more than I had seen in the Jeu de Paume in Paris or anywhere else.

After spending a couple of days in Leningrad, we took a flight from Leningrad Airport to the Moscow Airport. In the Soviet Union, when a tour group takes a flight, it is not at a time of their choosing, the government tells you when you take a flight. Intourist, the government agency decides. As a result, we had to get up at four o’clock in the morning to catch a six o’clock flight to Moscow. We arrived at the airport and we were boarding the plane when Glenn thought he would take a picture of the Aeroflot plane. Immediately, a stewardess at the top of the ladder started screaming at him to stop and threatened to take away his camera. When we had boarded the plane, we were surprised about how Spartan, how bare was the interior. It looked like a military troop transport. In fact, the seats were very thin and made of plastic, unlike the cushions that we’re accustomed to. (See my earlier report, Moribund Moscow).

After Moscow and the overnight train ride back to Helsinki, I was so delighted to hear the staccato accent of Finish being spoken and to see clean, wonderful Finland again.

English: The Eastern Bloc - after the annexati...

English: The Eastern Bloc – after the annexations and installations. Dark red is the expanded Russian SFSR, light red are annexed or expanded Soviet Socialist Republics and pink are Soviet satellite states. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Paris, August 1980 – Monsieur Marie and the Imam

“Why don’t you come and spend a few days with my parents and me in our summer house outside Paris, Gene?  We would love to have you. We can visit Versailles. It’s near our home.”

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Genevieve Marie, or Jenny as we called her, spoke to me in her soft French accent and it was an invitation I simply could not refuse. She was a woman of about forty, with streaks of grey in her dark hair. She told me she was certain she would never be married and was now dedicating her life to teaching business law in Paris and to taking care of her elderly parents. We had met at a Business Teachers Conference in Mainz, West Germany and she was suggesting that I take a few days to drive from the Rhein across France and then spend a few days with her family.

Paris 1980

The French have a reputation for being arrogant. The trouble is, they have good reason to be. The cuisine, the art, the fashion and the wines are all among the best in the world. So, at Jenny’s suggestion, I took my time and drove my leased Renault Wagon from our conference in Germany across some of the most beautiful countryside in France on my way meet Jenny and her parents in their summer home. I stopped at Epernay in the Alsace region and attended a folk festival. I watched the villagers do their folk dancing and sampled their excellent white wines. I drove to Reims, home of Joan of Arc but more famous for its champagne. While there, I visited the wine cellars of Pieper Heidesek and Mumms. All across France, the countryside in August looked like a painting by Gauguin. I drove around the outskirts of Paris avoiding the infamous Paris traffic and found Jenny’s village of Neauphle-le Chateau on the Western outskirts.

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Her parents were expecting me and all three members of the Marie family came out of their storybook house to greet me. Their summer home was on a street with several similar country homes. Each had a long back yard with plenty of room for growing flowers and vegetables. Her father was ninety but was still clear-eyed and crisp in his conversation. Her mother was in her eighties but still retained that special European charm. That night, Jenny and Mrs. Marie prepared our meal. It consisted of a veal dish with a tasty sauce, fresh salad and vegetables and, of course, French bread. Most of the vegetables were grown in the backyard. Monsieur Marie went down to his cellar and brought up a dusty bottle of cherished Bordeaux. One night, we had Medoc and the next night, we had a Saint Estephe. He explained to me that the St. Estephe was drier because it came from the cooler northern region of Bordeaux. For our dessert, we had half a cantaloupe with the center hollowed out and filled with port wine.

Even more interesting than the food, however, was the conversation that first evening. Monsieur Marie had been a French resistance fighter and had been taken prisoner by the Germans. And unlike many Frenchmen of the De Gaulle period, he had strong affection for Americans. Although Jenny had to interpret most of our conversation, he knew the words to many American songs and we would sing them together. As the evening wore on, he said, “Did I tell you already about our neighbor?” “Yes, tell him father”, Jenny prodded.

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He pointed through the wall to the house next door. “Several months ago” he began, “a mysterious, man from the Middle East rented that house. He was some sort of holy man. Because both houses have long backyards with only a small fence between, I would see him everyday while I was in the garden watering my plants. He always wore his long black robes, carried  beads in his hands and was always gazing off into the distance with a preoccupied scowl on his forehead.”images

“After a few weeks of nodding at each other”, Mr. Marie continued, “the holy man began talking to me. We talked about the weather, my flowers, and the flowers in his garden, and occasionally, about French politics. I was surprised to find out how anti-American he was. Because I like Americans, I always changed the subject back to flowers whenever he started mentioning Americans. When either Mrs. Marie or Jenny was with me, he never greeted either of them nor gave them any eye contact at all. We presumed that perhaps his religion did not allow him to set eyes upon another man’s woman.”


English: “Ayatollah Khomeini at Neauphle-leChateau surrounded by journalists” This photo is copied from sajed.ir. It has released under GFDL license.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“A few days before he moved out, some large black cars would stop in front of his house and men would rush in and out. Then one morning, Jenny anxiously called me to the window and pointed to the lawn on our neighbor’s house. The yard was filled with reporters and television cameras. We read the papers that day. We then knew what all the fuss was about. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, our neighbor, was being allowed to return to Iran from his exile in Paris.” The Shah had been deposed and the Ayatollah was about to become the supreme leader of Iran.

August 1980 – Close Call in Bologna – Terrorism Nearly Took My Family

Bologna Massacre Italiano: Strage di Bologna, ...

The day I nearly lost my two beautiful daughters.

“Don’t worry about us, Dad. Mauro and his family will look after us. We’ll see you in Paris,” my two daughters told me as I left them in Rome. They were 18 and 19 and were going to spend a few more days in Italy then go camping with their friends in Nice. I was going to attend a meeting of the International Society for Business Education in Mainz, Germany.  We were to meet in Paris a couple of weeks later. When I finally did meet Lori and Gena at the Gare Nord, my jaw dropped when I heard their story.

Three days after I left them , they took the train from Rome on their way to join their friends in Nice. There were no seats available so they had to sleep on the floor of the train. At about 7:30 the next morning, they arrived in Bologna where they were to change trains. They were tired and hungry. As they left the train carrying their backpacks, they made their way to the main part of the terminal. They looked around to decide where to have breakfast. The pretty redhead and blonde walked into the train station restaurant and were surprised to find German and Scandinavian men having a morning drink at the bar.  In addition, there was the usual complement of papagayos, the legendary Italian males who hang around in public places and call out to tourist girls like a parrots, or papagayos in Italian, and sometimes pinch girls as they pass by.

Since it was obvious to the two girls that this was not the place to have their breakfast, they walked out of the restaurant and asked a conductor where they could put their backpacks. He directed them to a series of lockers down the hallway. After depositing their belongings, they turned around and exited the front of the station and made their way down the street about a block and a half. They found an outdoor cafe and ordered cappuccinos and a typical Italian breakfast of rolls with jam and butter.

At 8:03 AM, there was a loud explosion. The earth shook and the tables rattled. Being from California, the girls thought at first it was an earthquake. But then, everyone around them began running down the street to the train station. Confused and curious, they reluctantly began following the crowd. When they arrived at the station, they saw that the entire front of the station had collapsed. Smoke and debris and sirens were everywhere.


It was the beginning of a very long day for Lori and Gena. They stood under the hot Italian sun for six hours watching the rescue crews bring out one limp, bleeding body after another. Finally, they were able to find their way into the wreckage of the building to retrieve their backpacks from the lockers. It wasn’t until the following day they found out what had happened. A Marxist-Leninist terrorist organization called the Red Brigade, Brigate Rosse had left a time-bomb in the air conditioned waiting room. Terrorism is not new. Eighty five people were killed that day and more than 200 injured. Had it not been for the annoying papagayos, the death toll would have been eighty seven and I would’ve lost my two beautiful daughters.