Memories of Russia’s Far East from the Winter of 1991/92

David Holdridge recounts how after the collapse of the Soviet Union collapsed 30 years ago, he was one the Americans called upon to step in.

Volgograd, Russia – July 16, 2009: Old suburban bus MAN SU240 in the city street near the railway station. © Art Konovalov / shutterstock.com

May 20, 2022 15:40 EDT

Note: This is a long read of over 7,000 words, which recounts a deeply personal experience in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

So, late one night in 1991, still sitting at my desk at the headquarters of Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore, it had come to me.  A channel where the barrier had broken and the thought had rushed in.  That great Russian land mass in the Far East.  Explored and settled by Europeans, like our own West.  In the same era.  Often inhospitable but with untold riches in the land.   And there it was – Europeans – a century and a half later on both sides of a narrow strait.  There it was, for all to see, a great new center of gravity that ignored old boundaries.  The untold possibility for energy in Russia, the unequaled creativity of America’s West Coast, and the markets of China, all now, absent the Cold War, rubbing shoulders. Notwithstanding the cultural impediments, I thought, the force and the logic of it would be compelling.  CRS could play its bit in the promotion of mutual dependency between China, Russia and the States.  Get in with our stock and trade – Humanitarian assistance – and then try to pull the American West Coast’s human-centered organizations into Vladivostok and Khabarovsk.  Far East to Far West.

Such was my thinking that night as I poured more coffee and stalled the dreaded exit out onto Baltimore’s desolate winter streets, eventually to take my place on the vinyl seat of the uptown bus.

And so I had, that winter of ‘91-92, put on my long johns and Gore-Tex boots, my down parkas and insulated gloves, along with a small sack of Kennedy half dollars, together with a much larger amount of greenbacks distributed around my body. I had got myself through most ordered, most correct, most electrified Japan to walk, one Wednesday, across the Tarmac and up the ramp of an Aeroflot to Khabarovsk.  Thin as an arrow we shot out of there.  Pedal to the metal, an almost vertical take-off shoving me back in my permanently reclined seat, and while still in ascent, the attendant  had filled a plastic cup to the brim with vodka.  Over those foreboding straits on a starless winter night.  Cozy in all my layers of wool and Gore-Tex with the vodka warming the innards. Not a flying contrivance, this. But, as I thought, a shot into the heavens. A warm canister full of smoke and vodka and other associated odors, speeding to Russia.

By that winter, the truth had long before settled in.  Those cement giants – the woman with the kerchief and sheaf of wheat in bronzed arms – the man also looking skyward, open shirted and wielding a great hammer. Both now known as frauds.  By that winter there was nothing that was bronzed and hopeful.

The terminal at Khabarovsk was falling apart and no one cared.  It was poor parts to begin with, and no maintenance thereafter.  A tin clapboard hanging askew, a gate off its hinge.  A cracked block put under a bench to keep it up.

It was midnight in that large shed, suffused in a low brown glow in which you heaved and pushed through some narrow hallway with your gear and then sat on it before the desultory response of a uniform who long ago had known the fraud.  You were now in that midnight gloom, the low brown light.  With these huge furry men, draped in animal pelts with hoary breath and the ubiquitous smokes, the bits of red coals, sparkling in the dim firmament of the shed.

Finally pushing out into what seemed, eerily, almost like a crowd of wooly mammoths, there I was, quite un-hairy and nylon in my Gore-Tex.  Now waiting in a cold that stung the lungs and made me hop, while depleting my calories at a very fast rate.  Literally having to squeeze under the steering wheel to get into the passenger side, on a seat nailed to a floor, through which, as we moved, I could see gravel and ice.  And then into town on his only one working gear – him, hairy smoking driver – wiping away the frost on the windscreen to see out and continually pointing at me and saying America and then at himself and saying Russia.  Some other words too but incomprehensible and so then it was back to, you America – me Russia.  ‘Til he had pulled me up to the Intourist hotel and I had extracted myself and gotten past the exchange of greenbacks which, I noted, he was quite smart enough to recognize.

What a lobby.  The structure was as ordained. Originally designed to assure nothing beautiful could be insinuated and now veering off toward ‘wreck’.  But the contents made my eyes pop.  Such was the wealth of this empire in ruin that where there had been the occasional grisly pioneers in Tirana or Skopje, here there was a noisy bustle of them, many also wrapped up in the pelts, unshaved – down from the North – with great gold wristwatches and striking Slavic faeries by their shoulders.  Faeries – dancers – lovely Slavic beauties.  And Vodka all around.  Tip the God-damned bottle up and watch the bubbles gurgle.  They told this Gore-Tex-clad sensitive the most wonderful stories, these grisly men…hospital directors, selling off all their metal frame beds for scrap… tanks from the legendary soviet Army, disassembled and shipped to Yokohama to be melted down and transformed into razor blades for the hairless Asian.  And God knows what else was being kept under wraps.

Off and away  from the lobby others were unwinding in a vast hall – not the grisly men now but the townsfolk.  I mean you had to check yourself from gawking in disbelief, from ridiculing these losers.  Corsaged, and corseted and trussed up in flower prints and costume jewelry with these hairdos that towered like Pisa, all gummed up and glossy, most leaning a bit from the grandeur of the cage-work, doing the Lindy with abandon with rubes in zoot suits and ‘slows’, I swear, to Perry Como.  Talk about walking out of that lobby full of hairy pioneers into a Soviet prom of sorts and then retreating between times to the cafeteria where there were plyboard tables littered with plates of salmon and caviar and bottles of Vodka and plastic flower centerpieces.  I, as the mucker about, as the Yankee anthropologist, just stood and marveled, looking back and forth from lobby to dance hall.  Really soaking in the culture and entranced by the faeries circulating around me.

But ultimately excluded from both parties.  Reluctantly taking my life in my hands and taking the elevator ‘up’.  Clanging and banging upward.  And, of course, there she was – ham-handed babushka.  With big wart on nose and black hairs on chin, exchanging my ticket for her key.

My room was a hot box – no controls.  But at least, no broken window for that Arctic air to get in.  All cheap veneer and sagging mattress, a frayed synthetic cube with a radio which didn’t work. And a ruckus across a thin adjoining wall where Russians were getting drunk to beat the band.  No faerie voice, just the loud slurring shouts and taunts of drunkards.

So I stripped off my Gore-Tex and pushed my bag against the door, as early warning, since a good shove would have taken it off its frame and lay amidst the ruckus and once again blew my circles of smoke upwards, wondering whether a procurer in the lobby had commanded a faerie to knock.

The next day I descended for my caviar and salmon – no matter it was breakfast – for that’s what they dropped in front of you – whenever.

And those who dropped it were certainly not the faeries.  Nor yet the babushka on my floor.  Some intermediate stage of Russian womanhood, I guessed.  Hands red and wrinkled.  About two inches of dark root under the peroxide.  Swollen ankles and impervious to any of my forlorn attempts to induce a smile.  Hard-bitten, I concluded.  So I left and put myself out the door into the Arctic for my Arctic mucking, forewarned by an Intourist guide, in so many words, that my calories would only allow me outside for a few hours.

So I tramped down the icy cobbles in my Gore-Tex boots with a belly still growling from breakfast.  Spit had been the big myth in the lobby last night.  Chugging, end up, the vodka down and repeating how it froze before it landed.  Well I hadn’t spit that night and so, first thing, I spit but it was too sunny. And then my poor resected bowel growled again and I shuddered to think of ever having to drop my trow behind a bush in such piercing cold.  I laughed.  I mean I imagined they would retract so far up for warmth, it would take a week to find them again.  “Foot soldier for Western Civ. neutered by the cold”, I imagined the headline.  No faerie for me.

So down the streets and through the parks on my limited calories.  Nothing fixed, nothing repainted.  Nothing put back to a right angle.  But a decadence which could have been really quite inconsequential under those beautiful skies if it hadn’t been for the purposeful eradication of nearly all beauty across the great city.  No art or beauty, even in decline.  No mysteries, I thought, no art.  No art, no beauty.  They imagine if you can tried to eliminate the mysteries in this most mysterious land.  Only here and there, an erasure not done, was building turned for whim or inspiration, often as not with a root now cracking it or a stone fallen away.

Past the men huddled and shifting back and forth around the games of chance.  Past the empty shelves.  Past the chilblain.  The icicles hanging like lollies off the greybeards.  Past the steaming soup kitchen and into the market where the de-capitalization was now, before my eyes, taking shape.  Here it was, the old babushkas in these pelts rocking from boot to boot on the ice all day, pathetically, before two used toothbrushes, a comb and a glass tea cup on a piece of newspaper.  Hundreds of them, with few buyers.  The commies did not turn out beautiful things to sell.  It was these old women selling junk.  Here and there a dog or cat for sale or a precious cameo from before the revolution.

Aside all this, the Koreans were doing so much better.  They found a way.  I’ve never known profit not to find a way.  Under a long tent, selling vegetables from another culture.  Every variety of stewed or bottled veggie and some small sticks of meat frying in a pan.  Small sinewy women chattering away and selling their morsels and tidbits to their ancestral neighbor – those raw-boned white men from the North – now so hopelessly dismayed at their empire being reduced to a bad joke. Without a clue, with not even any instinct of how to do what the West does.  Beauty long dead.  The individual, other than the crook, long dead.  Governors with their nails deep embedded in each other’s throats.  The land eradicated.  Pantry bare.  Children, almost a forgotten solace.  Just to drink and laugh and sing in some barren room ’til you fall down drunk, mouth down against some grimy floor.

The challenge was keeping the hole in the ice open.  I walked by hundreds of these encampments as I hiked west, some evidently abandoned, with some old charred wood strewn about the frozen hole.  The scattered remains of a fire.

I mean it was of no consequence to be on the Amur river.  You just walked off the bank in your Gore-Tex boots and circled in reasonable proximity to the fishermen, most in some small makeshift shelter with a fire inside, in their furs, blankly staring at the line dropping through the open hole.  Occasionally digging into their fur and pulling out a bottle.

A pleasure, I guessed, sitting alone in the shack: hot tea, some hard bread, an occasional swig.  A Russian voluptuary, ballooning off the magazine page before his eyes, absent-mindedly waiting for the rattle of a can to inform him that some great pike from the north had swallowed the hook.

I had no fear for the thickness.  God knows, a tank could cross over into China.  It was the fault lines and the buckling of the mighty river which could shake and topple me into a crevice and then close again and pop me like a pimple.  So I walked toward China, tentatively.  Away from the Russian ice-fishermen.  Trembling when the ice shifted or tore but fascinated that I, a lonely relief worker, could walk across this legendary boundary and just step up on the other side into the Middle Kingdom.  Few people, I thought, know how close the rawboned white men live from the inscrutables of China.  I can vouch for it.  A half hour in your Gore-Tex from bank to bank.  Less if you don’t halt every few minutes to imagine the ice parting and falling through, eventually, I imagined, to be snared down river on one of those fishermen’s hooks, though I imagine it would take some doing to get me back up through his hole.

I got back to the hotel just before my calories had run out, toes just beginning to numb, curling over the wad of greenbacks in my boot. Careful now, I whispered. Human-centered was walking around with magic in his boot. And human-centered could end up with a smashed skull and pushed down through one of those self-same holes in the Amur.

I kept telling this interpreter in the lobby – who actually I believe mostly procured the faeries for the grizzly capitalists – that I couldn’t wait for the train to get fixed.  And that I knew I could fly but I wanted to see – and here I put my fingers in my eyes  since she was not really at ease in my language – the land between Khabarovsk and Vlad, now just opened for the first time in fifty years to foreigners.

She found that very amusing.  “But there is nothing,” she said.  “And there are bandits.  No.  You take a plane.  No one drives.”

“What kind of bandits,” I asked.  “Will they steal the car?”

“Maybe,” she replied.  Still amused.  “You are crazy, I think.”

“Will you find a driver and get a price for me?  I will take the train back.  OK?”

She just tsked tsked me and then went off into the lobby to make some inquiries, I supposed.

She came back with one of the drivers who hung around the door to the hotel and with a little palaver.  It got arranged.  “Just visuals” —  again I pointed to my eyes.  “I just want to see.”

He was a lanky young man just cashiered from the Army.  A large skeleton.  One, I supposed, which in the next ten years would support another thirty kilo of weight.  Sandy-haired.  Pale green eyes and a triangular face.  His car was classic baling wire and chewing gum.  Right from the start that next morning and all during the sixteen hour drive, it had him jumping out  to pinch or yank this or that so as to keep it running. Getting into fourth was so difficult, we only left it when we absolutely had to. Just the two of us in the front seat of this rattletrap with no language between us and thankfully warm enough from the heat off the engine, which at times I believed was between my knees.  His hands, stone-cutter hands, wrapped around a black plastic wheel.

The villages of Tolstoy were not where we went.  The carved shutters and painted window boxes had vanished.  This too was a bleak wasteland as sure as the Amtrak corridor up the East Coast – only far fewer humans.  And no advertising colors here.  Trash and discarded machinery frozen into the ground.  A mangy dog howling.  A slag heap next to a closed mine.  No rosy faced runny nosed children.  Evacuated, it seemed.  Just occasionally a glimpse of some old man outside his pile of wood or smoke rising out of a chimney.  The villages were, sadly, like junk yards with a few old people living within the metal litter. We did stop about halfway at a soup kitchen – actually some sort of hot gruel which the driver found too distasteful to finish and marveled at how I could suck up every last drop.  The several staff were not bothering with us, occupied as they were before a television watching a rerun of Anna Karenina.  All velvet and mink and fair skinned courtiers.  Who knew what brewed in these aproned babushkas.  Husky women living in this wasteland, ladling out poor gruel to God knows whom – since there was no traffic – watching the beautiful, their beautiful Anna, in color.  What kept them here  with their vats of gruel and hard bread ? No one of any life was left. They had all gone to Vlad or to Moscow.  Had been socially engineered off the small farms and into the slab apartments of the industrial hubs.

So we rattled on, sharing smokes, wiping a view through the frost on the windshield… through the desolate land toward Vlad…on this journey with Aleksei through the water below,  the remnants of a presumed divinity on earth.  The mysteries all dead and dissected by techies. 

Vlad could have been beautiful and perhaps will be yet.  A city of hills on a warm water harbor.  Home to the Soviet Pacific fleet, even now, as we clattered over the last crest and saw the magnificent gray ships at anchor.

It was dark by the time Aleksei got us rooms and then we left soon after to find some food. “Good food” I repeated to Aleksei, putting my fingers in my mouth and then licking them.  “Good food.”

The reduction to baby talk was here and everywhere very frustrating.  Actually, given the time to reflect…perhaps some sort of divine warning not to take ourselves too seriously. .You can imagine the other subtleties which get lost when the pressure for something as simple as urination, for example, gets communicated with a stiff finger by the fly, to the accompaniment of a hissing sound.

It must have been quite a desecration, I suspected, for the likes of Alexsei and me to be strolling in and taking our places amidst the acme of Soviet dining.  A plush place.  Commodious.  But post-revolution – which is to say, without allowances for any flights of imagination.  A place, I assumed, for the party and the general officers to unwind, now suffering the ignominy of rubbing shoulders with drivers and footsoldiers for Western Civ.

What had been the extent of the defeat ?  Picture that greenback in my boot as a Goliath astride the Urals.  We enjoyed the best their kitchen could provide for a buck a piece. Good fare actually as Aleksei and I patted our respective stomachs and shared the best smoke he ever had in his life. You get anything for an American blend. A half pack would cover our dinner. A pack and I could have a pelt from the North. I mean, even as we sipped our coffee, that red pack of Marlboros lying on our tablecloth had all eyes in the restaurant attracted to it.

A middle aged woman at the table next to ours broke our sense of well-being, that pleasant drowsiness invading on the heels of a hard day in the freezing air followed by ample hot food.  She startled us with her English.  “Excuse me,” she offered.  “You are an American, aren’t you?”  And then after my confirmation, she revealed that she had worked for Intourist as a guide in Nakhodka from where the ferry had gone to Japan.  An aging faerie I thought.  Still fair but a bit of sway now to her body.

Well I jumped on it and asked her to join us for coffee.  More ignominy I noted for the apparatchiks around us, watching the footsoldier pull in what once was a cadre. Through the blur of the brandy we three were now raising, I could see the pain in these assorted numbskulls.  Not just the pain of succumbing to the greenback, of seeing that magnificent fleet sold for scrap.  But the confusion.  The perfidy of how the technical solutions could have so reduced them.

And so now I could ask Aleksei about the wife and child in the photo.  And soon get such an ardent interpretation from the aging faerie. Unlikely I thought, she had ever done such a conversation before.

He said he had married her before he went into the Army. He said it as if that was just what one always did.  Went to the communal hall and paid for a celebration – from how he described it – identical to how everyone got married… and then left her pregnant to go into the army.

I told him she was pretty.  “A simple girl,” he responded with a shrug.  Which after some more questions, got more accurately interpreted as “hometown girl”.  He didn’t say it as such, but it was getting interpreted as if his relation to wife and son was mostly confined to the photo.

“I buy the cars in Nakhodka,” he was saying, quite monotone.  They are used cars from Japan and I buy one cheap and drive it to Georgia where I get deutschmarks for it – more than I pay here – and then I fly back through Moscow.  Aleksei was telling me this like it was tomorrow’s weather report. And the interpreter… well, she too was wondering about my evident astonishment.  I asked him to repeat it.  How he traveled that circle.  Did he get robbed?  Yes but only once in the last year.  Though, he had laughed about it at the time, and said, yes, that bribes were needed , often.  “But you still make a profit?” I asked.  And then as I was doing the math for the second time, the interpreter told me the plane fare was only the equivalent of three dollars.  “Oh yes,” they both asserted.  “You can see them in Tbilisi.  Women get on an Aeroflot with all they can lift in fresh vegetables and fly to Moscow to sell them.  They can sell a handful of tomatoes for the price of the ticket.”

Shit…what a juxtaposition I was thinking.  Market women in Dakar flying to JFK for Taiwanese electronics and Georgian women flying to Moscow with tomatoes.

My Aleksei was making Kerouac look like a pup.  Eight days it took him to cross.  Solo.  No amphetamines.  No beds enroute.  No music.  It dawned on me that across this table I was looking at an extraordinary man. Those market women in Senegal or this Aleksei.   They daunted me.  Often so.  So why not drink yourself into a stupor with your mouth hanging open against the floor? Why not, when you travel eight thousand miles without drugs or music?  Solo.  Solo along the Amur river till you dropped down into Central Asia.   I looked down again at his hands, and I think I quite surprised him when out of the blue, I laid my hand on his.  “Just to measure” I told the aging faerie.  Daunted.  Certainly no stone-cutter hands like these.

Yes.  He was a mechanic.  Those hands had been permanently stained.  It was how he had gotten us to Vlad after all and how he could motor across the expanse of Russia.

“A mechanic without spare parts,” he said. “ A tank mechanic for two years,” he confirmed.  “Yes right here on the Amur.” 

“Stupid,” he added and shaken his head.

“What was stupid?” I asked.

“A tank mechanic with no spare parts….really stupid.  Two years we just sat around waiting for parts that never came.”

“Didn’t you have exercises or training?” I asked.   “What would have happened if there were more border troubles?”

“We did exercises with the ones that worked.”

“And how many was that?” I asked.

He held up one finger and I blurted out,  “Give me a break – one tank!” And the Intourist woman translated and then they both laughed, after which she said, “No….  one in ten.”

Which later that night, on my mattress, really set me to wondering whether the Cold War was indeed some sort of fraud, foisted on the American public so as to preserve that military Industrial union.  I never believed in conspiracies and still don’t, but I didn’t doubt that if the generals and the corporate leaders ever thought it in their best interest to bamboozle folk like Nixon or Reagan… well, certainly, that would not have been too difficult.  Aleksei was not a disgruntled troop mouthing off.  If he said he had just laid about for two years with no spare parts – what with everything else I had seen since arriving in Russia – well then it must be so. I was developing little doubt that the capacity of the enemy had been grossly exaggerated.  Nuclear warheads are one thing and I guessed that was less exaggerated but surely a nation or a military with moving parts which now no longer moved wasn’t getting from the Oder-Neisse to Fulda in twenty-four hours.

My heart went out to them.  They were, over our drinks, clearly ashamed.  Ashamed of what the technocrats had done to their Russia. Ashamed of that poor gruel we had been served enroute.  Of the train that was postponed.  Of the lumpy mattress at the hotel.  But make no mistake – veteran mucker that I am – this was still a heroic nation, with heroes’ songs and heroes” poems.  Aleksei was Russia and I had better keep that in mind as I sought to insert CRS in this mix.  Finger in the wind always implied the existence of some sort of prevailing current.  Here it seemed more as if you were standing at the center of a dust devil.  That if you had thrown the handful of dirt up it would have blown about your head finally falling to your feet.  These were dire days in a frigid winter.  One sensed great possibilities from the convulsion – for a reinvigorated Russia to emerge unencumbered by its extraterritorial obligations and true to the legacy of its land.

But for now it was treading the highwire over the abyss and the whole world was holding its breath.

Even without the apocalypse – the mad unsheathing of the nuclear missiles – an internal convulsion would send millions moving west… joining millions more from the Pale…soon camped in great desperate multitudes on the borders of Western Civ.

The Far East was at the center of the unraveling.  It had been sovereign before in the 20’s and the lines to Moscow were long and tenuous.  And while the Russian Far East could not feed itself, the riches of its land, its raw unrefined energy, could drive the world.

Whether Moscow would hold in those turbulent days was uncertain.  Neither was it certain whether the command structure of its armies would hold.  Soldiers were neither fed nor paid.  They lived hand to mouth.  It was no long, sudden retreat from distant lands but it was a despair nonetheless of an empire’s army in confused retreat.  And, of course, such tragic times invoke cries for dramatic solutions.

Cries for casting off the technocrats who had brought such tragedy upon the once proud nation.  The cries of “Russian soldiers bathing their feet in the Indian Ocean.”

For Western Civ., in its muddling way, it was the imperative of buying time.  Avoiding the horror of a Russia mortally wounded casting off its nuclear tips like a crazed porcupine.  New York, Paris, Berlin reduced to ghost towns.  Hiroshima revisited a millionfold.

That was in essence what Secretary Baker had told us.  Get a safety net in.  And the American Charities had rushed for the door and ordered their tickets for Moscow.  But here in RFE equally, perhaps more, were great stakes at play.   A larger army sat here, shivering on the northern banks of the Amur, than the one that faced Western Europe.  The permafrost inhibited sufficient crops and Moscow was reviled.

Two other issues were circulating in my head.  There were no Russian Catholics here – a few Poles and Lithuanians – but no tail here to wag the dog.  Only one small church with a great chain and padlock across its door.  I mean, skating very much on the surface as I was, the specter of Rome taking advantage of a weakened Russia would produce an immediate and possibly violent response to the proposed entrance of an agency with Catholic as its first name.  And then there was the second.  That which I had noticed from my swivel at HQ as I had stared at my pastel map of the world.  One hell of a pipeline, I had said to myself.  From West Coast ports to Khabarovsk and then due West along the border for three thousand miles to Novosibirsk.  It made my head spin.  “CRS uses transSiberian rail line for Pipe.”

Get them through the winter was what had been implicit in Baker’s speech.  And so it got legislated.  From the great stores of reserve cereals to the canned peaches in Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s Pantry.  All delivered at taxpayer expense.

Our part was straightforward.   It was how I understood CRS… as the overseas arm of the American Catholic Church.  That regardless – no Catholics, no swollen bellies – CRS would be implicated in the demise of this empire. The rearrangement of global relationships.  And certainly, State had no second thoughts about supporting our pipe.

A humanitarian front really for my larger presumptions which, as I said, given the current fundamental uncertainties, were admittedly farfetched. Echoes of “news of my death has reached me and is greatly exaggerated”.  I mean, to predict that the demise of the USSR would augur  an inexorable path to the  dissolution of earlier borders between the two combatants  was indeed testing the fates.  To presume that the natural affinities between China and California and RFE would be eventually at the heart of a new world order – new centers of gravity, as I called them – was certainly sticking your neck way out there. The CEO at CRS,  Ambassador Pezzullo, just smiled at such quick talk. At my notion that the humanitarian pipeline was but a precursor for the human-centered linkages…the transfer of civil society from San Francisco to Vlad.  But, heaven knows, the Japanese had not tarried.  Their investments, already in that winter of ’92, went far beyond the used cars arriving by the shipload which heros like Aleksei drove West.  They had their strategic plan – like so many pages, sticking up, out of their own Gore-Tex pockets – from the fishing grounds to the vast stores of energy for their nation whose metabolic rate bordered on frenetic.

But, I was betting that there would be cultural difficulties there.  Blood had been spilled, often.  Land possessed.  They looked different, spoke different and had no Christ in their soul.  None of which concerned the bottom line in the immediate.  But which, certainly, I believed, could interfere with a larger alliance over time.

The next morning Aleksei and Svetlana picked me up at the hotel where I was just wiping my mouth after half a cold chicken, some caviar and a shot for the equivalent of twenty-seven cents.  Quite a parade we made.  The aging faerie draped in white fur, Aleksei in his black bear pelts and me in my maroon Gore-Tex. Not so cold as Khabarovsk, but still painful at times, what with a gusting wind off the harbor.  Under a brilliant blue sky we proceeded with cumulus clouds sailing overhead, I marveled out loud how with its hills and harbor, it could be the twin of San Francisco.  Given a few billion in encouragements, I was thinking.

The city had just been opened to the West and it seemed to find itself in a rough parallel to what had happened two years earlier in Berlin… that once the reins had been loosened they had quickly been ripped from the hand.  My only specific intent that morning had been to walk the hills and fathom, from those heights, how I was really casting my eyes down on the might of the Soviet Armada.  I, who had known only the Cold War, now inside the enemy’s camp.  A camp in disarray.

I had only inquired about trinkets – a belt buckle with a hammer and sickle for my son, Al and a seaman’s hat for daughter, Hank.  And my escorts just as quickly led the way and marched me, after a couple of rights and a left, into a quartermaster depot where to my astonishment a firesale was in process.  Mind you – not a military surplus store.  But an official distribution center for the Soviet Navy.  Manned by Soviet sailors who were, it appeared, selling both in lots and off the rack.  Everything a sailor would need to go to sea,  in a bargain basement atmosphere. I had been brought up, had it hammered into me at every turn, to fear the commie in every American closet.  About this fearsome menace that would undo the culture of fierce individualism, as it was termed.  And so I imagine that Svetlana and Aleksei had no idea about what would cause this footsoldier to just stand off to the side and ogle…long beyond the time needed for my Soviet friends to purchase on my behalf a beautiful buckle and hat, for a song, as we say.

Afterwards, Aleksei and I continued our walk around the harbor.  All the while recalculating the riches of Midas, if one ever could be sure of a proper investment climate in the new Russia.  I sensed that a harbor front would also go for a song.  Of course, problem being, as I had to remind myself, in principle, all this was owned by the people.  Correction – belonged to but not owned.  Technically my harbourfront could no more be bought and sold than the wind whipping at my face.

Meanwhile Svetlana was proving her invaluable worth.  After the shopping she went over to the “White House” to arrange for me to meet officialdom.  “White House” for the white facing on this modern slab rectangle that housed the area’s apparatchiks… who circulated among the hot pipes and metal desks, the ubiquitous smokes drooping from their lips.  No red ties here or regimental stripes, I remarked, as Svetlana took me up to a meeting she had convened.  All the same cut from the same bolt of poor cloth.

Nope, no pretense here as I watched what she had been able to bring together around the table.  They had come out in force, this nomenclature.  These powerful men with nary a crease nor a bit of starch among them.  To include the centerpiece – two Admirals of the Pacific Fleet.  I knew the dance by heart from my earlier forays into the Soviet satellites.  Hands clasped before you – intense eye contact.  A welcoming speech from the Admirals floating across the miniature Soviet and American flags placed in the middle of this great expanse of table.  Reciprocation by the footsoldier.  During which I had put a hundred thousand tons of American food surplus on the table.  I had had no chance to discuss details after the Baker conference but I was sure of the mood back in the States.  With a pipe like Russians and the existing infrastructure to help the poor, old and disabled, there should be no limit to what could be pushed through.  In principle, that is.

And so…mindful of Russian pride and with only Svetlana by my side, I did indeed soft pedal the prospect of ‘gift’ and throughout emphasized the notion of a once thwarted friendship now resumed… as well as taking pains to explain how Church and State related to each other in the U.S.

After which the Admiral cleared his throat and asked when the hundred thousand tons would arrive.  Which now had me clearing my throat since as I was telling Svetlana, there were preliminaries to work out.  “Please,” as I conferred with my interpreter, “explain that this is a partnership.  That we want to join hands in this effort.”  “No problem, no problem.  Americans our friends now,” they replied.  And then he stopped and just looked at me for a confirmation of delivery.  And so I tried to engage him in some relevant questions.  About which institutions would receive the commodities and how we could be assured of transport and then, of course, our right to poke our nose about.  But again, I got the ‘no problem’ response…this time accompanied by extending horizontally first his right and then his left gold striped arm to his colleagues who nodded in affirmation.  At which point I was getting the old sneaking suspicion that the level of cynicism in that room was quite a bit higher than I had imagined.  The manifest embrace across the table by the Russian Admiralty, I feared, was to be no more or less than a spoil of defeat.

And so I had no choice but to allow that the deal was done. ‘In principle’, as I repeated several times. Adding this request… would he assign me an apparatchik to work out the essential details?  He pointed at one of the rumpled assistants with the smoke drooping from his mouth.  Then weak tea was served and more pledges of friendship made.

Later on, descending the floors of this White House, I explained to Svetlana the myriad of permissions I would need – office, bank accounts, beneficiary numbers, commodity mix, transport.  And that all that detail had to end up in some sort of logical construct before even a spoonful arrived.  I would be back in a week or two with some other Americans. I needed to be able to communicate with her in the meantime. Could our assignee in the White House assure some kind of telephone or telex contact?  She thought so.  “I know he doesn’t look so enthusiastic,” she said.  “He is ill, but I assure you he is serious.”  Ill… I had noticed…  his head often buried in an unclean handkerchief, trying to muffle his persistent cough.

“Is the Admiral the one who will assure all these issues for us?”

“I don’t know,” she answered.  “He was very important but now I don’t know.”

I considered myself lucky to have bumped into Svetlana.  Her profession had allowed her to hear other voices for some time now and she did indeed at least know what I was talking about when I explained how our Catholic nature and American nature would both serve.  “You understand, Svetlana, the Pope has nothing to do with this.  It is common Catholic people in America who want to help.”

She could see I was dejected as we walked out on the esplanade to wait for Aleksei who would be taking me to the train.  She put her arm on mine.  “These men are worthless,” she said. “I can tell you. My son is in the hospital. They get only weak soup. I, as Russian woman, can tell you. I am grateful to America for helping to feed our poor.  And mister,” she continued, “don’t be offended, please” and here she looked at me for confirmation. I told her she could not offend me. “Well,” she said, “you talk too much about religion with these men.  No-one here believes anymore in religion.”

“I know that” I responded..  But it’s not religion such as in the specific way we worship Christ.  It’s religion as part of our culture and yours and I don’t want to push ours in their face.”

“Their culture, as you call it – ” she was pointing back to the White House, “stinks.”  “Yes, excuse me for telling the truth.  We could use some new culture around here.”

And then I looked back toward the street, and saw that Alexsei was there with his rattletrap.  “You ought to keep one of those Japanese cars for yourself,” I told him.  To which he laughed and patted the dash and then turned his head back to Svetlana.  “He says this is his baby and he’s upset you don’t like his baby.”

“Tell him, I love it,” I said.  “Especially its one good headlight and the door which only Alexsei knows how to open.”

Well was it.  Before I got on the train back to Khabarovsk I unloaded some greenbacks on both of them and told them they now worked for me.  I would be back and they should get my list of preliminaries to be done in the interim.

They did that and more.  Both of them, as it turned out, spending the next several years in the employ of CRS…notwithstanding, as events would dictate, a weak representation of what could have been.  Often for reasons internal to Russia – the evolving relations between Vlad and Moscow, and some attributable to internal changes at CRS.  But principally because of that dead hand of Marx that had laid atop them for too long now.

I knew the flaws, as they had been spelled out in the texts at university.   But the reality was stark.  Right alongside the heroism of Alexei or the good heart of Svetlana was a cadre and a general populace that, while they may thieve and cheat all day long, would not dare open a warehouse door for this Yankee without a signature from Moscow.  Stuck in their tracks by seventy years of spiritual evisceration…so far sunken in their souls that even with the dead hand lifted, the ability to look afresh and step down a non-prescribed path was gone.  

Yes.  A heroic tribe now in perpetual mourning.  Confined to howling at the moon, half drunk.  This was the real damage that had been done by the machinations of Stalin and the greatest impediment to what might have been.  That unprecedented union of western civilization.  From Vancouver to Vladivostok, as the slogan went, was not to happen on my watch.  The euphoria?  Well less than three months after that first moment on the runway in Khabarovsk when our eyes had turned skyward toward the American airforce that had just crossed the red line unharmed with our initial load of powdered milk, that euphoria was already waning.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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