Frank O'Hara in Russia August 18 to Sept. 5, 2000
I almost missed my flight to Moscow at my stopover in Frankfurt. I was sitting in the waiting room in a rather bleary, time frazzled state. I came into a state of semi-consciousness from time to time and checked my watch to find that I hadn't dozed for as long as I thought. Finally I was awake enough to chat with an American couple sitting next to me. At one point the man said, "Didn't you say you were catching the plane for Moscow at 1:05?" I checked my watch again and said, "Yes, but it's only about 11:30." He looked at me as if I were a more than usually dull Canadian and said, "It's 8 minutes to one."
My adrenaline snapped me into a state of full alertness and I checked one of the airport clocks, confirmed his observation and also found that when I had re-set my watch earlier I had not pushed the stem all the way in. I made it though, pretending that I was one of those travellers who does not rush to get on the plane but waits to the last minute to do so in a sophisticated and leisurely fashion.
Leisurely, is how a person should feel on arrival at Moscow airport. The Immigration staff vies with each other to see who can take more time assessing whether each traveller is a dangerous criminal. I know, the dangerous criminals are already in the country. But the immigration/customs people don't seem to realize that. It took an hour. However, it seems they were actually working at top speed. Next day I met some people from Switzerland who said it took them three hours to get through.
Alexander Sergeev, the Moscow CESO representative, met me as planned and drove me to my hotel. It was 8 PM local time and I was ready to crash like a log felled in a virgin forest. I slept solidly till 7 Sunday morning.
The train to Izhevsk didn't leave till 6 PM, Sunday so I had time to explore. My hotel was almost right across the street from the Kremlin. So, after breakfast in the hotel, I went for a stroll. St. Basil's cathedral was right at hand so I toured it. It looks very exotic from the outside and, apparently has been refurbished since the fall of Communism. I paid 90 rubles to walk around the inside but most of the refurbishing is on the outside and it was not really worth the money (approximately $3.50 US). I planned to spend some time in Moscow on the way back so decided not to tour inside the Kremlin. I walked all around the outside of the Kremlin. This is at the heart of the city and surrounded by quite attractive parks. I stopped and had a beer and something to eat at a sidewalk café and, all in all, spent a happy several hours. They obviously have devoted time and money maintaining the Kremlin walls in pristine shape. On the outside the fortress looks like it was just built, instead of being hundreds of years old.
The train trip took from 6 PM Sunday to 1:30 PM Monday, actually 2:30 PM local time. Sergey, my local host, met me along with the interpreter, Anya Kushchevaya. Sergey Ladyzhets , the owner of the company, is all of 20 years old and Anya, who speaks excellent English, is just 19. Precocious! Not only that, but Sergey started the company when he was only 17 and is still a student at University. He will graduate in economics next Spring.
They informed me that the hotel would not have a room for me till the following day; so I would have to stay at Sergey's home. So we headed off to his place where his mother sat us down to lunch. Sergey speaks some English. Actually he understands quite well but is hesitant about speaking. His mother speaks enough English to get by. She is a professor of economics and sociology at the local university. (This is a city of 600,000.) Sergey's father is a professor of mathematics at a university in Miami Florida.
As it turned out, I spent the night at the home of an associate of Sergey. Simon is another young fellow with a lot on the ball and also twenty years of age. His parents were away so there was more room. These people don't waste any time so we had our first business meeting that evening and it lasted till about 11:30. My jet-lagged body was not happy with this but I managed quite well, discussing some sales strategies for their company. I was in a compartment, shared with another fellow - reasonably comfortable and they provided an airline-type snack for breakfast.
Russians take English in school so they usually know at least as much as the average English speaking Canadian does of French - not much.
On Tuesday we found that the one and only hotel had been completely taken over by a government delegation. I was out on my ear before I even got into the hotel. Sergey and Simon found me a two room apartment and were able to move me into it about 11 PM on Tuesday. Another long day.
The primary purpose of my stay was to help Sergey and his staff to appreciate the importance and some of the techniques of marketing and sales in general and how to capitalize on the Internet, including e-commerce. A lot to cover in two weeks!
Wednesday, I was assured I would at last be able to access a computer so I could download my email from Toronto. They took me to Sergey's mother's office at the university. After trying to make a connection for more than half an hour I gave up. I've experienced painfully slow Internet connections before but this took the prize. Sergey assured me he just needed to spend a couple of hours to set up his own computer with a new Internet connection and that I would be able finally to access my email on Thursday morning. But then we carried on a business meeting until about 11 PM that evening so he obviously wasn't going to get to his computer. Actually, Sergey was looking rather tired. I felt rather proud that I could keep up with him.
Well anyway, I finally was able to send an email on Thursday evening to announce that I had not fallen into a bog or the Gulag.
Another thing - they discovered that I had to be registered with the local Intourist office - shades of Communism! We didn't manage to get to Intourist by the end of the first week. My hosts couldn't figure out the paperwork. On Monday of the next week Anya picked me up to go to the Intourist Office to ensure that the police wouldnt come looking for me. We walked to the office, quite a long way. As we proceeded along one of the main streets I noticed a building with hammer a sickle emblems carved into circular figures all along the front, one storey up. Anya told me this was the former KGB office and now is the office of their successors. I proceeded to unpack my camera to shoot (in a harmless way) this edifice. Anya was alarmed and told me that a friend of hers was taking a picture of another friend in front of the building. Someone came out to confiscate the camera. I chickened out.
Anya's grandfather was one of the Russian soldiers captured by the Germans and sent back to Russia after the war. He was at work at the local steel mill in his job as an engineer when the KGB picked him up as a potential threat because of his having experienced life in the West. Some experience in wartime Germany! He died in the Gulag or, quite possibly, was shot.
So I guess it's not too surprising that Anya is apprehensive. I had intended to take pictures of the bureaucratic process of giving me a pass to spend time in Izhevsk. Ridiculous, it seemed to me, in view of the fact that I already had a visa and was already in the city. Anya not only would not hear of my taking pictures but insisted I stand back and not say a word. There was no problem but Anya's anxiety was palpable. It seemed to me that her concern was overstated but I chose not to upset her, or take any chances. I have a better picture now of how fear ran the Soviet society.
Izhevsk was a closed city during the Cold War. There is a very large steel mill where they probably made tanks. This is the place where Kalaznikov (if that's how you spell it) was born and where he invented the gun that is used by the Russian army and is such a favourite of terrorists. They are building a large museum in Kalaznikov's memory. Guns are extremely easy to purchase. I could have purchased an assault rifle in a souvenir shop. Unfortunately, it wouldn't fit in my suitcase! They also sell guns that look exactly the same but shoot small steel balls. They are indistinguishable from the lethal real thing and probably quite dangerous. They also sell handguns, both regular and those that shoot the steel pellets. The "toys" look exactly like the real thing. The real thing can be purchased for about $50 US.
Tuesday, I gave a seminar to some of Sergey's customers and prospects. I prepared a PowerPoint presentation and Anya translated it into Russian. It was interesting giving a lecture in English, looking at the English version of the PowerPoint presentation on my notebook while someone else advanced the equivalent Russian presentation on another computer attached to a projector. Anya did the English interpretation. Things went quite well, once we got started. I had done everything short of throttling to get Sergey to check out the equipment and venue in advance. He didn't. So we had no projection screen, no power bar, and the VCR for an element of the presentation didn't work until they fiddled with it for some time. They were still setting up when the attendees arrived. The presentation was 1/2 hour late. However, the attendees seemed accepting of the situation. There were no further glitches other than the fact that Sergey was to have loaded a web site on the second computer for me to analyze for the attendees. True to his fashion, he had not warned me that he had not done it or had not had time in the rush to get things set up. So I arrived at the point where I was expecting to find the web site only to find a sorrowful look on Sergey's face. It's a good thing I have experienced many minor inconveniences in my business career and was able to carry on almost as if that were the way the seminar was planned.
Monday afternoon we took a pleasant stroll around the centre of the city and stopped for a libation at a quite attractive outdoor beer garden. Of course, during this time we should have been getting ready for the seminar. Every day tends to run till after 11 PM or later. As a matter of fact we worked to well after 2 AM the night/morning before the seminar.
Sergey's company has produced some quite professional quality 3D animations for TV commercials. All his staff (about 7) are former fellow students from High School, as is Anya. They went to a special school for gifted children. The staff is a very bright bunch and quite talented with regard to computer technology. I am impressed with their energy and ambition in addition to their intelligence. And they sure do work hard - all hours of the day and/or night and weekends. Now they want to go after the North American market and, with the Internet, they have a very good chance - with my help of course!
I didnt have time to complete an English version of a promotional web site for the company (to help them tackle the Western market) but did get it far enough that the staff should be able to finish the Russian version. I will confirm the English version from Toronto via the Internet.
I had to move again for the last two nights' stay in Izhevsk. The initial apartment was only rented for ten days. (20 year-olds again.) I moved to Anya's parent's place. They were away for their vacation in the country, tending to their garden. The apartment was larger and much better equipped than the rental one. The apartment had stores of vegetables on every windowsill (about 2' wide), under every bed and every other place you could imagine. Preserving jars lined the walls. For Anya's parents and others, growing their own food is the only way they can survive.
It was alarming though. Several times, when I least expected it, there was a large explosion. It was the sound of the top blowing off one of the pickle jars. It sure makes one alert in a hurry. But at least I wasn't in the pickle that sprang to mind.
I did some sight-seeing Friday, and some more on Saturday morning prior to a lunch (dinner as they call it) with Sergey's mother (who cooked) and Sergey, Simon and Anya. I left for Moscow on a 5 PM flight. I decided to take a 2-hour flight rather than the 19 1/2-hour train. Once is sufficient an experience, although the train was quite acceptable. The plane was satisfactory, although designed for short-legged people. The CESO rep in Moscow had his driver, Vladimir, meet the plane. Alexander had lined up an apartment and volunteered his assistant, Olga, to help me with some sight-seeing on the next day.
In Moscow I had a sort of B&B+D(inner). My room was in a quite comfortable apartment - the best I'd seen. The bathroom had up-to-date fixtures, tiled floors and walls and was altogether quite modern, unlike the ones in Izhevsk. The kindly grandmotherly wife seemed to think I needed fattening; she served me enough breakfast to last the whole day. The evening meal too was generous. I like Russian cuisine. It includes lots of vegetables. But I didn't live up to my self-imposed promise to lose weight - mashed potatoes for breakfast.
On Sunday Olga and I visited Lenin's tomb. It was raining so the line was short. A young natty soldier signaled that I should be quiet and respectful as I entered a dimly lit corridor. Lenin looks like his pictures: bearded and deadly serious but ready to wax poetic in a cryptic sort of way. Its interesting that they still venerate a graven image. We then toured some of the Kremlin buildings, followed by a bus tour of the city. Some things are expensive. It costs about $9 US to enter the Kremlin. This is not too bad but then there are charges for several of the most important exhibits. For example, it cost about $11 US to see the crown jewels and some displays of precious metals and jewelry. The bus tour was about $24 US (in a minibus). However, Moscow is a far more interesting and attractive place than I had anticipated. For example, Moscow University sits on 450 acres of parkland. I would like to see, in more detail, many of the places I merely glimpsed on the tour.
Unfortunately, the next day, a Monday, all the museums, art galleries, etc. were closed; so I was only able to walk around a large park dedicated to the Great Patriotic War, as they call WW II. (I had forgotten that Russia lost 20 million people in the war.) The park was just completed three years ago and includes a Christian church and a Muslim mosque plus enormous sculptures, a museum and an extensive display of WWII armaments.
I guess the wicked witch of the east cast a spell over my relationship with airlines. When I checked in, on my return trip via Frankfurt, an hour ahead of flight time, they told me my reserved seat had been assigned to someone else. I have learned that weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth sometimes helps. With five minutes to spare they did find me a seat.
I left Moscow for home on Tuesday 2 PM, local time and was back in Toronto in the evening of the same day despite the stopover in Frankfurt (time zones).
The people were extremely gracious. It is fascinating to hear of their problems and to experience first hand the resilience of Russians. (For example, it seems everyone has a garden plot, either in the city or at a dacha in the country. This is not a hobby but a necessity, even for people like Sergey's mother, a university professor, and Anya's parents, a medical doctor and an engineer. Salaries for professionals are almost unbelievably low, like $15 US a month.) The Russians I met were friendly and on a person-to-person basis not at all the dour people that I have seen in pictures of their leaders. They are surprisingly candid about their problems and their desire to graduate from their previous system. They have suffered a great deal under the Soviet system and, unfortunately, in terms of living standards are now suffering even more. The people are wonderful; the system is wanting. When they can control the criminals, modernize the civil and criminal laws and reduce the red tape they will make fast progress. Unfortunately, this may take some time.
I hope, in my small way, I have helped make a difference in at least a little enclave of that vast land and with just a few Russians whom I can now call friends.