From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment fourteen

Table Talk  – Daily life of a commis voyageur, Moscow

Thursday, 15 June 1978

Largely empty day. Take lunch at the National – then go over to Intourist for coffee at the minibar – make one of the chance acquaintances that make this city so fascinating. My table partner turns out to be a West German aged about 58-60 who is working on construction of the Sheremetievo expansion for the Olympics. His last time here was 32 years ago, in 1946, when he remained for 1.5 years as POW following the end of the war on the Russian front – worked as a blacksmith in the Donbass. Glad that things so much improved – not to our standards but enough to keep people happy. Knows a few words of Russian, only few more of English. Says he is working as an engineering supervisor. Poles also are on the project doing cement laying. 

Saturday, 17 June 1978

Evening dine at the hotel (Rossiya). Meet a German and A Swede working for Bayer. The German is here for the first time since WWII, when he was a POW, stayed on for a year afterwards. His brother, by contrast, had been a POW in the USA after capture in North Africa. Also joined by 3 Vietnamese – one who is on jury of the Tchaikovsky competition, one who is in final year at the Conservatory, and another who is working at an atomic power station in Dubno. Slightly strained conversation but typical. The jury member informs me that tomorrow night at the ballet will be very fine – Giselle performed by a new star, Pavlova.

Sunday, 18 June 1978

Take lunch at the National where dine with two Finns on their way to Iran, where the brother of one is working. They are in transit, arrived by train today, depart this evening for Baku, thence to Persian border by steamer across the Caspian. Also one bureaucrat, manager of a dom otdykha [resort] sits with us.  Usual menage. The Finns are bridge crazy. One has just returned from a tourney in Iceland. They ask if bridge is played here. Set response, no card games are officially sponsored; all games of chance prohibited. Complain that Intourist has them tied up most of the day so they cannot sight-see; main impression – gloomy, nasty faces.

Evening – ballet. Giselle at the Kremlin Palace. A marvelous treat – young brunette with splendid technique and what is more important delicacy of feeling, N. V. Pavlova (Perm school) together with A.Yu. Bogatyrev, present the finest show I have seen in this town for a long time. A kind of elan that raises technique to exquisite art. At curtain call Pavlova appears rather simple of face, petite but full in figure; naïve, girlish in manner. Bogatyrev is rather like Bujones in his athletic force. Corps de ballet performs very well, though second couple does poorly. Large foreign contingent in the audience, many Americans, seem rather impassive. Soviet audience in great excitement. Again meet my Vietnamese, who are enthusiastic.

Monday, 19 June 1978

While entering breakfast queue, I meet Dr. Lee, who shares a number of interesting items: first, that he left SATRA two months ago; says situation there is in flux, that Shelby also left not long ago – “not all that glitters is gold” – they have had their money troubles.

Asks my opinion of the International Harvester incident – what is being said here; says it has been splashed all over the papers in the U.S., that appeals made directly to the Vice President to take measures to free their men.  All understand this was a direct retaliation for the New Jersey arrests. Apparently this visiting office head of International Harvester was charged with violation of Article 88, currency irregularities, together with two Soviet citizens.  At the service desk of the hotel all girls are clucking away about the incident – which was covered in TV on Saturday night; the rep had stayed here in the Rossiya.

10.30 I visit the Trade Council, see U.S. office director Dick O’Brien. Schedule Morton seminar here for Thanksgiving week, Nov 20-22.  Trade Council meeting will be December 4 – 6, following intergovernmental meetings (Blumenthal and Krebs) December 1-2.

Lunch at the ITT office, where Luigi officiates and usual camaraderie reigns.

2.30 I visit the consular section of the U.S. embassy to make a visa picture – learn that Mohammed Ali is in town for an exhibition match –to be tomorrow evening at 8.00, faces 3 successive 3-round matches with local boxers. At 5.00 gives press conference at the embassy.

Return to the hotel Rossiya for dinner, glad to be rid of the dour, humorless group of my client’s staff whom I just picked up at Sheremetievo. Meet a couple of participants in the Tchaikovsky competition, both from New York. Say there are 20 American pianists – far too many for quality. Contrast to 3-4 Soviets, all of top rank and sure to be finalists. American participants diluted by some who are inexperienced and would be better to wait. They were surprised and disappointed to find that their accommodation here calls for sharing, two to a room. I tell them what the real value of their room is and they are shocked.

Tuesday, 20 June 1978

Slightly worn down from day’s talks at the Food Ministry, we all go over to the U.S. embassy snack bar at 5.00 for the Ali press conference. Mohammed Ali proves to be very experienced showman and dismal politician. Opening remarks sickening: has seen only one cop on the streets; people are so very orderly and peaceful; recounts meeting with Brezhnev in the Kremlin, shows off to the audience his new watch. Visited Samarkand, where he saw Moslems praying freely. After more of this drivel, he finally turns to clowning and the show begins. Incident – an exchange student challenges Ali on the equality of comrades and on religious expression. He answers with dignity that can only report he has seen with his own eyes, perhaps mistaken but these were his impressions.

Our boys laugh at his antics – Etienne and Bob, especially Bob who says it’s better than a visit to the ballet. Paul stands stiffly and mutters about the smoke in the room.  Ali has come for the publicity – an exhibition match, also to promote his project for peace. Besides him sit two fat blood-sucking black managers and his sleek white lawyer. Feel sorry for the guy, that he is so obviously being used on all sides for their enrichment. Note – after the opening slime, Ali later makes known his craving for good old US cheeseburgers, late night coffee shops, and so forth. How easily we slip when away from the area of our competence. This was really so shocking that the student even asked if his remarks were to be taken ironically.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]