From the Personal Archive of a Russianist, installment twenty

Diary notes – Visit to Uzbekistan for United Parcel Service –  24-30 June 1990

A very concentrated, very stimulating trip. This Soviet trip also has a large measure of tourism, but of a hectic, forced variety as we were the guests of the Uzbek Minister of Road Transport Larek Akhmetov and their hospitality was all-embracing.  Warm, but fatiguing beyond our strength.

By the time we departed Tashkent, the manager of the UPS Soviet Joint Venture Arkadi Borisovich Kurshin was physically sick and I was failing. Why? A combination of the heat (over 40 degrees C) and the feasting.

“We have a cult of dining.” This is how Ralf, chief of our service company Aral put it. And so we repeatedly sat down to five hour feasts consisting of multi-course meals and non-stop toasting on brandy and vodka. Add to this our hosts’ sincere desire to show us as much of the area as possible in our four days, meaning lengthy car trips this way and that.

From a business standpoint, the trip was successful: we concluded a contract with Aral, as foreseen, for servicing Tashkent, Uzbekistan and Central Asia generally at the affordable price of 7 hard currency roubles per pick-up or delivery. We had a proper signing ceremony at the Ministry with about 60 officials looking on and with the local press taking notes and photos. We met with the two recently opened Japanese representations in Tashkent and saw our first customers for both international and domestic services to Moscow. We blazed trails as the first express company to set up shop in Soviet Central Asia, thus finally pulling ahead of DHL and the Soyuzvneshtrans monopoly.

From a personal standpoint it is very exciting to be in the midst of the forces for decentralization , decomposition of the Soviet Union. A couple of months ago in Estonia and now in Uzbekistan. The Uzbeks just one week ago declared their sovereignty and primacy of their own republican law. They are more modest than the Baltics, but have the material resources to push for really great autonomy in the months ahead.

My single strongest impression is of the Ali Baba nature of this rich and fertile land. As they say, they mine the whole of Mendeleev’s table. We pass silver, gold mines, an enormous open pit black coal mine, the area of uranium mining and, as some say, of diamonds. Near Bukhara are oil and gas wells. Railway tank cars attest to the petroleum. A huge thermal electric station is fed on the coal about 100 km east of Tashkent.

The climate is continental in most of Uzbekistan, with hot summers and cold winters (down to minus 10 degrees) with plenty of snow. At the edge of Pamir, we find 6000 meter peaks with snowcaps and our valley has over 2 meters of white blanket in winter. However, in the Fergana Valley there is a subtropical climate with citrus crops and no frost.

The soil is very fertile, the type in which proverbially you put in a stick and find a tree growing the next day. It is mostly given over to monoculture, cotton growing, which is hailed officially as the wealth of the nation but is viewed locally as its poverty, because the state prices for raw cotton are miserably low. By local reckoning, the 150 grams of pure raw cotton that go into making a shirt are sold for 30 kopeks and the shirt itself comes back for 10 roubles. That is to say the cotton goes for only 3% of the value of the finished goods and they are made chiefly in the Ukraine and elsewhere outside of Uzbekistan. If given their head, the locals would cut back on cotton, which is overbloated at 6 million tons per year, and would use part of the land to grow melons and foodstuffs for their own consumption.

I ask about quality of cotton and am told that what is on the plant itself is of the highest quality. However, the harvesting machinery is crude (Soviet and apparently made here in Uzbekistan) so that it tears the delicate fibers and seriously reduces quality. They know this well and some part of the harvest is left for hand or less destructive machines, so that they do have a top quality material available for export. All export goes via Moscow till now and none of the benefit stays with the growers.

I tend to believe this explanation. Looking at the cotton fields, I am surprised at the state of the plantation. The rows of plants are as dense and orderly as in the West, which is a far cry from the sparse rows of most anything planted in Central Russia. Evidently the seeds and sowing apparatus are up to standard.

The cult of dining expresses itself in a very finicky attention to freshness and peak quality. Everything is offered in great abundance and only the newcomer dares to think it is all to be consumed. No, the Uzbeks only take a small part of what is put on their plate. Typically the tea or other beverage is served by the half cup, so that one can continually add. It is all quite subtle.

The table is groaning from fruits and garden vegetables as you sit down and these are nibbled between courses. Some of these staples are simple, like beefsteak tomatoes and cucumbers, others are rarer, such as pistachios, almonds, salted and roasted apricot pits, local herbal grasses, mulberries (like ripe blackberries only without pits and having sweet, velvety syrup).

The meal itself is a varied procession of dishes. First the cold soup (okroshka), then the hot soup (a kind of kharcho from lamb), then sautéed river fish (marinka, a sort of trout) in cottonseed oil, then plov (the national dish consisting of rice and lamb with onion and spices), then stuffed quails with garlic, and then watermelon for dessert. This is how we were treated by the Minister at his mountain retreat and it is only a variation on our other feasts.

In between courses, you can take a stroll or lounge on the khantokhta, an oversized sofa.

When we first arrived in Tashkent Tuesday evening and we had the opening dinner at our Hotel Uzbekistan, the feeling was of great luxury on the table after Moscow. The fresh apricots, plums, melons would be hard to find in a hotel anywhere in Eastern Europe, including Yugoslavia. They attest to a superior management. By the time we returned from Samarkand and again dined at the hotel restaurant, it looked drab and tame following our experience with the private feasts.

The other feature of the dining aside from its sumptuousness was the setting. Here alfresco dining is not merely out on the terrace. It is in the midst of the forest where a table is set up, chairs are brought in and the dishes appear as if from nowhere in splendid succession to the music of the nightingales. No, not just trees. There must be water, preferably the play of the narrow streams from fountain onto a pond. It is all so very reminiscent of the Courtyard of the lions in the Alhambra of Granada. Delicate streams of water tinkling in the background. Unimpressive unless you consider how rare water was in this part of the world.

Among the other surprises are that these local bosses have done very well for themselves. The director of one of the auto bases does not allow us to leave him without ‘crossing the threshold’ of his house. Once inside the plain concrete exterior wall, we are in a port cochère where his new Moskvich is parked. He throws a switch and there is the play of water on his swimming pool. To the left, he leads us into the 60 square meter guest area complete with piano. Across the courtyard is the main house.

Even the Samarkand auto base, which looks like our drab Butovo office building near Moscow from the outside, has a pleasant suite of rooms for guests including one that is air conditioned and has a sauna. A second base has a large sports hall with sauna and fresh, well fed swimming pool – here we take one of our feasts.

As to the family: a man with less than five kids is considered unlucky. Ten or more is common. Divorce is very rare. The husband must work day and night to provide for his brood, and in particular to find dowries for the daughters. It is expected he will give the groom clothing, furniture and food staples sufficient for 3 years of marital life and will host a wedding feast for 800 or more. So says Ralf.

On this and that. Ralf is a wonderful story-teller, including tall tales. Though he does suggest that camels are not to be had (they avoid built-up places and pollution!), I am firmly promised a horse and prepare my riding habit for the trip up to the minister’s retreat. When we arrive, the camp boss looks at me in bemusement. Horse? No horses here. But we do get to eat a horsemeat sausage that is very good.

From the reaction of our Japanese prospective clients to our promises of fast service, I can presume that Ralf is not the only one to tell stories in this part of the world. The Chori rep first asks: do you mean that if I give you a parcel in Tashkent on Monday it will be in Tokyo on Friday? I say yes. He then breaks into a smile which becomes hysterical laughter. “Отсюда до Луны ближе чем отсюда до Москвы” [from here the Moon is nearer than Moscow] He asks: and if I call, will someone answer the phone? We assure him they will. But he remains very incredulous. Nice guys, these Japanese reps, but they are evidently not having an easy time. Nonetheless, their office seems as well set up as anything in Moscow would be and their ‘assistants’ are lovely, well made up girls who seem to enjoy their work and know languages.

Maybe transport is slow but the music gap is no problem in Tashkent. Our hotel orchestra plays Lambada over and over again to the request of the locals. There is a nice new Coke machine in the hotel lobby. It does not seem to be used, but the bar is selling Coke and other Western drinks. Only Western cigarettes do not seem to be available.

And the good things in life go not only to the bosses. We visit the Samarkand market and prices for fruits and vegetables as well as for fresh and very attractive lamb meat are 3 – 10 times cheaper than in the market in Moscow. There is an enormous assortment as well. Moreover, the local women are nearly all wearing the silk fabrics which are made from cocoon to finished goods within the republic.

Politics :  All of the time our friends are concerned over the fate of Gorbachev. Larek Akhmetov is going to Moscow for the 28th Party Congress which opens next week and all are skeptical if Gorbachev can surmount the attacks coming from the left (Yeltsin) and from the right (Ligachev).

Giffen: On my way over to Moscow this trip I ran into Jim Giffen at the Lufthansa Senator Lounge of Frankfurt Airport. In the mid-70s, I had first heard of him as assistant to the Chairman of Armco who helped his boss (who later became U.S. Secretary of Commerce) on a major project that Armco hoped to put through, but which was eventually stymied by the embargo following the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan. In the early ‘80s, Giffen became president of the US-USSR Trade and Economic Council. Then in about 1987 he became chairman of the merchant bank Mercator Corp. and in that capacity put together the US Trade Consortium and its multibillion dollar package of deals which sees oil exports from the prospecting of some members offsetting the sales of industrial plant and finished goods of other members. Giffen has just gotten in from New York and is zonked.

These days he commutes back and forth between the U.S. and Moscow twice a month and it looks like this will continue indefinitely. We last saw one another at the river boat reception of the Trade Council in Moscow in May. I ask him how the dinner at the Kremlin went, since I had not been invited. At first he is slow, but then his enthusiasm takes over. He says that Gorbachev had spoken well there, but that it was nothing compared to Gorby’s brilliant speech in Minneapolis a couple of weeks later. Giffen was so excited that he taped that speech. He now opens his briefcase to show me photos of himself with Gorbachev in Minneapolis. This is really surprising: an American businessman who is putting together a file on Gorby! And then comes the real shocker. Giffen says he first met Gorbachev back in 1984 when he was still a dark horse. Together with Council chairman Andreas, of ADM, he had been invited to a chat with Mikhail which turned into a 90 minutes discourse at which Gorbachev set out his thoughts on most everything and his program for action down to the removal of the Berlin Wall. Giffen and Andreas were so impressed that when they returned to the USA they sought a meeting with Schultz and told him what they had heard. However, Schultz was disbelieving.

Note:  James Giffen continued his business activities in Central Asia into the 1990s and had a role in arranging the Chevron Oil deal for the Tenghiz fields in Kazakhstan. His service as adviser to the Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbayev brought down on his head accusations of engaging in bribery (Kazakhgate) which led to his arrest at JFK airport in 2003 and to court proceedings. These were finally dropped only in 2010 on technical grounds:  Giffen claimed that the CIA was informed in advance of his every move; but the U.S. Government declined to turn over its respective files to the court.  Given the geopolitical importance of the business deals he was pursuing in Kazakhstan it is entirely credible that he cooperated with U.S. intelligence.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

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