From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment twenty-eight

Travel Notes:  conquering the Soviet Far East for UPS, 30 September – 4 October  1990

The trip from Tashkent to Khabarovsk on an IL-62 should take six and a half hours. A half hour before the planned landing time (2 am Tashkent time) the steward announces that we are landing elsewhere and will be on the ground for one and a half to two hours before proceeding to Khabarovsk. I am dumbstruck. The next half hour to landing is nervous – till at last we touch down. Then we are told we cannot leave the plane (it is a closed military air base) and we spend 5 hours in our seats waiting for permission to continue. It is rainy and cold outside as we drowse in semi-consciousness. I am wrapped in the Uzbek kaftan which had been the minister’s gift at our final dinner. Finally, my back in pain, we proceed on the one hour flight and reach Khabarovsk where there are broken clouds and sunshine. The confusion over time (no one knows how many hours difference between Moscow and Khabarovsk and to further  complicate our lives this is the weekend when the clocks are turned back one hour from summer time.

I go over to the Intourist lounge where I take tea and cakes. See a JAL lounge set up in a fussy old Stalinist era building. Forty-five minutes later, Arkadi Kurshin and the local transport deputy chief find me there and a half hour later my baggage is recovered and we drive into town. All planes were diverted from Khabarovsk due to fog and Arkadi’s trip was as difficult as mine: his plane was sent on to Vladivostok where they spent 6 hours on the ground. Thank heavens I was row 1 aisle, so my claustrophobia wasn’t too bad.  

Hotel Intourist – a standard suite for $120 the night. Here the locals have not arranged anything for us. The hotel overlooks the Amur and the embankment is just nearby, so I go for a 30 minute jog. Splendid autumn weather. Golden leaves falling. The majestic river Amur at the confluence with the Ussuri. The Chinese border is just 30 km away across the river in the hills. Arkadi warns not to go out at night – survivors of Gulag, especially criminals, are active. The town is a typical European Russian river city. Could be the Volga or Dnepr. The city is built on hills, well situated. Striking to realize I’ve come so close to China, so close to where my grandfather tread in his days of the Russo-Japanese War.

After the usual battle to get into the hotel restaurant, which serves only groups and locals who have paid under the table, Arkadi and I take a mediocre Siberian supper consisting of salted mushrooms (gruzdi), salted and marinated fern stems, pelmeni in a ceramic pot (Arkadi), fried salmon (me) and lingonberries in sugar for dessert. Washed down with 100 grams of decent vodka and some sticky sweet bottled soda.

The big surprise is that today a delegation of more than 70 Americans from Alaska have arrived on a charter flight from Anchorage for a People to People program. We had encountered about the same number of my compatriots in Tashkent, including one burley guy wearing a cap with the insignia of the Chicago Police Force. Little do these nice, conservative Americans know that they are visiting a territory populated with Sing Sing escapees? Their tour bus is preceded by a police car, which may be a necessary defensive measure under the circumstances.

Khabarovsk as an outpost in the Wild West. See the influence of proximity to China. Some penetration of Chinese words and a border atmosphere.

At 11.30 pm, after four and a half hours, I get through by phone to Larisa in Leningrad. All went smoothly. She was met by our guys at Pulkovo airport and taken to her father’s apartment. Now she is the guest of honor in a party at Valya’s.

The Khabarovsk river front is mainly in yellow pastel stucco buildings reflecting the Moscow architectural style of the late 19th century. An admixture of socialist realism – see the park next to the river port with realistic, prudish sculptures of the same vintage (1930s) as the river boat station in Moscow.

Monday, 1 October 1990

A weak start to the day. I am suffering still from dysentery picked up in Central Asia. As I go down to breakfast, look into the open door and discover the Marubeni Corp (Japanese) representative office . I speak to them, interest them in our service and learn of the existence of four more Japanese companies in this hotel.

At talks with our prospective local partners at the Khabarovsk Road Transport group, we discover that there is now a twice weekly flight of Aeroflot between Khabarovsk and Tokyo.  Visit to the airport makes clear that this is the best way in and out for shipments to/from the Pacific basin and the Americas. Meanwhile use the Moscow route for Europe-bound cargoes. Logical and cheap.

At lunch we discover that the UPS manager Jim Patterson (Pacific Region manager) is present here as part of the Alaska delegation. Meet with him – prosperous looking guy. He’s here doing ‘public relations work’ – that is to say company paid tourism. Another simple guy from Oregon who has done well at UPS. We meet later in the day at the dinner table and he reveals an astonishing fact: he is the survivor of a heart transplant operation. This youthful guy aged 45 has undergone this most savage operation and lived to talk about it. My Russians are stunned.

Note: Khabarovsk is just near Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region – about 150 km away. Really not a bad place to live, except that it’s very, very remote. Climate is fine. Latitude is about like Ukraine. Hot summers and cold winters.    Feel the influence of Soviet Chinese and Korean populations – people who took refuge here after 1947.

 2 October 1990 onward to Vladivostok

Khabarovsk:  depressing backwardness. A hunter’s playground with hunters/trappers crude sense of humor and jolliness by the quart. Our host, head of road transport group of Khabarovsk, is primitive (though he was moved, ‘transformed’ by a visit to Japan and especially by Kyoto). These are Mafioso types. The Aeroflot ticket office proves to be incompetent and snarling as usual. I get my ticket to Vladivostok only after a big scandal.

The Hotel Intourist staff are gloomy, gloomy. At breakfast the waitresses not only do not smile, but ignore greetings of guests. The foreigner is strictly a sheep to be shorn. Hence the rule that he pay all services in dollars, including my phone call to Leningrad.

It’s never too early for a drink. Rampant alcoholism in the old guard. Yet signs of change. At the entrance to the cemetery there is a new chapel to victims of Stalinist oppression.  The town museum has a new section devoted to the Gulag and repressions.

We sign an agency agreement. We give a lecture on UPS to the Khabarovsk auto leadership (all look like alcoholics and degenerates).

After a dismal lunch at the Intourist, which sets back yet again my progress in convalescence, we go out to the airport for the flight to Vladivostok. To our dismay we are flying in the tiny Yak40, which bounces around at take-off and landing due to wind and which takes a half hour longer to cover the 800 km than would a TU154.  Nonetheless, it is good flying weather – clear and bright and the trip goes smoothly. The plane looks like a piece of shit – worn out old bus. Flies loiter inside as if it’s a public toilet. From the air, this whole Amur valley looks fertile and much is under cultivation.

When we arrive in Vladivostok, I understand why there was nothing in the ABC book on it. It’s really tiny, mostly offering local flights. A backwater airport. Stunning for me that 8,000 km from Moscow, just opposite Japan and the forest, flora look just like in European Russia. If released blindfolded I couldn’t say where I was. The only tip-off is the high concentration of used Japanese cars on the road.

We are given rooms in the state house where Ford was lodged during his meeting with Brezhnev. Looks like Tito’s Villa Bled in Slovenia. Heavy use of marble. Apartment sized suites fitted with Scandinavian toilet fixtures and General Electric air conditioner (window units). Fussy, Victorian style settees and armchairs and machine made oriental carpets on the floors. The temperature outside is 20 degrees C and it is tempting to think of taking a dip in the sea (Gulf of Amur) tomorrow morning after a jog.

Between gastric problems and jet lag (time disorientation of 7 hours) I am not really feeling up to strength.

My suite was used by Raisa Gorbachev, I am told.

We spend a wonderful evening dinner with Martynenko, the local transport boss. Young and very energetic guy. From his words, it’s clear that Khabarovsk will be the regional air transport center for some time to come. However, if the new Nakhodka free trade zone takes off, foreign companies will migrate down here to where the port action is. They have hopes to convert a military landing strip near Nakhodka into a regular civil aviation airport. However, that will require infrastructure and airport investments of 60 million rubles.  The Nakhodka free trade zone will allow foreigners to freely import and export capital; to buy land and buildings. A great boom is awaited. Nakhodka presently has consulates from Japan and Korea.

Martynenko has covered all lodging and food costs for our stay here. We are in fact the only guests. And he  has bought my ticket back to Moscow Friday for rubles. Our schedule will permit an excursion out into the Gulf on his cutter and a day trip down to Nakhodka, where we will meet the mayor’s office.

Note: officially Vladivostok is still a closed city – mainly submarine bases, off limits to outsiders.

Wednesday, 3 October 1990 – st. Sanitoriya, Vladivostok

All morning we go over features of our service, scheme to win a customer away from Soyuzvneshtrans and so to take over the DHL business. Conclude an agency contract. Then at 1.30 we take lunch, all in the dining room adjacent to my suite. Then we drive into town, over to the harbor, where at 4.00 we take a cutter out for a boat ride that gives us a 45 minutes survey of the broad basin of Vladivostok, from the inlet of the open sea between our starting point in the Golden Horn till the Ostrov Russky, then around in the direction of the Bay. The Golden Horn is aptly named as it resembles the Istanbul basin in the Bosphorus. Also reminiscent in some respects of San Sebastian and Deauville. I’d never guess this is Russia. The hills provide an interesting setting. Buildings, even recent housing complexes, are mainly in brick and from a distance at least look very respectable. The generosity and drama of nature seems more like New World than Europe. No wonder my father in law Vladimir Illarionovich loved it out here. Next time I must come via Japan and must see the geysers on Kamchatka. Larisa is right. Just think – we are 5 and a half hours from Anchorage and 8 hours from Moscow.

Wednesday, October 3  – Vladivostok

Dinner at our pier restaurant just near our resort. For openers cold fish including salmon roe, cod liver, scallops, salted keta salmon; a main course of elk stew. Our hosts have tried very hard to treat us to original and quality experiences. If it weren’t for my upset intestines I’d be having a great time.

Note: their perspective:   there can be no turning back from perestroika and market forces. “We have been to China and seen the results of economic liberalization. We must proceed down this road.” China has had a very strong, positive effect on their thinking. See the hard work and its achievements. At the same time, recognize that labor intensive Chinese ways are not directly applicable in Russia. Yet great respect for Chinese cuisine, furniture, etc. Feelings less warm towards Japanese. Yet do respect their economic achievement.

10.30 pm – I use the ‘red phone ‘ Communist Party elite intercity system via an operator and get through to Vladimir Illarionovich who assures me that Larisa has her ticket to Moscow on Friday and is all set to go. I give greetings from ‘his’ Vladivostok. A very strange feeling.

Thursday, October 4

In the morning I sleep, then at lunch I am joined by our Siberian friend, Yuri Vasilievich Shemetev from Primoravtotrans, deputy to Martynenko. He proposes that we take a walk together on the Gulf and meet with a couple of guys who are here from Krasnoyarsk. I feast on my chicken soup and chicken with rice, then gladly go with Yuri. The fellow is a strapping 1meter85cm tall, wide set and heavy (100kg), but carries the weight well and looks energetic. A craggy face that is handsome, framed by curly light brown hair. A perfect Siberian, born in the Irkutsk area and living for 21 years in the Vladivostok – Maritime area.  He’s younger than me by one year, born in ’46. His grandfather, like mine, fought in the Russo-Japanese war, though he was a sailor and mine in the army, in Manchuria. Curious coincidence that grandchildren should meet here 85 years later. He’s an optimist – still remains in the Party, hopes for change from within.

We drive ten minutes over to Sovetskii Zaliv, where there is a broad sandy beach. The water is calm, just a slight surf, as on the Great Lakes. Forest all around reminds of America – New York or Lake Michigan. Leafy trees, mostly maple or oak. Hills about like Ramapo mountains – Suffern of Rockland County, New York.  Here they call them Manchurian ‘sopki’. The water is so tempting that I suggest we take a dip. Shemetev eagerly agrees; one of the Krasnoyarsk team also, reluctantly joins.  We skinny dip – go out a 100 yards. The water is beautiful. Perhaps 16 degrees and there is a slight roll of waves. The shore is shallow, just like the Gulf of Finland. The water is moderately salty. What a great experience to act on impulse and take one of the last dips of 1990 in the Pacific!!  Only with people as temperamental and nutty as Russians. I think it over: do I really want to cut ties with this unforgettable country at the time of its second great revolution of this century, during its return to normalcy in order to go sell pots and pans in Hungary for SEB-Calor? Not really. Better to come to terms with UPS or DHL on a more favorable basis for myself and the family.

Shemetov is such a positive hero in the Russian sense. Physically imposing and avidly energetic. Love for nature. Openness to other cultures yet love for his own. Disciplined, yet also impulsive. Contrast to the Vladimir Illarionovich look-alike in Khabarovsk, Vladimir Lozganov or the drunken general director there, Vasily Ermalov, also very Russian in their primitive vulgarity and alcoholic fog.  Jokes centered on impotence.

Dinner with Martynenko, who turns out to be deeply skeptical of possibilities for improvement. Why? Because the Maritime Region is only a producer of raw materials – lead, zinc, wolframite, gold, etc, as well as coal and fish.  They are all sent to European Russia or abroad for processing. Out of total revenues only 30% remain with the locality, of which half must be spent to procure consumer goods, another part must go to maintain existing infrastructure, so that in the end only 3% is left for industrial/economic growth. There is no light industry to speak of. Sixty-five percent of clothing worn in the region is imported – from Austria, Yugoslavia, Germany. Even the fish catch is sold after only very rudimentary processing. Unlike Shemetev, Martynenko seems demoralized, paralyzed. Does not see better days ahead and is not working for them.

Note: yesterday’s Voice of America program, which I receive splendidly on a short wave radio set in the suite, reported on the October 3 reunification of Germany celebrations in Berlin. End to the 4-power command. A turning point in world history that is scarcely felt here.

From 8 – 12 midnight we celebrate the Russian banya ceremony. Fantastic. First time I experience the full rite, including flogging with oak twigs. Very pleasant – aroma of wet tea leaves. Open pores. Very cleansing and great to be alive. Sit and chat – hunters’ stories of bear, tiger, boar, deer in tundra. Fantastic and enthusiastic story telling.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

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