Diary notes – Moscow-Odessa 23 July – 27 July 1990
First trip back to the USSR after vacation in France. Not so warm in Moscow – perhaps 20 – 22C, but very high humidity. The purpose of this trip is to further extend the UPS network, to add Odessa.
JV General Manager Arkady Kurshin is in fine spirits. He has given numerous interviews following the Tashkent contract signing and is basking in the publicity. This time all reservations have been made well in advance and I am comfortably installed in the Ukraina hotel. Shabby, oversized but freshly redecorated 12th floor is cozy. 14th floor Italian owned snack bar is reopened and I have a very pleasant supper after which I stroll across the river to the World Trade Center complex. Clusters of American business groups – lawyers looking very proper in their white shirts and ties. Young guys doing the legwork for their company negotiations. As I’ve said before, when American corporate culture moves in , it takes the landscape with it.
Tuesday afternoon flight to Odessa with Kurshin – smooth, one and a half hour flight. So far, so good. We arrive in Odessa shortly after a rain and it is steamy though the temperature is still only 25 degrees C. Our hosts take us straight to the hotel. Krasnaya [the Bristol] built in 1889 and considered the best in town. At $120 per night I expect something special and so it is. Vintage about the same as the Metropole in Moscow, in high baroque style with all of the pastel excesses that Russians loved.
It is across the street from what was the Stock Exchange until party bosses decided that a Philharmonic hall was more relevant (zero acoustics, but that’s life). The room is a suite with 4 meter high ceilings. Nice proportions. Oak floors. Good oak chairs and marquetry chests and table. Beds in a sleeping alcove. Restored, shabby and cockroach infested. A neat microcosm of the entire city, whose architectural heritage is on a high level – fine boulevards in Italianate architecture, stucco and pastel colors. Reminiscent of Petersburg, though on a smaller scale. Beautiful plantain trees. Feeling of Naples, of Seville. Picturesque in its advanced decay and poverty. Courtyards, well proportioned squares. . Facelifts here and there but not enough to allay the overwhelming feeling of decline, ruins of past glory.
We take a drive through the city, look over the passenger port at the famous ‘Potemkin staircase.’ City has an undeniable charm coming from its situation overlooking the sea at an elevation of 30 – 40 meters. We go down to the tourist area and then leave the city proper for the ’16th station area,’ where we take a swim in doubtful quality slimy water at a closed beach – closed because of human waste and industrial pollution.
Arkadi is overjoyed to be in the sea. I would rather forget the pleasure. The ‘16th Station’ is reference to old tram line stops, from that very line whose shares (Odessa Tram Company) I have seen on sale at the Sablon Square in Brussels. Probably there was some tie-in with the developers of the coastal railway in Belgium at the end of the last century. This line is now electrified and still functioning. The whole impression of the beaches is depressing. It’s the poverty of physical plant, the filth of the water and the obesity and physical deformity of so many of the bathers. No place to invite the international jet set. Most of the bathers are bussed in from not far – Moldavians coming from 150 to 200 km away. It’s a cheap and dirty vacation. Food may be sufficient, but transport is not. Everywhere along the road people have their hands out hoping to catch a ride.
Our hosts have a lovely dinner set at a dacha to which Arkadi and I plus two other visiting Muscovites from the trucking business are invited. Homely, very homely. The ‘path’ of access is muddy and rutted. Viktor Mikhailovich doesn’t want it paved, however, so as to keep out outsiders. His plot is an ample 5 ares and is richly planted in apricots, walnuts and table grapes which form a luxuriant canopy. The house itself is new, an oversized bungalow but of decent materials and equipped with electricity, water, room air conditioner and color television which we all watch as the conversation peters out. Typically we watch a session of the Ukrainian parliament which is voting on members of the government. I’m surprised that some speakers use Ukrainian, others Russian. Our own conversation runs from criticism of Raisa for seeking too much of the limelight to the anti-business position of the republican government. Kurshin regales our hosts with tales from his years attached to the Soviet embassy in France.
Thursday we have formal signing of agency agreement before local television cameras , then in the afternoon per my request I am taken out to the Hippodrome for 20 minutes of trot on a fine harness racer. For the evening we have opera tickets. The program, Gounod’s Faust, is changed at the last minute and instead we see Verdi’s La Traviata. The opera house itself is magnificent – renovated about a decade ago following recedence and cracking to structural supports. It is today fresh and gilded rococo. Splendid foyer, which for some reason is not used, or rather is closed off. The performance is remarkably good. Violetta is a talented Armenian – young, rich voice and good stage presence. Alfredo is also young, though less impressive. Other leading roles hold up. The chorus is the weakest part. The conductor is attentive to his singers and the balance is successful. The conception is pedestrian but acceptable. Decoration is cheap, but I have no complaint since it is sufficient. I had assumed we would just sit through the first act, but the performance is good enough to hold me to the end, at which I must hold back tears. Now that is a testimonial: the artistic integrity even as the piece is sung in Russian is higher than anything I have seen on the Teatr Wielki in Poland or in Zagreb. A most pleasant surprise. The audience is mostly local, though all the foreign tourists – English, Germans, etc. – are well represented in the parterre and boxes.
Further notes on our UPS service partner – Viktor Mikhailovich Chernoivanenko
Claims to have German ancestry – a grandfather named Zimmerman. Peculiar interest in clarifying Jews. When we are alone, he asks me whether it’s true that Kurshin is Jewish. Further, when I describe the Russian camp in France – he asks ‘and are there many Jews there?’ At the same time, he shows kindness and generosity. See his love and attention to his youngest son, a boy of about 8, who is stricken by cerebral palsy: he has arranged as therapy rides on the harness track each weekend – hence his arrangements for my promenade via these contacts at the track.
Also note: this ‘simple’ guy engaged in transport has a reasonable income and growing experience of foreign travel. His base salary of 350 rubles rises to 750 a month with premiums. His wife has about 400 rubles with premium included. He has visited Japan, also Turkey. And thanks to the US-Soviet ‘fraternal cities’ program, he will visit Baltimore, Maryland this autumn.
Note how important this program is for letting middle managers see the world. Tashkent was linked to Seattle, WA and these guys to Baltimore.
On Gorbachev, Viktor and his pals are cool. Where are the benefits? They see none as yet. And in their work, they are still bound hand and foot to the bureaucracy. Cars and fuel are available only on allocation basis. If they declare independence they lose all. As Viktor sums up: where there is no way to avoid rape, you might as well relax and try to enjoy it.
Further notes on Odessa visit – July 1990
We see loads of Americans in town. A group of about 20 from a company distributing Stolichnaya in the USA. On the road to Moscow, Leningrad and Odessa. Jaded.
At the barbecue held at the dacha of Chernoivanenko, the discussion turned hot. Kurshin becomes a patriot: if we don’t have self-respect, no one will respect us. Meanwhile, Chernoivanenko himself says that he thinks that the Kurile Islands should be given back to Japan and the Japanese should be given extensive concessions in Siberia so that the area can be properly developed. On his trip to Japan he was greatly impressed how disused was the Soviet territory compared to the Japanese lands just across the sea. We are like the dog on the haystack, he says: the dog cannot eat it himself but doesn’t allow other animals to eat.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020
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