Travel notes, Kiev. Ukraine on the path to independence
Monday, 29 October 1990
First visit to Kiev in 24 years. Painful after Chernobyl, which is only 60 miles away as the crow flies. The ‘green city’ they call themselves, as if that were a compliment. It’s a contradiction in terms.
Morning – we go to see the Pechersk Lavra – don’t get very far. Join a Soviet group. The guide is on missionary work, strongly anti-Soviet. She tells how Bolsheviks murdered the prelate and monks, how in 1919 Lenin cynically ordered the plunder and shootings. All the horrors, up to our day. Rather fuddy-duddy group of Soviet ladies. But occasionally it’s clear that the guide lands her punch. She gets through the twaddle in their brains. Scandal of yesterday at the Sophia, where fighting broke out in a protest inspired by Ruch (Ukrainian nationalists) over participation of Russian Metropolitan Alexei in the sanctification of the church.
Afternoon – visit with deputy minister of transport Reva, who grants us only one hour, because he is a parliamentarian and at 4.00 they assemble to elect a new prime minister, the result of a students’ hunger strike. Reva says that Ukraine is going ahead with full independence – sovereignty; is setting up its own embassies abroad, starting with Hungary, and will establish its own foreign ties in all international organizations. This is historic – signals the break-up of the Soviet Union if the most populous non-Russian republic walks out. 52 million population. Reva himself is clearly Russian, as is over one-third of the Ukrainian population.
Dinner at a dacha. The refrain – “Moscow is milking us.” The dinner is staged in imitation of Chernoivanenko’s dacha feast in Odessa, about which our hosts have of course heard. It’s all rather civilized. The dacha itself is a two story affair, and we are perched in the second story with its big ceramic tiled fireplace, which is lit and for a time fights off the frost, though for the last hour I sit quietly freezing. There is a splendid oak parquet floor – better than in Moscow’s best hotels (why do Muscovites always manage to turn parquet into butcher-shop floors?).
The table is spread with Caucasian specialties as our host is Armenian. Marinated patissons, red tomatoes, garlic cloves, wild garlic, stuffed grape leaves. The pièce de resistance is a beef filet mignon barbecued. Drinkable brandy as well as vodka, all consumed with relative moderation. Our hosts are planning to visit the USA, where a friend is living. Business talk moves on to the impending independence of the Ukraine – how to attract investments. I stress that the West has other priorities, so if any large firms are thinking of setting up shop here, grab them; don’t try to fence them in.
Tuesday, 30 October 1990
“Our meeting with the Autotrans group goes badly. November 1st there will be a new exchange rate. The commercial ruble is being devalued to one third of its old value and our talking partners want us to give them all the implicit gains from this change-over. My point of view is that till now we Westerners were constrained by law – the Soviet ruble was overvalued but we could do nothing. Now the ruble is finding a more reasonable level and any confrontation over what we pay for goods and services will be between us and our Soviet business partners. We are ready for such a fight. We will compromise but we will not automatically yield to the other side the benefits of devaluation. Over the past year, as the dollar devalued, we put up quietly with rising costs in the USSR. Now it is our turn to benefit and the other side will shut up. We will increase our dollar payments only to the extent that the dollar costs to the JV have risen.
Unfortunately the leader on the Ukrainian side, director of the Auto Base…is not up to the challenge and we break off the talks without results.
On the plus side, we discover a possible alternative local partner in the newly created Business Development Center at Hotel Salute. The clever young Soviet manager of this JV outfit seems interested to promote our service as part of his infrastructure offering to foreign businesses. We make our offer. He’ll think it over.
The other major complication is that Kurshin tells me he is thinking of leaving the JV. The story is that Sovtransavto boss Tatishvili forced him out as revenge for his independence during the board meeting in Helsinki. True or false? Maybe.
In any event Kurshin last Friday was elected President of the Soviet Truckers’ Association group in charge of negotiating bilateral agreements with foreign countries. A modest salary but frequent trips abroad. The position of a power broker in a fast changing political situation.
We take dinner together and over half a liter of whisky he tries to seal our personal relations. Tells about his past. In ’39, his father was the chief engineer of Gulag. It all lasted one year, on the Belomorkanal project. Then he was lucky to get out with demotion to a factory directorship. Later he also served the NKVD as head of a factory employing minor offenders. He reveals that his grandfather was a member of the first merchants’ guild of Moscow, a wealthy man with a townhouse in Moscow.
Arkadi wants to keep the door open for a possible return to UPS if and when we break with Sovtransavto and set up our subsidiary. To ingratiate himself, he says he was asked by the KGB if I’m a spy when I applied for a multiple entry visa. Gentle hint that he has friends going back to his father. I’m neither surprised nor shocked. One thing for sure – I do not match his ‘confession’ about my nationality or skeletons in the closet.
Whom to name to succeed him? Better someone from inside, not to start all over again with someone else. Nor do we give Tatishvili the upper hand in our JV.
Jokes from Kiev: we pass new luxury housing block “Vnukovo” built for the grandsons of the nomenklatura. Or the KGB headquartrers is the tallest building in Kiev – from there you can see Siberia.
Tuesday was Political Prisoners’ Day in Moscow with a large demonstration on Dzerzhinski Square. Kurshin wants to watch it on television.
We take a little car tour – past the St Sophia – which is really disappointing – just another Russian church. For some reason I expected the grandeur of Hagia Sophia (Istanbul). The cupolas here are just some more onion shapes. On the other hand Rastrelli’s 19th century Andreyevski Sobor is magnificent – a blue and white baroque jewel. We descend the cobbled road into the Poddolia, the fine baroque part of the city just starting to be rehabilitated.
Uneventful flight on Aeroflot TU134 from Kiev to Berlin’s Schoenefeld airport. My fellow passengers are a talkative American lawyer turned journalist who proudly shows off his accreditation to Vecherny Kiev for the USA (pay to be all the rubles he can eat). On the other side, a German based manager for General Electric who is a good Russian speaker. A bit on the glum side. Confines himself to travel to Leningrad, Moscow, Kiev. Remembers his ’76 trip to Khabarovsk, as one of the first foreigners. At the time he took an Intourist guided tour and at the lookout point over the Amur asked if it was far to China. The guide said yes, very far; a Chinese standing just nearby said – just look at the hills across the river, that’s China – and the guide turned crimson
As I leave Schoenefeld (where customs inspection is more like the old DDR than like the new BRD), I take a Wartburg taxi and get at once caught in the new traffic jams which seem to be clogging all arterial roads. Takes about an hour to reach Tegel. Lufthansa has played a dirty trick – my direct flight to Brussels is subcontracted to a small turboprop – so we get well bounced around in the high winds by the time we land in Brussels.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020
[Memoirs of Russianist, Volume I: From the Ground Up in now in print and available on all national websites of Amazon.com, as well as from other leading online retailers including Barnes & Noble, and http://www.bol.com.]