From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment thirty-seven

Travel notes,  Monday 16 March – Friday 20 March 1992 – Tour of the Baltics

A very compressed trip with many impressions. A very exciting time to be visiting the Baltics, and good to stop en route in Warsaw to look over the new contractor operation set up under my guidance, and to visit in Helsinki with the ops manager Ari Kovero to finalize plans for changed traffic flow to St Petersburg and the Baltics.

Warsaw.   Have a brief meeting with LOT downtown office to prepare the way for using their flights into Vilnius to serve the Baltics; then go out to the Service Partner’s offices at Warsaw airport in a container owned by LOT. Low overhead solution – all the basic necessary equipment is installed – telex, IBM and Acer computers. All staff have signed written labor agreements with the new contractor, per my demand. Staff is rather sullen towards me, and even Jack and Konrad are cautious with me, since I really did pistol whip them all during the showdown with the Servisco boss the preceding week. However, I make no apologies for my behavior.

At 8pm I check in for the LOT flight to Vilnius. I have had misgivings about flying this route. LOT was not my favorite airline, but I was reassured by the spring like weather we had been having and by the official designation of a French-Italian built new propjet plane ATR on the route. Weather has since turned foul – we have had wet snow all day long. So I am not surprised to learn, shortly before scheduled departure that the flight is delayed due to difficulties at Vilnius airport. However, after an hour we are invited to board.

The plane is indeed new; but as an elderly Pole sitting across the aisle from me complains, it vibrates like hell even if it is a Western product, so the 90 minute flight is no treat. We arrive to similar weather conditions in Vilnius. On the taxiway I see, to my considerable surprise, a parked Boeing 737 with the colors of “Lithuanian Airlines.” The terminal building is in advanced reconstruction, with adaptations for starting international services underway, so that we are offloaded onto a bus and then taken all around the terminal building to a side entrance where passport control booths have been installed. I get my cost-free visa in 10 minute – on a separate sheet. The crest of the Republic of Lithuania below, the Soviet text above.

Before leaving Warsaw I got assurance from Glab that he had made phone contact with Vilnius and that they knew to meet me at the airport. Now as I come through customs the 3 partners of Lex Ltd are there waiting for me and we drive in their little Lada through the icy streets down to the city where I am shown to my suite and where we proceed to go over current business till nearly 1 am. Meanwhile we learn that Messrs Saarestik and Suiray from Tallinn have also checked into the hotel, so all is proceeding as I had hoped. Finally, thoroughly talked out, I collapse in my bed. The hotel, though clearly built in the late 1970s or 80s is typically run-down and shoddily constructed.

Tuesday, 17 March 1992

Breakfast before 8am in the ground floor restaurant. As I take my place by a window close to the entrance, I am sure that the guy at the next table is familiar – but he is so stocky that I am not sure I am right. After all  the face is so very Finnish that it could be someone else. He sits down with 4 colleagues, then stands to introduce himself to another co-worker who is joining his table. “I am Kauko Peltonen” – I immediately go over to shake hands. It is indeed old Kauko, former SEP (ITT) manager in Moscow, who left the company after Alcatel divested itself of the Finnish subsidiary, but whom Luigi brought back to become the Alcatel office manager in Moscow. Kauko is not delighted to see me, says sourly “as you can see, nothing has changed here” then we exchange cards.

At around nine I meet up with Saurestik and Shiray, and all of us – the Tallinnn and Lithuanian groups – sit down together in my suite to put together the action plan for the Baltics. I learn that Moscow has been holding for more than2 weeks all Baltic traffic at the office; that Yuri’s pledge to forward all packages by train was never kept. Only now, when I am in the Baltics, has Moscow finally put a man onto the job and arranged train forwarding. Some 140 kg in 6 sacks are being sent up to Tallinn; a sack for Vilnius arrives while I am there. I catch Yuri on the phone and he says lamely that he couldn’t free up a man to look after the transfer.  He also confirms by phone that he’s having difficulty assuring traffic to and from St Petersburg!

We agree tentatively that we will set up direct movements into and from the Baltics either via Tallinn (Helsinki) or via Vilnius (Warsaw), that I will gather all possible information during the visit and we will take a firm decision beginning next Monday. I separately order Cologne to suspend shipments into the Baltics until we can reach a decision.

We meet with Lithuanian Airlines and explain the interest we have in using their flights from Vilnius to Warsaw. Also have friendly chat with Austrian airlines at the airport regarding their twice weekly flights to Vienna. Go over to meet with the U.S. Embassy staff around 6 pm – there we are received by the Communications manager, who definitely shows an interest in using UPS for diplomatic mail. The embassy is spanking new and still glows from the recent visit of U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle.

Weather has turned fair and cool, but there is absolutely no time for sightseeing. We go straight down to parliament mall, where barricades from construction materials still safeguard the representatives from the still present Soviet military.

Vladas, the senior among the troika, with a doctorate in computer sciences, arranges a press interview for me with a lady journalist at the country’s leading newspaper, where his brother works as a layout designer. The gal is tough and curious – wants to know my political views and not only company claptrap. So off the record I express my admiration for Lithuania’s toughness, stubbornness in the face of Western indifference to win and defend their independence from Moscow. Asks about my wife and daughter – just thirsty for fresh information about how a manager in the West lives.  Then we go over to the other hotel for a brief radio interview with a lady reporter for Radio Lithuania. I make a short statement that is broadcast the next day in their shortwave English language program.

We all take a late dinner at my hotel – the top floor hard currency restaurant that resembles the Hotel Vitosha setting in Sofia. There is a sexy bare assed floor show which we sit part way through. Go to bed at close to midnight – hoarse but exhilarated.

Wednesday, 18 March 1992

After breakfast at 9.30 we all set out for Kaunas, home base of 2 of the 3-man Lex team. The second capital of Lithuania is roughly in northeast direction en route towards Latvia.  I join Sarestik and Shiray in their chauffeur driven big Mercedes.

In Kaunas, we stop just off the central pedestrian mall, the main street of the town. All is orderly, clean, in an excellent state of repair. We visit the honey-comb offices where Lex is now camping out, and where they are now threatened with eviction. A single room with city phones. The legal basis for free enterprise is scarcely there. All is political conflict between various factions of reformers and hard-liners. VAT is a subject for conjecture. Profit taxes are headline news. Privatization is the buzz word, but the reality is continued uncertainty, fighting over procedures for accepting and adjudicating claims of pre-war owners.

Currency is the ruble. Cash is in artificially short supply. One of the partners takes me on a little walk through stores – some already private. A department store is showing off Western household goods, kitchen appliances. A street kiosk sells me 110 g of Russian caviar in a blue tin for $3.00  Currency is rationed to citizens who can obtain up to $200 in a year for travel abroad. He shows me the equestrian statue to the 14th century prince of Lithuania. A nearby alley displays marble pedestals and bronze busts of 18-19 century scientific and cultural leaders in Lithuania. I am stunned to learn that these are all reconstructions of original monuments destroyed under Stalin – reproductions made over the past 2 years and paid for by public subscription. A fantastic witness to popular determination to sweep aside the nightmare of the past 50 years and rescue the fabric of national life.

We part with the Lithuanian group and continue towards Riga.

Vilnius – Riga is 300 km. The road is mostly 4-lane highway in good shape. This was the one achievement of the last Communist premier, who appropriated funds for construction in the face of opposition from Moscow.

As we reach the Latvian border, I get a first surprise: notwithstanding all the talk about the Baltic union, this is indeed an international border, where border police stand watch on each side and inspect travel documents. My Lithuanian visa is accepted. We reach Riga towards 3 pm and after some difficulty find the offices of our unofficial delivery partners. These guys had not been interested in the parcel business when we met 6 months ago in Tallinn but now the champagne bubbles have burst, the drink is flat – the economy is in a slide and income from UPS business looks increasingly attractive to them. We have a quick meeting in their offices during which I collect their delivery records, agree on installation of a telex, and agree that they will be a subcontractor to the Tallinn team. (Separately I had agreed with the Lithuanian group to find subcontractors in Minsk to cover Byelorussia for us)

Riga looks big – solid. We take lunch at a nearby hotel restaurant; all the old treats – vodka, smoked fish and meats. Then we walk to the newly opened 4-star Western luxury hotel. The clientele is here – the prospects are good. Riga with a population of 1 million has nearly 40% of the total population of the republic. The VEF electronics factory now has connections with Philips. The outlook for business is interesting. Whereas the local guys had only deliveries till now since they had no written contract, they will now also be interested to sell exports for us.

Towards 6 we again set out by car in the direction of Tallinn. Another 300 km, now on a two lane ordinary road. But with newly raised gas prices, traffic is minimal so we mostly cruise at 120 km/hour.

Again we reach a genuine international border at Estonia. The ongoing journey across Estonia by night hints at a rich countryside, with occasional private houses and apartment buildings that are brightly lit and resemble closely the Finnish countryside. We pass a couple of the newly opened NESTE gas stations – splendid, perfectly Western, and charging FIM for petrol that Estonia still gets largely for rubles from Russia. Saarestik complains bitterly over this perceived rip-off which is supported by systematic shut down of the old state-run stations. We reach the Hotel Olympia at just after 10 pm and I take my junior suite.

Thursday, 19  March 1992   Tallinn

Tough day of meetings with Saarestik. I learn all the unsavory details about how he had a fight with his partner, how our records have been stolen, and the clientele was turned over to TNT, with whom that partner had been working in parallel. I visit the offices of Baltic Trading nearby to discover that this  contractor to Finnair who does aircraft handling for imports, has accepted DHL as a sublease tenant in their premises and are letting DHL use their basic account for Estonian shippers’ payments. Nonetheless, the scheme is workable for us to tender to Finnair in Helsinki and receive imports in Tallinn straightaway. Perhaps in two months direct export will also be workable this same way.

Friday, 20 March 1992   Tallinn – Helsinki

A very rushed morning. I visit the US embassy  and British embassy to wave the UPS flag. Both show clear interest in the service. Then rush over to the airport for the 11.15 am flight to Helsinki – where I am met by Ari Kovero and taken over to the UPS offices for a couple of hours of discussions.  Ari speaks with Finnair and confirms that we can do transfer from incoming UPS charter flight at 8.00 am to ongoing Finnair flights to St Petersburg (9.30) and to Tallinn (10.05). Also agrees to help get emergency supplies down to Tallinn and to train Shiray.  Back to the airport for the Sabena direct flight to Brussels.

Hell of a trip. I’m in seventh heaven.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

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