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

Travel notes – Romania,  Wednesday, 15 August – Friday, 17 August 1990

Strange to think that only last December we sat before our television in our Waikiki apartment and followed the amazing news of the revolution in Bucharest to the point of the execution of the hated Ceaucescu.

This was the country which was at the bottom of my priority list, next to Albania. A revolution left unfinished, with installation in power of ex-Communist, newly baptized “Socialists.” Iliescu, the transition figure who refuses to back away from power. A starved country which offended the US and EEC by the pogroms of university and opposition leaders just several months ago.

The country where the US government recently issued an advisory against travel due to sporadic outbreaks of violence.

Now, following repeated, insistent invitations from Romtrans and their acceptance by telex of the tough terms I set as a precondition, I take Nigel for a day visit.  We are both nervous flying in – will this be pure business and will it be successful?

Arrival is dismal. The airport windows haven’t been washed in months; one is broken. The bus transfer is ramshackle. It’s hot, over 36 degrees C and our hosts are not there to meet us. We bargain and get a taxi into town, to our hotel Intercontinental. The hotel itself is slightly run down but functioning. Looks like Athens, very Balkans. But, thank heavens, the air conditioning works and the pool on the 22nd floor is cool when I take a dip Thursday evening. We dine in the hotel – unexciting but safe and then dare to take a stroll outside. There are some student demonstrations across the street at the university walk (renamed, in giant graffiti: TienAnMin Square). The mood is like Barcelona, Las Ramblas. Many are out strolling. Sabena and other airline offices are just nearby, as is the American Embassy.

Thursday norming at 9 our hosts get through by phone and at 10 we are picked up by Ionescu, a skinny energetic guy with wavy hair, Arab/Semitic features. His English is fluent, ditto French. He spent several years in Iraq in the early 80s. The way to their office is via a block of new apartment houses just being finished and leading to Ceaucescu’s notorious palace. However, up close the architecture is really excellent. Neo-classical, using stone colors and motifs that are indigenous. Very successful. As pleasing as the best parts of Madrid. The fountains and carvings on facades show some oriental influence – at first it even seems like Mexican. However, later as we walk through the town the peculiar serpentines are found on 16th-17th century church porticos, reflecting Turkish influence. So the motifs and beige colored stone are authentic and indigenous.

The main boulevards are broad. The buildings of this Ceaucescu complex are grand but not really pompous. Building materials are blond travertine and concrete, so they are good but not lavish. Even the palace itself, a sort of truncated Stalin type Palace of Culture, is in proportion with the boulevard and not so very oversized. This all compares favorably to the jumble of broken down and ugly buildings which constitutes the Bucharest side streets. Yes, there are fine old boulevards and districts with very good villas. But the basic downtown side streets are very homely and poor, and their disappearance in C’s urban renewal is not really regrettable.

Our meeting takes place in the ‘protocol’ room of the Romtrans headquarters, which is a shabby 1930s building with cracked plaster and worn out cheap furniture. The heat builds up and becomes nearly unbearable. We are offered periodically cups of coffee and soda as the meeting goes on for four and a half hours without break for lunch. We are introduced to Gabi Constantinescu, courier employee; Mihailescu, deputy general manager of Romtrans; and Eugen Bar, the general manager. Mihailescu, a chubby guy in his 40s with round Greek face and features, comes from the river boat side of transportation. He does most of the negotiating. Ionescu does the translating. Bar comes in for protocol reasons, to put his stamp of approval on the talks. Mihailescu walks in and out and shows he is in overall control. Ionescu goes over all the tough questions with us. These guys show energy, knowledge of the business and confidence.

The main impression is that our timing has been very lucky. Had we come six months ago, Romtrans would have been imperious and dictated unacceptable terms. Then they were still the only game in town and they were locked together with DHL to whom they gave all Romanian exports (receiving for the favor one-half of the revenues from export).  However, in May DHL cancelled the contract from one day to the next, after having cut a deal with the courier manager from Romtrans on a visit to DHL headquarters. That ostensibly had as its goal the creation of a DHL – Romtrans joint venture.

As a result the 6 key courier employees left Romtrans to set up a DHL office and took most of the clientele with them. Romtrans were furious but could do nothing. They made a gentlemen’s agreement with RGW to assume imports and with Jet Service International (Frankfurt) for exports. But they urgently needed a major international partner to recover credibility before their clientele and go after DHL. We provide just that. Evidently neither TNT nor Fedex were yet interested in the market.

Total Romanian market today is perhaps 65 imports and 25 exports daily. We now have an excellent chance to get the lion’s share.

By my estimate, DHL screwed themselves. They applied the same solution in Romania as in Yugoslavia and Poland, but without reckoning the difference in local circumstances. Unlike those countries, all economic life in Romania remains in the hands of monopoly companies and that will not change quickly. DHL cannot gain or retain business by bribing secretaries. The decision on which courier service to use will be made by management and management will play ball with Mihailescu not with ex-DHL kids.

Romtrans agree to our financial terms on delivery costs and revenue sharing for export.

Thursday evening our hosts take us to dinner. Ionescu and a young newly minted deputy general manager named Doskalov. He is literally the fair-haired boy. Born in Moscow of Russian mother, now living in Bucharest as an English (!) language professor, he is a polyglot who is happy to switch into Russian with me and talk about his vacation, discovery near Mamaia on the Romanian Black Sea coast.

We dine in a splendid villa that is ten minute walk from our hotel. Splendid in terms of exclusiveness and decoration – mediocre in terms of food preparation. We share jokes; conversation turns to the Gulf stand-off between the US and Iraq. Poor Romanians have had to earn their living in the Middle East. Our interlocutors explain that Romania supplied the whole Iraqi army with boots and uniforms, plus heavy transport vehicles and construction projects. Also many Romanian technicians were working in the oil industry there.

Friday we spend the whole day in the Protocol room at Romtrans putting together exhibits to the master UPS contract.  Finally all is finished and signed by 3 pm when, exhausted by the mounting heat and having taken no lunch at all, we are driven out to the airport. So far so good. Nigel and I are very satisfied with ourselves for having taken the risks and come out here.

 I am exhilarated. It’s experiences like this, creative excitement, which make it worthwhile to put up with all the little wounds to my vanity at UPS, where I am often the white crow, as well as all the uncertainty over how long we can stay in our European heaven…

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

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

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

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

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

Travel notes, accompanying a Soviet delegation to UPS in the USA, February 1990

The week in the States with a Soviet delegation – Sunday, 4 February to Friday afternoon, 9 February is tiring though our interpreter Valeri Shchukin takes the heat and I largely go along for the ride. First days are especially easy – we spend 3 nights in the Plaza Hotel. Under Trump’s ownership for the past few years it has been thoroughly renovated and is splendid – showy rich.  The Palm Court is again the place to be seen – schmaltzy violin and piano for afternoon teas, meals all day long from breakfast onward.

I love the hotel’s location, just across from Central Park and on at least two days I do get to do jogging. However, my exercise program is stripped away by exhaustion from the long days. We gather at 8am and part at midnight, so there is too little time to do anything besides sleep.

Wednesday we spend the night in Louisville in a hotel dating from the same period as New York’s Plaza – 1907 – and with similar pretensions to opulence. It would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that we go to bed at 3am and rise at 7.

Don Layden, V.P. International. Why does he spend the whole week with us? I must keep my mouth shut for nearly all the trip. Why is he scheduling his trip to Vienna, East Germany, Budapest in March? Why does he agree to go to Leningrad and Moscow in April? It looks as if the USSR is just too popular and we must all ride the tiger. But it does complicate my life – distracts from my work plans to have to stop and set up all for these guys.

Minister Yuri Sukhin shows himself to be as energetic, intelligent as previously seemed to be the case on our first two meetings. In addition, he is a good diplomat and excellent politician: he speaks well to our employees – saying that he sees in them his own drivers and recalls his early career as a driver and railroad car unloader. Loves to talk to the workers. His aim in coming is to seek tips on making the transition from chief of a state corporation, an operation of 300k vehicles, 1.5 million employees, etc. to becoming a regulator of the transport industry in a free or market guided economy. To his dismay, our Department of Transportation assistant secretary and chairman of the Congressional surface transport committee say that the US is fast reducing the regulators, doing away with them, see the ICC, FAS.

Sovtransavto boss Tatishvili turns out to be warm, friendly and independent minded – openly glad to be getting out from under the ministry which bred him – a sort of super Arkadi Kurshin, our JV general manager.

At the dinner Tuesday in the State Suite of The Plaza we are joined by UPS chairman Oz Nelson. There are on the UPS side in addition to myself only a couple of middle managers plus Donald Layden and Oz. The Russian guests number four: Sergei Bujanov, Gendais Kuznetsov, Yuri Sukhin and Tenghiz Tatishvili. In Louisville and rest of the trip, I am in this narrow circle of key UPS players.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

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

Travel notes on visit to New York for a business symposium on Perestroika and International Business Perspectives

Sunday, 3 December 1989

It’s a rushed morning. At 11.45 Larisa drives me out to the airport for my flight to New York. Upgrading goes through and I fly first class to JFK – eating the whole way. Arrive in blustery cold New York – but to our good fortune, dry and light.  By 6.00pm, I am at the New York Hilton. Run-down, almost tacky room in the sort of over-sized hotel that I detest. Primitive bathroom.

Monday, 4 December 1989

An early start to the day at 5am. But at least I did get 6 hours sleep – more than I had expected. I phone London – but no news there for me. 

At 8.00, I go over to the McGraw Hill Building four blocks away to register for the symposium on Perestroika and International Business Perspectives that has brought me to New York. Day’s sessions are mixed. Opening address by Donald Kendall is surprisingly good. He argues for Americans not to apply pressure to  be allowed to teach the Russians how to create a mixed economy out of their state centrally planned economy, to be more modest and to focus on removing those obstacles which we have created to Soviet progress, namely to strike down the Jackson-Vanik amendment and to curtail the COCOM list. William Norris of Control Data speaks next – but this is thoroughly boring. Visionary, while at the same time he’s bypassed by events.

Interesting to hear from panelist Dennis Sokol, head of the US Medical Consortium. He’s the guy who recruited Fedex. That is clear. And he has promoted their talks with Vzlet – talks which he recently helped convene in Brussels.

During the break, Sokol comes up to me and asks if it’s true that I formerly worked for Fedex. Says he’d heard that from Fedex chairman Fred Smith. (So I have gained notoriety after all). At least they know now who’s screwing them.

At lunch I spot publisher and consultant Leo Welt and go up to say hello. He’s warm and touched by the recognition. We’ll meet and talk Tuesday at breakfast. Leo is generous in his description of me to another guy at the table. He is also discreet.

More important, at lunch I sit next to a bald-headed banker from Citibank who turns out to be an old buddy from Columbia. Now it slowly comes back to me. Steve was one of those leftists – student radicals, a guy who was easily comfortable with bullshit analysis. Absolutely wonderful that he should have moved so easily into banking. It was he, not the likes of me, who got to do 5 years of teaching in Vermont. There’s a guy whom my professor Haimson could back. And even this Steve was stymied by the collapsing university teaching market and the gender factor (women’s lib claimed all the available jobs). And so the guy slipped into banking – though he never took proper banking courses or training. Slipped in the back door as a consultant, as assistant to some senior VP. And now he has been given a post in the corporate banking group responsible for East Europe. Is there justice? Perhaps, if you accept that he can cause little trouble where he is. But what views does he hold? I suspect there has been no systematic re-evaluation of his old radical beliefs, only a cynical acceptance that banking is what you do to pay for your kid in Princeton. It pays.

Soviet speakers fall short of the plans of the organizers – due perhaps to the weekend summit in Malta. At least this explains the absence of USSR AmbassadorYuri Dubinin. Nonetheless, there are some interesting souls.

Among the old faces, I make contact with on the U.S. side are Hicks of Arthur Anderson and John Chambers of SATRA. Both have changed little in 10 years.

The place is thick with consultants – most very young. See slick and aggressive Gordon Feller of Integrated Strategies who had phoned me in London a couple of months ago. See Fuchs of “Bloc” magazine: he may prove an interesting contact – agrees on my speaking at a Symposium his magazine is organizing together with Columbia University on a panel dedicated to Transportation in Eastern Europe, where fellow panelists are Dizelic from Pan Am and someone from Finnair. Could be a good opportunity to build volume.

One last remark concerning the NY Symposium of Business Week: On day 2, I attend the luncheon at which Hedrick Smith is the keynote speaker. Smith was the Moscow bureau chief of the New York Times during the 1970s, then returned to Washington where he became bureau chief to ’87, when he retired. His book The Russians was a best-selling account of Soviet society and expose of the nomenklatura in the 1979-80 period.  Smith has been traveling throughout the USSR for the past 6 months in preparation of a book on the USSR under Gorbachev: glasnost and perestroika. He is an accomplished speaker who charms his audience with jokes for the first 10 minutes before launching into a serious and perceptive set of travel observations.

His thesis is that Gorbachev represents a whole stratum of Soviet society that was of university age when Stalin died, that experienced the exhilaration of Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th party congress, then the stultification of the Brezhnev years. Therefore what is happening now is not the work of one man alone but has support of thousands of like-minded people throughout the USSR.

Smith shows the depth of change in mentality in the USSR, even if at a superficial level all looks just as it did 15 years ago – as poor and shabby. The genie can’t go back into the bottle. A demonstration in the ‘70s meant 5 dissidents, 7 Western journalists and dozens of security men who bundled up the demonstrators into prison wagons marked “Bread” in a few seconds, even before they had managed to unfurl their protest banners.  Now it is hundreds of thousands of people. Now the Soviet public is treated to the spectacle of live TV broadcasts from the parliament – where they watch Gorbachev spend hours chairing sessions and responding directly to all kinds of questions about his own personal privileges and programs.

Can Gorbachev be overturned? If there were an attempted military coup, Smith can imagine Gorbachev going on TV and appealing to the populace to resist. Smith sees great importance in Gorbachev’s making the government and not the party his seat of power. Finally, Smith maintains that you cannot beat Gorbachev without a credible alternative leader: ‘it takes a horse to beat a horse.’ No one else on the scene can be a match for G – not Yeltsin, not Ligachev.

Smith acknowledges G’s brilliance as a politician. So far so good. But the last point contradicts all the foregoing. The real question comes back to relationship between leaders and history, between determinism and voluntarism. Without  appropriate preconditions, one man can do very little. At the right moment, one man is all-decisive. G. is appropriate to this historic moment. He has the intellectual and political skills to bring about a change of momentous proportions. He is the great toreador who holds out the red banner which the bull charges past and he is unhurt. Yes, he manoeuvers between right and left but through glasnost he has allowed both poles to emerge so that he can use their great force creatively.

Politicians by definition gravitate to the center. The task was to allow political thinking to emerge and be articulated so that a constructive middle ground could be found. This is the sign of a consummate statesman, who goes beyond politics to change the world.

Why is this not seen? Because journalists and commentators are vain and grudging in their admiration and because the Russian public is very shortsighted – as should be expected. After all, politics is about local issues and bread and butter issues. And it is these economic achievements which are so very difficult to bring about overnight. Some historical perspective is called for and that is hard to find anywhere.

Hedrick Smith is one of the very few journalists looking at these questions who sees beyond yesterday and even he mostly misses what I consider essential.

Tuesday afternoon I drop out of the symposia and do window shopping. Two hours go by in a flash and at 5 pm I take a taxi out to JFK. Crossing the Triboro with Manhattan behind me, I think over an old prejudice of mine against these chicken coop apartments in which New Yorkers live their cramped lives. It has dignity only at the very top. Even over-populated, noisy and polluted London has more human scale, lower density and none of the tower canyons that are so intimidating.

Fine flight back to London. After changing and showering at 10am I am back in the office catching up with the news, gossip and preparing for next morning’s departure to Moscow.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Provocative U.S. air and sea maneuvers at Russia’s borders: shift from reconnaissance to mock cruise missile attacks

This past weekend, Russian state television on two major channels devoted substantial news segments of their week in review programs to the ongoing game of chicken that the U.S. is carrying on in the air and on the seas at Russia’s borders:  on the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, the Barents and Okhotsk seas in the Far East. From the North, from the South, from the East and West U.S. war planes are simultaneously being directed against Russian defenses to probe their effectiveness and score political points.

In the words of Russian Defense Minister Shoigu, quoted on one of these channels, Vesti, aside from intelligence gathering, one clear intent of these maneuvers is to demonstrate U.S. raw power, to impress on the Russians that there is one boss of the world who calls all the shots, to reinforce the notion of a unipolar world. Says Shoigu, Washington does not at all like the emergence of bipolar strategic balance being pursued by Russia thanks to its new strategic weapons systems and is responding with these provocations which, as explained by chief of operations of the Russian high command Sergei Rudskoi on Friday, also shown on the program, have moved from purely reconnaissance aircraft and ships, to battle ready aircraft and cutters.  B-52s and ships equipped with precision munitions and cruise missiles activate their missiles as they approach Russian frontiers to as close as 15 km to simulate attacks on the Southern Military District and the Russian installations in Crimea.

The Russian Defense Minister emphasizes that the bomber flights up to Russian borders may be American led but on the way over include fighter jets from Sweden, Germany, Ukraine and even Italy.  The point of this involvement of the allies is to impress the Old Continent with American capabilities and to persuade the countries of NATO to host American rockets.  And to those in Europe who may express concern about Russian attack should they agree to serve as launchers for the Americans, Washington responds that it has a monopoly of actionable military intelligence.

The programs on Russian television gave a different version of the relative effectiveness of reconnaissance there and in the West, stressing that Moscow is tracking all the B52s from the America’s North Dakota air arm that are now based in the U.K. from the moment they go aloft, following them across Europe, where they are accompanied by various European fighter planes and do so without the Americans’ being aware they are in the crosshairs at any point until Russian jet fighters scramble to intercept them on their approach to Russian borders. 

The host of the News of the Week program on channel Vesti, Dmitry Kiselyov, warned that the Russians are considering using their electronic warfare devices to blind the incoming enemy aircraft.  For the present they merely fly up to intercept them at top speed, approach closely and tend to unnerve the NATO pilots, leading to protests from Brussels.  Should e-warfare be invoked, things could get quite rough.

According to the statistics released by General Rudskoi on Friday and shown on the Sunday news wrap-ups, the U.S. is now staging some 33 to 40 flight approaches to the Russian borders a week that are met by Russian fighters and sent on their way. On September 4th, there were 5 reconnaissance aircraft approaching the Crimea at the same time.  Major incidents of mock attacks came on 28 August and 14 September.

The Russian Armed Forces television station Zvezda (‘the Star’) noted meanwhile with satisfaction that although none of the NATO countries recognizes the Russian annexation of Crimea, they have all been very careful to stay clear of the Russian borders on the peninsula.  Said Shoigu, we have never allowed any of them to cross our border and we will never allow it.

It is regrettable that none of these activities, none of these possibilities for tragic accidents and recriminations between US-led NATO forces and Russia are being reported in Western media.  If and when there is some clash, some downed plane, it will be reported like a thunder clap in blue skies.

The following links are in Russian original, but the visuals speak for themselves.

Vesti nedeli, Dmitry Kiselyov, 20.09.20 :    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yG8wXAE99uw

From minute 18:44

Zvezda,  Glavnoe s Olgoi Belovoi :   from minute 27

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac]

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

Travel notes,  Thursday, 16 – Tuesday,  21 November 1989 – the visit of UPS team headed by VP, International Don Layden for completion of JV with Sovtransavto in Moscow and opening of service in Yugoslavia

Remarkably compressed, kaleidoscopic trip. Dog tired. Succession of near sleepless nights, insomnia coming from the tension of too many things and people to coordinate.

Arrival in Moscow Thursday evening, with no rooms reserved – need to talk our way into the Hotel Ukraina. I am with Dieter, our German Region I.E. manager whom I am installing for the next two weeks – into start-up and who will remain available for 6 months. Dieter was last here 8 years ago – speaks rusty Russian which he learned doing intelligence work in the German army. He came to UPS about 6 years ago  – started as a driver and gradually worked his way up to Industrial Engineering supervisor for his district. Slow and steady, reliable, conservative guy. Hard-working – puts in a 60 hour week when at home. We take very elegant dinner at the National – excellent beef steaks.

Friday the madness begins in earnest. Morning at Sovtransato with deputy director Yevgeny Sudakov and JV management nominees Arkady Kurshin, Yuri Kulakov, etc. going over plans for the start of service. Word is that our JV will be registered and final on Wednesday, November 22; that the TNT JV with Aeroflot has never been consummated despite all publicity. That DHL still pursuing a JV with Soyuzvneshtran

Saturday morning meet with Yuri and get back our materials for the symposium. In the afternoon I go out to the airport to meet Long, Smith, Skoda, Roth. Their plane is delayed, then they clear customs very slowly. Finally we are back at the Ukaine about 7 pm. We are joined by Larry Walsh, an Irish contractor of UPS who is in town for the first time after 20 years – having hopes to build on his past deliveries for Air Rianta /Aeroflot JV duty free. We take a very elegant dinner at the Savoy – bliny with caviar followed by snow grouse, with French Mouton Cadet Bordeaux.  A bit glitzy but well done nonetheless and presentation of the food is excellent, about as in Finland. The boys look pleased.

Larry Long, UPS Vice President for Europe, Africa and Middle East repeatedly speaks of ‘a great job.’

Sunday morning I join Mark Skoda for a trip by limousine out to the airport where VIP reception has been laid on for VP International Donald Layden. Only it doesn’t quite work out. While Sovtransavto boss Tatishvili, Sudakov and we drink our coffee in the VIP lounge, the greeter leaves for the plane, but Layden slips by and falls into the general processing. Moreover, Kurshin forgot to get a letter for Customs so Don loses an hour waiting for his bags and then goes through same line as everyone else on the Pan Am jumbo.

We take dinner at the National Banquet Room #6 at 7 pm – my favorite and the boys don’t let me down. Food and drink, all excellent and the room is as elegant as you could ever hope for. My Finns don’t show at all. Ditto Vialikov of the Trade Council and US Ambassador Matlock. Top guy is Road Minister Sukhin, and US Commercial Counsellor Jim May.  I move off to one side – let our paid interpreter Nina Arkhiptseva do the work of keeping conversation alive between the Minister and Layden/Long. My chatter is divided between May, who has a sickly grin, and Fedorets. I probe May on what it’s like to work under Matlock –whether he acts as his own advisor. I don’t learn much.

Meanwhile Layden seems to enjoy being the big boss. Later I flatter his vanity well by pointing out how he’ll be invited to dine with Gorbachev via the US Trade Council. He goes for it and asks me how many UPS people will be taking part in the Council’s annual session. I say 2 – 3, of whom 1 will go to dinner with Gorby.

For me the key thing here is to learn to direct, to orchestrate from the side – to allow others to be shown off, so that top bosses are reassured that a team is being put in place and that they are not wholly in the hands of one person. That’s why Layden chose to understand our fast pace of setting JV’s in terms of events rushing us. Quite untrue – we were driven by own considerations. As Mark says “go for it.”  A guy like Layden plays down his own power, though it could be considerable if used aggressively. 

The most important aspect of the Friday dinner was that it gave our candidate operations guy Yuri Kulakov a chance to be seen and judged by Long and others. They were greatly impressed and reassured. By letting others work while you sit back, you magnify rather than diminish your own strength.  Kulakov also is maturing – he plays the role well. I let him be tour guide for Long, Roth, Smith on Sunday morning.  Note – Layden obediently accepts the speech I composed for him.

Monday – very, very hectic – pressure rises to critical level.

We check out at 8.30,  six of us drive over to Ochakovo while Roth and Nigel and Yuri set up the symposium room. Layden decides Ochakovo is worth no investment, or a bare minimum.  He under-appreciates the telecoms and location. But that could be expected.

By 10 am we are all together at the Trade Council making final preparations. I compose and type up invitation letters for Minister Sukhin to come to the USA second half of January. Deputy Minister Sokolov accepts this in a side meeting with Layden and Long at which I am the interpreter. Here I do show off a bit (like Sunday night doing a simultaneous translation of the Layden toast, which I had written – stunning Jim May with this linguistic fireworks).  Happily the Symposium attendance is acceptable – about 25 companies, prospective future clients of our service, are here and three-quarters of the seats are filled. So we have no embarrassment. I am very pleased we have sequential translation to fill the time and that the Russian text was prepared in London, so that there is no mistranslation.

At the close of the symposium, I take Long and Skoda into a side meeting withTatishvili and Sudakov to do a little memorandum covering our relations in the brief time till the JV is registered and becomes operational. Here again I get a chance to show off but in very business-like way and to good effect. Larry is sold on what we’ve done and Layden also. Layden incidentally declines to take part in the negotiation – sits in the reception area looking tired and bored.

I’m abrupt with Kurshin today, tell him to shut up about what car he gets with the job (Saturday he drove us nuts while we’re waiting at the airport). Inadvertently I close the proposal before he can make his prepared acceptance speech. He whines about it.

We take off for the airport in our flying black tank. Yugo flights to Belgrade and Zagreb are on time and ok. The only hitch is near loss of Layden’s luggage as he checks it only to Belgrade. Walsh joins us all the way. In Zagreb Zulian and Tanya from Intereuropa are waiting for us. We take a leisurely dinner at the Esplanade. The big news is from Dave Guernsy, who is just returning from Belgrade, where Jerinic and the branch office have fully broken with TNT and are working with us. News of DHL’s bizarre split with Transjug is the other gossip of the day.

Tuesday we spend in a brief visit to the airport facility and then take a banquet in the Old Town. We are joined by Michael Einik, the US Consul General, who is pleasant as ever and by Mayor of Zagreb, Mikic who makes a never-ending speech on the history of Zagreb. The palace is really splendid and all are vastly impressed. However at $1800 it sets us back $90 / person.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Stephen F. Cohen: In Memoriam

On Friday, 18 September, professor Steve Cohen passed away in New York City and we, the “dissident” community of Americans standing for peace with Russia – and for peace with the world at large – lost a towering intellectual and skillful defender of our cause who enjoyed an audience of millions by his weekly broadcasts on the John Batchelor Show, WABC Radio.

A year ago, I reviewed his latest book, War With Russia? which drew upon the material of those programs and took this scholar turned journalist into a new and highly accessible genre of oral readings in print.  The narrative style may have been more relaxed, with simplified syntax, but the reasoning remained razor sharp. I urge those who are today paying tribute to Steve, to buy and read the book, which is his best legacy.

From start to finish, Stephen F. Cohen was among America’s best historians of his generation, putting aside the specific subject matter that he treated: Nikolai Bukharin, his dissertation topic and the material of his first and best known book; or, to put it more broadly, the history of Russia (USSR) in the 20th century. He was one of the very rare cases of an historian deeply attentive to historiography, to causality and to logic.  I understood this when I read a book of his from the mid-1980s in which he explained why Russian (Soviet) history was no longer attracting young students of quality:  because there were no unanswered questions, because  we smugly assumed that we knew about that country all that there was to know. That was when our expert community told us with one voice that the USSR was entrapped in totalitarianism without any prospect for the overthrow of its oppressive regime.

But my recollections of Steve also have a personal dimension going back six years or so when a casual email correspondence between us flowered into a joint project that became the launch of the American Committee for East West Accord (ACEWA). This was a revival of a pro-détente association of academics and business people that existed from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, when, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the removal of the Communist Party from power, the future of Russia in the family of nations we call the ‘international community’ seemed assured and there appeared to be no further need for such an association as ACEWA.

I hasten to add that in the original ACEWA Steve and I were two ships that passed in the night.  With his base in Princeton, he was a protégé of the dean of diplomats then in residence there, George Kennan, who was the leading light on the academic side of the ACEWA.  I was on the business side of the association, which was led by Don Kendall, chairman of Pepsico and also for much of the 1970s chairman of the US-USSR Trade and Economic Council of which I was also a member.  I published pro-détente articles in their newsletter and published a lengthy piece on cooperation with the Soviet Union in agricultural and food processing domains, my specialty at that time, in their collection of essays by leaders in the U.S. business community entitled Common Sense in U.S.-Soviet Trade.

The academic contingent had, as one might assume, a ‘progressive’ coloration, while the business contingent had a Nixon Republican coloration. Indeed, in the mid-1980s these two sides split in their approach to the growing peace movement in the U.S. that was fed by opposition in the ‘thinking community’ on university campuses to Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars agenda. Kendall shut the door at ACEWA to rabble rousing and the association did not rise to the occasion, so that its disbanding in the early ‘90s went unnoticed.

In the re-incorporated American Committee, I helped out by assuming the formal obligations of Treasurer and Secretary, and also became the group’s European Coordinator from my base in Brussels.  At this point my communications with Steve were almost daily and emotionally quite intense.  This was a time when America’s expert community on Russian affairs once again felt certain that it knew everything there was to know about the country, and most particularly about the nefarious “Putin regime.”  But whereas in the 1970s and 1980s, polite debate about the USSR/Russia was entirely possible both behind closed doors and in public space, from the start of the Information Wars against Russia during the George W. Bush administration following Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in February 2007, no voice questioning the official propaganda line in America was tolerated.  Steve Cohen, who in the 1990s had been a welcome guest on U.S. national television and a widely cited expert in print media suddenly found himself blacklisted and subjected to the worst of McCarthyite style, ad hominem attacks.

From my correspondence and several meetings with Steve at this time both in his New York apartment and here in Brussels, when he and Katrina van der Heuvel came to participate in a Round Table dedicated to relations with Russia at the Brussels Press Club that I arranged, I knew that Steve was deeply hurt by these vitriolic attacks. He was at the time waging a difficult campaign to establish a fellowship in support of graduate studies in Russian affairs. It was touch and go, because of vicious opposition from some stalwarts of the profession to any fellowship that bore Steve’s name.  Allow me to put the ‘i’ on this dispute: the opposition to Steve was led by experts in the Ukrainian and other minority peoples sub-categories of the profession who were militantly opposed not just to him personally but to any purely objective, not to mention sympathetic treatment of Russian leadership in the territorial expanse of Eurasia. In the end, Steve and Katrina prevailed. The fellowships exist and, hopefully, will provide sustenance to future studies when American attitudes towards Russia become less politicized.

At all times and on all occasions, Steve Cohen was a voice of reason above all.  The problem of our age is that we are now not only living in a post-factual world, but in a post-logic world.  The public reads day after day the most outrageous and illogical assertions about alleged Russian misdeeds posted by our most respected mainstream media including The New York Times and The Washington Post. Almost no one dares to raise a hand and suggest that this reporting is propaganda and that the public is being brainwashed. Steve did exactly that in War With Russia? in a brilliant and restrained text.

Regrettably today we have no peace movement to speak of.  Youth and our ‘progressive’ elites are totally concerned over the fate of humanity in 30 or 40 years’ time as a consequence of Global Warming and rising seas. That is the essence of the Green Movement. Almost no one outside our ‘dissident’ community is concerned about the possibility of Armageddon in say two years’ time due to miscalculations and bad luck in our pursuing economic, informational and military confrontation with Russia and China. 

I fear it will take only some force majeure development such as we had in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis to awaken the broad public to the risks to our very survival that we are incurring by ignoring the issues that Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Princeton and New York University was bringing to the airwaves week after week on his radio program.

Postscript

In terms of action, the new ACEWA was even less effective than its predecessor, which had avoided linking up with the peace movement of the 1980s and sought to exert influence on policy through armchair talks with Senators and other statesmen in Washington behind closed doors of (essentially) men’s clubs.

However, the importance of the new ACEWA, and the national importance of Stephen Cohen lay elsewhere.

This question of appraising Stephen Cohen’s national importance is all the more timely given that on the day of his death, 18 September, the nation also lost Supreme Justice Ruth Ginsburg, about whose national importance no Americans, whether her fans or her opponents, had any doubt.

My point in this discussion is that in the last decade of his life Stephen Cohen became one of the nation’s most fearless and persistent defenders of the right to Free Speech.  It was not a role that he sought. It was thrust upon him by the expert community of international affairs, including the Council on Foreign Relations, from which he reluctantly resigned over this matter. It was forced upon him by The New York Times, The Washington Post and other major media who pilloried him or blacklisted him over his unorthodox, unsanctioned, nonconformist views on the “Putin regime.”  It was forced upon him by university colleagues who sought to deny his right to establish graduate school fellowships in Russian affairs bearing his name and that of his mentor at Indiana University, Professor Tucker.

In the face of vicious personal attacks from these McCarthyite forces, in the face of hate mail and even threats to his life, Steve decided to set up The American Committee and to recruit to its governing board famous, patriotic Americans and the descendants of the most revered families in the country.  In this he succeeded, and it is to his credit that a moral counter force to the stampeding bulls of repression was erected and has survived to this day.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Money talks: aviation news from Russia

Earlier today the Russian service of RT published an article on the latest developments in restoring Russia’s air links with the world.

The headline  sounds exuberant. “One flight a week: Russia renews air communications with four more countries.”  As you scroll down, the news looks somewhat peculiar. The new cities served as from 21 September will be Nur Sultan (Kazakhstan), Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) and Minsk (Belarus); and as from 27 September, Seoul (South Korea).  The last named is of world importance; the first three will only elicit bemusement from Western readers.

This comes on top of previous reopening of service on 24 July to the U.K. (London) and on 1 August to Turkey (Ankara and Istanbul). As from 10 August the Turkish resorts of Antalya, Bodrum and Dalaman were added, as well as Zanzibar. 

The Prime Minister’s office has announced that from 3 September flights will be resumed to Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and to the Maldives. 

The article further informs us that flights to Switzerland will be increased to four a week: two flights by Aeroflot, Moscow-Geneva, and two flights by Swissair, Moscow-Zurich.

Taking all of this news together gives us a comprehensive overview of the peculiar new global reach of Aeroflot and its partner airlines. 

The fact that Switzerland is the only destination on the Continent being served is not cause for surprise given the residual “neutral” status of Switzerland in our bitterly partisan world.  Note that not a single EU Member State has air links today with Russia.

Restoration of air links with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Minsk is really an internal matter of the former Soviet Empire, having little relevance to the rest of the world.

That leaves us with all the other announced destinations which are, with one notable exception, London, playground destinations for Russia’s middle and upper classes who, after lockdown, really want to go out and party. From a purely sanitary standpoint, reopening these air links is madness.  From a political standpoint, it is regrettably understandable as a way to allow folks who may not be terribly loyal to the Kremlin to let off steam.  I would call this pattern of growing the air network to be “Money Talks.”

Curiously, and against all outward expectations given the degraded state of relations between Boris Johnson’s government and Russia, the Money Talks explanation surely accounts for the fact that the most extensive restoration of air links is precisely with London.  This is what I discovered when I was looking for a way to travel to Russia a week ago. Aeroflot has two flights a day between Moscow and London. 

Shouldn’t be! Just think how much Novichok must be headed to Britain in the hands of still undiscovered agents of the Kremlin!  But the fact remains that Britain is today Russia’s biggest friend in logistics, and the Oligarchs who are constantly decried in Parliament for subverting democracy can go and come between their principal residences here and there without impediment.  Has anyone noticed?

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020 [If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac,

Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union Address, the New Cold War and the Marginalization of Europe

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union Address was remarkable in a number of ways. It marked an informal but very tangible constitutional change in European Institutions whereby the Commission becomes in practice if not in law a parliamentary cabinet. She hued as closely to the policies promoted by a majority of the MEP’s as Elizabeth II does in her Queen’s speech to the Houses of Parliament when she reads a text handed to her by the Prime Minister.

The reasons for this development are perfectly obvious.  When her candidacy for president was put to a vote in the European Parliament, she barely squeaked by.  This, after having spent several weeks in a charm campaign when she consulted with and listened to all the leading parties of the incoming parliament. The reason for her difficulties was what was construed as a violation of the growing parliamentary habits of the EU Institutions whereby the new President is chosen from among the candidates put up by the parties and the award is given to the party with the largest number of incoming MEPs, which was the PPE, the right of center People’s Party. 

Under pressure from Emmanuel Macron, the PPE’s candidate was passed over and the nod went to von der Leyen, who was a PPE member but not its internally selected candidate.  We all noted at the time that this choice was tolerated but not encouraged by German Chancellor Merkel, in whose cabinet von der Leyen served as Defense Minister.  We also noted that von der Leyen was not a star performer in Germany; indeed, she had come under heavy criticism for mismanaging her ministry and for various financial scandals.  The backing by Macron was somewhat hard to explain, though everyone pointed to von der Leyen’s perfect fluency in French, having grown up and been schooled in Brussels. In any case, back then, a year ago, Macron’s star was still on the ascendant, Gilets Jaunes notwithstanding, while Merkel’s star was sinking, as health problems and difficulties with her coalition partners forced her to declare a retirement date. She was, it would have seemed, a lame duck.

What we saw in von der Leyen’s speech yesterday shows that Macron completely misunderstood whom he was backing in von der Leyen, completely misjudged his powers relative to Frau Merkel.

There was very little content on International Relations in von der Leyen’s speech, and it came at the very end, which by itself is extraordinary. The great bulk of her speech was devoted to economic issues, health issues and domestic spending in the EU.  One might say that these priorities indicate an isolationist turn of mind that corresponds perfectly well to the Greens, who were among the biggest winners in the 2019 elections to the European Parliament but who seemed to have been ignored by von der Leyen during the coalition building that immediately preceded and followed her installation as Commission President. The Greens’ expectation of being ‘king makers’ seemed to have been foiled.  Until yesterday…

What little there was of foreign policy in von der Leyen’s speech would have suited the German Greens in particular, since it was militant Cold War talk. Mention of the Continent’s biggest country which sits just on the Eastern frontier of the EU came in the following three sentences:

“To those who advocate closer ties with Russia, I say that the poisoning of Alexei Navalny with an advanced chemical agent is not a one off. We have seen the pattern in Georgia and Ukraine, Syria and Salisbury – and in election meddling around the world. This pattern is not changing – and no pipeline will change that.”

A more pithy, vitriolic and propagandistic statement could not have been pronounced by the Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg.  Indeed, one wonders why von der Leyen was installed in Place Schumann and not in the NATO headquarters out at Zaventem where militancy could be delivered with a Female Face, carrying gender equality through still tougher ceilings than within the EU Institutions.

Von der Leyen’s speech opened with mention of European values and the ideological messaging came up frequently, never curdling in the mouth of this very German politician, or so it would seem.  We saw it in her remarks on Belarus: “I want to say it loud and clear: the European Union is on the side of the people of Belarus.”  What exactly that translates into in terms of financial, political and, dare we say it, military meddling is not yet clear.  But if she wants a war with Russia, no cause than championing an ‘orange revolution’ in Belarus could turn the trick better.

And, last but not least, von der Leyen said she will introduce and promote a “European Magnitsky Act.”  What is that all about?

Let us return to the question of Monsieur Macron and his seeming victories on the European stage just after the May 2019 elections of the European Parliament.  Shortly afterwards we learned that his just elected ‘en marche’ MEPs were combining with the 10% of MEPs that had for years been led by the NeoLiberal MEP, former premier of Belgium, Guy Verhofstadt under the grouping labeled ALDE.  The new grouping would go under the name “Renew Europe.”

Verhofstadt soon afterwards disappeared from view and it would have seemed that Macron now would be leading a group of MEPs counting something like 15% of the European Parliament, heading them in a wholly new direction as regards relations with the big neighbor to the East.  This was the time when Macron had his one-on-one meetings with Vladimir Putin and made very bold promises to bring Russia in from the cold into the European House.   It was somewhat before Macron scandalized Frau Merkel and other pillars of the status quo in that same house with his remarks on NATO being “brain dead.”

In two places in her speech, von der Leyen was giving Macron the finger.  One was her remark cited above, addressed to “those that advocate closer ties with Russia.”  The other was in her advocacy of a “European Magnitsky Act.” Such an act makes reference to the supposedly terrible violation of human rights that was supposedly perpetrated by Kremlin agents against a certain Sergei Magnitsky for his supposed whistle blowing about crimes in high places.

The original Magnitsky Act was promulgated in the United States in 2012 when the Russia-hating majority in the U.S. Congress was conned into it by a certain fraudster, William Browder, Sergei Magnitsky’s erstwhile boss.  The Act sought to blacken the reputation of Putin and to cast the Russian Federation into pariah status. Browder tried with might and main to see it reissued in Europe. His cause was taken up with alacrity by precisely Verhofstadt and his Russia-hating followers in ALDE.  Now we find that Verhofstadt is having the last laugh in terms of setting policy for the combined group of MEPs called “Renew Europe.”  And Von der Leyen has taken up their cause and made it that of the European Commission.

For Europe’s young people no doubt von der Leyen’s Green initiatives will look great.  For those of us with a gray hair or two, and with interests that go beyond the nearest state boundary, her foreign affairs agenda such as she outlined in her speech yesterday will look oh so retro. Europe is well on its way to further marginalization in international affairs. And Macron has been proven to be an empty windbag.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

From the Personal Archive of a Russianist, installment twenty-two

The El Dorado factor: diary notes from a visit to St Petersburg and Moscow, July-August 1992

Dancing on air. That’s my mood after spending 10 days in St Petersburg and Moscow at company expense taking my ‘vacation’ leisure, prospecting for further real estate investments and – doing a hell of a job to put UPS operations in Russia back on their feet.

When Larisa first planned last winter to make a long stay in Russia, including a couple of weeks of my vacation time, I had balked. Then in June, when her father revealed himself hopelessly unable to secure a dacha or even an apartment in a seaside resort for us, I threw in the towel and we cancelled flight tickets that would have taken us to St Petersburg July 1st. Instead we spent a couple of weeks in our unrented Knokke apartment on the Belgian coast and I schemed to rent something cheap for Alexa and Larisa in either the Italian countryside or at Lake Bled in Slovenia. Nothing ‘cheap’ surfaced and in the meantime Larisa’s determination to take Alexa back to her homeland came to the fore – so I agreed to ship them off to St Petersburg for 5 weeks. By clever planning I managed also to schedule a 10 day trip to StP /Moscow for myself on UPS business – right in the middle of their sojourn.

Never try to judge what is going on in some remote place like Russia by sitting in your armchair and reading the papers, even so authoritative a paper as The Financial Times. My feelings about Russia were negative, pessimistic before the trip. Partly this was due to the ongoing unpleasant conflict with our JV management and with partners Sovtransavto, who have pointed us in the direction of bankruptcy and/or a divorce in the JV marriage. Partly it was due to the confusing and steady stream of negative news coming out of the CIS, both economic and political. The dangerous ethnic conflicts there seem ever ready to overwhelm the ongoing economic reforms in resurgence of Communist leadership under the guise of nationalism, as in the Balkans.

What surprised and greatly encouraged me was to see the progress in carrying out the bold economic reforms. Specifically, the achievement of ‘internal convertibility’ of the ruble, and the ongoing privatization of the housing stock. The former means that Western goods are being sold in normal ‘Soviet’ shops for rubles as well as in the sidewalk kiosks that line the main thoroughfares and by the street peddlers along the highways. Western bananas are being sold on the street for less than locally grown apples per kg. Nescafe is sold in the store shelves competitively with Russian soluble coffee.  French cosmetics have bumped Bulgarian ones. Colgate is sold on the street for 35R a tube ($0.20). Coke Lite cans are competing from little stands against Pepsi kiosks.

Prices have risen in food shops to the point where they are well stocked and there are no lines. Cheeses, canned Soviet salmon, dairy products – all things which had disappeared from open sale 10 years ago – now are openly available, if you can find the money. Prices are below world levels, but still are shocking to a country where the pensions and minimum salary are set at 1450 rubles/month = $9.50   To locals, like Larisa’s relative Valya, the good in this change is not apparent. Why, she opines, can’t they leave some cheap shops for us poor people, alongside the well-stocked shops with luxury goods that the wealthy want?

How can you persuade such people that this shock therapy is for their own good, that such differentiated pricing is impossible and would stand in the way of real reform. Without closing factories, without firing people, the new prices give all capable people cause to run from their moribund state enterprises and seek employment in the newly opening private sector.

Now at the same time we meet with the déclassé– our Moscow friend Tolya Silin, whose connections once got him into state sanitoria and the best hotels for free, who once had the fortune of 20,000 rubles in bank accounts and now has the buying power of less than 10% that amount. So is the reform really just pauperization?  No, because at the same time the privatization of lodgings gives everyone the chance to enjoy real equity. Privatized apartments in Moscow now sell for $1,000/sq meter. In St P they are $400 – 500 per square meter. This means that the owner of a 60 sq.m. flat in Moscow has the possibility at any moment to get the equivalent of $60k and move out – emigrate, as he wishes. What they lost in paper money they can more than make up in real estate.

And on that subject, Larisa and I are caught up in our old fever just days after my calculation of our debts had left me swearing on all things sacred that our buying of real estate must be curtailed – and we must save cash.

I visit some flats in Moscow. They can be very attractive – and the rentals are phenomenal, $3,000 – $5,000 per month for 120 sq.m.  But the renovation work is massive – stripping the walls to the brick. And the money to put up, at $1,000 sq.m. is already considerable – with no possibility of mortgage. One hell of a risk.

In StP, Larisa and I together visit some flats. First in the $18 – $22k range.  Unacceptable! 5th floor walk-ups! Entrances that are ill-lit, malodorous, utterly inappropriate to our purpose of renting to foreigners. We even see a $40k flat that had been advertised as ‘without defects’  – but is in reality the typical Soviet wreck, with no view. The lady owner is inexperienced, tricky; has deceived more than one buyer into thinking she is ready to do a deal, while meanwhile angling for more money.

The problem is that the mafia is in the real estate market – ready to snap up almost any property to be used to launder their ‘hot’ money. So you are  competing against their dollars; and they are seemingly ready and able to transfer funds abroad, as the emigrating sellers require. Nonetheless Larisa is hopeful – identifies and attractive 120 sqm apartment on the top floor (with lift) of a decent building directly on the Moika. She will visit this next week. Also several possible one-bedroom apartments to visit later.

Larisa’s ambition of showing our daughter her St Petersburg is realized and successful. Alexa is enthralled. She spent a week ‘on her own’ with Valya, coping in Russian. Comprehension really seems to have developed and she dares to speak, even if grammatically unschooled. The kid is wide-eyed, observant and enthusiastic. Now she has real estate fever too and hopes we will buy in StP. We take her on Sunday of my departure to brunch at the Hotel d’Europe and she really and truly flips out. The fine food, the mood set by the Dixieland band, the wonderfully restored Art Nouveau dining room – all cast a spell. She so proudly shows me the jar of wild raspberries and blueberries she collected during her week in the forest; it’s her first round of berry hunting; her first swimming in forest lakes – in the wild. The kid has a keen sense of the exotic position she/we are in and she loves it. No longer blasé, she is genuinely enthusiastic, elated, radiant, as my photos of her and video interview in our hotel room show.

The trip is varied, exciting for both Larisa and me. We travel together without the kid for all but the last two days. This means the overnight train trip down and back to Moscow. For the first time in my life I actually sleep soundly and sufficiently on a train. Then a couple of nights together at the Hotel Radisson Slavyanskaya – this gives us the opportunity to have a dinner with Tolya Silin, Lena, Vlada Kumpman and her husband – Larisa’s old friends; also an evening at the opera seeing a wonderfully staged production of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades at the Stanislavsky Musical Theater.

In StP itself we spend a couple of nights at our old haunt, the Hotel Astoria, in a room overlooking St Isaac’s. One night at dinner in the hotel, another we go to see the production of Swan Lake put on by Tanya’s ex-husband, Bruskin – Larisa’s old friends at the Theater of the Hermitage. This last is beautiful, with newly restored stage curtain showing the double-headed eagle. All that’s missing is the tsar’s family.

On the  last two nights in StP, following our return from Moscow, there is great variety. Friday evening I rent a Nissan Sunny and we drive out to Repino on the Gulf of Finland, where the Cinematographers’ Club ‘Dom Tvorchestva’ has reserved a room for us at the ridiculous price of $3 per person with full board.  Then Saturday we indulge in the other extreme, a $315 room at the Hotel d’Europe that Larisa absolutely loves.

The Hermitage ballet has its own vignette truth of the new Russian reality. The tickets are sold via Intourist at $40 each. The house seats 200 and nearly every place is taken, implying a gross receipt of $8,000.  Out of this the dance troupe is given 10,000 rubles = $60 by Intourist, a shocking abuse of privilege. The troupe is private – Bruskin’s own. He has an impresario in France and a tour is scheduled for October – November. The problem is to survive till then – for which he needs $10,000.  I offer to help find a patron – will approach the Credit Lyonnais office in town.

Everyone has got a story he is longing to share. Everyone wants to vent his optimism on the reforms, on the state of the economy. You scratch anyone and they bubble up with information.

Weather is largely cooperative. Mostly sunny but not too hot. The days are still so impressively long in StP – still more than at home, longer than in Moscow.

The feeling is that most anything is for sale. On Nevsky, grannies seated on stoops sell bric-a-bac, most likely their treasured possessions. Nearby kids sell Wrigley’s chewing gum or Coke or Colgate. It’s a new world of petty retail activity. On the highways every so often there are outdoor grills with tables. A couple of years ago you’d get 20 years for the trouble.

Alexa is impressed that our hotel television has Superchannel  and MTV and CNN. Yet she spots a need for radio to appeal to adolescents.

To my surprise, the Gold Rush atmosphere here is contagious and I am thinking it might not be a bad idea to move to Russia for 6 months – buy an apartment, participate more directly in the fantastic changes now beginning. Even Larisa agrees. Now if I want to be truly energetic, I’ll start chasing the oil companies, who are establishing multi-billion dollar deals.

This is the first time I travel to Russia with our video camera. And I remain a bit cautious, or perhaps lazy. There is such a wild combination of old and new, historic change in the air. The crust of Soviet neglect is being scraped away – literally. Bronze plaques announcing the unpronounceable abbreviations which served as the names for Soviet legal and commercial entities are removed. Paint which had covered the bright, gilded mosaics on the edifice of turn of the century, Art Nouveau corporate buildings (banks, insurance companies)is removed, revealing the pre-Soviet past for admiration.

Western cars are appearing on the streets. Purchases of second hand cars have sucked W. Europe dry. Add to that those stolen cars. The Japanese right-hand drive vehicles sold for a couple of hundred bucks in Vladivostok are all cruising down the StP and Moscow thoroughfares, lending a more familiar look to the streets as they crowd out the bizarre Chaikas, Moskviches and Volgas.

Not everything changes. As they say about the StP Intourist group, it’s the same old gang of thieves even if the titles and positions of desks have changed. Management at the Intourist-owned Astoria remains uneven, unsympathetic. At the Swedish run Hotel d’Europe, I am told that the Swedish manager and his team of German assistants are going through staff daily and applying hire and fire procedures till they get staff who work and know how to smile. The results are evident – the Hotel d’Europe looks and feels like a Western hotel. There is at least a modicum of professionalism. Compare this to the Astoria, where the front desk staff and service desk staff are ignorant and uninterested in helping guests.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]