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

Finale of the USSR, Gorbachev’s leaves the stage

Diary notes, 25 December 1991

Wednesday,  25 December – a completely lazy day. The news of the day is Gorbachev’s resignation speech and U.S. recognition of the successor states to the USSR, – Russia, Byelorus, Ukraine, Armenia, Kyrghizia. This is a watershed in history. For the first time in 70 years the red flag is lowered in the Kremlin and the tricolor flag of Russia is raised in its place.

I have been a most admiring fan of Gorbachev for most of the past 7 years of his rule. He is clearly a giant intellectually and in political gifts. He succeeded in moving the Soviet Union into radical reform without violence and catastrophe thus far.  Yet he was also a victim of his own successes and eventually made himself irrelevant. He opened the political process to new forces which rightfully moved onto the stage and displaced him. He put too much emphasis on retaining the structures and personnel of the past, hoping to make the Communist Party into an obedient tool of his reforms. Instead he nearly became the victim of the Right, whose powers he, like most everyone else, overestimated.

The death knell for Gorbachev’s years sounded  during the August 21-23, 1991 coup d’etat. The loud mouth and unorganized democratic opposition , Yeltsin, Sobchak, Popov, who had over the preceding years shown only their unpreparedness to administer and run things, now in a pinch showed their civic courage and saved Gorbachev’s freedom from the henchmen of totalitarianism: Yaneev, Pavlov, etc. whom Gorbachev himself had put in power ostensibly to forestall such a right wing reaction, but also as continuation of his balancing act between right and left to maintain his own relevance and indispensability.

Gorbachev, saved by the Liberals, now became their hostage. Like a sparrow that has been rescued by humans, he was healed but lost his ability to fly. It was only a question of time before the dual power, the contest between him and Yeltsin would be solved once and for all. And so it should: continued dualism would only invite further putsch attempts.

Yes, I agree with those who find the gentleman Gorbachev a far more calming, reassuring leader than the ruffian Yeltsin, who seems to talk from the corner of his mouth and to snarl. But this is the man who saved Russia, who scrapped the Communist Party and he’s the one to implement economic reforms about which Gorbachev could only talk in a dilettantish way. Yeltsin, like Walesa, is the first leader to have an electoral and popular mandate to carry through reforms that everyone knows will cause much suffering on the already miserably poor and unhappy population. The price de-regulation comes on January 2nd; let’s hope Yeltsin can stick with the Polish radical reform and not fall back on the populist, interventionist economic policies that were formerly ascribed to him.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[Memoirs of Russianist, Volume I: From the Ground Up in now in print and available on all national websites of, as well as from other leading online retailers including Barnes & Noble, and]

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

Travel notes, Yugoslavia, Wednesday 20 November  –  Friday, 22 November 1991

This is my first trip back to Slovenia since the start of the civil war this summer. In the meantime, six weeks previously I was in Belgrade for a meeting with Dragan Brscic to spin off the Serbian and south Yugoslav operations from control of Intereuropa. Brscic had spoken like a true Serbian nationalist, though in fact he is a Croat with a father in the Yugoslav foreign service.

Now I meet with old friends Tanya Filipovic, Rihard Baznik and Alojz Pozar. The last, most conservative, finally agrees there can be no restoration of the Yugoslav household, that the idea of living under one roof is unthinkable. Still, for business purposes, he does have hopes that realism will prevail and that Intereuropa can once again serve us in the non-Serb southern republics.

Tanya is no longer looking like a freedom fighter. She is a mother who is hoping that peace will break out. I say that there will be peace only when the Croats start doing war: that the issue of the day is not the EEC peace-keeping mission of Lord Carrington, which has merely been a smokescreen used by the Serbs to wage their war of aggression against Croat civilian populations, nor is it the follow-up peace mission of Cyrus Vance, which served involuntarily the same function. Rather, the issue is as soon as possible to achieve recognition of Slovenian and Croat independence and supply of real arms from outside so that they can properly defend themselves and repulse the Serbs. Tanya is frightened by my talk. Rihard is in agreement. Here the Croats have been wishy-washy, to their great loss whereas the Slovenes have stood fast and put their backs to the wall.

What is incomprehensible to me is why the Croats have not simply blasted some of the Yugoslav Army barracks into cinders. That would get some attention. Here I see criminal lack of leadership by F. Tudjman which is paid for in the blood of Slavonia and which may bring him the bullet he so richly deserves.

Otherwise the Slovene Istrian towns are unchanged. We get new Slovene currency and we see that a real international frontier will come down now between Slovenia and Croatia. Slovenes are probably safe: Serbs need an independent Slovenia as a buffer state between themselves and the Italians/Austrians. But Croatia is going to suffer a terrible devastation while the Serbs exact their vengeance.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[Memoirs of Russianist, Volume I: From the Ground Up in now in print and available on all national websites of, as well as from other leading online retailers including Barnes & Noble, and]

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

Travel notes,  Poland, Warsaw and Lodz, Tuesday, 5 November – Friday, 8 November 1991

Meeting with Mrs Edwards, newly appointed (August 1991) director of the U.S. Trade Development Office. She makes the following points:

Warsaw has full employment.  Anyone seeking work can find it, though salaries may be below expectations

Similar situation in other major cities

Most lively economically is the corridor of Warsaw-Poznan and Warsaw-Szczecin. Least dynamic is the South, particularly Krakow.

Is the mass influx of Western goods being paid for my exports? No, it is paid by the mattress money – the $5 – 12 billion which was kept hidden awaiting attractive consumables

The objective of the Polish government a year ago was to sate their pent-up demand by opening the Polish borders to all imports. Import duties were dropped to nil. Now in September 1991 the duties were put back – to levels above the EEC, in time for negotiations with the Economic Community and also to re-start industry.

Why is privatization so slow? Because the government has sought to proceed prudently with utmost transparency and avoiding back room deals. They have hired international consultants to guide the privatization of each industrial sector.

Official statistics vastly under-report the real economic activity because so much of it is not captured in tax or other statistics gathering = black economy.

My critique:

Salary levels in Warsaw are twice the national average, which remains $70-80 per month in both state and private enterprises.  Therefore the buying power is not there to sustain the present consumption binge. It is at the expense of past forced savings over many years.

The opening of frontiers for imports over the first three quarters of 1991 wiped out a whole stratum of manufacturing entrepreneurs. Once burned, these people will think 10 times before starting up production enterprise again. The real economy today is a retailing, not a manufacturing economy.

However laudable the use of prestigious consultants to map privatization may be, it’s a serious mistake to disdain those companies which came forward now with money in hand to buy up assets. Consultants take no risks. Their advice is of limited value. Better to believe those who come with money in hands. Those assets have no intrinsic value – are worth only what bidders will pay.

Edwards is enthusiastic – enjoys her work , without any sense of self-consciousness or false pride.

Meeting with the Vice President of the newly founded Tourist Bank, Mr. Jerzak.  85% Treasury owned, with participation of PTTK, Committee on Tourism.

His points:

So far the EBRD, Jacques Attali, have done nothing, only given good press. And they fear Attali is looking too much at Russia.

More relevant is Czech banking operation in support of trade financing. The Tourist Bank is closely interested as an essentially investment bank.

Banking is what E. Europe needs most acutely now. Only trade finance can restore what has fallen away with Comecon.

 I find that Jerzak is a clever, impressive guy.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[Memoirs of Russianist, Volume I: From the Ground Up in now in print and available on all national websites of, as well as from other leading online retailers including Barnes & Noble, and]

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

Diary notes –  23 October 1991 – Michael Emerson as a barometer of European foreign policy

 Saturday morning is rushed because we’ve got a midday lunch gathering organized by the Harvard Club in downtown Brussels to hear Michael Emerson, Head of the Delegation of the European Commission in the USSR – speaks on “Unification and Disintegration: the EEC and the Soviet Union.”

Apart from the luncheon meal itself – a fine ragout of venison washed down with an ’83 Bordeaux, this event is infuriating. Emerson shows himself to be a scatterbrained pompous fool carrying out a narrowly selfish EC policy that does no credit to its national sponsors. The meaning of his speech is that while the EEC grows and integrates, the Soviet Union is falling apart. Emerson is a voyeur, a jotter of personal impressions who evidently is gathering material for some future book of memoirs, nothing more. He remarks in passing that his year of international affairs at Harvard in the  mid-80s was the happiest year in his life – and so it must have been because this is no man of action.

His task is to execute the EC policy of keeping the Union together at all costs – parallel to the task of the EC firefighters in Yugoslavia’s civil war. It  is a dishonorable task. The U.S. wants the Union preserved, wants to keep the corpse of the USSR alive to co-host the mid-East process and to get Mikhail Gorbachev’s signature on some more pretty disarmament agreements. The latest unilateral disarmament proposals of the U.S. show that even this function is superfluous – the sides can disarm effectively without negotiating.  However, why does the EC want to preserve the corpse of the Soviet Union? To keep in its peoples and prevent a flood of refugees from spilling over into Western Europe? To avoid having still more applications to the EEC club at a time when it is fighting internally over completion of the federal union among the 12 and is about to negotiate widening to embrace EFTA?  Here is the key to it all. And this is pitifully narrow vision – inadequate and unworthy of the historic opportunity before us.

Soviet and East European membership is a football in the contest between the UK and France/Germany over the meaning of the Euopean integration. Here is why they back Gorbachev and Yavlinsky.  They were forced to acknowledge the independence of the Baltics, but they bitterly resist independence for Ukraine and other republics. They turn a blind eye to the powerful force of nationalism, which they pompously denounce as egoism, while they themselves combine unseemly squabbling over sacrifice of national rights before a common currency and foreign policy.

To my thinking, all the republics of the USSR should get out from beneath its wreckage as fast as they can. It is their obligation to realize their national potential before re-uniting in any supranational body of any kind. I steam as I listen to Emerson and then to the equally pompous and fatuous speakers/questioners.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[Memoirs of Russianist, Volume I: From the Ground Up in now in print and available on all national websites of, as well as from other leading online retailers including Barnes & Noble, and]

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

Diary notes, 2-3 October 1991 :  Greetings from free Tallinn!

Wednesday, 2 October

Drizzly, cold autumn weather

Yesterday I made my first entry on Soviet territory without a previously issued visa. All went according to script. The Estonians put visa No. 1144 in my passport; the first time my sojourn has been recorded in take-home form.

Last night after a bottle of Moet et Chandon, followed by a bottle of Russian sparkling red wine we relaxed from a hard day’s tutorial in the ways of UPS. The strange gangster like team from Riga went home and our team of Estonians, and Soviets (Manuilov from the JV in Moscow) eased into a discussion of ‘where were you on the morning of August 19, 1991? Recollections of the putsch: “that’s it, I thought, here we go to Siberia!” “When I saw those trembling hands (of putsch leaders), I knew it wouldn’t last.”

Such a feeling of history – of having lived through something that the grandchildren would want to hear about.

At the same time, naïve optimism that their emigration abroad will help dig them out of the shit. I try to disabuse them of this and counsel that they rely on their own inner strength. I point out how my German colleagues would like to rebuild the Berlin wall – how we are absorbed in our own problems.

Curious situation –between regimes.  Tallinn is an open city. The border is open. Our Soviets came in here without a visa. Westerners either came with a Soviet visa or got an Estonian visa freely at the border. Soviet currency circulates and will continue to do so for a year more at the least. The Bank of Estonia is a free trading point for the ruble – weekly auctions.  The airport is now under Estonian control. Landing rights are decided locally and are granted virtually for free –2,000 wooden rubles = $50..   Communications in general however remain where they were before the changes.

See Estonian scorn for the lazy Finns, who took the vast Russian market for granted, who made easy profits and were unprepared for the changing terms of trade. Now Estonians aspire to exploit the untapped Russian riches. See our guys’ fascination with timber and mineral resources of Yakutia.

Prices rising fast – rents on state apartment will increase soon 5 – 7 times. Yet two currencies will coexist for an indefinite time. It will be at least one year more before the Estonian currency is introduced and the ruble is phased out.  In the meantime the banking system is drained of rubles.

Meeting with the Bank of Estonia shows remarkable change in some matters. They are quickly establishing correspondent relations with major banks in Europe and the USA. Bank transfers abroad can go through within 2 – 3 days. Currency auctions are open to all Soviet organizations. The rate now is approaching 70 rubles/USD.

A Wild West feeling – wild speculation going on in currencies. Smuggling through the open Tallinn port. People are scheming to recover lost nationalized property. There are gang robberies and muggings. – 15 per day in Tallinn according to police reports.

Radio Luxembourg blares in the Olympia Hotel restaurant at lunch. My television set offers Super Channel sports in the morning. The Music Channel rock broadcasts all day long.

During my stay the formation of the Baltic Customs Union is announced to the press. Common customs policy for Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia – open borders to the West. No internal customs barriers.

Supply situation:  at the hotel Olympia the restaurant is better stocked than on my visit one year ago. I am told that the food stores in town are 30% more expensive than in Moscow but are fully stocked whereas in Moscow the shelves are bare.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[Memoirs of Russianist, Volume I: From the Ground Up in now in print and available on all national websites of, as well as from other leading online retailers including Barnes & Noble, and]

From the personal archive of a Rusianist, installment thirty-one

Diary notes, Belgium, weekend of Saturday, 21 September 1991

Our 19th wedding anniversary party – a political debate over the break-up of the USSR

We invite Tanya and Jean, our pianist friends from Namur, and Svetlana and Mark, from Brussels, to a champagne toast at our Braine l’Alleud home, followed by a restaurant in the town. As usual with Russians, the talk turns to politics. Jean becomes fierce in his attack on the stupid break-up of the Soviet Union and its turn away from socialism to a market economy. He says how people will suffer.  Why give up political principles that are essentially good just because they have been abused by villains. I see purple!

Jean shamelessly tells us at dinner how splendidly he had lived in Moscow during his student days at the Conservatory. How like other Armenian/foreign students he had smuggled in gold jewelry (the 2 meter long chains!) which, when sold, enabled him to live like diplomats. How he used tricks to get past the bouncers at better restaurants. How he bought a Peugeot 504 from a Yugoslav embassy official and kept the CD plates. Clearly he was and remains a shameless elitist, epicure, sensualist. He wants 280 million Soviets to remain poor so that he can be rich among them.

Our dinner is mediocre. But our bon vivant friends are not discouraged and we go through numerous bottles of red and white wine, ending in Havana cigars for the gents, the typically extravagant offer of Mark. 

Political debate re-emerges.  I am something of a coq in these matters. Jean backs away, mellowed by the food. But the sting is there –we are clearly standing on opposite sides of the barricades.

I am wholly for the market changes, for the break-up of the USSR, whereby I see each of the republics finding its own worth. I deplore the laziness and egoism of our Western diplomatic community, which is conservative and unwilling to acknowledge the necessity of allowing freely elected democratic parliaments.  The right to self-determination.

As I see it, no one knows who is rich and who is poor in the Soviet Union. All calculations are built on misinformation. Official statistics show what common sense observation denies.

If Tatarstan is poor, it’s only because its vast mineral wealth is being sold cheaply via the Druzhba pipeline to Comecon for roubles. Let the western oil companies in, let the exports go at world market prices and this down-and-out provincial area of the Russian Federation will be among the richest. Ditto Uzbekistan. Now the papers begin to reveal the truth about its status which official data concealed for reasons of military secrecy. The large gold production, which is second in the USSR after Russia and ahead of Kazakhstan, did not appear officially because the gold mining was conducted in the same fields as militarily operated uranium mining and was enshrouded in state secrecy.

The despoliation of all resources in the Soviet Union, the rape of the land, was legendary. Now control must be turned over to the indigenous peoples. They must assert national interests and must understand their worth on the world stage before any recombinations are possible.

Those in the West who ask how these republics can survive on their own are empty rhetoricians. Let’s take Estonia, for example: a tiny population of under 2 million of whom one-half are Russians, Ukrainians and other non-natives; a land without mineral resources, whose economy is founded on agricultural products which are already over-abundant in Europe. Fine, but Estonia is situated geographically in the position of transit crossroads from Finland-Scandinavia to the south. They rightly emphasize the potential for developing roads to allow a north-south route in the east, where the ecological restraints are not so severe on truck transit as in the pampered West, passing through Germany.  Moreover, the Estonians seek to develop their banking activities as financiers of East-West trade.  In a word, they’ll survive quite nicely by rendering services to their bigger and more powerful neighbors. Why then should they be compelled to participate in a union which has been till this past August the vehicle for trampling on their rights.

Jean and I are indeed far apart. He’d do better to mind his music and not his politics. I will not mourn the passing of the black market days of the past.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[Memoirs of Russianist, Volume I: From the Ground Up in now in print and available on all national websites of, as well as from other leading online retailers including Barnes & Noble, and]

From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment thirty

Yugoslav civil war – where do the Great (and Little) Powers stand?

Diary notes,  Sunday evening, 7 July 1991

The past week was filled, filled with impressions and interesting developments.

This was moving week, getting installed in Neuenhofer Allee, Cologne, now that my new UPS offices are here, at the Cologne Airport.

 Larisa and Alexa drove down with me last Sunday as I once again took rooms at the Crowne Plaza Holiday Inn. On Tuesday we spend the day in the apartment as movers arrive. How wonderful to see again all of our antiques which had been in storage in Dortmund for the past 15 months. Set out in the new apartment, it looks fine. The ceilings may be too low at 2.5 meters (!), and it is a pity that our living and dining areas are in one room, but otherwise the good state of the apartment house shows off the mahogany and fruitwood very well. By the time they leave at 5.30 everything is in its place. Specialists will come next week to install the chandelier and to mount the mirror and paintings on the walls.

On D-day, as the movers put in the last pieces, one of our two neighbors on the landing invites all three of us in for tea. Very nice gesture. Larisa sits there like a dummy, but I carry on in German for half an hour about my job, about his retirement and about their apartment in Calpe. Nice people. We have been in Belgium for 11 years and no one has done for us what they have done on the first day.

The week is a hot one. It is the first warmth and summery weather since April. Temperature soars into the low 30s C. Our hotel air conditioner cannot keep up. It is a great time to discover our local beer garden. I invite Nigel and Axel over there and we all have a splendid time over Kolsch.

This is also a hot week in Yugoslavia. The military conflict has intensified since the declaration of independence of Slovenia and Croatia the previous week. Our flights into Zagreb for UPS are touch and go each day. Ljubljana airport is closed after being bombed by federal troops.

I am pleased that at long last Yugoslavia’s big lie has been exposed and the craving of these very different nationalities for self-determination has taken over. At first the reactions of the EEC and especially of the USA are bitterly disappointing. The functionaries in the State Department and their European counterparts in the various chancelleries clearly don’t want their summer holidays to be interrupted by the damned Yugoslavs. But then as the viciousness of the Serbian Communist generals becomes apparent, Kohl and the Austrians are the first to break ranks with all others and to threaten to recognize the independence of the republics. This then becomes EEC policy and even the USA and UK finally, grudgingly agree that Yugoslavia need not hold together.

From among the E. European leaders, the Hungarians and especially the Czechs under Havel come out on the side of the ‘rebels’ and the cause of self-determination. Poland’s Walesa comes out for law and order.

It is remarkable to be living through a situation so reminiscent of the Holy Alliance, where the existing states conspire to thwart emergence of new states from the dying communist order. Bush as Nicholas I.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[Memoirs of Russianist, Volume I: From the Ground Up in now in print and available on all national websites of, as well as from other leading online retailers including Barnes & Noble, and]

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

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, as well as from other leading online retailers including Barnes & Noble, and]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 1 October 1990

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

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

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

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

 2 October 1990 onward to Vladivostok

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 3 October 1990 – st. Sanitoriya, Vladivostok

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

Wednesday, October 3  – Vladivostok

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

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

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

Thursday, October 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[Memoirs of Russianist, Volume I: From the Ground Up in now in print and available on all national websites of, as well as from other leading online retailers including Barnes & Noble, and]

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

[Memoirs of Russianist, Volume I: From the Ground Up in now in print and available on all national websites of, as well as from other leading online retailers including Barnes & Noble, and]