From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment thirteen

Roads not taken:  ITT’s offer of frozen meals for the Soviet school lunch program

14 June 1978, Moscow

2.30-3.45 Meeting at the Ministry of Meat and Dairy with Deputy Minister Kroha presiding, Savchenko from the Meat Institute, the director of the experimental frozen food factory in Moscow (with production of 20,000 meals per shift or one-quarter of the Morton plant in Crozet, Virginia , plus protocol officers Syroezhkin and Bessonov. For ITT: Georges, Herbert, Luigi.  After a word of introduction by Georges, I do the entire presentation: film slides and brief talk.

There are a number of technical questions – we discuss plate/tunnel freezers, temperature of storage, freezing time, whether ordinary gas ovens or some special oven like infrared or microwave is necessary.  They show considerable interest in the production speed– see the film twice for this purpose. Are really convinced that given this speed the work is truly highly automated, and are very impressed when I say that direct labor costs in production are only 7%.

They ask about the school lunch program – particularly like the idea of feeding 500 persons this way. Kroha sees application for long distance trains, Aeroflot, shops, for major cities like Moscow, Leningrad, etc. Says that they are less interested in chickens, more interested in meatballs, ground meat, combination meat products, hot dogs. I mention that the patties are extended to 25% with soy and they seek more information – is this isolate?  (yes, Purina 500E).

Kroha and Savchenko are especially warm to me; Tsygalnitzky generously tosses bouquet, explaining that the food plant was outside their area of activity, at the same time makes it clear that the point of contact for the future is their Country Manager, Luigi.

We ask their impressions of the Morton food samples I delivered. Kroha says very good products – that they were especially impressed by the doughnuts, pastries which were so fresh and tasty upon defrosting.

We ask about seminar – Kroha agrees to October/November schedule, says they can have 100 present (how many do you wish?). Evidently prefer to use the Trade Council as venue. Says they will take it upon themselves to bring the Food Ministry people to participate. Says to work closely with Syroezhkin ‘who reports directly to me.’

Feeling upon leaving very positive: clear what is to be done now. It is incumbent on the company to bring to the seminar not only a technical presentation but rudimentary commercial proposal which should be twofold: 1) sample project including separate pricing school lunch, dinner and confectionary (donut) lines. This either cut to suit Russians or reproducing exactly what they have in Crozet or Russelville. Show price for equipment and technology – all just for orientation. Not to include building, training, freight, supervision or installation – just price to do it as if in the USA. 2) project sales of product – to test market acceptance, e.g. to supply school or hospital in Moscow for 1 year.  Technical presentations: might focus on product development, considerations underlying the food technology; also nutritional considerations in US school lunch program; some information on school lunch implementation.  Should tell of company’s projects abroad:  Nigeria licensing of bakeries, Egypt, school lunch sales in Mideast and Japan, supply to US Army, etc.

Georges seems satisfied with the results. Herbert had hoped for request on proposal. All see great deal of work ahead that Morton staff is ill-prepared to do and that exceeds their usual role.

In the evening I join Luigi and Herbert for dinner at George’s apartment, 3rd floor of the Metropole Hotel. Marvelous museum piece, with 4 plaster/marble columns, large formal dining table at center of the room, television and lounging alcove to the left and sleeping alcove behind curtains to the right. Unretouched mid-19th century, only concession to our era being a Japanese air conditioner and color television.

The occasion of our repast is the transmission of the FRG/Italy soccer match from Argentina, where World Cup match is proceeding. Dinner chat affable, roams.  Georges calls himself insistently French, while probing the background of others. Luigi is an Italian stationed in Austria. Herbert is of Czech descent; though he speaks 5 languages, Czech is not among them. He grew up in Italy, moved to Sweden in childhood. All share lively humor, zest for life, politically acute minds. Take great pleasure in the very international status of the company and personal lives. The game is a marvelous excuse for national jokes, for venting their hyperactive wits.

I leave with a feeling of well-being and fraternity that has overcome even the depression of two days ago over the arrest of the International Harvester representative. This good-humored sophistication is a real delight – camaraderie that leaves the feeling it’s very good to be alive; all the while the chain of authority is not forgotten.

©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.]

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From the personal archives of a Russianist, installment twelve

Death throes of détente, June-July 1978

First seizure, Tuesday, 13 June 1978, Moscow

I visit the U.S. Commercial Office, pick up telexes. Office Director Farrand calls me and one other aside to tell about yesterday’s worrisome incident: the unexplained arrest of an International Harvester representative, who was taken from his car in downtown Moscow and has been held incommunicado despite embassy protests. Clearly retaliation for the arrest of Soviet commercial agents in New Jersey two weeks ago. Very significant, they are turning the screws. The alarm I read on Anatoly Yarilov’s face at our last luncheon in New York was quite correct: their people really were shaken by detention of persons not protected by diplomatic immunity and now we are going to feel the heat.

How well justified was my visceral foreboding; indeed, Chris’s [Purina] question about how Mr. Brzezinski’s behavior was affecting business was well placed. The impossible has finally occurred: they are touching businessmen; and the fact that they have started with IH, which has been here so long and was one of the pioneers of the Nixon policy was carefully considered. They have stepped on the tail of a firm which they hope will yell loudly at Washington to proceed more cautiously.

In the midst of this horror, our unknowing tourists complain at the Rossiya Hotel about poor service, that just the caviar they seek is not available, that the soup is cold!  And communications personnel bitch that the export control board drags its feet on their high technology orders! 

How did the Cold War begin?  As witnesses to its re-emergence we cannot doubt its ways. The wild language, uncompromising stance of Mr. Brzezinski has helped immeasurably. The other side has done its part in overt adventurism. And we are hissing at one another all over again. 

Dear Henry, now all that you built from the China Sea to Central Europe is coming undone and the culpability of shallow personalities and dilettantes in foreign policy is clear enough. The repugnant behavior of the other side is obvious, but that was always there. Adventurism in Africa! Well, since when has fishing in muddy waters been excluded? Were the meetings in Moscow when we bombed Hanoi not proof enough that peace can endure if there is a deep enough commitment to that cause?  There is a point where recriminations so spoil the atmosphere that the exchange of charges becomes self-generating, sustaining a vicious cycle of deteriorating relations and frustration.

Feeling rather defeated, I go to the ITT office for lunch – pass along the ill-tidings to Georges, who tries to show no emotion, but appears to know, admits that he too has known paranoia.  We are served a very elegant lunch, but the mood is subdued

A word about the new office within Brown&Root : about three other companies share this half-floor which Brown & Root has leased – each with one room office, each will have own telex, dining room for entertaining guests. The fact is that ITT has never officially applied for accreditation, because the process would take several years just for the company to resolve to take that step.

The New York Times, 14 July 1978

“President Deplores the Russian Trials as Blow to Liberty. House also condemns them. White House Reported Reviewing Exchange Plans With View to Cutting Some Off,” by Martin Tolchin. 13 July 1978

President Carter condemned the trials of Anatoly B. Shcharansky and other Soviet dissidents today as ‘an attack on every human being who lives in the world who believes in basic human freedom and is willing to speak for these freedoms or fight for them.’

A senior White House aide said that the Administration was reviewing all trade, technological and scientific exchanges with the Soviet Union, with a view toward ending those most beneficial to Moscow.

There is a growing debate within the Administration over whether the United States should cancel export deals with Moscow in retaliation for the trials, and an aide to Zbigniew Brzezinski, the President’s national security adviser, sought to advance the idea by urging Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democrat of New York, to raise the matter publicly.

©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 archives of a Russianist, installment eleven

Prospecting for consultancy clients, East West Marketing, 1977-78

From the opening of East West Marketing Inc. in August 1977 to the very end of its existence in early 1980, a very large part of my time was consumed in prospecting for new consultancy clients. Some of these romances lasted a year or more before petering out, mainly because the go/no-go decisions were taken over the heads of my talking partners, at Board level, though these talking partners were themselves highly placed corporate executives. Here below are diary notes from two such prospects, Johnson & Johnson and the Morton Frozen Foods division of ITT Continental Baking.  Though the latter ended in abject failure nine months later as regards the project which I was promoting to the Soviets with the active support of the head of Continental Baking, it introduced me to the entire ITT structure in Europe, both personnel at headquarters in Brussels and at the field offices in Moscow and Warsaw. In this way it set the stage for my eventual hiring by ITT Europe in April 1980, proving the wisdom of the old proverb ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained.’ 

As regards J&J, they were talking to the Soviets, not listening. Had they listened they would have heard what I clearly received from the State Committee for Science and Technology: that their particular interest was the company’s technology for production of “nonwovens,”  namely the key material for ladies’ tampons and for disposable diapers.

False start: Johnson & Johnson

Wednesday, 21 December 1977

Meeting with Dr. Jack McConnell at Johnson and Johnson’s New Jersey headquarters

I submit draft letter for presentation to their board meeting in January. I press him repeatedly for indication of how things are going, when we will hear their decision on representation. He weakly replies that no answer forthcoming before my next departure, although there is a chance they may call me in to discuss it. He does show trust in our ongoing relationship by refining scope of the agreement: Artegraft, Intersept, cold and liquid sterilization. The latter is named as most appropriate turnkey venture, preferred to nonwovens. In this area J&J has virtual monopoly, all aspects of production are covered by patent which are now expiring – within 2-3 years. Sale of technology and equipment would be in the range of $3 million – all profit to the company under the circumstances. The catch  is that the Soviets must pledge not to export fluid even within Comecon, because J&J now exports to E. Europe via an Austrian facility.

Reckoning on production of the combined populations of US and Canada, J&J would offer to USSR a facility producing 1.5 million gallons of liquid sterilizer annually. Boris Antoniuk and Petrovsky of the USSR Ministry of the Medical Industry have expressed a strong interest. Fact is that without such a fluid, using traditional autoclave sterilization you either thoroughly sterilize and wear out delicate equipment quickly or under-sterilize and experience post-operative infections. Project is attractive because J&J knows how to set up cooperation anywhere, anticipates no difficulties; nothing can go wrong.

Another false start

ITT Morton Frozen Food plant tour, 5 January 1978

Fly from NYC Laguardia to Charlottesville. 

Washington party:   from USSR Embassy, Alexander Barinov, Vladislav Dobroselsky (GKNT), Mr. Lubeznov (Trade Mission).      New York:  A. Yarilov (GKNT), G. Doctorow

Note :  Dobroselsky was very pleased with the visit to Morton, very impressed by their factory. He asks how my last trip to Moscow went (November 1977) and I tell him about my visit with Aikazian, the progress on Ralston seminar. Also that we saw Deputy Minister of Meat and Dairy Kroha on frozen food, but that Murzaneva (GKNT) said there was no interest. He says for me to push both ministry and GKNT, asks who is Murzaneva, says he will get this back on tracks.   Meanwhile, at our parting in New York, Yarilov promises to write a long account to Aikazian, to get this project moving.  They all note that Tony Midis of Morton said the company could do counter trade and this interests Yarilov. ITT Continental boss Harry Leather says ITT has a barter/switch office in Vienna and can handle this sort of thing. 

Friday, 10 February 1978, Brussels

I take commuter train into the city from the airport, then taxi to the ITT headquarters, a block down Avenue Louise.

9.45-11.00 meeting at ITT with Georges, director of Eastern Operations, Peter (his assistant for counter trade business) and legal adviser.  Serious, very serious and productive meeting during which I outline what I have done in Russia and Poland, what are the realistic prospects in each country. The meeting especially valuable because they have worked extensively in the area and can appreciate what I offer. No cosmetic language, we speak openly.

I describe the Soviet project as at preliminary stage only, but to be taken seriously because deputy minister supports it, because Aikazian now involved. Delineate difference between the Food Ministry and Meat&Dairy – over competence, readiness for frozen food. Food Ministry not certain how ITT /Morton can serve its interests; M&D has clearer sense of cooperation. In answer to Georges’ question how the Moscow ITT office manager can follow up this start, I suggest working on Food Ministry.  I also mention that next step will be to bring in frozen food samples in Moscow – and they correctly propose to have their rep make arrangements to meet me and clear product through customs; excellent.

When Georges mentions the Soviet ‘delegation’ that visited the Morton plant in Crozet, I qualify this: the delegation represented no one in particular and our aim in inviting them was to reach Aikazian. Georges asks if this was done. I demonstrate our success by observing how Mme Murzaneva had last defeated my approach, saying that if you want to sell knowhow, then speak to Licensintorg, whereas now Aikazian has taken a personal interest.

Turning to Poland, I outline institutional involvement: Spolem, Frozen Foods Association; Ministry of Food; Hortex. I say how their directors now look upon Morton as a vendor of technology, cooperation partner –  and are willing to pay. Mention cloudiness in Ministry’s thinking on possible cooperation – that FTOs, as cutting edge, have helped put in perspective real chances for compensation/barter.  I enumerate what they offered in exchange – frozen fruits and vegetables, frozen entrees. Georges accepts this as valid possibility.

Georges asks about my experience. I tell about role with Abbott Labs in successful bid, with Globe Services in unsuccessful effort. He seems satisfied. Mention Ralston connection.

Georges asks whether these countries are really prepared for frozen food. I say that given the absence of food retailing infrastructure, they need it more than Western Europe. I distinguish between Poland, where frozen food would be used as here in Western Europe, and the USSR, where it would be sold as fresh food, and is needed strictly for purposes of distribution. Georges fully appreciates this distinction and agrees with my evaluation. Obviously I am succeeding in this forum as an astute observer.

I mention that contact with Poland over frozen food will be useful to ITT even in its other activities since it will take the company straight to the top – food processing is one of the highest priorities now.

Georges admits that ITT Eastern Operations has hitherto focused mostly on traditional areas of corporate activity: communications and electronics. Sees wisdom in pursuing food processing. He has had talks with Harry Leather. Indeed the two conversed by phone yesterday. Harry has given him all copies of our correspondence. Most important: Harry has said he is ready to engage in turnkey project in Eastern Europe. It was Harry who urged Georges to visit Morton and see the plant.  Later they will invite country manager Luigi to visit the plant. Slowly, but they are preparing for this effort. Definitely it is the time to get a commitment from Leather. It is safe to assume that I have charmed Georges: my powers in this realm are increasing each week.

Before I leave, the young legal aid calls me aside, says his father just stepped down as president of English affiliate of French’s – will send my name to them as potential consultant!  So the impression was strong and positive.

©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 archives of a Russianist: installment ten

As noted earlier in this series, the materials presented here will go into the book of Memoirs which I am now preparing for publication. The original collection of documents will be deposited in a university archive, still to be determined.

The concluding Part III of the book consists of excerpts, some lengthy, some brief drawn mainly from my diaries, to a lesser extent from correspondence and business memos of the two focal periods. My intention here is to convey the immediacy and spontaneity of my impressions free from the filters of today.

As regards the diaries, a word of explanation is in order.  Some of these conform to the widely understood notion of a summary of what happened on a given day. But many of the entries recount who said what in my presence. They are verbatim and often are as complete as a tape recording might be.

When I re-read Tolstoy’s War and Peace a couple of years ago, I was struck by how he had reproduced on the pages of the novel extensive passages of what people were saying in the society salons, in the tents of the armies in the field and the like. If you were to remove these lengthy conversations, monologues, dialogues from the text, you would have a narrative of a couple of hundred pages, not the couple of thousand that the novel as published came to.  And the stripped down book would be very pale compared to the vivid portrait of Russian society that Tolstoy delivered.

I am hopeful that the publication of my diary entries here will similarly enliven and enrich this account of the period under review.

Second USSR Trip for East – West Marketing, Inc.

November 1977. Preparations for January debut of our first client, Ralston Purina

Moscow, 23 November 1977

Meet Chris downstairs following breakfast. Phone State Committee and speak to Murzaneva, who says meeting for Ralston at the Food Ministry will take place at 12 today, that tomorrow at 10 we will be received by Aikazian (which heartens me considerably). On the negative side, she rejects review of ITT Morton frozen foods, saying that it obviously is only a commercial question, suitable for Foreign Trade or Licensintorg, not for the State Committee. I phone the U.S. Commercial Office to arrange a meeting with Steven Sind at 10 today. Phone Marshall Goldman and arrange to see him at 5pm tomorrow at the National.

The 10 am meeting with Sind goes well. Suggests that as the State Committee will be co-sponsors we allow them to distribute the invitations. We only suggest the institutions to be included. We can send blank invitations to Sind by mid-December for transmission to the GKNT. c/o American Embassy, Box M, Helsinki.  Steve offers to hand deliver messages to the ministries including contracts. Very cordial and helpful overall.

Next we walk over to the U.S. embassy building for meeting with Alan Trick, agricultural attaché whom Chris feels very well informed. Trick is dry, farmer-clever guy in late 50s, no-nonsense language but limited perspective.  Doesn’t really understand appeal of soy protein in this meat-eating nation. His most important point to us: that Ministry of Agriculture is the black hat in our scenario, generally conservative and opposed to soy; that local soy production well under 1 million tons annually; that Lyshenko and USA Institute has no value for this project, purely social. Chris expresses point of concern lest the products be over-old here: should Soviets want to place large orders now the company cannot satisfy new demand, world capacity is fully booked

12.00  Meeting at Food Ministry with deputy director of oils and fats department, assistant to Chubinidze, Ruslan Spino, plus translator and a lady engineer. Though Chubinidze is expected to join us, he does not. Meeting lasts nearly two hours and though rambling and at times discouraging, especially at the outset when Spino tries to rattle us, it is positive by all indices.   Spino opens with a joke to the effect that soy may be fine but red meat is better, that when their delegation visited the US they were feted with meat chunks, not soy. Chris counters, saying soy not intended to replace meat only to extend it; a useful device for keeping meat prices stable. Next he asks what is present price of soy isolate per kg. Upon learning it is about $1.90 per kilo, he then coyly asks what is the price of meat in the US. We estimate it costs $5.00 per kilo and has only 20% of nutrient value of equivalent weight isolate. Spino is placated

Chris identifies 3 problem areas influencing the choice of plant location:  natural gas; potable water; effluent treatment.

Spino: we would use flour for bread and confectionery; concentrates for meats. Concentrate may be less good than isolates on meat but equipment for concentrate is simpler and so is the technology. Besides, concentrate is acceptable for meat and is widely used that way

Spino:  we know over 10 times more concentrate is produced in the US than isolates. So we want to produce concentrates.  We would also use isolates in meat plus confectionery and bread

Spino goes on: Give us a program of collaboration; we shall review it. To cover isolate manufacturing; we do not need assistance in area of extraction as we have enough info in that area.  In January, we’d like to discuss your proposals, conditions of collaboration. To have you work with us rather than for us. One topic to be protein from sunflower seeds, which constitute our basic crop; we shouldn’t concentrate all on soy. You have 42 million tons of soy annually, but we get only 500,000 – 600,000 tons, whereas versus you we have 5 million tons of sunflower versus your 150,000 tons. Our talks on collaboration to take place the day after the symposium we can do it – five of us with five of you on the day following the symposium. We want sunflower in the seminar program.

Comments on program of seminar –   Spino: we have much info on general aspects of protein. Better if you make a detailed review of process technology – isolates and concentrates as well. Also how each applied in dairy, sausage, confectionery. Also on environmental controls. Also separate report on equipment – what companies produce the equipment for environmental controls.  Offers to give detailed program suggestions to the GKNT.

Following this meeting we walk next door to the Meat and Dairy, phone my man at the External Affairs Department Bezsonov, who agrees to come down for a moment. We schedule a meeting with all, including Deputy Minister Kroha and the Meat Institute on Friday.

Thursday, 24 November 1977

10.00 meeting at State Committee for Science and Technology

Zoya Ivanovna Murzaneva and Dr. Eduard Asaturovich Aikazian

Murzaneva is wearing pants, close-cropped hair, thick lenses but attractive imported frames, slight build, looks younger but foxy sharp. Aikazian looks unchanged, warmly recognizes me and shakes hands with evident pleasure at seeing a familiar face; he has come down with an awful cold and has badly stuffed nose.

The meeting is brief and to the point: on the seminar, with no departures from that theme. Firstly, Aikazian says that 3 days is too long, that much of the general information can be cut. Suggests we plan on seminar lasting two days – a Tuesday and Wednesday, leaving 2 days for talks with the ministries. Suggest that we deliver Russian language summaries of the reports to the State Committee, as well as Russian language programs at least two weeks in advance.

Aikazian says we will be discussing protocols of cooperation with the two ministries plus a general overarching protocol with the State Committee. Protocols with the ministries will be detailed, covering working program. All 3 protocols to be signed at the same time by the two vice ministers and Gvishiani for the State Committee.

Aikazian strongly urges that we hold the seminar at ASTEC (US/USSR Trade and Economic Council). Suggests that we speak to Gribkov about arrangements so that a project manager can be assigned. Says they will handle clearances and other technicalities. Also that I seek liaison from Murzaneva.

He gives us the written comments of the Meat and Dairy Ministry on our seminar agenda.

Upon conclusion of the GKNT meeting we go over to the Intourist hotel to phone Trade Council. Gubkov not available but his assistant in charge of seminars and shows, Osipov does agree to receive us straight away and we drive over to their headquarters.

This is my first visit to ASTEC and I am somewhat disappointed by the limited size and facilities. The building is old; though modern and comfortable inside, it is small relative to work going on. Only 4 project managers for its vast membership. A hall that is poorly structured and seats no more than 70 or 80 (less capacious than the U.S. Commercial Office). However, staff is fairly pleasant. Russian secretaries are unusually efficient and ready to serve.

[Note:  like his boss, Dzherman Gvishiani, the son-in-law of Soviet Prime Minister Aleksei Kosygin and deputy chief of the USSR State Committee for Science and Technology, Eduard Asaturovich Aikazian, the head of the American desk at this time, was a towering intellect and held a doctorate in chemistry. For a while he had been a post graduate fellow at Cambridge University, after which he served in the USSR trade representation in England as scientific advisor. He later was moved back to Moscow and placed in the GKNT. His lively intelligence was in direct contradiction with his physical presence as slight of build, thin and short, wearing ill-fitting, rumpled suits.  However, U.S. captains of industry understood fully well his personal worth and the influence he wielded in the Soviet decision-making processes. I think back of the satisfied look of the chairman of Abbot Labs Ted Ledder when he arranged for a half-hour session with Aikazian on the sidelines of the annual US-USSR Trade Council meeting in Los Angeles in November 1977.   By 1978, Aikazian handed over his job to an assistant, Anatoly Yarilov, who had been his deputy in New York and was my main contact person and ‘promoter’ within the GKNT.  From 1981 to 1991, Aikazian was the ‘ambassador’ (постпредъ] of the Armenian SSR to Moscow, one of 15 such ambassadors within the USSR. Though he remained in close touch with his native Armenia after the break-up of the Soviet Union, he apparently continued to live in Moscow. In 2016, at the age of 85, he published his memoirs [in Russian] entitled My Unforgettable Twentieth Century]

©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.]

Pages from the personal archives of a Russianist, installment nine

Diary entry, visit to Leningrad on invitation visa from Vladimir Illarionovich Zalesov, July 1987

17 July – Helsinki to Leningrad by train

The Soviet train is waiting. Alongside are Finnish trains bearing on their sides some warning about AIDS. The Soviet train has 7cars, 300 passengers –mostly American teenagers taking part in a People to People exchange program. Alone in the compartment, we are joined at last minute by two quiet Norwegians. As the train pulls out of the station, we sit down in the dining car. A very Soviet menu of sturgeon fish soup, then отбивное мясо or fried sturgeon for the main course (tiny, greasy), with nondescript Georgian wine by the glass and Nescafe in an expresso cup. Service is friendly and efficient – and the only irritant is that the foreigners ignore the non-smoking signs and light up, nearly every one. 

Finnish landscape – the alternating bright yellow alfalfa and green pastures with pine and birch forests – is pretty if one and the same. After three and a half hours, we reach the Soviet frontier. We stop for 20 minutes at the Finnish border town, then enter no man’s land, where Soviet customs officials board and start their detailed search. Our neighbors have, as it turns out, a religious bent and the officer finds 15 Russian language bibles in one of their bags. Then the hunt begins. Our compartment is thoroughly investigated. However, the inspection is perfunctory with us after going through my suitcase. He asks if we have gifts and I point out the cassette recorder we have for Vladimir. If that is all, he says, it’s all right. His expression is to say: ‘that’s the least you can bring your father on an invitation visa.’

The train crawls along, windows are sealed and despite the low air temperature, it quickly becomes unbearably stuffy in the train. Time starts to go very slowly as well. The landscape becomes still more monotonous and dizzying low of pine and birch trees, many of which appear to be dying from some pollution or another.

Finally we reach Vyborg, where the train stops from 18.40 to 19.00. Larisa and I leave the train and pass through the station to the street and then to the lake. The town looks neat, cared for, with well-trimmed trees adorning the shore. However, the people in the street waiting for the bus are so poorly dressed – look like the 1950s. And the buses themselves, those pitiful local buses made in L’vov, look like they were hand riveted in someone’s back yard. Here is where Larisa’s uncle Misha lives. We may look him up on the way out.

From Vyborg to Leningrad we pass through very poor and miserable region till we reach the near suburbs of the city at Repino and things improve with dacha territory. The coastal road, which I remember from excursions to the Zelenogorsk country house of the U.S. consul  in 1972, is in good shape. As we approach Leningrad’s Finland Station,  it all looks so pitiful, depressing.

Volodya is waiting for us on the platform. We are only 15 minutes late but he is in horror that we have been so delayed. The man evidently has been in an anxious state for more than a month awaiting this visit.

On the way to the house, we learn that our arrival in mid-July has certain liabilities – many of Larisa’s friends have already left town or are about to leave for vacation. All the theaters are closed, including the ballet.

Volodya pulls our heavy bags, pushes us to the head of the taxi queue over shouts of those waiting and we fear he will have his stroke here and now. The trunk of the car, already half filled by liquefied gas tank, accommodates only part of our luggage. Volodya sits in front, sharing his seat with Alexa’s suitcase. We carry hand luggage on our knees. The rattle-trap Volga jumps and bumps along the streets, reaching Vasilevsky Ostrov at last. Chetvertaya liniya, dom 59 – we stop before the garbage barrels, the local landmark. Enter the courtyard, which looks like an excavation site as a crew have dug up little water pipes to insulate them. We walk along planks, over trenches to Volodya’s entrance, then up 4 flights of stairs. Paint is peeling off the walls. By U.S. standards, it’s a regular slum tenement. Apartment 30. 

Double doors. Into the corridor. Living room is first to the left, followed by bedroom and kitchen on the left, WC and bath at the end. It’s about as I remember it, perhaps larger and better decorated. Wallpaper may be fresher. Stuffed penguin sits atop a bookcase in the corridor, a tortoise shell on the wall of the living room, where there is also a wall-mounted display case of corals and two Indonesian paintings on wood, two dark wood sculptured faces on the wall. In the living room and bedroom, there are well hung carpets and the impression generally is of layer upon layer of coverings on the walls and floors.

His apartment is like a ship’s cabin – every inch has been put to use. The kitchen also has been ‘built in’ in the Russian manner – with boards or planks. The stove is grimy. The fridge is an ancient monster. The only new item is the Nova Miniwash we gave him last November. Plates and silver are all mismatched, remnants. Larisa and I take a brief walk outside, in the twilight of White Nights; it is still unseasonably cold.

Saturday, 19 July 1987  Leningrad

We all rise very late. After an enormous breakfast consisting of sausage and cheese, rich leftovers from last night’s supper and boiled coffee, we go into town. It is a bright but cool day, with temperature in the 16 – 18 degree C range.  Together with Volodya we go in search of police for registration (local OVIR is closed today). Then we go looking for the валютный гастроном, which was situated at the start of Nevsky Prospekt, near Herzen street but now is closed, with references to other non-existent addresses. We are finally sent to the Beryozka department store near Hotel Pribaltiiskaya, where the food section, consisting mainly of liquor, tea, chocolate, coffee is closed for inventory. So we have to settle for the Hotel’s Beryozka where he unloads $120 to stock up on liquor and I get cigarettes for taxi drivers. In a word, there is nothing to buy for cash. No fresh food at all, only Danish canned ham and sodas. There are video cassette recorders, color televisions and hair dryers in the electrical goods section of the department store. But refrigerators or miniwash machines, such as we saw with Volodya in the Vneshposyltorg shop near the house this morning on the Makarova Embankment are open only for sales in ruble certificates that are available to Soviets who have worked abroad. A Soviet with dollars might as well have play money, for all it is worth to him. The only new thing in the system is that the bulldogs are at rest – there is no apparent effort to keep ordinary Soviets away from the certificate stores. And the closed shops generally are being cut back. The валютный гастроном in Moscow at the Mezhdunarodnaya complex was closed for alleged corruption and the same happened here in Leningrad – when they will reopen no one can say.

 Sunday, 26 July 1987   Leningrad

Start the day with a jog around the stadium. Larisa joins in. Then the usual heavy breakfast of oatmeal and boiled coffee.

Alexa has been spending the past several nights at Valya’s recovering from bug bites. Her first words in Russian now are :  клопы и комары. I pick her up from Valya and walk her and Vlad down to the Neva embankment so they can watch the official part of today’s Navy Day exercises. Per Alexa’s request, Vlad wears his uniform, heavily bedecked in medals. I photograph them both by the Sphinx. They return some 40 minutes later having watched the brass in a cutter salute the ships parked in the river. At noon the 4 of us take a taxi to the Metro stop Gorkovskaya to meet Valya. It is here, she says, that on weekends for the past few months young professional artists have gathered to sell paintings directly to the public. Nothing today, though (we later learn that the market has moved to another location). We next take the metro out to the apartment of the Zotovs for a name-day party.  Besides us four, there are the old architecture friends of the Zotovs. We start up a conversation with this couple straight away. The wife, with henna-dyed hair, has a very ‘Soviet’ Russian face, matronly build. He has sleepy Jewish face. Their marriage came evidently in mid-life as each has their own grown children – all, it seems, living abroad. He came from Riga, where he was a top architect. She has a daughter living in Slovenia, in a small town near Maribor, married to a local party boss. They both have visited there several times, say they were tempted to cross over into Austria to have a look, or to Italy. I say they must go to Venice by boat from Istria next time. His sons are living in the States. One is a very successful artist who gets commissions to travel around the world; the other is a furniture restorer in Boston, whom by weird coincidence, we may have met at the store of Lanska when we were in Back Bay last September. I take the Polaroid and all are stunned and delighted to have photos. 

We have brought Spanish white wine which Larisa imported from Poland and this is greatly appreciated.  On both points, we had resisted Vlad and it is a good thing. Only pity is we didn’t take some whisky, because Zotov would love to try it –never has. This get-together has a pall of sadness. Though Larisa flares up into heated dispute with Katya over Reagan, this subsides quickly as it starts. In the kitchen, Larisa tells Katya of the details of [her mother] Lydia’s death and burial, then at the table Katya offers a toast to her memory, which even Vlad reluctantly drinks to. 

All these crows are dying off. Katya tells Larisa most of their circle of architects has gone. Zotov himself looks a weak and old man – doubtful we will ever meet again. But he is lively today – puts favorite records on the record player. He recites his own seditious poems from 1937. He is enjoying having lived long enough to witness the unmasking of Stalin. Our gift digital watches and alarm clocks were received with gratitude – I put them in running order.

None wants to believe that the unmasking should go further than Stalin. It’s unthinkable anyone would attack Lenin, take the crimes back to his door. They have read Solzhenitsyn but this aspect of his work has not registered. They have read Дети Арбата about Stalin’s murder of Kirov and all are overjoyed. All have seen Покаяние. All read the papers, Огонек, Комсомольская Правда. The real action is going on in Moscow.

The meal itself is classic Russian: start with red caviar sandwiches. Table is set with cold perch, sliced roast beef, radish salad, potato salad, cabbage filled pies. There is Armenian cognac and a carafe of grape juice. No main course, instead straight to splendid dessert of a rich torte and tea with lemon. The party turns best with the tea – when everyone is relaxed, sated, and eager to talk. We talk about religion, about how the Church is making a come-back. Larisa went this morning to a service at the church where she had gone once upon a time with Lydia Danilovna. The choir was excellent, a tenor from the Mariinsky Theater. There is talk of restoring some churches to religious use. Even Katya, the Bolshevik warms up to the religious talk – says how church weddings now are shown on television, in films.

The couple of architects remain interesting for us. They let slights roll off their back. They have seen it all and survived it all.

In the evening we go out to see Lena, another old friend of Larisa’s from the geology days. She has just moved into an apartment in the harbor on Vasilevsky. It’s raining as we arrive in this dim and desolate part of town. I wonder how in hell we will get out. We climb to the 4th floor – past pails of smelly garbage. A thin blond man in his early 30s opens the door and beckons us inside. There are boxes and disorder. We go straight to the little kitchen, where Seryozha prepares tea and instant coffee. He is Lena’s son by her first marriage – has returned after marrying a Bulgarian and spending several years in Sofia. Left wife and child for reasons we don’t know and now works at the Mining Institute as a professor while living with mom and half-sister. He is attractive – a very Russian guy, classic интеллигент. He is related to Tolya in Moscow , who came up recently to join a celebration for passing the кандидат degree. About life in Bulgaria Seryozha is not a great enthusiast – saw Sofia as a provincial hole. Agrees with me that the only solidly built building in Varna is the Roman ruins. Says the place to see is Veliki Trnovo. Says Bulgarian feelings about Russia are ambivalent; one shouldn’t take their apparent love and loyalty at face value: see the rubbish they ship to Russia in two-way trade. A level-headed, attractive guy. Slim, athletic.

The apartment is a complete slum. I pretend not to notice the bedbug like insects climbing the walls. The pride of their possessions is the library – 100 packing boxes containing perhaps several thousand volumes. The furniture is dark, heavy and 19th century Russian.

Lena walks in. Heavy set, with a broad face. Thin, stringy dyed black hair, grandmotherly look. She has changed so much that Larisa at first scarcely recognizes her.

I try to be controversial, to draw them out. I say how there are no standards here any more. In Poland the artisan, craft goods can be beautiful even if industrial goods are ugly. Here, too, all which comes from factories is shoddy, ugly to behold. The only models of refinement and taste are from tsarist times. Why do they at once revile and at the same time lovingly preserve this. Our hosts are speechless. I give them my anti-museum talk: how museums are cemeteries for art, removing fine arts from the milieu in applied arts, decoration, furniture, fashion, amidst which they were created and placing them in a sterile void. I explain what is being done these days at Versailles to break up groups, to create spectacles outdoors for their amusement and so to spare the place unnecessary traffic of bored and ignorant visitors. Only when I get to say how we were amazed to see how the Hermitage has so few guards and how every fool can approach paintings and lean all over Empire furniture – only then do they begin to react.

Lena works as a guide and knows very well the level of these visitors: are the statues of angels her life? The talk become lively on the subject of Gorbachev and perestroika. It’s amazing to read the paper these days. Talk of Stolypin has disappeared, but there is nearly complete rehabilitation of Bukharin.  Lena and Seryozha have flattering words for Deti Arbata, for Pokayanie, for Moi Drug Ivan Lapshin. See the revival of the Church. Church hierarchs are shown on televised events.  Lena: Perestroika because the economy is at a critical point. The idea is to revive NEP. The pressure of the intelligentsia for democratization is at last being heeded. Seryozha: dissidents and intelligentsia have nothing to do with de-Stalinization. It is Gorbachev’s policy in order to put his team firmly in power, nothing more. Leningrad is a very conservative backwater even after the departure of Romanov. The local party boss continues to be obstructionist. Local press is drab compared to Moscow papers and journals.  The multi-candidate elections confused people.  The old-timers refused to ballot secretly: won’t the loser be offended? Though dissidents have been freed, the amnesty has not benefited nationalists and religious internees. Now the hot issue is the Tatars. Regarding farms: all talk now is on re-creating the peasant farm, i.e. the хутор, turning over cattle to private hands. The bureaucrats are in dismay. When the Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Food Industry were merged to form the Ministry of Food Complexes, there was a wholesale review of the bureaucrats’ credentials and removal of persons who do not hold diplomas. Reportedly the whole Leningrad KGB was fired, half of Moscow’s. One shouldn’t worry about the chaps, though, because all found new nests in local administrations and industry. Bribery and corruption had reached gigantic proportions: all 3 cotton republics were completely rotten, withhundreds of millions of rubles of product diverted. The scoff-laws get around the ‘dry law’ today by stealing industrial spirit – see the weak liquor. Glasnost means all of society’s ills are now coming into the open: drugs, prostitution.

Lena:  our industry in Leningrad brings only pollution and financial losses. The town should be turned over to tourism. Architects are at a loss over what to do with the big 12 room apartments in old buildings. By law families can receive no more than 1 room per person even if they buy in a cooperative building. How to get around this?  Meanwhile restoration work on Old Petersburg proceeds at a snail’s pace, falling behind the decay. No money for investment, no sense of what to do with the old buildings now that communal flats are no longer acceptable to the population. How can the policy of real incentives for economic performance be put into effect when such an important area as lodgings is in the hands of levelers? 

We talk about Alcoholics Anonymous, which was greeted for the first time with interest here, about other questions, about everything except AIDS.  It’s the only discussion we’ve had in this city which didn’t in one way or another touch that problem.

We talk about nuclear power and Chernobyl. Seryozha mentions the much worse calamity in the 1950s in the Urals when a nuclear dump entered a chain reaction. Chernobyl itself is an example of wanton disregard for the safety of people by the authorities. Fire brigades were sent to the scene wearing no protection. Volunteers were sent to a certain death. The capping with sandbags was entirely unnecessary. Now the ‘clean-up’ is coming at vast cost – and is more for the sake of Public Relations than anything else. It would be preferable to simply declare a dead zone for 30 years and wait. I mention what our Poles found in Kiev: the contaminated furniture, the need to bring in food from Kishinev. This is news to them.

On museums:  there were so few guards not because the administration is easy going but because there is no allocation.

On Afghanistan:  mothers are terribly afraid for their sons. However, the boys themselves seek adventure there and fast track military careers for officers. Move to head of the queue for cars and apartments when they return. Veterans of Afghanistan get the same privileges as WWII veterans.

Lena opens a tin of sprats, puts out Edam cheese and Roquefort. We refill the tea and coffee cups. Talk goes on till 3.30 am.  Daughter, half-sister to Seryozha by Lena’s second husband, the poet, who died 5 years ago, joins us. She is a student at the philology faculty at the university, but her real passion is horse riding. She holds a master of sport title as an equestrienne, won first prize at a jumping competition in Sestroretsk. She spends at least two hours a day in the stables; she trained the horse from the start as a colt. Saddles are the weak point in equipment – only one factory exists in Moscow. Her group takes 90 minute promenades starting at 7.30 am, but do the beach only off season.

Seryozha himself has put in walls, reorganized the inner space of this rather large apartment to give greater privacy. Has been working since December. He moved  books and furniture with friends using a rented truck without laborers in order to avoid pilferage.

At 3.30 am we walk out into the drizzle. To our surprise we easily catch a taxi several blocks away. Crawl into bed at 4am dazed and exhausted.

Monday, 27 July 1987, Leningrad

Heavy rain and cold, perhaps 8 degrees C. No taxis to be found, of course, especially when you follow Vladimir’s idea of catching one at an official taxi stand.

We rise late, leave the house at half past 10.

I join Larisa at [university professor] Yekaterina Belokon’s communal flat, which is situated just around the corner from Zhelyabova and the Evropeiskaya. She has lived in this bel-etage apartment for the past 40 years. A wreck of a building, but there is a hint of past pre-revolutionary glory in the half-coffered ceilings. Her room is about 25 square meters – there are several large wardrobes and a table. The typewriter stands on a pedestal. Belokon lets me in by the back entry which I mistakenly take. We pass through the kitchen and down the corridor to her nest. She is agile and sexless – has strong, masculine face, walks energetically. Has a small but firm body. She is nearly 90, somewhat hard of hearing and with vision impaired by cataracts. As I sit down next to Larisa, she gives a very warm, carefully composed greeting. At our departure she urges us to cherish one another, to keep clear consciences. Surprising spirituality and lively mind. She still walks several miles a day and until last year took grueling bus trips across Russia for vacation. She now has stopped, because she fears being a burden to others. Says very confidentially to us, on pledge that we will not repeat it to others – so as not to endanger those who are close to her: there will be a буря, a storm, here if the reforms don’t go through. The shortcomings of the system have reached a critical point. Then she swings into a monologue on 1907-08, how she lost her father to the terrorist movement – he died of TB in prison transfer, a kind of self-willed death to save his wife and family from further persecution. Father had entered the conspiratorial SR’s, because he had witnessed solders’ reprisals against the peasants. He was imprisoned, released, then re-imprisoned after running some revolutionaries to freedom.

He was betrayed by Azov, the police informer while a member of the SR executive committee and so had unwittingly given away colleagues. Then she skips to her other passion – the Siege of Leningrad. Relates with burning pride how even in the depths of misery Leningraders had not cut down the trees in the Summer Garden. How she had offered warmth to a frozen visitor by setting afire her copy of Pushkin. Talks about the defense at…about Zhdanov’s stupid and criminal leadership, which cost so many lives needlessly. How all the food stores had been concentrated so that German precision bombing in one raid left the defenders completely without food stocks. Tells how in the good old days they were so terrorized that only slept peacefully in their beds on May 1, November 7 and New Year’s, when no arrests would be made. About the limits of Glasnost: officially today the regime plays down the siege of Leningrad because of the huge losses and wanton waste of human life.

I interrupt her extended monologue to say that people are different everywhere and we do have different mores and concerns, that while we try to be open-minded, we do have to make judgments also. Each generation has to fight for justice and truth and one generation cannot do this for all time or ensure its successors from evil, for evil comes from within us. I say the crimes of the siege are not the end of it, that there have been many, as recently as Chernobyl, and that any of these gross crimes could have been sufficient grounds to overturn the government in a normal state. It’s unclear how much of my speech reaches her, but she seems a bit hurt.  We change the subject. She presents recent signed photos for Larisa. Says she hopes to hold on for another couple of years. We exchange presents , give her a folding umbrella which pleases her especially and a digital watch.

Belokon’s gravely voice is even, steady. Her words are gentle, coming from another age. There is kindness and a certain elegance here. Only her revelations are rather empty. Despite herself, she is still terrorized by the shadow of Stalin.

At the door Belokon assures us that she will take care of herself and when she feels she no longer can do so, she will just die, she will not linger. We are deeply affected as we step out into the bright street.

©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.]

Pages from the personal archives of a Russianist, installment eight

Diary notes, 3 – 8 September 1986. Celebrating Harvard’s 350th anniversary, many speeches and the inevitable Russian connections

We arrive in Boston to very disappointing weather – cold mist, cloud cover, threat of rain and low temperature – exactly what we had left behind in Brussels. We take a taxi through Boston, which is congested by police escorts for Prince Charles, who is visiting the city today. We reach Cambridge, where a kind of inflatable McDonald’s arch floats over the Charles near the Weld boathouse, part of the preparations for the anniversary. I drop in to the athletic building to pick up my registration papers, which are all in order. Then we continue our taxi ride to Lowell House J-entry. A student porter helps with the bags and we are shown to a second floor suite. Larisa is instantly shocked by the Spartan conditions – even worse than she had supposed and corresponding to Mother’s shock in 1967 that Harvard  would be so bare and uncomfortable. Indeed, paint is peeling off the walls; the furniture is suitable for army barracks and toilet fixtures as well.

The main impressions Wednesday afternoon – Sunday morning of Harvard’s 350th:

Weather, which is dismal on arrival steadily improves so that all ceremonies in the open air are a grand success.

There are events in the Tercentenary Theatre – the open space in the Yard between Widener Library and Memorial Church, the space where commencements are held  – there are events here each day. The first day, Thursday, the theme is the university among institutions of higher learning – and Harvard is saluted by Prince Charles, representing Cambridge in England, by presidents of Berkeley and Yale, representing public and private higher education in the US.

Charles delivers a curious speech. He is humorous at the outset and it is well received by the audience. Tells us ‘the suspense’ around this event was killing him; that it’s the largest gathering he has spoken to since his address to 40,000 buffalo farming Indians some years back. The audience loves this. He explains his uncertainty over educational theory, having been himself given a program of training suitable for ‘an anachronism.’ Then he turns serious and talks about the importance of keeping technology under control of moral and ethical values, importance of psychology in this day and age – all questions which are not very current, least of all in America where they are really a restatement of the obvious. He does not know the States, it is obvious, and he has not had very professional help with his speech. But he clearly is trying.

The President of Yale gives a short and humorous talk on behalf of the school that came into being when dissident group of Puritans, fed up with laxity at Harvard moved on to reestablish the faith. The university historian delivers a talk on Harvard’s attempts in the 1760s to get a subsidy from George III by writing craven volume of poetry flattering the Sovereign. The class orator of the class of 86 gives a stirring address from memory in which he says he thought about talking of environmental crisis or other major issues facing us, then looked back over similar addresses for 200 years and understood that Harvard speakers have always spoken of crises. He defends his generation – which is usually described as selfish, careerist, apathetic,  saying they are really neo-Puritans striving for excellence, success for themselves and the community. A clever turn of logic.

The Friday event has for a theme the University and the World. It is the politicians’ day. Tip O’Neill, Senators Kennedy and Moynihan, Secretary of State Schultz, Governor Dukakis, Cambridge mayor – all give short speeches at the level of the Rouen officials parodied by Flaubert in Mme Bovary.. Dukakis has a smart alecky talk. O’Neill gives a sentimental salute to Harvard from one who first knew the yard as a grass-cutter. (O’Neill is retiring from the House this year and the son of RFK is a contender for his seat). Schultz was said to plan a major policy address (new Marshall Plan?) – but after opening remarks about the Daniloff affair (arrest of Harvard alumnus of the class of ’57, journalist for US News & World Report in Moscow) his talk fizzles out into an appeal for the US not to hide in neo-isolationism by setting protectionist trade measures and slashing the budget for the Foreign Service.  [note the persistence of the question – isolationism versus engagement in the world. Who else fights out such an artificial issue?]  Schultz’ presence has given cause for student demonstrations against US policy on South Africa and against Harvard’s continuing investment in firms that do business in South Africa. The demonstrators blocked an anniversary dinner last night, while university administrators did not do anything.

Today the demonstrators are an insistent. They have a single engine plane buzz our meeting – the plane circles and circles, to the annoyance of all, while trailing a sign calling for action to pull out of South Africa. Bok has chosen the coward’s way out. The presence of Nathan Pusey, who in his early 80s looks excellent, is a reminder of the danger of taking physical action and using police against the students. But how far, after all, can protesters go? Where does the rule of reason end? Schultz speaks against this moralizing and self-congratulatory view; he reiterates Administration policies – a rather brave and self-assured thing to do.

The Saturday event is for the Harvard Alumni Association. As representatives of Belgium, I have been invited to participate in the procession and sit on the dais. But ennui has set in, together with the urgent desire to do some shopping – and Larisa and I spend the day instead downtown in Boston, the Back Bay and the Quincy market area.

Apart from these major convocations, there are symposia throughout the university. I have tickets for 3 organized by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

The first is on Russian Bureaucracy with Pipes and Ulam. It’s a good reinforcement to my old decision to leave the field. Pipes is characteristically superficial and complacent that Russian bureaucratism is a universal constant. Ulam is characteristically abstract. A lady from California, a former student of Pipes, gives a boring talk on the growth of bureaucracy in the early years of Lenin – a talk imbued with Communist claptrap. She is the generation of new professors in Russian/Soviet history. A person with good formal training but insipid analytic abilities and a mind absorbed in questions set up by Soviets, questions not relevant to us.

 The second symposium is the Holmes Lecture given by Justice Brennan of the US Supreme Court. He speaks to an eager crowd in Sanders Theater. Aristocracy all around. Arthur Schlesinger Jr sits behind Larisa and me.

‘Wendell Holmes Lecture – Sanders Theatre. Chief Justice Brennan.  Subject: Capital punishment and the 8th amendment’

In an extensive legal argument, Brennan summarizes his dissenting opinion against capital punishment on the Supreme Court. Central point is this: the 8th amendment prohibits ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. These four words were left deliberately vague by framers of the Bill of Rights, who took over the language of British 1689. Though some say that the authors didn’t specify the death penalty because it was considered usual in the 18th century of their day, such an interpretation is not satisfactory. If the Constitution could be interpreted merely by revealing what existed in 1786 America, we would need historians and not judges on the bench….Brennan is the only holdover from the Warren Court and champions rights issues

There are also little artistic events in the yard – music and dance. We accidentally catch a bit of this as we go through the Fogg Museum. And there are private dinners for benefactors – thus we catch David Rockefeller leaving one such meal.

However, the joy of this occasion is only partly in the formally organized events. For us it is chiefly in the party-like atmosphere, the chance to meet with dozens of people over dinner and engage in open and stimulating talk.

We see the stress in several speeches on the role of Harvard as defender of freedom of inquiry. Brennan’s mention that he had learned at law school to ‘think for himself.’ And then also the mention that the university is not a warehouse for knowledge, it does not store up knowledge and transmit it to students. Rather it gives a process for using knowledge, for discovering new knowledge. Also see stress on the obligation of the individual to serve society as best as one can. All of these are themes too easily taken for granted, empty phrases in this society. Thinking for yourself, adjusting one’s views on some things and on others about new view to attain and maintain an overall consistency of in one’s mind – that means an openness and honesty that very few people possess.  It means to be at constant war with the inconsistency and contradictory nature that man has.  Veritas and freedom of inquiry means more than defending the university from zealots and from strong arm of the state. It means courage to follow one’s discoveries to all logical conclusions.

I at times grow dewy eyed during this week and barely conceal my tears. This reunion summons nostalgia because it celebrates not so much Harvard University but Harvard College and it revolves around the undergrads, the elite to which I belong. It is not about those two dark and painful years we spent at the Russian Research Center on postdoctoral fellowships.

I go to one Class of 67 function – preparatory to the 20th year reunion next spring. See a few familiar faces, in particular lawyer Jim Esdaile from Quincy House. It is striking how much range there is in the way we look. Several guys still look like their late 20s, others are in early to mid-40s. Unhappily I am in the latter end of the spectrum with my grey hair. Our little ‘breakfast’ in the Faculty Club is niggardly. And what is worst, it is not very friendly. My classmates are snotty, looking through you. See Jim Foster, eg., son of former technical director of ITT in Brussels; I stand next to him at cocktails and for 5 minutes he studiously ignores me.

By contrast, at meals we enter into lively and balanced chats with the over 50 crowd, who are relaxed, ready to listen and behave more or less normally – finding Larisa and me to be sufficiently exotic birds. Indeed, I have the feeling that there are very few graduates living the sort of life that we lead – abroad and happy.

Meeting with Arthur Hartmann, US Ambassador to Moscow – Russian Research Center – Coolidge Hall 4 – 5.30

Together with Larisa we move to head of the table in this small room for 20 participants. Also here are émigré historian Nekrich, Prof. Bergson, Prof. Adam Ulam (RRC director and moderator), professor Marshall Goldman

The meeting is delightful for showing us the serious, well-informed personality of the Ambassador, who is 5 years in his post and who understands comprehensively and in depth the country where he is posted. He knows how to handle Russia. Speaking of the Daniloff affair, Hartmann says that we must not respond to such crises by breaking ties, though pressures for such a break immediately arise – rather, we should meet with the Soviets and use such meetings as a forum to press hard to get satisfaction. Hartmann evidently had an RRC affiliation, as did Daniloff, who was a member of the graduating class of 1956. Is Gorbachev a reformer? Not by any measure at present, despite his advancement of Aliyev, who is said to favor market mechanisms.  Gorbachev is merely tightening up the existing system and aiming at the excesses of cronyism. See broad collegial principles behind the system’s operation.

Hartmann tells of his frustration that the past year’s work preparing for a summit is now put in jeopardy by the Daniloff arrest.  He tells of one of the job’s ‘perks’ – receiving distinguished guests such as Vladimir Horowitz, who spent two weeks at the Spaso House this summer. Calls Horowitz a magnificent big child, who gets up each day at noon, has his main meal at 10.30 pm and watches video tapes of horror films until dawn, practices only half an hour per day unless hosts press him to play for them. Then there were the visits from Horowitz’s niece, who was the daughter in law of Liebermann and talked for hours about the difficulties that liberal economic reformers had in accomplishing anything.

Hartmann detects important changes in the Soviet attitude to Chinese reforms. While these had formerly been dismissed out of hand as inapplicable because no diminution of central authority, now the Soviets say they are studying the Chinese moves closely.

There was the time recently when Hartmann took a phone call on his private line and had a 12 year old Russian school kid on the line. The kid asked for a meeting to chat and when he came over he spoke with the ambassador for a couple of hours, asking like an adult for an explanation of a full range of US foreign policy moves. At the conclusion, he explained to Hartmann where he had gotten the secret phone number: he had paid a classmate 5 rubles to obtain it.

During the past year there were a number of ‘spontaneous’ demonstrations outside the US Embassy in Moscow. They did not always playout to the end as the Soviets expected. For example, when Muslims started demonstrating, the Embassy personnel invited them inside to present their petition. This done, they stayed on to discuss the situation in Central Asia. The Embassy brought in a Kirghiz speaker and the visitors were delighted.

©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.]

Pages from the personal archives of a Russianist: installment seven

Diary entry, June 1984 – Poznan Fair

Steady drizzle. My shoes are drying in a corner of my cell at the Hotel Mercury. Luigi promised a bordello and instead a prison was what I got. A dusty carpet on the floor. A miserable view of a busy, noisy traffic intersection below my window. Girls – none, save the one semiprofessional with whom I struck up a conversation this afternoon out of deathly boredom. When have I slept so much? Hard to remember. If I had a slight weakness for drink, I would be dead drunk here all the time.

My appetite has been voracious. The sight of the niggardly portions at all restaurants alone makes me vulpine. There is that hidden fear that if I do not stuff myself to satiety, I may go hungry next meal. The luxury category guest is not spared that gnawing worry here.

The city is ugly. All right, I concede that the Old Market square is a pretty sight, but the thought that it is all a make believe reconstruction of a past destroyed utterly during the war spoils my enjoyment.

The goods in the stores are ugly. The people look mostly ugly. Men are boorish, women are unadorned, plain. The pushing and shoving of the crowds is hideous. I can think of no greater mundane misery than to be stuck here in Poznan for any length of time above one day. Of course, there are always exceptional miseries which are outside the competition.

Warsaw, June 17, 1984 – Election Day

Posters in many shop windows with electoral lists. Newspapers full of news of electoral preparations. Yesterday in Kielce I was unable to buy wine in the Kielce Pewex because all liquor sales have been suspended in anticipation of election day. Last night at the Victoria the night club was closed and the restaurant could offer no liquor for the same reason.

And what of the people? Despair, complete despair. They had hopes that government would make available foodstuffs or consumer goods to brighten the mood, but nothing was delivered. In Kielce Lydia Danilovna’s friend Pani Danusja and her husband, who are well to do, spent six and a half hours in line at a meat store to get their meat quota against coupons. From 4.30 in the morning, the line formed. The couple took turns. But as pani Chrystina said in disgust: ‘it is macabre.’ Christina has returned two days ago from the F.R.G. where she spent a month with relatives near Braunschweig hoping to pick up something in inheritance from an aunt who recently passed away. She got only four suitcases full of old rubbish; the house and property went to nearer kin. Pani Christina is chastened, a bit like a beaten dog. The poor are not much loved. And even she came back with the proper appreciation of the way things stand: ‘There (in Germany) people live and grow; here we vegetate. How are we supposed to raise healthy children in these conditions?’ Deep feeling of disgust, that things are not getting better, perhaps are getting worse.

But Lydia Danilovna looks well. She has some optimism….She reads me her latest poem……In general I should pick up something, anything for her each time at that bookstore [in Warsaw]. The woman desperately needs some distraction, entertainment. The whole country is bored out of its mind.  The slightest entertainment is enjoyed for all it is worth. No wonder one becomes a voracious reader…

The feeling of doom and gloom is heightened by the weather, which has been as miserable as in Brussels. Overcast, rainy day after rainy day.

The only striking thing about Poznan is the monument to the uprisings. Two immense monolith crosses, about 30 meters high, bound together by a large symbolic iron chain, like the crown of thorns. On the first pillar is marked only 1956, the revolution that brought Gomulka to power. On the second is a column of dates from 1960 to 1980. The monument has pride of place on a major intersection at the start of the park that runs parallel to the railway line. Nearby is a massive official monument to Mickiewicz. There are beacons to illumine the monument at night. Before it lies a bed of fresh cut flowers. The traces of Solidarity which even this regime does not dare to stamp out.

The American tourists are arriving in force. At Hotel Victoria in Warsaw, a large group has a bus outside the hotel with the sign “Happy Louie – Poland tours.”  All seem to be Polish speaking. At the cashier’s desk a couple in their late 50s, early 60s change $100 bills into zloty. (don’t they know about the black market?).  At the Forum during lunch Friday two tables away are three Polish-American teenage girls with the Polish boyfriend of one. Kids straight out of suburbia. …They don’t look like university exchanges. ..

The Happy Louie group at the Forum are all wearing bright yellow pins (3 inch diameter) with the legend in English and Polish “Have a nice day”. Grotesque! Who in hell has a nice day in Poland?

On the way out to the airport Wojciech tells me he may be too busy today to go to the polls. ‘It’s not a very important election, just for the local administration. Just a test.’  He enjoys his irony.

The Poznan Fair itself was unexpectedly boring, low-key. ..

We have only one semi-interesting business meeting with rep of UNITRA/DIORA factory who need modern style foil-type keyboard switches for front panels of stereo component systems, of which they make 40k sets a year.

On the Polish side, the only interesting exhibition is by Coopexim, with traditional Christmas tree decorations, wicker baskets and furniture, rocking horses, children’s carnival costumes and leather saddles.

The Poles’ problem is that they understand exactly what they have and what they don’t have.  And that embitters them, so that whereas Russians can have less, they are content. Poles have more and they are wretched. Their frame of reference is the West and their past freedom. They have traveled, they have relatives in the West. They are not brain-washed like the Russians. They know how to interpret life in the West when they are there. True, Soviets do not travel under normal conditions: they are shepherded by chaperones who police them and frustrate ‘erroneous’ conclusions about what is seen. ….

It is consciousness of his state which makes the Poles so miserable. Russians are blissful in their ignorance and not wanting to know.

Even in Kielce the foreigners are felt. When I checked into the Hotel Centralny Lysa Gora, opposite the train station, I came without a reservation, trudging with my two suitcases. The receptionist looked at me, as upon a camel, I thought. The first white man in decades. But no..[I was wrong]

The only place in Poland where you can feel some sense of human dignity is in concert halls…and the churches, which are open to all without queuing. No wonder the churches are full. They alone work as in the good old days. Theater, diversion in a country that is bored out of its mind.

©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.]

Vladimir Putin announces registration of Russian Covid-19 vaccine

Western electronic media have reacted with skepticism and sharp criticism to President Putin’s announcement yesterday that Russia’s first Covid-19 vaccine has been officially registered and will soon enter industrial production.

Many of the skeptics we see on the air are more generally Russia-bashers and detractors. They often know little about the country and have no idea about Russia’s scientific community and its achievements over the past decade precisely in the area of immunology and combatting infectious diseases.

This thumbs down reaction may be characterized as a case of “sour grapes” – meaning a combination of envy and embarrassment that Russia has proven itself far bolder than the global, especially U.S. and European competitors in addressing directly the threat of the virus to human health and to the economy while wasting no time on protocol niceties that will give little practical benefit other than to allow officials to cover their asses should the final results of the immunization program be less than perfect.

With respect to television and cable coverage, the judgment also may be the consequence of lack of time to get into the complexities of the given case. I make this argument with a sideways glance at today’s feature article in The Financial Times, a publication which surely is editorially not soft on the Russians but has given a far more nuanced account of the Russian registration of their Sputnik-V vaccine and planned start with vaccination of medical workers in the coming weeks prior to widespread immunization of the civilian population later in the year.

“Russia to start mass use of its Covid-19 vaccine” by Moscow-based journalist Henry Foy and others sets out nearly all the relevant facts and opinions in the case, both pro and contra, without taking sides. (https://www.ft.com/content/219b973f-c50a-4071-994f-cc4592d43e1b?segmentId=6bf9295a-189d-71c6-18fb-d469f27d3523 )

This seeming balance may result from the fact that the FT reporters are themselves unable to agree on who is right, the Russians or their Western critics.

The FT article opens with the remark on “Moscow’s desire to rush the vaccine through testing and trial procedures at breakneck speed in an attempt to beat western pharmaceutical companies.”  Without a doubt there is an element of this in the Russian decision to proceed with registration and start  civilian immunizations at once. Naming the vaccine after the 1957 Sputnik, which catapulted the USSR in the minds of the global public from a primitive, brutal society to scientific and engineering powerhouse, clearly points in the direction of status seeking by winning the Covid-19 race hands down.  However, the judicious selection of front line medical workers and teachers as the first to undergo immunization, months before the general public, shows that the Russian policy-makers are also motivated by humanitarian concern to cut infections, cut deaths and restore normality to our lives as soon as possible. Period.

The article mentions that 500 million doses of the vaccine will be produced abroad and that 20 countries have signed up to receive the vaccine, including the Philippines, where it will be shipped free of charge – all of this should indicate that Russia is going beyond the glory to do good in the world on behalf of medicine.  These 500 million doses are half of the planned production run, the other 500 million to be produced in Russia, it appears. Meanwhile, the fact that Russia has signed with AstraZeneca to procure doses of its vaccine when it is released is another demonstration that Russia is not just a spoiler but a good faith participant in the medical quest to tame the virus.

There are two faces of any vaccine which undergo testing through a series of trials. They are safety and efficacy.  Given that none of the vaccines now being developed in the West and in Russia contain actual corona virus, but all have been synthesized, the question of safety is surely the lesser concern all around.  The Russian vaccine, like the one being developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca uses the harmless human adenovirus to carry genetic material from Covid-19 and build immunity. Unlike several vaccines in preparation in the USA, in particular, by Moderna, there is nothing revolutionary about the technology such as might raise questions about its safety.

As for efficacy, meaning the effective production of antibodies in those immunized and the time such antibodies will protect, that is something which will indeed require six, eight or more months to prove. Moreover, what no one is talking about at the moment, efficacy is a very relative concept.  The seasonal flu vaccine, which we in the older generation all take without a moment’s hesitation every year, has, depending on the latest strain of influenza, an efficacy rate perhaps no greater than 50%.  But no one would think for a moment of not taking the vaccine because protection is not assured.

In the midst of this pandemic, time is of the essence.

So the real question today is do you have the confidence and boldness to proceed with immunization and do what you can to curb the virus’s propagation while it is presenting a deadly threat to our societies, do you proceed with the best you have and administer it first to those in greatest need, namely front line medical workers and teachers, as Russia is today planning to do and then, with some delay offer the vaccine to the general population.

I think the Russian decision deserves applause rather than the jeers we see in so much of the Western press today.

At the same time, it must be stressed that whatever vaccine is invented, effective treatments of those infected with Covid-19 is a matter of primary interest to us all – to save lives and to prepare the way for an eventual return to normal living.   In this regard, it is very regrettable that here in Europe no EU member country has sought to procure quantities of the proven Russian medicines for treating early Covid-19 infections Avifavir or the drug they have brought to market for late stages of the disease which are life threatening.  Given that the US drug similar to Avifavir in its effect, Remdesevir, is in short supply, with production capacity of the manufacturer Gilead, nearly completely booked by the US government, Europe is currently left naked. Both the US and Russian drugs are in fact repurposed existing antivirals. It is high time to turn to Moscow and find a solution there.

©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.]

Teaser: Excerpt from forthcoming Memoirs of a Russianist

In the past several months, I have posted on these pages diary excerpts from my career doing business with Russia in the 1970s which will appear in Part III of my soon to be published book of Memoirs.  I offer here a further “teaser” to convey the style and substance of the narrative.

* * * *

At several key junctures in my career, I made changes of direction which left colleagues, mentors, sponsors furious.  I abruptly abandoned long developed plans and went off with scarcely an apology.  Nor do I apologize now, because I see no alternative to the boldness and risk-taking that these moves signified.  For the most part, the ships I abandoned sank before my eyes not long after.

One such turning point came in 1976 when I left an academic career that was stagnating on the launching pad and, to my mind, was running into insuperable problems of a market for entry level university instructors that had gone sour.  A second such turning point came in the spring of 1977, when, after ten months working in a small marketing consultancy, I walked out, and together with the number two officer set up a new company to compete directly with my employer.

The third such case was in early 1980, when I abandoned an appointment as Project Manager within Chase World Information Corporation, a subsidiary of the Chase Manhattan Bank, which had been more than a year in negotiation and had introduced me to its chairman, David Rockefeller, when I was being vetted.  And a fourth turning point came in 1987, when I opted out of ITT Europe, where I had been on the payroll since April 1980 and once again went off to start my own company, partly with the ambition of picking up a subsidiary or two that were being hived off in the downsizing that followed merger of its telecoms business with the French giant Alcatel.

 Each of these career changes was formative in preparing the two focal periods of doing business in Russia that are the main subject of this book. Moreover, a certain agility in moving from employment to self-employment and back at the drop of a hat turned out to be a critically important skill in the 1990s. When I finally was based in Moscow, the business environment was highly volatile, and managers like myself who were hired from outside major corporations to fill a specific need in the company’s entry in the market were highly expendable. We were compensated accordingly, for which I have no regrets or rancor.

For my part, my abandoning an academic career was not irrevocable when I made it. I did not break off correspondence with a publisher over my proposed book on the Tsarist prisons system. And I told myself that my new direction might run for five years or so.

My sponsors at Harvard may have been resentful of my seeming apostasy. I think the word is apt, because in many ways the fraternity of academics was and surely is today a sort of religious order.

But as I maintained correspondence with some and as I rose in stature within Russian business in the 1990s, then attracting a lot of attention on campus, I was eventually invited back to the Russian Research Center to deliver a talk and share impressions of life inside the monster. Associate RRC Director, professor of economics at Wellesley Marshall Goldman was my main contact person and our paths crossed from time to time. At one reunion, I was introduced to outsiders by Ned Keenan as someone who ‘had gone straight.’

To be sure, at the moment of rupture in June 1976 my immediate peers among the aspiring new Ph.D.’s were envious and at times bitchy. For that reason, I told no one exactly who my new employer would be. One fellow RRC nestling who was sailing off to a junior faculty appointment at Southern Methodist University in Texas, a relative plum of a job at that time of meager pickings, took consolation in the fact that I would be earning in my business job virtually the same as he, around $12,000 per annum. Others said it was too bad I had not landed something in the banks, because that is where the big money was to be made. 

Meanwhile, several friends from the graduate school years at Columbia remained with me for life.  One, a Greek American who had done an excellent dissertation on French police control of public opinion during World War One, also could not get off the launching pad and was advised by his highly regarded faculty mentor, Istvan Deak, to consider leaving teaching because of the hopelessness of job placement. Yani eventually moved sidewise into university administration, where he remained to retirement.  Another Landsman, Echeal Segan, moved across to publishing, where he got a coordinator’s position within the Great Soviet Encyclopedia translation project at Macmillan, from which he passed along some casual translation assignments to me. Echeal eventually moved to proofreading at Manhattan law firms.  In short, many of my former classmates found jobs to pay the rent; few made careers.  We stayed in touch and got together at intervals of several years forever thereafter.

Meanwhile, back in 1974-76 the rejection letters in answer to the dozens and dozens of applications that I made for vacancies in full time teaching positions all over the US and abroad, as far afield as the Australian Outback, wore down my nerves.  With Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf on our minds, my wife and I asked ourselves whether we really would want to live in some of the awfully remote and presumably provincial locations to which I was applying and getting rejections.  

In the face of these depressing realities, and considering the ‘publish or perish’ ironclad rule, I decided to turn a number of chapters from my dissertation into articles for the professional journals rather than hold out for the book that could take several years to see print given the also troubled state of the university publishers.  Indeed, a string of my articles did appear very quickly and I was quite proud.  I even went beyond the dissertation manuscript proper and prepared a ground-breaking essay on the 1906 reform of Russian censorship based on the cache of official Russian documents of archival nature that were in the Law School stacks; this was later published in shortened form in the Solzhenitsyn-backed émigré journal Kontinent. However, these achievements did nothing to help me secure a position. Nor did they endear me to my sponsors, who waited for the book.

But this is not the whole story. In general, coming back to Harvard as a postgraduate was an entirely different experience from what I had in the College, and not in the positive sense.  The College was the apple of the eye of the University Administration. The graduate faculties in the arts and sciences were, by comparison, poor relations. Instructors were the intellectual proletariat. And the professorate was arrogant and remote.  Social grace was not the strong suit at the RRC. Its director, Adam Ulam was a bear of a man both physically and by temperament.  Other faculty was not particularly more outgoing.

Finally we put on our glasses, read the handwriting on the wall and decided to clear out.

The result of my redirecting my attention from university postings to the business world was stunning.  I had spent the greater part of three years pursuing illusory opportunities at universities.  In two months I found myself a job in boutique consultancy assisting blue chip U.S. companies to do major industrial projects in the USSR. My wife and I quickly moved down to New York City to an apartment that I rented on the Upper West Side just ahead of the first birthday of our daughter in August 1976.

How do I explain my newfound good fortune?  First, by the ongoing American business interest in entering the Soviet market for which I had very relevant skills. And second, by the opportunism that guided the business decisions of the lady entrepreneur who hired me, as often is the case in small enterprises tightly controlled by the founder.

If I may expand on the first point, it bears mentioning that one of the key elements of Richard Nixon’s policy of détente with the USSR was for American business to develop broad relations with their Russian counterparts. The White House led the way.  To be sure, 1976 was already a bit late in the game.  Stories of deception and losses by the pioneering American companies had already graced the pages of the national business journals.  And the passage of the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the trade bill by Congress in 1974 created a strong obstacle to improved commercial relations with the USSR insofar as this discriminatory legislation made normal commerce dependent on levels of Jewish emigration, a premise which the Soviets rejected publicly even as they compromised over it on the quiet.  Nonetheless, there are always late comers to a party, and even as political relations steadily worsened as the decade wore on there were companies keen to make news and please their shareholders by succeeding in the big emerging market that the Soviet Union represented.

As to the second point, I owed the employment offer to personal chemistry between myself and the charming, strong-willed lady, Bettina Parker, who ran the shop. Here is one of the exceptions to my rule of Harvard having been an obstacle on my way in business.  It was precisely my outstanding academic credentials which motivated her decision to take me on board, not because it spelled competence but because it had snob appeal for the captains of industry among whom she circulated. That and my willingness (read desperation) to accept a pay package that was at the level of clerical help, so as to get a foot in the door and, hopefully, justify a substantial pay rise six months down the road.

 Parker Associates was a “boutique consultancy” in a qualified sense.  Apart from Bettina herself, staff was limited to a handful of helpers.  First among them was the “Vice President” Norma Foerderer who held the fort in the New York office, allowing Bettina to pursue her globe-trotting in the USSR, later also in China, and always in Chicago and U.S. Midwest more generally where many of her core clients had their headquarters. Norma oversaw the accounts and coordinated relations with the Soviet consulate and embassy over visa matters. She also coordinated translations, the printing of brochures and other work related to the presentations that clients made in Moscow.

Then there was the manager of Parker’s accredited office in central Moscow, Tanya Semenenko. The office itself was a rarity at the time and attested to Bettina’s extraordinary success in cultivating high officials of the USSR State Committee for Science and Technology, which at the time, in the 1970s, vied with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and with the many industrial ministries for developing and controlling relationships with potential cooperation partners from among the world’s biggest corporations.

As you will note, Parker’s operation was run and populated by women. I was in practice the first male to be recruited.  Meanwhile, the entire clientele and in particular the corporate backers who made of this tiny consultancy something of great commercial potential – were all male.  Bettina’s physical presence and European charm opened all doors. She was a Dutch national who came to the United States for a business education and stayed.

An article in the London Sunday Times dated 9 February 1975 entitled “One woman’s way through red tape” set out very well what I saw up close sixteen months later:

“If you had glimpsed Bettina Parker snuggling into the collar of her mink coat at Heathrow on Wednesday afternoon, you could have been forgiven for guessing that film star Liv Ullman was trying to pass incognito. Nothing in her appearance, from lilac suede dress to diamond and sapphire rings, would have led you to think she was well-known in the corridors of the Soviet Ministry for Foreign Trade, especially as she is an American. But at 42 Mrs Parker is the doyenne of a specialised bank of people who smooth the way for western businessmen keen to wrest lucrative or prestigious contracts from the Communist governments….

Bettina Parker’s value to her clients lies in preventing strangulation by red tape and she is very unusual in having the approval of the system.”

Parker Associates was “associated” with America’s largest Public Relations and Advertising firm at the time, Burson Marsteller, which invested a substantial amount in her company equity and brought to her its manufacturing clients who wanted hands-on, customized assistance entering the Soviet market.

Though Bettina Parker’s short list of clients on retainer included a couple of manufacturing companies turning out steel products, most were in the food processing industry or agribusiness and had their corporate headquarters in the Chicago area, which is where my first business trip was made just three days after joining the company and starting going through the case files.

Why food processing?  The choice of concentration was surely dictated by considerations of opportunities on both the U.S. and Soviet sides of the equation. As I later learned when I began reading closely Izvestiya and other Soviet media, including specialized journals, increasing the variety and improving the quality of food products available to Soviet consumers was a priority of the latest Five Year Plan. Special attention was drawn to this issue by the catastrophic harvests of the early 1970s which had given rise to a bilateral agreement with the United States regulating long term grain purchases. Insofar as grain was partly directed to animal husbandry, shortages also impacted beef production in the USSR.

The shortfalls had to be made up by importing meat, at still higher cost to hard currency reserves. These factors combined to put in the foreground of attention two ministries that previously were left in the shadows, along with Light Industry and consumer goods generally:  the Food Ministry and the Ministry of Meat and Dairy. Meanwhile, in this period of the mid-1970s on, attention to food production finally put a spotlight on the vast losses the USSR was experiencing in bringing the harvest from the fields to the groceries and urban markets. Conservative estimates in the print media suggested this was in excess of 25%. It was due partly to lack of packaging materials, partly to lack of suitable refrigerated transport, and more generally to lack of vertically integrated supply chains. Incentives were not the issue: at each stage of production and processing they were ample, but none was aligned with what came out at the end – produce on store shelves.

Insofar as the United States was at the time the world leader in food production at a scale comparable to the USSR, it was entirely logical that U.S. industry was a first choice for seeking partners now that the Soviet government was prepared to invest substantially in the sector.  At issue was both equipment and management knowhow. Moreover, the United States was the global innovator in food production. Consumers there had less concern with quality, more concern with quantity and with reduced prices than was true in Europe where demand was less elastic. For these reasons, the U.S. pursued new technologies, particularly in extension of meat products through substitution by soy proteins, a subject that Soviet researchers and production managers followed with great interest.

On the U.S side, Parker saw an opportunity to bring the conservative mid-Western agribusinesses to Moscow, given that by their nature, apart from grain traders, they were laggards in following Nixon’s urging to go out and do business with the Communists in the interests of state-to-state normalization of relations as well as good, old-fashioned profit.

I note here that the above explanation of the business model of Parker Associates is what I came to entirely on my own. At no point did anyone give me an overarching view of what we were doing and why. All that I was told related to Bettina’s personal rapport with the chairmen and CEOs of our client companies on the one hand, and her rapport with the leading personalities in the State Committee for Science and Technology on the Soviet Side, for whom her extravagant manner hit a chord in the Russia psyche.

To a certain extent, the whole scheme of turnkey industrial projects now seems quaint, a relic from the past when the Communist bloc was closed to Western investment. There could be no operating subsidiaries back then. There could not even be representative offices or agencies in the proper sense. All dealings with the capitalist world were at arm’s length.  And yet, I have no doubt that in parts of the world today elements of what I describe here still are practiced.

If I may resume my narrative, to my good fortune, very early in my employment with Parker Associates, I participated, however modestly, in a Soviet turnkey industrial plant project that did go through to completion in December 1976 and brought substantial rewards to several of the players, including my employer, in terms of success fee. The project in question was the plant to produce the powdered infant formula Similac, which was a market leader in the U.S. and globally. The owner of the brand and the technology was and is Abbott Labs with its Ross Laboratories subsidiary in Columbus, Ohio. For the Soviet side, the commercial negotiations were led by the Foreign Trade Organization (FTO) Tekhnopromimport on behalf of the Meat and Dairy Ministry as end user.

Assisting the Abbott Labs project was my very first assignment at Parker which began just days after I came to work. On 5 August, I flew out to their production facility at the Ross Laboratories subsidiary in Columbus, Ohio, where I was acquainted with the whole manufacturing cycle and spoke with the engineers who had drawn up the papers that underlay the technical part of the offer. Then the next day I flew to Chicago, where I spent some time with the head of their legal team going over the principles of the contract and was taken in to see the boss.

In Part III of my book of memoirs, I reproduce my diary entry from this meeting with Abbott Chairman and CEO Edward J. Ledder. Several noteworthy points emerge from this account. First, it is clear that I was being “hired” to serve as the key Russian-English interpreter in their scheduled negotiations a month later, in September. They wanted a full translation of everything said at the table, not the selective translation they believed they had been getting from Parker’s Russian office manager. And after the meeting, they awaited my thoughts on what was going on. This is to say that from the very beginning my role was on a sliding scale in the direction of genuine collegiality and consultancy. Secondly, I point out that I was taken to the CEO directly in what was intended to be a real vetting, not some mere protocol formality.

As it further developed with other clients of Parker and then later with all of my own consulting clients, I was always working with top corporate officers because they were the ones who had taken possession of the Soviet projects, from which big things were expected.

Succeeding at this level assumed a high degree of self-assurance and poise. In this regard, my experience as ‘a master of the universe’ in my undergraduate years at Harvard College served me well, far better than my time among the academic proletariat as a postgraduate fellow.

* * * *

A word is in order on the milieu in which I operated during my Parker apprenticeship, as well as during the follow-on years when I was captain of my ship. First among these was that the Soviet Union was in the 1970s an intimidating place, where we foreigners were under constant surveillance. I understood this right from my very first visit to Parker’s offices in Moscow.  None of our staff were what they appeared to be.  The two drivers attached to the office, Yuri and Volodya, seemed at first acquaintance like pets. They jumped at Tanya’s instructions. They did shopping for the kitchen and spent relatively little time behind the wheel. The whole arrangement bore a resemblance to the archaic Russian nobleman’s establishment with a steward (Tanya), the two coachmen, and a cook (Vera) at the ready.

However, as I detected one evening, one of our drivers stood guard outside our building; and he slinked away after I spotted him.  For her part, Vera acted the simpleton, but that was pure deception. Her questions about the States were too well focused, her literary tastes too well defined for her to be a cook pure and simple. On the whole, I felt I could live with them by throwing out tidbits of information along the way for them to report onwards, by taking their orders for jeans, and by not letting on I knew they knew too much.

The same dance of tarantulas went on with respect to my ‘regular’ drivers hired from the Service Bureau of the Hotel Intourist, where I was installed during most of my trips for Parker. Proof positive of my suspicions came after I left Parker and returned to Moscow several months later as the head of my own business delegation. As my client and I passed in front of the Intourist, one of these former drivers got out of his car and greeted us, proposing to take us on a free of charge excursion around the city, all the better to overhear our conversations and, surely, have material to file.

Agents provocateurs and spies are one thing. The potential for physical violence was also never far off as I was reminded on one of my early trips to Moscow for Parker when I got to know several members of a Finnish youth group who were staying in the same Intourist Hotel as I. One of their group had his front teeth knocked out by an unknown Russian assailant in the hotel elevator. His attempts to file a complaint with the police were not accepted.  What exactly had prompted this I had no idea, but that it was a sinister warning to stay alert and to keep one’s nose clean was certain.

It was years later when I read Martin Cruz Smith’s 1981 suspense novel Gorky Park that I found the sinister atmosphere in Moscow of the second half of the 1970s perfectly captured.  Moreover, by skillful casting in the movie, one of the villains, the American businessman (here a fur trader), John Osborne, was played by Lee Marvin, who bore an uncanny resemblance to the most featured American businessman in the days of détente, Pepsico’s chairman Donald Kendall.  This match never left my mind, although in real life I was an active participant in Kendall’s various undertakings to rally business on behalf of normal relations with Russia and had occasion to see him up close, as noted in a diary extract of Part Three.

Nonetheless, I emphasize that until the very end of détente in 1978, whatever notion we had of possible threats to our personal welfare while on Soviet soil, the authorities did not touch a hair on the head of American and other foreign businessmen. That changed with the arrest of F. Jay Crawford, one of International Harvester’s service technicians in Moscow in June 1978 on charges of currency speculation. He was thrown into the infamous Lefortovo Prison where he was held incommunicado for two weeks. Following representations from the business community and from American diplomacy, Crawford was released and expelled from the country. But this stark change in direction in relations sent a shiver down the spine of all of us engaged in Soviet trade.

©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.]

Pages from the personal archives of a Russianist, installment six

Tête-à- tête with a senior Russian diplomat, Oleg K., in the Hotel National, Moscow for a tour d’horizon, politics, business and personal lives.  24 February 1977

4.00 pm return to the hotel and prepare for meeting with Oleg K., first secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a good friend of Bettina’s. Note – Oleg accompanied [Meat and Dairy] Minister Antonov ‘s delegation on the trip to Swift and Beatrice last summer. Oleg shows up at my room a bit ahead of schedule at 6.15.  Very properly dressed, discreet, Ivy League cut. Soft-spoken. Asks at once about Bettina. Seems very pleased to get the book I have with me. We chat a bit. Obviously he has heard something about me before – his first question concerns my academic background  – what was my specialty? Economics? What degree do I hold?  I explain and then he asks if I went through a dissertation defense and whether it’s like a defense here. Next back to Bettina – what about her new Chinese venture, sale of beer? I reply in the affirmative and then we move on to our comparative tastes in beer. He likes Coors, dislikes beer in cans. Asks how long I’ve been with Bettina, then how long I intend to stay in this field. I say 5 years, and that Bettina herself suggested such a term.

We then leave for the National – I have reserved a table provisionally and we will start at the bar. Both of us take Scotch and once ensconced engage in far ranging discussion. First, he asks whether I do not feel uncomfortable in a new field for which I was not professionally prepared. I reply that I have spent too much time in a field where I had the analytic framework but insufficient raw material so that I would like to gather live data for a while. In the long run, he has pointed out a potential problem but I do intend to study economics on my own and so to become prepared. I explain how historical research was a bear-like existence, how my published articles resulted in only one crank note from a professor emeritus, and how it is good to be part of something vital. Also, that I feel I can make a strong contribution to my work by bringing an analytical eye and an open mind; this is important since the companies we deal with are overloaded with sincere and conscientious engineers who are incompetent salesmen in the international arena.

Next we turn to US politics and Carter, whom Oleg types as a student of Rickover, captive of the Jewish lobby and of the Trilateral Commission which preceded his candidacy. Oleg is very well informed on Washington doings and obviously enjoys the opportunity to discuss his ideas in English, to which we have now switched. A determinist, Oleg looks to economic factions and interests to explain the moment. Says Carter’s embracing dissidents and letter to Sakharov are really causing consternation here and indicate that the upcoming Belgrade meeting the US will take very hard line. Does not blame Brzezinski or Schulman personally, sees their conduct as following from the official position.

I say it’s a pity linkage theory shelved, but you must understand that some things Kissinger did had to summon a reaction. I relate to Oleg the whole talk Sonnenfeldt gave us at Harvard: the notion of accommodation now that Russia is emerging as an imperial power on the world scale, leaving its geopolitical interests and moving into Africa, South America, etc; the idea that at each time in history when such a new imperial power emerges there are tensions as it seeks membership in the imperial club; notion that in the interests of world peace we in US should make room for the Russians and admit them to the club as equals. Oleg listens with obvious interest. He has spoken to Sonnenfeldt on his own, and what I am saying appears new to him, but he does not deny its veracity. Instead, he takes issue with the concept which I introduced as not very flattering in address to the USSR and not very appealing to a patriotic US audience.

Oleg calmly denies that an imperial club exists, still less that Russia would seek membership. He says that talk of the USSR posing a military threat to the US is absurd, since their economy is one third of ours and in modern times what counts is economics and technical might. I respond – yes, so we thought till recently. But it has been the realization that the technological balance has changed, combined with the Soviet preponderance in numbers that has reopened the whole question of our relative security. I say that the whole recent debate on military strength has been predicated on the growing realization that old reasons for smugness are disappearing and that at a certain point numerical advantage becomes qualitative advantage. I say that, of course, this is only an opinion based on what is in the press, not on inside or privy information – that I have not contributed to Foreign Affairs. With calm, reassuring words, Oleg responds: ‘you will.’

Turning again to my career, Oleg supposes that by age 40 I’ll be back in academia, asks if I won’t be rusty. I say it is doubtful I will have missed much during my absence and that in any case, I will not be returning to the pre-Revolutionary period, rather to what I am learning now. We finish our drinks and go over to the restaurant where our table has been reserved. Seeing my calling card on the table, Oleg says he sees the Parker name carries weight here. The dinner is relaxed, over two bottles of Tsinandali, and we discuss both politics and personal fortunes. Oleg has visited most Soviet embassies abroad, is very well traveled and urbane.

He says that earlier his dream was to go to the virgin forests with a rifle in hand and live the wild life; that now, however, he has become urbanized, though he is very happy to talk of his experiences in the Far East, Vladivostok region in the postwar period. Father apparently was stationed there in the garrison. Looks about 37-39, a bachelor. Says he has a taste for English girls. I comment that this is understandable, since they, like Russian girls are very strong. He agrees, saying that when you leave an English girl there are no storms and crises – you part as equals. Seems proud to be talking from experience.

I ask permission to be a bit indiscreet and inquire of their thoughts on Ford, wasn’t he really a dolt. Oleg reports that they did respect him here – that the main thing was his willingness to learn; that what one wants from a chief is decency and Ford was decent. Earlier I had suggested that Carter’s fuss over Soviet dissidents was a smoke screen to cloud his pardon of Vietnam resisters, a very unpopular move on the right; however, Oleg declined to see it as a purely domestic matter.

On the way over to the National, I mentioned my Russian marriage. Now he asks quietly ‘was it difficult?’  I say it was not and the subject is closed. Oleg returns several times to the Jewish lobby – says he’s spoken to Vanek and they have found common language – same was true of Javits. I say this shows all the more that there is a political clout behind the public stands taken and that Russians cannot ignore these chords which find deep response in the USA. Earlier while at the bar Oleg reminded me that Russians never stood for pogroms, that these were special circumstances. I agree, while he is staring directly at me.

I ask why Russians take Harriman so seriously. Oleg also wonders about this, hints that Harriman was never such a good friend. I respond that having seen documents at Columbia I know Harriman was in ’43-44 one of those most responsible for worsening of tensions, that his word was heeded all the more because he had not been associated earlier with the anti-Russian Riga school of diplomats.

We discuss the Kennan Institute, about which Oleg has evidently heard.  He is interested to learn that Princeton is behind this and that its objective has been to bring scholars, business and government together. I tell about recent conferences of journalists stationed in the USSR since WWII and he wants to know of the aim was strictly historical – I answer in the affirmative. I tell him what it was like to graduate from Harvard in 1967, the age of Kennedy and Harvard ties. He is interested.

Oleg talks at length about virgin forests and hunting. I turn the discussion to problems of trade, explain how major US companies are fully aware of the difficulties of doing business here, especially the fact that no one will put up money for the engineering that goes into a proposal – and I ask Oleg what he would say to them if he were in my place to encourage them to come here. He says the following: that one deal leads to another and that there will be much business for them to do here. He says the USSR doesn’t seek credits – knows full well that they have to be repaid sometime. The chief key to foreign trade is political – the nature of our state relations. I say that in American academic circles there is the feeling that Russia has not shown good faith in détente because it has not committed resources to export-oriented industries. Oleg responds that it has shown good faith by taking the time and effort to deal directly with US parent companies whereas they could just as easily deal only with the European subsidiaries as has in the past. Then I respond that this favor not evident when we are negotiating at the Foreign Trade Ministry and must show that it is cheaper to buy US than to buy European.

I mention concern of US companies for up-front money before undertaking project design – how they have been burned, spending up to 500,000 on such proposals only to receive noncommittal thanks from a ministry leading to nothing. I ask about the Bendix deal – resale of product to the West. Oleg suggests this is definitely an indication of things to come, that such an export potential is a very important consideration.

Oleg speaks very highly of Bettina – respects her role in the Similac deal, putting together so many disparate pairs to bring it off. As to Similac itself, he expresses surprise that the Soviets bought it, doubting it was really needed. I say that from my experience it is necessary. Moreover, the related product which, peculiarly was not sold here – Isomil and Pedialyte – would be still more valuable because they overcome a very difficult problem of the child who cannot accept milk based formulae.  Oleg states proudly that Russian products still are unspoiled, unadulterated.

I respond by saying that when I last came over I passed through Geneva in the Christmas season. I was bringing Beatrice and their rather commonplace US sausage products and here in Geneva I saw so much very superior, mouth-watering products.  But those products are expensive and you cannot feed a nation of 250 million persons on sausage that costs $10/lb. Oleg agrees – says, yes, must produce much average product and only a limited amount of luxury items.  He himself was amazed to find when touring Safonov’s plant that very high quality beef pieces went into sausage. I say, yes, and there is overall a failure to categorize beef and utilize it more rationally. We discuss chicken and I remark that its cost ratio to beef should be 1:4 whereas here it is 2:1.  Oleg replies that here the price is kept artificially high to subsidize beef production. We part at 11.15 pm – take a short stroll up Gorky. He seems genuinely pleased with the meeting and opportunity to talk politics.

PS – Who is who

Bettina….Parker, chief executive of the New York based consultancy Parker Associates, my employer from August 1976 to June 1977

Averell Harriman – Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to Stalin during WWII,  later governor of New York State, still an iconic figure in US-Soviet relations in the late 1970s

Marshall Shulman – US diplomat, scholar, founding director of the Harriman Institute of Russian studies at Columbia University

Helmut Sonnenfeldt – foreign policy expert, staff member of the National Security Council, served under Henry Kissinger with whom his is closely associated as strategist

Charles Vanik – member of the House of Representatives, co-sponsor with Henry Jackson of an amendment to the 1974 trade bill which made Soviet release of Jews wishing to emigrate a condition for normal commercial relations

Jacob Javits – US Senator from New York State

©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.]