I thought the Soviet study trip was a one-off affair until Anatoly
Zayatsky telephoned one day in 1982. How would I like to bring another
This time there was no struggle over our going. The
Soviets were still in Afghanistan, but after the Olympic boycott that
fact became part of the wallpaper. The deterioration in bilateral
relations were being helped by some anecdotal events: Ronald Reagan’s
voice test quip over an open radio microphone about bombing the Soviet
Union in five minutes and his “evil empire” speech. Learning and
dialogue were even more appropriate.
That did not mean we would arrive in Moscow without
incident. After the Transatlantic flight to Brussels, the group was
told there would be a delay while the Aeroflot plane went to Toulouse
in France to collect some passengers stranded by the mechanical
breakdown of another flight the day before. It meant a delay of five
On arrival in Moscow we were told that instead of
the Sputnik we’d be staying in the Central Tourist House, and as we
entered the hotel I was asked to have people choose roommates. This was
no longer the "first American trade union delegation" and the days of
single room privileges were over.
By this time it was well after midnight. People had
been flying the previous day and all night, they had sat in the
Brussels airport for hours before another long flight to Moscow. In the
Soviet Union, however, the plan is the plan. We were directed to the
dining room for our welcome banquet and all the toasts that go with it.
We had to get well into the ceremony before I could plead for mercy and
sleep on behalf of those no longer able to hold their heads up.
The Central Tourist House was a thirty-five story hotel, restaurant and
theater complex that also belonged to the trade unions. Its size may
have been intimidating and its modernity less homey, but I felt an
uprooting from the familiarity of the Sputnik As usual, the desk for
the floor lady was placed where anybody arriving could be seen. The
difference was that one of the shifts on our floor belonged to a woman
of twenty-four, not the typical retiree who held those positions.
I chatted with Lucy in minimal English and Russian.
“You’re the head of the delegation, aren’t you?”she asked. “It says in
the register that I am supposed to give you special treatment.”
“What is special treatment?”
Lucy held both hands up to her eyes to form
binoculars . . . and laughed. It was a Soviet pastime to exploit
foreigners’ paranoia about always being spied upon?
When she learned I had no plans for the next
evening, she invited me home for dinner. “My parents will be out.” This
was a key consideration. Lucy’s father was an army general, so except
for her work, she was not supposed to have contact with foreigners.
I followed directions to get to the other side of
the huge city, but I had no experience with Moscow addresses. From one
house number to the next could be a very large distance because several
buildings (corpuses) could belong to each number, marked or not. One or
more of them might not even seem to be on the same street. Each
building could have many entrances, and there was no guarantee
apartment numbers would be marked on the doors, let alone names.
Lucy was waiting on the street and we started toward
a complex of buildings. Then (the soon to be familiar): “No more
English until we are inside.”
The contradictions typical of Russia were immediate.
The first thing I noticed in my first Soviet apartment was the framed
photograph of Stalin in the living room. This general was unaware that
history had been revised sixteen years before. Two generations
co-existed in that flat because Lucy’s room was a complete contrast. On
the wall was a large poster of a rock star from Estonia, who was under
a one-year ban from playing in concerts because his music went too far
and who happened to be Lucy's boyfriend. She herself composed rock
songs and played the latest for me on her piano. I didn’t ask if was
any of her numbers that got her friend in trouble.
On my way, I had stopped in a Beriozka shop (sales
only in hard currency and off-limits to Soviet citizens) to buy a tin
of Danish ham. Meat was scarce, but not for dollars. Lucy had made
boiled potatoes with cream (smetana). Through an unspoken
understanding, a full meal had been composed. I had also brought a
small bottle of vodka for the toasts that belonged with a Russian meal.
I left rather early, but just early enough as it
turned out. The next day at the hotel Lucy asked if by chance I had met
her parents. “They came in three minutes after you left.” She thought
the close shave was very funny. I imagined unimaginable consequences
had the Stalin-admiring general found an American in his home.
The Central Tourist House did not have a place like the Sputnik
mezzanine where foreign delegations took meals. This diluted the
opportunities to meet people from countries or social and political
groups not likely (or allowed) to turn up in the United States or to
travel abroad at all. At the time, that meant Vietnam, Angola,
Madagascar, Syria. One day, however, I happened to be sitting in the
floor lounge when several Cambodians invited me for a drink. They
didn’t know me, but may have felt that going into their room with a
bottle and not offering to share it with whoever was around would
probably have been impolite.
We struggled to communicate using the few English,
French and Russian words we had in common and we had already been
through one toast and were in the middle of another when I was asked
for a second time from where I came. This time “America”got through.
They all froze, glasses aloft, then slowly looked at each other for
guidance of what to do faced with the enemy who had carpet-bombed their
country. Finally, one made a gesture that said, “what-the-hell,” and we
all broke into smiles and drank to friendship.
That year we made the first trip to Vladimir and Suzdal on the
historical Golden Ring of settlements, including Moscow, founded in the
twelfth century. Vladimir had a population of a few hundred thousand
and a variety of industries in addition to its old churches and
monasteries, while Suzdal was a small preserved museum town.
Our host then and in the future was Nikolai
Beshchekov, a trade union and Party stalwart who relaxed by kick-boxing.
Besides tourism, we had certain “obligations” to perform. On the
outskirts of Vladimir was the regional residential trade union center,
a nine-story building set in a field that could house and feed a couple
hundred people and was well equipped with classrooms, conference rooms,
an auditorium, a gym and sauna. The Higher Trade Union School in Moscow
was largely for people studying four years for a higher diploma. This
center provided continuing education lasting days or weeks.
After a “brief” introduction to the regional economy
and the nth explanation of the five functions of Soviet trade unions,
we toured the building. The teaching staff was particularly proud of
two modern pedagogical instruments.
The first was the electronic monitoring of progress.
Each student had a set of buttons on his desk that were connected to a
meter on the lectern. The idea was that the teacher would stop
periodically in his lecture to ask a question with multiple choice
answers. The students would press a button and the sum of the correct
answers would appear on the meter. If this figure reached seventy per
cent, the teacher would continue. If the figure was below this, it
meant he had not sufficiently explained the topic and he would go over
The second was a set of sliding panels along the
classroom walls. Each contained drawings and graphs and could be pulled
out to illustrate the point being made.
On the face of it these techniques were helpful
devices, though both carried the implicit assumption that the education
being given had only right and wrong answers, and the permanence of the
panels suggested that nothing changed from one year to the next. We
were never told what happened to the up to thirty per cent of students
who pushed the wrong buttons and would get left behind as the lecture
Our hotel restaurant in Vladimir seemed one of the
few places in town where young people might come and dance. There was
always a queue at the door and a matronly lady who looked them over and
decided who could enter. Some of our group joined in the dancing, with
each other and with the Russians.
Vladimir was Alexei Zhinkin’s home town and he had
come along on this trip. Our people wanted to socialize and Zhinkin
thought they should, but he wandered around the dance floor like a
mother hen discouraging anything too close or long-term. While he was
preoccupied making sure discretion was practiced, one of his charges
Ivan--I’ll call him that because of his Russian
heritage--became friendly with a couple and a woman friend of theirs.
After some time, they suggested leaving the hotel and going to their
home for a drink and to chat. Ivan, the first of the group lucky enough
to get such an invitation in those early years, accepted. The
conversation lasted until late. At one a.m., the couple said they were
tired and going to bed. Ivan felt the same and said he’d be going back
to the hotel. “You can’t do that,” they told him. “Don’t you know the
hotel locks the doors at night? Sleep here and you can go back in the
morning.” Ivan could not know the story wasn’t true, and agreed.
As soon as the couple had gone to their room, the
extra lady began to undress. “No, no!” Ivan protested, explaining his
loyal married state. Strange American. She left him alone to come back
whole in the morning.
Leningrad was the familiar Astoria Hotel and tourist sites. The
difference in the Hermitage was a temporary exhibition of works of the
Ecuadorian artist, Oswaldo Guayasamin. I also went to the far end of
the long series of rooms on the top floor that housed the Impressionist
and more modern collections. If one went out the door at the far end to
a nearly unused staircase, there was a small space, not a room, to the
right where the Kandinskys were hanging. His existence couldn’t be
ignored and the Hermitage could say he was in their collection, but
finding and looking at the paintings felt a little like an act of
We continued by night train to Tallinn, waking up in a “Western” city
with the charm of old buildings and a feeling that things worked. Our
hotel had been built by the Finns, in the sparse graceful lines of
modern Scandinavian design. It was also populated by Finns on weekends,
and our stay included one. They came by ferry for two days of cheap
vodka, and by Sunday they had to be dodged on the sidewalks. In the
confines of the hotel elevators, agility was less of a defense. Finns
were big and on Sunday they always seemed on the verge of collapsing in
stupor on a fellow passenger.
Our hosts from the local trade unions spoke to us in
Russian, not Estonian. At the first meeting, and before anybody asked,
they explained that whatever we might have heard about Estonia being
illegally incorporated into the Soviet Union or about Estonians being
unhappy about it, was wrong. The truth was that they were grateful at
having been saved from the German fascists by the Red Army. A more
basic assertion, that the Baltic countries had been under dominance of
the Russian Empire long before there was such a thing as Soviet power,
would have been difficult to contest. The question of how their brief
independence ended in 1940 was more tricky because final proof of the
existence of the secret clauses of the Ribbentrop-Molotov
(Hitler-Stalin) Pact was years away.
One day we were taken on a long ride to Khotla-Jarva
for a descent into a shale mine. We dressed in miner’s pants and
jackets, put on hard hats with lamps, descended by elevator and
penetrated several kilometers horizontally by rail cart to the mine
face. Oil was extracted from the shale and the residue was used in road
construction, we were told. Compared to the expectations of people
unfamiliar with mines, the atmosphere was almost pleasant.
The next day we visited a dairy farm. We received a
good explanation standing outside, but were told health regulations
would not allow us to enter the barns to see the cows. We would have
had to shower and be dressed in white sterile uniforms. I recalled our
trek in street clothes through the operating room in the Tashkent
hospital in 1980. Cows in Estonia, patients in Uzbekistan:
Outside were many tractors, new and brightly
painted, but mounted on blocks. We didn’t learn why they weren’t used.
One of our Moscow interpreters had another
commitment and could not accompany us on the trip. Her substitute was
Natasha, a tall, shy goddess with Godiva’s long hair. Our Ivan was
tall, too, so he fell from a great height. Their almost platonic affair
was endearing as they held hands and spoke few words during the long
train ride home.
Natasha was a complication in Ivan’s embryonic plans
to solve what didn’t work in America. Ivan was a victim of the
recession of the early 1980s, laid off from his factory job and working
in a store for much lower wages in order to support his family. The
biggest stress was a seven-year-old daughter with an illness that
required expensive medication. Loss of his job meant loss of health
coverage, so Ivan sometimes had to skip meals in order to pay for
If America hadn’t the wherewithal to allow him to do
honest work and protect his daughter, he was ready to overlook the
deficiencies of the Soviet Union and bring his family to where there
would at least always be a job and access to medical care. In the
language of the day, Ivan was ready to “defect.” Natasha was the
beginning of emotional roots, but incompatible with moving his whole
The major trip was to Tbilisi, the capital of Soviet Georgia. We heard
about the Republic’s contribution to the economy, visited a crowded
functioning church and left the city for an excursion to the ruins of
Mskhetia, but the overwhelming memory was of food and wine.
Georgian cuisine is a festival of sauces, spices,
herbs, meats, vegetables, cheeses. Countless dishes make up these
zakuski, and after a couple hours of sampling them the main course of a
large shashlik is brought in as an afterthought. Consuming a Georgian
meal is a ritual.
We were late arriving at the trade union rest center
from our trip to Mskhetia. It was almost three p.m., and the time would
play a role. The dining room with the well-laden horseshoe-shaped table
looked out over a small lake.
A meal in the Caucasus has a president, called the tamada. In Russia, toasts are made
with vodka and after the ones by the host and main guest everybody is
free to propose them. In Georgia, there are traditionally twenty-four
toasts during a meal, made with red wine, a full glass at a time, and
only by the tamada (who never gets drunk), until the final one of
thanks by the guests. We, however, were promised thirty because we were
the "first American trade union delegation” to come to Georgia.
The Georgian toast is a flowery and often clever
speech that may or may not have a conclusion. If it does not, or if the
point has been forgotten, it may abruptly end with, “And so, let’s
drink.” Toasts to women require that men stand and invert their empty
glasses at the end, making it much more difficult to cheat. In the
egalitarian spirit of the times, the American women tried to
reciprocate, to stand and propose a toast to the seated men. They had
no chance to succeed; the Georgians always bounded to their feet. They
were willing to tolerate the novelty of women toasting men and even the
interruption of the tamada’s duties, but nothing would permit them to
insult women by sitting while they were standing.
My own situation was untenable. In Russia, it was
possible to simulate vodka with plain water, but that didn't work with
red wine. As head of the group, I was seated to the right of the
tamada. No matter how I tried, he claimed I was not drinking. Sure
enough, each time I turned my head to listen to his reproaches the
Georgian on my right filled my glass, and that was motivation enough
for the tamada to say it was time for another toast.
It was half past six when we returned to the hotel.
The instructions were to rest [sic] . . . and be downstairs for supper
in thirty minutes. The two unconscious members of the group escaped
We were taken across the river to the Hunter’s Lodge
restaurant, an old mansion, and shown to a room where the table was set
for another feast. Same group. New tamada. A distinct disadvantage.
We settled into the excellent food and twenty-four
more toasts. We thought we had achieved a victory of sorts by reaching
the end of the meal, but the Georgians had another tradition to teach
us. A large horn-of-plenty was taken down from the wall, filled with at
least ten liters of wine and passed around the table. It could not be
put down or the wine would spill out. Round and round it went--or we
went--it was getting hard to tell the difference. The usual chattering
of the youngest member of our group stopped abruptly as she slipped
toward the floor and into a deep sleep.
The novelty was strolling musicians playing the
energetic songs of the region. Carl Watts, our Canadian-born
interpreter, had traveled with us; he got up to dance. Quiet, urbane
Carl. Arms outstretched, feet scissoring swiftly, tense face bursting
into an occasional whoop, a dervish. We were free to invent the
pressures for which this was his outlet.
The horn was at last empty. We were ready to go, but
surely the distinguished guests would not leave without trying cha-chi?
The nearly pure alcohol, an eau de vie from the gentiane plant,
was poured into small glass, fire to clear away the weight of all the
At last we could sleep. The next morning, which came
quickly, we helped/carried each other onto the plane to Moscow.
Once more we invited the Soviet side for an exchange visit. The housing
with families was arranged and transportation organized, the
educational program was planned, the mayor of Detroit would hold a
reception at his residence. This time the State Department waited until
the day before the flight to issue its visa denial. Russians give gifts
when they travel. They had all been bought and had to be unpacked along
with the rest of the baggage.
I took advantage of a trip to Washington to chat
with Gladys Hickerson, then responsible at the State Department for
Soviet exchange programs. She had plenty of time to talk because there
hadn’t been much exchanging since Afghanistan.
The AFL-CIO oversaw the State Department to prevent
any visa being granted to a person associated with the Soviet trade
unions. Ronald Reagan could not suffer unions–he proved that during the
air controllers’ strike–but throwing a bone to organized labor that
involved keeping some communists off American soil was no sacrifice to
his anti-union convictions.
One person had slipped through this surveillance,
Ruben Grigoryan. He couldn’t easily be kept out of the country when
doing a tour of duty at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, but once made
a visit as a “civilian.” On his visa application he gave his occupation
as, “international labor specialist,” and got in. It was said the
AFL-CIO was furious at the oversight. One other person was admitted
when singer Theodore Bickel, a union member, intervened on his behalf
directly with Secretary of State George Schultz. The denial of visas at
the last minute was deliberate policy in this game.
Hickerson could not offer any hope that policy would
change or that anything but a direct order from Secretary Schultz would
cause visas to be issued. What she could do was give an assessment of
the situation before we issued any future invitation. At least the
humiliation and disappointment to Soviet group members would be avoided.
I went to pay a courtesy visit on Vladimir Nikitin.
The Soviet Embassy was just down the street from AFL-CIO headquarters.
As I arrived at the front door on foot, a black limousine pulled into
the driveway. When the Embassy door opened, I announced myself. “Please
tell Mr. Nikitin that Eric Fenster is here.”
It was the turn of the tall man in the dark suit
from the limousine, who put me in my place. “Please tell the ambassador
that David Kendall is here.”
Davis Kendall was president of Pepsi Cola. That soft
drink’s history in the Soviet Union went back to the 1958 American
exhibition in Moscow when Vice President Nixon maneuvered a glass of it
into the hands of Nikita Khrushchev so that a photo could be taken. The
story went that Pepsi’s gratitude translated into contributions to
Republican presidential campaigns, while Coca Cola was the Democratic
soft drink and made its communist country debut in China. For years,
Pepsi was traded for Stolichnaya vodka. There was always Pepsi on the
table during our meals at the Sputnik Hotel, but also Fanta, Coke’s
back door into the Soviet market. Fanta was also sold on Moscow streets
by the paper cup. Once a Soviet interpreter innocently offered me a
drink from one of these stands. It was watered down and tasteless.
“Yes, you get the real thing in the hotel. I just wanted you to know
the version Soviet people get. This is how they think of us.”
There was a small room with a couch and coffee table
off the vestibule at the Embassy entrance. I was shown in there to wait
for Nikitin. The second door opened for Mr. Kendall and he was taken
upstairs to Ambassador Dobrynin’s office. It was a spontaneous
demonstration of who was who.
Further proof came after some discussion when I had
to go to the toilet. Nikitin gave me a quick glance which seemed to say
that he recognized it was a reasonable request but that he would rather
not have to confront the necessary procedures for permission. He
disappeared, then came back with the good news that dispensation was
granted provided that I be accompanied door to door. Kendall was up
there with the Ambassador, probably alone. Who knows what he might do?
Yet my trip from the entrance to the toilet seemed a greater threat to
Soviet security. (They behave the same way in American embassies, by
the way. I remember the concern of our escort in Paris, an
attaché, because in going from the US embassy’s entrance to a
meeting room he could not see our entire group the whole time we were
on the staircase.)
Enough of diplomatic nuances. What happened to Ivan? It was completely
consistent with his inability to dissimulate what troubled his Russian
soul that when he wrote his journal he included the story of Natasha
and then gave the journal to his wife to read. It took months to get
from the separation proceedings that ensued to a reconciliation.