Archive for December, 2011

The History of Travel Part II or My Travels as a Fellow Traveler

Posted in Babushka, Brezhnev, Dr. Zhivago, Leningrad, Levi 501, Soviet Union on December 25, 2011 by smpiv


My fascination with the Soviet Union goes back so far that I don’t have any recollection of what or when it all began.

My passionate cover to cover reading of Aviation Week and Proceedings may have had something to do with it, but beyond that I can’t even generate a decent list of maybes I’m so unsure of it.  Suffice to say that I did.

It would be this passion that ultimately led to an interview with the CIA at the Roslyn Marriott overlooking the Potomac with Burl Ives and Wally Peeples.  I’m serious; the interviewers looked like Burl Ives and Wally Peeples.  Burl Ives was the jolly one, jovial, congenial, put you at ease sort of guy, while Wally was very buttoned up and impassive.  No doubt he was there to do the psychological profile.

Initially I couldn’t quite take the interview seriously because of the way they looked, but a few minutes into the interview a key turned in the door.   The jingle of the keys danced on the other side of the door and Wally moved quickly–much faster than the real Wally would have moved–for the door, while Burl used his girth to shield me from the door.  It turned out to be a maid, but these guys even in the interview stage, weren’t going to compromise me.  They were serious.

The interview was more like a test than an interview.  A few months before the interview I had been given a reading list of twenty books.  All to be read for the interview and I dutifully read them.  I was quizzed on what I had read and corrected several times on the difference between an agent and an operative.

Having cleared that hurdle I was asked what area of the world I would like to serve in.  Eastern Europe I said, the Soviet Union in particular.

“That being the case, what do think of the Afghanistan situation?” asked Mr. Ives.

Up to this point Burl and Wally had been intent on me.  Burl pulling it out and Wally examining it.

“Well, I think the Soviets have made a grave error.  They have underestimated the Afghanis and denied hundreds of years of history that has seen one conqueror, invader, or empire builder defeated.  This is their Vietnam.”  I paraphrase my response mostly because I can’t remember the particulars and it was much longer than what I report here, but that was the gist of it.

Burl and Wally exchanged glances, looked at me and then exchanged glances again.  This was the early eighties, the Soviets had invaded in 1979, Carter had boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, and the Soviet Army had been laying waste to the Afghan countryside.   There were no signs that the Afghanis had a chance at the time, just that it was one more domino, thus my answer made them blink.

The interview went on for another few minutes.  Questions about drug use (some), hobbies (yes), language skills (I lied here, said I had a flair for languages–I have none), and thank you for your time.

Like many of my blogs before, I’ve skipped ahead–this is a travel story after all.

So let’s go back a couple years before this interview.  The year is 1978.

II Getting There


I’d been there several times but never to stay.  I was always in transit and the first leg of our journey to Leningrad would be no different.

Mark and I left Carmarthen for Cardiff where we would pick up the HST for London late in the afternoon the day before we were to leave on an Aeroflot flight out of Gatwick.  It was early evening when we arrived at Paddington Station.  We would leave from Victoria Station early the next morning for Gatwick.

Ever on a budget, Mark and I needed to find a hotel as close to Victoria Station as possible for as little money as possible.  Like many cities London has travel bureaus that are there to help wayward travelers like us find accommodations and we found one soon enough.

We waited briefly in a short queue for our turn.  We related our needs to a very officious young man who looked down at us along a very long nose.  He seemed very well turned out for his position, very trim, very starched and his movements were so austere that his body seemed to float inside his clothes.  Not a wrinkle to hint at his presence.

He drew a deep breath, far too much air to add, “A moment, please.”

He turned and picked up a phone.

“Mmm.  Yes.  Quite.  Yes.  Cheers.”

He turned back to us.

“Twelve blocks east, The Georgian, 10 pounds for the night—-each.”

The poor man’s going rate for a B&B at the time was three pounds a night, so we drew a deep breath where our officious friend had left off.

“OK, thanks, ta,” we both mumbled, not quite in sync.

We made our way for the door past a queue that had grown quite dramatically while we had taken our turn.  As we passed out the door and it sighed itself shut, Mark turned and said dramatically,

“Follow my lead,” and he turned back through the door into the travel bureau, me in tow repeating a mantra I would use later to more desperate use, “Oh God, Oh God,” as we passed the ever growing queue.

I did my best to look confident and to follow Mark’s lead.  And, as I was looking at his back, I had no idea what that lead might be.  We came to an abrupt halt at the counter we had just left and Mark slammed his fist on that counter.

“I didn’t want to do this.  I wanted to be like everyone else, just another traveler in need of assistance, but now I must insist.  Our parents are with the State Department and we are to be in Leningrad tomorrow afternoon.  If we were to miss our flight from Gatwick, because someone couldn’t get us near enough the station to comfortably catch our train for the airport, that someone would be in serious trouble!”

That’s the lead.  Oh God, we’re dead in the water.  No one would buy that and what could the American State Department do about it anyway?

Our officious friend wrinkled.  He didn’t know which way to turn and his eyes blinked at an incredible rate.

“Why didn’t you say so?  I am so sorry, please, another moment,” his voice had gone up an octave and his cadence picked up speed and I think his accent went a bit Cockney.

To the phone again; “George?  Any rooms?  How much? No, George.  No, George.  That’ll do George.  Ta, George.”

Putting his accent back in place and a bit of his composure he said, “You’ll be a block from the station at the very pristine rate of four pound for the night….each,” he added triumphantly as he regained a bit of his composure.

III The Flight

My mother told me years ago that my first airline flight was on a DC-6 to Washington DC.  I don’t remember where it originated.  It could have been from any number or places since my Dad was in the Navy and we moved around quite a bit.  I was an infant and, needless to say, I probably made some other air traveler miserable.

The first flights I do remember were cross country flights out of LAX to Dulles and vice versa.  Those were in the early seventies when the major carriers still flew 747s, DC-10s and, my personal favorite, the L-1011 on cross country flights.  They were big and usually half empty.  Air travel at that time was still a minor luxury, so we always dressed up and we were always on our best behavior.

When we boarded we were greeted and made to feel welcome by the stewardesses (yes they were stewardesses not flight attendants) who had to be within a pound or two of an ideal weight and rarely much into their twenties.  To my teenage eyes they were all beautiful. We were also handed a menu for the in flight meal and we weren’t even in first class.

My first overseas flight was to Britain on a miserably overcrowded 747 into Heathrow and I think it was the first time I heard the term “cattle-class”.  The seats were cramped, the seat back trays were ill fitting and turbulence would set any number of them into the laps of unsuspecting passengers.

I was cramped yes, but I was also excited, nervous and scared for the coming year abroad.  At eighteen I was quite confident that my American English would serve me just fine on the other side of the pond.

In any case as Mark and I made our way by train to Gatwick for our flight to Leningrad I felt I was a seasoned air traveler.  We would be flying on an Aeroflot Il-62.

This would be my second time on this type aircraft.  The first time it had sat on the tarmac at the Paris Air Show in 1965 as shiny as a new penny.  My brother, mother and I were working our way through Europe following my father’s ASW carrier, the Randolph, around the Med.  I was six, my brother just five.  Like early memories this one is spotty.  Easily the most memorable part of the trip was getting back and forth to Europe on an Italian coal ship, the Simonetta.  It took two weeks out of Norfolk to Genoa and then back again.

The other highlight that sticks out is the Paris Air Show.  In particular were the Soviet aircraft.  Not that they were any more shiny or special than anything else that was there, but the Soviet crews were by far the friendliest when it came to children.  Other countries were very uptight about children and made sure you enjoyed at a distance.  The Soviets literally grabbed you off the tarmac, up the stair and into the cockpit.  Push this, pull that, all the time gabbing away in Russian and very good English.  The Il-62 was one of them.

For the longest time I had a pin of that plane that the crew gave me.  The Soviets are pathological about pins and medals.  If it didn’t have a pin or medal, well, it might as well have never happened.  When Mark and I finally arrived in the Soviet Union there were street kiosks with nothing but medals and pins.

So for the second time, this time at Gatwick, I ascended a rolling stair onto an Aeroflot Il-62.  This one was as new as the one in Paris.  The pilot and crew were just as gregarious and welcomed us all onto our flight.  I managed to end up in the first class cabin, but this flight didn’t have any such distinction of service, it was just my place in line when I got on.

For anyone remotely familiar with the Soviet Union it will come as no surprise that anyone trained as a pilot is a military one.  As we rolled on the taxi way for our turn for take-off it was a very brisk and precise pace.  Take-off was throttles toward Military max and then straight up–slight exaggeration but not by much.  Our turns at the front and backend of the flight were, again, precise and fast.  No casual, terrain gobbling, one-g turn, nope, butts stuck on the seat and steep.  It was fun.

The in flight service was, well, let’s say it was precise and fast as well.  The head stewardess made announcements in a variety of languages.  She then pulled back the curtain and there stood one very thick and sturdy Bolshevik.  Her Aeroflot issued, light blue, pill box hat sat firmly, but precariously on top of her very large head.  Her shoes were sensible.

She made her way down the aisle, while several others, less massive, but no less sensible stewardesses made their way down the aisles as well.   Caviar and Vodka–that was it and no seconds.  Service over, the curtain pulled and they were gone.  No in flight magazines, no peanuts, no pillow fluffing, just your own thoughts that would begin their first descent into paranoia.  Are they listening?  Are they watching?  Are my hands in view doing innocent things?

I’m not kidding.  So, please, buckle your seat belt as we make our final approach into Leningrad.  Welcome to the Soviet Union.

IV Leningrad

We were warned that the Soviets take their red-tape (no pun intended) very seriously, so like making your way through a line to make an order from the soup-Nazi you were silent and only spoke when absolutely necessary.

First stop was a passport check.  Passport handed over to a baby faced, but very stern, man behind a counter.  He stared impassively and immobile, except for his eyes, that darted back and forth across a screen.  It seemed to take forever and then in one swift motion he stamped my passport.  Just as quickly he handed it to me.

Next stop was customs, the bag check.  They were very thorough as they made their way through my bag.  I hoped they wouldn’t recognize my Levi 501s for the contraband that they were to be.  We all had trade goods as our professor had warned us that much of what we took for granted was very valuable to the average Russian.  Levis, particularly 501s, was one such trinket.

My bag made it with no worries, but the man behind me was not so lucky.  The customs lady quickly found his stash of Bibles.  He was literally walked back out onto the tarmac and onto a plane that was taking on passengers.

And finally to the money changer.  The Soviet system at the time was a closed economy so you changed your money at the door so to speak.  One hundred dollars for what passed for that in Rubles and Kopeks, Lenin’s profile defiantly with his nose in the air, defying any five year plan to fail.  When we left we could exchange what we had left, but in no case for more than we came with.  Just in case it was all put in a very large and impressive ledger.

When we finally left customs and headed for our hotel–the Rossiya–it was dark but there was a glow in the air.   Like any hotel it was lit up, each window another lantern on a relatively dark urban landscape.  The cruiser Aurora sat quietly on the Neva its importance to the Revolution proudly emblazoned in several languages on a placard.  “The shot heard around the world!”, well at least for Marxism, the other at Lexington a hundred and fifty odd years before.

When we finally went in it felt as if we had entered the set of a James Bond film.  An early-sixties modern space complete with a banquet table full of inebriated Russians, some in uniform, others in the ignominious ill fitting suites wrapped around their barrel chests, with sweaty faces topping it all off.  Medal upon medal was pinned to uniform and suite while one after another they each proposed a toast.  Vodka shot after vodka shot.  I would never know what they were toasting, but they were having a wonderful time.

The Russians could take down a lot of Vodka and still stand straight and tall.  The hotels’ other guests were Finns and they could not hold their liquor at all.  Finland being a dry country, these Finns traveled to the Rossiya for one reason and that was to drink.  At any time of the day you could find a Finn slumped in a couch, a Finn passed out at a table, and the relatively mobile Finns would be crumpled in an elevator, riding up and down until they either crawled out or were hauled out.

A fairly lucid Finn regaled us with tale of a disco on the tenth floor where American disco music blared, Screwdrivers were served and the women were loose.  This had not been mentioned in our Intourist pack of places to see and go.  Well for that matter hordes of inebriated Finns had not been mentioned either, so we set off on the elevator for the “Disco”.

Sure enough, as the elevator doors parted we were greeted by Donna Summer, cigarette smoke, and apparently the entire population of the hotel.  It was packed and bodies moved at different skill levels, based on talent and alcohol.   We ducked, dodged, bobbed and weaved our way to the bar where we used our broken Russian to say “Screwdriver, tovarish!”

We had already tasted Russian Vodka on the plane to Leningrad so we knew that it was smooth beyond measure.  Yet we were still astounded to see our bartender pull out highball glasses, fill them near the top with Vodka and then a splash of orange juice for color–a Screwdriver.  What was even more remarkable was that the only thing you could taste was the orange juice.  We would later find out that orange juice was difficult to get in the Soviet Union and very expensive, thus the splash.

From there it was onto the dance floor where we showed our less than adequate dance skills.  Tried to make time with anything remotely female; failed at every turn to make a connection; then back to the bar where one of our compatriots had discovered that the bar had an extensive collection of Georgian wines.

Set us up!  We continued to drink and commiserate with one another that these women, mostly Finns, showed a lack of international cooperation and warmth toward we fine American men.  Well in retrospect what they saw were nineteen year old, googly eyed boys that were probably sloppy drunk and not worth the crooked smiles smeared on our faces.

We finally made our way back to our rooms hugging nothing more than our throbbing heads and gurgling stomachs.  The room was a narrow thing with two single beds attached to the wall and head to head.  Above each bed was a wall mounted light with an odd dangling ball with an on/off button on its lower end.

As I settled my head into a very thin, gulag-worthy pillow my head swirled as the bed spun.  My tried and true toss of one leg over the side of the bed stopped the tossing sea.  As my head slowed to a stop and my eyes refocused on the on/off dangly ball that stared at me like a Cyclops.  I continued my aforementioned descent into paranoia.  Are they listening?  Are they watching?  Are my hands in view doing innocent things?

Well I’ll fix their wagon.  I dove into a comparative analysis of our two systems speaking directly into the on/off dangly ball.  Never mind that the Soviets were probably a little slicker than that, the dangly ball looked like a microphone.  And I rambled on touching on everything from Khrushchev’s Secret Speech at the Communist Party’s Twentieth Congress in 1956 denouncing Stalin to the current state of the SALT Talks.  Well if they were listening I hope they at least blinked.

I woke up the next morning with the dangly ball still firmly in my hand and a surprising lack of a headache or stomach ache for that matter.  Good thing because this day would prove much more sobering than any other day I spent in the Soviet Union.

V The Great Patriotic War

I enjoy reading history–interpretive, re-interpretive, Oliver Stone-ish and the ultimate in “history”, Immanuel Velikovsky’s “Worlds in Collision”.  I’ll read just about anything to get a sense of history, what might have been, and the quirky stuff that leads you down paths you might not have thought about and are probably re-interpretive dead ends.  Such is history.

I also like to visit history–visit in the sense of visiting sights where history happened.

I visited the motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot.  For such a watershed moment the motel and the surrounding area are unexceptional and ordinary.  You realize that the man and what he stands for transcends the place.

I visited Machu Picchu.  In isolation its magnificence is resounding; its deserted calm overwhelming; the people who made it are everywhere around you, the place overshadowing who they are now.

I visited Battle where William the Norman fought and King Harold fell in 1066.  While there you read plaques that ask you to look out over cow pastures and imagine these two mighty armies clashing and, well, the best I could do there was imagine something out of Monty Python.  Not all sights inspire and without reminders it is easy to see how most things are lost to history

During WWII the Siege of Leningrad lasted 872 days–or about two-and-a-half years.  Following WWII Leningrad was restored and there is no evidence that two massive armies slaughtered one another and the civilian population that failed to evacuate.

Death tolls are deceiving and can only hint at an outcome.  They are also imperceptible and as the body count escalates the ability to perceive the carnage starts to gloss over.  The pain of a family member dying is gut wrenching and palpable, yet to imagine two million human beings dying in any number of ways in the Siege is somewhat hard to grasp.

For the Soviets WWII was particularly painful.  It is estimated that twenty million Soviets died during WWII or over one third of all deaths estimated as a result of that war.  The Soviet take on the war was that they took the brunt of it and won the war for themselves and the West–perhaps.  However you look at it the numbers are astounding and incomprehensible.

Part of the Intourist tour package was a required visit to the Piskariyovskoye Cemetery outside Leningrad.   This is where, for me, all of these numbers came crashing together.

Leningrad is a beautiful early eighteenth century city with a very low slung skyline.  It was built by Peter the Great beginning in 1703.  For all intents and purposes it is a contrivance, much like Washington DC.  Europe looked at the Russians as just a bit beyond their Barbarian past and Tsar Peter looked to Saint Petersburg to dispel those thoughts.  Until the rise of the Soviets in 1917 it was the capital of Russia.

The Piskariyovskoye Cemetery, I’m sure, inadvertently mimics that low slung skyline.  Spread out over 10.5 acres of land are mounds of earth rising about two feet high.  These are common graves with only granite markers to denote the year of each mounds internment.  About a half million people are buried here, anonymous to all but themselves.  There are no markers denoting heroes, cowards, or thieves; children or adults.  They are all here killed by a bullet; by a bomb; or starved to death; soldier or civilian.  And curious to think that this cemetery alone holds thousands more than the total US death count for the war.

Anybody that has been on a tourist bus knows the artificial noise that rises and falls as people expound on what they think they know and gets louder as they go further into what they don’t know.  That’s how we arrived.  As we debarked and our tour guide herded us together that noise fell off precipitously to mouth gaping, eye-blinking silence.  You can feel this place.  It’s haunted by an overwhelming silence–only the wind in the trees raises a fuss.

I, fortunately, had no war to fight.  My generation, relatively, unmarked or defined by a war–too late for Vietnam, too early for the Gulf.  These people, interned, years ago, did have a war to fight—an awful and brutal one at that.  These people I now knew and it was a sobering experience; the return bus ride was a contemplative one.

A few days later, in Moscow, we would be reminded again of the shadow that WWII cast on the Soviet population.

VII The Trade

Leningrad is a painted lady.  The sky while we were there was a snowy slate that made the yellow, blue and red painted buildings stand out that much more.  It is a very handsome skyline that is poked at by St. Peter and Paul, the largest free standing column in the world in front of the Admiralty and various other churches spires and onion domes.

As far north as Leningrad is adds an evening glow that, in December, lasted until about ten and then, like someone throwing a switch, pitch black.  The Neva reflected this all back to create a very lively sky that moved up and down the color spectrum and it went inky black too when the switch was thrown.

It was in this inky black that we wandered into the second evening we were there to try and trade our clothes for…well we didn’t quite know for what.

Mark and I went into the night sure that we were being followed–more paranoia.  A light snow had begun to fall and it was getting colder by the moment.  We didn’t wander far when we were approached by a young man asking for a light in Russian.  His pantomime gave it away; otherwise we only recognized “tovarish” (comrade) in his slew of Russian.

“Americanitz,” we chimed in unison.

“Ah, Americanitz…trade for pants, for watch, for shirt?”  He would have taken anything and obviously the cigarette thing was a ruse, an introduction so to speak.  I was wearing my merchandise–a pair of Levi 501s that were nearly blown out in the crotch.

I pointed at my pants and said I would trade, what did he have?

“Fur hat, two army belts and 100 rubles.”

“Done.”  It was that easy and maybe I could have gotten more but it sounded good to me.

The minor issue, of course, was that I had to go back to the hotel and get my only other pair of pants on and my trade goods off.  My paranoia was getting deeper than the snow, but off I went.  I’m sure that it was well known that this was going on, but I was sure that my jeans would be the tipping point and that I would have the opportunity to write about the Gulag from a foreigner’s point of view.  Instead I was in and out with no issue and the deal was done behind a dumpster next to an apartment building.  The new paranoia was that I would be knocked cold behind the dumpster and left with nothing–well probably nothing at all, least of all my pride.

Again nothing happened.  I was now the proud owner of one smelly rabbit fur hat that barely fit my head, two Soviet Army belts and 100 rubles.  For anyone that has followed my adventures with Mark won’t be surprised that while I did my deal he was off making a much more dramatic, convoluted and dangerous deal not too far away.

As I made my way back to the hotel with my loot Mark came running and sliding through the snow to stop me.

“I made a deal with another guy for a sable fur hat.  We have to go to his grandmother’s apartment in his taxi.”

“Okay,” I said without thinking.

By this time the snow was coming down heavily and now I need you to picture your favorite Cold War spy movie with a Yank behind enemy lines entrusting themselves to the local taxi driver.  You speak no Russian and the driver pidgin English.  What’s your ride?  Why the infamous Trabant of course.  As we approach our driver reinstalls the wipers–they would be stolen if left on.  We jam ourselves in the back seat and it’s Mr. Toads wild ride from here on out.

It’s left, then right, straight for speed, and slide through the next few turns.  There are no lights but that of the Trabant, the snow is falling faster and heavier.  Dark figures are walking along bundled from the cold and heaving heavy bags as they made their way through the snow as our driver paid them very little heed.  We are moving further and further away from the city center and onto roads that are overarched by post war apartment blocks and, if it’s possible, getting darker.  Other than the strain of the engine, we are very quiet as we realize that we may have made a serious mistake.

After what seemed an hour of driving we pulled over into the parking lot of a concrete apartment block ten or twelve stories tall.  Our driver signals us to stay put.  We suggested some Russian hospitality, but he says he can’t wake his grandmother and off he goes.

It’s dead silent, dead cold, and except for one street light, dead dark.

I looked at Mark and him at me and for once his bravado totally escaped him.  We had no idea where we were, we had told no one we were leaving, and we had entrusted ourselves to a chain smoking taxi driver who was scared of his grandmother.  Time passed.

And time passed.

Finally a dark figure emerged from the apartment block and jogged to the car.  We held our breathes.  We would either be floating down the Neva toward the Finnish Sea or Mark was going to get one sweet fur hat.  You may have guessed by this point that it was the latter.  My fur hat looked like road kill compared to his.  It was plush, well made, and it didn’t smell.  It was a deep brown, almost black, it was beautiful.

Our driver was all smiles at this point and pulled out a Mason jar of vodka to celebrate our deal.  We celebrated the deal all the way back to the hotel.  Was our driver drunk?  You bet.  Were we drunken passengers?  You bet.  Were we happy to be alive?  You bet.  Were we any smarter?  Probably not.

VIII The Train Ride

After a few more minor adventures and incidents it was time to get on a train to Moscow.

Russians, and therefore the Soviets, like the Chinese, are a xenophobic lot.  The Chinese because of their insular culture and the Russians because of their knack for being at the crossroads of any number of invaders and conquerors.   So it was of no surprise, but of some interest, that the Russian train system road on a different gauge than that of Europe—a narrower one if I remember correctly.

As we left our hotel we were handed a boxed lunch for the train ride.  We were escorted to and through the train station to our train.  If I didn’t know better I’d say that our rail cars might have been taken by Lenin himself.  Quaint would be a polite way to describe those cars, maybe comparing them to well worn clothes would be another.  In any case we hoisted ourselves, our bags, and our boxed lunch into our train car and we were left to our own devices—no escort.

Like any conveyance I find myself with my face plastered to the window.  I didn’t want to miss a thing.  Well it soon became obvious that there wouldn’t be much to see beyond Leningrad.  Its urban footprint quickly gave way to a snow covered landscape of low trees and small towns clinging to the side of the tracks.  I sensed our lack of escort wasn’t because of a new found level of trust, but more that if we did choose to disembark there was no place to go.

It was also like going through a time warp.  Beyond Leningrad it was as if cars and trucks no longer existed.  If any vehicle was waiting at a rail crossing it was usually a heavy, lumbering horse shrouded in its own atmosphere pulling a Babushka in a troika.  The houses were one story, shed like things with garish, brightly colored grotesqueries that would have been perfect in “Dr. Zhivago”.  And the snow seemed to get deeper and deeper.  It was really quite beautiful, but after a while it lost my interest.

I was soon hungry and started to tuck into my boxed lunch.  Like most countries the Russians have their own, home grown, soda that they proudly serve with just about any meal.  For Peruvians it’s Inca Cola which is sickly sweet and yellow if I remember correctly.  For the Soviets it was Tarkhun, again sickly sweet, but green.  That came out first.

Next I moved through several slabs of stuff—meat, potato and fish and quite literally chunks of it.  All of it was very good despite its less than appealing presentation.  And finally something sweet—can’t remember for the life of me what that might have been, but again quite edible and no points for presentation.

Sated, I soon became itchy and started to wander through the train.  It was like wandering through a live presentation of National Geographic.  There didn’t seem to be any classes to the cars—Marxism at its best, yet there was obviously a delineation from car to car.  Several cars were loaded with farmers taking stock and vegetable to market.  In this case to Moscow.  Chickens, pigs, ducks jammed into cages and all talking at once.  All these farmers were right out of central casting and again perfect for “Dr. Zhivago”.

As I made my way from one of the cars to the next I was met by a Soviet soldier, obviously, inebriated.  I stopped to stick my head out the window to be blasted by a shockingly cold blast of air.  When I pulled my head back in the soldier frumped his lips, nodded to me and extended his Mason jar of vodka.  “Spaciba, tovarish”, and I took a long pull of that magical and tasteless potato concoction.

All of the cars were packed with people, their stuff and their smells.  The smells were so foreign to me that it was actually pleasant.  As I reached the final car I was surprised to see a snack bar.   Behind the steward was a shockingly tall collection of half triangular boxes that when stacked formed boxes.  I had to have one.  I gave over however many kopeks this delicacy required and took it back to my seat.  Pulled it open and took a big swig, a really big swig.  It was a bad idea.

Initially it went down like milk and had a hint of milk to it, but then the harsh aftertaste that fortunately didn’t burn, but tasted like it should have.  I managed to hold it down, just.  I was later to figure out that it was unpasteurized milk and had I not been on a train may have been able to meet the cow that gave it up.

And then we were there, seven hours later and it’s time to take a breath.  Like anything written about Russian, filmed about Russia or thought about Russia you need an interlude.

III Interlude

Now that the Soviet Union is close to being twenty years into history it is difficult to relate to those that didn’t experience the Cold War what a colossus the Soviet Union was.  How it was feared and how everything that the United States did during that time was a reaction or response to what the Soviet Union did and/or we perceived them doing.

Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was firmly in power at the time and would die several years after our visit.  It would be a cavalcade of lesser lights that followed him that would see to the demise of the Soviet Union, but at the time there were no hints that this could or would happen.

It has always struck me as odd that it was possible to travel to the heart of our mortal enemy.  We were treated very well; we were given the best accommodations; we were given the best seats to any sporting event or performance.  We were given the best of everything in hopes of casting the best light on their system.  Yet the overarching perception was of a poorly maintained, worn around the edges, somewhat desperate country that ran despite itself—even then at the height of their power.  It was something out of Mad Magazine and not Time Magazine.

Hedrick Smith’s “The Russians” was the insider’s guide the Soviet Union at the time.  Smith, a New York Times reporter and editor, purposely titled it the Russians to emphasize the fact the even though the Soviets’ were touting the forming of a new and perfect socialist entity, its underpinning was not far removed from the Czarist/Serf model that it had replaced.  The average Soviet citizen was not well off.

So here we were travelling through the Belly of the Beast well fed and very comfortable.   Like visiting Pashas we floated above and aloof from the general population, but we walked among them.  It was Potemkin at his best, but like Potemkin’s ruse it didn’t work.

Once we scratched the surface and did interact in various minor and more involved ways it became obvious that the Russian people were a warm and gregarious lot.  It was not only among themselves but to anyone within their range.  I was roundly scolded by a babushka for not having my hat on one a cold day, all in Russian, but very obvious to anyone with a mother.  While on the subway in Moscow we were witness to any number of extremely drunk passengers that slumped to the floor and were then gently and lovingly put back into their seats by those closest to them.  There was nothing false about the average Russian.  Yes Sting, the Russians love their children too

So having left the beautiful Leningrad on the cold shores of the Neva we arrived to the very gray, very cold Moscow that looked to dominate its landscape not live with it—but this part of the story will have to wait for another time.

To one and all, a Merry Christmas and the best of the Holidays and here’s to a much better and welcoming New Year.


The History of the Universe Part II or “A wormhole, about yay big.”

Posted in Autobiographical, Machu Picchu, Zathura with tags on December 24, 2011 by smpiv

00:53:11 What’s a time sphincter?

00:53:13 A wormhole, about yay big:

Thus quoth the astronaut, in the movie “Zathura”, as he holds up his thumb and index finger to outline a small orifice.

I love this line.

It’s a pithy way to say that something is difficult; difficult to understand; to find; to go through; to comprehend.


I’ve tried to peak around the corner a number of times in an effort to cheat time—not to garner more of it, but to see how this book will end and is this only volume one. Too comprehend.

The first time I thought I had gotten a look was when I was in the second grade.  I was in a Quaker elementary school and like a lot of my early years; quiet reflection was not one of my abilities.  For me it was all head on, very visceral.  Rambunctious would best describe me.

So with the elegance that only slow motion can detect I jumped from the upper deck of a playground jungle gym and squarely on my head.

Isaac, the custodian, picked me up and carried me.  In my time compressed timeline I am then in an ambulance, laying thrilled by the sound of the siren.  As I looked up the ceiling light was filled by the head of someone dressed all in white.

A halo sparked around the edges of someone’s head.  Presbyterian Kindergarten, Catholic first grade and now Quaker second grade, made it quite obvious to me that I was in the presence of an angel. My mother told me it was my father in his whites.

Even being told the obvious that image haunts me.


In my teen years I could hold my breath for a long time.

To push this talent to an extreme I had trained myself to relax to an extreme.  My resting heart rate was very low and I could slow it even further.  I would take a deep breath and lower my head into the water and fade away.

I never contested anyone with this talent or even told anyone what I was doing.  I also never pushed it to the SEAL extreme of borderline death—I think.  What I did do was to reach a point of relaxation that allowed my mind to wander away.  It was very much like going through a door.

A small door with very little room on the other side, but comfortable all the same.  Once there I would leave for two or three minutes, sometimes more.  When I came back it was rarely for lack of breath, but for a sudden consciousness that said to go back.  Up would come my head, my long hair framing my face with the sound of water streaming back on itself.


The highlight of my architectural education was going to Machu Picchu.  It was part of a three week journey to Peru, that included two weeks far down the Amazon River and then for a week in Cusco and Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu is a place I had wanted to visit since I was a child. “Gods, Graves and Scholars”, lent to me by my mother, was the portal that opened my mind’s eye to history and man’s footprint.  It motivated further exploration that brought the Incans to light for me.

I was certain that if there were truly power points on earth that this would be one of them.  A blue aura would emanate from the stone like the aurora borealis; the universe intermingling with our small rock.  I would be able to hear the Aborigines; echoes of the Druids; and the ancient Incans.  I would see beyond our earthly existence.

Well, the closest I came to seeing the other side was on the bus ride as it switched back again and again as it made its way to the ruins.  The road is perilous and view down is straight down—nerve wracking.

The ruins themselves are spectacular, but there was no blue light, no epiphany, the universe stood at its usual distance and the voices I heard were mostly in German and English.  The place is breathtaking but quite dead.


So in this brief survey it seems that, in fact, I haven’t gotten the briefest glimpse of the other side.

I do think, though, that the journey is the difficult part and that passing through the time sphincter will be the easy part.

Just shut your eyes and hold your breath.

The History of Creativity Part II or The Danger of the Ad Lib

Posted in Art, Autobiographical, Harry Callahan, Photography, Vivian Maier on December 2, 2011 by smpiv

Life is scripted.

No really.

Well, not really.

It’s confusing.

Just before Thanksgiving Min and I went into DC.  For Min it was a return visit to the Building Museum and the Lego exhibit.  For me it was my umpteenth visit to the West Wing of the National Gallery and in particular for the” Harry Callahan at 100” exhibit.   He didn’t make it to 100 but his birthday did.

Except for major pieces of his that were shown in group shows I hadn’t seen an exhibit of just his work, so there were some surprises, mostly good, but like most photographers, at least, the collection went a little thin around the edges.  His multiple exposures were less than interesting and his “twigs” in the snow images that he is very well known for were dated.

His images of his wife make up for the lesser work. Like Stieglitz with Georgia O’Keefe he transcended his love and admiration for his partner well beyond the pale.  The images of his wife Eleanor are touching, beautiful, and poetic.  He seems to use her visage to occupy the cold and gray of his surroundings with warmth and charm.  She may have been a harridan in life, but that would be unknown here.  She is a siren; a sylph; a nymph—she is female beauty and danger wrapped in one.

Also curious was the size of most of these prints.  Most of the early work was very small in scale, not much beyond a 5×7 and, most, smaller than that.  There is preciousness to many of the images.  The size of the images are, seemingly, as brief as the shutter speed.

Hopefully I will be able to go back, because my first visit to any show is a fairly quick walk through to let the images wash over me and then to go back to really soak myself in the pictures that initially caught my eye and to appreciate others that I at first dismissed.

Callahan’s trajectory of photographic success was a typical one.  For him it was an early meeting with a giant of the day (Ansel Adams) that led to his moving forward seriously with his own work.  Beyond that it was a progression of teaching and showing that culminated in a well respected career as a photographer that was followed by and written about by many.  No surprises—well scripted.

After arriving back from our Thanksgiving trip to DC I was greeted by my always helpful neighbor with my mail and several UPS boxes.  In one was a book I had been looking forward to for some time.  It was as monograph with the work of Vivian Maier—“Vivian Maier, Street Photographer”.  A woman who had worked in utter obscurity for decades leaving behind over 100,000 negatives (the same as Callahan) that were plucked from the darkness at the eleventh hour at an auction house that had earlier acquired the contents of her unpaid storage unit.  She died soon thereafter in her nineties never having met the man who purchased her negatives and would make her famous.

As mentioned Callahan’s arc was a comfortably recognizable one.  Maier’s is not.

As I paged through the volume I felt I was looking through a history book on street photography.  Every major name in the opus was represented by an image in this book.  Her images are as good if not better at every turn.  The difficulty comes in the realization that other than amassing an amazing number of negatives Maier left nothing behind that could speak to her influences.  Were these conscious decisions to emulate images she was familiar with or something more toward the “idiot savant” end of the spectrum?

As far as I know there are no prints from her negatives done by Maier that would hint at how she would have shown them.  Would she have preferred precious—not much larger than her 2-1/4 inch negatives or the approximately 9×9 images in the book?  Does it matter?

One thing is for sure her talent will always be on the fence.  Her talent will always be advocated by others. Her voice will never be lent.  The art world doesn’t like surprises, particularly ones that have no other voice than the image.  She was apparently a crusty old nanny with few vices other than photography.  Vivian went off script.

For me personally, the work is beautiful.  It doesn’t matter who her influences were or how she was influenced.   The difficulty now is in the editing of her work by others.  I tend to think that many of the images were pulled consciously or not because they did tingle with familiarity.

Ansel Adams long ago compared the making of a photographic print to the playing of music and the negative being the score.  In fact anyone with reasonable credentials can print from Adam’s negatives.  With Maier you have the added facet of editing the score yourself—unlike Adams she left behind no primer.

Her story is a wonderful one.  It is a story that will resonate for some time and she will be a talent that will rise and fall with the seasons—in and out of fashion, but never classic.

If only she had stuck to the script.