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My Collusion With the Russian Soviets

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Russians and Democrats are not the same. I’ve actually known honorable Russians.

In 1991 I met a man from the USSR named Valentin Suchkov. I was working with a Ukrainian trading company in Cincinnati. Mr Suchkov was leading a trade delegation from Gorkiy, the famous “closed city” and the internal exile home of the Soviet refusenik, Andrei Sakharov, who had only died the year before in Moscow. I was told that Mr Suchkov headed an oil and gas company in Russia and using the trading company to sign blank invoices that would allow them to buy American gifts for family back home. A common form of “collusion” even in Cold War days.

A short, stocky man, we shook hands and gnarlier hands I’d never gripped. An engineer for sure, those hands signified years of handling heavy drilling tools, not the white collar type you’d expect to see in America. I gave him my card, which was called “Retrotechnology” at the time, and after it was read to him, he asked it meant. He spoke no English, so everything was translated. I explained that I helped countries acquire older, retired production equipment in America, where they would still be a generation or two more advanced than what were currently used in the Soviet Bloc. I explained there were many opportunities in Asia and the USSR now that Perestroika was in full swing.

He seemed interested, and we shook hands good bye, and he left to meet his delegation, no doubt for a raid on Home Depot. Next day Vechilov of the trading company called to say Mr Suchkov would like us to join him for dinner. We  met them at the old Rookwood Pottery Restaurant (now closed) and we had a nice friendly meal over vodka, wine and fine beef. Mr Suchkov quizzed me about “biznez in Amerika”. We talked for maybe two hours, with Vechilov translating.

Then we shook hands, I drove back across the river, and he winged his way home to the USSR.

Later that year, 1991, one of the silent partners of the Ukrainian firm, a lawyer, offered me the opportunity to spend three months in Ukraine. I would be working with a “red biznez” private bank in Kharkov, (one of Gorbachev’s efforts at private investment) to make contacts for their trading company in Cincinnati. A great opportunity, I closed my office and was in the USSR at a very historical time, from December 1991 thru March,1992. I got to see the Hammer and Sickle taken down all over the empire, and heard people sing “Svoboda Ukraina” a hundred times in Ukraine. I was one of the few unattached private Americans in the USSR at that period of history. It was very heady and frightening for a lot, especially around Leningrad, Moscow and Odessa, where there were always stories of AK-47 gunfire. I first met Moses Sands there, (who gave me this non de plume) in the then-famous Moscow McDonalds, which began a long friendship until he died. I also had an old friend, an Army major- linguist with the Defense Attache’s office, who kept me up on the diplomatic corp’s worries about the pending breakup of the country.

In mid-January, the bank president in Kharkov came to me and said that Mr Suchkov of GAZPROM in Gorkiy wanted me to come spend a few days with him there. “How do you know this man?” he asked. I explained our meeting in Cincinnati. He said Mr Suchkov would meet me at the rail station in Moscow.

About rail travel in the USSR, I traveled several times, always on overnight sleepers. I had to be escorted with a Soviet national everywhere, since, even though I could read the language, I couldn’t speak it, and would have to pay full “foreign fare” if discovered by any of the large uniformed women they sent around to collect the tickets. Dressed in a business suit, I was told to sit over by the window with a pissed-off, superior frown on my face while my “valet” showed her our tickets. Worked every time. Instead of $200, a First Class overnight fare was about $20.

The trip to Moscow was uneventful and we arrived late morning. I gathered my bag, and Sergei, my regular escort who always used the occasion of one of my trips to Moscow to spend a little afternoon delight with his girl friend before taking the 3rd class sleeper back to Ukraine, we walked out toward the parking lot. It was bitter cold, probably six inches of old snow. I spotted a long stretch Black Maria skid to a stop about 100 feet away, and a short stocky man, with no coat, only a white shirt and tie, and a wild look in his eye, jump from the back seat, search the station ramp, spy me, then rush up like a wild man, grab my hand, then proceed to kiss me. Right on the mouth. Turning to Sergei, shaking his hand, almost dismissively, he basically said “I can take it from here” and Sergei turned and walk back into the station.

In all the days I spent with Mr Suchkov, he never even told me about his Party rank, and only once or twice even displayed it. He was simply an oil and gas engineer in the fourth most powerful city in the Soviet Union. I spent four days learning just how powerful he was.

The driver’s name was Sasha, the nickname for Alexander. And the car was either a GAZ Chaika or a ZIL. We always called them Black Maria’s, as thy were in every film about the Soviets. There was a sliding privacy window between front and back seat, a television and intercom system, a back seat with plenty of stretchy leg room, and a small pull down seat facing to the back, for a translator. Our translator was named Rolf (real name Vladimir) who spoke with an English accent. We became great friends as I did 90% of my talking the entire week through Rolf.

The distance between Moscow and Gorkiy (recently changed to its pre-Stalin name of Nizhni Novgorod) was 265 miles, which in the best of times, is close to 7 hours (do the math) over a 4-lane highway that, in snow-plowed mid-winter, took over 9 hours, despite almost no traffic.

We spoke of many things, but as I re-learned many thru the years, southern Americans are preferred business associates for Russians and east Europeans because we also like to get to know one another before discussing biznez.

Those first 2 hours, we shared photos. My sons, one in college, both swimmers (ah “plovim”) his son and daughter, both in their 20s, his wife, Sonja, a great cook (as I found out), and his dacha, which he kept closed up in the winter. Rolf, the translator was probably 21, a great kid, told me he had been trained in English-English instead of American-English, yet his favorite music was Metallica and Jethro Tull. And could I find him some albums? (Which I did.)

It gets late very early in Russia’s winter, so most of our drive to Gorkiy was in pitch black, over roads almost empty of traffic. And a landscape that was like you were traveling through a 200 mile long graveyard….with no moon. We stopped twice, the first at an unlit resort with a log-cabin North Woods façade. Not a vehicle, not a light, the owner has obviously been notified ahead that we were coming, because the lights came on, and we were ushered into the dining room, and were waited on by the owner. It was then I realized the rank of Mr Suchkov, who could call ahead and have a person open his establishment just so four people could drop in the middle of winter, have a couple of drinks, soup and whatever sort of kielbasa he had in the fridge and then be on their way.

Although I didn’t make the comparison then, Mr Suchkov treated this business owner as Donald Trump has been said to treat his own staff, and I was taken by his informality, neither Jersey bossy, nor Massachusetts condescending. More like Chicago stock-yards, been-there-done-that familiarity, the way you’d expect a man with gnarly hands to behave.

Back in the car, we stopped at the city of Vladimir, near midnight, just to take photos of the gates of the city. Vladimir is the religious capital of Russia, from when the Mongols invaded, and Christians prayed that their churches there would be spared, and they were. It was a “permitted” religious pilgrimage during all the communist years. Our Lady of Vladimir is one of the most sacred of icons, and my wife has one.

Mr Suchkov and I talked the rest of the way, a couple of gulps of vodka included. But we discussed philosophy, not biznez. He grabbed my hand, and Rolf said, “He wishes to tell you a secret.” Seems he was a poet, only no one knew it. I asked him to recite one for me, so, still holding my hand, recited a melancholy piece, (but what Russian poem isn’t?) and Rolf translated. So then I recited the ancient Japanese saying that every man is composed of four men; the public man, the professional man, the private man and finally, the man that is known only unto himself. He kissed me again, only not on the mouth. He held my hands in his hands, and asked if we could sing songs. Sure. And he sang a really sad song about hard lives on the Volga. Trying to liven things up, I added a spritely version of “Buffalo Gals” and we finished with me doing the bass overbeat while he and Rolf sang the dirge of the Volga Boatmen.

At home at about 2 AM, it would be the next night before I would meet his son and daughter, who shared a bedroom in a small 2-story walkup….1600 sq ft, tops. His wife Sonya was there to greet me, along with a (2-yr old) wolf breed named Ling. Who hated me, and bit me the first time I put my hand out to pet him, (while my hosts laughed) and every other time my hand was exposed, which it generally was when I slept, where he stood sentinel.

They put me to bed on the couch in the living room, which was the only available bed. I asked myself how can a man with such power have to live in such meagre surroundings? Of course, the best answer is appearances, which communism still demands. But it was fun, at 7AM, to stand in line for the bathroom for the first time in 25 years,

Sasha picked us up at 9 AM after poached eggs, toast and coffee. The GAZPROM central office was not large, Suchkov had a private office with a private side entrance, which we entered from the hallway. We then went out to meet his secretary, where a giant photo of Lenin loomed, and a smaller one of General Secretary Gorbachev. Through another double-walled door was the conference room, where, inside milled around about 20 men, who snapped to attention when Suchkov came in. He introduced me, then each man came up to shake my hand and say his name. They were the regional managers of his company. Every Soviet ethnicity was represented there.

This was a scheduled manager’s meeting, and I was privileged to sit in on it, for Rolf told me the things they discussed. No secrets.

Soviet conference rooms are universal by design, and I suspect they haven’t changed, where there are two long conference tables running parallel to one another, capped with the Director General’s desk at the head, elevated about 18″ on a platform, signifying rank. I sat next to Suchkov, as he talked to his managers, and Rolf translated in whispers. After an hour or so, we broke for tea and cakes, and I asked Suchkov about the size of the territory his company delivered gas to. He reached behind him, and pulled down a large map. About 60 million customers, in an area about the size of France, the entire Volga River drainage, down to Volgograd (Stalingrad) to where it drained into the Caspian Sea.

Wow! Rolf then escorted me out of the room and gave me a tour of the complex, models of equipment in glass enclosures. In any culture this is called “killing time.”

After about two hours Mr Suchkov re-emerged and we went back to the car, but without Rolf. Mr Suchkov said, in broken English, “I show you Kremlin,” Almost every major centre in Russia has a Kremlin, a citadel that signified the center of government.  Gorkiy’s was on high ground, and over-looked the Volga, captured here by my camera in January 1992, the river frozen.

The Kremlin was completely snowed over, the length of a football field, and we began to walk around it, twice, me in regular shoes and only a wool suit and raincoat. My toes froze on the first lap. Why we did this I never knew, for Suchkov spoke to me in very broken English…but about capitalism, not biznez. Perhaps he wanted to be where there were no listening devices.

Back to the car, Rolf said they had a special treat for me, that Mr Suchkov had ordered a Finnish bathhouse opened up several miles upriver. After a small meal, and about 30 miles (almost 2 hours) over a plowed one-lane path, we pulled into a small parking lot of three pine-log buildings, flumes of smoke coming out of the two larger ones. We went into a changing area, where Mr Suchkov’s engineers already were sitting, partaking of vodka and sausages,. We went into small rooms, changed our clothes to long white towels, and joined the crew. Rolf didn’t change, telling me was asthmatic so couldn’t go into the sauna, and I would be on my own. The meal was, well, once-in-a-lifetime, 20 naked men in towels, passing toasts and chewing on kielbasa. Then a few began tracking out, 2-3 at a time, across the 20 feet to the main cabin with the sauna.

I was told that it was best to stay inside only thirty minutes, then go across to the changing shack for more food and vodka, where Rolf was diligently standing by. Oh, there were birch twigs. Mr Suchkov came up and showed me how to swat and be swatted, with easy stokes over the back. It seemed sort of gay to me, only was a thousand year old tradition. After a few minutes, Mr Suchkov suddenly jumped up, and called me by my first name, and said, “Come”. Like a wood nymph he jumped up and charged  though the front door, buck naked took a hard left, and ran maybe fifty feet to a clearing of open snow between some hedges, suddenly stopped, turned and fell backwards, summoning me to follow suite. By the time I hit the icy snow he was already making snow angels. Then he just as suddenly jumped back up, and was back in the sauna house. me lagging behind.  In an out in maybe two minutes.

Next day, after a second night of Ling hovering over me, and snapping if I exposed my hand from under the cover, Mr Suchkov had arranged for us to travel to a small town called Semonov, some miles north of Gorkiy, This was for real biznez. The town is famous for its crafts, which even Americans would be familiar, the nesting dolls, or matroishkas, and the high-end Khlokhoma factory, where were produced the USSR’s most notable cultural export, lacquer wooden artwork.

But Semonov itself was a place of interest for unlike Soviet towns that had been turned into concrete Chicago ghettos, the town had its own signature, where every house was in competition with the next house, and the next, just by the colors they painted the house and the display of the window shudders. It was a kaleidoscope of colors. A psychedelic spectacle of 1950s Kentucky coal camp architecture.

I could write a thousand words on my visit to both factories, for they were symbols for Russian arts abroad and in the Soviet bloc as well. In Bulgaria, where I later spent many years, Semonovas, or Semonov nesting dolls were dismissed as “mass produced” only they weren’t. Every part of the dolls were hand-painted, And I got to shake the hand of everyone in the production line, from the fellow who hollowed out the wood, then put in a kiln, to the ladies who painted each mark.

In anticipation of better things for the New Russia, Mr Suchkov wanted me to share my ideas how these factories might improve. He introduced me to the Directors Generals of both factories and we were able to discuss reaching broader markets.

On the ride back to Gorkiy, Mr Suchkov spoke to Sasha, redirecting him to a small cluster of apartment buildings. We parked some distance away from one building, and after speaking to Rolf, Rolf told me that we would visit one of the buildings, where was housed the apartment of Andrei Sakharov, who had been exiled there for close to 7 years, 1980-1986. It had only been opened as a landmark in 1991. The place was arranged as you might have found sitting rooms at Monticello or Mount Vernon, roped off. But no visitors were there, just a lady at the front door, taking a few kopecks for admission.

Very ordinary to the casual eye, I saw the guest register, where indeed, fewer than a page full of people had visited in a year. So it gave great pleasure to be the first American to sign, writing only “Vaya con Dios” and my name. I noted a Canadian Broadcasting crew had been there three months earlier..

The significance of the trip to Sakharov’s house and what he meant to ordinary Soviet citizens, as I learned on the overnight train trip back to Ukraine. that trip will earn a larger story sometime, as we had to travel 3rd class sleepers, that slept four, and share with two young Palestinians traveling from a technical institute in the USSR to rejoin the Intifada now that they’d finished a semester of instruction in overthrowing the Jews in Israel. My escort was not the usual Sergei but a fellow named Viktor I only knew on sight from the bank, and who spoke virtually no English. Only French, leaving us with a 4-way conversation with the Palestinians, one who spoke some English, the other who spoke some Russian. It was a sight to behold, especially since all they wanted to talk about was politics and Jews.

But in trying to get acquainted with Viktor, I reached in my pocket and brought out a little 1/2 inch pin, called “znatchki” in Russia, that had been handed to me by the ticket-lady as we left Sakharov’s apartment. Viktor cried. Profusely. And he reached over and kissed me. Such is the significance of a single social rebel to the ordinary people of the old Soviet Union.

The only time Mr Suchkov made any reference to his political clout was when, before we visited Sakharov’s, we dropped by to pay a courtesy call to the governor, who was an older stiff old communist who said very little. We shook, they spoke, and we moved down the hall to the deputy governor, a Yeltsin man, younger than me, and very brash. Suchkov introduced me and the man looked up, and asked “Is he also here to buy MiGs?” Very dismissively. I explained a little about what I was there for, but he interrupted me, going on about MiG’s and tanks. Finally, Suchkov quietly thanked him, and turned and we walked out. By the time we reached the outer door, he was seething, and said under his breath, but reported to me by Rolf, that he would soon have that son-of-a-bitch removed.

This was when Rolf told me, “He can, you know. Mr Suchkov is a member of the Central Committee. He is bigger than all these guys.”

Damn.

Next day, mid-morning, I said my farewells to Suchkov’s wife, and Ling, who took one last swipe at my hand, and joined Rolf for that last ride to Moscow. Not far from the city we pulled off to a siding of the road, and waited, while another stretch Black Maria pulled up behind us. Out stepped a man dressed as regally as a Soviet could, who joined Suchkov and I in the back seat, while Rolf moved around to the front seat and Sasha joined the other driver. I moved into Rolf’s seat facing the two dignitaries. Mr Suchkov introduced the man by name, and as “his boss”, and “a Jew”, according to Rolf. We all shook hands and pleasantries, Suchkov said many things to his boss that Rolf did not translate. Then, the other driver stepped out of other limo with a large wicker basket, a flat lap table. Inside were tins of caviar, vodka, champagne, and a whole chicken, still warm. And we dined, all but poor Rolf, who had to translate, as I was the object of the conversation, and the topic of the conversation was Mr Suchkov telling his boss all the things the New Russia could become if they worked with Americans to start over again.

In March, 1992, as I was preparing to depart for America, the bank threw a gala farewell dinner for me, attended by several dozen businessmen of Kharkov I had met. As we sat down, the bank president stood up and introduced Mr Suchkov’s son, Dmitri, who he had flown down to Ukariane as his emissary just to say farewell in a letter. He stood at the head of the table and read it out, then handed it to me.

When we parted, I was sure I would see Suchkov again. A firm communist, senior member of the Soviet leadership, he also stood at the foot of the altar of free markets, from the bottom up. But fate dealt the Soviet Union a cruel hand, for in 1992 Bill Clinton replaced GHW Bush as the American president and any hope for free and open markets disappeared. Yeltsin was a drunken wreck, and slowly over a period of several years, mostly during the Clinton presidency, especially while Ron Brown was still alive, any chance for the kinds of free-market reforms Suchkov envisioned was swallowed up by corruption and what later would be recognized as an oligarchic fascism, finally claimed by Vladimir Putin. By 1998 I had cut off all dealing with US government agencies, Russia and Russian ex-pats everywhere. No matter where I went in the Balkans, to the Russians, who are still prominent in all the former Soviet satellites, I was just a “feelthy f***ing Amerikan”.

Such a shame, such a lost opportunity for freedom. We could have prevented all this.

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About the Author:

Vietnam era Army JAG, Asia, 17-yr Cold Warrior in Soviet-China Bloc green zone, Been shot at and hit, but in crime, not war; twice-broken nose for lying (same fellow) hence good law school candidate; Could have been Somebody in Corporate world and politics, but at every crossroad chose to be a man with a tawdry past instead. Gave up law and am now a redeemed American.
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