by Steven R. Van Hook
Old Oregon Magazine
University of Oregon
September, 1991


(Look in my photo album for pictures)
    For 12 years I've dreamt of myself as a reporter in the Soviet Union. I worked two and three jobs at a time to put myself through journalism school. I followed the developments in Moscow, brushing up on my Russian as able. My first reporting job was as a volunteer at an Oregon Public Radio station. From there, I became a TV news reporter, then bureau chief, then a news director and anchor, all the while with an eye on Russia. Finally, after years of working and waiting, I am employed as executive producer for a Moscow-based TV news bureau.

    My notes begin the evening before my departure. - SRVH


Friday Night, September 28, 1990

(Washington, DC) Good-byes to my television bureau co-workers. Says Sergei, a Soviet: 
"Styopah" (the diminutive of Steven in Russian), "be sure to take some toilet paper." I reply, 
"I'm sure I don't need to." He says, "Styopah, there is some food to be found in Moscow. 
Take the toilet paper."

Saturday Morning, September 29, 1990

I feel Russia all about me as I approach the Aeroflot counter at Washington's Dulles International Airport. The long line of disheveled, forlorn, shoving Soviets reluctantly headed for home, clutching Walkmen, keyboards, blue jeans, western treasures in department store bags.

Communism ... a great ideal betrayed is more despised than a bad ideal employed.

Capitalism they seemed to like.

It is not so depressing as it is comical, like every bad parody of Russia I have ever seen: the rude, chubby stewardesses with their phlegmatic explanation of safety procedures, the tattered condition of the plane, their stoical pinched faces.

Sunday Morning, September 30, 1990

(Russia) Touchdown in Moscow after a final approach over a Russian birch tree forest. I could swear I heard church bells! A friendly exchange of gifts with my Soviet surgeon co-passenger (I brought some cheap Snoopy pencils, he has some cheap Soviet lapel pins), and a two hour wait at Sheremyetevo for my ride to show up.

A quick tour of Moscow: Red Square, the meat market which defies description, the Arbat Street sharks and pickpockets, my first of many Russian meals of raw salted fish.

Then my two-bedroom apartment with two balconies in the center of the city near the Kremlin (a prestigious home) -- and sleep.

* * *

    "Every 10 years the Americans and the Soviets should switch countries. Americans are happiest when they are building something up, Russians are at their best breaking it down."  
     -- Sergei Orlov

* * *

Monday, September 31, 1990

I walked down the streets near our office (three very comfortable though tiny well-equipped rooms with state-of-the-art computers and video gear, my personal office placed at the front as befitting the "American-side manager" of the joint venture -- the Russians pay high heed to such details). I stopped intrigued by a Soviet newsstand to look at the wide array of papers and pornography. Then one Russian stopped to see what I was looking at. Then another and another. Before long there was a crowd with puzzled faces wondering what was so special about a newsstand.

Later in the day, I'm stuck between floors in a phone booth-sized Soviet elevator with my co-workers Claudia and Cliff (running his ever-present betacam). Russians outside the door titter while we sing songs ("High Hopes"). They scurry for help which finally arrives one hour later. "Americans stuck in the elevator! Such an affair!" they say. I'm already longing for home.

* * *

    "In Russia, this is the difference between an Optimist, a Pessimist, and a Realist: an Optimist learns English, a Pessimist learns Chinese, and a Realist learns to use a 
    machine gun." -- Anon.

* * *

Wednesday, October 3, 1990

Three scenes have turned my stomach in somersaults since I've been here: the Russian meat market (half-heads and carcasses of unidentifiable creatures hang proudly on display while picked at by birds, bugs, and careful shoppers).

And the KGB Lubyanka prison just down the street from our office (home of the infamous torture chambers and midnight death wagons).

And the prissy Women's Journal publisher here to announce a Russian version of her magazine soon to be available on Soviet kiosks ...

Angry women surround her yelling the articles on high fashion and gourmet recipes are not welcome in a city where they can't afford to buy potatoes.

The magazine's dinner reception at the four-star Savoy reminds me of the scene in Doctor Zhivago where inside all was fine and festive, while beyond the warmth bedraggled Russians trudged along the street, hoping to survive the winter. I step outside, feeling more comfortable with them.

Friday, October 5, 1990

We toured the artsy Arbat Street with a New York Stock Exchange flack, a man definitely out of his element.

In contrast to the American criminals I worked with at the Department of Corrections, the Arbat gypsies, hustlers and pickpockets appear almost gentle. Their intent is not evil, in fact it feels rather noble -- doing what it takes to support the families they seem so devoted to.

Saturday, October 6, 1990

After two hungry days while I learned to find food, I think I'm adapting: with chunks of instant milk floating in my instant coffee beside my bowl of tepid instant oatmeal, life looks luxurious.

The military here is everywhere, on every corner, riding the trains and streetcars and metro, walking to work, living in regular apartments, not separated on bases apart from the civilians. It's hard to believe they would shoot on their own people, knowing them and their hardships as they do. "Oh yes, they would shoot," says Yelena, my cynical Soviet ladyfriend.

We interviewed Russian Tsarist Prince Andrei Golitsyn, who had brought out his finest rarities of crackers and chocolates and whiskey, an impoverished sad-faced man with ambitions of somehow regaining power. We snacked beneath the portraits of old Russia nobility, the subjects of a nostalgia resurgence in Moscow.

I said to CBS reporter Jan Chorlton-Petersen, "I feel a little guilty about having so much while so many Russians have so little." Her reply, "If you feel any guilt here you will never survive."

Wednesday, October 10, 1990

A ride in a motorcade! To tape Gorbachev in the Kremlin, only a few feet away! Such a palace! The art! The fine furniture! The efficient, watchful KGB guards! My intent interest made them especially wary.

We're covering John Phalen, the New York Stock Exchange CEO meeting with Soviet officials hoping to establish their own stock exchange. "A stock market is not the answer," says Phalen,
"it is a mechanism to the answer." He adds, "Money comes from heaven, but we spend it on earth."
I liked that.

"This is not a time to be bullish on the Russian bear," said one stock exchange official, befuddled by the overwhelming work ahead to bring about a free-market system. One reporter observed "most Russians are more concerned with stocking their markets, than marketing stocks."

Friday, October 12, 1990

I've been visiting Soviet offices we deal with to see how they work. My impression: they don't. Never have I seen so many people making so much noise while accomplishing absolutely nothing. Supports my hypothesis that the degree of results one achieves is inversely related to the amount of noise one makes while doing it.

* * *

    "In Russia, they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work." -- Anon.

    "The Russians treat the customer here as an enemy -- someone who expects them to work." -- Cliff, my Moscow-wise cameraman

* * *

Friday, October 19, 1990

We picked up Victor (our joint-venture newspaper's Russian art director) at the airport on his return flight from visiting our printing facilities in America. His first visit there, his strongest impression was the row upon row of food products in the supermarkets.

I told him my strongest impression of Moscow was the row upon row of Russian faces pressed against crowded trolley bus windows, like food products in the market.

* * *

    "Russian faces can cover a multitude of sins when you have no other video handy."
     -- CBS Reporter Jonathan Sanders to me during one of our shoots.

* * *

Thursday, October 25, 1990

Today we taped about 200 Pentacostals camped out at Sheremyetevo airport after, at the last minute, they were denied exit visas to the US by the Soviet government. Hand-washed clothes hung from rails and blockades. Mothers cried at us that their children were denied access to the bathrooms. Our camera followed one father and his daughter -- because of that the guards let them pass to the toilet.

(Russian toilets are designed differently than American. They cleverly avoid the large bowl of water with a small pool on a ledge inside the toilet to handle the business, then a surge of water whisks it all away.)

The Pentacostals (persecuted here, in part, because of their odd habit of speaking in tongues) clustered and prayed and refused to leave the building, afraid they wouldn't be allowed back in. Some had been waiting for 10 years to get out of the USSR. What became of them? I don't know. The "news" had moved on.

Also today at Sheremyetevo we covered a Hollywood/Soviet joint-venture movie being shot at an Aeroflot passenger jet on the end of the runway: "Icons," about smugglers in Moscow, starring Roman Polanski. A Russian played a Marine, an American played a Soviet soldier. The drabness of Moscow suddenly became theatrical, surreal. Art is much more palatable than life.

After snapping a shot of a Soviet fighter jet on the airport tarmac, and our easy access to the protesting Pentacostals, it strikes me as remarkable how far journalistic freedoms in Russia have advanced. Not so long ago Western reporters were centrally housed in special compounds and watched round the clock. On our way back to the office we debate Soviet motives in allowing us such mobility: a demonstration of the new openness? Their preoccupation with greater problems? Are we the pawns of a subtler propaganda?

Update February 2, 2014

Hello Mr. Steven R. Van Hook,

You did a report in Moscow on October 25, 1990 about some Russian Pentecostals being stuck at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow. I was one of the children of the refugees and I remember that there were reporters from the States taking pictures and filming us. I also remember trying to speak to them in the little English that I knew such as the word ďlightĒ on the light post. It was a very traumatic experience for my family and I spending one and half months at the airport.  We have just celebrated 24 years in the States and we were reminiscing about the experience getting here. So I decided to Google and came upon your name as the reporter and found your reporterís notebook on a website .... I was 8 years old at the time, Iím now 32, married with 2 wonderful boys. 25 years in America has been nothing but a wonderful blessing and would never go back ... We often talk about our journey with my parents and the hell we went through, although now as a parent myself I canít even imagine what my parents went through. I appreciate the reporting that you did that day and shedding light on our plight, because of your reporting we didnít end up in a Gulag or a prison in Siberia. Even though some people that were with us did indeed disappear and we never heard from them again. So thank you! - Jerry K.

Sunday, October 28, 1990

On a high, slow, single revolution of Gorky Park's giant Ferris wheel overlooking the city skyline and the Moscow River, I kissed the lovely Russian woman beside me at the top of our turn, telling her I'd remember the kiss each time I spied the wheel visible from many parts of the city. Such talk has little affect on the Spartan women here. She did glow, however, at the wedding ceremony in the Russian Orthodox cathedral, and the rich Italian ice cream with a shot of something alcoholic on it at the "Mezh" left her "truly contented -- a rare feeling in Moscow," she said.

Tuesday, October 30, 1990

During today's solemn memorial march, at a newly dedicated stone from one of the Stalinist prison camps, old and young Russian fingers held up pictures of the many thousands dead at the hands and guns of the Soviet Committee for State Security, the KGB.

"Lord forgive us. Lord forgive us," the choir sang.

A soothing, melancholy, amplified voice recited the names of the dead as thousands marched. A crush of people like a handshake squeezed the breath out of me. I was warned that in such a crowd one misstep, a trip, could mean a trampled death. Ahead of our surge (I was helpless to move any way but one) was a patch of weed-flowers. "Save those flowers!" a babushka yelled at me. I held up my boom mike as a spear and gently said "tsveti" ("flowers") to the oncoming flood of people. "Oh, tsveti," they replied, and parted around me. From behind, CBS Bureau Chief Barry Petersen commented I deserved the "Order of the Flowers" award. The Russians do love their flowers, one of the few products in abundance here.

Thursday, November 1, 1990

Everything in Moscow works just fast enough to keep you from turning murderous or revolutionary, but so slow as to keep you demoralized and lethargic. The lines, the phones, the bureaucrats. It all seems so intentional ... so insidiously planned.

* * *

    There are four steps in the development of Soviet programs:
    1. Noise
    2. Chaos
    3. Punishment of the innocent
    4. Awards for the undeserving.
     -- Anon.

* * *

Friday, November 2, 1990

Moscow is a city that both thrills and breaks your heart in the same beat -- feeds and assaults your soul in the same glance. The most terrific and terrible of cities!

Sunday, November 4, 1990

My limited knowledge of Russian sometimes gets me into trouble. Like the time our cleaning lady was tearfully telling me her daughter (a ballerina) had either died, or had left for Iraq. I wasn't sure which. I fumbled for an appropriate response.

Or this evening. I was having dinner at my home with Natasha -- a young, beautiful, educated, witty, blue-eyed Russian who speaks very limited English. In my poor Russian, I was telling her a joke I'd heard: "A man goes into a market and asks the keeper if he has a scale. The keeper says, 'Yes ... do you have any food?'"

I didn't know the Russian word for "scale," so I pantomimed it.

She grinned, paused, and then asked to see my dollars. My face twisted in surprise. I repeated it to make sure I understood what she was asking. "Yes, please let me see your dollars." (Prostitution is rampant in Moscow. A recent survey revealed 70% of high school girls would consider prostitution for hard currency.) She knew my thoughts, "How could have I been so mistaken about this sweet, lovely lady?" and she laughed.

She took my dollar and pointed at the Treasury seal with the scales of justice -- the word I hadn't known in Russian. I blushed, excused myself for my horrible mistake, and excused myself outside for a cigarette (a filthy habit I've resumed in Moscow, mostly in self-defense. Everyone here smokes. You can't escape it).

Monday, November 5, 1990

Moscow is a little like South Africa. A privileged class from abroad with its hard currency, catered to by special shops, hotels, restaurants. Guards at the door ensure no Russians get by (unless it's one of the prostitutes who shares part of her take).

I feel dirty whenever I visit one of the beriozki (hard-currency only stores). One American Embassy worker told me at a party, "They created this awful system, why should we suffer?" Another American says, "Damn right I use the beriozka! Especially the ones that take only credit cards -- keeps the Russian mafia goons with their hard currency out." One Russian friend says, "Those who are guilty for our system feel no shame, why should you? You are not to blame." Says another Russian, "If it wasn't for Westerners, we'd have no such places ... fine examples for us to see and aspire to." My pessimistic Russian ladyfriend says, "I think we will never have such wonderful things for ourselves -- we just won't."

My surgeon friend, Yuri, tells me most Russians can afford to stand in line all day for state food products (low quality, low price). "If you had to do that, you'd never get any work done here."

Natasha, who resents hard-currency shops, consoles me, "What are you to do? Starve?" I wonder what rationalizations they use in South Africa.

Tuesday Night, November 6, 1990

The towering Foreign Ministry, Ukraine Hotel and Moscow University buildings, the Kremlin, Saint Basil's Cathedral, the church onion domes, the city streets -- all lit up so bright tonight on the eve of the Russian Revolution celebration. Such a beautiful city it can be! Such a shame every other night of the year it's kept so much in the dark.

Wednesday, November 7, 1990

It's October Revolution Day in Moscow (a change from the old Russian Orthodox calendar now places it in November). Thousands of people parade the streets in demonstrations and counter-demonstrations. Banners and slogans. So many sad Russian faces.

Beautiful Russian women are everywhere I turn; a dark, mysterious, mournful beauty that grips my heart. And they all want to go to America. Should I bring one home? Would she be happy? The Russians I've known in the U.S.A. are treated as curiosities, as the outsiders they are in a very alien land. They miss their homeland and families terribly. And it's difficult to transfer their Soviet education and skills to a stricter American standard. And there's the language problem. Russian accents sound funny, like the Bullwinkle archenemies Boris and Natasha. Many Americans snicker at that. I don't recall meeting many happy Russians in America, but I certainly meet very few here.

It does seem unfairly advantageous to find myself suddenly appealing to women simply by virtue of my American citizenship.

Thursday, November 8, 1990

At a cheap B-grade movie about the life of Jesus at a typically crowded Russian theater, my doe-eyed companion cries untypical tears, saying for 73 years God has been exiled from Moscow, but now He is welcomed back with such longing. This God forsaken land which forsook God may be turning its face heavenward once more.

Friday, November 9, 1990

"It's not over till the fat lady sings," my boss in Washington tells me. The Russians have not agreed to extend a new contract, and our corporate headquarters in El Paso is pushing us hard to either "sign it, sell it, or shut it down."

"The band is warming up, the fat lady is on stage, and she's clearing her throat," says my boss.

Saturday, November 10, 1990

Today we had an hour long interview for the BBC with Boris Yeltsin (President of the Russian Federation and perhaps the next leader of the Soviet Union) at the "White House," the Federation headquarters. I have a hard time fathoming why this buffoon is so adored in Russia, while Gorbachev is held in such low regard. I have a hard time fathoming Russians. Period.

Sunday, November 11, 1990

Russia has perfected the circus. All the performers and stage hands move in well-coordinated efficiency, a rare encounter in Moscow. Acrobats, lions and tigers and bears, barely-clad women, Cossack horsemen and endearing clowns perform under a live band and low-tech light show. Rather than a standing ovation, the Russian audience applauds in rhythmic unison. "Circuses and soda pop will mollify the masses," my Machiavellian friend in the States used to say.

Monday, November 12, 1990

The Russian ruble is basically worthless and somewhat bewildering. There are three exchange rates: the business rate at 54 U.S. cents to the ruble (the rate used on my American Express card, which I brandish only in the beriozka store for hard-to-find items like eggs and orange juice), the 6 ruble to 1 dollar tourist exchange rate, and the black market rate of 15 to 1 (my driver with "good connections" makes the exchange for us at the Ukraina Hotel -- home of the Moscow mafia).

A very large meal at McDonald's for two runs 50 rubles, or about $3.50 (that's 1/4 of the average Russian's monthly wage of 200 rubles, such as my surgeon friend makes). I try to be extra generous with my rubles (large tips for waiters and cab drivers and beggars) -- seems only fair and certainly not much of a sacrifice.

Doctors advise men to beware of radio-active rubles and kopeks from Chernobyl, and not to carry them in their front pockets.

* * *

    "Better to have 100 friends than 100 rubles." -- Anon.
    "Better to have a friend who gives you 100 rubles." -- Natasha

* * *

Tuesday, November 13, 1990

Russians find their pride wherever they can: fancy five-word titles, impressive rubberstamp seals, any piece of Western clothing.

"We were so happy and proud when our imported Cannon copier broke down -- all our Soviet machines don't work either!" says Natasha.

* * *

    "You want to know my true beliefs about my country? I believe it will never change. Our system is spoiled at all levels. Leaders must be pure, honest, but they are not. We must change the mentality of our people, but how? Our children should think well of our country, but all they know is misery. Everything is ruined and corrupt!"
     -- Oleg, a young Russian

* * *

Wednesday, November 14, 1990

Moscow has the largest McDonald's in the world ("because we're a hungry country," says our bookkeeper Natalia); certainly the longest McDonald's line -- on a weekend the wait is 4 hours for a "fast food" meal. Lunch is like a trip to a distant world, where people are friendly and helpful, floors and tables are clean, food is identified as something other than "meat," life is bright and musical. My Soviet lunch partners eat mesmerized by the glamour. Russians don't care much for the food, but love the fantasy.

* * *

    "Children," says the Soviet school teacher, "Where is the best education in the world?"
    "In the Soviet Union!" they answer in unison.
    "And children, where is the best medical care?"
    "In the Soviet Union!" again in unison.
    "And children, where are the best food and clothes to be found?"
    "In the Soviet Union!"
    "But Sasha, why are you crying?" asks the teacher.
    "I want to live in the Soviet Union!"

* * *

Thursday, November 15, 1990

I suppose it's easy for me to remain hopeful about Russia's future. I have my American passport and visa for an escape of my choosing. I have a pocket full of hard currency -- my meal ticket for the food-starved winter ahead. How would I feel if I were stuck here for life, no hope of America's abundance ever again? Would I be one of the countless drunks pacing the streets at all hours and temperatures? Riding the crowded subway, I too despair.

* * *

    "I hope Russia and America do go to war ... the very next day I would surrender!"
     -- Boris, our driver

* * *

Saturday, November 18, 1990

Natasha, do our hearts beat together in Russian? English? Ha! At last we understand!

* * *

        Natasha: Do you have drunkards in America?
        Me: Yes, but not so many as I see here.
        Natasha: Oy! Again the Soviet Union is first!

* * *

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