by Steven R. Van Hook

     Continued ...

Wednesday, November 21, 1990

At my neighborhood beriozka, a Soviet state-controlled TV (Gosteleradio) crew burst in to tape the wide assortment of products available to western shoppers with credit cards. One Russian clerk told them to get out. The Soviet producer snapped back, "We have permission ... don't forget your place!" and pointed the camera at me. This video ought to ruffle a few Russians. Nearby, a long line waited for sausages at a state food store.

Thursday, November 22, 1990

Thanksgiving Day: While Americans feasted on turkey, stuffing, candied yams, hot buttered rolls and pumpkin pie, I nibbled on an omelet and Natasha. Thankfully.

Friday, November 23, 1990

I frequently encounter the Soviet militsia ("milly-men" Americans here call them), the street cops who whistle, wave their batons and point you to the side of the road for whatever infraction you commit in the crazy Moscow traffic. Any offense is an immediate charge of ten rubles (five, if you don't ask for a receipt, so they can subsidize their paltry 200 ruble-a-month pay). They seem especially indulgent with American journalists, as is noted on our Volvo's license plate. I've so far avoided any fines with my good-natured ignorance and a few cigarettes. Natasha tells me I wouldn't find them so amusing if I had to live under their regime.

Saturday, November 24, 1990

Moscow is certainly the quietest and darkest of cities I have ever seen. Hard to believe so many millions of people live here. Even on the most thrilling rides at Gorky Park or watching a soccer game on TV, a stifled moan is the most the Russians emit. Cars drive at night with only their fog lights, and streetlights, when found, are dim. I wonder what lurks beneath the calm?

Sunday, November 25, 1990

Big problem: I think I'm falling in love with Natasha. Her sadness is beginning to seep into my psyche, such a pathetic life in Moscow. What to do? (The same question Lenin asked. I hope my answer works better.)

* * *

    "Why do you want so much to improve our lives? Our own leaders don't care so much."  
     -- Natasha

* * *

Tuesday, November 27, 1990

Last night a thief broke into our Volvo parked just outside my door. He broke a window and was evidently chased off by the car alarm; there was nothing inside worth stealing. "I'm so sorry for my people," says Oleg. "You are a guest here. Our criminals are very cruel."

As I vacuum up the glass on the ground from the broken car window, Oleg comments a Russian would never clean up after himself like this. "That doesn't seem very socialist," I reply.

"Yes it is," says Oleg. "A Russian doesn't see it as 'his' mess, but as 'our' mess -- something he is not personally responsible for." Hmmph.

Thursday, November 28, 1990

I tried explaining the High School Prom to Natasha after American girls getting ready to go popped up on the home video we were watching. The rich bedroom, the beautiful white dresses, the stretch limo awaiting outside, the boys in tuxedos, the giggles and gaiety. I feel a horrible loss for Russian children who never know such frivolity. They surely know they are missing out. Their frustrated, hungry lives, their haunted eyes. What is to blame? Government? Russian docility? Natasha says she's lived but a few happy days.

Wednesday, December 5, 1990

Russians love intimate gatherings; friends and family huddled around a small table adorned with breads, meats, liquor, and the ubiquitous samovar (a large ornate pot of hot water -- an ancient symbol of hospitality). Conversation is cordial yet intense, usually covering the western taboo topics of politics, religion and love. Drinking is vigorous, it's considered bad manners not to drain your glass after one of the plentiful and poetical toasts.

This evening my Russian co-workers and I stood shoulder to shoulder around an office desk munching on bread, meat and chocolate, sipping cognac, celebrating the 50th birthday of our cleaning lady, Zoya. Our talk: how difficult it was for her to find these meager morsels. (Unlike the American custom, it is the duty of the Russian birthday celebrant to throw his or her own party.)

Friday, December 7, 1990

"The fat lady's on stage and she's bellowing her lungs out," says my boss in D.C. It's time to liquidate the bureau. Cliff and Claudia, avoiding the trauma of withdrawal, have headed home. Our Russian workers are running in circles to "save our very lives." It's up to me to arrange the pull-out.

Natasha, sensing my impending departure, has been clinging with a strong hand. She asked me to write her a love letter in English. I did, the usual slaver about eternal love, the illusions of space and time, and the sort. She pleaded to me to promise her it was all true. (Love letters are about love, not truth.) "Of course it is," I told her. She clutches the letter as if it was God's invitation to heaven ... I wish it were.

Sunday, December 9, 1990

Today I visited Lenin's Mausoleum. He looks just too real to be real. The head of Gosteleradio was fired when a guest on a talk show suggested Lenin be buried. Many Russians suggest it nowadays. Lenin along with communism.

Friday, December 14, 1990

Soviet leaders are appealing abroad to obtain food for their masses in the midst of severe winter shortages of everything. My Russian co-workers search many hours for the simplest of staples; one found some eggs, the others at the office gathered to admire her good fortune. Overwhelmed, I can do little to help. I took Oleg and Natalia to lunch at McDonalds -- Natalia ate her fries, then carefully wrapped her cheeseburger to "save for later." (She was saving it for her boy at home, I know.)

The amazing Russian patience is wearing thin. Many officials fear the people may soon take to the streets. (A mob of 10,000 here is considered a mere demonstration. "You will see millions," warns a Russian friend.)

They need billions of dollars worth of supplies. The U.S. has been reluctant to contribute in retaliation for Soviet policy restricting Jewish emigration.

The Germans, however, have responded with tons of food and other products. "We conquered them in the Great Patriotic War, and now we accept their charity. How bad can things get?" says one disgruntled Russian.

Interesting to note this was a record year in the USSR for crop harvests, which lay rotting in trains and trucks due to a decrepit transportation system and labor problems.

* * *

    "The world owes our country much for demonstrating that communism doesn't work."
      -- Sasha Livshits, a Russian entrepeneur

* * *

Sunday, December 16, 1990

As I wrap it up in Moscow, Natasha tells me I'm like a dream: a brief sweetness, then you wake up to reality the next morning and it's gone. I tell her I believe dreams are closer to ultimate reality than life is, maybe that's why I like sleeping so much. She tells me she's afraid to dream, afraid to hope.

I tell her I will try to arrange a visit for her to America, a promise I hope to fulfill.

Monday, December 17, 1990

I've caught a bit of a cold, the thought of really getting sick here is a frightening prospect. Natasha worries about me, and my doctor friend Yuri says he will get whatever medicine I need. Fortunately, I have aspirin and multiple vitamins and orange juice. Without such simple remedies, even little colds hit the Russians hard and often. I suppose that explains their concern for me. The standard Russian cure for a cold is raspberry jam ("mahlina"), honey and lots of vodka. Natasha brought me the jam, Oleg brought me the honey. The vodka is yet another "defatseet" (these days I hear a lot of that word -- meaning "deficit").

When you sneeze in Moscow, a Russian response is "pravilnah" (which means "correctly"); it portends the next statement you make will be truthful.

A few other interesting Russian superstitions:

    -- You should always sit for several moments before leaving on a trip, this ensures a safe 
    -- If a single woman sits at the corner of a table, she will never get married.
    -- Never shake hands or kiss across a threshold.
    -- Never refuse a drink as a guest (one rule rarely violated here).
    -- Don't unlock a door right after you've locked it.
    -- If you break a taboo, spin three times to the left, spit three times over your right shoulder, 
       sit for a few seconds, then look at yourself in the mirror. Of course there's no guarantees.

Friday, December 21, 1990

I visited with head officials at Gosteleradio today to discuss our plan to produce a Soviet perspective on the February summit between Bush and Gorbachev for distribution to American broadcasters. Gostel is the nationwide state television agency -- the equivalent of CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS and CNN combined. This may be a longshot chance for us to remain in Moscow. Regardless, Gostel was a thrill to tour.

Monday, December 24, 1990

This Christmas Eve (a non-holiday in Moscow) Natasha took me to the Kremlin Armory, a museum packed with old tsarist wealth; mostly relics of war, the foundation of all great histories, I suppose.

Tuesday, December 25, 1990

There is a mysterious, mystical side to Moscow though nonetheless irrefragably real: An inexplicable depth of an unnamed presence ... a pulse ... a most certain course of events amidst the chaos. What is it -- what moves us here? What is this that finally feels so familiar?

Sunday, December 30, 1990

The desperate food shortages in Moscow have intruded on my relative margin of comfort. The lines at the beriozka stores have grown long -- mostly Russian mafia and prostitutes with their ill-gotten "valyoota" ("hard-currency") buying up luxuries like liquor and chocolate. Even the checkout line at the "credit-card-only" beriozka wraps around the store. For 8 days I've been unable to find eggs and ice cream (my main staples).

Yet Zoya, our cleaning lady, gifted me a New Year's bottle of Hungarian champagne ... Lord knows how she found or afforded it.

* * *

    "If we can't live like America, then let's make America live like us." -- Anon.

* * *

Tuesday, January 1, 1991

New Year's Eve and Day were spent with Natasha, watching American videos such as the Star Wars series and The Godfather. She loves the look at western lifestyles, and it helps my Russian translating the plot lines to her. She, in return, translates the Russian movies on Soviet television for me and explains the even more bewildering customs and folklore woven into the stories.

Thursday, January 3, 1991

Today I shot the raising of the flag at the new Israeli consulate, the first time the blue-and-white Star of David has flown in Moscow for 23 years. Since I was shooting for Israeli Television, they cleared the Consul General's office of the crowd of correspondents so I could have an exclusive interview. The look on the reporters' faces as they were ushered out was worth all of my hardships here. As the video was fed over the Gostel satellite uplink later in the evening, I could hear the Jerusalem control room workers cheering as the flag was raised and the Israel national anthem was sung. The new consulate expects to process 400,000 Jewish emigrants in 1991, likely draining yet more of the educated and skilled workers from Russia.

Saturday, January 5, 1991

As part of the move toward a market economy, the Soviets have stopped subsidizing "luxury items" like car parts, furs, and (gasp!) beriozka stores. The prices have doubled since the first of the year when the change took effect. A dozen eggs now costs me about four dollars.

Every night lately I've been having dreams of home, the same vivid dreams I used to have about Moscow.

Monday, January 7, 1991

It's officially Christmas Day in Moscow. Yeltsin proclaimed it so after he was petitioned by the Moscow Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church; Gorbachev followed suit and declared it a Christmas holiday in the Republics as well. It's the first Christmas in Russia since the Revolution. No one seems to know how to celebrate it, but everyone is enjoying the day off.

Thursday, January 10, 1991

Russians are an interesting combination of extremes: unrestrained greed and self-promotion, countered by expansive philosophical and soulful depths -- each trait bountifully real and straightforward. In comparison, Americans appear an in-between muddle, often frosted in bullshit.

I'm not sure if it is the Russian's self-centered side that has fostered this ineffective system, or the horrible Soviet system that has advanced the "get-out-of-my-way-and-give-me" attitude. I do know that a self-serving approach to life (so pervasive here) inevitably leads to mistakes as one misses the greater perspective available to a more transcending viewpoint ("enlightened selfishness" the new-agers call it). By looking out only for one's self, one misses the bigger picture of one cooperating within the context of all else; a necessary awareness, I believe, for true enduring success.

Fascinating how the national and individual personalities reflect each other.

* * *

    "All we have is our hope, because our plans never work."
     -- Yuri Livshits, Russian Pediatric Laser Surgeon

* * *

Friday, January 11, 1991

Moscow is a free-for-all of capriciousness and graft and ever-changing "official policy" which keeps everyone guessing how to proceed. For example, a hotel room (invariably small and poorly serviced) can run $350 hard-currency per night, or only 15 rubles if you have the right connection or an appealing bribe (a pack of cigarettes or a five dollar bill go a long way).

* * *

    "I've been covering Moscow for 20 years ... right now it's like the old Wild West; 
    no rules, anything goes, whatever you can get away with."
     -- Ike Seamans, NBC Moscow Bureau Chief

* * *

Saturday, January 12, 1991

Traffic in Moscow is a jumble of horrendous drivers newly acquainted with the privilege of automobile ownership. (Bad drivers are called "chaineeki" -- "teapots" -- though no one can tell me exactly why.) Pedestrians wisely scramble clear of any approaching vehicle, suspiciously declining if you extend them the right of way. The wide streets rarely have lanes marked, and what lines there are often lead into a wall or oncoming traffic. You just form a lane wherever you choose. Total bedlam. Little direction. An apt metaphor for the times.

Update: March 10, 2016

Loved your notebook ... BTW, the drivers who are called chainiki are called that for a lot of good reasons that sort of make sense if you were the one driving a Volvo or a Mercedes in a sea of Ladas in the 1990's. It's not so much that they were bad, it's that they were driving Soviet vehicles in a very Soviet style, so all of the teapot comparisons apply. They are indecisive and take a long time to get going, they're slow (like the car runs on steam), when they do get up to speed they tend to just haul ass for a while, and when they break they're useless. Not long after you left, vehicle warning stickers with teapots on them became a point of pride for many Lada, Niva and Moskvitch drivers. - Greg Hunter

Monday, January 14, 1991

The Bush/Gorbachev summit will likely be postponed over U.S. pre-occupation with the Iraqi conflict (my boss in D.C. tells me the Pentagon has placed a rush order for 16,000 body bags). A mob of angry protesters amassed in Red Square and at the American Embassy yesterday in response to the Soviet Red Army slaughter of 13 unarmed demonstrators this weekend at the Lithuanian broadcast center. Yeltsin is urging Russian soldiers not to shoot at civilians even if ordered to do so by the Red Army, furthering the political rift between Russia and the Soviet Union.

Gosteleradio has canceled "Vzglyad" ("Viewpoint"), Soviet TV's radical and popular investigative parallel of "60 Minutes." The wretched "tent city" of hundreds camped out in front of the Rossia Hotel (drawing attention to Moscow's homeless and a plethora of other causes) for the past many months has been cleared in yet another example of a diminishing free speech. Tensions in the street are mounting as limited food supplies grow thinner. And our corporate chiefs are in Washington today to layoff who knows whom. Yikes!

Wednesday, January 16, 1991

This could well be my last Moscow entry as I pack up our gear and head for home. (Home. That word has never sounded so good.) Upon my return all Sun World Moscow employees including myself will be terminated. (Terminated. That word has never sounded good.) I've had a few job offers bringing me back to Moscow. Natasha painfully wonders what I will do. My only immediate goal is to spend a little time on a Southern California beach.

* * *

    "You are now like a Russian ... it takes so little to make you happy."
     -- Natasha, noting my glee after a fine Mexican meal at the American Embassy

* * *

Thursday, January 17, 1991

My boss called at 3:00 this morning (Moscow time) to inform me the U.S.A. had just begun bombing Iraq. Today all streets around the American Embassy were closed off by a heavy Soviet police contingent and cement barricades. They fear a terrorist attack from the large Arabic community (especially Iraqi) in the USSR. As I left the compound today, the typically terse Embassy gate guard warned me to "be careful out there." The "American Correspondent" license plate on our Volvo (which up to now has been an advantage) now makes me very nervous.

Tuesday, January 22, 1991

My official Soviet press credential and multiple-entry visa, which have taken months to process, were suddenly delivered within hours after my boss sent a $200 bribe to a Foreign Ministry official (the press credential was handed to me just in time to allow me access to Gorbachev's press conference disavowing his role in the Lithuania killings).

Thursday, January 24, 1991

My departure has been delayed long enough for me to witness the collapse of Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost.

New-found press freedoms have been restricted in response to critical coverage of the Baltics' repression. As of the first of February, Gorbachev will assign the military to patrol the streets of Moscow -- ostensibly to "protect the people from hooligans," but more likely to protect the Kremlin hooligans from the people.

In an alleged crackdown against black marketing, Gorbachev has recalled 50 and 100 ruble notes (about one-third of all Soviet currency in circulation). Citizens throughout the Union were given three days to turn their rubles in under very strict guidelines and KGB supervision. The new rules allow an exchange of up to 1,000 rubles of the large notes, but many people here have amassed savings of tens of thousands of rubles over decades, stashed under mattresses and hidden in dark corners, waiting for the day when there might be something worth buying. Stunned laborers, farmers, pensioners, family men and women stand in long bank lines, terror in their eyes as lifetimes of work and savings are snatched away.

Fury and frustration hang in the air as a flammable gas. I fear an igniting spark is imminent.

* * *

    "When I was little I would cry over stories about the black people taken from their home to slave in America. Now I cry for myself, a slave in my own country!"
     -- Natasha

* * *

Sunday, February 3, 1991

(Annandale) Early this morning I was on Red Square shivering in 35-minus degree snow as the guards performed their hourly change at Lenin's Tomb.

This evening I am home in Virginia, sitting on my large backyard deck under a warm Indian Summer sky shimmering with stars.

How easy it was flying home, dining on Lufthansa's roast duckling, leaving the dreary Moscow life behind, one last quiet "pahka" to Natasha as she poked her head around her apartment corner for a final glance, my ransomed guitar in her hand, waiting for the day I might return.

America glistened under the bright sunlight on final approach, rich and warm like the gaudy jewel it is, the solid touchdown pounding my heart back home.

The stores here packed with products, the people preoccupied with banal problems beyond the easily met needs of daily survival. I, the American god in Moscow, feel alien in my native land.

Do we -- do I -- give up on the great Russian hope?

* * *

    "Russia stinks of dirty bodies and evil Balkan tobacco and a disinfectant they must distribute by the tank car daily ... In the end, every little detail starts to get to you -- the overwhelming oppressiveness of the place, the plain god-awfulness of it."
     -- P.J. O'Rourke

    "Everything in you is poor, straggling, and uncomfortable; no bold wonders of art, no cities with many-windowed tall palaces built upon rocks, no picturesque trees ... Everything in you is open, empty, flat; your lowly towns are stuck like dots upon the plains ... there is nothing to beguile and ravish the eye. But what is the incomprehensible, mysterious force that draws me to you? Why does your mournful song, carried along your whole length and breadth from sea to sea, echo and re-echo incessantly in my ears? What is there in it? What is there in that song? What is it that calls, and sobs, and clutches at my heart? ... Russia! What do you want of me? What is that mysterious hidden bond between us?" 
     -- Nikolai Gogol

* * *

(Natasha's Love Letter)

    Steven Van Hook
    Moscow, USSR
    Winter, 1990

    Dearest Natasha:

    What is the language of the heart? Not English. Not Russian. Not any tongue, more meant to cloud than clarify the soul's intent.

    When we lie together, quietly, after the passion is calmed, you must certainly feel my heart, my soul, whispering its message to yours. Do you hear it? Does it speak the words you understand? Do you believe there is more to be seen and heard, beyond the range of eyes and ears? I know it is true!

    Listen, my love. Eternity also speaks in silence, enveloping the beloved in timeless truth. Do you hear it?

    Time and place banished, their illusory limits eclipsed by the transcendent light and sound so afar from the frail and feeble senses. Here is where dreams come from. It is real! It is real!

    You and I are one. Small waterdrops flowing beside in the universal sea of all creation. Apart, together; such words without meaning in the great ocean where all is one. Do you feel it?

    Take no sorrow from our partings, only joy from our union. Long after our bodies are dust will I hold you in my heart, my enduring heart. You are a part of me, I a part of you, we a part of forever.

    When I hold you, I hold all that is perfectly eternal. When I gaze into your soul, I see all that is gloriously true. My heart pounds in rapture! In you, I hear angels singing. Kissing you, I taste heaven's nectar. You are my crystalline window, through whom I may see God. Do you believe it?


    Please forgive my words, the foolish words from my breath, those from my hand. They are words that yearn for meaning in a hopeless quest. Listen, instead, to my heart, that dances over this page, between the letters while laughing at them, that feeds through your blue spangled eyes to the core of your soul.

    Listen, my love, to my love; to love's language everywhere the heart turns its mystical ear. Do you believe it?





(Look in my photo album for pictures)

Copyright 1995 Steven R. Van Hook

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