Tag Archives: Moscow

Dancing with the Bears

Author’s note: This post is part of the Welcome to the Future series of essays. If you haven’t read Welcome to the Future, I suggest that you start >> HERE <<

Author’s second note: I wrote the bulk of what you are about to read three to five years ago, when I first decided to start writing. It sat ignored and ‘unloved’ for many years. Time to show it some love…

 

I’ve learned to hate Russians
All through my whole life
If another war comes
It’s them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side.

Joan Baez (Bob Dylan) – With God On Our Side

 

Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been.

Grateful Dead – Truckin’

 

You see, George, you really had a wonderful life.

Frank Capra – It’s a Wonderful Life

 

Back in the US, back in the US, back in the USSR.
The Beatles – Back in the USSR

December 2, 1989, 11 PM – Red Square, Moscow, USSR

It is snowing lightly and is bitterly cold … even for native Russians. For a native Floridian and naturalized Texan, it is something well beyond cold. My thin fleece-lined yuppie overcoat doesn’t begin to keep me warm, even with an extra sweater underneath.

Heat drains from my feet, through my dress wingtips, into the ice and snow covered brick pavement. I stomp my feet. I can no longer feel my toes. My nose is frozen. My lungs burn with every breath. Despite my gloves, my fingers are numb and I wiggle them in a fruitless attempt to keep the blood circulating in them. My head is topped off with a brand new rabbit fur Shapka that I paid too much for earlier in the day at the hotel gift shop. The Shapka’s flaps are down, covering over my ears. No true Russian wears the flaps down … at least not in Moscow. Did I mention that it’s cold?

I’m standing in Red Square late at night in the Soviet Union. The three story tall State Department Store G.U.M is to my back, draped in giant posters of Lenin. Red Square – Krasnaya Ploshchad – is brilliantly lit by banks of flood lights mounted on the walls and roof of G.U.M.

I am standing where multitudes of marching troops, tanks, and missiles passed reviewing stands filled with the likes of Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev during the annual Soviet May Day parades. To my left, at the far end of Red Square, Saint Basil’s multicolored onion domes rise like giant shining Faberge eggs. To my right, at the other end of Red Square stands the red brick façade of the State Historical Museum. Directly in front of me, across an open expanse of snow covered pavement, is the black and red tomb of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin nestled against the red brick wall of the Kremlin where the ashes of Yuri Gagarin and other Soviet heroes are interred.

Red and black in front; red, blue, and yellow to the right; red to the left; brilliant white on the ground; and above … black … pitch black – save for the twinkle of falling snow flakes … looking like slow moving stars on the view screen of a starship cruising in warp drive.

= = = = =

I have been fascinated by the Russians since I was a kid. Sure, they were the enemy, the commies, the great totalitarian regime, the Evil Empire. We almost came to nuclear blows in the sixties when Khrushchev tried to put short range missiles in Cuba. I vividly remember the B-52 flying low overhead, taking off from Homestead Air Force Base south of Miami. Smoke poured from its eight screaming jet engines, its landing gear still extended. I was nine years old. My dad and I were taking a drive somewhere. Fishing maybe? My dad loved to fish. Maybe my mom just wanted him to get me out of the house. I don’t know or remember why we were there.

The B-52 filled the sky like some giant dirty silver eagle taking off to look for prey. I remember the sight and sound of it to this day. I loved jets. Dad and I would go to Fort Lauderdale Airport or Miami International Airport, park at the edge of the runway and watch the jets land and take off for hours. It was an innocent time when you could actually park at the end of a runway and watch jets land and take off without raising an alarm with Homeland Security. On our third date I took the future Mrs to Fort Lauderdale Airport to watch the jets. I loved the roar of the engines on take off, the smell of burned jet fuel, the warm blast of the exhaust, and the high-pitched whine of an airliner coming in for a landing.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was a big deal for South Florida. The Mrs tells the story of how she and her dad were driving past Homestead AFB and they pulled into the entrance to turn around. They found themselves staring up the barrel of a tank which was posted in the middle of the road. The tank commander, standing in the turret, yelled at them to state their business or leave. As they turned around on the entrance road, the turret of the tank slowly tracked their movement, ready to open fire on the slightest provocation. Troops were mobilized to Florida and occupied a number of locations. I remember driving past one of the horse race tracks with my dad. From the highway you could see tents, trucks, jeeps, cannons, troops, and other implements of destruction … ready to invade Cuba – just 90 miles away – on a moment’s notice should the orders be given.

I grew up in South Florida, three hour’s drive south of Cape Canaveral. It was the Cold War and the Russians were our adversaries. They beat us into space, launching Sputnik into earth orbit in October of 1957 when I was not quite four years old. Then Sputnik 2 with the dog Laika – nicknamed Muttnik by the American press – followed in November. From 1957 to 1960, the Soviet Union launched numerous Sputniks and other satellites carrying dogs, mice, rats, guinea pigs, and plants. I was much older when I found out that Laika had died in space – as planned – something parents and school teachers weren’t likely to tell small children. Except for launch explosions and failed re-entries, the animals that followed Laika into space returned safely to earth. One of the puppies of Strelka (Sputnik 5, 1960) was even given to young Caroline Kennedy by Nikita Khrushchev. Then in April of 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the earth. By the time I entered First Grade the Space Race was already running at full speed.

I watched all of the manned space shots on TV – Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and later missions; watched all of the unmanned lunar and planetary coverage. In the ’60s space flight got almost as much coverage as football or even the Vietnam War. It was all new, every mission a first, every photo a discovery. It was exciting and very, very, cool. I eventually talked my dad into driving up to watch one of the early Apollo launches (Apollo 9 or 10, I think). Later, when I got my driver’s license, I caught as many launches as I could. Titusville, just three hours away from home and eleven miles west of the launch site, turned out to be the perfect spot for watching launches. Even at eleven miles away, the sight and sound of a live Saturn launch was far beyond anything I had seen on TV. I was addicted. I drove up to watch several Apollo launches including the night launch of Apollo 17, the Skylab launch, and the Apollo-Soyuz launch.

The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) was a big deal for space watchers around the world. The United States was in the midst of a Cold War with the Soviet Union, the Berlin wall was still dividing East from West Berlin, and communism was flourishing. Yet the Americans and the Russians had decided that cooperation, in space at least, was in both of their interests. Various overtures had quietly been made throughout the 60s for cooperation in space, but the race to the moon took precedence for both sides. The entire world watched as Neil Armstrong stepped on to the surface of the moon on 20 July 1969. Yet it would be many years before we learned the details of the spectacular launch pad explosions that derailed the Russian moon effort. The end of the space race was the beginning of space cooperation and within six years both sides were able to modify existing designs and coordinate flight plans to allow for the rendezvous and docking of Russian and American spacecraft.

During the summer of ’75 I was home from college. The Apollo-Soyuz launch was scheduled for July, so George and I decided to drive up to see it. I’ve known George since first grade. To say that George and I were best friends would be an understatement – we were “cohorts in crime”. The previous year George had invited me to tag along with him on a private tour of Kennedy Space Center (KSC) sponsored by his CAR (Children of the American Revolution) chapter. We also managed to add the future Mrs, her nursing school roommates, and few other friends to the entourage. Although I had been to KSC many times before on various tours, this was the first time I had been inside the enormous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) where the Apollo Saturn Vs (and later the Shuttles) were assembled for launch. One of the four assembly bays held the Saturn IB and Apollo that would be used for Apollo-Soyuz. That area was roped off, but we were otherwise free to wander around inside the cavernous hall and stare gawking up at the massive service cranes on the ceiling fifty stories above. As if to somehow flaunt just how big the VAB was, a fully inflated balloon – looking to be about the size of the Goodyear blimp – was tethered in one corner. In another section was a full scale mockup of the Apollo plus Docking Module on one stand and the Soyuz on another stand. (This model was later moved to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.)

A few days before the Apollo-Soyuz launch, I borrowed the family car and drove up to Titusville with George and Mark. We camped for two days on a small spit of land that jutted out into the Indian River (more bay or lagoon than river) that separates Kennedy Space Center from the mainland. The Kennedy Space Center includes Merritt Island with the VAB and Saturn launch pads and to the southeast – Cape Canaveral. Cape Canaveral was of course the site of all of the early manned and unmanned launches. Launch complexes for various versions and/or series of Atlas, Delta, Juno, Jupiter, Minuteman, Polaris, Poseidon, Redstone, Saturn, Thor, Titan, Snark, Vanguard, and others dotted the coast. For most of my youth I knew it as Cape Kennedy. It was renamed following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and remained Cape Kennedy for a decade until changed back due to pressure from the local residents.

So there we were – the three of us – in July of 1975 camped out on the bank of the Indian River with a few thousand of our closest friends awaiting the launch of the Apollo half of the Apollo-Soyuz mission. Mark had borrowed a small freestanding Coleman dome tent and we took turns sleeping in it or getting out of the sun. In front of us, facing the launch site, the water was shallow enough to wade out a fair distance in only knee-deep water. Horseshoe crabs were everywhere and required care to avoid stepping on. Behind us ran US-1 with its normal load of daily traffic. Although not as crowded as the launches of the sixties, this launch had still drawn a respectable audience. All of the hotels showed “No Vacancy”. Campers, cars, and tents lined the shore. A Shell station on the other side of the highway served as our restroom and commissary. It had a pay-phone which I would use to occasionally call home (cell phones didn’t come into existence until the ’80s and weren’t generally affordable until the ’90s).

I had discovered this spot during preparation for the launch of Apollo 17 two years earlier. We drove up a few weeks prior to the Apollo-Soyuz launch to scout out the site again and take photos of the launch vehicle on the pad. Once the launch date was more or less firmly set, we left a few days early to get a good spot. We were pretty much the only ones there when we got there, but as the scheduled launch day approached, every square inch of real estate became occupied by sightseers. I had taken an assortment of camera gear, telephoto lenses, and tripods in hopes of getting some good launch photos. July in Florida is characteristically hot and humid with occasional afternoon showers. Fortunately for us, the sky remained clear and there was a continuous breeze blowing from the east across the water. Unfortunately for us, the sand spit of our campground was deposited from ultra fine-grained sand which the breeze scattered about. Soon everything – camera gear, binoculars, telescopes, the inside of the tent, the food, every crevice of our bodies – was coated in a fine grit. We were sunburned, wind burned, sweaty, gritty, doused in mosquito repellent, and hadn’t bathed in days – it was great. We stayed up all night, slept at odd hours, talked to the ‘neighbors’ and … waited.

The Saturn IB launch vehicle was only half as tall as the Saturn V moon rocket, but was launched from the Saturn V launch complex on Merritt Island. The Saturn IB was a leftover from the early development days and NASA decided to use it for the last manned mission before the shuttle was to begin flying in six years. The Apollo capsule and Service Module had been built for a moon launch that had been cancelled due to funding cuts. The only new component was the Apollo-Soyuz Docking Module which provided both docking compatibility with the Soyuz and an airlock to allow for equalization between the low pressure pure oxygen environment of Apollo and the slightly higher nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere of Soyuz. It would serve as the “parlor” where the Americans and Russians would meet. The Docking Module was stowed between the Apollo and the Saturn second stage, in same location as that of the lunar landing modules. Once launched, Apollo would separate, spin around, and dock with the Docking Module – forming the complete U.S. half of the Apollo-Soyuz configuration. Rather than undertake the enormous cost of modifying the support gantry to accommodate the shorter Saturn IB, NASA engineers built a platform to support the Saturn IB, lifting it up such that the Apollo capsule was at the correct height to mate with the “clean room” and other connectors at the top. This support platform looked for all the world like an old Bunsen burner stand that we used in chemistry class to hold beakers or flasks over the fire. At a distance it was quite an odd site to see the ‘tiny’ rocket held up by a Bunsen burner stand next to the tall gantry structure.

Tuesday 15 July 1975 – six years minus one day after the historic moon launch of Apollo 11 – the sun rose above the horizon next to the Apollo Saturn launch pad. The sky was clear with no clouds or rain predicted. It was the perfect day for a launch. We had made friends with the retired couple in a nearby camper who had a battery-powered TV and were able to get status updates from both NASA and Russian space agency. Soyuz 19 would launch seven hours ahead of Apollo from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. This was the first time ever that an American TV audience was able to view live coverage of a Russian manned space launch. We watched it on that small battery-operated TV, camped eleven miles across the water from the Apollo launch pad. After several more minutes of coverage we returned to our tent, periodically checking the launch pad with binoculars and telescopes and passing the time until the scheduled afternoon launch. The countdown progressed and at 3:50 PM the Saturn carrying the American half of the Apollo-Soyuz mission lifted off the pad. The Saturn IB launch was somewhat less spectacular than the previous Saturn V launches I had seen, but was highly enjoyable none the less … and … we had been there to see the last ever launch of an Apollo spacecraft. After waiting for the other spectators to disperse, we finally drove back home. At home two days later we watched live TV coverage of the historic first meeting of the Americans and Russians in space.

In high school I tried to teach myself Russian from a Berlitz book I found at the local public library. I hung out at the library a lot as a kid. It was close enough to our apartment that I could walk or ride my bike to it. It was air conditioned – an important point for a kid growing up in South Florida – it was free – another important point … and … it was quiet (it was the library). I would sit in the back of the library by the magazine racks in one of the two comfy wing-back leather chairs and read Science News, Scientific American, Consumer Reports, etc. Lots of good stuff to read … and I read a lot. It was also smoke free – a rare thing in the sixties. I lived with my parents and my sister in a two bedroom duplex apartment with a small wall mounted all-in-one air conditioner unit. Mom and dad smoked like chimneys, which was the norm at the time, and the apartment was always thick with smoke. The library was a literally a breath of fresh air.

I would hang out at the library, back in one of the comfy chairs, studying Russian from the Berlitz book. Pronunciation was the hardest part, trying to pronounce words without actually hearing a native speaker say them. Da and Nyet were easy. Spah-cee-ba, pah-zha-lu-ee-sta, zdravst-vu-ee-tee and a host of other words were almost impossible. Years later I would have tapes of Russian conversations that I could listen to over and over again ad nauseum, but in the library I muddled through as best I could.

Star Trek made its appearance in 1966, the year of the final two-man Gemini missions. I was in Junior High. My parents didn’t care much for Star Trek and I always had to beg them to watch it on our one-and-only black and white TV. My dad always made fun of William Shatner’s over-acting, which I didn’t appreciate until years later watching Star Trek reruns. Star Trek was famous for quotes like “Damn it Jim, I’m a doctor, not a [insert profession here]” and “Beam me up Scottie” (even thought this exact phrase was never actually spoken in any of the TV episodes or later movies).

Star Trek also introduced the warp drive, permitting the crew to travel to other star systems faster than the speed of light and allowing them to visit a new star system every week. Although the concept of warp drive wasn’t new to readers of science fiction, Star Trek certainly popularized it and warp drive (or something like it) became the standard means of space transportation for future TV shows and movies including StarWars. As if to foretell the future of spaceflight and US-Russian relations, Star Trek featured a Russian as part of the crew – Ensign Pavel Andreievich Chekhov. Perhaps to mock the fact the Russians had beaten us into space, Chekhov’s stock response for any accomplishment … was that the Russian’s had done it first and done it better.

As a kid I listened mostly to AM radio and, when I could afford them, vinyl records. My dad gave me a hand-me-down HiFi with a record player sometime early in Junior High. This was a not a stereo – it was monaural – one channel. AM radio was also monaural. FM stereo did exist, but it was exclusively devoted to easy listening, classical, and “old folks music” – Sinatra, et. al. All the good music was on AM, and of all the groups playing, it was the Beatles that had the greatest impact on me. When they made their first US appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in February of 1964 the girls went wild. My five year old sister loved them. I however, hated them – “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Love Me Do” are not the kind of songs that appeal to an eleven year old science nerd. But as I matured, so did the Beatles. They developed an edge and a depth that spoke to the soul of a teenager searching for meaning in a confusing and troubling world. Within the span of my junior high school years they released the albums Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Magical Mystery Tour – each successive album somehow better and edgier than the previous one. This progression of musical genius culminated with The Beatles – also known as the White Album.

The White Album hit the stores in November of 1968 during my first year of high school and got heavy radio play in the same time period as the Apollo flights leading up to the Apollo 11 moon landing. It was a breakthrough two-album set. I never owned the vinyl, but George did and I would go over to his place and we would listen to it late into the night. Many of the songs spoke directly to me – with a deeper meaning, other songs were just fun to listen to. Still others appealed to me due to the complexity of the instrumentals. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”, “Piggies”, “Rocky Raccoon”, “Mother Nature’s Son” (later popularized by John Denver), and “Helter Skelter” were some of my favorites.

But arguably the best song on the White Album was the first song on the first record, which opens with the high-pitched whine of an airliner coming in for a landing … “Back in the USSR”.

= = = = =

This is my very first trip across ‘the pond’ – departing Houston and over-nighting in Frankfurt, then flying on to Moscow. I am part of a small team of geoscientists and negotiators from an oil company scouting a major gas field near the Arctic Circle. After another over-night in Moscow we will board an Aeroflot flight to Western Siberia. Only a few hours ago we arrived at Sheremetyevo airport, cleared customs, arranged for mini-buses to take us and our voluminous luggage to the hotel, checked in, and finally met downstairs for a strategy meeting and dinner in the hotel ‘beer garden’. We are staying at Gostinitsa Mezhdunarodnaya – the International Hotel. The Mezh, as it is affectionately called by foreigners, is one of the newer hotels. It is located on the north bank of a bow of the now frozen Moscow River, across from the older Russian-style Hotel Ukraine. The Mezh is famous for its large ornate lobby clock whose mechanical rooster crows each hour with much fanfare.

Although one of the newer hotels, the Mezh is very much a traditional Russian hotel. After checking in I am given a receipt and a slip of paper with my room number. I take the elevator up to my floor and I find the dezhurnaya or key lady. I hand her the slip of paper and she hands me a key and signs me in. Day or night a key lady is on duty. When I leave I have to turn in my key and get a slip of paper – when I return I hand over my piece of paper and get my key back. Was this a way for the KGB to track my comings and goings? Perhaps, but it might be just as likely that hotels have a limited supply of keys – possibly as a security measure – but more likely than not just a supply shortage like everything else in the Soviet Union. At any rate the ‘powers that be’ will know when I am in my hotel room and when I’m not. Big Brother is watching me.

After a late dinner Peter invites me to go with him to see the changing of the guard at Lenin’s Tomb, which is similar to that of Buckingham Palace, yet distinctive in its own Russky way. Anyone can see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, but how many Westerners get to see the one at Lenin’s Tomb? I’m pretty jet-lagged, but I need to stay up as late as possible to reset my clock – not to mention that we are on a tight schedule and this might be my only chance to see Red Square.

Hell yes, I’ll go!

Our goal is to catch the eleven o’clock changing of the guard at Lenin’s Tomb before Metro stops running at midnight. It’s after ten and Peter isn’t even sure we can make it in time, but he thinks we might be able to make it if we hurry. We head out on foot into the bitter cold. We walk north from the Mezh on an icy walkway along Ulitsa 1905 goda, 1905 street. Peter is in better shape than I am and I can barely keep up with him. We walk a few blocks until we come to a small wooded park on the right lying between Ulitsa 1905 goda and Ulitsa Trekhrodniy Val. Then we follow a crunchy snow-covered path through the park a few more blocks and emerge at the edge of a large empty thoroughfare. We hurry across and walk a few dozen more yards to the circular Ulitsa 1905 goda Metro station. We buy our subway tokens and hop on the escalator descending as if into the bowels of earth. The air is warm and humid now and I need to wipe off my glasses in order to see the steep tunnel opening before us.

The escalator zips us quickly into the depths and we arrive at the platform of the ‘Magenta’ line. Peter, who as been here several trips before, leads us to the correct side heading into Moscow. Almost immediately a train arrives, the doors open, and we hop on. I find a place to stand and grab on to a hand rail. With no time to spare a voice says something in Russian over the loud speakers and away we zoom, accelerating rapidly. Although I have been studying Russian with a tutor at work for perhaps three or four months now, my grasp of spoken Russian is weak, so I have no idea what was said. Peter tells me it is essentially “watch out for the closing doors” followed by the name of the next station. This is probably the standard routine for most subways around the world, but since this is also the first time I have been on a subway, I am very impressed. The lights blink off-on-off-on and a voice comes back on the speakers. I can’t tell if it is live or a recording. Peter tells me this isn’t our stop. The train decelerates and I adjust my stance to maintain balance. The doors open, people get off, people get on, the voice makes another announcement, and away we go again.

The lights blink. The voice speaks. “Time to change lines” Peter informs me. Doors open and out we go. Up stairs – down stairs – cross over – check the signs – more stairs (all of this still deep underground) and then we are on the ‘Green’ line. Once again a train arrives almost immediately and the process repeats. We get on only to get off at the next stop, Teatralnaya, Theater District, from which we can exit to the surface via the Ploshchad Revolyutsii, Revolution Square, station. Back on the escalator – up up up up up up up – and through the glass doors, back out into the cold dry night. The rapid change of temperature takes me by surprise and I have trouble catching my breath. Peter looks at his watch – it is almost eleven – and we still have a good way to go. We hurry helter-skelter over icy streets – walking, sliding, running. Down a dark narrow empty alley, then another alley, then another, past old dark buildings, under high archways. Out on to a major street, up a slight hill … then suddenly wide open space … Red Square, snow-covered, brightly lit, surreal. More snow crunches under foot as we run across Red Square to the mausoleum on the other side. Lungs burning. Eyes squinting in the blinding light. The black and red polished granite of the tomb stands against the red brick of the Kremlin wall. Engraved in red within the black granite band encircling the tomb is one word in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet

Ленин.

Two soldiers are standing guard in front of the entrance to the tomb, motionless as if frozen solid in the frigid Russian night. Are these the new guards? Did we miss the change? We watch … waiting expectantly. A light snow begins to fall, imparting a surreal feeling that we are mere figurines standing in a Faberge snow globe.

Suddenly as if on cue two new soldiers appear from the far right marching along the Kremlin wall. Steam wafts from their mouths and noses as they march toward us, turn, and then approach the tomb. With intricate precision, the new guards exchange places with their comrades and take up their positions in rigid silence. The two relieved soldiers then march back along the red brick of the Kremlin wall and disappear from view as the thump thump thump of their boots on the frozen pavement trails away into the night. The only ones remaining on Red Square are Peter, myself, and the two new guards. My lungs are burning, fingers and toes numb, eyes and nose watering, but I had made it in time to see a hallmark of the Soviet Union – the changing of the guard at Lenin’s tomb. Little did I know that within a year the Soviet Union would collapse and the honor guard at Lenin’s tomb would be a footnote in history.

Falling snow flakes twinkle in the bright lights as we take one last look at Krasnaya Ploshchad before turning to leave and making our way back to catch the last Metro run of the night.