Thursday, June 29, 2017

ON THE AVENUES: Back in the USSR, with my old friend Barr.

ON THE AVENUES: Back in the USSR, with my old friend Barr.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

28 June 1987.

Just shy of midnight, my childhood pal Barrie “Barr” Ottersbach stepped off the elevator into the corridor running past the block of rooms reserved at the Hotel Molodjezhny for the use of Scandinavian Travel Service Tour’s SSTS S819, conducted in conjunction with Sputnik, the Soviet youth and student agency.

Three decades of campfire stories were about to break out.

I’d debuted earlier the same day, miraculously allowed to occupy a room without waiting for the group’s late evening arrival. As the Americans, Canadians and Australians who would be my travel companions for the next two weeks came trickling down the corridor, I grilled them.

“Did Barrie make it?”

“Barrie? Is he the crazy guy with the mustache? Don’t worry. He’s coming.”

As I was grinding out the endless miles from Budapest to Moscow to the rhythm of choo-choo wheels and the providential lubrication of Bull’s Blood wine, Barrie had flown from Louisville to Copenhagen, Denmark and spent a hotel night there prior to meeting the group at the pre-arranged location.

On the 28th, the tour group flew from Copenhagen to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), then switched planes for the late flight to Moscow, arriving at 22.30.

Barrie and I long had been keen on visiting the USSR as a team, and my brief weekend experience in Leningrad in 1985 inspired me to plot a return in 1987. He decided to go, too, and when the Soviet tour was over, we’d be continuing our journey into Western Europe. In the end, we spent more than six weeks carousing, with a great deal of learning as an added bonus.

Visiting the USSR meant finding a good tour package. During the Cold War, independent or otherwise unsupervised travel in the Soviet Union was problematic. It could be done, just not easily. Once on the ground with a group, there’d be nothing binding us to the daily schedule, and we could explore on our own, provided we remained within city limits and kept our tour leader informed.

Barrie and I discussed it at length, and took the recommendation of Let’s Go: Europe by opting for SSTS. I’ve never once regretted the decision. SSTS’s itinerary was designed for impoverished youth, and was as affordable as it got. While decidedly non-luxurious, it covered the high points and got us inside, through the gate.

More importantly, the tour led to an enduring friendship with Kim Wiesener, the Danish group leader for SSTS, and by extension, with his friends Allan Gamborg and Kim Andersen.

Kim was our age, but he was an old Soviet hand, with a Russian branch on his family tree. He had attended Moscow State University and spoke Russian. His gig for SSTS was part-time, and offered a working holiday every now and then.

The poor guy. He had no idea.

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Legend has it that Kim fell under Barrie’s spell (or was it the other way around?) during the apparently bumpy Aeroflot flights. It’s no surprise. Barrie was, and remains, a people person writ large. If you’re not his comrade, it’s only because you haven’t yet met him – as numerous Marxist-Leninists were about to learn.

By midnight we were drinking every beer we could scrounge from a relatively helpful restaurant employee downstairs, and catching up on things. Subconsciously, I began adjusting to the likelihood of vastly reduced sleep for the foreseeable future.

Next morning, the first of many boozy evenings behind us, tour participants met in the lobby for a breakfast the likes of which I can’t remember at all. As befits a budget tour of a Communist country, the food we’d paid to be fed was a bit of a letdown, rather institutional, and sufficient for sustenance but little else.

All the more reason to seek calories in alcohol.

As the group dined, Kim counted heads. On the very first morning of the tour, there already was one conspicuous absence, which was left for me to explain.

No worries, I told Kim.

Barrie’s with Bill.

Bill? What Russian is named “Bill”?

Yes, well … Bill. You know – from the Ukraine, not Russia.

Rather than the regularly scheduled orientation bus ride through Moscow, Barrie had opted to join the friendly neighborhood black market sales representative for an informative glimpse into the Soviet Union’s alternative underground “second” economy.

Bill was hesitant to be photographed. 

As Kim gulped and reached for the Danish version of Rolaids, I apologized. I’d been the one who had met Bill on the street the previous day, discretely changed money with him, and been treated to ice cream and a hot dog.

In fact, I was ready to pay Bill a high compliment; for a Communist all of 18 years old, he was a highly polished entrepreneur. Kim shook his head, perhaps glimpsing the sheer magnitude of the chaperone’s task ahead.

Red Square, SE view toward St. Basil's;
Kremlin and Lenin's Mausoleum to the right.

Changing of the guard at Lenin's Mausoleum.


Red Square, looking NW.

The morning bus orientation concluded, we returned to the hotel for lunch and found Barr waiting, bright and chipper following his appointment … and not coincidentally, brandishing a softball-sized wad of colorful Soviet rubles.

In effect, he’d laundered rubles into dollars so that Bill LLC could buy audio equipment at a Beriozka, or hard currency store where quality foreign items were sold for real money, not rubles.

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The Soviet Union may have appeared monolithic, though the country’s economy was anything but.

The second economy in the Soviet Union was the informal sector in the economy of the Soviet Union. The term was suggested by Gregory Grossman in his seminal article, "The Second Economy of the USSR" (1977). Economist Gerard Roland noted that as Grossman anticipated, "the logic of the second economy tended over time to undermine the logic of the command system and to lead to expanding black markets" … to a varying degree, second economy influenced all Eastern Bloc economies.

Grossman defines the concept of second economy with a two-prong test: it is the set of economic activities which satisfy at least one of the two conditions: "(a) being directly for private gain (b) being in some significant respect in knowing contravention of existing law."

The black market feature of this “second economy” existed to suit demand that the official economy couldn’t (or wouldn’t) fill.

As the joke went, Soviet citizens pretended to work, and the government pretended to pay them. In theory, the basics of life – food, shelter, medical care – were provided at little or no charge, meaning that there’d be ample leftover rubles for discretionary spending.

Except there wasn’t very much to buy.

Command economies in the Soviet Bloc were geared to produce heavy industrial articles -- steel, cement, tractors -- and not consumer goods. Consequently, everyday items westerners took for granted were generally scarce.

The common man’s solution was to stick the excess rubles into savings accounts or stuff them under the mattress, then dive headfirst into the “blat” economy of barter and favors in order to keep the household wheels turning.

Almost inevitably, this meant circumventing the law. The object of blat was to accumulate swappable chits, either tangible or intangible. As can be readily imagined, petty thievery and outright corruption quickly ensued.

If scarce shoes arrived at a shop, the employees would divvy them up before they were stocked in view of the public, because their value was higher in the informal bartering market than as a cash transaction – and if you couldn’t get a physical object in return for a pair of pilfered shoes, the favor you were owed could be saved and redeemed when necessary.

Perhaps the dentist given the shoes would fix your teeth off the clock ... "borrowing" workplace materials, of course.

Bill’s entrepreneurial career was little more than a logical progression from Blat 101. He recognized that the Soviet government was complicit in the black market, or else it wouldn’t have established Beriozka shops in the first place, filled with goods unobtainable without dollars, Deutschmarks or pounds sterling.

That’s because the ruble was not attached to the planetary capitalist economic system. Rubles had no value outside the Soviet Union, so the government needed hard currency just as much as Bill wanted audio equipment.

In turn, Barrie now found himself with several hundred rubles in a place where subway tickets were mere kopecks (or shrapnel, as Barrie referred to them) and a lavish restaurant meal with vodka, champagne and caviar might cost 10 – 15 rubles per person, or maybe $22 at the “official” exchange rate, but Barr’s black market rate was closer to seven rubles to the dollar, perhaps even more.

A fur hat of ordinary quality could be found on the shelf in a department store, for just a few of Barrie’s rubles. The better quality fur hats? They were in the Beriozka, and unavailable for purchase with rubles at any price.

So, how would Barrie's ruble windfall be depleted? Rubles couldn't be exchanged back into dollars without a bank receipt, and it was illegal to take them out of the USSR. Even if smuggled out, rubles were worth almost nothing.

But Barrie always has been an observant student of human nature, and he’d already considered the angles before joining Bill for a June morning’s foraging. He’d gleefully spend as many rubles as possible on meals, beers and commonplace (but atmospheric) souvenir trinkets to pack home.

As his chief accomplice, I’d be allowed to run a tab.

Barrie also would take a page out of Bill’s guidebook and accept a temporary position as financial consultant on the Anglophone fringe of the black market, profitably reselling rubles back into hard currency at a reasonable “favored customer” discount for those members of our tour group who were too cautious to trade for them on the street.

In the end, it all worked out just fine. In the coming days, I’ll do my best to describe these memorable times abroad.

Some of the stories might even be true.

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Recent columns:

June 22: ON THE AVENUES: Train Whistle Reds, or my journey from Budapest to Moscow by rail in June, 1987.

June 15: ON THE AVENUES: Hi there, NAHA wastrels. My name is Peter Principle, and these are my friends Deaf and Dugout.

June 8: ON THE AVENUES: Since 2004, "Two way, better way."

June 1: ON THE AVENUES: Take this cult of personality and shove it.

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