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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Where were you the Day Brezhenev Died?

Reader Dave Essel offers the following comments and fascinating essay reflecting on his memories of bygone days (or perhaps not so bygone afterall). This story could not come at a more timely moment, as we reflect upon the passing of Boris Yeltsin and upon his legacy.

I came across La Russophobe yesterday and was delighted to find a place where Russia is looked at through glasses that are not tinted the rosy-pink that Western ‘liberals’ wear or whatever evil colour it is that Russophiles see instead of daylight. My position comes from understanding the term Russophobe in the following way: in the centuries-old battle between Westernisers and Slavophiles, and now between democrats, liberals, free-thinkers or whatever on the one hand, and Russophiles on the other, the Russophiles have shown themselves to be consistently vile, inferior in thought, racist, chauvinist, jealous, and burdened by a massive chip on their shoulders. Since I stand for the antithesis of what it means to be a Russophile, I must therefore be antonymically a Russophobe. Only a Russophile could think that this means that I hate or despise Russians and/or Russia.


Everyone of the post-war generation remembers where they were the day JFK was shot. Most also remember the same for the day when John Lennon was shot.

I, however, also have wonderful memories of the day old "eyebrows" Brezhnev (Бровеносец в потемках) finally kicked the bucket in November 1982. I was in Germany, shepherding a Soviet delegation from one of the more powerful foreign trade organisations. We were providing a 3-day jolly in Munich under the pretext of a pre-delivery inspection of goods that were being supplied to the Soviet Union. [It was always a good idea for contracts with the Soviets to include the necessity, built into the price of the goods, of visits to the West during the course of the contract. The costs of such bribes is rather higher today, of course.]

So there I am in Munich with my delegation, headed by a complete animal by the name of Alexandr N. This delegation, as usual, consists of one or two people who actually know something about the work in hand, a couple of freeloading communist party bureaucrats who of course get preference over people infinitely more worthy, and the inevitable KGB minder. It doesn’t take long to sort out who is who. Aleksandr N., the head of the delegation, is special in a number of ways: he is quite a good specialist in his field and very well positioned bureaucratically as head of an FTO. As a result, he appeared relatively fearless. Example: on the first day, eating out is the most important thing to discuss in the order of the day, since the factory walk-through is simply the price in boredom to be paid for the evening meal in a grand restaurant which will be a thrill (making sure to always let the delegation know the amount of the addition, the size of which provides the sole proof that they have been treated with due respect since any dish will have been unfamiliar and not appreciated, while only alcohol will have tempered the uneasiness of the situation). Alexandr N., however amazes me. In front of the whole delegation, he says let’s go to a fish restaurant and eat shrimps. Addressing the whole delegation, none of the other members of which have been to the West before, he says that shrimps in the West are really big, not the size of genital crabs like back in Moscow (не размером с мандавошек как у нас). All but one of the other members of the delegation practically piss themselves with horror and don’t know where to look. I now know who the gebeshnik (KGB spy) is. At the same time, I force myself to contain a laugh because there is truth in what he says (the shrimps occasionally available in the beer bar, name forgotten, in the basement of one of the new buildings on Kalinina are not impressive) but reckon it might be diplomatic not to have understood.

This has been all to the good, however, because I now know who to talk to about the most important thing that must take be arranged: the evening at a night club with striptease. This high point of any visit by a Soviet delegation is a very delicate matter. I have to decide who is the right person to whom to mention the possibility of such an entertainment, then let him arrange the clearances (basically, browbeat the KGB man into joining in and then making sure that no-one will engage in any denouncing activities after the return to Moscow, mainly by making sure that everyone goes so that everyone has sinned). My proposal that we do this the next evening is heard out, the whispered conversations take place, and an hour later, I am told that they accept the idea – when in Rome do as the Romans.

There is a tingle of excitement in the atmosphere the next morning as we prepare to do our duty-time in the factory preparatory to the planned evening thrills. Actually, the time in the factory is fun, too. The Germans have made an effort. The secretaries have been told to dress up in traditional clothes so they’re all in Bavarian dirndls or whatever and a buffet lunch complete with a barrel of special Munich beer has been arranged – in one of the clean rooms, to the horror of its resident engineers, since a buffet without smoking some stinking TU134s is unthinkable. One of the engineers is carefully and accurately fitting the spigot into the beer barrel. This seems to be fiddly and is taking time. Alexandr N., in a hurry to get some booze in and irritated by the care being taken, steps in to help. All he manages to do is rip the spigot out of the barrel and stands, frozen in surprise, getting himself hosed with the beer that streams out. Even lunch is a stinking success.

As lunch finishes, a secretary comes in and whispers to the boss. He interrupts things to relate the sad news: Brezhnev’s death has been announced. The delegation is stunned into instant silence. No one knows what to do. The KGB man gets his act together, tells us they must go back to the hotel as they are in mourning. Everything comes to a close and cars are summoned.

We start the drive back to the hotel. But then I hear some whispering in the back seat. This continues back and forth for some time. It’s difficult to eavesdrop because of traffic noise. Eventually, one of them, the gebeshnik I think, taps me on the soldier and asks the all-important question. “We presume that you have already made arrangements for this evening, that reservations have been made and everything?” I tell him yes, that is indeed the case. Some more whispering ensues. “Given that you have gone to all this trouble, we think it would be unreasonable to disrupt the planned schedule and will nonetheless keep to it.”

We pop into the hotel in order for Alexandr N. to change out of his reeking beer-soaked clothes and then I had a very easy evening of it in the night club. We had hardly sat down and chugalugged a few drinks before I found myself free: all my companions from the delegation were busily engaged chatting up, God knows in what language since none of them spoke anything but Russian, and cuddling their lovely lap dancers until the early hours.

Of Brezhnev, not a further word was said. Sic transit...

1 comment:

Ritvars said...

My dad had a habit to sum ages of newly elected Politbureau members after each Party congress and draw a graph in a course of time. In late Brezhnev times, line surpassed 1000 years' mark.
I was in early school years when Brezhnev died. We had a mourning meeting at school, principal telling something boring about passing of great leninist. But I was thinking how comes that even the greatest leader isn't invincible and what dire straits await us. All papers and magazines published black-framed Brezhnev's obituary with a big photo. The holiday of mourning was declared, when hooters were put in action around the city for some minutes. I listened to them from a balcony of our flat.
Then Soviet leaders started to die out so frequently that it became rather casual business. When Chernenko (the last before Gorbachov) died there wasn't even a school holiday so we were righteously angry to attend classes as usual.