From Russia with…

Colman Cassidy hit the Soviet Union in spots on a whistle-stop tour, a few weeks after the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, for the Sunday Press.  From Moscow to Alma Ata everything appeared ‘normal’, from rock concerts to Parsi temples…

M_Place_Rouge“Excuse me, please, I must talk to you about something that is to me, very important.”  I am sure it must be a put on, but the syntax is arresting.
It’s ten minutes to midnight, eight before the new guard will appear from inside the Saviour Gate of the Kremlin, to replace the two human statues on either side at the entrance to the Lenin Mausoleum.   I’ve been in Moscow less than two hours.
“Excuse me,” the voice repeats.  It’s not another black market tout as I’d first supposed.  In the ten-minute walk from the hotel to Red Square, several figures have appeared at my side from nowhere, offering to exchange roubles for whatever currency I have.  The going rate is two roubles for one U.S. dollar, more than twice the official rate of exchange.
My response is less than enthusiastic.  I’ve just heard the Soviet government has announced a stringent campaign to clamp down on the black market.  Henceforth, Soviet citizens will have to prove their money is ‘legally’ acquired before they can purchase luxury items costing more than 10,000 roubles, such as jewellery, cars and sailing boats.
The young man in Red Square is a patriotic citizen, an out-of-towner from the city of Ufa in the Urals.  He has arrived in the capital earlier today for an examination in English, tomorrow.  Despite only three hours’ sleep he decided to make his way to the Kremlin “to pay tribute to our country’s great national hero” – and to talk to whatever English-speaking foreigners he can find.
“Could you please assess my facility in your language for me?”, the pilgrim asks, in all seriousness.  An assistant lecturer in architecture, it’s clear that a good result in the examination could be a distinct feather in his cap, careerwise.
He goes on to talk about his city and its people.  They will soon begin construction on their own underground metro – a must for any Soviet city with a population in excess of one million, I’m told.
All they know about Chernobyl is what has appeared on television and in the newspapers.  The authorities, it is believed – and sincerely hoped – have the situation under control.  That’s about all he can say on the crisis in Ukraine. I tell him he will pass his exam, without difficulty.
The changing of the guard is, as expected – spectacular.  The Red Flag flies proudly overhead, arc-lit and flowing in the wind, to maximum effect – very symbolic.  Inside, the body of Lenin lies in state, year after year.  An outsider can immediately sense the emotional charge the place holds for pilgrims such as the young man from the Urals.  The Kremlin is an historic shrine to the famous and infamous of past centuries.  In particular it symbolises for the Soviet people the October Revolution and the Great Patriotic War (World War II) – the two major events of this century that have touched every single family.
The National Hotel, where I’m staying, overlooks October Square, near the Kremlin.   Pre-Revolution, built in 1903, it has a well-run ‘Edwardian’ atmosphere.  Lenin stayed there for eight days in March 1918, after his arrival from Petrograd (Leningrad), before he moved into the Kremlin.
The hotel’s foreign currency bar boasts a mish-mash of westerners, most of who are delegates to the giant Moscow International Telecom Exhibition.  Two British Telecom engnineers, well into their cups, tell apocryphal tales about their equipment, which they say is more sophisticated than anything the Russians have; just one dial and they can ‘unscramble’ their way around the Russian jammers, no bother, and link up direct to Liverpool.
The happy duo are a mine of information on ‘do’s and don’ts’ in Moscow – restaurants, taxis, currency exchange etc., all of which are cast in a colourful light.   They are particularly upbeat about being followed around, covertly, by KGB agents.   All foreigners must expect this: “No worries, you just have to live with it.” They know nothing at all about the benefit concert for the Chernobyl victims scheduled to take place tomorrow evening.
Neither do the other journalists I meet at breakfast in the morning.  When Irena, the Intourist guide arrives, she offers to get us tickets.  Half an hour later we turn up at the giant Olympic stadium where the concert is to be held, only to discover that it is booked out.
This is to be Moscow’s answer to Bob Geldof’s ‘Live Aid’ initiative – inspired by pop star and compere Alla Pugacheva and rock critic Art Troitsky, as the first in a series of concerts designed to raise the equivalent of £10 million for the Chernobyl victims.
The virtual news blackout continues as regards the nuclear disaster in Ukraine.   There is, however, a significant development.  Dr. Andrew Gale, head of the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, is holding a press conference in Moscow to announce details of a joint study on the medical consequences of Chernobyl.
Agreement for the joint study was signed by Gale, as chairman of the advisory committee of the International Bone Marrow Transplant Registry and Andrew Vorobiev, head of the department of haematology at a Moscow’s Central Institute for Advanced Medical Studies.  It encompasses the long-term evaluation and provision of medical care for some 135,000 people evacuated from the danger zone surrounding the worst nuclear disaster in recorded history.  They will have to be closely monitored for the rest of their lives.
Gale’s book, Chernobyl: The Final Warning, relates how he – an American Jew – acting as a private individual, and not representing his government, was in the unique position to hold the press conference: he had heard on the radio the news of the nuclear holocaust in Ukraine.  He knew that the Soviets would not accept medical help from the American government.  He also knew that he and his colleagues had state-of-the-art skills and ready access to transplant registry files which could pinpoint suitable donors for bone marrow transplants at the press of a button, anywhere in the western world.  He wanted desperately to put all this at the disposal of the injured Chernobyl firemen and plant workers.
In the event, he contacted Arnold Hammer, the multi-millionaire son of Russian immigrant parents – and the best-known American capitalist in the Soviet Union. Hammer, then 87, had been on friendly terms with every Soviet leader since the revolution, including Lenin, and did a vast a amount of business with the Eastern Bloc.  On Hammer’s recommendation, the American doctor got his invitation to fly to Moscow and help treat the victims of Chernobyl.
Gale admits that a natural scientific curiosity as to the state of medicine in the Soviet Union in his chosen field accompanied his altruism.  His description of what he found at Hospital Number 6 in Moscow, where the worst victims of the disaster were being treated, conjures up the graphic scenes depicted in Sarcophagus, the play written by Vladimir Gubaryev, science correspondent of Pravda – shown in Dublin in November 1987.
In charge of the unit was Dr. Angelina Guskova whom he describes (in a somewhat sexist and unscientific way) as “short, stocky, 60 years old and very Siberian looking, with a round, wrinkled face and piercing blue eyes” – a renowned international expert in her field.  Clearly, she was going to brook no nonsense from the 41 year-old American and his colleagues.  The Soviets had already transformed three bone marrow transplants.  Gale was impressed – especially by the system evolved by Guskova for determining the amount of radiation absorbed by each patient.  This was crucial, since below a certain dose of radiation, bone marrow transplant is unnecessary.
The American was somewhat puzzled at the readiness with which the Russian authorities agreed to accept his services.  It was clear that they were capable of dealing with the situation medically.  His contribution and that of his colleagues played a significant part in the treatment of the patients, but was far from being the paramount factor – despite the tendency, not just in the US news media, to represent him as an intervening ‘Superman’.  His Russian colleagues, for their part, welcomed the help he brought and even marvelled at the way that he was able to cut through red tape and get what was needed.
Despite his seminal contribution, Gale wryly concedes that his role might have been double-edged – from the Russian viewpoint.  In view of the delays by the authorities in announcing the disaster coupled with a propensity to keep it off the front pages, it was clear that independent evidence would be extremely useful, to placate international opinion. In this respect, Gale’s arrival was a godsend.  Hence the press conference in Moscow, when his work was finished, prior to his return to the USA.

Alma Ata


The USSR is a vast expanse which covers a sixth of the earth’s surface.  The flight to Alma Ata in central Asia, 3,300 kms. away – less than 200 kms. from the Chinese border – takes four hours, the same as Shannon to Moscow.   The Aeroflot IL-86 ‘jumbo’ chews up three time zones on the way, so that it is morning when we arrive, with the sun shining brightly through snow-capped mountains, part of the Tien-Shan range which links up with the Himalayas.
Alma Ata is the capital of the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan, an area the size of western Europe.  The population of only 15 million comprises 30% indigenous Kazakhs (former nomads) and 40% Russians, as well as Ukrainians, Tartars, Koreans. Germans etc.  Most of the non-Kazakhs moved here in the 1950s to help with the republic’s own industrial revolution.
Alma Ata (“father of the apples”, because of the high quality of this fruit grown locally), was originally a small settlement on the Silk Route from China.  The population of just under a million is mixed, but relations, overall, are harmonious.  As well as a major focus for industry, the city is now an important cultural centre of the USSR, with a university, theatres, art galleries, museums and many other centres of learning and culture.
From the start of socialist rule here in the 1920s, the city fathers encouraged the planting of trees – for a marriage, birth, death, divorce, whatever.  There is nothing sentimental about this: mud slides from the mountains travelling, at times, in excess of 60 mph, had destroyed enormous areas of the city in the past – the mountains surround Alma Ata on three fronts.  This programme, together with “the biggest series of explosions in peace time” in the foothills near the beauty spot of Medeo, have made the city safe.


The Ilyushin plant at Tashkent, which builds airliners for Aeroflot, is vast, but not exceptional.  There is a massive variety of industry here including agriculture, mining and engineering of all types.
Elmar, the Intourist guide, is a mine of information.  Masses of cultural data as well as social and economic statistics pour out of him.  He’s even an authority on western pop music, unusual for a Russian.  What he does not know, however, is that Solzhenitsyn had set his novel, Cancer Ward, in a Tashkent hospital – during the spring and autumn of 1951.
The guide, a Party member and the proud grandson of a local military commissar who took an active part in the revolution, considers this particular gem of slight consequence.  Nonetheless, he listens politely while I try to recall what the expatriate Russian novelist had said in defence of his book before his critics in the Writers’ Union, who had seen Cancer Ward as overt criticism of Stalin’s Soviet administration.  And like the Writers’ Union, he remains unconvinced.  This, the capital of the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan, was the hub of a number of important trade routes from the earliest times – with its own literature from the 15th century. The roads to the Kazakh steppes, Siberia, India, Persia and the Middle East all meet in the city centre.
Tashkent came under Russian Tsarist rule in the 19th century.  Russian political prisoners were sent here to work the farms, as well as to Siberia.  So successfully did they indoctrinate the local Moslem population, that they initiated their own revolution only days after the successful Petrograd revolt in October 1917.  It took seven years of heavy fighting, however, before the Uzbek Socialist Republic was formed.
Modern Tashkent is not the museum-piece of Islamic culture that I’d expected.   That role is reserved for the cities of Samarkand and Bokara, which unfortunately, there isn’t time to see.
images-1Tashkent’s centre was wiped out by an earthquake in 1966 so that little now remains of its Islamic architecture; a notable exception is Kukeldash Madrassah, a 16th century Moslem seminary.
A mammoth rebuilding programme has given the city an entirely modern appearance, which if not exactly ‘authentic restoration’, is still far from disagreeable.
I thought Moscow’s metro must be unequalled aesthetically, anywhere, but the newly built underground at Tashkent is a virtual showpiece.  Each station is a unique ‘palace’, distinctive in its own right, and decorated in local stone and ochre-coloured marble.

Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, is different. This was the Caucasian oil centre that the Germans tried desperately to capture, to replenish their energy reserves in the war, while pretending their real intentions lay elsewhere.  Onshore, oil is trickling to a halt at last, but there are said to be vast resources of oil and natural gas offshore in the Caspian Sea that remain to be tapped.
On a tour of the old city I run into a television journalist who is making a weekly programme that features the views of foreigners in the Soviet Union.  Alexei Sinitsyn is head of the international department at Azerbaijan TV.  He sports a pair of ‘Lucky Strike’ Guaranteed Quality jeans, outward sign of the intellectual trendy.
Through an interpreter we agree to meet later to put the world to rights.  It proves to be a feisty session that turns into a formal TV interview when he arrives at my hotel with a television crew early next morning.  We discuss politics – human rights, the prospects for world peace, my impressions of the USSR, Chernobyl and lots besides.
To my surprise, Alexei readily agrees that the early news handling of the nuclear holocaust in Ukraine has been a disgrace – way down the list of priority news items each evening and only on the inside pages of the newspapers.  As more information has trickled through, he says, the feeling of tragedy has mounted.
I argue, tongue in cheek,1)cf. Conclusion in Semiotics article on this website, that the western journalist has a much greater chance of saying what he or she wants compared to a Soviet counterpart.  He disagrees in general, while allowing that he himself, as a Party member, would certainly take the definitive line on particular subjects.  He doesn’t flinch when I suggest that Mikhail Gorbachev’s excellent television profile has done much to remove the Jewish ‘refusenik’ question from western consciousness.  He takes grave exception, however, to my assertion that European Russia has lost much of its identity (such as Russian Orthodoxy), while the Moslems, in the main, have managed to entrench their cultural identity, in spite of the Revolution; and Russian ‘intervention’ in Afghanistan might not be too different from the USA’s imperialist stance in Central America.  Russia only went in when invited, he insists.
Next day I learn that Alexei has done his national service in Afghanistan, when he says to me in broken English: “I have slaved in the Soviet Army in Afghanistan.  Have you slaved in the army?”  I am forced to admit I have not.  The crew direct me to a beach a short distance away where it is possible to swim in the Caspian Sea, in relatively clean water, despite the presence of oil derricks a few hundred yards away.  My progress, it appears, is being monitored, and I recall the words of the English engineers back in Moscow when two men in a brown-coloured car drive off noisily as I emerge from the beach, one ostentatiously wielding a camera.
In hindsight, two of the most memorable features of Azerbaijan were the Parsi fire-worshippers’ temple and its fascinating history and a vist to the desert site of pre-historic cliff drawing at Gobustan, dating from 7,000 B.C. – some 40 kms. from the Baku.


The guide at Volgograd (Stalingrad) is rigid with indignation when I indicate that this very day, 6 June, is the 42nd anniversary of the opening of the Second Front – D-Day.  “They certainly took their time,” she says, referring to the 1944 invasion of Normandy by the Americans and British some three years after the Russians had stood up to everything the Germans had thrown at them, mainly at this place, Stalingrad, on the great artery of the Volga.
images-2 The Volgograd War Museum is breath-taking in its scale.     The Russians make no apology for this.  For them the Great Patriotic War in which they lost 20 million and ultimately defeated the ‘Fascists’, was their finest hour.   The symbolism carved out on rock is penetrating, as are the stories of individual heroes and heroines, so poignantly represented.
Here the changing of the guard does not leave the outsider untouched, as in Moscow.  Inside, the enormous underground chamber that contains the Eternal Flame, together with the long lists of fallen heroes, provide an emotive testimonial. The real tear-jerker, ironically, is the German composer, Robert Schumann, who once wrote: “To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts, such is the duty of the artist.”  His music at Stalingrad, ensures that everyone present, Russian and non-Russian, is a full participant.


References   [ + ]

1. cf. Conclusion in Semiotics article on this website,

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