By Dennis Polhill
The American Public Works Association gave me the unique and exciting privilege of being part of an outstanding trip to the Soviet Union from October 9 to October 23, 1989. The trip was organized cooperatively by the People-To-People Program and APWA. The Public Works Technical Group was requested by the Soviet Union and was the first visit of a public works delegation to the Soviet Union.
Our reception by the Soviets was outstanding. They must have expected folks that were closer to George Bush. Partially due to the uniqueness of our group and partially due to the structure of their government, many of our meetings were with high ranking federal government officials. The people were genuinely friendly, open and curious. Whenever I managed to be alone with a group of locals, I was treated with great regard and friendliness. Being a novelty is very good for the ego.
The dignitaries were exceedingly gracious, polite, and generous with candies, pins, papers and alcohol. I learned the correct way to kick off a party — which explains a lot about their high rate of alcoholism.
Our delegation was headed by Ron Jensen, Director of Public Works in Phoenix, Arizona, and APWA National Vice President. Our group consisted of 45 professionals, 9 spouses, 2 People-to-People staff, 2 full-time interpreters and a variable number of part-time interpreters and local guides. The group was evenly distributed across the United Stated and Canada and across the full scope of public works technical specialties. Although few of the delegates knew each other previously, the group quickly formed into a coherently focused team that worked effectively in responding to any and all challenges.
We visited Moscow (5 days), Pyatigorsk (2 days), Stavropol (part of the group, 1 day), Minsk (4 days), Leningrad (1/2 day), and Helsinki (1 day).
In Minsk we coincidentally met a trade delegation from Colorado led by Natalie Meyer, Secretary of State. A small group from each delegation participated in a joint press conference for the local media. I had the honor of being selected to participate.
Technical presentations were arduously slow and basic due to the interpreting delays and the need to build a base of common understanding. As with our technical sessions back home, the most useful information was transferred in small group round table question and answer sessions.
There is some confusion in the Soviet Union over the value of the Rubel. Rubels are not allowed out of the Country. Similarly, it is illegal for a Soviet to possess any foreign currency. So Rubels have to be purchased after arrival. On the first day I purchased $100 worth of Rubels (62 Rubels) at the legal, government specified exchange rate. The second day I was approached on the street and bought 100 Rubels for $10.00.
Wages are low, between 100 and 400 Rubels per month. A bus driver is the highest paid job at 400 Rubels, the director of the bus district who supervises 5,000 employees receives 300 Rubels. Physicians receive 200 Rubels. Senior technical people receive 120 Rubels. Beginning teachers 120 Rubels; experienced teachers 200 Rubels.
Everyone has a job because that is the design of their system. A job is assigned when one leaves school. However, everyone is free to work any where by finding the job of his choosing on his own. There are job announcements in the newspaper. Most tasks are labor intensive and there is a national labor “shortage”. Of course, we see the enormous inefficiency and ineffectiveness built into their system. The incentives of higher wages or of discipline for poor performance are virtually non-existent. A -trade union committee makes disciplinary and firing decisions.
There is a significant amount of free enterprise in the Soviet Union. The black market is enormous. Doctors who choose to not work for the State can free lance. Their clients are folks who want a second opinion or who want good treatment. One of our interpreters was working freelance. Consumers have limited cash to purchase limited goods. These consumers inspect products meticulously, spend cautiously, and negotiate fiercely. Co-operatives rent stores from the government, produce their own goods, and sell them. Apparently Perestroika has charged all “enterprises” with the task of finding ways of generating hard currency.
Housing is owned by the government and is very inexpensive: 4 to 20 Rubels per month. A family of 4 typically lives in a 250 square foot apartment. New buildings look old before they are occupied. The same is true of their hotels; very poor quality. Perestroika will soon allow individuals to own a condominium.
Birth control is a disaster. The Central Planning Committee specifies the number of condoms to be manufactured. It is currently four per family per year. Anyone can buy these at the drug store, but, curiously enough, there is a supply shortage. They pick up the slack with abortions. One of our interpreters had 6 abortions in 8 years and now is concerned whether she may be able to have children.
It was the consensus of our group that the Soviet Union appeared to be 30 to 50 years behind the United States in most of the things that we observed.
On our second day in Minsk technical meetings with Soviet road managers were held. After lengthy introductory comments the
Soviets shared numerous (at least 6) technologies that were new to us: bridge bearing devices, soil stabilization, concrete curing, and concrete sealing. Additional effort will be required to investigate the feasibility of introducing these items to America.
As part of this meeting, I, along with a representative of the Washington Chapter, took the liberty of inviting the Soviet Technical Road Delegation to Washington and Colorado in April of 1990. The Soviets accepted.
We took an all night train ride from Minsk to Leningrad, about 700 miles. Our group had sleeping rooms. Most of the locals sat up all night on benches with no padding and straight backs. I spent about 2 hours talking with locals. A 25 year old agricultural engineer, Victor, struggled to be the interpreter. From 8 to 12 listened in. I sat next to a 43 year old ship builder and his -wife. The senior citizens who lived through World War II and the Stalin repression were noticeably suspicious.
In World War I the Soviet Union lost 7,000,000. In World War II they lost 20,000,000. White Russia, the Republic between Russia and Poland, lost 25% of its people in 1,000 concentration camps. In addition to war losses, Stalin is attributed with as many as 10,000,000 murders of his own people. Stalin’s approach to controlling the people was to eliminate leaders, intellectuals, and strong personalities who might challenge his authority. The fact that Stalin was a criminal and murderer is openly stated by Soviets. It was dangerous to make such statement to strangers only four or five years ago.
About 6% of the population of 280,000,000 belong to the Communist Party. Historically, to be elected to any government position, one had to be a Party member. Within the last two years the names of non-party members could appear on ballots. Many have been elected. The USSR is unlike Poland where the Communist party is assured a certain Number of seats. It is probable that non-communist party members will take the majority in the next Soviet election.
The Soviet Union is the largest country in the World with the third largest population (280,000,000). It is composed of 15 Republics, the largest of which is Russia. Others are White Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Kirgizia, Moldavia, Tadzhikistan, Uzbekistan.
Each Republic has its own parliament, language, constitution, and flag. Each, according to the Soviet Union Constitution, has the freedom to leave the Union at any time. Estonia is currently challenging the truth of the Constitution. Our original itinerary of 3 days in Tallin, Estonia’s capital, was changed without explanation.
Flying from New York to Moscow required a 4 hour layover in Frankfurt, Germany. In the airport several met and got pictures with Stephan Edberg (professional tennis). The Frankfurt to Moscow flight was shared with Edwin Moses, the Olympic hurdler. He was going to Moscow to speak on the Olympics.
Although the Black Market is very active, there is no graffiti and no litter. The people take great pride in cultural things and civic buildings. A question like “how many people work for your City?” is very confusing to them, in that all people work for the City, the republic, and the state (federal government).
The money system is simple. Like ours, it has only 2 denominations: the Rubel and the Kopeck. It takes 100 Kopecks to make one Rubel. Everything else is a multiple of the two. Rubels are paper and Kopecks are coins.
The evening of October 12 took our group to the Moscow Circus. Every act was incredible. Anyone going to Moscow should make a point of attending. The price is very low. One should plan ahead to be certain that it is not sold out.
Eleven years of school are mandatory. Four years of elementary school begin at age 5. The following seven years are combined and referred to as “school.” There is no junior or senior high school. Because school is mandatory the literacy rate is 99.6%. Everyone learns some English, Russian (as the language of the Soviet Union), and the native language of their respective Republic. Students wear uniforms ‘and must pass an exam to progress to the next year of study. Truancy is not a problem. Parents see that children attend. When needed, the teacher will visit and counsel the parents. Mandatory education is finished by age 16. Most professional education is 5 years: doctors and engineers. Musicians need 6 years.
The incidence of smoking is high, like other European countries. Of the countries I have visited, I would rank from highest to lowest incidence of smoking: Germany, France, Ireland, Britain, USSR, Canada, United States. My exposure to Mexico, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Caymen and Jamaica is insufficient for ranking.
Pyatigorsk is a resort city in the extreme south of the Russian Republic near it’s border with Georgia and near the Caucusus Mountains. From Pyatigorsk Mt. Elbrus (18,510 ft) was visible. Elbrus is the highest peak in the Caucusus Mountains and is where Noah’s Ark came to rest. The Caucasian race is believed to have originated in these mountains and, thus, the name. In Pyatigorsk we had one day of excellent technical discussions. From Pyatigorsk we visited Kishlavorsk, a source of natural mineral water that is believed to have curing properties. I tried a little of all of it just to be safe. Part of our delegation took a 3 hour bus trip to Stavropol. This is the center for a district that was headed by and catapulted Mikhail Gorbachev to national and world prominence. Ours was the first delegation of
any type to visit Stavropol. We were constantly accompanied by a high ranking dignitary, had two food spreads within 2 hours, every one received a bouquet of red roses, and we were forced to participate in several Cognac toasts. Needless to say, the bus ride back was much shorter. We did have time to drive past the buildings where Gorbachev worked and lived.
The only snow that we saw on the entire trip was when we flew over Greenland. Everyone, including Americans, was surprised to hear that Denver got snow on September 12. This always gives me a chance to give my Chamber of Commerce speech. I had an ongoing debate with the delegates from Washington as to who lived in the most beautiful state. On our return flight we had a brief stopover in Stockholm, Sweden, and I had to concede that Stockholm compared with Seattle in beauty …but the Broncos are still better than the Seahawks. None of the cities we visited had yet received snow. Several days were rainy (about 4 days). Evenings became chilly and windy. Temperatures were reasonable (about 50 degrees F most of the time). A typical Moscow winter reaches -20 degrees F. We had real Colorado-style sunshine with blue sky only part of the time 4 or 5 days. About 10 days were overcast for at least half of the day.
Helsinki is a first class city with the prices to prove it. Our motel rooms were $230.00 per might. Postcards were $1.00 each. We negotiated a 1 hour taxi tour of the city down to $80.00. A small pizza was $12.00 and a Big Mac was $5.00. A group of 9 delegates were so happy to be able to eat real food again that they went happily to an $80.00 per person dinner. Those who stayed in the hotel paid $48.00 for dinner. Helsinki has 500,000 people, graffiti, and suburbs.
Soviet motel rooms had single beds with a single quilt type blanket. The blanket was covered by two sewed-together sheets. This cover had a hole in the crotch area for changing the cover. The pillow was an oversized, square feather pillow. In Moscow the rooms had mice and bugs. In Pyatagorsk and Minsk the rooms had only bugs. The Helsinki rooms were better. Our rooms were Soviet Union top of the line and, therefore, had TV sets. Of the 3 Soviet rooms I had, one TV was black and white, one was color and one did not work. The programming was, at best, second rate. It was not uncommon for the director to switch cameras when the second cameraman was taking a nap. Moscow had 6 stations; Minsk 3. All but one or two stations signed off early in the evening and signed back on late in the morning. The 22 Russian words that I learned didn’t go very far to understanding the news.
Making a telephone call from Moscow to the U.S. is $12.00 per minute and requires an appointment. You have to decide when you will call and how long you will talk. If you call the operator for the appointment, they do not speak English and will hang up. The best chance is to enlist the help of your babushka. Every hotel has a woman sitting at a desk on each floor to collect keys when guests leave. My first attempted call was scheduled for 11:OOpm (2:OOpm in Denver). I had to be in my room from 11:00 to 12:00 to wait for the call to go through. It did not happen and I received no feed back. I went to sleep. At 5:00am I confronted my babushka. She was sleeping. All of the phone lines out of the building had been busy. They should be open now, would she try again. The call came through at 6:00am (9:00pm in Denver). My wife and I talked 13 minutes at a cost of 95 Rubels. Fortunately I was able to pay in blackmarket Rubels, so my cost was only $9.50.
The meals were different. Breakfast is at 8:00am; lunch (dinner) is at 2:OOpm; and dinner (supper) is at 9:00pm. Most of their food items are high fat, high cholesterol. Breakfast is bread, cheese, salami and eggs. Lunch is borscht (cabbage soup), bread, cheese, salami, raw fish (sometimes smoked), peas, fried potatoes, chicken, ham, or beef. Dinner is the same as lunch with cognac or vodka. Bottled mineral water, banana soda and sometimes a fruit punch type drink was available. Coffee or tea (cha) was served after eating. The sugar cubes were petrified and would not dissolve. Food was always cold, cold drinks were warm, and hot drinks were cold. Voda (regular water) and ice were rare and difficult to come by. Lunch and dinner can take 2 hours partially due to poor service and partially due to custom. Desert was ice cream; always vanilla; more like frozen yogurt. Once we had hot dogs for breakfast. In Moscow mice ran across the floor during dinner.
Since all wages and pricing of products is fixed and controlled by the government, price inflation of goods is non-existent. However, inflationary cycles are felt by the availability of goods. Some folks save money and can put their savings in a bank. Banks are all state owned and pay 3% interest. Individuals can take out bank loans at 1 1/2% interest. All of the evil American capitalists instantly knew what to do with this opportunity.
We were warned about the sophisticated and subtle prostitutes that frequented the tourist hotels. However, no one in our group commented on observing any. More free enterprise.
Returning to the western world required passing 3 Soviet checkpoints and one Finish checkpoint. Two were very superficial, apparently looking for anyone or anything that was obviously out of the ordinary. The third check was more thorough. All bags went through x-ray machines. Three from our party were randomly selected for detailed inspection of bags. All passports were checked and visas confiscated. Even Peter who had traded some of his clothes for an obviously stolen Soviet army trench coat made it through.
Many Soviets were reluctant to have their pictures taken. This may be a carry over from the paranoia of the Stalin era of repression.
The sanitary standards are poor. In Moscow mice ran through the dining room during dinner. There were mice and insects in most of our rooms. The restrooms in restaurants were co-educational and were better described as “pit” stops. Many of the toilets were the no seat, squat variety. Toilet paper was sometimes issued by an attendant, sometimes non-existent, but most times would have been more appropriately employed in a woodworking shop.
“Intourist” is a Soviet owned enterprise that handles accommodations for western visitors. Thus, our hotels were Intourist, our buses were Intourist, our interpreters were Intourist employees, etc. Intourist specializes in providing western style services for western visitors. Although our accommodations were second rate (by our standards) they were the best available in the Soviet Union.
Virtually everyone lives in an apartment (flat). Rents are from 2 to 40 Rubels per month. A family of four is allowed a flat of 250 square feet. Singles are allowed flats of about 100 square feet. A typical apartment building is 12 floors. Parking is not a problem because few individuals can afford a vehicle_ Although there is no city limit line (everything is owned by the federal government) they build these 12 story buildings up to the edge of the city and stop. In the United States the value of the land under the building is representative of the height of the building constructed upon it. In Minsk the end of the city is represented by a road. On one side of the road is a 12 story building, on the other side of the road is an open field. The architectural style applied to these buildings is nil. They are boxes with poor attention to color or finishings. The buildings look old before they are occupied. The few small single family homes are farm houses or are owned by “co-ops.” In Leningrad we drove by a building that was an entire city block. Our guide said it was of the old design where an entire floor would share the kitchen and bathroom facilities.
Crime is rare. I walked around alone at night with $1,000 cash without any concern what so ever. This would be five to ten years of wages to them. Moscow is 9,000,000 – about the same size as New York City. However, the owners of cooperatives are becoming targets for extortion, etc. from an emerging element of organized crime.
In the United States we have a committee of 100 (the Senate) and a committee of 450 (plus or minus) (the House of Representatives) trying to make the leadership decision of our Country. The Soviet Senate (the Soviet of the Nationalities) has 750 members and their House (the Soviet of the Union) has 749 members. The literal interpretation of the word Soviet is “Council.” As in the United States, the word “government bureaucracy” prompts cynical and negative reactions. Obviously, the Soviets suffer from more of the same problem that we have in the United States: too much big government.