Colorado Engineering Magazine, March and April 1990

A Soviet Journey

Editor’s Note: This is the first of two parts. The second will appear in the April 1 1990 issue.
by Dennis Polhill, P.E.

The American Public Works Association (APWA) extended to me the exciting privilege of being part of a trip to the Soviet Union. The trip, organized cooperatively by The People To People Program and APWA was from October 9-23, 1989. The invitation to APWA’s Public Works Technical Group was extended by the Soviet Union and was the first visit of a public works delegation to that country.

Our delegation was headed by Ron Jensen, Director of Public Works in Phoenix Arizona and APWA National Vice President. The group consisted of 45 professionals, nine spouses, two People To People staffers, two full time interpreters and a changing number of part time interpreters and local guides. Members from the United States and Canada represented a full scope of public works technical specialties. Although few members of the delegation had meet previously, we quickly formed into a cohesive and focused team which worked effectively in responding to many challenges we faced throughout the trip.

We visited Moscow, Pyatigorsk, Stavropol, Minsk, Leningrad and Helsinki, Finland. Our reception by the Soviets was outstanding. Perhaps they were expecting guests on closer terms with George Bush.

Since we were the first public works group from North America to visit the country, and partially due to the structures of Soviet government, many of our meetings were with highly placed government officials. They were exceedingly gracious, polite and generous with candies, pins, papers and alcohol. I rapidly learned the correct way to kick off a party, which lends someexplanation to the high rate of alcoholism in the USSR.

People we met were genuinely friendly, open and curious. Whenever I managed to be alone with a group of Russians, I was treated with high regard. Being a novelty is very good for the ego.

However, 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.

On our second day in Minsk, technical meetings with Soviet road managers were held. After lengthy introductory comments, the Soviets shared numerous technologies that were new to us. Among them were bridge-bearing devices, soil stabilization, concrete curing and concrete sealing. Additional effort will be required to investigate the feasibility of introducing these technologies to the United States and Canada.

During this meeting along with a representative of the Washington Chapter of APWA, I took the liberty of inviting the Soviet Technical Road Delegation to Washington and Colorado in April 1990. The Soviets accepted. Coincidentally, while in Minsk, we met a trade delegation from Colorado lead by Secretary of State, Natalie Meyer. A small group from each delegation participated in a joint press conference for the local media, in which I participated.

Travel and Accommodations

Intourist is a Soviet owned enterprise that handles accommodations for Western visitors. Thus hotels, buses, interpreters and other services were all provided by Intourist. In as far as it is possible this service provides Western style services for foreign visitors. Although accommodations were second rate by our standards, they were the best available in the Soviet Union.

Soviet hotel rooms have single beds with a single quilt like blanket which is covered by two sheets which are sewn together. Pillows are oversized, square and feather filled. Our rooms in Moscow had both mice and insects, while only insects prevailed in other cities. As top of the line hotel rooms, all had television, some color, some black and white, and some out of order. Programming by Western standards is second rate and poorly produced. I discovered it was not uncommon for a director to switch cameramen while one was napping.

There are six television stations in Moscow and three in Minsk. All, with few exceptions, sign off early in the evening and return to the air late morning. With a vocabulary of only 22 Russian words, it was impossible to understand the news.

A telephone call from Moscow to the United States costs $12.00 per minute and requires an appointment. In advance you have to decide when to call and how long your call will take. If operators are called for an appointment and do not speak English, they will hang up on you. We found that in such cases, it was best to enlist the help of babuskas which inhabit a desk on every floor in hotels, primarily to collect the keys of their guests when they quit their rooms.

My first call was scheduled at 11:00 p.m., or 2:00 p.m. in Denver. From this time, until midnight I had to wait for the call to go through. With no provided reason, it did not. Confronting the babuskas at 5:00 a.m. (who was asleep) I was told that all lines out of the hotel were busy and to try again. I got through to my wife at 6:00 a.m. Russian time.

Mealtimes were also different by Western standards. Breakfast is at 8:00 a.m., lunch (dinner) at 2:00 p.m., and supper generally at 9:00 p.m. Most of the food items were high fat and high cholesterol. Breakfast is bread, cheese, salami and eggs. Lunch typically is borscht (beet) or cabbage soup, bread, cheese, salami, raw or smoked fish, peas, fried potatoes, chicken, ham or beef. Supper, generally the same as lunch varied only in that vodka or cognac was served.

Bottled mineral water, banana soda, and at times a fruit punch beverage, were available. Coffee or tea (cha) was available after meals. Food was always cold, cold drinks were warm, hot drinks cold, and petrified sugar cubes refused to dissolve. Regular water (voda) and ice were a rarity. Due partially to service and custom, lunch and supper can take two hours. Dessert was always a vanilla ice cream more like a frozen yogurt. At a dinner in Moscow, mice were seen on the floor of the restaurant.

Generally, sanitary conditions were poor. Besides rodents and insects, the restaurant restrooms were co-educational and better described as pit stops. Many toilets were the no seat, squat variety. Toilet paper was at times issued by attendants, at times non-existent, and on most occasions appropriate for use in a woodworking shop.

The USSR and Its Government

With over eight million square miles, the Soviet Union is the largest country on earth. Only China and India have more inhabitants than the USSR’s 280 million. The country is composed of 15 republics. Fourteen are Soviet Socialist Republics (SSR’s), and the largest, Russia, is a Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (SFSR). The other republics are Armenian, Azerbaijan, Byelorussian (White Russian), Estonian, Georgian, Kazakh, Kirgiz, Latvian, Lithuanian, Moldavian, Turkman, Tadzhik, Ukranian and Uzbek SSR’s. These republics are broken into regions (oblasts), kroys (territories), autonomous republics or autonomous oblasts, of which there are 153.

Each republic has its own parliament, language, constitution and flag. According to the Soviet Constitution, each has the freedom to leave the union at any time. Estonia and Lithuania are currently testing the truth of the document. Our itinerary originally called for three days in Tallin the capital of Estonia, but this portion of the trip was cancelled without explanation.

Six percent of the population are members of the Communist Party. Historically, to be elected to any government position, one had to be a party member. Yet within the last two years, the names of non-party members have appeared on ballots and many have been elected. While the Communist Party is assured of a certain number of seats, it is probable that in the next election, non-party members will take a majority.

Nationally, the republics are represented in Moscow by the Supreme Soviet, much like our Senate and the Congress of People’s Deputies (the Soviet of the Union). Together these governing bodies have 1,499 members, as versus 535 in our House and Senate. As in the United States the words “government bureaucracy” prompt cynical and negative reactions. The Soviets suffer even more than we do from big government.

Perestroika and glasnost are starting to change the face of the country. Even Stalin, once seen as the father of the nation is now seen as a criminal and murderer. Five years ago it was dangerous to make such a statement to foreign visitors. While the two world wars cost the Soviets 27 million lives, Stalin is reported to have eliminated as many as ten million individuals, including intellectuals and divergent officials to consolidate and maintain his power. People still vividly recall the world wars. During WWII over 25% of the population in White Russia located between Poland and Russia SFSR was lost in over 1,000 concentration camps.

Highlights and Of Note

I found that many Soviets were reluctant to have their pictures taken. This may be a carry over from the paranoia of the Stalinist era. One night on an all night train journey from Minsk to Leningrad I spend two hours talking with Russians. Victor, a 25 year old agricultural engineer, struggled to be the interpreter. Eight to 12 people listened in to the discussion while I sat next to a 43 year old ship builder and his wife. Senior citizens who lived through Stalin and World War Two were noticeably suspicious of this session. As foreign guests we had sleeping berths on the 700 mile journey. Meanwhile, most locals sat up all night on benches with no padding and straight backs.

Also of note was a visit to Pyatrigosk, a resort city in the extreme south of the Russian SFSR. On the border with Georgia and near the Caucasus Mountains, Mt. Elbrus was visible. At 18,481 feet, this highest point in the range is where Noah’s Ark came to rest according to the Bible. The Caucasian race is believed to have originated in these mountains, giving origin to the name.

In Pyatigorsk we had an excellent day of technical discussions, then journeyed to Kishlavorsk, a source of natural mineral water that is believed to have curing properties. I tried it to be on the safe side. Part of the APWA delegation took a three hour bus trip to Stavropol. The city is located in the center of the district where Mikhail Gorbachev began his rise to power. Ours was the first delegation of any type to visit the city.

We were accompanied constantly by a high ranking dignitary, had two buffets within two hours, and were asked to participate in several cognac toasts. Each member of the delegation also received a bouquet of red roses. We drove by the buildings where Gorbachev lived and worked.

The only snow we encountered on the trip was the flight over Greenland. Everyone was surprised to hear of Denver’s snow storm on September 12th which prompted my chamber of commerce speech. I had an ongoing debate throughout the trip with the delegates from Washington as to who lived in the most beautiful state.

In general, the weather was partly cloudy or it was raining with only Colorado-style blue sky days four or five days. During a typical Moscow winter, temperatures will stay below zero for days on end.

To return to the Western world we had to pass through three Soviet and one Finnish check points. Two were superficial, apparently to look for anyone or anything that was only obviously out of the ordinary. The third check was more thorough and all luggage passed through x-ray machines. Three members of our party were randomly selected for detailed physical inspection of luggage. All passports were checked and visas confiscated. One member who had traded some of his clothing for an obvious Soviet Army trench coat passed customs.

Back in the West, Helsinki proved to be a first class city with the prices to prove it. Our hotel rooms were $230 per night and postcards a dollar each. A group of us negotiated a one hour taxi tour of the city which cost only $80 after negotiations. A small pizza was $12 and a Big Mac cost $5. Yet a group of nine was so happy to enjoy Western food again that $80 each for dinner seemed well spent. The hotel dinner cost only $48 per person. Helsinki, city of 500,000 came equipped with suburbs and graffiti. A big departure from the Soviet Union where it was the consensus of our group that much of what we observed seemed 30 to 50 years behind the United States.


Part 2

A Soviet Journey

Second of two parts. Part one appeared in the March 1990 issue of Colorado Engineering.

by Dennis Polhill, P.E.

Daily Life and Government Regulations

The ruble (R), divided into 100 kopecks is the currency. Generally, there is confusion on the part of the visitors and locals as to the value of the currency. Not allowed out of the country, foreigners must purchase notes upon entry. On my first day I purchased R62 at the official rate for $100. Yet, on the second day of my visit, I was approached on the street and purchased R100 for only $10. While it is illegal for Soviet citizens to possess foreign currency, many do as the ruble is actively traded on the black market.

(Editor’s note: The ruble, artificially maintained at an exchange rate of about $l.65 has, externally, been drastically devalued for limited international transactions. At this level, a ruble is worth about 18 cents, or close to the black market rate).

At the official rate, my call to my wife in the United States would have cost R95, or over $100. As I paid for the call with black market rubles, the call cost only $9.50.

Housing is owned by the government, and is very inexpensive, costing four to 20 rubles per month. A family of four typically lives in an apartment of 250 sq. ft. Singles are entitled to about 100 sq. ft. Apartments are typically in 12 story buildings which look old before they are finished as do most hotels. Even if construction is typically of poor quality, under perestroika, individuals will soon be able to purchase their apartments as condominiums.

Although there are not city limit boundaries with everything owned by the government, most cities are defined by enclosing roads. Buildings are built out from a city center as far as the roads, then stop. In Minsk, across from a final apartment building and a road, is an open field, unlike in the United States what buildings sit on a parcel of land are not representative of any land value.

It is interesting note that the architectural value applied to apartments is nonexistent. Colors or finishing receive little or no attention. While in Leningrad, we were driven by an apartment building which occupied an entire block. Our guide indicated that it was of the “old design” where each floor shared the kitchen and bathroom facilities.

The few single family homes available are farm houses owned by cooperatives. Note that parking is never a problem as few private citizens own automobiles.

While housing is inexpensive, wages are very low, between R100- 400 per month. At R400 a bus driver makes the most money, while the supervisor of the bus district who supervises 5,000 employees will receive R300 per month. Physicians receive R200,beginning teachers R120 (experienced R200), and senior technical people R120.

Officially, everyone has a job because this is government policy. A job is assigned when one leaves school. However, everyone is free to work anywhere by finding a job of his/her choosing on their own. Jobs are announced in newspapers. Most tasks are labor intensive and there is supposedly a national labor shortage. Of course, through Western eyes, there is enormous inefficiency and ineffectiveness built into their system. The incentives of higher wages or discipline for poor performance are virtually nonexistent. A trade union committee makes disciplinary and firing decisions.

Eleven years of school are mandatory. Elementary school begins at five and lasts four years. The last seven years are combined and referred to as “school.” There are no junior or senior high designations. Because of mandatory schooling, the literary rate is officially 99.6%, one of the highest in the world. Everybody learns some English, Russian (as the official language of the 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 as parents see to it that children attend. When needed, teachers will visit and counsel the parents. By the age of 16, mandatory education is over. Most higher education programs require another five years of study. Musicians must study for six years.

Since, officially, all wages and pricing of products is fixed and controlled by the government, price inflation is non-existent. However, inflationary cycles can be felt depending on the availability of goods. Some citizens are able to bank savings in banks owned by the state and paying three percent interest. Individuals can take out bank loans at one and a half percent interest. As American capitalists we found this opportunity appealing.

Consumers have limited cash to purchase limited goods. Products are meticulously inspected by individuals who spend cautiously and negotiate fiercely. Even with everything owned by the government there is a significant amount of free enterprise emerging in the Soviet Union. The black market is enormous. Doctors who choose not to work for the state can free lance. Their clients are people who want a second opinion, or better treatment. One of our interpreters was a free lancer.

Although the black market is very active, there is no graffiti and no litter. The Soviet people take great pride in cultural things and civic buildings. Posing a question such as “How many people work for your city?” is very confusing to citizens. Everyone works for the city, the republic or the state.

Perestroika has charged all enterprises with the task of finding ways to generate hard currency. Cooperatives rent store space from the government, produce their own goods, and sell them for what the markets will bear. We were warned about the sophisticated and subtle prostitutes that frequent the tourist hotels. Yet, in this example of more free enterprise, none in our group reported on observing any.

Birth control is a disaster. The Central Planning Committee, for example, specifies the number of condoms to be manufactured per year regardless of demand. Currently, four are available per year to the typical family. While they can be purchased at any drug store, supplies are rare. Consequently, the abortion rate is among the highest in the world. One of our interpreters has had six in eight years. She was concerned as to whether or not she may be able to ever have children.

Like most European countries, the incidence of smokers is high, much greater than in the United States. Crime is rare in comparison. One night I walked through Moscow with a large amount of cash without any concern whatever. In a city of nine million this was pleasant. However, the owners of cooperatives are increasingly becoming targets of extortion as organized crime is emerging in theUSSR.