40 Years in Beer, Part Nineteen: Moscow skyline in twilight, 1989

Moscow, 1989.
Spliced-together panorama of Moscow in July, 1989 from atop the since demolished Hotel Rossiya.

Previously: 40 Years in Beer, Part Eighteen: In Ostrava, the beer of the people at the factory gates.

In the autumn of 1989 my travels led me back to lovely Prague, where I’d started the trip in June, back when the lovely continental weather encouraged t-shirts and tables in the shade. Now in September there was a nip in the air even on sunny days, and the locals already were bundling up.

Then it dawned on me that I hadn’t even considered the need for a winter coat.

At least Prague’s classic pubs stayed toasty, and the Czech beer was as good as ever. They were quiet places awash in venerable wood conditioned by decades of cigarette smoke, hushed like libraries, with clusters of drinkers seated at long tables conferring in low voices, almost whispering.

Summer was gone and there was something unusual in the air—murmurs, fidgeting, uneasiness. People seemed tense.

One morning the three of us were walking through Malostranské náměstí near Castle Hill when it gradually became apparent that we were hemmed in on all sides by perfectly stationary East German Trabant and Wartburg automobiles, packed two and three deep off the curb. Suitably for Prague, the onetime realm of Franz Kafka, the scene was inexplicable and puzzling.

After all, the tourist season had long since passed. Who were these out-of-season visitors, and how were they getting away with triple-parking?

Only later did we grasp that these cars, so difficult and time-consuming to obtain back home in Hoyeswerda or Leipzig, had been summarily abandoned by their drivers and passengers, who had climbed the fence of the West German embassy close by and squatted on the grounds, seeking to transform themselves as expeditiously as possible into former citizens of the GDR.

At pretty much the precise moment we were scratching our heads in confusion, they were being transported by sealed trains to West Germany, to be granted the desired asylum (and immediate citizenship). Their scrupulously cared-for automobiles stayed behind in Prague, waiting for someone to impound them.

It wasn’t as if we could grab a newspaper and read all about it, although had we been able to speak the language, it might have become apparent that the Czechoslovak regime was plenty annoyed at its fraternal socialist neighbor’s inability to control the behavior of its own people, as Soviet client regimes were expected to do as a matter of daily practice, even if errant Hungary was opting a bit further out of the Warsaw Pact with each passing day.

What would happen next? Unbeknownst to us—to anyone, even the pundits and experts—the supposedly monolithic East Bloc was about to implode. But for the moment there was beer to drink, and pubs like U Dvou Koček welcomed us yet again for rounds of wonderful Pilsner Urquell, for which we paid the equivalent of pennies and drank until positively delirious.

Jeff Price and Roger at U Dvou Koček in Prague, September 1989.

At the beginning of July the time had arrived to decamp for enormous, sprawling Moscow, which was a 20-odd hour long trip from Prague. The train left in the morning and arrived in Moscow via Warsaw, Poland the following day around lunchtime.

From Uncle Vlasta’s place I took the subway to the main station, heavily laden not only with an internal frame backpack heavily bearing future black market trading chits, but also two canvas bags stuffed with enough Poličan salami, dark bread, pickles, plums and bottles of Radegast to feed and water a platoon of budget travelers.

It soon became apparent that I’d be sharing a three-berth compartment with two Soviet citizens returning home from work assignments, one obviously a blue collar worker, and the other a speaker of passable English, better dressed and boasting a neatly groomed Van Dyke beard. He was educated and urbane, and as such, likely to be a political functionary of some variety. Both my fellow passengers were friendly, if not gregarious.

The train stopped for three hours at Brest, today situated in the sovereign nation of Belarus, for the purpose of changing the bogies on its rail carriages. These are the sets of wheels; historically the rail gauge in Mother Russia is wider, making for a slightly roomier ride.

All the passengers debarked except me, and I watched, beer in hand, as workers removed huge quasi-cotter pins at each end of the carriage, raised the car using hydraulic lifts, rolled one continental set of bogies out and the wider set in, then lowered it, reconnected brakes and cables, and reset the pins.

It was dark when the passengers returned. My blue collar compartment mate was obviously delighted with the bounty of his foraging, and accepted my offer to trade some salami for what ended up tasting to me like pure pork fat without a trace of lean.

One shrugs, and adapts. The fat could be smeared like butter on chunks of bread, to be enjoyed with pivo and nibbles as we moved slowly toward the heart of Ronnie Raygun’s Evil Empire.

My Moscow stay began at Belorusskaia station on a splendid summer’s day. As a preface of sorts, I’d taught myself the Cyrillic alphabet to assist in deciphering the Metro (subway), and also because my time in the Soviet metropolis was intended to be spent learning conversational Russian as part of a program at Moscow State University.

It proved to be an experimental teaching method more suited to children than adults, and this didn’t appeal to me, especially considering the many life lessons awaiting absorption outside the classroom during this, the high water mark of glasnost and perestroika.

However knowing the alphabet made it far easier to find my way to our group’s nondescript dormitory building a few blocks down from the Shabolovskaya metro stop. The other participants were to arrive together in a few hours, and so my explorations were restricted to the immediate neighborhood.

It seemed promising. There was a shabby package store, a well-stocked market hall, and a shashlik (shish kebob) kiosk manned by Central Asians, widely acknowledged as the USSR’s masters of grilling.

The dormitory.

Once my fellow Americans started filing in, things began in earnest. There would be three persons to a room, and ample toilets and showers down the hall. After being split up, situated and properly introduced, we were handed printed itineraries directing us to convene downstairs for an orientation meeting.

Verily, the dilatory inefficiencies of a visitor’s existence in the Soviet Union were the stuff of clichés, and like most such clichés, they incorporated varying elements of truth. Precisely because our group leaders were immersed in the wholly predictable shrugs and whims of university bureaucracy, the evening’s plans quickly fell behind schedule. The longer I sat waiting in the stuffy room designated for our meeting, the more my blood pressure rose, because I had evening plans of my own.

Danish whirlwind Kim Wiesener had known for some months that he’d be in Moscow leading a tour group at exactly the time my stay was slated to start, and in fact the day of my arrival had been pegged as the best chance we’d have to get together. Plans had been swapped, and naturally I was eager to dispense with my group’s formalities in hopes of finding Kim.

Finally after almost an hour, apologies were proffered and the meeting officially scuttled. Providentially not all of my fellow students took the memorandum seriously, and Wes, one of my roommates, happened to be standing in the lobby when he overheard someone asking for Roger, a person he had met barely two hours earlier.

It was Kim, who had come all the way from his group’s hotel on the other side of town to find me. Obviously neither Kim nor Wes knew I was seated a mere thirty feet away on the other side of the wall, stewing. Kim gave a Wes a note and departed; minutes later, just as Wes was about to go looking for me, I emerged from the non-meeting.

Wes handed me the note, which directed me to a city center restaurant where Kim was headed with a few of his charges; the name escapes me, but it was near the massive, dingy cement high-rise Hotel Intourist, on Tverskaya Street, not far from Red Square. I threw a few potentially useful commodities into my day pack—American-made Marlboros, a Duke University t-shirt, a pint of Maker’s Mark—and made for the Metro station down the street.

It was after 7:00 p.m., and there was no time to waste.

As was common practice at Soviet eateries, entrance could be challenging to those who didn’t arrive early, had not made reservations, or wasn’t willing to bribe the man blocking the door. However Kim, a fluent speaker of Russian, had briefed management of my imminent (hopeful) arrival, and soon enough, bathed in sweat and entertaining a powerful thirst, I was seated at the table with my friend and his guests.

Soviet restaurants never seemed to have beer, although supplies of vodka, brandy, wine and champagne could be limitless. It is quite likely we consumed portions of them all, and while precise memories elude me, a tepid meal of mystery meat cutlet, fried potatoes and ice cream may have landed at some point amid an entirely unexpected conversation about the American Civil War.

It transpired that just before my trip in 1989, I’d experienced a brief flaring of my lifelong interest in the War Between the States, and read both James M. McPherson’s masterful Battle Cry of Freedom, and the excellent Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship by J.F.C. Fuller. Consequently it was surreal to be in Moscow, pontificating about McPherson’s theory of pre-emptive counter-revolution, then yielding the floor to an Irishman and his riveting hour-long digression about the I.R.A. and Sinn Fein.

All the while, the drinks kept coming.

The Lubkanka Building (KGB headquarters) with statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky (since toppled), Moscow, 1989.

I might say it was against my better judgment to pile into the taxi Kim eventually ordered, although making such a statement would imply that I was capable of judging anything at all. He’d persuaded me to come back to his group’s hotel for a nightcap, which turned out to be my pint of Maker’s Mark, among other random potables. The bottle made the rounds as a dozen revelers crowded into someone’s bedroom, and the next thing I knew it was 4:00 a.m.

A piece of furniture vaguely resembling a couch became my bed, then it was daylight and I was standing, by no means sober, at the curb by the street outside the hotel, having somehow awakened to the recollection that this was to be the beginning of language school, and it might be bad form to skip the first day of class.

Having learned in 1987 never to try fooling Russians with Marlboros licensed for production in Europe, I extracted two packs of the genuine, American-made cigarettes from my day pack and waved them in the direction of passing cars. Within seconds a Lada screeched to a halt, and twenty minutes later we came to another abrupt stop in front of the Shabalovskaya dorm building.

Sweating pure alcohol, my clothes reeking of Cuban tobacco (ah, those wonderful Montecristos at the restaurant), with no chance to bathe, change or brush my teeth, it occurred to me that even if there’d be time to dash into the dorm and freshen up, I wasn’t entirely sure where my room was located.

In gratitude for my driver’s lead foot, I pressed a few dollar bills into his hands, turned around, and came face to face with my college-aged classmates (I was rather old at 28), approaching in one big, bright, rested and well-scrubbed group, ready to make the short walk to school.

And, as one, they stopped and looked at me as though I’d beamed down from outer space. Evidently first impressions do matter, because henceforth the party-hearty male contingent regarded me as an oracle, while the women kept a safe and respectful distance. In short, I’d traveled 5,000 miles to be reminded of what I already knew, all too well.

Accepting my fate, I fell unsteadily into line. Wes and Bill, my two Floridian roommates, who were constant companions during the days to come, sidled up to me as I maintained a steady eye on my oversized feet in an effort to avoid tripping. With an impressively straight face, Bill said “We turned down your sheet, but you never came home.”

It was a very, very, VERY long day. A lunchtime repast of liver broth (complete with more fatty chunks) and black coffee came close to restoring my equilibrium, and I was asleep before sunset. I made it through the first of three weeks’ class time before opting to spend my remaining time in Moscow roaming the streets with a coalition of like-minded drop-outs.

I’ve no regrets whatever.

Next: 40 Years in Beer, Part Twenty: Beer, zakuski, vodka and ice cream.

Red Square, St. Basil’s and the Kremlin, 1989.


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