In 2005, congressional staffers, in their ignorance of what it took to get the job done in the Russian Federation, griped about all the “vacation travel” my Energy Department teams were taking as we set out to secure Russia’s “loose nukes” during the post-Cold War period. At the Secretary of Energy’s prompting, I sent an earlier version of this piece — a collection of travel vignettes — to the House Appropriations Committee, based upon my most recent business trip to Russia. This rather sarcastic account of what it was really like to travel in post-Soviet Russia became a must-read on the Hill; and after the piece circulated among interested members of Congress, we never received complaints about expending travel funds again. Enjoy traveling with me one more time to the “people’s paradise”!
Sometimes, just getting there is the hardest part of doing business in Russia.
During my four-year stint as director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s warhead security program for the Russian Ministry of Defense, I completed 30 round trips to the Russian Federation (including dozens of internal trips). In March and April of 2005, in order to jump-start the process of upgrading the security of warhead storage facilities under the control of the Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF), I led a small group of technical experts to nine sites in just eight days. Many of the travel hiccups that I have tended to experience during my 25 years traveling across the former Soviet Union somehow occurred during this concentrated eight-day period.
The purpose of these historically significant visits in early 2005 was to verify the eligibility of the sites for security upgrades under the Department of Energy’s Material Protection, Control, and Accounting Program – and to begin designing the required security enhancements.
During this particular trip, we and our SRF escorts crisscrossed thousands of miles and seven time zones, often in antiquated commercial aircraft, between cities such as Moscow, Yekaterinburg, Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Kazan. We also made one day-trip from Moscow to a site located near the city of Kostroma by mini-van.
In most cases, after flying to the nearest city, the journey required additional transit time in a rented bus or mini-van along roads in various conditions in order to get to the site. With one exception (the lengthy trip across Tatarstan described below), this additional transit portion took between one and four hours each way. (Seven hours’ travel by bus was required to get to other sites that I had visited on other occasions.) For two of the nine site visits completed in the early spring of 2005, we ended up traveling overnight without stopping at a hotel until the following day in order to make our observations during the strictly controlled window for our observations.
With this background in mind, here are the top seven rather humorous but all-too-true travel incidents that we experienced during this relatively short period.
The Major Loved His Cognac
Several times during this eight-day trip, the flights were “open seating,” and it was every man for himself after waiting in the arctic wind at the bottom of the stairs.
As usual, the flight attendants took their time before allowing the passengers to board. I chose my seat on the rather grungy, dimly lit Tupolev-154 (a transport similar to the Boeing 727) for a four-hour flight from Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk, which took off at midnight.
After settling down in my seat for about five minutes, I noticed some liquid seeping up through the bottom of my coat. I stood up and saw that my seat was oozing with beer. I moved to another seat, which seemed to be dry. My neighbor was a Russian army major. After take-off, he offered me some chocolate. We struck up a friendly conversation in Russian.
The major then bought a bottle of cognac from a stewardess and immediately drank half of it before offering me some, which I refused. After a while, he got sick and threw up. I watched with detached amazement as a robust chunk of vomit bounced off the sleeve of my winter jacket, ricocheted through the opening between the seats in front of us, and then landed on the one piece of edible food — a biscuit-that one of my fellow U.S. team members was just about to feast on.
Fifteen minutes later, despite my feeble protests, the stewardess sold the Russian major yet another bottle of cognac. Rather than deal with my now obnoxiously drunken companion, the stewardess directed me to take a seat at the back of the plane, next to the people’s toilet.
The major continued to raise a drunken commotion in the cabin until descent — when he suddenly and mercifully passed out.
The Saga of the Carry-On
Due to its size, the wide-body Illushin-86 offers a more comfortable flying experience than the Tupolev-154; however, the aircraft does offer “quirky” cultural experiences of its own.
Passing through the boarding gate at the airport near Krasnoyarsk in Siberia for an early flight on “Krasno Air” (of course), I walked about 300 meters across the ramp in the middle of a gaggle of about 200 passengers struggling with their carry-on bags. After waiting alongside the aircraft in the bone-chilling breeze for about 10 minutes, a matronly stewardess finally waddled down a few steps of the stairs, scowled at the passengers, and then, with a reluctant sweep of a hand as if she were swatting Siberian mosquitoes, signaled to the shivering masses that the race to the seats had begun.
At that point, the drill was for everyone to quickly climb up a set of stairs to a special cargo hold located at the rear of the aircraft, drop off one’s carry-on bag, and then ascend another set of stairs to the main cabin. This seemed simple enough for departure. The problem, however, was deplaning at the end of the flight.
Upon landing in Moscow, the passengers were directed to exit via a narrow jet-way connected to the front of the airplane at the passenger level. You guessed it: Complete gridlock leaving the aircraft, as those passengers with carry-on luggage stowed down in the cargo hold (e.g., most of us) had to first fight their way toward the aft stairs, descend into the bowels of the jumbo jet to retrieve their bags, and then cycle back up the stairs, fighting their way along the aisle in the cabin against the other salmon swimming against the stream, before exiting the aircraft at the forward jet-way.
The Tempest in the Teacup
Earlier, while the Il-86 was cruising along, I was taken to task by a stewardess because, when she came by to retrieve my dinner tray after the meal service, I had wanted to retain my teacup. I hadn’t yet been served a hot beverage (Russians tend to wait until the end of the meal before serving tea or coffee). Nelzya! Mustn’t separate cheap plastic cup from cheap plastic tray!
My Russian seat mate laughed as the stewardess abruptly thrust the tray back into my hands with its trash and leftovers. As she stormed off, he whispered to me as if we were involved in a conspiracy: “You see, the technique is to give up everything, and then later ask the girl carrying the teapot to provide you with a new cup, some sugar, and something to stir it with.”
About five minutes later, right on cue, the stewardess with the hot beverages came strolling down the aisle juggling a scalding pot of tea just as we hit some turbulence. She skillfully poured me some tea, and she also poured my Russian neighbor some — yes, into a newly minted plastic cup, each item provided without hesitation, including a plastic fork.
As he was stirring in his sugar, my seatmate leaned over to me, grinned, and with a twinkle in his eye said, “That’s how you beat the system in Russia!”
A few moments later, my neighbor with the inside track on stewardess etiquette suddenly began to giggle uncontrollably as he pulled the fork out of his piping hot tea. He looked at me, then pointed down to his cup. The teeth of his fork had just melted off and were in the process of dissolving in his gurgling beverage.
The Refrigerator with Wheels
The large bus that the Russians rented for our seven-hour round trip between Krasnoyarsk and a strategic rocket forces site seemed adequate — that is, until our return journey later that evening, when the sun set and the temperature dropped to well-below freezing.
As we attempted to bury ourselves in our winter coats and hats, the driver revealed to us that the bus could only travel faster than 40 kilometers per hour if the heater was turned off. It was a choice of either adding several hours to our return journey while remaining warm — or continuing to travel at max warp-speed across the bumpy highway in what now seemed to be a meat-packer’s refrigerator. Evidently, the old bus had been relying on solar radiation for internal heat, and now that the sun was no longer available. . . . well, life in Siberia is sometimes difficult.
Our Russian military escorts insisted on going faster, so we hunkered down and pretended to be stalwart icemen. My toes were saved from frostbite by a team-mate who handed me a set of chemical glove warmers, which I placed into my boots. When I got back to D.C. several weeks later, I went to the nearest REI outlet and relieved them of most of their stock of foot warmers. Except for the months of June, July, and August, I never again traveled to Russia without these life-saving essentials.
The Speeding Mini-Van
During our long road trip between Moscow and Teykovo (located north of the city of Vladimir), we spent 11 hours (round trip) dodging trucks and potholes in order to get about an hour’s time on site. On the way back, all of our Russian escorts abandoned us by jumping into the lead van with the intent of speeding back to Moscow ahead of us.
About two hours later, as our own driver carefully negotiated the obstacles, we approached the disabled mini-van of our Russian companions, who, in the dark, foggy conditions of the evening, had managed to blow two tires on the same side of their auto, as it ran over one of hundreds of large unmarked craters in the highway.
To show our solidarity with our obviously chastened hosts, we stood watch with them on the edge of the highway for another hour, observing trucks with marginally functioning headlights hurling pass us, until our drivers finished changing their tires.
The Grand Caravan
My favorite: As we were about to exit the plane after completing another late-night flight — this time to Tatarstan — our stewardess casually informed us that we weren’t exactly where we thought we should be. The plane had diverted to a field located in the eastern part of the “republic,” about 300 kilometers away, due to some accident at our intended airport near the city of Kazan.
After exiting the plane, we were directed to walk across the ramp to a dimly lit terminal, where we were kept in the dark about what was happening. After about two hours (around 1 AM) the passenger hall literally went dark. One remaining airport employee told our military escorts that the aircrew had gone to bed and would probably return at 11 AM the next day. No one made any attempt to find a hotel for the stranded passengers or to provide food.
Realizing that we would probably miss both our window for visiting the SRF base and our return flight later that evening, we decided to hire some local taxis.
After about 90 minutes, one of our escorts and an interpreter returned from the nearby town with one bona fide taxi and two “Gypsy cabs.” We jammed ourselves and our bags into the tiny Russian sedans, and the cars took off as we were forced to ride sideways, our arms and legs overlapping like contortionists from the Moscow Circus.
Twenty minutes later, we realized that this wouldn’t do; so we commandeered with a “tax-free incentive” another car and driver, the vehicle having been selected on the narrow criteria that it was the only one parked at the dark intersection of Sadsack Shossee and Barren-abad Bulivar. No worries, though; no breathalyzer test required!
With our newfound Russian-deluxe comfort afforded by the additional vehicle, our unlikely caravan, like a herd of camels bobbing their way to some distant watering hole, galloped off on a four-hour night-time journey across the breadth of the autonomous Tatar Republic.
Our goal during this Mr. Toad’s Ride across the hilly steppe was to link up with a bus — allegedly waiting for us at Kazan (our intended arrival airport) — before that dubious form of vehicular conveyance had wandered off. We still had several hundred kilometers to go before then. During most of the journey, I struggled, mostly in vain, to keep one blurry eye on my fearless but anonymous driver, just in case he decided to take an alcohol-induced snooze while driving in the middle of the two-lane roadway.
Arriving at Kazan airport right after sun-up, we thankfully transferred to our awaiting bus for another two-hour drive to the SRF site. We managed to return to the airport at Kazan just in time to make our evening flight back to Moscow. We were back at the Marriott Grand in the big city 36 sleepless hours after we had arisen the day before.
The Luggage Militsia
Not to worry. Back at Moscow’s Domodedevo Airport, when it’s time to leave the baggage claim area inside the terminal, the professional “luggage police” are always at your service to prevent passengers from making the critical mistake of retrieving someone else’s precious items. (Russian women are usually chosen for the really tough jobs like this one, as they never take any crap from anyone.) Shame on you if your baggage tag happens to get separated from your checked luggage! Which is what happened to one of my U.S. team mates.
Unfortunately, my American colleague was “caught” trying to exit the baggage area without a tag on his luggage; and his punishment was being forced to open his suitcase and, with 100 other passengers jammed in the exit queue behind him, to verbally confess to all present that the contents indeed belonged to him.
“Whose clothes are these? Yours? Are you sure? O.K., fine – zip it up! You are free to go.”
Really, what was he supposed to say? “Oh my goodness. . . some saboteur has gotten into my luggage. The bag is mine; but the dirty underwear belongs to somebody else!”
. . . So what happened with the Russian nuclear storage sites?
Well, the time we spent at each of the nine nuclear weapon storage sites was indeed sufficient to make our observations and begin designing the security upgrades.
Two years later, having built up considerable trust with our Russian partners, and having improved and institutionalized our methodologies, we had added dozens of nuclear sites to the list of cooperative projects. We were well on our way to installing modern security systems at 84 storage facilities in Russia, securing thousands of otherwise “loose nukes” – until such time that they could be properly dismantled.
Unfortunately, years later in 2019, one has to conclude that all of this effort is a thing of the past. Well, at least I’ll always have the distinct smell of cognac-barf to remember!