Jun 30, 1997

Non-Ferrous Metals

The Old Soviet Union can be described as a mighty statue, let’s say a statue of Lenin. Standing high and tall, arm outstretched forward, as one can find at the Va Da En Ka in Moscow. When one attempts to blow up a statue like that, it usually never crumbles to dust. Bits and pieces stick out, such as the legs, and other parts are found scattered over the ground. Such it is with the former Soviet Union. You can take an old communist to Starbucks, but he is not going to easily forsake his vodka for a Latte. Old communist apparatchiks still rule everywhere, but under a different label. Much more water has to flow on the Volga before change really sets in.

I took the night train from Minsk to Moscow. The train is wonderful, nice clean with tiny compartments that sleep four. It has the look of the inside of an old English tea shop (I cannot explain why), and each compartment has a uniformed conductor who serves tea/coffee on request. Most people stand on the corridor during the trip as the windows inside compartments do not open, and it gets quite stuffy. The train leaves Minsk at 9 p.m., and stops at Orsaw, Smolensk and one other stop that I cannot recall. It did not matter anyway, because I was fast asleep before the first one. The previous three nights, I slept 3, 5 and 3 hours respectively. Sad to say, the story of Shasha rectifier did not have a happy ending, but thanks to some luck, and of course expenditure of some more money, things were back to normal. For each of these occasions, I need to go out and party. When things are bad, I need to get out and gain energy. When things are good, I need to go out and expend energy. It is the ordinary days that do nothing for me. Unfortunately, such days are few and far in between in Belarus -- especially because of the project.

Our generator set has been giving trouble since almost day one. The final blow in the coffin was when an internal voltage regulator failed, causing the generator set to be completely useless. Upon diagnosis, we called the representatives in the US, France and UK. The best answer they all could give was to provide some external excitation voltage till a new part was available. Since we were pressed for time (this was pre-conference) we first tried to fix the regulator. Our mission took us to an incredible flea market in Minsk, where one could buy Tsar gold coins, faucets, automotive parts (and automobiles), CDS, dogs, goldfish and every electronic component, sort of like Chadni Chowk. We bought a host of parts, but could not find all that we needed. It was then that our driver Shasha said that he might have the parts we need. Thus begins the story of Shasha Rectifier.

At Shasha’s house, we started looking at capacitors, diodes, resistors, by the bagful, catalogued by sizes, stored in tin cans/wooden boxes. It was unbelievable. When we could not find something, Vladimyr, our interpreter said, “Oh you should have come to my place. I have capacitors with 200 mF capacity...” I am willing to bet that you stop the first fifty people on the street in the USA or India, not more than 20 (if you are lucky) will be able to identify a diode. In the former SU, if you are short of capacitors, just knock on a door. Any door. If they don’t have the right farads, then the neighboring house is bound to have it.

The bad news is that we tried to fix the regulator but could not. The alternative was to provide an external source. We would have to connect a supply power to a variable transformer, and then adapt it for our needs.

The Variable Transformer: Enter Victor, the former Missile Base Chief Electrician. We explained our needs to him. Victor said that it was possible, and then broke off into a long unintelligible string of Russian. Vladimyr provides this translation: “Victor said that it is easy, but nothing is for free, you know”. So what is the fee? Victor makes the familiar Byelorussian sign of tapping his throat with his middle finger, and then indicating four. Thus, we purchase a variable lab transformer for four bottles of vodka.

I recall when I wrote this story for the first time, a week after it occurred; I was still excited and thrilled. I added many exclamations at this point. Now, it is passé. I have bought transformers for vodka, exchanged power tools for propane cylinders, and paid laborers with work gloves. Victor 2, who enters the story later, gains entry into a power station, by bribing the guard with a bottle of vodka.

The Retrofit: We now have 110 V AC which we are able to vary between 0 and max, but we still needed to convert it into DC. Enter Shasha, our driver. WE first looked for a bread board, which we made by thinly slicing plywood from the scrapped crates where we had shipped our supplies in. Next, Shasha makes a half wave rectifier for us, using a butane soldering iron. And it works. We extend a line from the control trailer to the generator set. The generator set is functioning again, except that some fellow, whose name is Shouvik, has to spend his time next to a transformer, working a knob to keep a stable voltage every time we start or shut down a big motor. And the stage is set for our dog and pony show, during the so-called important site visit by the conference attendees.

Later, I tried to get the regulator fixed in Minsk, by a friend of Shasha rectifier, who owns his own work shop. A week later, I am told that is fixed and Victor 2 (a label for convenience) has offered to come and field test it for us. That Sunday, I get back to Naroch with a new team member. Ron Mis of ADL is livid. Apparently, what I am doing is “highly irregular” (I had not heard that word in years). I cannot get him a room, or get food ordered for him. Thus, I have a new room mate, who shares my meals. Lucky that I skip breakfast, and lunch is essentially a free for all in a big room.

It rains the next two days, and the regulator still does not work. We try to fix it, by setting a tarpaulin cover and working underneath it. Victor 2 alternates between soldering under the makeshift roof, testing with a portable oscilloscope, and trying to get rid of a headache by reading the manual. The ADL team is on my back, demanding that I order a new regulator, and finally to my utter regret, I succumb. I had faith in Victor, and if I had time, I would have persisted. Unfortunately, I bit the political bullet and ordered a new one for 1400 US$. Victor 2 refuses to take any money, although he has spent nine days working on the unit, including 2 on site. Three days later, I have a new unit which is installed and things are back to normal. I then get another call from Victor 2, who said that he has managed to fix it. How could you know? I ask. He said that he had gotten into a power plant, where he found a generator set like ours and tested the regulator using that generator. It cost him one bottle of vodka to conduct this test. {I sent him a bottle of Vodka later}

It is almost over now. The trainees are doing well, and I am actually looking forward to leaving. This week-end will be nice, as it is the Independence Day week-end of Belarus (and the US) and we are in Minsk for 4 &1/2 days. They have fireworks on the river and Vodka on the streets. Nazdarovya!!! About 14 days later, I am off to the U.S.

Sasha-Coffee, the interpreter with the blackest sense of humor, told me the following, after I mentioned to him the number of bootleg software CDs that I purchased here:

So, you are finally picking up Belarusian habits. You are smuggling. Soon you will start stealing.
Ok, so what next.
Then, you will start trading in non-ferrous metals.
After that?
You will start drinking heavily.
And then?
You will begin to like it!!!!

Jun 29, 1997

Big Blue

Last night must have been the most enjoyable party of my stay in Belarus till date. It was not a big gathering which made it cozy. There was Colonel Levsha and his daughter Tanya; Colonel Borovko, his wife and two daughters (Katya and Dasha), Sergei (an informal ECC employee in Minsk) his wife and baby daughter and then about six of us. It started with a whole table full of hors d'ourves, and I pigged out on the caviar. I have developed quite a taste for it, particularly the red ones which are available only in this region. After many toasts later, we stopped for a smoking break. The banquet was at a restaurant called the Billiard Club, and they had reserved the whole place for us. Don West, who had missed the earlier banquet, asked me if the appetizers were all we would get, as this part of the meal lasted for an hour and a half. I told him that there was more, since I had already been there and done it. He was skeptical.

After the smoking break, we went back for some more appetizers, and then started playing Russian pool, or billiards. It was great, although the tables are different and much more difficult than in the US. Each game lasted at least half an hour, and the rules took a little while to get used to. Then we went back to the table. Eugene Borovko had produced a guitar which he played, as well as his two daughters and Sergei. They were all excellent and the whole company sang songs. And Fyodor Levsha sang. His booming baritone took over the place, he is really good. Finally, at 11:30, the main course was served. Don, by this time, was giving me dirty looks as he thought the meal was over, he was actually convinced during billiards itself. I had the last laugh, and he said "I guess you know your Byelorussian banquet norms ". After dinner we danced for a little while and drank some more vodka. Then I went back to the hotel Belarus.

Another tragic post soviet syndrome came to light on the way back. I was given a car to take me back although I had wanted to walk (it's about 10/15 minutes). However, Ron Mis of ADL was in no shape to travel, which made me finally understand something. ADL had given us a memo of do's and don’ts before we got here, and one item was No Drinking. We had laughed at it, and looking at Ron, I guess they have their own employees in mind when they write it. Anyhow, on the drive back, I started talking to the driver, and it turned out that he was the coach for the National Rowing Team and he was in Atlanta for the Olympic Games. He is now driving me around Minsk.

I had a pleasant Sunday morning as Tanya Levsha and Dasha Borovko had offered to take me around Minsk. I treated them to McDonalds (which turned out to be a huge deal for these giggly teens). Then we went back to Naroch, making our usual pit stop at Vladimir’s house to drink coffee with him and his wife Natasha. I am a little nervous, as tomorrow will bring a hopefully happy ending to a long adventure that we have been having (this is the story of Shasha rectifier), and if it is solved, the project is just gravy from here on. I already typed this story to lose it to unrecoverable disk error, so will wait to type it till tomorrow. Just to add to suspense, we have imported Victor from Minsk, who will be sharing my room in Naroch till we have a solution.

The usual way back to Naroch, through the fields that I have watched being tilled, seeded, hayed and has now little rows of potato plants coming up; through the rolling countryside, speckled by the militia every so often; through little towns where girls wait at bus stops with golden locks, glistening in the sunshine. Little streets where babushkas sit on park benches and gossip. Dogs that chase our Citroen van. Dense forests and open fields with the blue and yellow wild flowers, the nizabutka. Fyodor Levsha sang a song yesterday, comparing a woman to a nizabutka who he saw tolka dlye (only for) minutka, but he will remember her nafsyegda (forever).

I remember a story by Kundera where a man is suddenly overwhelmed by his own achievement. So much so that he raises his hands up to the sky and says "I am Bobby Fisher". To me, this had seemed so classically East European, where idols are so different. No one wants "to be like Mike". The superhuman is a chess genius, incredible, so very soviet or soviet like, the land of the game of shak-matee.

This morning, I had called Shasha, our driver. He was not home, and it was his wife Lesha who answered the phone. She spoke no English, but I understood that he was not home. It was really urgent for me to leave a message for him, so I started talking in English. Then, realizing the haplessness of the situation, I laughed and laughed and I could hear her laughing at the other end. I raked my memory for all the Russian words that I know, and continued till she finally said "Ya ponemayu (I understand). And I knew she did, for she confirmed my message in what was much more proper Russian. As I hung up, I am left with a sense of supreme achievement. I raise my hands to the skies and say "I am Bobby F...." but stop. Times have changed, technology has advanced. I am not Fisher, Korshnoi, Karpov or even Kasparaov. I raise my hands again and say "I am Big Blue!!!”

Jun 17, 1997

Bill Gates won't be happy

I spent the last two days wiring. What that basically means is that I connected cables to electrical motors, and terminated them on the control or power panel. Quite a low brainer job, so it gave me plenty of time to sit around (the days are nice and sunny) and dream about Chandreyee. Occasionally, I thought also of the situation in Belarus:

Belarus has been de-certified by the UN for human rights violation. The reasons for this are mostly due to the action by the governments on people who organize rallies and other forms of protests. In particular, a newspaper editor and her father were brutally beaten and this was demonstrated on State TV. The European community is willing to let Belarus back into the fold if they have an elected parliament, but Madeline Albright, the US Secretary of State has put down her foot and said "NYET!!” Human rights violation.... China has an extremely similar track record, but has a most favored nation status. But China has to offer cheap organized labor. Belarus has nothing to offer but poverty and complete chaos. Oh yes, and pirated software.

I bought software here that easily cost a few thousand in the original, for six dollars. I am sure Bill Gates considers that as human rights violation.

The big show for us is on Wednesday. The US Ambassador and a whole bunch of Byelorussian officials will be here. Lukashenko has declined the offer. Our friends from Arthur D Little are doing the most significant work of the project: they are setting up the outhouses. That is a mighty strange thing. I forgot to mention this earlier, but the entire Kostinyi base has no running water. No wash basin in site anywhere. This is sad. It used to be a grand place; I am sure, in the soviet times. The Russians left and whatever they could take went with them. The rest were scrapped by the locals. The few buildings that are intact form about 10% of the total. It is like a ruin, with gawky Soviet architecture. The silos stand like huge white elephants. And there is no running water. I have as yet never washed my hands before lunch. The trainees use gasoline from the can. I am bracing myself to do the same, wondering which is worse...

But now the outhouses are here, and the show is almost set. We have entered the last phase of this three year project, which is usually "praise and honor for non-participants." It is ridiculous, as all the equipment will be scrapped for material value the day after we leave. And rightly so, for Belarus cannot have an agenda for soil clean-up. What they could have done is to form a crack team and go after projects in East Germany or Poland for they can offer competitive labor rates. But the problem is that the Soviet Union produced Physicists, Mathematicians, Chemists, and other learned men, but unfortunately no managers.

Our trainees keep talking about the strangeness off it all, about all this effort and money being invested for a demonstration lasting probably one hour, because all these guys want to do is hit the vodka bottle as soon as possible. And so it is -- a strange thing. The absurdity of life once again. But we go through the motions, and as my friend is wont to say "the pay's the same...”

We were supposed to go to the ballet tonight in Minsk, but unfortunately could not due to work. We did go to the opera one night a few weeks ago. It was Tosca, by Puccini. I actually managed to stay awake through the whole thing; although I must say that it got pretty exciting by the third act. Of course, everyone died, including Tosca, who leapt off the turret. We had sparkling Byelorussian wine, and were unfortunately dressed as Americans (slacks/sneakers).

I like to end each piece with a humorous episode, but cannot recall any at this time. Either I am losing my sense of humor or the cabbage at breakfast is really getting to me.

Jun 13, 1997

Chernobyl Children

There is too much to write, and I am overwhelmed by information and impressions. To top it all, I went to Minsk on a Tuesday, which is highly irregular. Through most of this bumpy ride on country road, I sat and typed (in true yuppie fashion) on my laptop. At the end of it, my computer crashed, and I was unable to save what was almost one hour of typing. I wrote about the countryside, and it was spontaneous as I saw it. The rolling fields, the cow traffic, the quaint bus stops, the cops stopping us every half and hour for no good reason... I will have to re-try this some other day.

At the Naroch hotel, there are about a hundred kids on some sort of a summer camp. I have had diverse information about this, one from our interpreter Vladimyr. I was informed that the kids stay here all year around, and they are all children who were affected by the nuclear radiation - The Chernobyl Children. I play ping-pong downstairs, and since then the kids and I have formed a friendship. The kids range in ages from four to fifteen, and occasionally a few of them come and borrow cigarettes off me. I have also struck up a friendship with a couple of the teachers. Though conversation is cumbersome, we manage to communicate and they sort of shrieked when I asked about Chernobyl. "No, No" they said, or was it Nyet, Nyet. Anyhow, I gather that they will be leaving on June 4th and are definitely not staying all year. The children are from Gomil, which is south of Minsk and fairly close to the Ukraine border where Chenobyl is.

The first person in Minsk to be informed about Chernobyl was the director of the Nuclear Institute. He lived in a village about 10 km from Minsk (dare I call it a suburb). He informed the community about the incidents and told them to take all necessary precaution about radiation fall out. The man lost his job, and was expelled from the Party. It was only through some amazing luck that he did not go to jail.

Life goes on as usual at the base. Usual, that is, for us. For the rest, this has to be some sort of a rare experience. Life on an environmental construction site is that one does what one has to do to make it happen. In the US, it is easy with all the equipment, hardware, and tech support. Here it has been a challenge, not without the humorous parts. Today, we broke a landing jack on a piece of equipment weighing 35 tons. Luckily, our mechanics were able to open it up and figure out how to fix it, with novel techniques. Standing in the pouring rain, watching mechanics weld a piece of machinery together is passé for me, but not when there is a lot of grease on the unit and it is shooting flames. At 5:30 pm on a Friday, with a festival in town. The amazing part of it is that many of the trainees stayed back to watch our circus, while the tractor pulling the piece had to idle his engine because his battery was short circuited and there is no way to re-start it. Well, except one, if you can give him a push, and he did have a 35 ton trailer attached. As Allen said, "this is not really the way I wanted to learn how that jack works...” The show must go on.

There is a market in Minsk which sells bootleg CDs. Walking down the lanes of stalls, actually, people with CDS in their hands was a trip down IIT days. The music was 70s. Our driver plays ABBA on the car stereo on the way to and from work. I actually remembered all the lyrics.

Walking down the hotel lobby, I saw Igor and Alexander intensely watching a TV show. "What are you guys watching?"
I asked. Without batting an eyelid, without moving a muscle, they replied in unison "television."

Jun 9, 1997

Life in the army

Life is like being in the army. And if you had really been in the army, the whole thing gets very tough from there on. This morning, the trainees were completing some pipes under the supervision of Tom, our mechanic. Anatolyi wanted to do it in some fashion other than the instructions. Finally, Tom told him "Look, out here, Allen is the general, I am the bloody sergeant and you are the private. So, if Allen wants in done in one way, that is the way it is." Vladimyr translated this, and Anatolyi apparently understood. But did he, really? I know that in the Soviet Army, Anatolyi used to be a major. Being a private does not come so easily once you lose the habit.

Our interpreter Vladimyr is out of place in Belarus. He and his wife Natasha are absolutely capitalistic, corporate-minded people. The most interesting news is that Vladimyr once had an accident with a KGP vehicle, and it was post-perestroika. His Mazda, bought in Sweden, was smashed, totaled. Somehow, he managed to sue the KGB, and WON!!

In the heart of Minsk is a grand old building. I went in there once, and walked into an auditorium. Not knowing what was going on, I sat down and after a while, the curtains opened. On the podium, two men and a woman came to the mike one by one and gave speeches. I left pretty soon, though I did faithfully clap after each speaker. Later, I learnt that this was the Trade Union building, a place of not insignificant stature during the old days. We went back there this evening (Saturday). The basement has an Italian restaurant, with very good pizza. On the main floor are a bar & casino and a disco. !!! Standing outside at 9 pm, with the sun still high in the sky, I watched the building with its Greco roman facade, murals on top, with scores of young teens standing on the steps, and the pounding beat shaking the pillars. This is indeed Glasnost.

Yet another trip from Minsk to Naroch. The roads are so beautiful, with rolling meadows and the distant hills. Through dense forests and farmlands travel the highway. Our driver Shasha knows each and every pothole on the trip, and steers right into each one!! I am beginning to feel positively car sick. But I lean back in my seat and watch the dachas with smoke coming out of the chimneys, their patches of land speckled with green houses made of plastic sheets. Every so often the militia stops us, and check license, registration, safety box and fire extinguisher. He asks where we are headed and which year the car was manufactured. Shasha finally said "I am tired of these stupid questions...”. Occasionally, the car slows down and tries to veer through a herd of cows. My friends take photographs of cows, cowherds, dogs and dachas.

Our driver Shasha graduated from the University with a technical diploma, corresponding to an electrical engineering degree. For some years he could not find work and was doing odd jobs. Driving for us is a temp job, which is well-paid but will go once the Nunn Lugar program is over. Shasha now goes to a special institute and is taking a degree in Finance. I think it is great and told him so. In my observation, bankers tend to do much better than engineers. His wife is a geologist and models ground water at a research institute. I told her about Chandreyee who does somewhat similar work. Of course, Lisa (the wife) does not speak English, and I communicate with her in a language that my colleagues call Shouvik-Russian and predict that it will be taught in schools soon. They compare it to Ebonics. Laugh they might, but I am doing well. I am the only person who has managed to successfully order two cups of coffee at breakfast.

Anything to wash down the beet and mayonnaise.

Jun 7, 1997

Polish Women

Our trainees cover a wide cross-section of people. The jewel of the Soviet Union was education, and most of these people are extremely educated. We have PhDs, people with Bachelors (referred to as a diploma here) and field people such as foreman, mechanic etc. They unionized very quickly! The reasons were extremely good. There is no doubt that false promises have been made to these people, as to the length of the program. Also, they as yet do not know what the pay is. They have attended a weeks worth of training, and some of them are on unpaid leave from their current jobs. They DO NOT know what the pay is here!!! Already, they are aware that the program is short-lived, and from the conversation in the corridor (as explained to me by our driver Shasha) the pay situation is not comforting to them either. From reports, they were testing the waters, but come Monday they may give the whole thing a miss. Today is Sunday, and I am in Minsk. When I walk back onto the site at Costyini tomorrow, we may be sans trainees. I shall then take another walk through the missile launching pad and the silos.

The interpreter Vladimyr talks to us all the time about the infernal political situation in Belarus. Prior to our departure, we had received a memo concerning do's and don'ts here. We have already broken them all, except perhaps the one about attending a political rally, but then we have not seen one yet. One major item was that we were to avoid discussing politics and Lukashenko. However, the drivers and the interpreters thrive on this topic. Vladimyr has been telling me about the charter that will be signed between Moscow and Minsk, and Belarus may once again be part of Russia. However, the agenda was too far left and definitely not a Yeltsin choice. The communists are very much for it, Lukashenko also being very much inclined in that direction. This country is still ruled by an iron hand with red rust all over it. A draft charter has been drawn up and was signed yesterday. Is Belarus a part of Russia. No one knows as yet, because the charter was secret, the contents not revealed to anyone. The people of Belarus woke up to a Saturday morning and may have turned Russian, but they do not know yet. When will they know? It is like our trainees. They come to work, not knowing what the pay is. Come pay-day and the mystery will be solved. When is pay day for the Belorussians. I do not know, may be when they file taxes next. I have a theory. Premier Lukashenko is scheduled to visit our site on June 11. If he is absent and Yeltsin is there, then we will know that Belarus is now just another state! We could then spread the word around.

We have become regulars at the bar in Naroch. Every time one of our group walks in, the rest of us yell "Norm!!!". The locals sit at our table, and vice versa. The other day, we came to the brink of causing an international shipping incident.... To prepare for the unknown (in the form of a visit by the customs officer the next day) we had a party. It started at the bar, and finally moved up to my room. There must have been thirty odd people, Russian, Belarusian, American (and of course, I).

Our main joke now is to identify the KGB agent in our group. After the Soviet Union collapsed, all the countries had their agencies re-named. Even Moscow has a different secret service. Only in Belarus is the agency still called the KGB (perhaps they were too lazy to think of a new name). Our driver Igor is a prime candidate. He is tall, lean, speaks decent English, and has almost no hair with an aquiline nose. We tease him about it all the time, so much so that he has accepted his pseudo-status and joined the joke. Hey, where were you Igor ? Oh, I just went up to my room to transmit information to Moscow !!

It got rather cold here, almost in the forties. Not really like the end of May. No more short skirts in Minsk, and my friend Don is heart-broken. His wish was to find a nice girl here who he could marry. He still has 7 more weeks to manage it, but the other day we went out to dinner with Igor's wife. Don bared his heart to her and said that he wants to marry someone who a) is not very big; b) does not smoke and c) is Catholic.. Irina (the wife) exhaled a considerable amount of cigarette smoke and said "I think you should go to Poland".

Jun 3, 1997

Belorussian Bits Continued:

Every country has its set of folk humor. I suppose many of them get lost in the translation, but some of them are priceless. They pass down generations of proletariats, and where to find more proletariats than in a former soviet republic. One has to be present at the right place at the right time to get the full flavor of the stories, and also, one has to find the jokers. I have met the jokers.

This classic one is from Moscow during the Soviet days:

The Politburo pretends that they pay us, and we pretend that we work.

I was trying to assemble a duct work and the pieces were just not coming together. As I sat and tried to figure it out, all who passed by offered their two cents? Frants, the trainee mechanic came up with this little one.

Why is it difficult to make love to a woman in the town square?
Too many people stand around and give advice!!!!

The creme de la creme has to be this one, and this has become our theme joke. Our trainees apparently told this among themselves early on in the project, and it was conveyed to me by Vladimyr...

A foreman and his apprentice went to repair a sewage line. They opened the manhole cover and find it to be full of excrement, a filthy situation if there ever was one. However, the work had to be done, so the foreman dove inside the line. After a minute, he came out and wiping the grime shouted “Get me a set of wrenches". So the trainee ran and got the tools. The foreman went back into the sewage pit. Coming back smelling of manure (or worse), he said "Get me some pliers and wire coil" The trainee complied. And so it went on this way for a couple of hours. Finally, the foreman stepped out of the sewage. He was covered with the sewage contents, and it was caked on his body about an inch thick. His hair was matted, and it seemed that he would forever carry that stench around... Trying to scrape some gook off his face, he told the trainee “You see, unless you work hard and learn the trade; you will just end up passing tools all your life."

And so it is, our trainees walk around and tell each other “Unless you work hard and learn the trade, you will be passing tools all your life".

Our hotel in Naroch has a hall downstairs, where there is a TT table. Most nights, that table is moved to one side, and a DJ cranks the stereo, and the place is a disco with techno Russian and Euro pop, the only song that I recognized was Rasputin (Boney M).
We became friendly with a bunch of school teachers and one night they asked us out to dance. From then on, we went to dance every night the disco opened its doors. We would sit in the bar, tired and ready to drop dead, and the girls would come in and say "Disco, yes, Show-vick,
Doan, Al-en, Bay-er-nie," and if we said "Nyet" they would say "No Nyet, yes...” Finally, they would drag us to the dance hall by force. I have to confess one thing here, all my life I have dreamt of such a situation where girls would come and ask me to dance every night, and if I refused, would grab my arm and drag me... IF I was ever predicted such a future for myself, I would have had visions of Utopia. But we live and learn every day. We get up around six-thirty and go to work; it's almost a 45 minute drive. The weather has been pretty miserable, with intermittent showers which mean I am drenched by 5 pm. We get back to the hotel no earlier than six and quite often, there is no hot water for a shower. To top it off, we have been now working 10 straight days... In the midst of this schedule, after three nights at the dance hall, I feel that I have died and gone to disco hell. Thankfully, the girls left today, back to Gomil.

Jun 1, 1997

The profound absurdity of life!!

A communist soviet nation, where unemployment did not exist, officially. Everyone had a job created for them by the state, and was put in positions of un-productivity. Living conditions were appalling, and state rationed living quarters were available after several years of waiting in queue. Food was scarce, and quality of goods produced by the unproductive workers was quite below any existing standard. Yet, life went on, as it always does. It creates in the minds of people an idea of the world, shaped by their existence described above.

A former soviet nation rid of the communist yoke. The shackles of unemployment are now broken, and it is out on the street. Kids beg at local street corners, and many people have had no income for a while. Previously, no one was fired from a job, even if their blood vodka level exceeded red blood cells. Now, they can be. Living conditions are appalling, and state rationed living quarters available after several years of waiting in queue. Food is somewhat scarce, and quality of goods produced is quite below any existing standard. It has been 11 long years since perestroika, but ideas shaped by their old existence cannot be shattered by revolutionary processes heralded by Gorbachev. Many people are confused at the absence of the jobs that were previously created for them, the rest either struggle to get by through innovative means, or are part of the rampant corrupt Mafia (the Neo-Russians). The dynamics of change is met with different responses in different countries. Belarus is on the wrong end of this spectrum. Yet life goes, simply because it always does. And they even have McDonalds, complete with McDrive-throughs..

The tragicomedy: The United States of America is now the big brother of the new world order. Committed to the success of it's Nunn Lugar program, it is determined to make good with all these newly formed nation and offer them aid, as perceived by it's own ideas. And to also internalize some of the benefits of this program, after all, elections are never that far off... The Former Soviet republics are offered a chance to redeem themselves of their bad days, by cleaning up their old mess, by development and re-building (many more McDonalds - 3 in Minsk, and many more to come). Help is offered through transfer of technology. "What do you want" they asked. "Some good old fashioned heavy equipment, of course many more times sophisticated than the ones you have, bigger, more powerful and comfortable? Or how about some state of the earth environmental remediation equipment, words that you probably have never heard before: bio-rememdiation, chemical stabilization, thermal desorbtion. Equipment big huge and complicated which you will not have a clue as to what to do with, and when you do , you realize that there is no cash potential, unless you strip them off parts and components and use them elsewhere. The rest will be moss covered in years, maybe months, of non-use. But remember, the equipment IS state of the earth, exactly the sort that we use in the US." The young free republic wants to wallow in the muck of high technology, to be one of the big guys. And the deed is done. US companies are contracted to build and supply equipment to Belarus, and offer a training program to the best in the nation.

All the above is not necessarily true. The Americans did not perceive that the equipment would be worthless in Belarus. It is all a question of perception, of ideas formed by people through their own existence. There is no world view, and will probably never be one. The unfortunates are "helped" by they who can, but the process of helping is clouded by political and individual opinions. We have a few million tractors in the country, and a few more would not help us any. How could it help any old Belarusian farmer? So the remediation technology is offered, which if nothing, helped one old Belarusian farmer : Premier Lukashenko.

Comedy without too much cost: A group of Americans (and one Indian) meet at the Mayors office in Postavy, a few kilometers from the Kosteniye base where the training program is to be. The dilemma is obvious. The shipment is stuck at customs in St. Petersburg, where Russian officials will make the most of the moment. It is a minor hurdle. But the underlying problem is now coming through. The Byelorussians have now realized that their part of the Nunn Lugar program involves significant money (at least significant for them.) It is a hard bargain to keep, who cares anyway about the Nunn Lugar program. Salary for twenty trainees for two months is big bucks, and the cost of support equipment and supplies, though subsidized, is still money down the polluted waters. The Americans have already complained about conditions at the Naroch Hotel, the nations "hot" resort. No hot water, no phones in rooms, no laundry service, no seats in the toilet, the food is way Un-American. Breakfast today was rice and chicken broth. Actually, that is better than the cabbage and mayo we were served yesterday. Yeah, but it sucked still. The roads are bumpy, and our mini-van feels like a schooner during a tsunami. The ride is about 2 hours one way, which we have done four times in a week. The other ride is 45 minutes, which we do twice daily. How can we teach these people and retain our sanity? And to top it all there is but little co-operation from the other side..

The Mayor of Postavy is a communist from the old days. His questions and wants are pretty direct: What happens after you leave. When do you leave? Oh no, stay longer. No, we have no overhead projector here, you have to get it from Minsk, but when you do, make sure that you leave it behind in my office. Will our people be trained? Oh sure, they will work as many hours as you want them to... What, of course I will pay them for the extra hours, but if they work less, they get paid less. We are no longer a communist nation, you know. I welcome you all here, and you are honored guests at our festival on May 29 - 31. No work for three days, only vodka.

Tragicomedy # 2: A meeting at a hall, somewhere in Postavy. We meet the trainees, possibly very qualified. Their questions are equally direct. How long is the training program, what happens next. (The equipment will be used till at least Sept. '98 - American Proj. Mngr/ Ah, no guarantees after the 17th of July this year - Belorussian official..) What are the hours, how is the pay. Can I leave now, or I may lose the job that I have....

Yet, life goes on. We play tennis at a court without a net, and talk about what breakfast will be tomorrow. I'm psyched.