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!!!!

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