I moved to Moscow in last 1997 to set up a regional office for ARCADIS Euroconsult. I managed this office for 5 years. Due to market changes (my specialization was no longer needed in Russia), for another year in Russia before moving to Ukraine. The last two years I was in Russia involved a lot of travel teaching. I travelled to 22 cities; 3,165 people attended, about 70% of those attending were not Baha’i. About 35% of the lectures were organized at Universities as an activity of the “European Baha’i Businessmen Forum”. All the lectures were set up with local Baha’i communities and included firesides and deepenings with the local friends. The list of cities: Moscow, Рязань, Калуга, Орел, Верхняя Пышма, Екатеринбург, Курган, Воронеж, Набережные Челны, Пермь, Архангельск, Казань, Ставрополь, Житомир (Украина), Бердск, Новосибирск, Уфа, Киев (Украина), St. Petersburg, Владикавказ, Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan).
In 2001 upon the direction of the Universal House of Justice and Counsellors, the NSA of Russia divided the country into smaller, manageable regions. I was a member of the NSA and participated in this process. This is a working group consulting about the delineation of a cluster in the Moscow Baha’i Center where I was frequently in attendance.
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I heard about development opportunities in the ex-Soviet Union when I was finishing my contract in Sri Lanka (1991), and I immediately said: “I’m interested,” to a Dutch colleague who asked if I wanted to join his team in the Netherlands (Wim Gunnink). But before going to the Netherlands, I accepted my first assignment with the World Bank in Sri Lanka, then wrote a book on seed enterprise development with one of the early founders of the Indian Seed Industry, finally took a little side trip to Nepal to check out the sanctuary of rock heros such as Janice Joplin.
My first trip to Russia and Ukraine happened in 1992, still working as a seed industry specialist. I remember a trip to Rostov-en-Don with a Dutch vegetable seed specialist, to look at opportunities for development. This trip is worth a story later about a working lunch, horses, Don Cossacks, kissing me, and running naked between courses.
Russia was still a communist dictatorship, Yeltsin in charge. There was a constitutional crisis which reached a tipping point on September 21, 1993, when President Yeltsin aimed to dissolve the country’s legislature (the Congress of People’s Deputies and its Supreme Soviet), although the president did not have the power to dissolve the parliament according to the constitution. Yeltsin used the results of the referendum of April 1993 to justify his actions. In response, the parliament declared that the president’s decision was null and void, impeached Yeltsin and proclaimed vice president Aleksandr Rutskoy to be acting president. The situation deteriorated at the beginning of October. On October 3, demonstrators removed police cordons around the parliament and, urged by their leaders, took over the Mayor’s offices and tried to storm the Ostankino television centre. The army, which had initially declared its neutrality, stormed the Supreme Soviet building in the early morning hours of October 4 by Yeltsin’s order, and arrested the leaders of the resistance.
I was working for the World Bank, and took a trip to the south (Krasnodar Krai and Nothern Ossetia) when Yeltsin stormed the White House. I was in the home as the guest of the deputy from that region, who was interested to be included in the loan for a new seed processing facility. We watched the shelling of the White House together, and my host said: “My God, I would be in the building if I wasn’t here with you.”
Quoting from Marina Abramovic, ” perpetual shortages of everything, drabness everywhere. There is something about Communism and socialism— it’s a kind of aesthetic based on pure ugliness….. Everything was somehow secondhand. As though the leaders had looked through the lens of someone else’s Communism and built something less good and less functional and more fucked-up. I always remember the communal spaces— they would be painted this dirty green color, and there were these naked bulbs that gave off a gray light that kind of shadowed the eyes. The combination of the light and the color of the walls made everyone’s skin yellowish-greenish, like they were liver-sick. Whatever you did, there would be a feeling of oppression, and a little bit of depression.”
“Whole families lived in these massive, ugly apartment blocks. Young people could never get an apartment for themselves, so every flat would contain several generations— the grandmother and grandfather, the newlywed couple, and then their children. It created unavoidable complications, all these families jammed into very small places. The young couples had to go to the park or the cinema to have sex. And forget about ever trying to buy anything new or nice. A joke from Communist times: A guy retires, and for having been such an exceptional worker, he is awarded, instead of a watch, a new car, and they tell him at the office he’s very lucky— he’ll get his car on such and such a date, in twenty years. “Morning or afternoon?” the guy asks. “What do you care?” the official asks him. “I have the plumber coming the same day,” the guy says.
Moscow when I first visited fits the above discription. My first few visits, I stayed in a 4-star hotel, which served as both my office and my home. It was the first World Bank project in Russia, and the entire staff of consultants stayed at this hotel. By the end of the decade, I owned a flat about 3-4 blocks from this hotel.
(Future stories: working at the World Bank office, hiring interpreters, local internet, Min Agriculture and “international department” (e.g., KGB), my Russian tutor, Yeltsin standing on a tank, shelling the White House, me standing in line for bread, stores all one product, monkeys and bananas, currency store, night flight, looking for a private sector partner (Zukov showing up at the hotel one evening), etc.)
After I learned more about Russia, and had local colleagues and support, I started living in flats. To this day, I much prefer renting and living in an apartment (if more than a few days) than staying in a hotel. The first flat I rented in Moscow was organized for me by Olga Vinogradova. I think it was December 1993. A few months before the consultation in Kolomna. Then 1994-95 I rented flats in Obninsk and St. Petersburg. I can remember 2 flats in Obninsk, and 3 in St Petersburg. If in Moscow, I stayed with Ira, Olya’s mother.
Olya’s grandmother (Ira’s mother) was still alive and living with her and her mother when we met, but she died when I was in the Netherlands and she was never a part of my life. All I ever heard were stories how she was punished frequently, for the slightest infraction, and the punishments were almost always physical— hitting and slapping.
Russian’s (soviets) didn’t have Christmas; they were Communists. By the time I starting b spending time in Russia, the taboo against God was lifted, and year by year the athiest communists were “converted” and became believers and church-goers, and Icon worshipers.
Ira became very religious, would have Orthodox Christmas, on January 7. But the tree never became a Christmas tree, although it looked exactly like a Christmas tree, including the practice of placing gifts under the tree until the New Year, when they were opened. It was a new year’s tree, with new year rituals, and Ira always took three days to prepare an elaborate celebration— special foods, decorations, everything. During the communist period, curtains were needed to hide any religions celebration, because in those days it was dangerous to celebrate Christmas.
Ira was born in Washington, DC, to a mid-level dipomat. To my understanding, her father had some low-level position. However, not much was ever said about her father, who might have been gay, and gay being illegal, it would have meant problems. Ira’s father a diplomat, Yuri’s father a professor, and these position are high enough up the pecking order to obtain a decent flat and jobs in an elite University (Ira) and with Academic of Science (Physics) for Yura. Relatively speaking, it was a life of privilege, and in a way it was— in a world of Communist drabness and deprivation, they lived well in a nice flat.
Ira and Olya had a washing machine. This was a very big deal. They put it in the bathroom. Nobody trusted this machine. She would do the laundry in it, then take it out and finish by hand. When I saw this machine doing its job, agitating the clothes with a monotonous sound— DUN-DUN-DUN-DUN. I was amused. I think I even remember an automatic wringer and two rubber rollers that turned slowly in opposite directions while the laundry churned in the washer’s tub. What I remember most is that after it spun and presumably the wash was dry enough to hang n the kitchen, I was left home to help and so I merrily hung the laundry in the kitchen. When Ira and Olya came home, the kitchen was very wet, as the clothes dripped and dripped, on the floor. Apparently the machine pretended to spin dry the clothes. I found out later that most people bought a second plastic centrifuge like tub, to really spin the clothes dry.
When you reached the age of seven, you became a “Pioneer” in the party. You were given a red scarf to wear around
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