#37 Russian Adventures Part 4Posted: December 19, 2012
So I went to Russia, or the then U.S.S.R. in the summer of 1987 to see a friend I thought was dying. By the time I managed to get a visa she had recovered. # 35 Russian Adventures Part III (11/27/12). About two weeks into the trip I was taken to a dacha outside Moscow for what was billed as a picnic. Now I was leaving Moscow with our group tour, carrying slides of illegal paintings to bring back to America. I was tearfully implored by Nadia to contact a German banker in New York. He was in some way involved with Russian artists. And the only other thing I knew was that they were desperate.
Telling my friend and the artists that I knew nothing about the business of art, meant nothing. They entrusted me with a mission. My mission was to help save their lives by getting them known in the West. I just wanted to get the slides home without trouble.
This is no travel journal. But in order for me to get perspective of why in the hell was I putting myself through this for strangers, it helps to remember what the world was like then, and to remember my own world. I had shut down my business and spent months buying time just to get the visa. I was living on my dwindling savings. Before the trip I assumed that I would return to New York and broadcast advertising.
I had already completed my goal. As promised I had seen my friend. The citizen diplomacy I was exposed to was a bonus. Now we were on our way to Central Asia.
We took Aeroflot out of Moscow to Tashkent. On the first flight into Leningrad from Luxembourg a couple of weeks earlier, I remember the long, really long delay. We watched several mechanics on the ground for hours trying to work on our plane. No matter what a miserable trip I’ve had on any airline here, with delays, bumps, cramped seats or no food, it was a day at Elizabeth Arden by comparison. (Not a good example because the Swedish masseuse there was pretty tough.) On that day in Luxembourg, the mechanics had dwindled down to one, and he scratched his head. About an hour later we boarded the plane anyway.
In Tashkent our brains snapped in another direction. The only Russian novels I’d read didn’t prepare me for palm trees. And no geography class covered the vastness of 11 or 12 time zones of the U.S.S.R. We weren’t going to Kamchatka, a much coveted territory in the game of Risk. But it wasn’t Kansas either. When we stepped out of that plane in Tashkent, we were hit in the face by the heat of an open oven.
We spent our days in mosques, cultural centers, and markets. By this leg of the trip we were all exhausted with too little sleep and not enough protein. Food supplies were skimpy and I was running low on the peanut butter and dried fruit I brought with me. Blistering hot nights were constant. Air conditioners were not.
One afternoon in 115deg. we were at a cultural center for dance and music. Our hosts got us all up to dance in the sun, so by the time we left we were each drenched in sweat. We wanted to go back and if at all possible burn our clothes. When we reached the hotel, our tour leader announced that we were going to meet some university students. We were united in one big damp groan but we went.
We chatted with the lovely students, all speaking excellent English. One young woman made a new dress just to meet an American. I don’t know of any other time in my life when someone wore a special outfit to meet me. When the event was over, we all slogged back in our damp clothes to the elevators. One of the men in the group said, “They’re going to tell their friends, ya know, Americans are pretty nice. But they all smell like a bunch of wet sheep.”
In Tashkent a friend of Nadia’s came to pick me up for a visit. He wasn’t allowed in an international hotel, so he stood outside holding a very worn National Geographic so I’d recognize him. He was originally from Moscow but had lived in that region for many years. I had an amazing visit with his wife, her mother and their child. Then he took me back to the hotel. Again, this was something I wasn’t supposed to do, and every time I re-entered a hotel, it felt like there would be trouble. There were always different check points, several stations to go through before being allowed to go upstairs.
The next day our flight out of Tashkent was stuck on the ground without air for four hours. It was 117 degrees outside. Sorry about the weather report, but that’s something you don’t forget. A female student on our trip was very sick. She was seated between two women who kept passing a naked baby back and forth over her. At one point the baby peed on the girl who was too sick to care.
By the time we got settled into the mountain town of Alma-Ata, where Russians trained for the Olympics, all but three of us were knocked out by something in the Leningrad water. They all wanted to die, and very nearly did. We spent a lot of time with Russian doctors.
During our travels in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan we visited everything from blue snow fed lakes to steamy silk factories. There were towns with beds outdoors on the street for a rest in the midday sun. By this time Blanche was beginning to flirt with local men and we watched the little widow from Louisiana ride off on the back of a young man’s motorcycle. She did return.
After about a week in Central Asia it was time to go home. We came back through Luxembourg and then to JFK. Some had missed connecting flights so they stayed with me on Long Island. We were all chattering so much the next day in the car I got us miserably lost on the way to La Guardia, a trip I had made many many times.
Back home in the U.S. it was time for me to consider how I could help the artists. I called a friend from my broadcasting days because he was an art collector. So he made one phone call and got back to me in minutes. He was on the board of a Wisconsin Art museum and it happened that they had one of Dimitri’s pictures in their collection. I considered it more than coincidence. My friend was intrigued and offered to help research. He arranged a meeting at a gallery in Manhattan with the “German Banker.”
I’ll call the banker Helmut. That is not his name but he could be a Helmut. He was a big man with a wad of self-assurance. Though his English pronunciation was good, the sentence structure was creative and he had a quiet voice. I had to pay close attention. He kept kind of winking at me with his face. I didn’t know if it was a facial tick or flirtation. We all met at a gallery where he and the gallery owner showed us one painting after another. These were not Russian paintings but I thought that this was part of our education.
My friend and I both admired one painting and he suggested that we buy it and take turns hanging it. I replied that I had no wall space. Because of my own “stupidity” it takes years, sometimes decades for something to sink in. I was borrowing the house of a friend at the time so I had no wall space of my own. It must have sounded as though I had so much artwork that I didn’t dare buy one more painting.
We were shown into a conference room. I sat at one end of a gigantic table and the German sat at the opposite end. It was such a big table I could hardly hear him. When I got out my case to light a cigarette, he stood and glided the many yards to snap a lighter. I tried not to appear impressed.
My friend and I just listened because we didn’t know what the German was doing for the artists. It never occurred to me to make money at this. I was not conscious of it at the time, but my role must have been as confusing to them as it was to me. Now I was stepping out onto another ledge of life, this time an international one.
Another friend from my broadcasting days loaned me an office in Manhattan in the then Pan Am Building. I used his company phones. Each call I made led to another contact. I spoke with a famous film director who led me to Peggy Guggenheim who was interested in helping Russian artists. Just about every conversation led me back to the German Banker.
So it was time to go to his Wall Street office to meet with him again. I did not look forward to that. He was an overpowering man. Between his soft-spoken accent and that face he kept making, I was uncomfortable. Being around him made me wobbly in the knees.