RUSSIA FROM TIP TO TIP
How to see the USSR, scattering nylons, Centennial pins and bail-points behind you
Howard Ross is Chancellor of McGill University and a partner in the firm of Touche. Ross, Bailey & Smart, chartered accountants. With other Canadian business leaders, he visited Russia this summer on a businessman's tour.
I WENT ON AN eight-day trip to Russia with 100 fellow citizens, described as "prominent Canadian businessmen.” in connection with the inauguration of Air Canada's new service from Montreal to Moscow. We had a marvelous time. Everyone asks for "impressions,” but it is not easy to sort out impressions from the confusion and excitement of traveling 13,000 miles, in eight days, through totally unfamiliar country without knowing the language. It would even help to understand the alphabet, so that one could read signs.
It’s shocking that we know and understand so little about one of the most powerful nations, with a population of a couple of hundred million and competence in nuclear explosion. It would be ludicrous to attempt to compare the Russian way of life with ours, or assess our relative economic potentials, after such a brief exposure to the country. But surely we should start to demolish the terrible barriers to communication between us; and one way to do this is to encourage more Canadians to visit Russia.
Our group's experience can hardly have developed many experts on Russia. but it certainly proved that a trip to Russia can be a stimulating experience. Travel conditions, while not as comfortable as those we have become accustomed to on this continent, are quite satisfactory to anyone except the types (why on earth do they travel anyway?) who complain if they do not find everything abroad exactly the same as at home.
Travel to Russia is still not so common. but you soon find out in preparing for your trip that enough Canadians have been there for a certain mystique or know-how to have developed, and you get quite a bit of free advice.
An intriguing subject is tipping. Everyone seemed to give this a high priority. It caused me more trouble than any other aspect of the trip. Everyone said that tipping was not done; that Russians would be offended. The thing to do was to take a supply of small gifts, as these were "acceptable and appreciated" for little services. There was marked agreement on what to select as gilts— a curious list, it seemed to me, but so generally proposed that it never occurred to me to question it. So I went out and dutifully provided my-
You’ve brought gifts .. . now how do you give them away?
self with a supply of ball-point pens, nylon stockings, Centennial maple-leaf lapel badges and chewing gum.
I am a shy and, I suppose, oversensitive type. Even purchasing these things caused me some embarrassment. The lapel badges were relatively easy. I had only to remember, when dealing with the salesgirl, to try to
look like a Scoutmaster buying awards for his troop's annual hobby show. Í look a hit like a Scoutmaster anyway —the role was a simple one.
The ball-points were tougher. It’s difficult to know what you should try to look like when ordering a dozen of the cheapest hall-points. I decided to brazen it out. “Let her think what
she will,” I muttered, as I stepped up to the salesgirl, and got it over with.
The stockings were quite another matter. It dawned on me that I could be seriously involved in questions of quality and size. I discarded the obvious course of just asking for a dozen pairs of the cheapest stockings in mixed sizes. This could only lead to
unpleasantness of some sort. Calculating a rough average price from the newspaper ads, I convinced myself that nice girls could be expected to wear stockings at a dollar a pair, and the simple word “medium” would do for size. As it turned out the stockings purchase went quite well. I suppose one is sustained by some suggestion of glamour in the thought of being discovered in the stockings-and-lingerie department.
The really tough problem was the gum. I hope all those in the gum trade will forgive me for saying that this is not my favourite amenity. Not being a practitioner myself, I had got an impression from watching others that a stick of gum lasts almost forever, and I calculated that a dozen packages must represent about two years’ supply for even the most dedicated chewer. “I’m going to Russia,”
I finally explained, taking the chance that this might get me involved in prolonged explanations. It did not. The girl at the counter raised her eyebrows in a polite and noncommittal manner and handed over the gum.
Buying these supplies turned out to be simpler than disposing of them. Here again the lapel badges were easiest. Russians love these little ornaments. It was not too difficult to locate a receptive and peaceful-iooking native already wearing a dozen or so badges. Then it was simply a matter of stepping up to him, with the most disarming smile I could muster, and pinning the Centennial maple leaf on him—making sure only to move along briskly before he could recover from his surprise and pin one of his badges on me. Fortunately the maple-leaf emblem seems to have no unhappy ideological connotation in Russia.
How many ball-points a day?
The gum goes to groups of rather tiresome little boys who lurk around hotel entrances and ask for it. No great problem; but you cannot help wondering what you are supposed to be promoting by encouraging this sort of thing.
The purpose of the gifts was to show appreciation for services rendered. It was hard to tell whether they accomplished this or not. I got my first opportunity to dispose of a pen to the porter who brought my bags up at the Hotel Russia in Moscow. He smiled broadly enough, and at first I took this to indicate appreciation; but then I began to wonder. The Hotel Russia is so new that they are still building it. It will be the largest hotel in Europe, with 3,000 rooms. (Incidentally with a neat bit of oneupmanship, the Russians rate their hotels by number of beds, not number of rooms, with the result that tourists are apt to come home and report that the Hotel Russia has 6,000 rooms.) Although the hotel was not completed, it was sufficiently in operation for the enormous lobby to be full ot tourists, and I could not help wondering at the collection of bail-points a porter must accumulate daily.
The first visitor who thought of giving a Russian porter a ball-point pen had a fine, imaginative idea. “What a fine, imaginative idea,” people no doubt said as they made a mental note to do this themselves. But with the
big planes arriving every few minutes, eacli carrying 100 passengers or so, all loaded to the gills with 10-cent gift pens — well, it does take the top off it a bit, doesn't it?
(Incidentally, if you will step over here where Big Brother cannot hear us, l can assure you that at least some Russians are not offended by tips in cash.)
What with the rapid time changes and all the confusion of arriving in a strange country, and getting “impressions” in a conscientious manner, I had rather deferred thinking about the matter of nylon stockings. The subject came up a few days after our arrival in a conversation with a lellowtraxeler over a quiet drink.
“Have you realized,” he asked, “what it will do to your standing around the home if you come back and have to admit you were not able to work up the nerve to give anyone the stockings?”
This did not seem to me to be any problem, if worst came to worst, I pointed out. one could always leave them in the hotel room when checking out.
He was not impressed. “That's a fine idea! And have some maid come rushing up to the bus, as it stands outside the hotel, waving them in the air and saying you left them behind.”
While this might be embarrassing, ] pointed out one could at least get rid of a couple of ball-points as a tip for honesty. My friend brightened at the mention of bail-points. “I had no trouble getting rid of them. 1 just gave one to the elevator girl each time I got in,” he explained.
“I never took the elevator,” I told him. “I always found it quicker to walk.”
“That’s all very well for you,” he replied, “you were only on the fifth floor.”
Speaking of elevators, this brings up the great riddle that strikes everyone who visits Russia: how can they do some things so superbly well and other things so incredibly badly? Their feats in outer space speak for themselves. They have built the finest subway in the world, with 75 stations —many of them underground palaces full of statuary, mosaics and other art work—and extraordinarily clean, fast, efficient trains. But if they can do such wonderful things, why can't they install a reasonably decent elevator system in a new hotel obviously built to impress visitors? The elevators in the Hotel Russia are inadequate, slow, erratic. In another brand-new hotel, this one at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, the elevators are even slower and less adequate, and are equipped with doors that swing inward, making it impossible to open or close them when the elevator is more than half full.
These contrasts between the extremes of efficiency and inefficiency
seem to run through the whole picture. We saw a Rimsky-Korsakov opera. Tzar Saltan, at the Congress Palace in the Kremlin — a hall as beautiful as Montreal's Place des Arts and twice as large. It was perhaps the most exciting musical experience I have ever had—a cast of 200 with virtually a full symphony orchestra in accompaniment and the most elaborate and beautiful staging. There were split-second scene changes with masterful stage management which would
have been impossible without the smoothest-running organization. And yet. at the very best hotels they do not seem able to serve a simple, badly cooked breakfast in less than an hour and a half, or keep the basic plumbing in order. These strange contrasts are hard to explain. My guess is that the Russians do anything well they really want to do.
The wonderful way we get looked after when traveling about in Canada is a great credit to our hotel system,
and I would probably be as quick as anyone to be indignant if I got into a hotel where the plumbing did not work. But bad versus good plumbing is not a profound ideological issue, and many of those who are most insistent on their creature comforts, when staying in a hotel, cheerfully admit their happiest hours are spent at summer homes or fishing camps where there is no plumbing at all.
In spite of oddly inferior plumbing and, by and large, disappointing food,
“We build roads for cars to run on—then we build cars”
the overwhelming impression I had (braced as 1 was for a tremendous experience) was one of pervading familiarity. The early-morning bus ride from the Moscow airport on arrival was a bit unlike a Canadian bus ride—but not more different than a similar ride through the suburbs ot. say, London or Paris. A day at the
popular new seaside resort of Sochi was pretty much like a day at a seaside resort anywhere. I am not a perceptive or trained observer in the clothing line, but there was nothing in the way the holiday crowds dressed that struck me as different from home. For miles, the beaches were covered by a bikini-and-trunk-clad horde.
We had only fleeting opportunities to collect serious impressions of Russia’s economic development. Most of us of my vintage, conditioned in our formative years by the propaganda and counter - propaganda that has followed the Russian Revolution, still have some lurking notion that the Soviet system may break down. I sup-
pose this is always a possibility, but we certainly saw nothing that would make it more likely than the breakdown of our own system which, after all, from time to time behaves in a way that might gladden the heart of an unfriendly foreign critic.
The minister of foreign trade met us and put on a classic performance. He spoke for some 40 minutes, without notes, and then answered questions. He started by saying he was always glad to meet businessmen from abroad. The previous day he had met a delegation of 100 businessmen from Sweden, of whom 98 wanted to sell Russia something and two wanted to buy. “This was, of course, not a typical delegation,” he explained, “usually everyone wants to sell.” He went on to emphasize that the wheat deal had completely unbalanced Canada-Russia trade and, if wheat purchases were to continue, Canada would have to find something to buy from the Soviets. It’s not going to be easy, because our economies tend to be parallel rather than complementary.
The theme of the minister’s remarks was that economic development was strictly a matter of priorities. He discussed early difficulties and mistakes with every appearance of candor. The first problem was to develop power—waterpower, oil, coal, gas, etc.—and this was concentrated on first. Next came heavy industry; then communications. Increasing the supply of consumer goods is still far down the road.
Speaking of roads, he fielded neatly a question about Russia’s sluggish automobile production. “It is our simpleminded notion,” he said, “that before increasing automobile production we should build some roads for them to run on. I understand in North America you have adopted the opposite approach, that you build the cars, run them into an enormous traffic jam, and then start to think of a highway program. We are going to try it our way. We have not got around seriously to roads yet, but they are on the list in what we think
is the proper order of priority, and we will start on them soon. Automobiles are on the list, too, to be tackled after the road system has been developed.”
As far as firsthand impressions go —it is hard to get any. Talking through an interpreter is no way ot raving good, heart-to-heart conversations. Our tour was organized and run by the government's Intourist agency, as all tours are. This enormously competent organization supplies guides who are beautifully t ained, beautifully at home in English—and, frequently, also beautiful. Yoey suided us around in groups, arranged shopping, presided over meals, answered questions, handled complaints and generally shepherded us through all difficulties. When recounting some incident from the Revolution that reflected credit on the revolutionaries and some discredit on the Czarist side, they would sometimes end up with a totally disarming remark such as, “And that, gentlemen, is your Soviet propaganda for the day."
As a matter of fact, there was nothing in the description of events we got from our guides that was in conflict with the scraps of history I was able to read, during a short preparatory period, in our standard texts. It seemed to me they speak of Russian history in much the same way as we speak of our own, with reasonable detachment.
The mice and I
One very strong impression that anyone must get from even the shortest of visits, is the profound love Russians have for art treasures. We had only time to stroll through a couple of the larger museums, but the accumulation of jeweled thrones and vestments, armor, saddle trappings, royal coaches, weapons, tapestries and so on was breathtaking. One museum in the Kremlin had enough accumulated treasure to stock several dozen first-class museums. When we went through it, it was crowded, and we were assured this was not a special occasion but simply a typical day.
The Hermitage in Leningrad is surely the most fascinating art gallery in the world. As it now stands, it is a meandering collection of buildings put up at various periods, connected by a labyrinth of passages that makes it impossible to find one’s way out it one gets separated from the guide—or so at least we were warned. I he name “Hermitage” derives from the fact that Catherine the Great built the first unit as a private museum tor herself. (“No one but the mice and I shall see these treasures,” she is supposed to have said.) One famous collection after another has been purchased over the past 150 years and added to the museum. We were told that when Russia entered World War II, one of the first jobs tackled was to move one and a half million art treasures from The Hermitage for safekeeping. Heavy statues were buried and paintings were removed beyond the Urals for storage. This would seem an interesting example of the priorities in the Russian system as, in those days, there must have been many emergency problems that might
it isn’t pro-Russian, it’s pro-survival
seem more important than protecting works of art.
In any event, the move was providential. Leningrad was under siege by the Nazis for almost three years, during which time it was continuously bombed and shelled. Estimates of civilian casualties from attack and starvation range from 600,000 to a million. However, after the war the city was rebuilt and now shows practically no scars from its terrible ordeal.
When we visited it, much scaffolding was up around its public buildings in the final stages of a clean-up for the 50th anniversary of the Revolution in November. Yet the beauty of the city shone through the scaffolding and it is easy to believe, as so many say, that Leningrad is one of the world’s loveliest cities.
One of the conclusive proofs of a genuine love of art treasures is the fact that such an enormous quantity of them have been cherished and cared for, over a period of recurring financial crises, when so many of the treasures of the past from other parts of Europe were being sold to wealthy American collectors. There must have been many occasions when selling Old Masters to solve foreign exchange problems was very tempting.
The final impression, from a short visit, is a realization of the enormous communications barrier we have to overcome if we are ever to understand the Russians. It is not only the blank wall of a foreign and unfamiliar language, but the heritage of suspicion and mistrust more or less deliberately cultivated by both sides on the assumption that we had selected ways of life not only fundamentally different, but that can never peacefully co-exist.
This coul d eventually prove to be true, but as neither side shows any disposition to change to the other’s system, and as we both have The Bomb, it is probably better to assume that we can each go our own way without a final showdown. In making this assumption, we can at least be encouraged by the many examples in history where countries that appeared to have completely irreconcilable ideologies still found they could settle down and live peacefully side by side, without either surrendering its chosen philosophy. An excellent example of this is provided by British-French relations after the French Revolution. In England the word “republican” had at first as disturbing implications as
“Communism” has now; whereas in France, after a series of revolutions and counter-revolutions, the only good monarchist was supposed to be a dead one. Yet today, while there are still tensions between the two countries, no one would expect they could go to war with each other over the monarchical principle.
Most of those who know something
about Russia seem to agree that Russians fear the United States in very much the same way as Americans fear them. “Did you find the Russians friendly?” is a prevalent question for the returning visitor—asked with at least a twinge of uneasiness. Well, it is a natural enough question but, if you think about it a bit, also rather silly. How friendly would our reception of a group of American tourists be if:
□ no American newspapers or magazines were allowed to enter Canada;
□ the only American news supplied in our press consisted of unsympathetic accounts of what is going on in Vietnam;
□ we did not understand their language—or they ours;
□ when they came to Canada they spent their spare time drinking in bars Canadians were not allowed to enter and shopping in stores that did not
accept Canadian money (and assume also that our best liquor was in these “U.S. Dollar Bars," and the only good quality merchandise available was in the stores we were not allowed to trade in);
□ whenever an American tourist saw' a building crane standing idle, he pointed it out to all and sundry with a gleeful guffaw;
□ when a Canadian tourist guide showed some indication of affection for the present political regime in this country, he (or she) w'as greeted with
more or less open ribaldry because we had adhered to the monarchicalparliamentary form of government from which the Americans rebelled; □ the American tourist’s only notion of creating goodwill and showing appreciation was to hand people gum or bail-point pens?
Without any of these encouragements to misunderstanding, we have already a fairly vocal anti-Americanism in existence here. It is probably as mild a movement as could possibly exist between neighboring countries, but it is at least a reminder of what the North American continent and the Russians are up against in learning to understand each other.
In the emotional context in which these matters get discussed, even to suggest that we should try to understand each other is likely to be considered pro-Russian. This is rubbish. It is simply pro-survival. To say we should understand the Russian system is not to say it is a good system. At even the most casual view it is not a good system for us. The suppression of news, and the constant harping on ideological dialogue, is something entirely foreign to a people brought up in our traditions which, with all their shortcomings, are incomparably more liberal.
WHEN WE LEFT our Moscow hotel I still had three packages of gum and two ball-points. I figured I had spent a good deal of precious time in disposing of the rest of my presents, and I was determined to get the balance over with. There was an hour to go before our bus left, but my luggage was packed and gone, and I had decided to go for a final walk. Feeling about as foolish as I have ever felt, I left the gum and ballpoints on the bureau. I tried scattering them about casually and also piling them in a neat little pyramid — I forget how I finally decided they looked least ridiculous.
Unfortunately, a sudden rainstorm cut short my walk, and I made an unplanned return to my room as a convenient spot to read my paperback. The gum and bail-points were gone, but a few moments later there was a knock at my door and a well-dressed woman, who I suppose was the manageress, appeared to ask in faultless English whether gum and pens were a present or whether 1 had returned to get them. She explained that the maid had consulted her and that she had assured her they must be a present. Was she incorrect?
"No,” I said miserably, “you were quite correct. They were meant to show appreciation.” ★