My forays into Eastern Europe took place at the height of the Cold War, during the Reagan administration. I did not know what to expect, what limitations would be placed on my freedom, and more importantly, what limitations were placed on religious freedom. The reports we heard of these nations told little about the common people or the experiences they faced in day-to-day living. I would find out first-hand, at least given the time, places, and people I would see.
My introduction to Czechoslovakia would come at the hands of an experienced businesswoman, our sales manager for Eastern Europe. She arrived at the Hotel Europa where I was staying in Vienna, on May Day, 1984. It was a workers holiday, so all businesses were closed. Anna was Austrian, so her German was excellent, but had married an Englishman and lived there, so she spoke with a refined English accent. Having traveled and worked all over her territory, she knew how to get things done—I couldn’t been better cared for.
In a rental car, we drove from Vienna to the Slovakia border, a relatively short passage, crossing at Bratislava. The border crossing was a military outpost, with about a quarter-mile of no-man’s land marked by coils of barbed wire at each end, a heavy steel tank trap at the gate, and a machine-gun tower above. Fortunately, very few vehicles were crossing, for we were held up for nearly two hours as they questioned us, searched our baggage and car, and stamped our documents. Among their requirements was that we purchase a certain quantity of local currency (Crowns) for each day of our visit, and none could be taken out of the country.
There was a startling contrast between Austria and the scene before us. Once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire under Maria-Theresia, whose summer palace is in Bratislava, the countries are populated by the same people. Yet while Austria is clean and bright, its buildings painted and fences mended, Czechoslovakia was falling apart. Roads were broken, fences toppled, windows unwashed, walls cracked with paint peeling—everything gray and dirty. Tulips were blooming from unkempt beds full of weeds and litter. No one seemed to care about the appearance of their surroundings, and we later found out that no one seemed to care about much of anything.
We drove directly to the Devon Hotel in downtown Bratislava. It impressed me as directly out of the 1930s, with dark woodwork and gloomy interior. In the lobby when we arrived was a group of Iraqi Air Force pilots, staying there while on a training mission—strange bedfellows. My room was small and Spartan but it did have a radio and black-and-white TV. The TV had only two channels, one for government news, and the other, movies. The movie playing was of the Russian liberation of Prague in 1945, with English subtitles. It played over and over....
I felt compelled to see the city on my own, and so headed for the nearest church. The church I had noticed on our way to the hotel wasn’t open, but it did have a message written on its wall in chalk, in English: “In God we trust!” Continuing on my walk, I spotted another church with an open door. Entering, I found some old women in prayer, and flowers on the altar—I was elated—God was still worshiped behind the Iron Curtain!
The next day was spent giving a seminar at Slovnaft, a large petrochemical complex nearby. An interpreter was required, slowing my presentation considerably, and the small audience was not very responsive. The interpreter was also our host, appointed by the government to escort visiting foreigners. But also attending was our company representative in the area, who spoke English well, and helped with the technical terms. He and I got along very well, both on a technical level, and on other levels as well. It was the planting season, and we both were anxious to get our crops started at home. I eventually met him on other occasions in Europe, the last time several years later at a company meeting in Holland.
That evening, we were invited to dine with our hosts from Slovnaft at a wine cellar in Bratislava. Anna and I met the plant manager outside the restaurant, and chatted while we waited in the setting sun for others in our party to arrive. The manager invited me to cross the street to the Jesuitkirche—Jesuit Church—for a look inside. We did not go in, as the afternoon Mass was in progress. Although a Wednesday, the church was filled to standing-room only—I couldn’t believe it! The same scene would be repeated for me on Friday in Prague.
We dined in one of the passageways of the cellar, at a place where several tunnels came together. Smooth limestone walls arched above us, as we toasted with the white wine of the region. The food was good but plain, and sorry but there were no potatoes—how could there be no potatoes? What a country! The highlight of the evening were the musicians—four of them—violin, accordion, and perhaps a couple other strings. They specialized in Gypsy folk music, and the master could really make his violin cry. Taking their places in four separate tunnels of the cellar, the violinist would strike the first note of a selection, and the others immediately follow—it was a beautiful concert.
After dinner, as we were leaving, the conversation turned political. The Slovaks were concerned about President Reagan’s plan to deploy Pershing missiles in Western Europe, and also expressed frustrations at their own limited freedom. My interpreter at least had her own car and apartment, and a chance to visit Western nations once or twice a year. For others, a holiday in Hungary was about the most they could hope for. (After arriving home, I reported on this conversation in a column in our local newspaper, and when word of my column reached England, I was remonstrated for it—working relationships with our clients behind the Iron Curtain were too delicate to jeopardize by such careless publication of confidential conversations!) Next day, Anna and I drove to Prague along the only highway connecting these two major cities—a two-lane road. The trip was uneventful, and we arrived mid-afternoon.
The very next day, we struck out early for Litvinov, the location of a munitions plant Hitler had built in 1943, and now a large petrochemical facility on the border with East Germany. The road was in terrible shape, and I became nauseated as we bumped along for two hours. We passed the coal-mining town of Most, where huge open pits gaped and black piles of spoil loomed like barren hills under the gray sky. It was a dismal ride.
When we arrived at the plant, we were invited directly to the plant manager’s office for introductions. The manager could not speak English, but was fluent in German, so he and Anna carried on a lengthy conservation, which I could follow to some extent. He sent his secretary for refreshments, and she returned with several glasses and a bottle of Slibowitz—their famous plum brandy. Anna whispered that I didn’t have to take any, but it was just what I needed after that sickening ride! The seminar went much as the one at Slovnaft, and we returned to Prague in the afternoon.
Upon our arrival at our downtown hotel, Anna introduced me to a taxi driver parked out front. He drove us around the block, during which time I exchanged $50 for Crowns at three times the rate I paid at the border. I was told that when checking out of the hotel, I should save enough cash for a taxi to the airport, and use the balance to pay my bill, supplemented by my credit card. I simply needed to be careful not to buy more Crowns than I planned to spend. Anna then returned home to Austria.
Prague is one of the most beautiful cities of Europe. Its architecture dates from the 11th century, and it has never been destroyed by war. The Old Town is a kaleidoscope of styles from Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque, to fantasy. My favorite church is the 14th-century Our Lady of Tyn, whose twin towers surmounted with turrets and spires rise over 400 feet in the air. The towers were under restoration at the time of my visit, with the roofs thereof gleaming in black slate and gold leaf. I didn’t expect it to be open, surrounded as it was with scaffolding and barricades, but I simply followed the sign, “Eingang im Kirche” and was able to enter. Gloomy, because of the scaffolding, it was nonetheless in service, with fresh forsythia on the altar. The church seemed much smaller inside than outside, but even taller, if possible. The architecture of that period was rough-hewn stone and iron. After returning home, I looked up an article on Prague appearing in National Geographic in 1978; it contained a picture of the same church, with the scaffolding in almost the same place!
Another famous place in Old Town was the Tiger bar—a hole in the wall with steam beer on tap and nothing else. The most famous landmark is the 15th-century Apostles Clock, which strikes on the hour as the twelve Apostles parade in twos from exit to entrance. It includes phases of the moon and locations of the planets as well. Every hour, crowds gather to watch the spectacle.
On Friday evening, I was visiting St. Giles church in the Old Town, when it began filling with people, and Mass began. Several priests processed, accompanied by a larger number of acolytes. The Mass lasted an hour and a half, during which time, many people were standing, and at the conclusion, many remained. These were not just old people, but included children, young women, soldiers—a genuine cross-section of the population. Outside, the church was unremarkable, blending into the surrounding buildings. But within, it glowed with burnished gold from every corner. Outside was communism—inside was freedom. Years later, talking to a friend in Holland, I commented on the overflowing crowds attending church here. He claimed that it was like that there during the war, but now Holland’s churches were almost empty on Sundays. There is nothing like adversity to inspire the faith, and nothing like prosperity to kill it.
On Saturday, I walked all over Prague, frequently approached in both English and German by men trying to sell Crowns, which I declined to buy. I visited many churches, all of which were open, and shopped for some Bavarian crystal. The Karls-brücke (Karl’s bridge) crossing the Vlatava River from Old Town to the Little Quarter is slightly curved, with the explanation that it does not allow a clear cannon shot to the other side. At every column of the bridge stands a statue of a saint, from St. Elizabeth of Hungary, to Good King Wenceslaus of Bavaria, who is celebrated in a Christmas carol. The architecture of the Little Quarter is magnificent, rising up to Hradcany Palace, home of the Czech president. Within its walls is the Romanesque St. George’s Basilica finished in the year 912. At the top of the mount rises St. Vitus Cathedral with its magnificent stained-glass windows; begun in 1344, it was not completed until 1929.
Straying from the old sections of Prague brought me to the more modern apartments, with their plain gray and dirty walls, yet bedecked with red banners bearing communist slogans in bold gold lettering. Unwashed windows bore Russian and Czech flags. But some of these buildings were unfinished, with scaffolding that had been in place for years, and still the windows were empty. A modern monument of gray concrete displayed the communist star—a stark contrast to the beautiful churches of the old city.
The people I saw seemed lethargic, unconcerned, occupied more with drinking and smoking than anything else, but that seems to be the result of living for generations under communist rule. Jokes about the system abounded. Here are a few:
A man, tired of waiting in a long queue to buy bread, announced to his friend that he had had enough, and was going to kill the president. Two hours later, he returned to find his friend still in the same line. “Any luck?” asked his friend. “No,” was the reply, “That queue is longer than this one!”
At the end of WWII, the Russians were redefining the border between Poland and Russia. The proposed border passed right through the house of a farmer, so a commissar was sent to visit him. When asked whether he would choose to live in Poland or Russia, the farmer replied, “With all due respect, Commissar, I understand that Russian winters are very severe.”
Strolling down the streets of Prague late one evening were two students discussing politics. One said to the other, “The president is stupid!” At this point, two secret policemen stepped out from around a corner and accosted the students. “You will have to come with us,” one said, “We heard you call the president stupid.” “No, no,” replied the student, “We were talking about President Reagan!” “No you weren’t!” countered the policeman, “We know which president is stupid!”
Saturday evening, I returned to St. Giles for Mass, and then dined at the hotel. On Sunday morning, I left for the airport, where Russian-made airliners labeled, “OK-Jet” were parked on the tarmac. I flew Lufthansa instead, to Frankfurt and then home.
This was 1987, and my company was trying to penetrate an emerging market in what was still the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or Soviet Union, under Mikhail Gorbachev. An expedition was formed at our company’s Düsseldorf office in West Germany to conduct a seminar and exhibit in Moscow during the second week of April—which happened to be Holy Week that year. Plans were made months in advance, because visas and other arrangements required that long to obtain. A van with demonstration equipment would travel overland with two technicians, while about a dozen engineers and managers would travel by air, some bringing their wives. Most were from Germany, and some had been to Russia before. I was the only American invited to join the group, and there was also an engineer I knew from the Netherlands.
My visit to Russia came at the end of a two-week swing through Europe which took me to seven countries. I was picked up at Schipol airport in Amsterdam by my friend Ibra, and we drove to Liege, Belgium for lunch, where mussels (moule) were in season. Continuing on, we spent the night in Luxembourg, where I attended Mass the following morning as it was Sunday. We then proceeded to Strasbourg, France, where we had lunch in a café directly across from the Basilica of Notre Dame. That night, we stayed at an 18th-century manor house in Grey, and spent the middle of the week in Dole, working at a Solvay plant there.
On Thursday, Ibra drove me to Basel, Switzerland, after a lengthy customs inspection at the border. (There had been a series of bombings in France by Lebanese militants, and my driver was Lebanese.) He left me at the Sheraton, downtown, where I was able to get a room for the night, and from which I walked to the railroad station to get a ticket to Düsseldorf. Early next morning, I boarded the train which followed the Rhine River north to Germany. Sharing the seat with me was an officer with Interpol, the international police force which hunts for spies and saboteurs—we had an interesting conversation.
We arrived in Düsseldorf just after noon, and I was hungry, not having had breakfast. Our office manager, Klaus, met me and we went to lunch. This was followed by a business meeting with a customer, and than I was taken to the Ramada Hotel on the Rhine. This was my third or fourth consecutive April at that hotel, and I didn’t care for it—the weather was cold and wet, and there weren’t any good restaurants nearby. This time, I had an additional concern—my Soviet visa had not yet arrived, and I was leaving for Moscow on Sunday morning! I had left all my addresses with the travel agency so it could be forwarded to me, but when Saturday dawned with no visa, I was getting worried. Rather than going out, I remained in my room working on the 3rd edition of my book, Process Control Systems. Noon came and went, but no news. Finally at about 2 PM, a knock came at the door—it was a DLH courier with my visa! Relieved, I immediately put on my raincoat, grabbed my umbrella, and walked two miles to a downtown restaurant for Wiener schnitzel and a beer. It was raining hard on the way back—my clothes were protected by coat and umbrella, but my shoes took a soaking. That evening, I walked a short distance to church where Mass was said to a small gathering, and later took dinner at the hotel.
Next morning I met some of my group for a flight to Frankfurt where the rest was waiting. Kurt, our sales manager to the Soviet Union, gave everyone very strict orders. Previous directives had cautioned us on what not to bring with us, such as books and magazines having a political bent. Having just finished reading Orwell’s Animal Farm, I left it with Ibra rather than risk having it found. But Kurt was bent on smoothing the way as much as possible, and had packed the van with coffee and food for our hosts. Now we were directed to buy our limit of whiskey and cigarettes at the duty-free store for trading for favors, but I demurred.
We arrived in the late afternoon at one of Moscow’s airports, where passport control took nearly five minutes for each person. One by one, we stood against a meter stick where they could check our height. Then they checked us against our passport photo, both with and without glasses on. However, our baggage was not opened. After clearing customs, we were met by the official delegation from Intourist, which drove us to our hotel. My first glimpse of Russia was the countryside of waving white birches against a backdrop of deep green spruce trees—an impressive sight. As darkness approached, we entered downtown Moscow, where three towers marking the boundary of the Kremlin bore lighted red stars. I was within what Ronald Reagan called “The Evil Empire!”
Hotel National was of 1915 vintage, across the boulevard from the Kremlin and in view of St. Basil’s Cathedral with its varicolored onion-domes. Kurt was the first to check in, and he then left us as he went to reserve tables for dinner. We were notified that we could pay for dinner using foreign currency, but breakfast was served in another restaurant which accepted only rubles. Told to buy rubles at the cashier’s desk, we saw it close for the day before we could get there—not to worry, we were told, as the cashier would be open at 8 A.M. when breakfast was served.
After finding our rooms, we convened at the restaurant, where some of our group were already sipping Heineken’s beer. I ordered a vodka straight, which was very good. Appetizers included both red and black caviar, smoked fish and crabmeat. From that point, everything went downhill. Almost nothing for the main course on the menu was actually available—we settled for some very fat sausage and tough chicken. Those of our group accompanied by their wives stayed at another hotel in the area. We had dinner with them the next evening, and discovered that their hotel used the same menu, with the same items unavailable.
Breakfast was a real eye-opener. The only juice available was tomato, which we could identify by its color, not its taste, for it had none. The coffee was black and bitter—so bad that all the coffee drinkers switched to tea. The tea was Assam, and it alone could be counted on for consistent good taste. The breakfast sausage looked like a wiener, but again tasteless; the yogurt could be identified by its white color and acidity. We subsisted on black bread and tea. I had time to buy some rubles before breakfast, and so paid my check and left. Rob, my Dutch colleague, had eaten first, and when presented with his check, explained that he had no rubles, and proceeded to the cashier to get some. A few minutes later, he returned to the waiter not with rubles, but with a voucher which the cashier had given him, but which the waiter refused to accept. “To hell with you!” Rob exclaimed, as he threw the voucher at the man and left the room. Nothing came of it.
Our seminar was to be held on the fourth floor of the Communications Ministry, a long narrow building in a complex of identical buildings. The smell of fresh paint was overpowering as we entered. The lift was out of service, so we had to climb the four floors to the meeting room. The room had been freshly painted, but the floorboards everywhere were badly and unevenly worn. At the head of the room was a blackboard over which was hung the perfunctory picture of Lenin, glaring down at us through steely eyes, with a grin that said we were all fools and only he knew the secrets of the ages. From the windows, we could look across the alley to an identical building which was apparently an apartment house, as all kinds of people were entering and leaving. The entrance, however, was covered by sheets of plywood, ostensibly protecting it from construction debris. Piles of broken plaster and lavatory fixtures lay about, gathering dirt for a long time—probably years. At the lowest levels, the piles were covered with what seemed to be snow that was absolutely black.
In lecturing, we spoke through interpreters, two women who spoke excellent English, were well-dressed, and very cordial. About forty Russians attended the seminar, some of whom could speak English. In lecturing, it was necessary to speak in short sentences, allowing the interpreter to translate after each. At one point, I described one of my systems for controlling distillation columns, and went on to tell how it reduced energy consumption by 40 percent for an operating unit in a plant in Germany. As the interpreter translated my words, some of the engineers in the class began to argue with her in Russian. The argument lasted for several minutes, during which time I could only wonder what was going on. She finally turned to me red-faced, and admitted having said that the savings were 80 percent, because she “wanted it to sound good!” Propaganda was alive and well in the Soviet Union!
At lunch, the speakers gathered with the interpreters and the host for open-faced sandwiches of black bread, fat sausage, and cucumber slices. One of the interpreters produced a single orange imported from Cuba, which was sliced thinly enough to be shared by about eight of us. Fortunately, there was tea.
One evening after work, we had tickets to the Moscow State Circus, which we reached via the subway, modeled after the tube in London. This was safer and cleaner than the streets. I had been learning the Cyrillic alphabet, which allowed me to read street signs and some directions. Some of their words are Greek, such as photography and pharmacy, and some are Latin, such as university, and these were easily recognized. But I also found some English words—most notably, STOP signs, labeled СТОП. So we found our way to the circus, with time for a (fat-sausage) sandwich before the performance began. The quality of the circus was very low—trapeze artists fell, timing was poor—as a comedy act, at least we were entertained.
Returning to our hotel, we gathered in the restaurant at the same table where we had dined with Kurt on Sunday, and ordered a round of Heineken’s beer. To our surprise, the waiter refused: “We do not serve Heineken’s beer in this restaurant!” Nothing could convince him otherwise. It reminded me of the scene in Animal Farm, where the horse read a new regulation the pigs had posted on the barn wall, and didn’t remember having seen it there before. But the pigs were adamant that that regulation had always been there—the horse had simply not been aware of it. Orwell’s book was a perfect parody of the totalitarian state.
After dinner some of us gathered in the bar for a few drinks and laughs over the events of the day. When I looked at my watch and found it to be 2 A.M., I excused myself and went to my room, where I was unable to unlock the door. There was no help available at that hour, so returning to the bar, I explained my problem to my German colleague Hartmut, who had the room next door. He was unable to unlock my door either, and so invited me to sleep on the couch in his room, which I did. Rising early (with a big head), I again tried my lock, with no success. When I asked the assistance of the housekeeper on my floor, she took my key and opened the door easily! After a shower, I met Hartmut at breakfast, where he inquired as to my health. My answer came in fractured German: “Ve get too soon oldt und too late schmart!”
After work that day, I walked about the Kremlin past the tomb of V. I. Lenin, built of polished red marble. This was the only place in town kept clean by street sweepers. Directly across Red Square stands St. Basil’s Cathedral, the most famous Russian landmark—closed to the public. Our hosts had given us little gifts, one of which was a picture calendar, most of whose pictures were of old churches—meant to attract tourists but not the population. We could shop at designated gift stores which accepted foreign currency. I bought Jeanne a set of wooden nesting dolls, most characteristic of Russia. I also found a reproduction of an old Russian painting, “The Vernicle,” the image left by Christ on Veronica’s veil. It bears the symbols IC and XC, presumably standing for Jesus Christ, some additional lettering, and the date 1504. I was surprised to find anything religious at the store. Other stores in the area, serving the locals, had rows of empty shelves. And yet, we heard that people living elsewhere in the USSR want to come to Moscow, because living conditions here were so much better!
Thursday, we packed up to leave, for which I was very grateful. For $100 per night, our hotel was terrible. You could see through the towels, the bath water was yellow, and the toilet paper was as rough as sandpaper. We had to arrive at the airport a full two hours before departure, as the exiting process was even slower than immigration—they wanted to be absolutely certain no unauthorized people left their country—it was one huge prison. Flying to Frankfurt, I stayed overnight at a hotel near the airport, and left next morning—Good Friday—for home.
Dr. Schulz and his wife went on to Leningrad for the Easter weekend. On Saturday evening, they attended a concert. When it ended, they proceeded to a church which happened to be opened for Easter services—one of only two in all of Leningrad. They managed to find their way in, among a standing-room-only crowd, although it was still over half an hour till the Mass began at midnight. By 1:30 AM, they were tired of standing, and so began to leave, although the service was not yet over. Exiting the church, they found it surrounded by what they estimated to be a crowd of 100,000 people, restrained from entering by a cordon of soldiers. They later heard of the same situation at the only other church open in the city. Christianity endured through 70 years of communist persecution!
This is not an isolated incident. I heard a remarkably similar story from an American engineer involved in the startup of a new chemical plant her company had built in the city of Ufa, a closed city. It was also Easter, and there was but one church open in the entire city. Again, the church was surrounded by as many as 100,000 people unable to enter.
Post Post Script
While Betty and I were in Arles, France, in 1989, the newspaper there carried a front page photo of a stream of Trabant motor cars leaving East Germany for Hungary, through which they were allowed to proceed to Austria. This signaled the beginning of the end of the communist empire–people were escaping in droves. The photo was comical, in that the cars in the long queue were all identical–no distinction whatever in size, style, or even color–cookie-cutter cars produced by the communist system.
After many more trips to the Soviet Union, Kurt left our company and set up his own import business in Moscow. This probably happened after the union was dissolved in 1991. A few years later, one of the technicians who had accompanied us to Moscow was in Foxboro, where he told my son Michael the news that Kurt had been gunned down by the Russian mafia.