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A Fisherman’s Reflections on a beautiful but troubled world
Chapter 9 - Russia

Of the Russian, - who can say?
When the night is gathering, all is grey.

                   Kipling         The ballad of the king’s jest

I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. 
It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

                   Winston Churchill  3rd October 1939

Never under-estimate the Russian.

                   Menachem Ben Yami
                   (former soldier
in the Red Army Jewish Brigade)

The vast and populous land of Russia, and its past empire, or the later Soviet Union, have always carried a mystique and an attraction to most western observers.  From the wild snowy wastes of Siberia to the arid deserts of central Asia, and from the Baltic and Arctic ports to Vladivostok on the Pacific, and Sebastopol on the Black sea, the region and its peoples have been too extensive to regard as a single entity.  Ancient tales and records of fur-clad Tsars and Tsarinas, of strange hypnotic characters like Rasputin, the ‘mad monk’, of Emperors like Peter the Great, of the medieval cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg were raw material for fairly tales and legends.  The Greek Orthodox faith with its bearded priests and onion-domed churches, added to the mystery as did the impression of a land mostly gripped by the severe weather of long winters.


Hakluyt’s Voyages give us a glimpse of the Russia of the middle ages. Richard Hakluyt was a clergyman and geographer in the time of Queen Elizabeth, Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake.  He took a life-long interest in the voyages of early explorers and captains of merchant ships, and collected the accounts now published in the classic book that bears his name.  Much of the record consists of the actual voyage logs and reports by those intrepid sea captains.  Hakluyt untiringly assembled information and minutely detailed sailing directions for various parts of the globe.  Some of the expeditions of English merchant ships to Russia border on the incredible.  Those relatively small sailing boats went north past Norway and east through the Barents Sea to Archangel, and from there up-river to near Moscow, then overland to the Volga river, then south to the Caspian Sea, and across it to trade with eastern merchants.  After all that, the whole journey had to be repeated in reverse.  In one of the accounts, a captain who suffered all sorts of dangers, several times nearly losing his life and all the cargo, says at the close of his report, in massive under-statement, that he “hoped his employers appreciated all he endured to ensure a profitable investment for them” !  

Above: a page from Hakluyt’s “Principall Navigations”, 1589,
his book of voyages of exploration and early trade routes by English ships.

The Russian people and their satellite citizens have come through long periods of severe hardship from the elements, from famines, from wars and from oppressive rulers, - first the Tsars and Emperors, and later the Soviet dictators, - Lenin, Stalin, Bulganin, Kruschev, Brehznev, and others.  Kruschev I have a soft spot for.  He was different from the staid, sullen, doctrinaire leaders of Russia’s communist governments, and actually began the process of de-Stalinisation of the country.  But no doubt he was guilty of much also.

From my youthful fascination with aircraft, I was to develop a strong interest in space flight and recall the news we received in October 1957 that the Russians had successfully launched the world’s first artificial satellite, “Sputnik 1”.   The Daily Express headline next day said it all : “Midnight - and London hears the first signal – Space Age is Here !”

On the 12th April 1961 (on a fine day) we were fishing on Stormy Bank to the west of the Orkney Islands. The cook served up lunch and when we went below, my father announced that the Russians had put a man in space.  I asked with some concern how they were ever to bring him back to earth again, but was assured that he had already returned safely.  The spaceman was Yuri Gagarin, and his craft was called Vostok 1.  The spaceship had made a single orbit of the earth and was brought down in Kazakhstan.  The event caused world-wide excitement, and some consternation in the USA where President Kennedy committed substantial funds to the American space flight programme.   Sadly, Gagarin himself was to die in an airplane crash in 1968 while training for the Soviet space station programme. 

The Russians launched Vostok 2 four months later, with Gherman Titov on board.  This craft orbited the earth 17 times.  The following year Vostok’s 3 and 4 were launched.  They remained in orbit for 3 and 4 days respectively.  1963 saw Vostok 5 and 6 launched, the latter containing the world’s first woman astronaut (or cosmonaut), Valentina Tereshkova.  The Vostok programme was then terminated and replaced by the Voshkod programme that involved a 3-man spacecraft.

Yuri Gagarin, first man in space, April 1961

The first American orbital space flight was in February 1962 when John Glenn took his Friendship 7 Mercury capsule on a 3 orbit flight.  The previous year there were two sub-orbital flights of 15 minutes duration that reached a height of 116 miles above the earth. By May 1963 there were 3 more Mercury flights, the longest lasting 34 hours.  The Gemini 2-man capsule programme began next and between March 1965 and November 1966 there were ten Gemini flights, the longest one lasting nearly two weeks.  The Russian Soyuz space staion programme began in 1967 and lasted till 1977.  The American Apollo programme started in 1968 and continued till 1975.  Six Apollo flights successfully landed men on the moon (in 1969, 1971, and 1972).  

Russian progress in science and technology lay in contrast to the brutal control of the Soviet satellite states, and was becoming evident in the suppression of all kinds of dissent within Russia.  The gulag prison camps that stretched all over the continent from around Moscow to inside the Arctic circle, and east across Siberia, were full of political prisoners and other dissidents whose only crime was to express their sincere thoughts.  There were also thousands of innocent victims of the system who were given ten year hard labour sentences on trumped up charges, simply to create fear or to “encourage les autres”.

In 1956 Hungary attempted to throw off the Soviet yoke.  Growing resentment of the foreign control erupted into a national uprising in October of that year.  Within a few days there were 2,000 Soviet tanks in Budapest and other cities.  Hundreds of citizens were killed, many imprisoned, and suspected leaders were executed.  Communist control was reestablished, though with a new awareness that people’s aspirations could not be completely ignored.

Another East European country tried to extricate itself from Soviet control in 1968 when a  liberalization programme was led by national communist leader Alexander Dubcek.  It was to be known as the “Prague spring”.  But like the Hungarian revolt, it also met with fierce opposition from Moscow, though this time there was an attempt to downplay Russia’s role by the use of Warsaw Pact forces to crush the liberalization movement and to restore the “orthodox line” to Czech politics and government.

I was to visit the Soviet Union in 1965, participating in a United Nations FAO seminar and study tour on fisheries education that took us to Moscow, Murmansk and Kaliningrad.  We were treated warmly by our Russian hosts, and shown kindness and hospitality by all the people we encountered. Contrary to western impressions there was no apparent attempt to restrict our movements, and I was able to attend Sunday services at the large Moscow Baptist church.  Later in 1996, I spent some time in a former Soviet State, then independent Turkmenistan, located just north of Iran and east of the Caspian Sea.

Map of Russia

Moscow and the Kremlin

In between those dates I became an avid reader of the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn beginning with “One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, and on through Matriona’s House, Cancer Ward, The First Circle, Lenin in Zurich, August 1914, and The Gulag Archipelago. I devoured all 3 volumes of The Gulag, but have yet to meet another person who lasted the distance.  I found many who read Volume 1, a few who managed to read Volume 2, but none who read all three.  It is a pity as Volume three is the best of the series.  It is the one that paints the picture of the hope and triumph of the human spirit against impossible odds.  The most moving chapter is “Truth under a tombstone; poetry under a stone”.

                    Alexander Solzhenitsyn, author of             Irina Ratushinskaya, Russian dissident poet
                             The Gulag Archipelago

Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Irina Ratushinskaya

Just over 50 years ago, one cold night in a Soviet prison camp outside of Moscow, a woman prisoner was being made to stand outside by the barbed wire fence, for some minor infringement.  Her pleas to be allowed back into the barracks for shelter and rest were ignored by the sullen guard.  On the other side of the fence, in the men’s section, a ‘zek’ or prisoner was sweeping up leaves and putting them into a brazier fire.  “Woman”, he said under his breath, “I swear to you, by these leaves and this fire, that one day the whole world will read about you!”   The ‘zek’ was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a former artillery captain in the Red Army, who had been decorated for bravery, but was imprisoned for criticizing Stalin in a letter to a friend in 1945.

During his 8 years in the Gulag prison camps, and 6 years in exile in Kazakhstan, Solzhenitsyn collected thousands of pieces of evidence from documents, oral testimonies, eyewitness accounts and other material, on the brutal injustices of the Soviet regime.  Much of the material he put into verse since he could not be sure that written notes would not be found.  When he finally left prison, he was thoroughly searched, but the guards could not see or remove the poetic evidence in his mind.  After his exile he settled in a lonely Siberian village of Riazan where he worked as a teacher.

While there he began to document the evidence on paper, eventually compiling the 3-volume Gulag Archipelago 1918 – 1956.  One of the first short stories he managed to get published in Moscow was ‘Matryona’s House’.  During this time he also wrote ‘One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ which was published in 1962, surprisingly at the instigation of Nikita Kruschev who had decided the time was ripe to start telling the truth about Stalin.  ‘The First Circle’ and ‘Cancer Ward’ followed in 1968, but Leonid Brezhnev’s government was less sympathetic.  They had him expelled from the writer’s union in 1969, and deported from the USSR in 1973.  He had been awarded the Nobel prize in literature in 1970, but was not able to collect it till 1974.

Some in the West have difficulty understanding Solzhenitsyn, - his fierce moral outrage, and his skepticism towards aspects of western liberalism and materialism.  He is a Russian patriot in the tradition of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.  Like them, he is a chronicler, a witness whose experience is part of the way to approach truth and judge events.  Much of Western democracy he regards as spiritually exhausted, and claims that the sufferings of the Russian people under communism have taken them through a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience.

Solzhenitsyn believes that mediocrity triumphs in the West under the guise of democratic restraints. He also criticizes Russia’s embrace of the worst aspects of capitalism, and calls his country back to its spiritual roots.  These are typified in the story of the peasant woman Matryona whose life of toil had been full of disappointments but who maintained her integrity through it all.  In the book he says that it was long after she died before he realized who she really was.  “We had lived side by side, and never understood that she was that one righteous person without whom, as the proverb says, no village can stand.  Nor any city.  Nor any country.”

For those who find Solzhenitsyn a bit heavy, there is another Russian dissident who conveys a similar message, but with a beautiful innocence of heart, and complete lack of hatred towards the perpetrators of institutionalized cruelty.  She is Irina Ratushinskaya, a poet, who spent years in prison for simply writing about truth and beauty.  Her two books are “In the Beginning”, and “Grey is the Colour of Hope”. [Grey is the Colour of Hope, and In The Beginning, by Irina Ratushinskaya, translated by Alyona Kojevnikov, and published in 1988 and 1990 by Hodder and Stoughton, Sceptre Books, Sevenoaks, Kent, England.] It never ceases to amaze me, that even in cruel totalitarian regimes, with their extreme efforts to control information and free thought, that there arise men and women who refuse to submit to political idolatory, or to eat its meat.  They rise like rare flowers in a desert, or as Solzhenitsyn described them, like heads bobbing up to the surface of a misty sea after a storm.  We are yet to hear from most of them, but I am sure there are many, living or dead, who have borne witness to the truth despite brutal repression, in China, North Korea, Burma and other dictator-ruled states that through much of the last century have sought to keep the people subject to their control, and ignorant or misled about the truth.


Ratushinskaya’a poetry does not translate too well, but here are two extracts from her book, Grey is the Colour of Hope, written in 1986:

“In the (convict railway) carriage, the fact that I am a ‘political’ arouses much interest.  I have to explain everything from scratch yet again : about human rights, about my poetry, then read my poetry – to the whole carriage.  The guard is clearly interested, too, for he makes no move to stop me.  …  I read on : what price I and my poems if I can’t get through to this audience ?  Too many of us have been too far ‘removed from the people’ already.  … 

The guard (they’ve changed shifts again) utters a word of caution : “Be quiet for a bit, the boss is about due to come around.”  And once his senior has been through, he prompts me, “Go on, what else is there?”  I do go on.  Who needs this more than you in uniforms, be they zek [ “Zek” is the Russian term for a convict.] uniforms or military ones?   Not all of you are lifelong thieves and bandits. 

Your lives have been disfigured, but your souls are intact.  How do your souls fare, hammered by the machinery of lies and violence from early childhood ?  How wonderful if they do not succumb, but is there any chance of that ?  I continue to hope that there is.  …  …  … 

You must not under any circumstances allow yourself to hate.  Not because your tormentors have not earned it.  But if you allow hatred to take root, it will flourish and spread during your years in the camps, driving out everything else, and ultimately corrode and warp your soul.

 …  If you can spot no spark of humanity in (the KGB and Gulag guards), no matter how hard you try, remind yourself that cockroaches are exterminated without hatred, rather with a feeling of revulsion.  And ‘they’ – armed, well-fed and belligerent – are like vermin in our big house, and sooner or later we shall get rid of them and live in cleanliness.  Is it not pathetic that they have designs on our immortal souls. 

All this in sum brings about one marked change in your physical appearance :  by the end of your first year, you will have what are known as ‘zek’s eyes’.  The look in a zek’s eyes is impossible to describe, but once encountered it is never forgotten.  When you emerge, your friends embracing you, will exclaim :  “Your eyes !  Your eyes have changed !”    And not one of your tormentors will be able to bear your scrutiny.  They will turn away from it like beaten dogs.” 

Unlike the works of the dissidents, Russian novels can be heavy, and some of the music can be a bit dull.  But the Cossack dancing, - now that is something exciting.  I am sure that it must be the most exhausting form of group dance of any in the world.  And there is one musical instrument that can be excruciatingly beautiful to listen to. I was in the Kremlin theatre with our group, attending a variety show that had a bit of most kinds of Russian culture.  Towards the end a well-known local musician came on stage and sat down to play his balalaika.  The lights went out and a single beam focused on the minstrel.  He started to play, the strings vibrating so softly and at such high pitch, you could scarcely hear, then the volume increased as he developed the melody, and the music filled that large theatre to the delight and appreciation of all present. 

Russia in 1965 was still living very much in an immediate post-war atmosphere.  To me it resembled Britain of the 1945 – 49 period.  There was a lot of visible war damage around still awaiting repair, and the people regarded Germany as the enemy to be feared.  The word ‘enemy’ was used to me by the interpreters only of Germany and China, not interestingly then, of the USA.  The post-war atmosphere was also evident in their showing us a propaganda film of the war, and taking us in Kaliningrad to a bunker where the last few SS soldiers held out till they were all killed.  It had been preserved exactly as it was found. 

Myself in Russia with an international group, 1965

Murmansk in the frozen north of Russia

On our return to Moscow from Kaliningrad and Murmansk we were put into a different hotel which I was told by those who knew, was standard practice for foreign visitors. The first night our group was invited to a ballet performance.  I declined together with a Singapore colleague, and one of the interpreters agreed to stay with us. An East German chemical exhibition being held near the hotel.

As we wandered down the road, we were accosted by a small but very drunk Russian man who demanded to know if we were German.  We had difficulty convincing him we were not as he realized that we were definitely not Russian.  He said that the Germans had killed his father and he was going to take his revenge on them.  He had difficulty identifying the country of my Singaporean friend but then associated him with the only Indo-chinese country he knew – Vietnam!  He threw his arms around my startled colleague and began to apply full-blooded Russian kisses on his mouth.  We pulled them apart and ran up the road, ducking into a side street till our little drunk friend passed, then we walked briskly back to the hotel.  The group bus had just arrived back from the ballet.  The party came out in leisurely fashion and stood in the fore court getting some fresh air.  We ducked inside a doorway as we saw our amorous acquaintance come staggering back.  He went up to the group, who were blissfully unaware of his intentions, and picked out a dusky Pakistani officer.  As we beat a hasty retreat inside, the last we saw was two strong colleagues vainly trying to prise our friend off the astonished Pakistani who was being kissed as never before in his life!

Our conversations with interpreters and other Russians left me with some interesting impressions.  One interpreter, Vassily, had been trained as an artillery officer during his national service.  He told me, “David, I hope I never have to use that skill”.  Russians love to joke, and their humour is very earthy.  In some ways they resembled Aberdeenshire Scots to me.  They discussed politics and world affairs with surprising frankness since the country was still under totalitarian rule.  And they also displayed an eager interest in religion and the Christian faith in particular.  Most of the interpreters at one time or another, came to my room and asked if they could see my Bible.  They said there were many believers in Russia, including some in high position, naming a few, but they were not people with whom I was familiar.  One Sunday we were invited to watch Moscow Dynamo versus Spartak in a local derby football match.  I asked if I could attend a church instead.  This was readily permitted, only they said I would have to find my own transport, and they could not spare an interpreter.  However, the hotel kindly gave me the address and time of service, and I got a taxi to take me there.  It was a moving experience to be in the Moscow Baptist church with two thousand local worshippers including a surprising number of young people. The church provided me with an interpreter, and even had my greeting read out to the congregation.  The service continued for two hours, and I was given a lift back to the hotel by two of the members. 

Nikita Khrushchev had been replaced as Soviet leader, a year before my Moscow visit, by Brezhnev and Kosygin who ran the Soviet Union for more than a decade till Brezhnev was replaced after his death by the aging Andropov, who was to be succeeded by the aging Chernenko.  Despite his histrionics at the U.N., and his often bellicose statements, I warmed to the bluff, peasant-like Khrushchev who at least exhibited some colour, in contrast to the dreary line of post-Stalin leaders.  He also was the first to publicly denounce Stalin for his dreadful purges, and to permit a degree of press freedom that led to the emergence of dissident writers like Solzhenitsyn who till then could only publish under the samizdat underground informal press.  On taking power, Leonid Brezhnev soon stamped on the fragile shoots of freedom that Kruschev had permitted.

I believe it was in late 1984, when my wife and I were walking through Edinburgh’s west end, that we were surprised by an unusual event in Scotland, - a very large motorcade of police cars and motor-cycles coming from the direction of the airport.  Two or three limousines drove past with the police escort, and headed into Princes Street, but we were unable to recognize the occupants.  Later we discovered in a surprisingly brief news item, that the visitor given such large police protection, was a Soviet politician by the name of Mikhail Gorbachev.  He of course went on to become the Soviet leader, and was described by Mrs Thatcher as “a man with whom we can do business”.  He was to be the architect of the modernization and opening up of the Soviet Union with his policies of glasnost and perestroika.   Surprisingly, Gorbachev did not appear to realize himself what the policies would lead to, or how they would open the door to forces he could not control. I personally was sure he committed political suicide when following the attempted coup that involved his abduction, he defended the Communist Party.  His failure to read events accurately, or to fully appreciate the public reaction, led to his fall from power, and the rise of Boris Yeltsin.  This brought an end to the mighty Soviet Union, and ushered in the Russian Federation, leaving a number of satellite states to pursue their own course.

Since then the Russian Federation has withdrawn somewhat from the rather chaotic measure of democracy and transparency brought in by Yeltsin’s government.  A former KGB chief, President Vladimir Putin, now maintains an iron grip on Russian institutions and the Federation states, just I suppose, as in the USA, a former CIA Director, George Bush senior, and now his son, George junior, has led the United States back down an extreme right wing and imperialist path.  Putin’s absolute refusal to countenance any form of self-rule for Chechnya has resulted in a blood bath both inside and beyond that state. Russia’s political and economic decline may have bottomed out as the Federation begins to discover the power it can wield from its massive gas and oil reserves, its proximity to the Middle East and Central Asian states, and the overhaul of its nuclear arsenals.  But there are sinister repeats of past brutality being seen in the ruthless and brazen murders of brave news reporters and dissidents – even beyond Russia’s borders.

One of the worst and most blatant acts of suppression of free speech was the murder of newspaper reporter Anna Politkovskaya.  This brave and determined investigative journalist had exposed much of the brutality, torture and injustice in Russian suppression of Chechnya.  She was gunned down in her apartment block in Moscow in October 2006.  Together with the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London the following month, it was indicative of a callous tough new attitude to dissent by the Kremlin authorities, reminiscent of the worst periods of Soviet rule.

Anna Politkovskaya, investigative journalist, murdered in October 2006

While welcoming the demise of the Soviet Union and its record of cruelty, dictatorship and mismanagement of the economy and the environment, some informed observers believe that the emergence of the USA as the world’s sole super-power is not a healthy situation.  It has lead to the GW Bush government invading foreign states imposing its will, and ignoring human rights and international justice, while neglecting the less affluent of its own people at home.  Since the fall of the Soviet empire, the salaries of corporate executives have risen ten times more than those of the lower paid in the USA.  There have been huge tax reductions for the most wealthy, windfall profits for the big corporations, and a relative decline in health entitlements, welfare allowances and social services for the poor.  There have also been a surprising number of financial scandals involving the theft or illegal manipulation of billions of dollars of investors and taxpayers money.  However those factors are genuinely related or not, it would appear that the fear of communism or socialism reducing support or rationale for the capitalist system, seemed to place a check on the excesses of the USA while the Soviet Union continued to be a global super-power.   Now that the threat is gone for the present, we see re-emerging the behaviour of some of the worst or most extreme elements of U.S. capitalism.


At the southern border of the former Soviet Union, and facing both Iran and Afghanistan to the south, lies the state of Turkmenistan.  It was made a member of the Soviet Republics in 1925, and stayed within that orbit till it obtained its independence in 1991 after the break-up of the USSR.  I was to assist a team that had been provided by the European Union Tacis programme to help the former soviet satellite on the road to privatization.  Two strong impressions remain with me from that assignment.  The first is the character of the ancient Turkmeni people whom one could not help admiring, and the other was the nature of the independent government, - centrist, totalitarian, and built around a personality cult.  My Turkmeni driver, Kurban, a strong, energetic and reliable man, wept like a child when we said goodbye at the airport on my final departure. 

Map of Turkmenistan

The country is an enormous desert, the Kara-kum (black sand) desert, stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Amu Darya river.  The population of just under 5 million is mainly Turkmen, with perhaps 10% of Russians, and a sprinkling of Uzbeks and others.  The natural resources include petroleum, gas, sulfur and salt, and its agriculture produce is mainly cotton and rice.  Fish, both kilka sprat and sturgeon, are produced from the Caspian Sea where the country has a port, formerly Krasnovodsk, now Turkmenbashy after the invented national name of President Saparmurat Niyazov.  The capital city Ashgabat, is a mixture of soviet and central Asian architecture, some of it bizarre to western eyes.  It was built on the site of a Russian fortress dating from 1881.  Ashgabat was destroyed by an earthquake in October 1948.  Over 120,000 of its inhabitants perished in that disaster.  The modern city was built with wider streets and buildings more spaced out to minimise possible future damage from quakes.

The Kara-kum desert

Not far from the capital, half-buried under desert sands, lie the remains of the once huge city and fortress town of Nisa which was the capital of the Parthian empire from around 300 BC till 300 AD.  It may have been the site of an earlier Persian fortress built 2,500 years ago by Darius the Great.  Modern Persia, Iran, lies only a few score of miles to the south.  90 kilometres west and close to the border with Iran, at Bakharden, there is an underground hot spring lake called Kov Ata inside a vast cavern.  I found it weird to be swimming down there in the warm sulfuric water, far below the ground, together with my Turkmeni driver and Russian interpreter.   Following our subterranean bath, my Turkmeni driver took me and Ellena the Russian interpreter, to a pleasant location by a stream in a mountain pass where he lit a fire and grilled shish’ kebabs for our picnic meal. 

Ruins of the ancient fortress of Nisa

Only 3.5% of the land is arable, and even that is cultivated only by water extracted from the Amu Darya river, and led by canals to the cotton growing areas and small farms. This is the source of huge environmental problems, not just for the country, but for the whole region.  Western industrialization and agricultural mechanisation has created dust bowls in central America, and areas of pollution around our cities and factories. But Soviet industrialization and central control of agriculture has shown even less concern for the planet’s life support system.  The great Aral Sea located between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan was once the fourth largest inland sea in the world, covering over 25,000 square miles and supporting a large fishing industry. It has now shrunk to less than a third of its size and this reduction is bringing ill-health, unemployment, and food shortages to the region.  The salt content of the sea has doubled, and winds now carry salt and sand from the dried-up areas, depositing it around within a 300 km radius, destroying pastures and adding to deserts and toxicity.

Above :Turkmeni women in national dress in Ashgabat.  (the picture had to be taken surreptitiously as neither people nor police like foreigners to do this).

Even Turkmenistan which is chiefly, but not solely to blame for the diversion of fresh water, is suffering the consequences in salination of its surface water bodies, residues of chemicals and pesticides in its soils, and pollution of the huge Caspian Sea.  In hindsight it is easy to see that cotton was a most unsuitable crop for a region with so little fresh water; but it became a major export earner, making Turkmenistan the tenth largest cotton producer.  So it is difficult for any administration to reverse the 40 year policy, to dismiss thousands of workers, and to substitute with other environmentally friendly industries. Like most of the world’s environmental problems, there are no short-term solutions, and few governments are prepared to inflict the pain necessary to achieve the long-term gains.

The resilience of the Turkmen people and the Russian residents, in struggling to make a life in adverse circumstances is admirable.  Their struggle is made all the more difficult by a government that has retained most of the worst aspects of Stalinist rule and controls.  To take one example, the manager of the processing plant and fishing fleet on the Caspian Sea, was working wonders to pay his work force, keep the vessels operating and produce the canned and frozen fish the country needed for food and exports.  This was against the background of restrictions placed upon the operation. No worker could be dismissed, and the plant had to supply free fish to the army and the hospitals.  State supplied budgets were invariably inadequate.  The manager became an expert in robbing ‘Peter to pay Paul’.  He bartered fuel oil to pay Russian shipyards to overhaul his vessels, and bartered fish to get metal plate to can the next lot of sprats.  What was his thanks ?  A bureaucrat came down from the capital to inspect the books. He said that the manager was not acting according to the rules and had him arrested and imprisoned.

Sturgeon fishing in the Caspian Sea

The Government was committed on paper to de-nationalisation and privatization, but officials appeared to have little concept of what that meant.  We asked one senior officer to explain how it would work out in practice.  He said that the State would retain 51% of the shares of any company.  A private sector firm buying into the industry would have to pay the State a high price for the 49% of shares on offer.  They would then be expected to invest heavily to renovate the factory, though plants were in such bad shape, it would be easier and cheaper to build new.  The new managers would have to retain all of the existing work force, and to continue to supply free food to the army and the hospitals.  On top of all that they would be expected to produce a healthy profit for the government.  Small wonder then that privatization has proceeded at a snail’s pace in that land.

It is all so depressing, and even more so when there are some possibilities to put the country on a path to economic progress and environmental rehabilitation.  The people are hard working and willing to endure much deprivation to carve out a future for their families in the rugged desert lands of central Asia.  During my stay I was privileged to share the hospitality of the Turkmen people in their own homes.  It was rather eastern in form.  We sat on the floor on Persian rugs, and helped ourselves to food from an array of local produce and Turkmen cooking.  On several occasions I was generously entertained by my Turkmeni friends who made shish’ kebabs on charcoal fires with mutton meat, onions, large peppers and tomatoes, over which they poured vinegar as it cooked.  On the Caspian Coast my Russian hosts did the same with sturgeon meat.

In the nine years since my time in Turkmenistan, the President for life continued to reinforce his ruthless steely grip on power, practically isolating the country from the rest of the world.  His paranoid control of the country extended beyond political dissent to social and religious activities.  Though he permitted the Russian Orthodox church and the small local Roman Catholic church to continue to function (possibly because the Vatican was seen as powerful politically), he suppressed other bodies.  A Russian baptist house church was bulldozed to the ground.  The local population is officially unaware even of events in neighbouring states, like the popular uprising in Kyrgystan, that has deposed the former President there, and his indifferent regime.  Saparmurat Niyazov had become communist party chief in 1985, and held the offices of President, Prime Minister, and Commander in Chief till his death in late 2006.  He had renamed himself ‘Turkmenbashi’, meaning ‘father of all Turkmen’.

Now the whole Caspian Sea region has acquired global strategic importance due to its enormous reserves of natural gas and petroleum.  These resources are distributed in a region that is difficult to access and to export from due to its remoteness and to the political tensions and differences of the region’s states.  Nevertheless, the USA, Europe, Russia and China, are assiduously courting the governments of Azerbaijan, Kazakstan, Turkmenistan, and others, to obtain supplies and to build pipelines that would carry the oil overland and on to the Black Sea or the Persian Gulf.  One current proposal is for a pipeline from Turkmenistan to travel west under the Caspian Sea.  The gas reserves which exceed oil resources in the region, are much more problematic to extract, store and transport.

My late Icelandic friend Hilmar Kristjonsson who led our study tour visit to the USSR, used to say that culturally the orient began on a longitude somewhat to the west of Moscow, which I think sheds some light on aspects of Russian life.  It reflects a statement attributed to Napoleon, “scratch a Russian, and you’ll find a Tartar underneath”.

Another friend and colleague, Menachem Ben Yami, who fought with the Red Army during the war, and spent some months in Moscow, used to say, “never underestimate the Russian”.  I often recall that statement as the vast country goes through its current turmoil.  The Russian people will endure, they will persevere, and they will emerge from it all, hopefully, stronger and progressing to a degree of peace and plenty.

During my first visit to Soviet Russia, our group attended a series of receptions at which there were the obligatory toasts.  The first toast always was to “Mir”, - to peace, and to friendship.  It was the diplomatic norm, but I often felt I detected genuine sincerity in the persons proposing the toast.  They were invariable prematurely aged from the efforts to re-build the country after the war, with limited resources, and under a ruthless regime, - but build it they did, and on meeting visitors from abroad, they wished them only peace.

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