Monday, April 24, 2017


(Wikipedia - Public Domain)
Today I read an interesting article about Chernobyl years after the nuclear reactor meltdown. As the "adventurers" who were the subject of the article The Lights Come Back on in Chernobyl were Polish, and a former classmate lives part-time in Poland, I forwarded the article to him. The following are emails he sent to me in response.
Professor C. Denson Hill, PhD (Affectionately known to classmates as Denny):

"It was, and still is, a sad story. I think that tomatoes grown there, shortly after the disaster, glowed in the dark. Don't know if they still do.

The (Chernobyl) meltdown was totally caused by 'cowboy' type Russian engineers, who ignored normal required safety procedures, and tried to manually manipulate the reactor, and they screwed up...human error, not the breakdown of the reactor per se.

The story of how it happened, and how it was strictly a homemade disaster, was explained to me when I was in Moscow in the summer of 1992."

(Of course, I had to ask Denny what he was doing in Moscow.)

"I spent the summer in Moscow because I was supposed to be on an exchange program between the USA National Academy of Sciences and the Soviet National Academy of Sciences.

I was visiting the Steklov Mathematical Institute in Moscow. There is also one in Saint Petersburg (former Leningrad). But in 1992 they were in an old building with creaky wooden parquet floors. Since then, they have moved to a new modern building, but I have never been there or seen it.

It was a funny story: you apply for this program, and nothing happens for a year or you forget about it. Then suddenly you get notice from Washington that you have been accepted, and they want you to order to maintain 'business as usual'.

Explanation of how and why it was strange, and why they wanted 'business as usual':

1.) Under normal circumstances, it had always been that the USA paid only your round trip plane ticket, and the Russians were supposed to pay your room and board for the duration. Your itinerary was determined by them...this week you give a seminar in Moscow, next week they send you to Leningrad, the following week, fly you to Novosibirsk, or you take trains to some other place for seminars, etc.

In other words, you are essentially their prisoner (in a friendly way) and they decide who and where and when you talk to people in your field of research. They put you up in Moscow in the 'Academic Hotel' and you can eat out in numerous restaurants, i.e., life sort of as normal there.

What happened in my case is that between the time I applied for the exchange program, and the time I was selected for it, the Soviet Union collapsed (on December 25, 1991)! As was explained over the phone to me, by some official in Washington DC, at the National Academy of Sciences, since there was no longer a Soviet Union, it meant I was on an exchange program between the USA Academy, and the void set. The treaty agreement still existed on paper between the two academies, but the one on the Russian side had ceased to exist. So the US guys were begging me to go, just to show the Russians that they wanted 'business as usual' as far as normal scientific exchanges are concerned.

The Russians were also begging me to come, for the same reasons. Neither side wanted scientific exchanges to stop just because the Soviet Union no longer existed. Yeltsin was nominally in power, but of course the emerging new Russia was actually being run by the KGB, renamed FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation).
(Kremlin -Credit: AP/Misha Japaridze)
Trouble was that the Russians were out of money, the Russian Academy was totally broke, prices in Moscow had gone up, and they did not have the rubles to pay for my hotel room, or for train, or plane trips, etc. So if I went there, I would be totally free, and not have to travel around according to any itinerary fixed by them. Also, you could not get into restaurants because they had been taken over by the Russian Mafia, and they would not let you in, claiming the whole restaurant was booked up, when it was clearly empty. Also the price for a mafia to kill someone was around only $400. Taxis were too dangerous to use, because the drivers would just take you someplace and rob or beat or kill you. Supermarkets were empty...yes, empty! Bare shelves.

(Moscow supermarket)

You were supposed to declare any money at the airport, when you arrived, but my Russian friends told me that in no circumstances should I declare more than $300 on the required form at the airport. (Had to be less than the $400 above.) And no big bills, too dangerous...only single $1s, $5s or maybe a few $10s. So I had around $2,000 in a giant wad stuffed in my underwear, in small bills. Never needed was there just for any emergency. I lied on the form at the airport, saying I had only $250. (The monthly salary then for a famous Russian Academician was only $20.)
But I have gotten ahead of the story...

2.) As I was finding out some of the above, before making a decision, I had this funny conversation over the phone with the guys in Washington: I asked them how safe they thought it would be, if I did in fact decide to go there. Their answer was: 'we cannot give an update, because our U.S. Academy representative in Moscow was mugged last night, is in the hospital, and we have not been able to contact him to see how he is doing'.

3.) So after numerous emails with the Russian side, finally I said I would go if the Russians would satisfy these 3 conditions:

    (a.) Someone I personally know would pick me up at the airport, and at the end of my stay someone I know would drive me to the as to avoid being immediately robbed upon arrival, or upon departure by the taxi mafia.
   (b) They would find me an apartment to live in, so I did not have to stay a single night in a hotel.
   (c) Such apartment would have cooking facilities, so I would not have to eat a single time in a restaurant."

(As DENNY had said the supermarkets were bare, I subsequently asked him where he got anything to cook!)

"I took, as checked luggage, an old fashioned 'trunk', or 'foot locker' heavily stuffed with pasta, sauce, parmesan cheese, peanut butter, cans of tuna, favorite coffee and tea, etc. Enough to survive any emergency...slowly used it up over the summer.

There were 3 (actually 4) different ways to try to buy any food item. Consider trying to buy tomatoes, for example:

1.  Supermarket. Probably no tomatoes, or maybe some rotten and stinking ones, or strange white ones that might glow in the dark...but they (if they happened to exist) were very cheap.

2.  Chechens selling perfect blemish-free tomatoes from card tables set up on street corners near the last metro stop. The most beautiful tomatoes you have ever seen, and at a sort of reasonable price, but to be avoided because they are very heavily laden with DDT.

3.  Hard Currency Shops. You had to pay in dollars. That is where those one dollar, or five dollar bills became handy. Veggies and stuff from Sweden, or some other Scandinavian country. Much higher prices, decent stuff, and with a few blemishes and insect bites, showing it was OK to eat. This is where I got most of my routine stuff.

4.  From the garden of somebody's dacha (Russian country house or cottage): Here you get real homegrown heritage type tomatoes, better than in any supermarket here. Everybody with access to a dacha has a garden, and they grow their own veggies during the warm season. And they usually produce more than they can eat, so they pass them around to their friends. These are by far the best ones.

Now change the above story to any other type of fruit or vegetable."
"The Russians satisfied the three conditions I laid out and paid me 100 rubles per day as a per diem. (Then 100 rubles was our 75 cents!) That was all they could afford. But it turned out to be enough since the apartment was free (it was the apartment of the sister of some mathematician, and the sister was in the countryside dacha for the summer). So I lived like a king on not much more that 75 cents per day. The whole summer, I never took a taxi by myself, but went on buses and the metro often. And did not eat a single time at a restaurant (only in the canteen for lunch at Steklov Institute of Mathematics, where a full three-course lunch cost me about 16 cents).

For the first month or so I was paranoid about being robbed, mugged, beaten, etc. But eventually I realized I was being monitored by those KGB guys in the black car that followed me everywhere, and they did not want simple common criminals to mess me up and create an international incident. Remember, they wanted to demonstrate 'business as usual'.

I hung out often at the Irish pub on Arbat Street, and spent most of my time trying to learn Russian with a Russian teacher, but now I still cannot speak the language."
It may sound like DENNY was being melodramatic when he spoke of the Russian "mafia taxis", however, a little research turned up the following 1992 article. Notes from the Underworld It is rather lengthy, so here is an excerpt to prove he was right in being cautious:

"MOSCOW -- Visitors who have finally made it through customs at Moscow's international airport are channeled toward a narrow doorway that opens to their first encounter with organized crime, Russian-style.

Two lines of black-leather-jacketed men press in from either side, forming a sort of human chute. They are taxi drivers.
(from the Russian LiveJournal)
They lean in close, seeking likely-looking fares among the emerging passengers, still disoriented by the scruffiness, the noise, the dim lighting and the apparent chaos of the airport known as Sheremetyevo-2.

'Taxi? Taxi?'

Overwhelming, insistent, they seem to be everywhere. But the appearance of disorder is deceiving.

The airport taxi drivers form one of the mafias that flourish in Russia today. They are a band -- of bandits, some would say -- with their own rules, their own hierarchy, their own sense of honor."
(I asked Denny if he would go there today if he were invited.)

"It is completely safe to go there now; probably less dangerous than New Orleans, or parts of Houston.

But, I am not sure why, I have no desire to ever set foot inside that country again. I've seen all the main museums, churches, sites, etc. in Moscow and St Petersburg, so I don't need to go there again...although I would like to be again in that room in the Hermitage (St. Petersburg) where they have 27 or 28 Rembrandts. (When I was there, the Intourist guide gave us only 15 minutes in that room! I was pissed.)

Besides, now that in my declining years, I have invested in buying apartment(s) in another country, I really need to spend time there, because who knows how long one can still travel?"
Denny and I attended high school in a very small West Texas town. His life in the past 60 years belies that fact. He's a renowned mathematician and Professor of Mathematics at Stony Brook University in New York. He's quite the cosmopolitan... traveling to Europe when school is not in session. When he is not collaborating with other mathematicians on a paper somewhere in Europe, he spends time in Warsaw, where he has two apartments (flats) in an historical 600-year-old building that overlooks the New Town Market Square, and is on the UNESCO list of protected world sites. 
Image result for new town market square warsaw
(His flats are on the floor with the open balcony doors.)

As you can tell, Denny is quite interesting. He has many tales to tell, and lots of friends from his travels who lead interesting lives as well. I look forward to his emails. 

Imagine meeting a Hell's Angel in Warsaw! Everyone has lots of questions when they learn Denny is from Texas -- mostly about our politics. Sometimes to his dismay! Our politics are often the subject of ridicule. 

Until next time..
Peace and love,

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