In the first year of our Moscow stay telephone or fax contact with the ‘west’ was sporadic and hinged on the good graces of the Russian telephone operator. Calls were placed via the operator and she’d inform us when it ‘might’ take place; typically 48 hours later, emergency or not.
Two days later the phone would ring, it could be 3::00 AM or PM, and the Russian instructions, “hold”…. Then, followed by, ‘speak’ or, ‘no answer’, or ‘busy’, followed by a click and dial tone. If no answer or busy the 48-hour ordeal began anew. Most frustrating was when calling IHQ or THQ at home and the call being made during non-office hours as that always necessitated a further call and wait! Unfailingly, if a connection was completed the first question was, “How are things in Moscow – been to the largest McDonald’s in the world yet?” And our answer was always, ‘fine thank you, and, yes’! Interesting what changes in post Soviet Russia made it to CNN, BBC and CBS evening news.
Delicious chocolate and ice cream, McDonald’s burger and shakes, all at Ruble prices, pennies on the dollar were real perks. Pizza Hut had two entrance doors, one for Russians and the other for those from the ‘west’ and who paid the USD prices in hard currency.
Sunday nights were special. Every other week Kathie would load the Toyota passenger seat with 2 Cheeseburgers and 8 Big-Macs as I set out on my 7 hour midnight-run to St. Petersburg.
From mid-November through early April snow was often falling on the roadside shashlik (kebob) shacks as I made the journey up the M10, Russia's main highway. Progress was measured by the fresh tarmac that was laid in places month to month. In parts you are driving on a German quality asphalt surfaced Western motorway until the asphalt runs out and you are back with a lurch on the Russian cratered surface.
I loved traveling up to the former imperial capital, where the late 20th century meets the 19th. Wooden cottages, sharing the same color, yellow in some villages, green in others reflecting the salesman’s marketing skills and the only choice of color that particular year.
The roads are replete with latter-day highwaymen, the GAI who hide behind bushes waiting for speeders to fall into their trap. The fines are minimal and usually end up in their pockets. At several GAI posts, the wrecks of crashed cars are displayed on podiums and drivers are usually waved to a stop, saluted, and ‘dokumente paschalsta’, “documents, please”. The inspections can include a close search of the vehicle, all in the expectation of a small courtesy bribe.
When the GAI spot the, by now well-known Armeija Spasenija Toyota, the greeting is always the same: “ДОБРЫЙ ВЕЧЕР капитан. И что вы везете с вами сегодня?” (Good evening, Captain, and what might you be carrying in your van tonight?) The routine never altered- we’d shake hands, I’d take out a Big Mac for the two GAI officers to share. They’d leave the wrapper in plain view for all to witness their friendship with those from the ‘west’.
As I pulled out and set off down the pot holed road side I spied the GAI picking up the phone to alerts the next GAI post, some 40-50 miles down the road, that the ‘salvation captain’ was enroute, and where the custom was repeated.
Once in St. Petersburg it was a quick turn around whether collecting Russian language Bibles for Butierkskaya Prison or blankets for Moscow orphanages. The Bibles, donated to us by the hundreds, were the regular gift of Lars Dunberg, the IBS Manager Europe. We assisted whenever possible with delivery and distribution. Lars had a special fondness for the Army as we had for him. He was a former SA officer.
The blankets were lightweight but very warm. They were new and donated by the Scandinavian Airlines System Group’s President and CEO, Jan Carlzon. The gift was not some serendipitous luck of the draw. Jan’s Executive Secretary was Salvationist Lisbeth Lovmark from the Stockholm Temple Corps, a close and long time friend and for whom we named our first daughter.
The return journey was usually under way by 9:00 AM and in daylight. The GAI posts had had a change of guards by the time I departed St. Petersburg heading south to Moscow. And the welcome greetings were the same as those in the middle of the night; “And what are you carrying this time?” A favorite gift was the children’s’ illustrated Bible. It was expected that I would sometimes join them inside their command huts for tea or coffee. We’d share stories, examine the official documents framed and displayed on the walls, and family photos. I promised to pray for them and their families. And best of all was to have earned their respect to the point that I was invited to join in the annual GAI organized bear hunt, in Siberia. I expressed my sincere gratitude but declined due my already heavily stretched agenda.
On my arrival in Moscow it was straight to the office to unload and tackle the mail and pile of messages.
Kathie suggested that we take a night off and attend a Bolshoi Theatre performance. One of the best perks a Muscovite could possess was a friend with free Bolshoi tickets. Our next-door neighbor had a senior position in the Bolshoi and reminded us often to that he had access to free tickets.
“Maybe next week we’ll find time!”