Sailing into Odessa

Sailing Into Odessa

We sailed the Black Sea in 1988, a distant, empty body of water rarely visited by yachts. I wanted to sail into Odessa, in the Ukraine where my father was born, and with luck, and the assistance of Gorbachev, we did so.

We arrived just after Gorby's great speech to the Party Congress where he made old bones of Communism. Our arrival sans visas was an unheard of event. The last adventurer who arrived uninvited, landed a plane in Red Square and quickly landed in jail. We were not threatened with incarceration (although it would have made a better story) but the antiGlasnostics ordered us back out to sea while the proGlasnostics made a test case of us.

"Did Gorbachev mean what he was spouting or was this whole 'reconstruction' business just another bowl of Kremlin borscht?" That was the question asked by both pros and antis. The fate of UNLIKELY held the answer. There was much gloom among all the Russians trying to sort out our brash arrival since the Immigration people, who wanted us out, were backed by the KGB, always an interesting opponent.

The question of our staying or leaving first went to the Mayor of the Soviet of Odessa. The Mayor, passionately proGlasnostic, tested the elasticity of the new policy by bouncing the request that we be allowed to stay all the way up to Moscow. The answer came down in an incredible 24 hours. "Glasnost lives. The decision is yours. As far as we are concerned let 'em stay. The decision is up to the Soviet of Odessa."

We received the very first legal/illegal visas ever issued by the USSR. They should have made front pages all over the world but we were satisfied with the front page of the 'Odessa Daily Sickle' and lots of TV Russian of course so we never did know exactly what was being said about us. Our friends assured us that we were doing OK

Everybody in Odessa wants to be a capitalist and most want to 'visit' (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, know what I mean?) the US. They have had their fill of Communism and repression and central control and planning that doesn't work. There was substantial free enterprise, although illegal, in Russia even prior to Gorby's speeches. The free, black, underground, illegal economy is the dominant method by which Russians get the goods they really want. Indeed it is the black economy, like the Mafia in the States, that is the chief enemy of reconstruction. They've had a good thing going and they damn well don't want it legalized.

We had it great. We were a functional image, living proof of the untrammeled West. We had come sailing in on a sailboat, free spirits on our own bottom, not herded in through regimented airports. There was little that we asked for that was not instantly provided. It is ego balm of a very high order to have your every word hung on like you were at least Lenin. We were invited to rap sessions with the Press and the Youth (Komsomol) movement and the University. I figured, what the Hell, and let them have both Trotskyite barrels. All of my youthful enthusiasm and innocence for both the US and the USSR came rushing back. It was, in my mind's eye, immediately Post War again and all good things could happen. The World was a liberal oyster. We could talk again about One World unembarrassed. The world was being silver plattered a second chance.

The Cold War, the interminable enmity, the nuclear clouds and the End of the World, fell away for some moments...some glorious, sentimental, human, moments. It was possible to say to each other just what was in our hearts...and mean it. The Russians were curiously relieved to be in a position to accept criticism and we westerners were in the strange role being able to equally pox both our houses. What catharsis! It was a High Political Colonic!

Do not distrust the cultural and economic revolution taking place just now in the Soviet Union. The process is irreversible and permanent. Peristroika will work, if awkwardly, and Glasnost is already working with mind numbing spread. Nothing in the Soviet Union is above criticism. The low rumbling that you hear is the shattering of clay feet, the falling away of shackles on thought.

It is difficult to chain up a people. It is more difficult to keep them chained. But since Gorby's hammer (sans sickle) broke those chains there is no force that I know of, either within or without the Soviet Union, that can reaffix them as they had been for fifty years. The Russians may invent new shackles, people are pretty good at that, but the old shackles are gone. It is history book time,

The Komsomol Kids are the real losers. They have been rigidly raised in the best tradition of Hitler Youth. They marched in groups, sang in unison at work and at play, were taught, over and over, that conformity, docility and discipline are the routes to dacha'ed and limosine'ed careers. They had been Stalinbred as the commissars of the next generation. Suddenly it does not look like there will be another amenable generation available to their special training.

It had already been suggested that the whole Komsomol aparat be torn down and tossed away. The Komsomol movement is tied to the Stalinist/Hitlerite principle that If you get the kids, the old saw goes, Mommy and Poppy will trail along. But the Russian Mommies and Poppies are busy at the moment trying to get a bit of their own. They are much too busy being Free Enterpriseniks to trail anymore after stuff that smacks of Stalin.

The Kids, the privileged Kids who never felt the lash of oppression, who, indeed, were being taught to wield it, are confused, abandoned by parents, State and history. The Komsomol Kids were the 'best and the brightest.' They are gone, lost in a passionate Slavic scream for freedom. Like the Stupid Son at the Passover table, they don't even know what questions to ask.

But there are other kids, reminding this old hippie of our best decade. We went to a rock concert in Odessa and while it was an inadequate imitation of the extravaganzas of our own Michael Effetes, it far exceeded in passion anything I have felt in decades. The brutal politics, the blazing musicians, the sexually available groupies, the groundling punks, the outrageous rejection, the delicious irresponsibility, was all there. Players and audience floated together in a rich soup of dissension, unrestrained and unafraid. These outcasts had finally revealed as fraud the emperors clothing of the last generation.

My friends, the proGlasnostics, showed their pride in these kids, not too long before denounced as Hooligans. Hastily scribbled translations of their songs were pressed on me. "Show them to the Boss," they urged as if any American could simply ring Springsteen up for a chat. The lyrics were revealing.

"Hey , sellers of indulgences, don't crawl after us!
Where we are there is simply nothing to take!
There we have nothing to think over, there is nothing to believe in,
And you have left us nothing between our legs to make love with."

Pretty strong stuff. And even stronger:

"Why did you decide that now I shall sing your song?
You do not believe the song yourself.
You do not believe the song yourself!"

At the University of Odessa, where I met with the Chancellor and a group of historians, it was all approach-avoidance. The historians knew where truth lay. As Bellows would say they 'knew, knew, knew.' But they had been clamped shut for so long that the creaky opening of mouths was painful to watch. They offered no defense, even for their own past lies. Knowing Soviet history, and suffering more than most in it, they were timorous. They wanted, yearned, bled, to be able to speak out but self defensive censors, implanted by decades of repression, caused every brave segues forward to be matched with a cautious over the shoulder dance step back.

We sailed out from Odessa after being offered our choice of an array of improbable commercial opportunities. The economy of that important port city, like most of the Soviet Union, is up for grabs. Hotels, yacht clubs, boat factories and export/import business were all offered on whatever terms I would have cared to write. The next frontier for America is not space, not even China, it is the needful, churning consumers of the former Soviet Union. I left good friends waving at the dock, full of hope that my promise of return was real. I sailed down the Black Sea to busy Istanbul and then through the lush Greek islands, astounded at how political systems generate differences in the wealth of nations. Russia, richer in resources than most nations in the West, is poor. They have not been able, in fifty years, to solve the economic conundrum of getting natural wealth usefully into the hands of consumers. The Greeks and the Turks are rich...having allowed the exigencies of people to better themselves to function.
But the Russians are on their way.
The Russians Are Coming.