It All Started With Gogol: Scenes From Life In Russia
Unusual Experiences In The Soviet Union
Dust Jacket Hardcover
During the 70 years of the Soviet era leaders created one of the most rigidly controlled societies in history. Their objective was to mold citizens into docile conformists and devoted servants of the State. As an antidote to our personal freedoms they conditioned their citizens to distrust all foreigners since their goal was, by definition, to undermine Soviet power. An unrelenting propaganda assault glorified the virtues of their system and reinforced hostility toward any outside entity. The governing bureaucracy appeared monolithic but was actually extremely vulnerable. The system itself was defective; unwittingly it motivated individuals to bypass the strict application of the law and discover other techniques of coping. Russians exhibited a boundless creativity in circumventing regulations. Their deliverance lay in mastering a very inventive, humorous and witty approach to an existence that was otherwise grim beyond description. Russia is an endlessly fascinating land, unexpected and unpredictable, producing delight as well as despair. It consists of humane and warm-hearted people oppressed by endless years of a stultifying bureaucracy. But given the opportunity basic humanity would peek through the bureaucratic facade and manifest itself in ways sometimes benevolent, or humorous, or compassionate, but always endearing. The present review summarizes a number of adventures and experiences that personify these traits.
For long distances Russians had a cultural preference for traveling by train. A typical trip starts in the late afternoon or evening and arrives at destination the following morning. Locals party with food and plenty of drink—usually vodka, then sleep until near the time of arrival. At which time, they freshen up and go about their business. The overnight trip for most passengers was simply an occasion for a mini-party and a different venue for sleeping before the next day’s work.
There were basically three classes of travel on overnight train routes. There was the so-called “hard” category—long wagons with wooden benches arranged along one side in a direction perpendicular to that in which the train would travel. There was a lengthwise aisle to allow access to the seats themselves or the toilets located at either end of each wagon or the space between cars where the men would usually gather to smoke, tell tales, and quaff a bit of vodka. In the winter people would board with damp fur coats; in the summer, there were countless sweaty, unwashed bodies. Combined with the paucity of toilets this resulted in a distinctly objectionable odor that made passengers from other compartments avoid the “hard” wagons religiously. There was no air conditioning in the summer and heating in the colder months was minimal at best. Passengers slept on the benches without the benefit of mattresses or blankets. Trips for these poor people were loathsome; but they were inexpensive, costing only a few pennies in local currency.
Next step up was the “coupe,” a partitioned wagon with compartments holding four passengers each. Chance alone determined your cabin mates on any given journey. They could be all women, all men, or they could be any combination in between. The configuration was two benches across the length of the car with two more located on top as bunks. During the hours when passengers were up and about, the top bunks were typically folded up against the walls in order not to hinder the movements of the four individuals.
The third category was a luxury accommodation called “SV” or special wagon. This was a compartment partitioned off from the rest of the car thus allowing privacy. There were seats for two and a little table. At night, the seats were converted into beds with semisoft mattresses, sheets, blankets, and pillows. There was also a neat little tablecloth and glasses for tea with usually a couple pieces of candy to complete the elegance. Each compartment was equipped with a door that could be locked from the inside. Naturally, each higher category of accommodation carried a concomitantly higher price tag.
A couple years after my inaugural trip to the Soviet Union, we negotiated a contract to supply all the machinery to equip what would be the largest artificial fur factory in the world. The constant selling of natural furs in the international market place resulted in a persistent shortage of the product for the Soviet populace itself. So the state hierarchy conceived the decision that since there was no domestic technology, the equipment to produce artificial fur as well as the manufacturing expertise would be purchased from abroad. We won the contract, therefore were responsible for overseeing the timely fabrication and shipping of machinery, installing it at the site, and ensuring that warrantee parameters were met.
The factory was to be located in a small town called Zhlobin in the Republic of Byelorussia slightly north of the route from Moscow to Poland. My initial trip to Zhlobin – to begin the administration of contract requirements -- corresponded with my first train trip in the Soviet Union. A state representative accompanied me as was standard practice. We boarded the designated train and made our way to our lodging for the night, a standard, non-luxury compartment. On this particular occasion, all four travelers ended up being of the male variety. When we arrived at our assigned location onboard, our two fellow passengers were already in attendance. Since they were both seated on one side, we determined that we should take the other.
Before the train even began rolling out of the station, our compartment mates started to lay their provisions out onto the little table. Before my astonished eyes, there appeared a chicken, several hard boiled eggs, tomatoes, pieces of garlic, greens such as scallions, dill and cilantro, salami, pepperoni, sausage and a kind of bologna. They placed two bottles of beer on the table and then added a bottle of vodka. My travel partner was unfazed, but I did not expect this; it was my first experience on a train in the Soviet Union. I learned then, and it was confirmed many times since that a train ride was occasion for feasting on a fairly grand scale. Our companions started in with a shot of vodka, a swill of beer, and several mouthfuls of food. Soon they asked us to join them. I’m not sure whether they simply felt sorry that we had nothing with us or just felt embarrassed that they were eating while we were not, but they soon became fairly insistent that we partake of the bounty laid out before us. I am certain it was simple Russian hospitality and generosity, which were usually in bountiful supply. Later I became completely assured that an invitation to compartment mates to partake of one’s repast on a train was a common occurrence even though the travelers were usually total strangers.
We had no choice but to join them, and so began a three-hour session of belting back shots of vodka (turned out they had not one but several bottles) followed by snacking off the ample stock of food they had in their various bags and satchels. In a short period of time, we all became fast friends. It seemed not to matter that it was probably no more than fifty degrees in the cabin. After a while, I wanted nothing more than to wrap myself up in the meager blankets afforded to each of us and attempt to sleep but the others seemed content to sit there, eat, drink, and gossip. Our cabin mates were intrigued over the fact that fate had deposited an American in their midst and asked me a multitude of questions—more out of curiosity than hostility. So it was rather late by the time they decided to pack it in for the night, remove the detritus from the table, and assume positions in their respective berths. They appeared to have no trouble falling asleep; indeed, after only a few moments, there was a veritable concert of wheezes, snores, and whistles. It became clear to me while I tried vainly to doze off that Russians had no difficulty sleeping wherever and whenever they could grab a nap. I, on the other hand, tossed and turned for hours, trying to find some comfortable position that would allow a modicum of rest. However, the various noises and sounds emitted from my three fellow passengers plus the racket of the train itself hounded me regardless of the position I selected.
After what seemed an interminable period of time spent clattering and clacking along at probably no more than thirty miles an hour, stopping at a dozen way-stations, then jerking into start-up mode again, we finally began to approach the station Gomel. Because of the continual stops and start-ups and the accompanying rattling of the wheels, I had gotten virtually no sleep at all. I was advised to go to the rest room and freshen up, for we were about to change conveyance to a jeep for the remainder of our trip to Zhlobin – another 4-5 hours of extremely cold and unpleasant travel!
After receiving his Ph.D. in Russian studies in 1968 Mr. Aman was invited to join the faculty of the University of Texas Slavic Department where he taught both undergraduates and graduate students for a number of years.
Appreciating that his temperament required a more intense form of activity he later joined a small international trading company that specialized in Soviet commerce at a time when there were only a very few American companies involved in that part of the world. This was the worst phase of the cold war when American citizens were unwelcome visitors to the Soviet Union, so the work offered challenges heretofore outside his experience. To a certain extent, Dr. Aman became a pioneer in opening the Soviet mind to real American attitudes and the American mindset to a different way of viewing Soviet life.
He later directed his own company in consulting with American firms interested in unlocking trade opportunities in the Soviet Union and Russian, Kazakh and Ukrainian entities desirous of tapping business potential in America. Still later he worked for various American companies contracted by the State Department for Government sponsored privatization and democracy development projects in former Soviet states.
Aman eventually spent around thirty years traveling to Soviet and ex-Soviet Republics; and lived and worked there for an accumulated nine years of his life. He spent more time in the Soviet environment than the vast majority of Americans and got to know and understand life there like very few others. “It All Started With Gogol” is his selection of a few of the endlessly fascinating adventures and experiences that occurred to him during this lengthy period of time.
It All Started With Gogol: Scenes From Life In Russia
by Thomas L. Aman
reviewed by John E. Roper
"There were factories-relatively small ones to be sure-but smoke-spewing structures that provided a setting for the grinding slog of an existence that apparently varied not at all from one day to the next."
During the decades of the Cold War, the tensions between the world's two major superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, were at times almost palpable. It was a period of extreme distrust, fear, and even greater misunderstanding between the two nations. The few American visitors to the USSR during these decades were normally very restricted as to what they could see and who they could interact with on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain, but occasionally either through luck or unusual circumstances a Westerner would be able to get a truer glimpse of the Russian people and their society than what was shared in the media. The author was one of these privileged few and paints for his readers a very different portrait of what life under the Soviets was like during the last few decades before the government's collapse.
Aman's love for Russian culture began as a young man when he first encountered a book by Gogol. His passionate interest led him to a PhD in the subject, a long career as a foreign businessman in the country, and a marriage to a Soviet citizen. Although the stories he tells are from his personal experiences, his primary focus is not on himself but on the fascinating individuals and situations he encounters during his life in the Eastern Bloc. For example, the reader is entertained with enlightening and often humorous tales about travel on Russian trains, foreign businessmen trying to keep up with their Russian counterparts in food and vodka, the couple's move to Kazakhstan, and even anecdotes about the family dog, Suzi. In short, Gogol is a well-written book which presents a unique and engaging view of what it was like to live on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.
I finished your book last night and really enjoyed it. Well Done! I could closely relate to your evocative descriptions of airports, infrastructure, buildings and apartments, [post] Soviet bureaucracy and the like. Having lived and/or worked in Yerevan, Kiev and Tbilisi (in addition to Moscow), your characterizations of those cities and their people rang very true for me as well. The book is at times humorous but often very poignant ? a very interesting read. Thanks very much for sharing it with us. I think your book has great appeal to anyone with any interest whatsoever in Russian culture/history or the expatriate experience. It?s also just an interesting memoir for people who like non-fiction, which I happen to. Needless to say, this work is very well written and a compelling read. --- Hayley Alexander, Greenland, NH
Hayley Alexander, Greenland, NH
Just finished your book and I really enjoyed it. The Soviet Union was always such a mysterious place. You give good insight into what things were like and how you had to adapt to such an entirely different lifestyle. I admire your courage and how it has to be such a culture shock to go off on your own to places that are so foreign (and dangerous). I found it very interesting to learn more about your Tanya also. She sounds like quite a remarkable woman. She could probably write her own book too.
Thanks for sharing a big part of your life with the rest of us.
(Tanya figures very prominently in the early stages of the book and ended up being the author?s spouse.)
Here are the comments that I composed for your wonderful book.
It has been a real pleasure for me to read. It all started with Gogol by Thomas Aman. I truly enjoyed learning about the author, someone who had such amazing experiences and spent so much time in my motherland. He described life in Soviet era-Russia in the 1970's accurately and with great attention to detail.
Being a child of Ukraine myself, I have a great amount of respect for people that strive to understand and truly appreciate my country and culture because it is truly a fascinating land.
I just finished your book, Tom, and I enjoyed it immensely. I learned so much about both you and Tanya. She really is a remarkable woman. As she told me, she isn't the person she was back then, but the same is true of the rest of us. I certainly hope we have all learned something from our life experiences!
Your book truly is a treasure for your family and especially for your children and grandchildren. I look forward to the next time we are together when we will have a chance to talk more about it.
Just finished reading your book. What a great story . Interesting , crazy, exciting , funny , and I can go on and on but do not have more adjectives.
Thanks for sharing it with us .
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