Our reception was nothing short of fantastic. All the Russian stops were rolled out everywhere: Bread and salt from girls in traditional dress, yada yada, but even a front page spread on the local tabloid celebrating the arrival of the Americans! And toasts. So many toasts. To you. To me. To the people in our lives. The food left a couple of things to be desired.
The first night in Zheleznogorsk featured a jovial and vodka-fueled banya (dudes beat each other with evergreen boughs) but I didn’t attend because I was filing my first story in a long series about the visit on what was a solid Internet platform. The city had been chosen to host a regional tech development hub of sorts.
Over the course of the visit, everyone was eager to hear our stories and share knowledge, from education and fire and police departments to local commerce and volunteer organizations. It was an historic visit: American politicians and U.S. federal representatives had been welcomed into what had been a Soviet secret city akin to Oak Ridge.
Only one old dude screamed expletives I couldn’t understand when we entered the city building for a visit.
I met with local newspapers. Mainly the gubmint ones, but on one of the last days I was there, in the eternal daylight of summer Siberia, the city manager sent a car to my hotel.
In his office he explained that the independent newspaper in town wanted to meet with me, and had called to say they were kind of pissed they were excluded from the dog and pony shows involving the Americans. Especially the independent American journalist.
My blood ran cold for a full second as I sat in this heavily paneled office, very Soviet in construction.
Just earlier I had asked an interpreter her opinion of recently installed President Vladimir Putin and the DOE guy with me gave me a withering stare that said STFU and later explained to me that I shouldn’t put people at risk of being recorded and exposed for contrary political views. I laughed it off. Come on. Seriously?
Anyhoo, I was sent over to the other side of the city to speak with people at the independent paper, all by myself but with an interpreter.
As we exchanged thoughts about what were rather lofty free-speech ideas, I thought about my prior meetings with so many levels of Russian society in those weird times subsequent to the collapse of the USSR.
I got along well with everybody we met.
It seemed there was a genuine interest to squirm once and for all from under the constancy of The Man. But there were always people there who just watched without much kindness in their eyes.
Later that day, our full detente crew gathered along a river whose name I can’t remember.
Formerly middle-class academics served us fish they’d caught before setting up an elaborate picnic in our honor. I don’t care to think about whether the fish was radioactive.
I ate the fish and drank vodka and cruised along the river in a rundown yet perfectly serviceable boat to the home of a guy who fished and hunted and trapped and collected mushrooms throughout this odd Siberian river basin because there was no way to really live there any more. I will never forget him.
In addition to my series of reports from Moscow and Siberia, we got interviewed on the local teevee upon return. We had established a connection with a previous enemy that was meant to benefit us both.
There were additional enthusiastic exchanges that followed over a couple of years.
Here we are, decades later. It makes me sad.