I am an engineer.  That means I live a pretty boring life.  I go to work; I sit at a desk; I stare at a computer; some days I write stuff.  Occasionally, I have to travel somewhere to talk to people about the stuff I write.

In the middle ’90s, circumstances required me to travel to Moscow 19 times to talk about the stuff I wrote back then.  Yes, it was exactly 19 times.  After 15 or 16 times, I began to think that maybe I didn’t need to keep exact count.  Then one day while waiting to clear customs to check in with the airline to fly home (yeah, you need to clear customs before you can even talk to the airline staff), I was chatting with another guy.  He mentioned he was on his 35th trip to Moscow.  So, I guess you never actually stop counting.

I was there during the boring times.  In other words, the middle of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency.  Some of my co-workers were lucky, they got to be in country when Boris was standing on the tank yelling at the people who wanted to overthrow the government.  The leadership of the company we were working with took my co-workers out to the countryside and “hosted” them at their dachas for an extended stay.  Somehow a work trip turned into a paid vacation.  Lucky bastards.  I mean, who gets to visit a real, authentic dacha in post-Soviet Russia?

In contrast, I only had to worry about the Chechens, who had started bombing the subways and buses while I was making multiple trips to Moscow.  But the bombings in the middle ’90s were chickenshit; the real stuff with the Chechens wouldn’t start until much later, i.e., the late ’90s.  Still, it was a recurring issue at the breakfast table each day — take a taxi to work and hope you weren’t robbed and murdered by the cabbie or take the subway or trolleys and hope you weren’t blown up by the Chechens.  Realistically, it was a low probability either way, but at least the company insurance would pay out double for a death occurring on company travel.

This was also the time when the mob came out of hiding.  One day, on the way back to the hotel after a day of meetings, I got to see a minor spectacle in the hotel parking lot.  Some collection of mobsters had murdered another mobster in his Mercedes in the parking lot.  The Russians have a slightly different take on human dignity.  They don’t bother to cover bodies with sheets.  Instead, the police just dragged the body out of the bullet-ridden Mercedes and laid him out on the lawn.

The bellhop in the lobby assured me that everything was OK, because the mob respected the hotel I was staying at as evidenced by the hit taking place in the parking lot instead of the mobsters shooting the victim in the hotel lobby like they did the month before in downtown Moscow (at a 4-star business hotel).

When I got back to my room, I could look down from ten stories at the Mercedes, the body, and the police who came and went for the next two hours before someone finally came to haul away the corpse.  As usual, the end of the day in Moscow is the beginning of the day back home, so there was the normal phone call to the office to discuss status and talk about what little progress was achieved during the meetings with the Russians.  The call started with the normal chit-chat, how’s it going, etcetera.  So, I said, not too bad.  The meetings were productive.  By the way, I am looking out my window and staring at the corpse of a murdered mobster stretched out on the lawn in front of the hotel.  And the weather is pretty good today, but I think will stay in at the hotel for dinner tonight.

By this time, I have made the transition from newbie who has no idea how anything in Russia works, to the old guy in charge of keeping newbies from getting into trouble because they have no idea how anything in Russia works.  One piece of advice that I was given early on was to photocopy my passport and visa before traveling to Moscow and then to lock the real passport and visa in the hotel safe on arrival.  American passports were a valuable commodity in Russia at that time.  And after having my pocket picked on two separate occasions in Moscow, the wisdom of that advice had settled in.  So, I passed that advice on to the new guy who was about to make his first trip to Moscow.

Ah, yes, the new guy.  Imagine a ginger version of Alfred E. Neuman with less personality.  He talked incessantly, while never, ever saying anything worth paying attention to.  We were going to Moscow on a 9-day trip in late January or early February, meaning I was going to be trapped with the guy during the worst weather of the year over the weekend with pretty much nothing to do.  So, it was going to be a long, long trip if everything went well.

Before we left, I gave him all the basics.  Inflation is running rampant in Russia.  The exchange rate has gone from 4000 rubles per dollar to 5000 rubles per dollar in about a year’s time.  Only a handful of businesses will take credit cards.  And when they do, they want to charge in dollars.  And most Russian businesses don’t want to take rubles; they want hard currency – American dollars or German marks.  Street vendors will take rubles, but you really don’t want to buy any food from a street vendor.  So, you’ll have to carry several hundred dollars in brand new, small bills (the Russians will refuse torn and tattered bills).  Don’t dress like an American.  No blue jeans; no sneakers; no fancy micro-fiber, down-filled parkas.  I don’t care how cold it is going to be.  You wear a wool coat or a leather jacket, plain twill pants, and basic leather work shoes.  Oh, and the Russians don’t wear hats in winter.  If it is really bad they’ll put on a ushanka (the fur hat with the ear flaps), but they never use the ear flaps.  {One day it’s -25 C, and the local engineer is not using the ear flaps.  He says it’s not cold enough yet}.  Don’t take any taxi from the street.  Call the hotel and have them send a taxi if you really need one.  And don’t forget, photocopy your passport and visa, then lock them in the hotel safe as soon as we check in.

So, I get Alfred into Moscow on a Tuesday and get him to his meetings each day and to dinner each night for the first couple of days.  Finally, it’s Friday; the jet lag is starting to wear off; and we have a long dreary weekend ahead of us.  Time for a decent meal and some American kitsch – off to Planet Hollywood Moscow we go.


I’ve been there several times by now, and it’s easy enough to get there.  We walk half a mile from the hotel down to a major subway station that has five or six trolley lines radiating out.  A fifteen-minute ride on one of the trolleys gets us two blocks from Planet Hollywood.  Then it’s just a quick walk down to the restaurant. It should have been easy.

Alfred is a late 30s, college-educated engineer who is making the transition to project management.  He is supposedly a bright guy that can understand and follow simple directions.  And yet on this frigid Moscow night, the ginger with the big ears is wearing a lovely London Fog trench coat, pin-stripe suit pants, and highly-polished wingtips.  He doesn’t exactly look Russian.  And as we are walking towards Planet Hollywood, a young man in a military uniform steps out of the shadows and makes a beeline for Alfred jabbering in Russian all the way over.  I have just enough Russian to understand he is asking for Alfred’s papers.  I say hello or something innocuous to the officer, and he realizes that I am not Russian either.  He demands my papers, and I offer up my photocopied passport and visa.  The officer is not happy with my photocopies, but I explain that they real papers are at the hotel.  He scowls and shoves my photocopies back at me, then turns to Alfred.

Alfred is staring blankly with a stupid grin on his face.  I tell him to show his photocopies to the officer.  Alfred says that he doesn’t have any photocopies with him.  So, I ask him where they are.  He says he didn’t make any.  Ok, so where is your real passport and visa.  Uh, they’re in the safe at the hotel.  Why are they at hotel – you know you can’t walk around Moscow without these papers right.  Uh no, why is that.  Because you’re a foreigner in a foreign land remember.

While we are talking, the Russian officer is getting short tempered and demanding to see Alfred’s papers.  So, I try to explain to the officer that Alfred’s papers are at the hotel.  The officer has had enough, and he grabs Alfred by the arm and starts pulling him towards that back of the building we are standing in front of.  I follow behind asking what is going on.  The officer tries repeatedly to shoo me away, but eventually gives up.

We walk through a door at the back of the building, and I see that we have entered some sort of miniature police station.  There is a counter on our left and a jail cell on the right.  There are three grimy old dudes and one college student in the cell.  It is still early on Friday night, and yet all are seriously inebriated.  Behind the counter is the stereotypical police sergeant – a tyrant in his own little kingdom. He stands and walks to the counter, then he starts a heated conversation with the officer that has dragged Alfred into the station.  The drunks in the cell are watching as intently as they can given their limited ability to focus.

Both the sergeant and the officer turn to Alfred and start asking questions in Russian.  Alfred continues to grin stupidly while understanding nothing that is going on.  The college student staggers over to the bars of the cell and speaks to us in broken English; he volunteers to translate for us.  He tells us that the sergeant is asking for Alfred’s papers.  I explain that Alfred has locked his papers in the hotel safe and does not have them on his person.  It is his first trip to Moscow, and he has made a mistake.  The student translates my answer for the sergeant, but the sergeant is visibly disdainful.  We have several iterations of the sergeant demanding Alfred’s papers and me explaining that Alfred doesn’t have them on his person – all by way of drunken college kid.  Finally, I get an idea, and I suggest the sergeant call the hotel to verify that Alfred is a registered guest there.

He stops talking for a moment as he thinks about my suggestion.  While he is deep in thought, I reach into my wallet and pull out the business card for the hotel.  There is paper and a pen on the counter.  So, I write out Alfred’s name in phonetic Russian.  The sergeant picks up the business card and reads Alfred’s name from the paper.  He shrugs his shoulders, reaches for the phone, and dials the hotel.

Think of every old movie you’ve ever seen with a Russian officer bellowing into a telephone.  It’s real.  He stands up straighter, puffs out his chest, and raises his volume three notches.  The only part I can understand is him spelling Alfred’s name over and over into the phone.  Eventually, he stops talking and listens for a short while.  He puts down the phone, turns, and starts berating Alfred.  The drunken student can’t keep up, but it appears the sergeant is going to let Alfred go.  The officer we came in with gestures towards the door.  I start pushing Alfred from behind.

Once we are back outside, the officer is all smiles and wishes us a good evening.  He even helps us walk carefully over some icy patches, then waves as we head towards the street.  Alfred is still grinning stupidly; he is somehow blissfully unaware that he almost spent the entire weekend in a Russian jail.

At the street, Alfred turns to head down to Planet Hollywood.  I ask him where the hell he thinks he’s going.  He says to the restaurant.  I say hell no, we’re going back to the hotel.  Why he asks. Because, you almost got lost in the Russian legal system.  Assuming we could even find you, it would be Monday at the earliest before anyone would be able to get you out.  Nah, he says, everything worked out fine. I tell him whatever, but I am taking him back to the hotel.  Once we’re there, he can do whatever he wants.  Back at the hotel, I make Alfred get his passport and visa from the hotel safe while I wait with him.  I tell he can’t leave the hotel without them.  By the way, if they get stolen, you’re really fucked.  So be careful.

We have dinner in the hotel bar.  I explain, as though talking to a 6-year-old, that logic and reason don’t exist in Russia. I remind him that Winston Churchill said Russia was a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.  I get blank face and a stupid grin in response.  I don’t think he ever got it.

Every time we leave the hotel for the next week, I ask him if he has his passport and visa.  Surprisingly, he doesn’t complain; he just nods yes and grins.  I got him home in one piece at the end of the trip.  I never traveled with him again.  He made a couple more trips to Moscow without getting himself arrested and starting an international incident.  So, he must have learned something.  Or perhaps the gods occasionally take pity on the idiots of the world.

I only made one or two more trips to Moscow after this.  My boss picked up a new project to watch over, and he dragged me into as punishment I suppose.  There’s no other justification for being forced to work with the French.  On several occasions, with important people in the room, I said the French made me miss working with the Russians.  Although, the wine was much better.