Ich bin ein Berliner
It’s the early 90s and the Berlin Wall is being sold off in numbered chunks. One piece now takes centre stage in Singapore’s Bedok Reservoir Park. Another, I’ve been told, is somewhere out there floating in space. Apparently, Ripley’s Believe it or Not currently possesses the largest unbridled Berlin Wall brick collection on the planet.
East Germany lies in tatters but is slowly waking from its Rip Van Winkle Marxist dream. The Kraftwerk song “Autobahn” is playing on the radio and seems strangely befitting as we cross into former DDR. My cousin Miriam, who lives in West Berlin, tells me that all sorts of crazies are rolling across the borders for the first time. Many of them arrive with jars of pickles and homemade cheese, set themselves down on West German lawns and gawk at the nattily dressed; at least, so Miriam’s story goes. Across the once-border in the newly reunified German states, the landscape seems unreal, the buildings straight out of some cubist’s sketchbook, the people world-weary. Miriam and I roar through village after village all the way to the Polish border. Many of them are deserted. It’s almost as if they never really existed. To the rest of the civilized world, they haven’t—not really.
“Now the Ossies [as their West German cousins call them: a word meaning ‘Easties’] whiz into the West in their dented Trabants and Ladas, oblivious of oncoming traffic. I mean, they were cooped up like battery chickens for over 28 years.
“Can you believe it?” says Miriam. “These people have never even heard of Michael Jackson, Star Trek or Colonel Sanders.” You can tell Miriam’s been living away from home for too many years.
According to the Berliner Tagblatt, twenty-two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, over 62 percent of former East Germans still don’t really feel they belong in their reunified nation, and over one tenth would actually prefer a return to the old DDR.
While the rest of us were splurging on our diet of Doctor Who and All in the Family reruns, East Germans were wondering how they might navigate the sewers, attach themselves to the chassis of a visiting Uncle’s car, or just leggit across the death strip. Booby trapped with land mines and trip-wires, armed guards posted on over 300 watchtowers down the length of the wall, escape seemed futile at best; yet, over the course of those 28 years, thousands scale that wall or dig tunnels beneath. 5000 make it to freedom. 200 or so are shot stone cold dead trying. Heinz and Karl were not among them.
Truth be told, it seemed to me that Heinz and Karl belonged to that 11 percent that wished for the return of Khrushchev. I guess back in the Soviet days, a Moscow-trained engineer was part of the Soviet gentry of the DDR. As Heinz later tells me: “In the good old days, an engineer could go anywhere in the Communist Bloc, get drunk on Ukrainian champagne at state functions, and had the pick of the blondest devushkas.”
In a few days I’m to meet up with Heinz and Karl in Moscow, then head out into wildest Siberia to seal the deal of a lifetime.
We arrive in Moscow a few days early. My business partner Dieter has bright ideas about how we’re going to make a bit of quick cash on the slide. Some months earlier, he had managed to flog a container of Heineken beer to some dubious Moscow businessman named Misha. He hadn’t exactly made a killing, but it was enough for a first down payment on his spanking-new baby blue Jaguar.
Dieter and I share a room in the exorbitant Palace Hotel just down the road from the GUM department store, where another of Dither’s business partners is selling second hand clothes he imports en-masse from Guangzhou, China.
Misha arrives in a black Mercedes limousine with tinted windows complete with two bodyguards and a driver who dons Ray Bans night and day. In the car, Misha kisses Dieter on both cheeks then passes us snifters of a one-hundred-year-old Armagnac and a couple of Davidoff cigars. He reminds us that on no uncertain terms should we discuss politics here in Moscow. It’s a sure way to sour a deal.
“And for God’s sake, don’t mention Gorbachev. I spit on the Nobel Peace Prize.” he says.
According to the Western media, Gorbachev was Russia’s Saint George who slayed the dragon, he who released the people from the tyrannical manacles of Soviet oppression and the shadow of Khrushchev; but according to Misha, Gorbachev was a traitor, a conspirator of the great American spin-doctors.
“You know five minutes after winning the Nobel Prize, Gorbachev had Pugo shot,” he says. “Akhromeyev hung himself in his office. And I don’t believe what they say. It was no suicide.”
I’m still not sure if it’s Misha’s intention to impress (Dieter insisted we stay in the most expensive hotel in Moscow so Misha would know we meant business), or if this is his house-restaurant. Needless to say, all they serve here is Beluga caviar: boatloads of it. And it doesn’t come on cute little blinis with chives and sour cream. No, here caviar is the only course, and you gobble it straight from your gold-inlaid Rosenthal soup bowl with a large silver tablespoon. On the side, you sip—or in Dieter’s case, guzzle—a glass of Moet Chandon, which you refill directly from the spout of a faux-Grecian fountain (complete with Aphrodite on the half-shell). In actual fact, your Uzbek waiter makes sure your crystal flute is always brimming and bubbling.
Misha pays in US dollars, in advance: counting a couple of thousand from a wad that he rustles out of thin air. One of his bodyguards tosses the Uzbek waiter a 100-dollar bill. We stuff our faces with fish eggs and champagne as Misha leans in with his proposition.
Dieter’s eyes are quite literally fishlike—and believe me, not from all the caviar.
The day before Dieter and I had taken a stroll along the Red Square where hundreds of babushkas in tattered scarves and threadbare shawls were clamoring outside storefronts. Old men and little girls lined the avenues touting second-hand transistor radios, bits of silver, old boots and chipped teacups. Smuggled cigarettes could be purchased in foreign currency down some shady alley that led into the back streets of oblivion.
“So,” Misha whispers. “Eight million dollars. I need you to help me with eight million dollars.” He doles himself a heaping spoon of Beluga.
Dieter glances over. He’s doing that thing with his eyebrows. I know his heart is racing. I wonder if Misha wants to sell or buy.
“Tell me about your eight million,” says Dieter.
“I need you to get it to freedom. To Switzerland,” he says. “I have it in cash. In seven different denominations, but I really need it in Switzerland.”
At this stage, Dieter isn’t touching food or drink. His ears seem to be flapping.
Misha sips his champagne. “Twenty percent commission. I’ll give you twenty percent,” he says, grinning.
Quick sum: Twenty percent is 1.6 million US dollars. Enough for Dieter to buy himself a few Jags. I’m thinking a chalet on some island off the coast of Brazil, blue parrots in the coconut trees. Of course we know there’s a snag. There always is.
“OK, so here is how it works,” he says. “I can get it to you in cash. I don’t mind how you get it there, as long as 6.4 million arrive in a numbered bank account under my name. Simple.”
It’s tempting, but the thought of all that lies between Moscow and Zürich, sends a shiver down my spine. Back at the hotel I spend half an hour staring at the little map of Europe in the back of my faux-leather agenda planner. The shortest distance is: Moscow—Belarus—Poland—Czech Republic—Germany—Zürich. I try to conceive how much we have to pay the border guards. An image of the Berlin Wall creeps into my head.
Neither of us sleeps that night.
Next morning, Dieter says, “There are ways, you know. If we can get into Poland, we can transfer the funds to an offshore account, Caiman Islands or something, then reroute back to Switzerland.”
“Sure. Missing an arm,” I say. I don’t think Dieter has ever seen The Godfather.
We’ve moved to another Moscow hotel, apparently booked by our East German friends, Karl and Heinz. This one, the Cosmos, reeks of Chanel Number Five—or something approximating it. After check in, Dieter proposes that we take the hotel management up on their complimentary drink. We send our bags to the room and head to the bar; only, you can’t even get to the counter. The whole place is swelling with women, and these are no apparatchiks—least not any longer—these are all run-of-the-mill Moscow hookers, hundreds of them, swarming around potbellied entrepreneurs like flies to sugar. Before I manage to order our two vodka tonics, one of them already has her hand on my crotch.
“Big balls,” she says grinning. “Hey, Big Balls, you buy me a drink?”
“No big balls, no drink.”
She grimaces, but soon has her sights on an Egyptian looking gentleman down the far end of the bar.
All night the telephone rings: It’s always the same thing: “You like try Russian girl? You want blowjob? You need a good massage.” Finally, I unplug the phone. At three in the morning, someone’s knocking at the door. A peroxide blonde in a spotted leopard-cling-film-legging-thing leans against the doorframe. “You know in Moscow you should not sleep,” she says. “Your wife’s not here. Maybe Sasha can be your wife for tonight.” I notice her bag is a Hermes. She has a pair of Dior sunglasses perched on her head. What is it about Russians and sunglasses?
“Who is it?” Dieter shouts from his bed.
“Hooker,” I say.
“What’s her name?”
“Tell her we are waiting for Marina.”
I do. She grumbles, wobbles down the hall in her stilettos to the elevator. She has seven more floors to try before she reaches the roof.
“There’s bound to be some horny Japanese on the next floor,” Dieter says before he starts snoring again.
Marina never arrives.
Six thirty and we’ve checked in to our flight to Tomsk. We sit there in the waiting hall dozing on plastic bucket chairs dreaming about eight million dollars. At least that’s what I’m sure Dieter is doing. At the airport the infamous Karl and Heinz, who’ve just flown in from Berlin, have joined us. They’re in great spirits. You’d almost think they were going on holiday. Still, they keep a distance—a professional one—sort of.
This is the deal: Karl and Heinz, soviet-educated engineers, former employees of one of the largest petrochemical processing plants in East Germany are old buddies of Vlad, the manager of Tomsk’s largest petrochemical facility. Dieter tells me that the Chinese are screaming for plastic, cheap plastic: “All those American toys,” he says.
Dieter has convinced me, and himself, having procured a manufacturing license from one of the world’s chemical giants, that we can produce plastic resin at this Tomsk facility for half the price of what it costs in the West. We manufacture the stuff in Tomsk under license, package it with the chemical giant’s logo, then ship it by Trans-Siberian railroad to Beijing and to the rest of China. Dieter has a buyer in Shanghai. Karl and Heinz would be stationed in Tomsk during the implementation phase to make sure that quality is up to spec. Sounds like a simple plan, right?
Simple as getting eight million dollars from Moscow to Zürich?
It takes us three days to reach Tomsk. Mostly because there’s no gasoline. We wait at the airport, check out the five shops selling Russian folk dolls, plastic Kremlins, plastic babushkas, probably all made from plastics supplied by the Tomsk Petrochemical Works. Finally, we make it on board the Aeroflot Illyushin II-62, destination Tomsk.
Dieter, tickets in hand, struts into the plane and finds three Russian army officers sitting in his seat.
“Wrong seat,” he says pointing at his ticket.
The three officers look up. They have eyes of steel, chiseled jaws and without even a flinch, bark: “Niet.”
Dieter smiles sheepishly, then sits down wherever he can find an empty seat. Somehow all four of us manage to sit side by side. Is that a chicken I hear clucking somewhere?
The Illyushin takes off with a bang. Literally. Apparently they use water ballast, and as they’re making their way into the stratosphere they shed their extra water-weight. Feels like a rally of cannon barrage. Dieter is one of the worst fliers I think I’ve ever met. He’s brought along two bottles of Johnny Walker Black as a gift for Vlad. By the end of the six-hour flight one of the bottles is down to its dregs. And somehow, the airplane’s carpet is not affixed to the floor. Half of it ends up wrapped around Dieter’s ankles. Karl and Heinz slumber through entire thing; Dieter, on the other hand, can’t stop talking. Anything I didn’t know about him before this, I do now, particularly things that weigh heavy on his conscience.
One thing’s for sure: He swears he will never take this flight again.
“Guess that’s the eight million dollars down the drain,” I say.
“I’m too old for this shit,” Dieter says, knocking back the bottle.
The service on the Aeroflot 101? What service? Although the stewardesses are straight out of Vogue they have the manners of a Kazakhstani pig farmer. They toss you the sticky rolls and bottled water as if they couldn’t be shod of them quick enough, and they don’t speak a word of English—or more likely, don’t want to.
“Don’t they teach them to smile in flight school?” I ask Karl sometime during the flight.
“What flight school?” he says.
And the in-flight toilet? I’ve seen cleaner toilets on London Transit. I won’t go into the gory details. Needless to say, don’t take your shoes off in an Aeroflot flight. Walking around in your socks is not recommended.
Tomsk: One of the oldest towns in Siberia. In 1990, around half a million people live here in up to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter. Lucky for us, it’s summer and a cozy 65 degrees plus. If only it weren’t for the damn mosquitoes. And the size of the buggers. I kid you not: bigger than your average housefly.
“Stay away from the trees,” says Heinz. “Or you’ll be bleeding like a pig. A white shirt is not recommended.” Difficult to stay away from the trees here since 20 percent of the Siberian forest is actually situated in the Tomsk oblast.
Slap a mosquito in Tomsk in the summer wearing a white shirt, and by the time the evening is through it’ll look more like some pink/red Indonesian batik. The mozzies are little blood pellets. Still, we we’re not headed out to the forest; at least, not yet.
We rattle into town, down this potholed avenue fringed by forest on each side, through Lenin Square, driving without paying any heed to which side of the road we’re on. The driver’s more focused on the oncoming trucks and the potholes. Dieter, having just recovered from his Aeroflot jaunt, cracks out his second bottle of whisky. Strangely, despite all the alcohol in his bloodstream he as sober as a schoolmaster. Must be his adrenalin.
The Tomsk Petrochemical Works is the largest factory I think I’ve ever seen. It’s like some kind of Buck Rogers’ sci-fi city. Ming the Merciless might appear any moment, ray gun at the ready. As we get in closer, we can see that the whole machination is crumbling around its ears. Walls are half-collapsed, rust and holes creep down the giant pipe work suspended above our heads. By the time we’ve finished our factory tour, my new suit looks like I’ve lent it out to a cowhand. You can smell the plant from miles away and the methanol fumes and the sweet sickly smell of plastics clings to everything: your clothes, your hair. I’m starting to miss the Chanel Number Five reek of the Cosmos Hotel.
The meeting with Vlad starts and ends with Stolichnaya shots. Karl and Heinz dig in, rattling away in fluent Russian. After his two bottles of whiskey, the hue of Dieter’s skin resembles a fragile china doll. Still, he knocks back the vodka like a true Cossack. They offer up platters of something that looks like salami, only it has a sort of grey hue and pickles, plates and plates of pickles. Larissa the translator tells us that Vlad has invited us to his country dacha for dinner. She won’t be coming. Heaven forbid. “This,” she says, “is a mans’ thing.”
My head starts reeling. My stomach churns.
Tomsk Forest, 7.00 pm: Vlad’s Dacha.
Some giant of a man with biceps like a circus strongman is massaging half of a cow’s carcass over a giant vat. The blood is running down his arms and into his sleeves. Good for him, he’s wearing a black shirt. Vlad says something about this being Boris’ best barbeque recipe. On a table next to Boris, a dozen bottles of Stolichnaya glimmer in the forest twilight. Once again, Karl and Heinz dig in, handing Dieter and me tumblers full to the rim. Nostrovia!
Vlad downs two more, then suddenly drops his trousers, tosses them to Boris, who reaches up from his bloody massage, folds them neatly and drapes them over the vodka table. Vlad chuckles like some kind of half-crazed troll, drops his underpants, removes his shirt and skips off into the underbrush. If only I had a camera handy. These were the days before mobile phone cameras. Karl and Heinz, normally the epitome of engineer-seriousness, follow suit and two more butts disappear into the underbrush. Dieter gawks. Is this some kind of bizarre Cossack coming-of-age ritual?
“I know, I know,” I tell Dieter. “You’re getting too old for this shit.”
Minutes later, Karl, Heinz, Vlad, three unknown burly mafia-looking types with tattoos across their backs, Dieter and I, are sitting in Vlad’s sauna somewhere in the Siberian forest. Vlad is swigging Stoli from the bottle. One of the mafia-types pours a bottle of beer over the sauna stones. Lager-haze burns my eyes.
As soon as I step out of the sauna, some old guy grabs me by the arm, spins me around and starts whipping me with birch leaves. He chuckles like some kind of wild animal. Although I can’t understand him, I get that this is part of the ceremony. At this stage I wouldn’t have been surprised had a vampire emerged from the shadows, but the old chap simply sits me down and pours me yet another vodka.
Half an hour later, we’re standing around an open fire, plate of meat in one hand, glass of vodka in another, and someone’s strumming the balalaika to the tune of Kalinka. Where’s Dieter? I drop my plate and go looking for him. I find him out in the clearing trying to wrestle a goat. By this time, he’s well and truly shitfaced. He grabs the goat by the horns and starts tugging it back towards the fire. As he nears, the music dies down.
“What are you planning to do with that thing?” I ask.
For a moment there’s a deathly silence, but then he reaches down to the goat’s udder, squeezes and is soon spraying us all with milk. Vlad bursts into a hail of laughter; Karl and Heinz start doing a Cossack. Me? That’s about where everything goes black. All I remember is that the next morning I wake up fully dressed in my bed back in the hotel. I still have my tie and shoes on and someone’s knocking at the door. My head feels like it had been through one of those ancient Siberian barbeque massages.
“Come on,” says Dieter. “They’re waiting to sign the contract. Vlad’s cracking open a bottle of his best.”