On a Trip to Russia

I knew Dr. Negovsky fairly well in the late 80s. He was getting pretty long in the tooth then, definitely dead today.

He was not only a really serious researcher (Father of “Reanimatology” in the former Soviet Union), but politically savvy as well, having won the “State Prize” several times and survived Stalin’s purges in the 50s. I was in Russia with Dr. Safar enough in those days to make it worth my trouble to learn some rudimentary Russian, and I could get along fairly well in restaurants, hotels in airports. Negovsky could speak English about as well as I could speak Russian but we managed to communicate. The only time he ever talked to me about politics was in the relative safety of his tiny apartment, after some vodka. He predicted the end of the Soviets quite a long time before it actually happened, but always managed to keep his head down.

I always gave him a bottle of Remy Martin cognac on departure (purchased at the local hard currency kiosk). I have some pictures around of me and him, but I think they are still in color slides. I have also several books autographed by him, one of whom I may give Mike Darwin if he wants one for his collection.

Educationally speaking, one of the more interesting things I managed to do was get inside and walk around Moscow University unfettered. There were guards everywhere in the Soviet days and they considered it a place where foreign tourists were excluded unless they were on a formal tour by Intourist, where you saw only what they wanted you to see. The building in one of the seven that were designed by Stalin in the 50s, so I’m told. Very much Stalin-esque in their personality. The building in the inclosed photo is not the University. it’s the Hotel Ukraine where I usually stayed, same design. The statue is real, and out in front of the University. University education was free in the former Soviet Union and open to any country that was politically aligned with Russian politics. There were a lot of Cubans and some Africans there as well as home grown students.

My friend Dr. Alex Tsipis of the Botkin Hospital in Moscow got me in and we wandered around for a while inside. It looked very much like schoolrooms of the 30s and 40s in the USA. All wood, desks were wood top, that lifted to reveal a big space for books and belongings. Graffiti on the wood tops, an ink well to hold bottles of ink in the right hand corner. It was run down and smelled old and musty. No they didn’t have any “Go MOSCOW U” sports t-shirts. I ran into Tsipis again in Tblisi, Georgia in the early 90s schlepping a patient back to Botkin for HBO therapy. I wonder if he ever got out of the Soviet Union. He always hid his car’s windshield wipers so they wouldn’t get stolen.

The titular head of the Reanimatology Department in the late 80s, early 90s was Dr. Semenov, shown in the photo. I doubt he’s still there and have not heard from him in years. Dr. Semenov was a very nice guy and always had a lot of questions about life in the USA. I wonder if he ever had a chance to visit. He had a limo service that took him back and forth from work. His wife wore a full length fur coat of some variety and was a pretty strong vodka drinker.

The Russians were all pretty committed vodka drinkers, but they got rationed in the amounts they could have. All the good stuff was exported. So they had a little theft thing going with local drug stores (Chemists). They’d cruise in, point a pistol up the nose of the pharmacist and demand all their clonidine. Not as odd as it seems. Clonidine extends the effects of ethanol metabolism, so a fifth of rotgut vodka lasted three times as long. Happy days!

No more or less formal dinner in Moscow was complete without a number of toasts at the end, usually using Armenian cognac, which was pretty god but fairly potent. Russians drank the hard stuff all the time and were tolerant to it. They could, and frequently did drink large amounts. Americans, especially me, would keel over quickly after about twenty plus toasts for everything from world peace to the wonders of Beluga. So I kept a bottle of Pepsi between my knees, dumping the booze on the floor and refilling my cup with cola. Otherwise, they’d carry me out feet first. Of course, really high grade caviar was a staple at these things, and they served it up in foot high piles. This is where I developed a very expensive taste for Beluga. An unleaven cracker piled high with authentic Russian Blue Label Beluga and some egg yolk is so sinfully good I’d risk the integrity of my immortal soul for it.

It was like cheap heroin in Vietnam. When they came back to the USA they found out what the real cost was. Same with Beluga. After the Soviets collapsed, there was no one to enforce poaching laws along the Ukrainian Caspian shore. So the local citizenry dynamited the sturgeon wholesale, pulled them up on shore, ripped out the caviar in buckets and sold it on the Finland border for hard currency. They basically wiped out the supply in a few months before the authorities started shooting poachers in the head and leaving them on the shore for the pelicans again. Now the price of Beluga is somewhere near $200.00 an ounce, if you can find it.

One night Dr. Semenov’s wife threw all caution to the wind and imbibed some really serious amounts of vodka and cognac over a fairly short period of time. She then passed out Clockwork Orange style right into the pasta, face first. They carried her out feet first and the party continued unabated. “Zu droozhbu (to friendship!”. Zu Mir (to peace). And so forth.

Darwin is going to Moscow soon to commune with his cryonics friends and I will demand a concerted review of the trip for CCM-L with photos.

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