Travels in Siberia – The Ministry of A&I

Travels in Siberia – The Ministry of A&I

© Boyd NortonTravels in Siberia The Ministry of A & I             From my first visit in 1986, and through many subsequent trips in the 1990s, I became acutely aware that this vast country, under the Soviet system, was run by a labyrinth of ministries in Moscow. No matter where you lived, all these ministries controlled commerce and lives completely. There were some 37 of them, ranging from the Ministry of Agriculture and Food, the Ministry of Coal Industry, the Ministry of Culture to the Ministry of Fisheries, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and more. There were ministries for Defense, Defense Industry, Geology, Information and Press, Shipbuilding, Oil and Gas, Metallurgy – well, it was an impressive list. And then, of course, there were agencies under these ministries, called Committees, the most noted of which was the Committee for State Security, Комитет государственной безопасности, better known by its Russian initials, KGB.             I discovered in my travels that the most important and powerful of all these ministries was a well kept state secret for decades. It was called the Ministry of Aggravation and Irritation. Even today few people know that this agency held sway over every other ministry. Nothing could be built and no policy implemented until the Ministry of A&I had applied its rules.             Here are some examples of the secret influence of the Ministry of A&I:             Until the late 1990s, all Aeroflot planes were required to have carpeting that was notanchored firmly to the planes’ floors. The result? When stewardesses rolled the food service carts down the aisle, the carpeting would bunch up in front...
Khabarovsk 1992

Khabarovsk 1992

 © Boyd Norton Khabarovsk 1992.                 I sat in the car, waiting for my companions who had gone into the train station to purchase tickets for the next leg of our journey. I had decided not to go in with them because, with my limited command of Russian, I would be of no help in the complex negotiations that it took to purchase train tickets. So I remained behind. Trans-Siberian Railroad Rain was coming down steadily, streaking the windshield and side windows. Occasionally I had to wipe the condensation from the interior of the glass so that I could watch the people coming and going. People watching in Russia, particularly Siberia, can be fascinating. We were parked near a covered stairway that led downward into the tunnels that went under the tracks and led to the various train platforms – and there were many. This is a major terminal for the Trans-Siberian Railroad. I had arrived here myself from Ulan Ude a few days earlier and nearly got lost getting from the train platform in the maze of tunnels. People were streaming in and out, most with umbrellas. It was then that I noticed the young couple standing huddled out of the rain in the opening of this portal. They had no umbrella and seemed to be waiting for a bus or a vehicle to pick them up.             They were both in their late teens, perhaps early twenties – university students, I guessed. She was slight of build, very delicate and thin and I imagined that she might be a student of the ballet. He was taller, also...
Ulan Ude and an Eastern Medicine Clinic

Ulan Ude and an Eastern Medicine Clinic

This is the first in a series of essays entitled Travels in Siberia. These are various journeys I made here, starting in 1986. © Boyd Norton Ulan Ude and an Eastern Medicine Clinic             The journey on the Trans-Siberian Railroad between Khabarovsk and Ulan Ude is a trip backward in time. It takes two days, more or less, to travel between those two cities. For me it has the feeling of journeying back decades to the 1940s and 1950s of my childhood in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. I’m not suggesting that Rhode Island has the climate of Siberia. Nor does it, today, resemble this part of Siberia at all. However, during and immediately after World War II there was a certain look and feeling to my childhood surroundings that are nearly replicated today in many Siberian towns and cities. I still remember in Pawtucket those abandoned textile mills with broken windows, woodlots, grassy meadows, dirt streets (the street I lived on was not paved until the early ‘50s), weedy vacant lots, old but charming houses in need of painting, rundown wooden fences, and victory gardens in everyone’s backyard. Horse drawn wagons were not at all unusual then. Once a week the Ragman used to drive his horse and wagon down our street yelling in a sing-song voice, “Raaaaags.” He bought old clothing from people. I never understood how anyone could make a living doing that. There were others that delivered ice for iceboxes, also with horse and wagon. We got our ice from a nearby icehouse, probably because it was cheaper. Refrigerator? What’s that? The factories around Pawtucket that remained...

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