From mid-June until late July of 1992 I traveled through Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and the northeast corner of the former Soviet Union. The pretext for the trip was two computer conferences being held in or near St. Petersburg, Russia in the first half of July. I spent several months preparing for this trip.
I read several histories of Russia, and I read something on the history and current culture of each of the other countries I planned to visit. I spent months trying to learn as much Russian language as I could — mostly through language tapes. I have no facility for learning languages, so this was very hard slogging (and the results were disappointing). I gathered together three old essays I had written which I thought would be particularly appropriate for emerging libertarians in Eastern Europe: one on monetary systems, one on the nature of the concept of private property and one on Exploitation Theory (which I regard to be the essence of Marxism). I titled this collection "Three Essays on Political Economy by Ben Best" and photocopied 30 copies for personalized distribution.
Another way I prepared for my trip was by attempting to make contacts in the Scandinavian and East European countries through correspondence with people belonging to a variety of special interest groups — libertarians, Mensans, cryonicists and APL-language aficionados. By mid-June I had established a rather impressive network of contacts.
When I landed in Stockholm I was met at the airport by the Swedish ISIL (International Society for Individual Liberty) representative Henrik Bejke. He escorted me by bus to a night-club in Stockholm, which is a major focus of libertarianism in that city. This club is owned and operated by libertarians as a profit-making political protest. Unlike other Stockholm nightclubs, this club has no liquor license and it operates all night (instead of closing at 1 am as the other clubs must do).
The club has periodic confrontations with the police, who will shut it down and arrest the staff (only to release them a few hours later). But because of the political posture of those who operate the club, the authorities refrain from taking the steps which would be required destroy the business.
This peculiar stand-off between the police and the operators of the libertarian nightclub is indicative of both Swedish tolerance and of the high political profile libertarianism has achieved in Sweden since 1980. Sweden's backlash against the Welfare State, although less dramatic than Eastern Europe's revolt against communism, is a powerful national force. Powerful enough to have placed a conservative government in office, to have made libertarianism a household word, and to have made libertarianism a part of mainstream student politics.
Just inside the nightclub's entrance is a large sign containing a quotation from Frederic Bastiat translated into Swedish. In essence, it said that where law and morality stand in conflict, morality must prevail. Similar signs around the stage and dance-floor contain quotations from Milton Friedman and other libertarian luminaries.
Henrik handles much of the accounting and administrative work of the nightclub. He showed me the office and his PC (he is the club's "computer expert"). He had an ambition to start a Swedish libertarian E-mail system, but had no idea how to go about doing so. Also in the club's office is a libertarian library and bookstore. ATLAS SHRUGGED was translated into Swedish not so long ago, but because Swedish is less concise than English, the novel requires a 3-volumed boxed-set.
Arrangements were made for me to have lunch with Einar Du Rietz, the head of the Free Moderate Students Association, the largest conservative student organization in Sweden (now controlled by libertarians). Einar is a libertarian, so we talked politics and philosophy. Einar mentioned that ATLAS SHRUGGED is a frequent catalyst for students to change their views from conservative to libertarianism. This led to a discussion of Rand's attempt to derive ethics from metaphysics — an issue which is frequently on the minds of Randian libertarians in Europe, as elsewhere.
When I told him of my attempt to make contacts with libertarians in Eastern Europe, he invited me to accompany him to his office. As we walked past Stockholm's historic monuments I was impressed by the facility with which he was able to quote prices in both American Dollars and Swedish Krona. It seemed to me he found it to be a natural adjunct to speaking English.
In his office, Einar allowed me to phone the Assistant Director of Student Affairs at the Institute for Humane Studies in Paris. She agreed with me that traveling can be made much more pleasant by meeting like-minded people in foreign countries. She faxed me a list of names, addresses and phone numbers of free market minded people in Eastern Europe. I was especially eager to make contacts in Lithuania and Latvia, partly because all of my previous efforts to do-so had failed. Einar showed me a letter he had received from a fellow who is active in Lithuanian libertarian student politics. I wrote the fellow a post card, telling him the arrival time of my flight to Vilnius from Warsaw.
I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering-around Stockholm. Immigration is a big issue in Sweden. Insofar as 8 million Swedes have allowed 1 million foreigners to enter the country. Sweden has the largest number of refugees per capita in the world, I was told. The bountiful shipments of food to Africa from Sweden have contributed to attracting many immigrants from that continent. I heard a nonlibertarian Swede complain that Swedish laws are so tolerant that AIDS-testing of immigrants is prohibited out of concern that this would be discriminatory. A segment of Swedish society is in reaction to this influx. On that day the newspaper headlines proclaimed the capture of "Laser Man", a person who had been taking potshots at dark-skinned people through his scoped-rifle, yet had been eluding the police.
I met Henrik, my ISIL host, for dinner — and more political discussions. Scandinavians tend to score the highest for irreligion in the Western World on public opinion polls. Nominally, Swedes belong to the State Church, and 1& 37; of their income is taxed to finance the Church. Any Swede can avoid the 1& 37; deduction simply by making a formal request to the government, but most don't bother. Henrik said that the government will probably privatize the Church within the next five years, but there are evidently people who are concerned that a private church might become aggressive and obnoxious.
I used the identification bracelet of one of my libertarian companions as a pretext to bring-up the subject of cryonics (displaying my Alcor identification bracelet). Henrik seemed interested in the idea, so I gave him some literature.
Midsummer, a celebration of the longest day of the year, is a major holiday in Sweden. A large group of people associated with the libertarian nightclub planned a midsummer party at the rural summer cottage of one member's parents — and I was invited to come along. Moreover, Henrik arranged that he and I could ride in a car with Christian Gergils and his girlfriend.
Christian is the libertarian activist/troublemaker with the highest media profile in Sweden. His battle against the military draft had been big news. Moreover, he was the one who started the libertarian nightclub, by setting-up tables on the streets of Stockholm and selling booze to passersby (without a license, of course). He was mobbed — by buyers and by media.
Although Christian's manner of driving was a bit too freewheeling for my comfort, the conversation was fascinating. I first pumped him for information about his colorful personal history. Then I brazenly raised the subject of cryonics. He thought the idea was bizarre, and he was somewhat disarmed by how handily I dealt with his objections.
I had thought that the Midsummer Party would be a gathering of libertarians, but I saw little evidence of intellectual activity. Nonetheless, I enjoyed helping with party preparations, kicking the soccer-ball around, and feasting on the food. Conversation was somewhat difficult, despite the fact that nearly everyone spoke reasonably good English. Their natural inclination was to speak Swedish, and they would only speak English if they were talking to me.
I had made arrangements to catch a train to Oslo at about 2:30 am, and a fellow named Mats had agreed to drive me to the train station. As I was preparing to go, Christian Gergils approached me to tell me that I had set his brain on fire with my talk about cryonics. He was eager to give me his address, and worried that he might lose contact with me. Henrik also commented on how cryonics was a much more scientific approach to the problem of death than what is offered by conventional religion. A third Swede joined in the discussion, raising objections to cryonics which Christian and I lept-upon. But I didn't want to miss my train, so I extricated myself and sped away with Mats.
Mats was the manager of the libertarian nightclub. For a nightclub manager, he is an exceedingly intelligent & good-natured person. He had learned French and tried to live in France, but found that he was snubbed there because French people cannot respect anyone who does not speak perfect French. Mats engaged me in a discussion about the functions Michael Miliken had served for the marketplace. He was also interested in the question of how the state can be eliminated without violence.
I had planned my arrival in Oslo to coincide with a conference which I had been told would be the largest gathering of libertarians ever seen in Norway. This turned-out to be not true, for reasons that were never made clear to me. The conference was sponsored by the Progress Party, an alliance of conservatives and libertarians which is not always congenial (the Progress Party is officially anti-immigration, to the chagrin of many libertarians). Because the conference had speakers from many countries, it was held in English. The topic of the conference was the EC and the Maastricht Treaty. Predictably, nearly everyone opposed the political centralization represented by Maastricht. Most still favored the Treaty of Rome as a method of reducing trade barriers, although one speaker vehemently opposed the EC as being an instrument of European protectionism which was thwarting the free world trade which could be achieved through GATT (the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs).
I found it difficult to join-in group conversations conversations during the breaks because in groups the Norwegians would speak in Norwegian. I did manage to corner a few individuals, who would speak to me in English. One Norwegian libertarian, although he was ideologically committed to an anti-immigration position, expressed his concern about the impact of immigration upon Norway. He felt that far too many of the immigrants were attracted to Norway by the very generous system of social welfare. These people were coming to Norway with no intention of working for a living or becoming productive citizens. The immigration policy is so generous that it guarantees that children of immigrants can receive an education in their native language. This can be both costly and difficult in the case of some of the more obscure African languages.
One of the speakers was a member of Parliament in Denmark, and he was among my lunch companions. I have had little experience with having friendly, casual relations with elected political figures in North America, particularly not ones who are libertarian, but this is much more possible in Europe. The electoral systems in Europe allow small parties with a small fraction of public support to get a small political representation in Parliaments.
Libertarianism is influential in Norwegian political politics, although probably not as much as in Sweden. I dropped into the libertarian student's union in Oslo and spoke with a number of the students. The ones I spoke to did not seem very well-read or knowledgeable of libertarian philosophy or economics. I saw a magazine concerned with biotechnology on their literature rack, so I placed some cryonics literature behind it — thinking that whoever picked-up the magazine might be a good prospect.
I caught a night-train to Copenhagen, where I had arranged to meet David Stodolsky for lunch. I met David through the cryonics e-mail system, Cryonet — and we used E-mail messages to arrange our meeting. David got his PhD in Computing Science in California, and he had attended at least one of the Life-Extension Festivals sponsored by the Chamberlains. He had even gone so far as to submit paperwork to Alcor for cryonic suspension membership, but the paperwork had been returned by Mike Darwin because of some flaw or incompleteness.
Currently, David has a temporary position in the Computer Science Department at a university near Copenhagen. His special interest is in networks, specifically, using computer networks for the distribution of scientific papers. He has a negative opinion of the United States, which he thinks is decaying. He seems to think that the Los Angeles riots are the wave of the future, and that a cryonics facility located in the United States is doomed to destruction. For this reason, he favors permafrost burial and chemical preservation, but more as a "good idea" than as something he is taking steps to achieve.
From Copenhagen I took the train to Germany, where Klaus Reinhard was my host. Although Germany has an ISIL representative, libertarianism is practically unheard-of in that country — except for the non-capitalist varieties. Considering the role that Austrian Economics has played in libertarian philosophy, I find this all the more puzzling. The Scandinavian libertarians could give me no persuasive explanation. Someone translated ATLAS SHRUGGED into German many years ago, but it was long out-of-print, and practically unobtainable. I gave Klaus an English-language version of the novel.
Klaus is a fervent believer in the value of preserving his mind (data for future reconstruction) through writing memoirs, reducing them to microfilm and distributing these microfilms widely. He asked me if I knew of cryonicists in North America who do this, and I had to tell him I didn't — or not to anywhere the extreme of Klaus. I told him that I do a great deal of writing myself, and that I believe many of my essays reflect my personality as much as, if not more, than memoirs.
Klaus is very concerned that conditions in Germany are very unsuited to the practice of cryonics. German hospitals do not allow morticians to enter the premises (it "looks bad"). Therefore, someone deanimating in a German hospital can be expected to have several hours of brain autolysis before being delivered to the mortician. Nonetheless, Klaus believes that German hospitals are so superior to English hospitals that the greater chance of recovery in those hospitals outweighs the advantage of being near Alcor UK.
German law requires that a death certificate be signed by a physician only — never by a nurse. This means that anyone who wants to arrange to de-animate outside a hospital must pay a physician to stand-by. Klaus has a high profile as a cryonicist in Germany. He says he has a list of seventy Germans who are interested in cryonics, and that at least ten of those would sign-up immediately if these problems could be solved.
I took a night-train from Hamburg to Prague. Looking at the train itself gave me a foreboding that I was entering the former Eastern Block. The railcar bound for Czechoslovakia was dark, old and dirty-looking — in contrast to the other railcars in the train (and European railcars in general). It looked as if it had been built to transport troops during World War II.
My efforts to meet with libertarians in Prague had been complicated by my ignorance of the fact that the city is more often known in Europe by its Czech name, "Praha". I had assumed that there were no libertarians in Prague, and my belated efforts resulted in failed connections. Thus, my stay in that city was restricted primarily to tourist activities — aside from the time I spent at the main post office trying to make phone calls to Poland and Lithuania.
Prague escaped the devastation of World War II and is full of historical monuments. I would rate it as among the best cities for touring in Europe — and yet the big influx of Western tourists is a very new phenomenon there. Prague almost seemed to be in a state of on-going celebration, or carnival. The tourists are bringing lots of money and are enjoying the bargain prices for souvenirs. And the locals seem to be enjoying the influx of money and tourists. The most peculiar tourist attraction I saw was the city sewer, an engineering masterpiece, according to the promoters. I bought a ticket and walked-down some stone stairs to a "galley" on top of the flowing sewer-water. I could see the confluence of three main pipes of sewage. It smelled like an outhouse, but the sewer water looked fairly clean (and greenish).
It sometimes irks me that the biggest tourist attractions tend to be symbols of faith and force: cathedrals and palaces. Yet these monuments in Prague were well worth seeing, especially the Grand Palace.
John (Jan) Huss was an early historical figure who had contributed to protestant anti-Catholic sentiment before being burned at the stake for heresy. It was Huss who added the diacritics to the Czech alphabet. To counter the influence of Huss's martyrdom, the Catholic Church created a myth of a Catholic martyr who supposedly lived at the same time as Huss. Confusedly, this martyr is represented by human remains in two sites in churches near the Grand Palace. At one site, the remains are buried under a ton of silver. At the other site is a collection of human bones behind a glass case. This is the most tastefully arranged skeleton I have ever seen. The skull is placed in the centre, surrounded by the ribcage. The bones of the limbs are on each side in a very tidy and symmetrical pattern.
The Jewish cemetery in Prague has a certain renown because bodies had been buried on top of other bodies for many decades. The gravestones, however, were allowed to stand — resulting in a very dense thickets of gravestones.
My guidebook said that the National Museum at the top of Wenceslas Square wasn't worth wasting time in, but I personally found the taxidermy superior to any I have ever seen — partly because most of the figures were close together, were at ground level, and weren't in glass cases. I have never before stood so close to a stuffed rhinoceros, swordfish, do-do bird, etc. — and the effect was very impressive.
In an attempt to get another viewpoint on Prague, I rode the subway to the end of the line, to the Prague suburbs. What I saw is typical throughout cities of Eastern Europe (and even moreso in the former Soviet Union), namely: forests of huge and identical-looking apartment buildings. The only houses in or near cities are those that pre-date communist rule. In this sense, life in the communist countries of Eastern Europe was collectivized and quite uniform. Makeshift kiosks near the subway stations selling food and household items were symbols of the new spirit of enterprise.
Had I met libertarians, I might have gotten more insight into Czech politics and culture. Some Canadians who had lived there for several months told me that hatred is a standard emotion. The Czechs hate the Germans, the Russians, the Jews and the Slovaks. The Slovaks have almost the same list of hates, save for substituting Czechs in the place of Slovaks. I did not sense that the Czechs hated the Slovaks, but I did get a clear sense of the inevitability that the country would split in two. (Divorce has a way of making hatred unnecessary.)
I also sensed that the Bohemians may be very good prospects for cryonics at some future date, when they overcome their poverty. Only 30& 37; of the population has any interest in religion, and these are equally divided between Catholics and Protestants. Moreover, Czechoslovakia, and particularly Bohemia, was an industrial powerhouse of the Eastern Block. The Bohemians seem very naturally inclined towards engineering pursuits. My expectation was that the rest of the former Eastern Block would be at least as irreligious as Czechoslovakia, but I soon discovered this is not true.
I took an overnight train from Prague to Warsaw. I had arranged to stay with a family in Warsaw whom I had contacted through Mensa. But I ran into some immediate problems at the train station.
Polish currency has inflated at such a rapid rate that there are no coins left in circulation. None of the coin-operated cubicals for baggage storage could be used — bags are checked with a human attendant. The telephones are operated by tokens which are sold at post offices at the current going-rate. Even after I managed to buy some tokens, my attempt to phone my would-be hosts turned into a real struggle. I couldn't figure-out how the phones worked, and I doubted that many people spoke English. I observed several others making phone calls before I felt I know what I was doing — and even then, I was never sure that the phone I was using wasn't malfunctional (many phones obviously didn't work at all). I finally did manage to phone my hostess. She later told me that she usually has to call several times before making a connection — even from the phone in her apartment. This was verified in my own experiences with her phone.
Warsaw is not the tourist attraction that Prague is. (And visa requirements for entering Poland are more restrictive than is the case for Czechoslovakia). Hitler was determined to reduce Warsaw to rubble, and he did a pretty good job of it. Even the "old town" is a reconstruction, and there weren't many tourists there. Warsaw is dominated by the Palace of Culture and Science, a 30-storey concrete building which was a gift from Stalin to the Polish people (although it was built by Poles, as one Pole wryly pointed-out to me). Surrounding this building is the heart of the "new Warsaw" — a collection of huge quonset huts that serve as a shopping centre. The newness of a market economy to Poland seems reflected by the ramshackle buildings out of which many businesses are conducted. Nonetheless, on the ground floor of the Palace of Culture and Science itself can be found a rather new clothing boutique.
I arranged a meeting with a "libertarian" student completing a PhD in economics at the University of Warsaw, and also with the publisher of STANCZYK, reputedly "the oldest Polish journal edited by Polish defenders of laissez-faire capitalism". I was somewhat surprised how eager these men were to meet with me — and adjust their schedules. Nonetheless, the publisher of STANCZYK, Krzysztof Bakowski, told me he was very self-conscious about his poor English. On the phone he told me that trying to have a conversation with an English-speaking person made him "feel like nigger talking to white person". Many times in Eastern Europe I encountered this shame people had of their poor English — while no acknowledgement was made of my ignorance of their language.
We ended-up in Krzysztof's apartment, with the PhD student mostly acting as a translator. From the student I got the impression that his Economics Department is more like a western Business Department. I also found this to be the case in the Baltic countries, also. With the passing of Marxism, practical business has become far more important than macroeconomic theorizing.
I had seen advertisements for STANCZYK in FREEDOM NETWORK NEWS. Krzysztof said the ad had not been successful in generating interest or help from Westerners. He said, "libertarians don't help each other". Primarily, he was looking for financial support in the thousands of dollars. Since this was unlikely to be forthcoming, it seemed inevitable that he would be forced to cease publication. This is particularly ironic in light of the fact that for most of STANCZYK's publication history, the journal was outlawed and had to be distributed through clandestine networks.
Krzysztof said that the philosophy expressed in STANCZYK is both economic and political — with each being equally important. In economics, he favors complete laissez-faire capitalism — even to the point of money and banking being totally out of the hands of the state. In politics, however, he is fiercely anti-democratic. His view is that the masses will always vote for socialism and welfare, and that a free economy can only be achieved through dictatorship. Chile was his best model. I was a bit too stunned by his position to argue with him, but I did ask by what means a stable free-market dictatorship could be guaranteed. I didn't get a very satisfactory answer.
The student was more inclined to a pro-democracy position, but he made this known to me in a rather furtive fashion. Both men were convinced Roman Catholics, which I had not expected (particularly from "libertarians"). Roman Catholicism is so entrenched in Polish life that the Soviets made little attempt to stamp it out — in sharp contrast to the anti-religious campaigns which had periodically been conducted in the USSR.
The whole tenor of the meeting was such that I saw no point in raising the subject of cryonics. I did include some of my articles on cryonics with the copies of my essays on political economy, which I gave them. But I did so without comment.
The train from Warsaw, Poland to Vilnius, Lithuania passes through Byelorussia. My Russian visa (still a visa for the "USSR", despite the political changes) was only good for the month of July, so I was forced to fly from Warsaw to Vilnius.
I was very worried about my trip through the Baltics. I had written letters to the "Free Market Institutes" of Lithuania and Latvia, but got no response. Credit cards and traveler's cheques are not accepted in the Baltics, which forced me to take ample amounts of "hard currency" (ie, currency for which there is an exchange market, like Deutchmarks or Dollars). Given the stories I had heard about the desperation of the people, and the prevalence of robbery (especially on trains), this did not make me feel comfortable. Moreover, it would be impossible to wire money into those countries in an emergency. I had also heard that the trains did not run on time — with delays of two days or more being frequent. I expected that almost no-one would speak English, and I was not confident I could get-by on my poor Russian.
Except for a one-hour delay in Latvia, my fears proved to be unfounded. To my surprise, I was met at the Vilnius airport by a man named Wasyl Kapkan. The postcard I mailed in Stockholm had been received and passed-on to Wasyl, who agreed to be my guide and to let me sleep on the couch in his apartment. We rode buses to his apartment block, and he apologized for his humble living conditions as we walked-up the dirty, narrow stone stairway. His apartment was indeed small. Everything, in fact, seemed greatly miniaturized: the kitchen, the refrigerator, the toilet, the bath, etc. (Toilets are usually in separate rooms from the bathtub or sink in apartments of the former Soviet Union — presumably to allow others to wash or bathe independent of toilet use).
Almost immediately I found myself invited to two lunches. My first host was Algirdas Degutis, President of the Libertas Institute. By Lithuanian standards he seemed to be a fairly rich man. He had a new-looking (if small) car and he could afford to chain-smoke packaged cigarettes. He picked me up in his car and drove me to his apartment, where I had lunch with his family.
Degutis is a very well-known man in Lithuania. He was one of the founders of the Liberal Party and was influential during the break from the Soviet Union. Degutis translated THE ROAD TO SERFDOM into Lithuanian, and apparently this book was widely read. He also publishes a libertarian magazine in Lithuanian called THE SPECULATOR (the issue he gave me contained essays by Algirdas Degutis, Frederic Bastiat, John Williams and Tibor Machan, along with one-page excerpts from Ludwig von Mises, Murrey Rothbard and Herbert Spencer). He is a former philosophy professor, but he evidently knows a wealthy libertarian who subsidizes his libertarian pursuits — largely translation of libertarian economics books into Lithuanian. His personal library is impressive. As his views have gotten increasingly radical, Degutis has come to be disparaged by those in government. His most recent interests were David Friedman's THE MACHINERY OF FREEDOM and Ayn Rand.
I was quite surprised when Degutis told me he was a firm Roman Catholic. I asked him how he could reconcile the atheism of Rand's Objectivism with Roman Catholicism. He answered that he thought Objectivism and Roman Catholicism were not incompatible. (I didn't think to ask if he had read Thomas Aquinas.) Actually, all the libertarians I met in Lithuania proved to be Roman Catholic. Lithuania's Roman Catholicism comes from the country's historic connection with Poland. In this respect it is different from Latvia (which is more Germanic) and Estonia (which is more Scandinavian).
Despite his religious views, I raised the question of cryonics to Degutis. He demurred on the population problem, rather than on religious grounds. Since he is a libertarian, I was able to answer him within the framework of free market economic analysis. His commitment to reason was quite evident. When I left him, his view of cryonics was that of a puzzle remaining to be solved.
The host of my second lunch was an enterprising libertarian engineer who had started a business dealing with sound systems and acoustics. He was also active in the libertarian faction of the Liberal Party. After lunch, he and Wasyl gave me a tour of the points of historical interest in Vilnius, beginning with the TV station offices (across from the engineer's apartment block) where the Lithuanians had confronted Russian soldiers. I could see pockmarks from bullets on the walls of the building. We ran into a fellow on the street with whom my companions exchanged a few friendly words. This man had been in charge of Lithuanian counterintelligence against the KGB just after Lithuania achieved independence. The sense of closeness to central government in a small country is almost eerie.
Vilnius has a few noteworthy cathedrals and monuments, as well as an "Old Town", but I barely saw anyone I would call a tourist. Nor did I see much in the way of tourist amenities, like fast-food vendors or souvenir sellers.
I returned to an evening meal at the apartment of the engineer's family. This meal was exactly like lunch — bread, leaf lettuce, small unripe strawberries, greasy sausage slices, bits of cheese and some wine. In fact, my meal with Degutis had been much the same. Wasyl phoned Latvia to arrange for someone to meet me in Riga. The engineer's wife packed me a lunch for the next day. These people are so poor by western standards, and yet they kept trying to give me things and help me in any way that they could — and it was difficult to give them anything in return. The extremity of their hospitality was embarrassing.
At the train station in the morning, I finally met the student libertarian to whom I had sent my postcard, Andrius Buldygerovas. He had been on a camping party with 40 or so libertarian ("neo-liberal", they say) students. We got into a conversation about cryonics and the attraction it has for so many people who have admired Ayn Rand. I said it was probably because Rand is so pro-survival, pro-technology, life-affirming, pro-reason, and anti-mystical. Wasyl was evidently impressed, because he mentioned that he was nearly finished translating THE ROAD TO SERFDOM into Ukrainian, and he asked me to write an introduction for his edition. I protested that Degutis should write the introduction, but Wasyl kept pressuring me until I agreed — warning him that it might take months.
I took the train to Riga in a "first class" (by Soviet standards) railcar (at a cost of about US$1.20). I shared my compartment with three other people. One fellow owned a cheap-looking pocket calculator, but one might have thought it was a video game, judging by his fascination and the way he kept doing calculations. (He really seemed to be playing; I didn't see him taking figures from anywhere or writing down results.) I was very pleased to see that there was no smoking on this or any of the railcars I rode in the former USSR (it had been a very serious worry of mine).
I was met at the Riga train station in the late afternoon by a middle-aged woman who did volunteer work for the Latvian Liberal Party. Professionally, she was a teacher of geological engineering at a Riga Technical School. She gave me her business card. (Every "libertarian" I had met in Poland and Lithuania had given me business cards — including Wasyl, whose card was hand-printed). Her English was not very good and she seemed almost non-ideological, aside from her desire to see the Russians get out of Latvia.
She did give me an excellent tour of Riga. The thing I found politically the most impactful was the fact that anti-tank barricades remained standing around government buildings — a sign that Latvians will not rest easy while Russian soldiers are still in their country. My hostess's mother made us an evening meal. I might have felt guilty had it not been so clear that my hostess was enjoying my company. My train for Estonia was scheduled to leave at 11 pm, but when it was delayed an hour, she insisted on remaining with me until midnight. She encouraged me to visit Riga again — for longer than 8 hours, next time.
I rode the overnight train to Tallinn, and was met the next morning at the train station by an Estonian 17-year-old boy named Juri, with whom I had been corresponding for 6 months. He is both a libertarian (although his knowledge is limited) and a Mensan (one of the 3 Mensans in the whole of Estonia). He is fluent in Russian, English and Estonian. Since his school year had just ended, he was happy to be able to be my full-time companion for two days.
Upon arriving in a new country, one of the first problems that must be dealt with is obtaining the local currency. This proved to be more difficult than usual because: (1) I had arrived two hours before the currency exchange office opened and (2) the Estonian government had converted from Roubles to Kroons on the previous week, and the availability of Kroons was still a problem. In front of the train station's closed currency-exchange office there were quite a few currency traders (most of whom were from Russia or the Caucasus). Naturally, they charged an exchange rate which was more costly than the office. I asked Juri to talk to several traders in order to get the best rate. All the traders quoted the same rate except one, who offered a slightly lower rate. Before a transaction could be performed, however, another trader started yelling, and informed a "boss" who came-over and chewed-out the deviant trader. The deviant trader's rate immediately came in line with the standard one. I traded currency with a dealer who had not been involved in this commotion (at the standard rate, of course). When I later teased Juri that he should go into the currency business, he replied that he would get beat-up if he did.
Juri located a hotel for me which was decent, and yet cost only $8 per night. He then proceeded to show me around Tallinn. Tallinn is swarming with tourists, in contrast to Lithuania and Latvia. Estonian language is very close to Finnish and, with Helsinki just a short boat-ride across the Gulf of Finland, there is a constant influx of Finns who are seeking inexpensive entertainment. Estonians are also influenced by Finnish television. Although Estonia is still a very poor country by Western standards, it is noticeably richer than Lithuania. And there is much more commercial activity on the streets.
Estonia is larger than Switzerland, yet it only has a population of 1.6 million, less than half the population of Lithuania. In Lithuania only 20% of the population is Russian, whereas nearly a third of the residents of Estonia are Russian. Juri said he could speak Russian from the time he was 7 years old, and his fluency was evident from his conversations with Russian-speakers. Juri denied claims by the Russian Government that Russians are a persecuted minority in Estonia. He thinks that any Russian who truly wants to be an Estonian citizen should be willing to fulfill the new requirement of fluency in Estonian language. He says that most Russians simply refuse to learn Estonian.
While we were in an Estonian natural history museum, I asked Juri about the two large Estonian islands between the Gulf of Riga and the Baltic Sea. Juri said that even he would be unable to visit those islands without a personal invitation from a resident. Concerning the low population density of Estonia, he told me that any Estonian citizen can have a piece of farmland simply by making a request to the Estonian Government. Most Estonians living in Tallinn just aren't interested.
Juri and I were on a hilltop overlooking Tallinn when we were approached by a man who said he was relieved to hear a language he could understand: English. The fellow was a Swede from Stockholm who had just attended a science fiction convention in Lithuania. He was very impressed to hear that I had been at Worldcon in Chicago. His major ambition is to organize an all-Baltic science fiction convention (which would necessarily be in English — the international language). Professionally, he is a journalist for computer magazines. He also runs the science fiction BBS out of Stockholm. Remembering that Henrik was interested in starting a libertarian BBS in Stockholm, I obtained contact information.
We ended-up exchanging E-mail addresses. (When I returned to Canada I received his E-mail description of the Lithuanian SF convention). For good measure, I gave him a spiel about cryonics and handed-him some literature. Although he showed an interest in cryonics, it seemed limited to the entertainment value of novel ideas.
I struggled to make contact with libertarians in Tallinn, but had a very hard time making connections. One Estonian student libertarian was doing graduate work in Sweden. He did not think that Estonia was ready for libertarian ideas because the country is so concerned with Constitutional issues and relations with other nations (particularly Russia).
I phoned Roger Wessman (the ISIL representative for Finland) with the hope of finding English-speaking libertarian contacts in St. Petersburg and Tallinn. Roger was planning to organize the 1993 ISIL conference in Estonia, but he had no contacts in Russia and could only give me the names of a couple of Estonians. One of those Estonians was a young banker, who was helping Roger organize the conference. I arranged for the banker to have dinner with Juri and me.
Even the restaurants in Tallinn are still owned by the government, although the one we selected did have fine food. The banker was an enterprising young man who works 16-hour days to help establish an Estonian commercial bank. I asked him about the International Monetary Fund (IMF) involvement with the new Estonian currency. Evidently there was no direct involvement at the beginning — the Kroon was being backed entirely by Estonian Government reserves of "hard currencies" (especially Deutchmarks and Dollars). The IMF nonetheless was planning future involvement, and was demanding that the Estonian Government raise taxes — something vigorously opposed by a coalition of the Liberal and Conservative Parties.
The banker invited us to go to his office so that he could try to find libertarian contacts for me in Russia. I paid for the excellent dinner for the three of us (including a tip for the waiter) with an amount approximately equal to five dollars. Considering that the food was so good, I was curious that the restaurant looked so empty. The banker told me that the front door was usually closed, and that it was only an accident that it was open when we arrived. Perhaps the employees of state-run restaurants aren't so eager for business.
From his office, the banker managed to phone a journalist in St. Petersburg who could possibly help in locating libertarians in that city. The journalist couldn't understand why anyone would want to meet such people, but I was supplied with the address and phone number of the Free Democratic Party of Russia.
In the course of Juri showing me around Tallinn, I took many opportunities to indoctrinate him with cryonics ideas. He is a top student in school in all subjects, including science, so he had no difficulty understanding. Estonians are essentially Scandinavian, so religion tends to be of little interest to them. Nonetheless, I saw no evidence that cryonics kindled any fire in Juri. His youth and the expense of cryonics (most Estonians earn less than $50 per month) probably made it seem pretty remote.
I took a nighttrain to St. Petersburg. The total cost of my train fares from Vilnius to Riga to Tallinn to St. Petersburg amounted to less than $5. That may even include the 25 cents I had to pay for bedding. Predictably, I was awakened in the night when we crossed the border into Russia. Unpredictably, however, the inspectors were only interested in my passport and visa — they didn't even look at my suitcase or backpack. I later learned that Russian customs officers at the St. Petersburg airport are as diligent as ever.
When I arrived in St. Petersburg, I took a taxi directly to the centre where my APL computer-language conference was being held. This conference was sponsored by the Association of Computing Machinery (the ACM, with headquarters in New York City). It was the first conference ACM had ever sponsored in the former Soviet Union, and may well have been the first privately sponsored scientific conference in the region for many decades. I had also heard that fear of distribution of written material through diskettes and PC printers had stifled PC entry into the USSR for many years. (IBM opened an office in Moscow in 1974, but it was closed during the Afghanistan War. It was 1989 before IBM began marketing again in Russia.)
I had arrived early so that I could explore St. Petersburg before the conference started. The conference co-ordinator asked me if I wanted the services of a translator at the cost of US$20 for 8 hours, plus $5 to the agency. I accepted this offer, and was introduced to a fellow named Ivan, who was fluent in Russian, English, French and Spanish. Ivan was also a historian, with particular expertise in the history of St. Petersburg — as was obvious by the way he could rattle-off dates and expound at length about almost every monument, cathedral or mansion we passed. $20 seems like a bargain, but in light of the fact that the average Russian doesn't earn much more than $20 per month, Ivan was being richly paid.
St. Petersburg was named after the Russian Czar Peter the Great, who conquered the land from the Swedes and built the new Russian capital (moved from Moscow) on the eastern tip of the Gulf of Finland. Peter wanted to bring Europe to Russia and to include Russia in Europe. Early in World War I the city's name was changed to Petrograd, to make it less Germanic and more Russian. After the communist revolution, the capital was moved back to Moscow, so as to be further from Germany and the frontlines of the war. When Lenin died in 1924, Petrograd was renamed Leningrad — a name it retained until October 1991, when it once again became St. Petersburg. The vast majority of the inhabitants felt that Lenin had blighted the country with years of oppression and economic stagnation — and that Lenin's name is unfit for their fine city of 5 million souls.
For over 30 years following World War II, there was almost no inflation. A ride on the Moscow or Leningrad subway cost 5 Kopeks (0.05 Roubles). Most workers had the same salary for 30 years. Then a few years ago, the artificially crafted stable (but poor) communist economy began to crack. Prices have moved more towards reality, but only in a very qualified way. With almost everything still owned by the state, it is difficult for prices to reach a "true market level" (as Ludwig von Mises so trenchantly demonstrated in his famous essay "Economic Calculation in a Socialist Commonwealth"). Oblivious to the rampant inflation, the Russian State Banks continue to pay 5% interest on deposits, as they have for decades.
A subway ride in St. Petersburg cost one Rouble when I was there, and a telephone call cost 15 Kopeks. Making a telephone call was not easy, because I couldn't find anything that cost less than a Rouble, and no one had change. Ivan had a source for change that he wouldn't tell me about, although he did sell me coins for the pay phones. I bought US$125 worth of Roubles at a rate of 105 Roubles to the US Dollar (although I later heard I could have gotten 125 on the street). This was more than enough to last me for 3 weeks.
Although there is still negligible privatization for large enterprises, on the individual level there is enterprising almost everywhere in St. Petersburg. Outside of every subway stop there are rows and rows of kiosks, and people are selling things on the pavement, on tables, etc. On Nevsky Prospekt (the main drag) near the Big Department Store, the sidewalk merchandising reaches a fever pitch. Against both sides of the sidewalks, people stand side-by-side with the most ridiculous items in their hands, offered for sale: high-heel shoes, kittens, blood pressure kits, etc. Bananas from boxes piled on the sidewalk are a very popular item to sell in St. Petersburg. Bananas are cheaper in the government stores, but they are frequently unavailable. Bananas are a fruit I was not afraid to buy — nature's packaging guarantees sanitation.
A serious problem for tourists in St. Petersburg is the fact that the drinking water is infected with the Giardia lamblia parasitic amoeba — which can cause serious illness and diarrhea. The residents know to boil water before they consume it — and tea-drinking is common. I was even reluctant to wash vegetables, but many locals don't worry about that for some reason. Since I do not like drinking sugary soft-drinks or alcoholic beverages, my search for mineral water took on an almost desperate quality. I tried tonic water, but I am not keen on quinine. Ivan and I finally did find some mineral water, but it was somewhat brownish-looking (common for local mineral water, I am told). Nonetheless, I bought about six bottles and poured their contents into a large plastic bottle I carried in my backpack.
Peter the Great had an interest in science and life which has rarely been seen in those with political power. He tried his hand at many crafts, including shipbuilding, architecture and dentistry (sometimes extracting perfectly good teeth from the mouths of his servants). Peter's great power gave free reign for his interests to go beyond the bounds of good taste. He applied his interest in scientific torture techniques to his own son, who died thereby in the Peter and Paul Fortress.
I visited the Anthropology Museum which Peter commissioned in 1718 to contain his "collection of curiosities". I saw a skeleton of a calf with two heads and one hip — as well as other artifacts of siamese twins. The jars of deformed foetus' were remarkable not only for their oddities (cyclops eye, face fused into a single orifice, etc.), but for the degree of preservation. It is a little-known fact among cryonicists that Peter was one of the first people to take a serious interest in neuropreservation — he once presented his wife with the preserved head of one of her lovers.
I wanted to get some materials which could help me learn Russian, so Ivan took me to the largest bookstore in St. Petersburg (located in a building built by the Singer Sewing Machine Company at the turn-of-the-century). Bookselling is a very popular private merchandising activity, so tables loaded with books are seen on sidewalks, outside of subway stations and around the railway stations. The Russians are probably more avid readers than North Americans, on average.
We also went to the largest distributer of cassette tapes and video recordings. I had Ivan select recordings of popular Russian music for me. It was possible to obtain Russian-dubbed videos of almost any popular American movie. I selected BLADERUNNER, STAR TREK, and many others. I had to wait a week for my order to be filled. I was slow to realize that these films were all being copied illegally (completely ignoring the FBI warning) by a business that was being run by the Russian government.
I made my way to the office of the Free Democratic Party of Russia. Only one person (a guy named William) spoke English, so I talked with him. (Despite the fact that Ivan was with me, I don't like the idea of trying to discuss politics, economics or philosophy through a translator who doesn't share my opinions). I asked William what books his views were based upon, and he said there were no books. I asked him if he knew of libertarians in St. Petersburg who spoke English, and he said he know of no others. He affirmed his support for a free market, and said that privatization had not even really begun in Russia. William said that his Party was in contact with ISIL and the Republican Party in the United States (which struck me as an odd combination). He said that his Party currently had 2,500 members (mostly in St. Petersburg), and 3 seats in the Russian Parliament (out of about 1,000).
William gave me some pamphlets (written in Russian) on his Party's principles. He wrote his name, address and phone number on the front cover. I, in turn, gave him several copies of my essays, a copy of the latest issue of LIBERTY magazine, and a copy of ATLAS SHRUGGED. I mentioned that Ayn Rand had been born in St. Petersburg, and had influenced contemporary libertarianism more than any other person.
After paying Ivan, I returned to my room to make my final attempt at making local contacts. Many months earlier I had placed an ad in the international Mensa journal asking for correspondents who were interested in physical immortality through scientific rather than spiritual means. I got about ten replies, one from a Russian living in Massachusetts named Sasha. Sasha expressed delight at seeing my ad, and said he had discussed the matter with various Russian and American groups. I was very enthused, and wrote him repeatedly asking for information on Russians interested in using science to eliminate death. When he failed to answer my letters, I tried calling the phone number he had given, but I kept reaching a business which denied having the number I called. Finally, I tried Directory Assistance, and discovered that one of the digits had been incorrect, and that the incorrect number had a call-forwarding service.
Sasha turned-out to be from St. Petersburg. He said he could not directly give me contact information for Russian scientific immortalists, but he said he had discussed the matter in E-mail and that Vladmir, his networking friend living in St. Petersburg, could help me. But he did not even have Vladmir's number, so he had to give me the number of a woman named Sveta, who would know how to reach his friend.
Upon reaching St. Petersburg I phoned several times. When I did reach her, her English was not so good and I had to try to communicate with a mixture of simple English and Russian words. She knew Vladmir, but had to try to locate him. Sveta did eventually find Vladmir's number, and happened to reach me while I was still hotel. But when I phoned Vladmir, he was out of town. His girlfriend gave me the number of another networking expert, a fellow named Valentin Yemelin.
I phoned Valentin and he seemed willing and eager to help me contact any type of person I might be interested in. Nonetheless, he knew of no one interested in immortalism through science, adding that he was more interested in the religious aspect. I tried to find out if there were any life-extensionists in St. Petersburg at all, and he gave me the phone number of a gerontologist who was studying the social problems of the elderly. (I later phoned the gerontologist, who wasn't able to help me find any one interested in anti-aging research.) I asked if there were any science fiction clubs in St. Petersburg, and he said "no". Nor could he help me find libertarians. In desperation, I told him I knew people who would pay good money for a burial site in Siberia. He said he would look into the matter.
Later in the week, I contacted Vladmir, who denied ever having heard of people interested in scientific immortalism. He supplied me with the numbers of a few people he claimed were interested in free market economics, but they all turned-out out to be more interested in doing business, with little knowledge of economic theory. Vladmir was eager to help me get in contact with people who shared my computer interests, but when I tried to talk with him about scientific immortalism, he was completely disinterested. He said "the sausage problem" (getting enough to eat) was what people were concerned about. I found it ironic that he would raise the sausage problem to squelch discussion of cryonics, but still seemed interested in discussing any other impractical idea.
Once the APL computer conference began, I could have almost forgotten what country I was in. Russian participation in the conference was less than I had expected. Many of the Russian APLers spoke no English, quite problematic since all of the sessions are held in English. Speaking to a few of the Russians, however, I came to appreciate that virtually all Russian software is pirated. This is probably understandable given the fact that for many years the United States tried to prevent computer technology from entering the USSR — and that the Russians couldn't afford to pay for it anyway.
Most of the conference involved computer ideas which I will not describe. Nonetheless, there were a couple of plenary sessions which were of general interest. One was by an expert in economic planning, who was now using his APL libraries to construct models. I got the distinct impression that he really thought a market economy was simply a different kind of planned economy — with supply and demand curves. He cautioned against the danger that was posed by instability in Russia. During the question-and-answer period I asked him if he was talking about political instability or, if not, what criteria he has for determining that economic instability exists. He didn't give me a straight answer. I got a very strong message, during my stay in Russia, that the great majority of people hate communism and crave a market economy. Equally strong, however, was my impression that hardly anyone had the least idea of what a market economy is.
Another plenary speaker had been working for the KGB for many years in the field of cryptography and cryptoanalysis. He emphasized that the KGB was not simply a team of spies & torturers, and that he was glad he could now speak openly about his scientific work. He said that "the enemy" had been richer, and used expensive equipment, whereas the Soviets had been forced to use their minds. During the question-and-answer period I asked if he was familiar with the work of Ralph Merkle. After I was asked to repeat Ralph's name, the speaker said he had not heard of this scientist. Someone in the audience speculated that KGB workers were only permitted to know Merkle by a code-name. Another questioner asked if cryptoanalysis could be used to decipher how the brain works. The speaker liked the idea and asked the questioner if he was interested in co-operating with the KGB.
On the second evening of the conference, there was a cruise in the Gulf of Finland which ended with a reception on the Kronstadt Naval Base. Only a year earlier the base had been off-limits to non-military people. The conference delegates traveled to the hovercraft, and directly back from Kronstadt, aboard a convoy of buses that were led and followed by police cars with flashing lights and screaming sirens. One delegate commented that the Russians seemed less concerned about photography on Kronstadt than the American military would be at an American naval base. A few of the delegates were led to a carefully-locked room containing PCs which had evidently never been used — and took delight in installing APL software.
During the reception I spoke to a delegate who was from Japan. One of the APL applications he supported was a system which controlled the cooling of ice cream in such a way as to prevent crystallization. The cryonics implications did not escape me, but I didn't really think he knew anything that cryonicists interested in cryobiology don't already know. He expressed his concern about Japanese being Westernized. He said that Japanese people do not look directly into the eyes of a person, especially a stranger, unless to convey anger or love. This gave me a new perspective on his shy, furtive gaze — and made me self-conscious of looking him squarely in the eyes.
I went directly from the APL conference to a conference on computer education held on a cruise ship. During this conference, the boat went up the Neva River to Lake Ladoga (the largest lake in Europe) and Lake Onega. As with education about education everywhere, much of the conference was a bloody bore, and I took the opportunity to catch-up on some rest. Most of the Russians were from the Moscow Institute of New Technologies, and quite a few of those were writing software packages for use in education, which I did find interesting.
At one stop, I had the opportunity to explore a small Russian village. Another stop was on Kizhi Island, with its famous wooden architecture. In particular, the Church of the Transfiguration, constructed entirely of wood, is both spectacular and humble. Its many onion-shaped cupulas have a striking silvery appearance due to the use of aspen. The Russians were experimenting with methods to preserve these wooden masterpieces by chemical means, and I was disappointed to hear my computer-colleagues disparage "artificial chemicals" in favor of "natural methods".
We were given the opportunity to view Kizhi in an old-looking Russian helicopter. This would certainly be cause for concern because I was a long way from an Alcor suspension team, and was very likely the only cryonicist in the entire former USSR. Based partly on my understanding that helicopters can land safely if the engine fails, I took the chance (knowing that in an eternity, the accumulation of such chances will decidedly be fatal, eventually). Ten of us paid US$5 each for a 20-minute helicopter tour of the island. After the trip, the pilot tried to sell us his watch.
The Valaam Islands were also of interest for their historic monasteries (used as hospitals after World War II). The buildings were being given back to the church, but the number of TV antennas still greatly exceeded the number of crosses. Women entering the cathedral were supposed to cover their hair with scarfs and wear long skirts, but our irreverent group wore baseball caps and jackets with the arms tied around their waists. A suggestion was made that the women claim to be men and defy the monks to check. The cathedral inspired as much reverence as a construction zone — there was lumber and scaffolding everywhere.
I learned that the Orthodox Church places a greater emphasis on the preservation of human remains than most other religions. The soul supposedly does not depart the body until 45 days after clinical death. Easter celebration includes visiting the remains of one's ancestors. Under communism, however, burial plots near cities have been recycled every 18 years, and cremation became common.
I had intended to discuss cryonics with some of the Russians, but most of them didn't speak much English and they tended to stick together. I still thought that the materialism and technophilia of these Russians might provide grounds for interest, and I became increasingly impatient with my laziness as the conference wore on. To lead into the conversation, I asked an apparently intelligent mathematician if he believed in God. He did, as he thought any "thinking person" must, but he was quick to emphasize that it was not the God of any organized religion.
Later, at the ship's bar-and-party room, I was approached by a Russian who had written software that allowed high school students to graphically construct and manipulate chemical models. He said that I was the only person who had every shown him errors in his software, and he asked if I am a chemist. After answering his question, I took the opportunity to ask him if he believes in God. He too said that he did, but not in the God of any organized religion. When I asked him what percentage of Russians believe in God, he estimated only 10& 37;. But to his surprise, when he started polling his Russian computer compatriots, they almost invariable gave the same answer he had given. I probably should have experimented with the subject of cryonics anyway, but my opportunities were limited.
I had made arrangements for Ivan, my translator, to find me an inexpensive place to stay in St. Petersburg after my return from the boat cruise. This turned-out to be a flat belonging to the daughter of a woman living in Ivan's apartment building. The daughter was away, and I had to promise I would respect her possessions and not make international phone calls. The flat had all the amenities: bed, TV, telephone, toilet, bath, kitchen and refrigerator. For this I paid $10 for two days. Considering that Ivan paid $2 per month for rent, I could see that the transaction was mutually advantageous. (A hotel room in St. Petersburg is typically at least $60 per night — for foreigners.) As with my room in the conference centre on the other side of town, hot/warm water was sometimes available, sometimes not — for no apparent reason. You could always tell the warm water from the cold water — the warm water was brown.
The doors to my apartment provided another insight into St. Petersburg life: there was an outside door and an inside door — both heavy and lockable (there were 3 locks). Police service is terrible in the erstwhile police state. If an apartment is broken-into, the police merely record the matter in their books. Ivan said that apartments only tend to get broken-into by people who have reason to believe that there is something valuable inside.
With the police being so weak in Russia, a powerful Mafia has arisen. It would be nice to think that with the decline of the Soviet state, freedom and enterprise would prevail. But a host of extortionists and protection rackets seem to have emerged, exercising control over anyone who ventures to engage in any kind of business. I went with Ivan to some Kolkhoz markets — which have more fruits and vegetables than can be found elsewhere. Ivan told me these markets are controlled by a Mafia of Georgians, and others from the Caucasus. When I asked him why the Caucasians have such power, he replied it is because they are more ruthless and uncivilized.
Ivan told me that there are many "Mafias" in Russia, and these have no direct connection with the Sicilian Mafia. This was my expectation. However, a woman from Moscow told me that the KGB had a long history of paying the American and Sicilian Mafia for dirty work — and that the old KGB/Mafia alliance has central power over much of Russia's Mafia.
I made a serious effort to see some museums. The museum situation is in a state of flux — there had been many communist museums in the city, yet I was unable to find one. The Lenin Museum had been located in the Marble Palace, but this building was being given to the Russian Museum to display Russian paintings. St. Isaac's Cathedral had been returned to the Church, which promptly removed the Foucault Pendulum which had been swinging from the inner dome to the floor for the last several decades.
The Museum of Religion and Atheism had also been given back to the Church, and is now (as it was before the Revolution), the Kazan Cathedral. There were still Christian works of art on display, but many sections were roped-off. The glass cases containing torture implements of the Inquisition were empty, and the artifacts of other religions and superstitions were likewise gone.
Nonetheless, the Chesma Church was still a Museum of Naval Warfare, and St. Nicholas' Church still contained the Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic. The loss of this latter museum would be a particular tragedy, because it is unique in the world (and of particular merit for those interested in permafrost).
The Museum of the October Revolution had been converted into a wax museum of terrorists, revolutionists and reformists. As with practically all museums we visited, there was one entrance rate for Russians and another rate for tourists. I paid 15 Roubles for Ivan and 100 Roubles for myself. Lenin was portrayed as but one among many terrorists, although the bitterness that was expressed towards him in particular was very great. The museum-guide even had unkind words for the wax figure of Brezhnev, saying that he had not earned many of the military decorations he loved to wear.
I was very eager to visit the Zoological Museum, since it contains the taxidermied remains of the world's best-preserved mammoth (44,000 years old, removed from the Yakutia permafrost in 1901), but the museum was closed for at least three months. I even found that large sections of the Hermitage Museum were closed-off. Nonetheless, the Hermitage still has a lot to look at. I was enraptured by the Malachite Hall — the hard beauty of Russian bright green malachite "marble" ornaments is truly spectacular.
I had a strong urge to visit Piskarov Memorial Cemetery, where nearly half a million people were buried during the 900-day siege of Leningrad in World War II — including the parents of Ayn Rand. Ivan persisted in his attempts to talk me out of going, saying there is nothing to see there. But I would not be stopped. It was somewhat difficult to reach by bus, but I noticed that people in St. Petersburg frequently stand on the curb and extend their arms as an invitation for anyone driving-by to do become an impromptu taxi-driver. I encouraged Ivan to do this, and we soon got a ride. I let Ivan do the talking, because otherwise it might have cost me a lot more than 25 cents.
Death is gruesome at any time, particularly the kind of impersonal horror that so often accompanies war. As for the Siege of Leningrad, I can only quote a first-hand account: "The cemeteries and their approaches were piled with frozen, snow-covered corpses. Nobody had the strength to dig the frozen ground. The local air defense groups resorted to blasting great pits in the ground and into such spacious graves they lowered dozens, at times even hundreds, of bodies without knowing their names. Let the dead forgive the living, for at that desperate time they were unable to fulfill their duty to the end, even though the deceased were worthy of far better burial rites in the tribute to their honest working lives."
The cemetery consists of rows and rows of mounds, which cover vast pits into which bodies were thrown. The mounds are only designated by number and year. A granite wall bears the inscription: "No one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten." I have tried to understand why I was so strongly drawn to this. Perhaps I am so sick of indifference toward death that my cryonicist's soul hungers to hear such profound pledges that death will not be the end (although I think the "dead" may often deserve more than "better burial rites"). Perhaps even the atheistic ideology of communism added to the acuity of the loss through death.
For Ivan, being in the cemetery was just depressing. He blamed Stalin for trusting Hitler to honor their pact. And he blamed Stalin for letting Leningrad be so vulnerable to Hitler's attack. Ivan had not been to this cemetery for a long time, and he found it bitterly ironic to see the Russian flag flying. In this one case he would have preferred a Soviet flag — to keep the responsibility for this colossal tragedy where it belongs.
With Ivan as my companion for so many hours, I found it difficult not to talk about cryonics with him. Even if he had been interested (he wasn't), there is no such thing as life insurance in Russia (who needed it in a womb-to-tomb society?), so it would have been difficult to finance. The idea of cryonics reminded Ivan of a 1970s Russian movie called "The Escape of Mr. McKinley". The setting for the movie was the United States, where people do such fooling things as freezing bodies. Mr. McKinley was an employee in a facility which had perfected suspended animation, although it had no connection with medicine or anti-aging. Rich people froze themselves so they could see the future. Mr. McKinley was too poor to afford the process, but he contrived a means to freeze himself when no-one else was looking. He awoke two hundred years in the future to discover that the whole earth was a desert of toxic waste in which humans eked-out a a miserable existence.
Aside from my touring with Ivan, I did a fair amount of exploring of St. Petersburg on my own. I saw many parks, palaces and monuments which I will not describe. In the Tikhvin cemetery I saw the "bouquet" of closely arranged tombstones of the composers Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. I also saw the tombs of Euler and Dostoyevsky. I find it peculiar the way deathists go to so much trouble to frame and honor human remains as a means of tribute.
For some silly reason I tried to find the exact spot where Rasputin had been thrown into the Moyka Canal. The communists despised Rasputin, so it is unlikely they would honor him with a plaque. But the aspiring immortalist within me was charmed by the way all plots to kill him had failed. Finally, he was invited to a dinner party at which conspirators tried to poison him. When the poison failed to work, someone pulled a gun and started shooting. Rasputin was hit, but he ran from the palace and was chased while they continued to shoot him. He was captured, beaten senseless and stabbed (I think), and stuffed under the ice in the Moyka. When his body was recovered downstream, the autopsy revealed drowning to be the cause of death — despite the many bullets in him.
I enjoyed going into shops of all kinds, just to look. For 89 Roubles I purchased two 1-foot diameter rounds of dark bread, five long loaves of white bread and ten bagels. I was constantly buying the thick and delicious Russian ice cream bars that sold for 12 to 15 Roubles. I bought a litre of kefir from the back of an army truck for the equivalent of ten cents. In one kiosk, outside a subway, I discovered large bottles of Sparkling Water from Clear Lake, Alberta. That was my water connection, and I would gladly spend an hour in transport just to stock-up on drinkable water.
Not long after my return from the boat cruise, I phoned Valentin Yemelin to see if he had made any progress on burial locations in the Siberian permafrost. To my delight, he had discussed the matter with people in Yakutsk who were very favorable to the idea. I made an appointment to meet him in person.
Valentin, it turns out, has a PhD in chemistry, and has spent many years as a research scientist, until the current economic crisis drove him out of that work. Because of his fluent English, his computer skills and his networking ability, he started a travel agency. Tourists traveling to Russia no longer need to be under the wing of the state Intourist agency. Valentin can arrange for invitations and provide complete custom-made itineraries in Russia (including food, accommodations, travel and a translator-companion) for US$50 per day. Moreover, his connections make him very well-positioned to arrange permafrost burials in Siberia.
Valentin's wife had been a chemical engineer, but she earned a Master's Degree in the psychology of religion and was currently studying in Israel. Valentin said that Russians are undergoing a grave spiritual crisis. After years of economic security guaranteed by the government, people are facing economic insecurity.
Human mortality was a serious issue for Valentin, and he was intrigued by the "materialist" approach as well as the religious. He hadn't settled on any religious explanation, but was just exploring ideas. I explained the entire cryonics proposal in great detail to him. As a chemist, he could understand the issues of free-radical damage, DNA repair, cell repair, cryoprotectants, nanotechnology, etc. He was apparently quite health conscious, because he passed his water through a carbon filter and boiled it before he would drink it.
Valentin was very pained by the troubles his scientific colleagues were suffering in the current economic upheaval. Many fine scientists are no longer able to work, and can do nothing else. Valentin has a database of scientists who would gladly work for $100 per month in their own laboratories (supplemented by Western equipment, if necessary). I told him I know of people who might want the services of cryobiologists. He was most eager to market the services of computer scientists. I told him I would mention him in publication so here is his name, address and phone number: Valentin Yemelin; 22 Grivtsov Lane, Apt.26; St. Petersburg 190031, Russia — telephone (812) 310-9186.
I left Russia by the same railroad station where Lenin made his famous entry — Finland Station. Many of Lenin's statues have fallen, but the one in front of Finland Station still stands. The Finnish railway cars were by far the most beautiful and modern-looking I have ever seen. I almost think they were purposely so expensive, so as to stand in stark contrast to the dirty, drab poverty of the Russians. And the Finnish customs inspector went through all my baggage with very great care.
In Helsinki, I was feeling somewhat anti-climactic, and yet relieved that much of the stress of my trip was over. Being able to walk into an air-conditioned Western self-serve supermarket again was ecstasy, and I could hardly restrain myself from buying much more than I needed. I hadn't seen a fresh orange in weeks, and all the fruit and vegetables looked wonderful. The strawberries and tomatoes were by far superior to the Russian ones.
Taking the lazy-person's approach to tourism, I saw Helsinki on a city-tour bus. In Helsinki are the largest ferries in the world; they are so enormous and high above the water that it is hard to believe they actually are floating. Coming from Russia (where things are ridiculously cheap) to Finland (where things are ridiculously expensive) was a shock. I bought two paperback books (marked on the back to total eleven British pounds) for $50. Roger Wessman, the ISIL representative for Finland, told me that Helsinki is the place to find the fine Russian restaurants that would have existed in St. Petersburg had there been no Revolution. I treated Roger to a meal in a "moderately" priced Russian restaurant, only to discover it cost me $150.
Roger is working on his PhD in Economics. He has a background in Objectivism, but thinks Ayn Rand would disapprove of him because he reads science fiction. I made a pitch about cryonics to him. He found it all quite reasonable and was interested, but not excited. He is young, and seems to feel that it is premature to concern himself too much with death.
I flew from Helsinki back to Toronto, via Zurich. It is difficult
to sum-up a trip like this. But perhaps I have provided enough detail for
my readers to do it. What surprises me the most is that I have left so
much out of this description. It hardly seems possible that I could have
done so much in five weeks.