The following is a letter I wrote to a friend while on a weeklong spree in Europe. Hard to understand now how I got all this in: fly from San Antonio to Frankfurt, fast train to west-ish Berlin, find my way to east-ish Berlin, then slow train across Poland to Grodno, or Hrodna as it may or may not be known now. The letter has to do with an unannounced visit I made to the Biochemistry Institute there. I went because my dissertation work had been on a subject only two other labs in the world - this one, and one in Japan - were looking at. Spent, as will be seen, a couple of very stimulating days (the letter bears two dates, as I wrote as if for a diary) on the banks of the icy Neman River; then taxi to Bialystok, train to Warsaw, another train to Frankfurt, and airplane back home. Where, yes, I did beat the letter.

One always strives to write period pieces, but one doesn't know until much much later whether he succeeded. I think I did here. The U.S.S.R., Producer Of More Raw Material Than It Ever Knew.


Doctor ________,

Well, I'm glad I'm a Ph.D., because if I weren't, I'd never figure out Belarussian money. I'm used to the routine of dropping 3 (or 6) zeroes, as is commonly practiced in certain Latin American countries which will remain nameless; but here, they add one zero to whatever's printed on the currency. The fact that prices don't make much sense further confounds me. A can of beer seems to cost two orders of magnitude more than a loaf of bread.

I still haven't done the thing I came to do, namely see if Red scientists use busted centrifuges to keep the vodka cold; I'll see about that tomorrow. But I have probably already done the most important thing, which was simply cross the border. Ex-Soviets have done everything except read my passport upside-down.

[Hold your horses: I just saw people doing the Twist, on TV, in a Russian movie evidently made in the early '60's.]

Now what was I saying. This flick* is very distracting. Oh yeah: ex-Soviet lands are exceptional in that their frontiers really do say important things about what's inside. They're so suspicious, but they let you in anyway, because if they didn't, they'd have nothing.

"It says, 'This guy's country invented disco, so be nice to him.' Now would you stamp the damned thing and step aside?"


Do my eyes deceive me, or is that really a skull and crossbones on the label of Russkaya Vodka?

And what, exactly, are Heroes of the Soviet Union and invalids from the Fatherland War exempt from paying in markets?

And what was the nature of that vague gripe about Turkmen I read at the top of page 1 of Komsomolskaya Pravda, while riding in a cab to the Biochemical Institute?

It'll all have to wait, if indeed I ever get back to it, which I probably won't, since I'm leaving tomorrow, having pretty much accomplished my mission today, which was *gasp* to visit the Biochemical Institute. No, the centrifuges are not just derelict iceboxes; I know because I looked inside 'em. But how - how better - to describe this outfit? Maybe a list....

  1. Everybody has lots of gold teeth.
  2. I saw one framed portrait of Karl Marx.
  3. Sigma and Aldrich catalogues everywhere; there was even one of the latter in the apartment of the guy who answered my letter. Why does that make me wish him all the best?
  4. It took me several hours to figure out that my interpreter might have been drunk. I, who have no experience of hardened drinkers, continue to envision intoxication as a fraternity-party phenomenon: you know, something briefly uproarious. I've never really known anyone who was (or appeared to be) professionally shit-faced. I mean shit-faced in such a confident, companionable, cloudless way.

Well, whatever her condition, she made the whole thing possible. My Russian was contemptibly inadequate. So profound was my despair that I actually got out my dictionary to look up the word for "hopeless." I was in way, way over my head. Then they fetched this lady, and everything floated to the top. I toured the whole place, which is sizeable - about 200 people altogether. Equipment is old, but most of it works, and if it breaks, it is fixed. Thiaminase is probably in good hands, even if those hands are earning about $50 a month.

The work they do is, or can be, a bit strange. They've found, for example, that certain thiamine analogues protect against damage from ultrasound. Since until that moment we were talking about radiation damage (Belarus is downwind of Chernobyl), I didn't see the connection. I asked. There wasn't a connection. "Ultrasound? Really?" Yes indeed.

I thought a moment, then sat back. "Huh," I concluded.

"Interesno," said my interpreter, duly translating even my interjections. (Cf. that subtitled scene in Airplane! where the two black guys are talking jive; when one guy makes some indisputable, almost proverbially correct observation, the other agrees enthusiastically, saying "Sheeit," which in sober subtitles appears as "Yes, I believe you are right.")

Yeah, the interpreter really made my day. I didn't even mind when she summarized in only two words the lengthy exchange that followed my description of my own thiaminase inhibitors: "Big deal." Yeah, it's really amazing that I did not suspect inebriation for all that time. She was so histrionic, besides having a British accent. At the time, though, the only thing that struck me as weird was the fact that she was translating me in the first person.


My contact, who insisted on opening a bottle of "Soviet"-brand champagne with lunch (it was good - you won't hear me chortling about the Minsk Champagne Factory), has been to Turkmenistan (army duty), Tadzhikistan (college), and Kazakhstan. And he goes fishing from time to time. This is the stuff I really came to hear. I was much less captivated by his colleagues' desires to purify enzymes and write a review article about thiaminase. A review article! How...Soviet.

All the best,


P.S.: oh, I'm teaching myself stud poker. It lends itself very well to solitaire. All the information you really need is on the table. I imagine the really great players are not poker-faced, but rather skilled actors, able to project misleading moods to anyone unfortunate enough to be susceptible to this sort of thing. Probably the most fun thing would be to play poker with small children. Y'know, it just occurred to me: if they let me take all this useless Belarussian moolah out of the country, it would make an ideal substitute for poker chips. What a great idea!

2010 J.A.Hutter


*If it helps anyone trying to look up this movie, I can volunteer only the following bits and pieces, remembered almost exactly sixteen years later: (1) it was set in beautiful mountain territory - the Caucasus, I'll guess; (2) two middle-aged evildoers seek to hoodwink, somehow, the young male lead, a guy with glasses and short, very red hair, by having one evildoer put on something like a shako and talk in a mysterious language, ostensibly decodable only by the other evildoer; and (3) the movie ends with a pretty girl driving a sports car through those sunny altitudes. Good luck!

Other travels