When going for a hike this afternoon outside St. Louis, in the parking lot I pulled in next to a guy driving a Ural motorcycle, complete with sidecar. It looked pretty old school, and I asked the owner when was it made. He said “1999.” I said “looks more like 1949.” To which he replied: “Well, it’s based on a 1939 BMW design.” Apparently the Soviets bought some German bikes in Sweden, smuggled them into the USSR, and reverse engineered them. (La plus ca change.) They were originally built in Moscow and Leningrad, but the factories were moved to Gorky in the Urals to escape the Germans in 1941. All in all, this bike is a microcosm of the history of Soviet/Russian manufacturing; industrial espionage combined with the endurance of obsolete designs.
The subject of the Urals brings to mind another encounter, earlier this week in Houston. (No grass grows under my feet.)
I met with a Russian guy I’ve known slightly for years. He is a mathematician by training who has a pretty big job in a big bank’s commodity trading business. Anyways, being interested in all things Russian, I asked him where he is from originally. He said: “Siberia.” I asked where in Siberia. He said: “oh, a city you’ve probably never heard of, Yekaterinburg.” I laughed and said I know a good deal about it, because I have a very dear friend from there, and know someone else who had spent a lot of time there while she was adopting her children. He was quite surprised. He told me of how his family–originally from Moscow–came to (then) Sverdlovsk His dad was a ballistics engineer, and he was sent to help build one of the secret military factories in the Uralmash complex. (Uralmash being famous today primarily as the home of the eponymous, and infamous, Russian mafia organization.) He said that they lived in crude barracks during the construction. Most of the laborers had been brought (against their will) from the countryside, and many brought some of their animals with them. He said that for a kid it was wonderful to be around farm animals, but that his mother, a “refined Moscow woman” was understandably distressed.
His memories of Yekaterinburg/Sverdlovsk from Soviet times are somewhat harrowing. He said that “Yekaterinburg suffered every disaster that was visited on the Soviet Union, from the murder of the Czar, to nuclear accidents (with leukemia being the leading cause of death in my era), to the anthrax release, and so on.” He says he reflexively wears a hat in the rain to this day because he had to do that growing up because of the presence of nuclear and toxic fallout in the rain when he was growing up.
Two vignettes of Russia, in the middle of the ???.
And, to add to the experience, while writing this post I received an email informing me that “Soviet Russia” is now following me on Twitter. That actually sounds a little ominous, LOL.