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Moscow Impressions

Letter No. 2

(p. 9)

American Embassy
Moscow, U.S.S.R.
Aug. 27, 1937
Dr. Irving Wolff
RCA Mfg. Co., Inc.
Camden, N.J., U.S.A.

Dear Doc:

Your esteemed card mailed from Lake Placid recently reached here in spite of the fact that it was of course completely illegible. Therefore you will herewith be honored with an exhaustive and exhausting reply.

Over a month ago I sent to Engstrom a fairly complete account of our impressions of Moscow up to that time and am confident that you saw a copy of that letter. Therefore nothing in it will be repeated here, but I should like to augment a few of its state­ments.

For instance in discussing transporta­tion I mentioned the train service, the still overcrowded trains, the scarcity of automobiles and the absence of taxis, but my Chrysler was not then in operation so the advantages of having a private car weren’t emphasized. The amount of trouble involved in having and main­taining a car here is almost limitless and would be unthinkable in America; yet the advantages are adequate justification. We found that the Radio Trust cars were seldom available when needed and that they usually did well to arrive within an hour after the appointed time. With our own car we can keep a more efficient and flexible schedule, can make trips to the Customs or head office more conveniently and can get out into the country (p. 10) for tennis and swimming occasionally. Also it is fun to drive a car so rare. There are only two other Chryslers in Moscow. As a result we are besieged with questions about it and people are always crawling over and under it. Not infre­quently thirty or forty gather around and just gawk.

Parking is a cinch. At this hotel, the new­est, largest and best in Russia, I have never had to park the car more than 100 feet from the main entrance. Sometimes right in the middle of the day my car is the only one in front. The same story holds everywhere. We have been to the Central Park of Culture and Rest when it was crowded with thousands of people only to find less than ten cars parked at the main entrance.

As for the troubles involved in having a car here, they are limitless. Jetting the license for the car itself wasn’t so bad after I convinced the inspector that the oil filter was a legitimate device. For my driver’s license, which includes a photograph, the oral exam wasn’t too bad because regardless of what answers I gave about traffic rules, the interpreter gave the correct ones. Later during the driving test I remembered that he always mixed “straight” with “right”, so when­ever he said “Go straight” I turned right and all was well.

Chauffeurs are a problem. Hundreds of them want the job; the trick is to find a good one. My first one drove the car about 700 miles illegitimately. Don’t ask why I couldn’t prove his dishonesty sooner because the reasons are too confusing to explain. The second fellow seems reasonably satisfactory. To have a car without a chauffeur is absolutely impossible. For one thing, there is no garage (except one for the Kremlin) within several miles of the hotel. Even the embassy cars must be driven away each night to a remote garage. All-night parking is (p. 11) illegal. My car is kept in a new garage built for it at the Television Center. Not only is the chauffeur necessary for delivering the car in the morning and for returning it in the evening, but every morning he must wash it for some reason or other. Such a simple thing as getting air in the tires requires nearly an hour because it is done by hand pump.

Recently the chauffeur has had to spend an hour or so each day to get gas. Most of the gas is being sent to the harvest regions and to Spain with the result that neither the Trust nor anyone else can get enough. Last Saturday there wasn’t a drop of gas in all of Moscow! Even some of the embassy cars were out of operation. The fact that my contract states that gas will be supplied for my car makes not the slightest difference, Yesterday when the gage got down to about two gallons I raised hell again but the Trust wasn’t able to get even the tickets for gas. Tickets are necessary because a foreigner is never allowed to purchase gas for money. Finally I borrowed some tickets from the embassy only to find that the gas stations were dry. So I left the chauffeur with the car at one of the stations and at 5:00 PM, smiling from ear to ear, he returned and proudly stated that he had obtained 30 litres (7 gallons).

Another trouble in connection with automobiling is that of obtaining servicing. You just don’t. In my case the Television Center mechanics try their luck at it. First they wanted to take the car for several days to the “Prophylactic Department” (No, I don’t know what that means either) to “disassemble the car to see if it is adjusted properly”! I don’t even permit them to have the instruct­ion book translated. It is certain that as soon as they could read the carburetor (p. 12) section, for example, they would start readjust­ing the carburetor to “improve (?) the operation”.

As for the roads near Moscow, they definite­ly are terrible. We have been almost stuck in sand and in mud, and on countless occasions the springs have hit their limiters with good hard thumps. Various underneath parts of the car have scraped along the road and one gadget just aft of the transmission is almost torn off. Day before yesterday something dented the crankcase but it doesn’t seem to leak. Road maps can’t be obtained. They are “military information” and even the Trust can’t get them for me. So much for transportation in general and automobiling in particular.

In my previous letter I mentioned the telephones. Well, they haven’t improved in the intervening month. On eight different occasions, each requiring several hours, we tried to reach the boys in Voronezh. No luck yet, but the operator assured us that the line really does work sometimes so we’ll keep on trying. As for local calls, my phone which happens to be of the dial type works about one-third of the time.

My previous letter mentioned mail, too. Main, the situation hasn’t changed much. We still have received no copies of “Fortune,” “Sportsman Pilot,” “Reader’s Digest” or “New Yorker” as well as certain personal corres­pondence. The registered letter which Wally mailed to me in Moscow nearly a month ago isn’t in sight yet either. Wally has had difficulty in holding on to the receipt. The government is quite annoyed that we thought of such a scheme. Now they are really investigating the situation seriously.

The food situation is unchanged. For three weeks we could get no fresh fruit except apples for breakfast, then for three days there were (p. 13) pears, now we are back to mediocre apples. Looks as though the pear season is rather short here.

Night and day we spend our time in get­ting or trying to get passes and more passes. To do anything whatsoever one must have a pass. When we wanted to see an airport we were told to apply to the Department of “Strange Affairs” (Foreign Affairs) for a pass. That will take at least a month and we probably shall never get it. To connect a short—wave antenna to my receiver in the hotel I need a pass. Two weeks ago I spent an entire afternoon trying to get said pass. Now the Trust is expediting the matter so within a month or so it may be arranged. Of course you have to have a pass to live here. Several days ago I received my “Permit to Live” back for the fifth time. Today my American pass­port is gone again for the seventh time. The “Permit to Live” must have special marks when­ever you travel anywhere. For instance when Van Keuren goes down to Veronej [Voronezh] and back, an undertaking which requires several days or a week of advance preparation, he must have the permit stamped eight times at three different places on six separate occasions. A pass is required for taking photographs at the tele­vision station. Ours hasn’t been received yet.

To get anything through customs innumer­able passes and documents are needed. Even when properly equipped with all papers, we couldn’t get Kozanowski’s trunk through customs last week without l000% duty on soap and 2200% on chocolate. So we put the matter up to the Trust and for once they effectively assisted. There are countless other instances when passes are necessary. The funniest ones occurred two days ago. Then Kozanowski was carrying his swimming suit out of the hotel, the doorman demanded a pass. Yesterday they demanded one for my tennis racket! They didn’t get them.

I could relate any number of funny and/or exasperating things which we encounter frequently.


To meet someone arriving by train you must go to the station early because frequent­ly the engineer, to show his proficiency, brings the train in ten or twenty minutes ahead of schedule.

At 10:30 AM you phone someone. His secretary replies that he is busy for the moment and asks you to “call a little later, about 4 or 5 o’clock.” Yesterday when I called someone at 5:00 PM his secretary replied “Good morning. He is not in yet. Call in two or three hours, not less.”

If you ask someone if he knows so and so and he replies “a few”, that of course means “a little”.

Suits can’t be cleaned here. The accepted practice is to wear them until they are approximately black, then take them out to Helsingfors. That is what most of the embassy people, reporters and other engineers do.

Just try to find an ordinary scale. For three weeks I’ve been trying in vain to learn how much weight I’ve lost.

Some railroad gates are left down until you blow your horn for the good reason that there are more trains than autos.

Our record time for cashing a check at the bank is 25 minutes. No crowds, just red tape.

(p. 15) An import quota which we hope to get will permit monthly importation of limited quantities of certain foods at only 200% duty, but will let us each enjoy 12 lbs. of horse-radish and 5 lbs. of mustard monthly!

Photos are finished in anywhere from 3 to 15 days. The paper is awful. They can’t be sent out of the country unless inspected and sealed in advance.

William’s young daughter swims naked with us and sometimes forgets to put any­thing on during tea.

In contrast to other things, haircuts cost only 19 cents each. I haven’t had one for eight weeks.

Cocktails are practically unobtainable. Once at one of the hotels we ordered the only kind served, the “Devil’s Last Breath.” It would have been poor at 40 cents each, so it was $2.00!

Kozanowski found that vodka makes a good after—shaving lotion, if nothing else, and he uses it every morning.

I could relate many more minor items like those above as well as a few major ones, but shall not.

Personal contacts with the Russians are still few and far between for the reasons explained in the previous letter. We still see practically nothing of the many Russian tele­vision engineers whom we knew well in Camden. With the more worthwhile Russian girls, of whom there are extremely few, sociability is nearly impossible. I took one out twice but on each occasion had to meet her secretly under conditions such that no one would know

(p. 16) that she was with me. Naturally the embassy people are lifesavers but we can associate with Americans any time and greatly wish that foreigners weren’t regarded with so much official suspicion here.

As for the status of the television projects, I intend to write about them to Engstrom within several days. Suffice it to say here that on the aircraft television project the progress has been very slow for certain reasons. On the Television Center project reasonable progress has been made. There are now 600 persons including 68 engineers working on the installation at the Center. Most of the transmitting equipment is in place and is being con­nected. The studio building is nearing comple­tion and soon some of the apparatus can be placed in it. The transmitting antenna is still on the ground but after long arguments we finally convinced them that it really belongs up on the tower sooner, not later. We find it both interesting and satisfying to watch the instal­lation take form. Sometimes in our enthusiasm we even forget about annoying delays and such things.

    We seldom get bored because something different turns up daily. Yesterday, for instance, I found that they had used up the solder furnished by RCA so were soldering with lead torn off of our cables! The fact that pure lead doesn’t stick well to copper didn’t worry them at all.

Getting theatre tickets is an ordeal. There are plenty of them but we are foreign specialists. Even Intourist shies away from us. With the strong assistance of a special inter­preter and with plenty of insistence, Wally and Hank finally succeeded in placing an order for tickets, but only after spending a total of three hours at it on two days and only after (p. 17) giving the names of the guests we shall invite. We’ll probably need a letter from the Trust next, after which, if the guests are approved, we may or may not receive the tickets.

This letter is already too long and be­sides I must stop to make some phone calls. According to English instructions, to make a call one first operates the “tester” (dial) which “effectuates the management” and thus rings the desired number.

Wally and Hank both join in sending best regards. Neither has a beard as yet but we may sprout good crops of gray hair most any day.

In case you have detected any slightly deprecatory remarks in this letter, please be assured that in spite of everything we are making out all right and are looking forward with interest to our next several months here.

With best wishes,

Loren Jones

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