What I learned about Russia from Pavel and Manya — part 1

Arnfinn Sørensen
13 min readOct 8, 2022
Novosibirsk skyline, january 2001. (Photo: Arnfinn Sørensen)

Two Russians showed me what this abused land can do to brilliant minds and warm hearts.

Names and some details have been changed to preserve anonymity.

The year was 2001. I was about to embark on my life´s odyssey. Not into space, though. Well — maybe still. Because the land I was about to visit was like an alien political planet — even after Glasnost and Perestroika.

Many years had passed since my father and I visited the Soviet Union in 1977. Breshnew was dead. So was my father. So was communism Soviet style, the communism that my father had bet — and lost his life on.

Those years had matured me. I had dragged myself out of the quagmire of social anxiety and thrust myself into society. I had worked my way up as a sound engineer to become a respected radio journalist. I had reached the apex of my career and was chosen to be one of the “world reporters” of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation.

The radio director Tor Fuglevik gave me the opportunity to travel anywhere in the world and make stories about anything I liked, all expenses paid. It was too good to be true. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

Where should I go first? It was the vertigo of freedom — a kind of dizzying weightlessness. It was my Space Odyssey — into the unknown. Or — maybe not. Maybe I wanted to cling to something that I knew from before? Like science journalism?

And — Russia. I decided to go there and make science stories. But where could I find exiting science stories? I wanted to go really deep into Russia, to a place where my father and I had not been. I wanted to go to Siberia in the winter.

Russia was in the chaotic aftermath of the Yeltsin years. Putin had not yet tightened his grip on the still liberal state. To obtain a visa was simple. My travel agent suggested I should go as a tourist to avoid complications and bureaucracy.

My preparations for the trip were amateurish. I did not want anyone's help. I just wanted to meet interesting scientists and see the wonders of technology shining behind the rusty remnants of the iron curtain.

This naivety turned out to be my best approach. But this was not to my merit. It was the merit of a slender, small man who saved me from myself in that unforgiving frozen jungle of desperate scarcity. His name was Pavel.

Pavel was the best interpreter that fate could ever have granted me. But he was much more than an interpreter. He arranged for me to meet the people I really needed to meet, but had no idea existed — living legends of Soviet science and technology. And I met his little daughter Manya. But more about this later.

First, I had a stopover in St. Petersburg. There, I was joined by Norwegian friends who worked together with the Russian Salvation Army to alleviate poverty. They were desperately needed, as I would gather first-hand.

My friends arranged for a fixer and interpreter, a young man named Vladimir. He met me at the airport. I remember his greeting words: “Welcome to rock'n roll.”

The next days were shock therapy. Leningrad had been in the siege of the nazis, and now, St. Petersburg was in a new kind of economic siege — by the oligarchs that Yeltsin had allowed to rob Russia of it's riches.

I met a young man in a sidestreet to Nevsky Prospect, the main street of downtown “Piet”. He was a beggar. But he did not beg for himself. He begged for a group of homeless children that he allegedly supported.

Did he speak truth? Or was it a creative lie, to make me open my wallet? Did it matter? Truth cannot fill an empty stomach.

A woman selling food in the street. St. Petersburg, january 2001. (Photo: Arnfinn Sørensen)

I even met a distinguished academic, reduced to a beggar, even if he held office in the Smolny monastery.

There, I interviewed the sociologist Jurij Bilov. He painted a grim portrait of Russia in a hangover after glasnost and perestroika. And he did so in uncanny American English. He didn't need interpreter.

After the interview, I had enough presence of mind to ask in a discrete way if he charged for interviews. He did. In dollars.
– And I'm not shy to ask, said the brilliant man without avoiding my badly hidden compassionate gaze.

I also met other intellectual people in Russia's cultural capital — among them an artist in his bare attic studio. He told me something I believe is part of the Russian spirit:
–Russian people prefer to spend money for visiting the theatre and have no money for everyday food. It´s like a dream, like something fantastic.

There´s something in this statement. Soul and spirituality trumps comfort and facades.

Later that night, I went to a party that echoed this attitude. We had a “vorspiel” in a wreck of an apartment in an old tenement. Our host was a young, bearded man. He was friendliness itself, and offered what he had — pickles and vodka.

If we needed to pee, we went to the kitchen. It had a toiletbowl in the corner. Somehow, it made me cheerful. The friendliness, the obviously cultivated man, the raw surroundings — they echoed some of the best sides of my father, the dead communist.

Later, we went to a … well, some kind of place with loud music. I don't know what they mixed in the drinks. I became euphoric beyond alcohol. Everyone were my friends.

I danced with a very skinny lady in her forties, a friend of our host in the apartment ruin. She moved very explicitly, but I don't think she was attracted to me. She needed money desperately to feed herself. Her skinniness was not anorexia, I think.

But my chemically induced altruism did not include lust. Besides, I was married. I was a naive western idiot in the rock'n roll jungle of basic survival strategies. And still, I was not exploited.

A young man in a well-worn “Lada” car waited for me when it was beddy-bye for the cub reporter. He drove me safely to my hotel. And I remember one sobering opinion he conveyed to me:

– We cannot use democracy in Russia. We need a strong man to lead us.

The hotel still smelled of Soviet times — nauseating old cabbage stew. Well up in my room, ready for the pillow — I heard a knock on the door.

Stupid as I was, I opened. Outside were two young girls, attractive and apparently still not destroyed by their profession of despair. In a friendly way, I refused their services.

Later, I have regretted that I did not invite them in to interview them about their desperate life, expenses paid. But maybe, then, they would be the ones to refuse. Selling your body is one thing. Selling your personal tragedy would hopefully still be beyond their self-respect.

The next days in St Petersburg were a mix of failed interviews, touching personal meetings and a physical near-death experience.

I remember an old aristocratic lady, a former member of the city government. She received me for afternoon tea in her noble apartment.

The walls were whispering about past glory. The interview was a disaster. In what badlands of Babylonial confusion did our attempts at elevated conversation ditch? I have gracefully forgotten. Luckily, when I translated the interview later, I found some good statements — not my merit.

My Norwegian Salvation Army friends also invited me to a family in the suburbs. I remember the rows of shoddily built highrise block of flats, towering above neglected landscaping in the rain.

But inside, we were met with warmth and sprituality. The whole family was gathered around a well-set table with Russian cuisine. The family gave me much more than I could offer them.

I remember especially well the family's young daughter. She told us that in Soviet times, the youth had a strong local rock music culture. But now, most teenagers only listened to western machine-pop.

This statement comes to my mind today, when I tune in to the improbable band Leonid & Friends. These Russians of mature age have covered songs by the American rock band Chicago.

They have been so popular on YouTube that they have been touring the US. Even the original Chicago guys are fans of them.

In an interview, their leader Leonid Vorobyev told how he and his friend carpentered electric guitars themselves with pickups made from microphones stolen in public phone booths.

Life finds a way. Music finds a way.

My fixer and interpreter Vladimir also took me to a Russian sauna. Even if the physical shock could have killed me, I am glad to have survived for the experience.

The sauna was the paragon of “steam punk” — raised to the point of boiling. Or maybe beyond. I remember water taps looking straight out of Captain Nemo's Nautilus, or maybe a Second World War submarine.

You could have needed a periscope to navigate the thick fog, where naked male bodies swam in and out of sight like deep sea creatures.

The heat of the sauna was roasting me, but I could not chicken out now. Vladimir wanted me to whip him with a birch leaves soaked in luke water.

I felt like a slave in a Roman bath. Vladimir demanded more whipping, more.
– ноги, the legs, he groaned.

This was surreal. Here I was, a Norwegian popular science reporter, desperately whipping the legs and feet of a Russian man while being fried alive.

Finally, we were done. After cremation, cool bliss. Or — not. The small pool was brimmed with ice water — straight out of the river Neva, I think.

I nearly fainted from the shock. But luckily, I survived. Some years later, I got a heart attack in my home. If that had happened here, I doubt that I would have lived to tell this story.

What is it about Russians and their sauna? The Finns have made the sauna their social gathering place for women and men, old and young — a place to relax, contemplate and socialize.

In Russia, the sauna seems to have perverted into some sort of macho ordeal, a place to separate the hard-boiled from the softies.

When I see photos of my guide and interpreter Vladimir's more famous name brother Vladimir Putin meeting his European counterparts with his faint Mona Lisa smile, maybe he thinks for himself: “They´re softies”.

The next day, shaken and stirred, the softie science journalist was finally on his way to Siberia. I entered an old Soviet Tupolev jet plane operated by Pulkovo Aviation Enterprises. The seats were well worn. I fell sound asleep. Sturdy Soviet aviation technology lifted me through the clouds and speeded southeastwards through the night.

I woke to a grey dawn. Below were barren plains with scattered trees, here and there small huts in the snow.

How could anyone survive in this frozen landscape? How could my journalistic ambitions survive here? I started to have second thoughts.

I was met at the airport by a somber man in thick clothes and a Russian fur hat. We drove in silence through suburbs and ended up at a technical college, where the rector was waiting for me.

He presented me with a complete program for my whole stay, including restaurant and opera visits. I saw my journalistic freedom being caged in, and panicked.

Panic can sometimes make you brave. I protested wildly, and told the rector that I wanted to work on my own. His eyes became narrow slits. In ill-concealed anger he trashed my schedule. I was thrown to the wolves.

The wolves — I learned — were a sorry pack of geriatric teachers. They looked at me with sad eyes and answered my naive questions about what kind of hyper-advanced research was conducted behind these brick walls of past glory.

Little by little, I understood that their prime motivation for meeting me was money. And little by little, I understood that the prime motivation for some of the young men enrolling here was to escape being drafted into the military.

The interviews were made in Russian. When translated, I realized that they were close to useless. Well — not quite. Because even if the answers themselves were of little interest, the translation process held a big promise, in the form of a slender, small man.

He came out of the blue on the second day and said in a near-perfect American accent:

– Good morning! My name is Pavel. I will be your interpreter today.

This was the start of my undeserved Russian scoop. It turned out that Pavel was not your run-of-the-mill interpreter. He had served many years in the military, travelling abroad and meeting people in high places. Once, he showed me a cigarette case gifted by Zbigniew Brzezinski, president Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor.

And he was much more than my interpreter. He opened doors to the really interresting scientists and places.

We went to “Akademgorodok” — the Academic City — a closed town near Novosibirsk where the most talented researchers were allowed to read Western journals and meet Western scientists even during Soviet times.

I met Alexander Marchuk, a very senior researcher at the Department of Applied Mathemathics and Informatics. This slender man with refined features gave me the story of Soviet computers on a silver plate.

I learned about computers that favorably competed with their western counterparts — the mainframe BSM-6 and the PC Kronos with a graphical user interface, color screen and a 32 bit operating system called “Excelsior”.

But Kronos was lost to history because no market incentives could boost it from prototype to consumer product. Some leftover integrated circuits for Kronos were on display in Marchuk's office.

Already in the late nineteen-sixties, children from many cities — selected by talent competitions — were sent to school in Akademgorodok and taught by the best researchers.

These schoolchildren grew up to become scientific assistants for their professors. I probably met several of them in the corridors of Akademgorodok.

They were young, cool people in jeans. They greeted me with a “hi”, and could have passed unnoticed at campuses anywhere in the world.

Pavel also arranged a visit to where hypersonic engines were developed. Little did I know at the time that missiles with such engines — travelling at many times the speed of sound — would be a terrifying Russian weapon in our times.

And after many telephone calls, Pavel somehow managed to give me admission to SibNIA — one of Russia´s leading aviation research institutes, both for civil and military planes.

Pavel and I was met outside the pale green concrete building in the outskirts of Novosibisk. This was forbidden territory in Soviet times — a top secret facility for military aviation techonology.

We had to deposit our passports at the reception, and were led to the large, dark office.

Three men were waiting for us. One was SibNIA's science director Alexey Seryoznov. Another was a silent man who did not present himself. Later, I learned that he was from KGB.

The third was a square-cut man in his late fifties with laughter in the corner of his eyes. He radiated attentiveness, curiosity and maybe a little skepticism.

He was Stanislav Kashafutdinov, Chief Aerodynamics Expert of SibNIA. He was responsible for developing the unique flying characteristics of military planes like Sukhoi SU-27 “Flanker”.

Kashafutdinov became our guide in a hall for stress-testing planes— the largest in the world, according to him. Pavel and I walked like ants through this cathedral of aviation technology. Even large passenger planes seemed like small birds in this vault.

I was allowed to photograph some planes, some not. Gradually, Kashafutdinov became less sceptical and gave insights into the workings of Soviet aviation research and industry.

After the engineers of the design bureau Pavel Sukhoi had designed the first prototypes of SU-27 “Flanker”, the first test flights began. They were not always successful. One test pilot lost his life, Kashafutdinov told us.

Then, he and his colleague´s started the second development phase — trial and error in wind tunnels and new test flights. Gradually, the design was completely reworked and the finished jet fighter emerged.

It was basically aerodynamically unstable. This unstability was compensated by “fly-by-wire” computer corrections faster than the reaction time of any pilot.

The upside to this approach was extreme maneuvrability. SU-27 was the first plane that could perform the “cobra maneuver”, swiftly raising it´s nose to vertical position without losing control.

Kashafutdinov showed me an old photo of Oleg Konstantinovich Antonov, aircraft designer of many planes. One of them is the world´s heaviest transporter, the one-off Antonov An-225 Mriya, destroyed in the Ukraine-Russian war in 2022.

Antonov was an outstanding man personally and as a patriot of our country, Kashafutdinov told me.

He also showed me workshops with wind tunnels, where wooden models were tested. On a shelf in one of these workshops, I noticed a wooden Buran space shuttle. I felt awed. I was walking through living aviation and space history.

After my visit, I was driven back to my hotel in Kashafutdinov´s black company Volga limousine. The driver refused to accept money for the ride. This was no ordinary taxi. The aviation hero from Soviet times still had privileges.

How did Pavel manage to open so many doors for me? What contacts did he have? I will never know.

But I know that the civilized, slender man saved my days in Siberia. And he — not the rector of the State Technical University — finally arranged an evening at the opera.

Novosibirsk Opera, january 2001 (Photo: Arnfinn Sørensen)

It was my last evening in Novosibirsk. Pavel brought his wife and his lively four-year-old daughter — Manya.

Trustingly she approached me and took my hand in the bitter cold outside the Novosibirsk Opera building. Inside, she even managed to stay silent during the performance of endless arias.

That evening, through Manya's little hand, I felt the warming friendliness that is also Russia.

Later that night, I stretched out over three seats in a half-empty plane back to Moscow, on my way home. But Pavel and Manya took a special place in my heart. Would I ever meet them again?

In the next part of this story, I will tell you how my next visit to Russia fifteen years later deepened my understanding of the brilliant but battered Russian soul.

(To be continued — with my next visit to Pavel and Manya fifteen years later, in 2016)

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Arnfinn Sørensen

Retired science journalist from Norway. Meme switchboard operator.