Thursday, November 10, 2022

First Trip to Soviet Union 1990

 David and Gaynell Travel to the Soviet Union in October 1990 - their first Trip.

David & Gaynell tell about their first visit to the Soviet Union 1990 in own words

Soviet Union Oct. 1990
Dave: Hello this is David, David Larsen kk4ww. We’re going to discuss our first trip to the Soviet Union in 1990.
Gaynell: And this is Gaynell, kk4www, I’m Dave’s wife and we were very excited about this first trip that we made to the former Soviet Union back in October of 1990.
Dave: It started out in April of 1990 we were at the Dayton amateur radio convention called Hamvention and we were there working with Glen Baxter, k1man, who’d had some contact with Victor Goncharsky, ue5we amateur radio station in Ukraine, and we met them at the ham radio convention in April. Glen was saying that they needed somebody to go to the Soviet Union and Ukraine and help. Victor Goncharsky who was on his first visit to the U.S. from Ukraine said yeah David we need somebody to come help us come into the real world of radio because they’d been so suppressed to use the more modern digital technologies and communication techniques in Ukraine. We were using AMTOR and they wanted us to come over and start showing them how to use AMTOR which is a digital mode of communication sent over the amateur radio bands. The Soviet citizens generally up until then had not been allowed to use digital radio communications because it could be a little bit clandestine and of course the Soviets were very concerned about secret communications. They said hey we need somebody to come over and Gaynell and I both said well that sounds really interesting we think we’ll make the trip and so that was short of the story. What can you add to that first meeting we had there with Glen and Victor?
Gaynell: Well I remember that Glen couldn’t go to the dx dinner and we invited Victor to go. So we left and went and picked him up at the hotel and Dave and Victor and I went to the dx dinner. At the dinner Dave got sick and felt really bad so he got a taxi and went back to our hotel. It was really strange, we had only met Victor like the day before and here I am in Dayton Ohio not familiar with the area but taking a Soviet ham radio operator and getting him back to his hotel and then I drove back to our hotel by myself.
Dave: Well as I recall I was just finishing up my year of teaching, I had about another month to go there at Virginia Tech where I was teaching instrumentation and automation. So we got our passports and figured out what we wanted to do and we actually went over in October of 1990. Gaynell was just looking at the photos here and saying she remembered my mother living here.
Gaynell: Yes Dave’s mother who was 89 at the time in 1989 came to live with us from Texas. Her name was Ruth Larsen and at the time shed been living by herself in an apartment in Texas and was getting to the stage where she really didn’t need to be by herself so Dave and I invited her to come live with us and she did. I went down in 1989 in September and picked her up and brought her back to Floyd and we just had a wonderful year together. Then when we decided after the amateur radio convention in Dayton that we were going to Russia we called Dave’s sister in law out in Colorado and she volunteered to come live in and stay at our house and be with mom Ruth while we were gone. So my mom and dad came up and picked us up and got us to the airport for our flight out.
Dave: Well at that time (we’re looking at some photos here) we could take four bags, no, three 70 pound bags and we had them all packed up, maybe it was four 70 pound bags each. I see a picture here of Gaynell’s mom and dad and my sister in law when we were getting ready to leave in October. It was quite a short time, very exciting, I don’t remember where we flew out of but we flew into Moscow the only place you could fly into the Soviet Union and then you were dispersed from Moscow. So we flew into Moscow and that was quite an experience because it was our first trip to the Soviet Union. Victor and about five other ham radio fellows met us there at the airport. There weren’t a lot of people traveling to the Soviet Union especially hams. It wasn’t rare but there was not a lot so we were quite a novelty there. The first few days we spent in Moscow before we went over to Ukraine and we did operate some ham radio at a radio operator’s home there in Moscow. He was a district chief of police or something like that for ham radio his call was uk3aap and a very nice gentleman. He was so nice when we left there he gave Gaynell his cap and we still have that in my office it’s a very nice Soviet police officer’s hat.
Gaynell: Yes it was quite an experience. Dave and I neither one had traveled over in that part of the world and to go and visit with all these Russians of course I was the only girl around with all of them but it was just fascinating. They were so accommodating and when we arrived there in Moscow Victor had already ridden a train for 24 hours from Lviv, or Lvov at that time, from Lvov up to Moscow to meet us. And he met with Urikat Uten who was from down at Uleanovs Russia and also George came up with Victor from Lvov and we just had a wonderful visit there in Moscow. Victor arranged for us to spend the night with some friends that were originally from down in Lvov and they were living in Moscow at the time so we went over and spent the night with them and then caught the train the next day for the 24 hour ride to Lvov Ukraine.
Dave: Well it was pretty interesting our first trip on a Soviet train. We had many, many train trips after that but when we got to Lvov we were met at the station by Victor’s father, u5wf. We called him ham dad Vlad he was Vladimir Goncharsky. I don’t remember his age at that time but he was a ham during the 30s and served in WWII. He had been a ham, a very famous ham in the Soviet Union and an amateur radio operator. And Victor Valgluten and George Telijank met us and some other people. Victor’s brother Michael, and then I don’t remember exactly what we did then we must have gone over to their home but we had many good visits and we operated some ham radio from there as well. It was so interesting now in 2014 looking back on these photos of 1990. Tell them a little about your visit with Helen and Julia there when we visited with them or anything on the train.
Gaynell: Yes, well actually Helen and Julia came along with the other guys, ham dad and all to meet us at the train we went back over to the house. Julia at the time was just 4 years old in 1990 so it was just wonderful to get to know her and it was just really unique because everywhere we went that first trip Julia was with us and she held on to my finger the whole time and of course spoke no English and Helen spoke a little bit but very little so after we left that year, Helen told Julia, she said now you need to learn to speak English because Gaynell doesn’t understand Russian and Julia looked and she said oh, Gaynell understands me anyway I don’t need to learn to speak English. So that was a memory that I had from that first trip that stuck with me.
Dave: Well we had some really wonderful meetings that they arranged for us and the thing looking back on it now, you know we made some of those early trips to foreign countries thinking you know it’d be one trip and we’ll sort of lose track of people but really every trip we made, and we made dozens of trips to many countries and we became very good friends with them. In fact, over the last years since we’ve been, since that 1990 trip I think Victor’s visited the U.S. 4 times. We were not always his host, but we hosted him here in Floyd at the foundation for amateur international radio service at least twice and Helen has been over probably three or four times and we always take them out to the Dayton amateur radio convention and of course we visited them probably, what 15 or 16 times over the 20 years or so there at their home in Lvov. And many things have changed, Helen’s mother has long passed away, of course we met her when we were there the first few times and Victor’s father u5wf has passed away and some of our friends we met have passed away that’s what happens when you get older but we sure had a good time on that visit. I remember one of the first things we did
Gaynell: Well they put us up at a hotel
Dave: Yeah I’ll let you tell about that. There was a picture of that hotel I think the Intourist hotel. It was our first and only experience with an Intourist hotel in the Soviet Union. We stayed at another hotel, but it wasn’t quite an Intourist, one time but yea, I’ll make some comments about our stay but I’ll let Gaynell tell about that first Intourist hotel. I do remember this, Victor and Helen they took us to dinner the first night and the food there was not expensive but for them it was very expensive and we didn’t think too much about it at the time but the Intourist hotels were there at that time to keep track of the tourists and also to more or less get as much money from them as they could so their prices were a bit high in terms of Soviet times. Tell a little about that first hotel visit there.
Gaynell: Oh it was quite unique. We spent the night and I couldn’t figure out why the walls were so thick between the different rooms and then we found out there was a passageway in between these walls and if you’d be lying in bed and look up you’d see little holes around the ceiling where I’m sure they had spies where people could go in there and spy on you. Also our luggage, we went to the meetings the next day and when I came back I realized that our suitcases had all been gone through and so the next day I put a string across some of it and needless to say everything was kind of messed up when we got back. But the really funny thing was the first morning that we went, we never stayed in these hotels very much except this first time, and we went to have breakfast that morning, Dave and I together, and we walked into the quote, Intourist breakfast room, and I saw all these glasses of juice sitting on the tables and we sat down at a table for four and it was just Dave and me, but of course we couldn’t drink the water there and I guess we didn’t have bottled water at the time I’m not sure. But I was so thirsty and I sat down at the table and I drank the first glass of juice and then I reached over and got the second one. Then some people got up and they had left some of their juice in the glasses and the waitress came through and immediately took the little bit of juice in each glass and poured it in another glass at the table so I learned a lot that morning.
Dave: Well we certainly did but we did enjoy that. I’m remembering now our justification for the trip. Victor and Helen invited us to the Soviet Union, but they couldn’t as private citizens just have visitors, we had to have, or they had to have a reason for us to come so what Victor did was very clever. He arranged for us to teach a workshop with my specialty of computer instrumentation and automation there in Lvov to engineers and my understanding of this is I was probably the first American to do a teaching there in Lvov. Lvov is a very large city in western Ukraine about 7-800-900,000 about 900,000 people and he arranged for us to teach a workshop. That’s one of the reasons we had all those suitcases. It was full of teaching equipment plus it also had one computer in there that we took over for Victor. But we taught the workshop and I remember the first day of the workshop, by the way, Gaynell was talking about those hotels or the hotel room and I remember Victor and Helen saying when we were in the hotel room to not say anything except general conversation because we were being listened to and we were very cautious and paranoid about saying anything. But when I was doing my workshops, the first morning there were three KGB agents at the workshop and I wouldn’t actually have known that but my Ukrainian friends informed me. Then after lunch there was just two and the rest of the time there was only one and so only the one stayed with the whole course to make sure what I said and that I didn’t try to, you know do spy work and so forth and I was told by my guests to not speak about religion or politics to just stick to the topic and I’d be fine. We were followed downtown quite a bit too. Victor was always mentioning it that we were being followed, that was really a new experience for us but the workshop was very successful. They enjoyed it and I learned a little bit later that the workshop was sort of paid for on a local basis by George Sauros who was working hard to use some of his funds to, you know try to help democracy to come about in the Soviet countries. And I didn’t know it at the time that he had put up the money for it but we saw George Sauros at a workshop, I don’t know, 7 or 8 years later in New York, it was New York or Washington DC and I asked Mr. Sauros about that and he remembered that workshop because it was a very unique thing and he remembered funding that so that was certainly interesting. So we thank George Sauros for helping us get to that very first trip. So I remember I mentioned we brought a computer along, and it was an IBM 5100 luggable to run the AMTOR digital communication program and the interesting thing was the last time we were in Lvov, which was 6 or 7 years ago so it would’ve been around 2005 or 2006, that computer was still running. Even though it was highly modified and been repaired many times it was amazing that over a period of over 20 years, that computer was still running. It was just really pleasing to see the use that it got. Of course we took many more computers after that and that’s another story.
Gaynell: The one thing I wanted to mention was Lvov was (even back in that time and more so now) the water situation was terrible. Of course you couldn’t drink the water at all but in the Intourist hotel even, we only had water certain hours of the day and our water in the hotel only came in at three in the morning. So Dave and I found a piece of rubber and put over the drain and we left the faucet open on the bathtub so that we could actually have some water the next morning and we had what they called a samovar which was a thing you heat water in to make your coffee or your tea so that’s the way we took our baths. We heated our water with the samovar so we’d have warm water for baths.
Dave: Well see there were a number of things that just seemed to stick out in my mind. First of all I did enjoy the workshop and Victor did the translation for us because most of the engineers that attended could probably read English but they didn’t have a practice of the communication language so they couldn’t understand us too well but it worked fine and we had a lot of fun. Lvov itself is an old Austrian city. Many years ago it was built up. It was a beautiful city; the architecture there is absolutely beautiful but during the Soviet times from 1917 on it was really not kept in a very good state of repair at all. About the only thing that had been repaired was the opera house it had been repaired but the other buildings were still in a pretty bad state of repair. But there were a lot of beautiful, beautiful buildings in Lvov and I remember another incident. We were visiting an electronic manufacturing facility there in Lvov on our first trip and they gave me a rotary calculator. It’s a blue thing with a crank on it and does addition and subtraction and that’s in our museum Bugbook Computer Museum it’s there now and that was our memorabilia piece from our first trip. I remember going to that meeting too. In those days it was a big habit to drink a lot of vodka and that meeting was about ten o clock in the morning and they brought out the vodka and they said we don’t normally have vodka this time of the mornings but we all had to have a few shots of vodka to continue the day. And of course we stayed, well didn’t stay then, but we visited ham dad Vlad and operated amateur radio there in Lvov and just really had a great time with all of that. Oh they did take us to some of the historical museums and so forth and there’s a clock museum, other museums, kind of a nature/ cultural museum with the older style homes and so forth. And in one of the museums, I bought a Ukrainian wedding dress for Gaynell, it was a new one. We also bought some as we went out into the hinterland of the Carpathian Mountains we bought some older clothes but we did buy one very beautiful wedding dress. It was a wedding dress wasn’t it? Yeah, a colorful wedding dress and we have that in our observatory along with the other Ukrainian things we purchased. Looking through the pictures I see they took us out to a castle. I don’t know just where it was in Ukraine, it was quite a ways out of Lvov but it was a very interesting thing. Unfortunately the tour guide spoke in Ukrainian so we had a little trouble with that. We didn’t eat in restaurants much, they would carry food along and we would do picnics. Of course there weren’t a lot of restaurants; quite honestly they were kind of few and far between. Of course I will say one thing, when we were in Moscow, looking at these pictures here, we got to visit red square for the first time and the Kremlin. We didn’t get in the Kremlin but we got to where we could see the Kremlin. McDonald’s was fairly new, I see a photo here too of a McDonald’s there near red square and it was so popular the line (2 or 3 wide) went clear around the block, I mean all the way around. There were hundreds of people waiting in line to get their McDonald’s whatever. Of course, needless to say we didn’t bother waiting in line for that, but that was certainly a new experience for us too. Oh yea looks like the weddings, didn’t they seem to have the weddings on Saturdays? We went to a number of weddings
Gaynell: They were open to the public
Dave: Yeah, all the weddings were sort of open to the public. The brides tried to have nice white wedding dresses, gee it was just great. They’re very friendly and I see here too that we visited a number of craft shops and bought a lot of Ukrainian crafts, particularly the wooden eggs that were made primarily up in the Carpathian Mountains. The Ukrainians were and still are noted for their wood art. There are a lot of forests and beautiful wood in Ukraine and a lot of people do carvings and painting of wood. We still have a lot of those and actually we sell, and still sell and we go to meetings like the Dayton Hamvention we’ll sell the Ukrainian crafts and we get new ones as well to sell and help us support our Foundation for Amateur International Radio work at n4usa. Looking at these pictures reminds me of something else too. In those days of course we didn’t have digital cameras, so as I said, Gaynell and I had already been making many trips and during the 90s, the late 80s and the 90s. We made many trips to a lot of countries both for the Foundation for Amateur International Radio Service and for the university, because I did international development helping with the understanding of various universities to set up a student and faculty exchange. We did that in Russia with Uleanis Technical Institute out on the Olga River and down in Ukraine I think we did one with Lvov Polytechnic Institute and I think we did one at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute as well. One thing that was a tradition then, very much a European not just Ukrainian but a European tradition was when your guests arrived, especially the ladies, you give them flowers. I see some nice pictures there with Gaynell holding roses and so forth and that tradition has died down recently especially during the war that’s going on right now at this moment with the Russian folks invading eastern Ukraine. But it was a very big tradition then. We stayed those few days when we were in Moscow, before we went down to Ukraine, with one of Victor’s friends who lived in, I believe it was his granddad’s house, a very old house in a suburb way out, a little bit out of Moscow. But we talk about a suburb, the roads were dirt. There was actually no gravel on the roads in the subdivision. Very primitive and the homes of course were very primitive but we had a good time there with him that’s for sure. And she made some wonderful food. I remember the crepes were just wonderful along with a lot of other things. Yeah she had three young children there, which was fascinating. We were back to Moscow a number of times after that but we sure remember that first visit visiting the Kremlin and downtown Moscow and of course the airport was sort of fascinating in itself and the train rides, 24 hour train ride between Moscow and Lvov a new experience for us. We enjoyed that immensely. Well I guess that kind of wraps up our trip, we’ll make a few kind of final comments about that very first trip. We have some wonderful letters here and notes from our friends written during our first trip and trips after that. One thing Gaynell’s been good about is making a photo album of all our trips so we have dozens of photo albums with, gosh it must be a hundred photos in this one. I was mentioning the photography well we had to take the regular 35 mm cameras with lots of rolls of film and it was very expensive to develop all that film when we got back. We’d usually make 10 to 20 rolls of film on a trip
Gaynell: Copies of some of them
Dave: Yeah and then make copies of the pictures. Well all that changed when the digital cameras came out. We could just take all the pictures we wanted and then we’d only have to make copies of the good ones. So the economics of that got good and of course video cameras were a little too expensive for us on those first few trips so we didn’t have video but we certainly have on later trips. Technology’s been a wonderful thing for us. But that first trip was a great experience and it started a whole new world for Gaynell and I of traveling to the former Soviet countries and our friends Helen and Victor Goncharsky.
Gaynell: And I think the one thing that just stands out with me is the fact that when we first started these trips of course we hadn’t started FAIRS, our foundation, then but we knew that after a couple of trips over there that that was going to be something that we needed. We needed to have a nonprofit status so that we could have more clout going to the governments and things like that and that really paid off. And we thought well you know we’ll go to Russia and we’ll get to meet these people and that’ll be fine but we’ve stayed friends with almost all of the folks that we’ve visited in all of these foreign countries. And Christmas lists are now about 500 instead of 150 or so, so every year we still correspond and try to keep up with all of our friends in these foreign countries.
Dave: Well you know after that trip we made some publicity about it and then some other people came forward and wanted to travel over there with us and one of those was John Douglas, n0isl, from Minnesota. And John worked for Control Data, I believe that was the name of the company, and we did realize there was a big need for computers at the personal level and again Soviets were starting to let people have computers in their homes but there were very few available. A few fellows started to make home computers but John contacted us about traveling with us and since he worked at that large computer firm they had a lot of small computers and he gathered up 50 or more computers for us to take over there and he was going to go on the next visit to the Ukraine. The next visit was in the spring of ’91, May of ‘91 and we’ll do that visit later but I do want to lead up to it a little bit. When I got the computers together we thought we’d just send them over here for Victor to distribute. Well we couldn’t make any headway to get the computers into the Soviet Union. We tried various things and basically they would not accept them, there was no way. So I wrote a letter to Gorbachev, President Gorbachev, President of the Soviet Union, in November of 1990 and told him what I was doing and that we’d had this workshop in Ukraine and we had these computers we wanted to get over there. I’ll have to say, Gorbachev was very good about wanting to get his citizens updated on technology and bring them more into the western world so to speak and also the whole country wanted to be more in line with the modern times. Well I sent that letter to him in November and then in January I was talking to my friend Victor, u5we, on the radio and he asked me, he said David, I understand there’s a letter you wrote circulating around the Kremlin and I replied to him, well yes Victor we did write a letter but I said I don’t think we put anything in it that would get any of us in trouble. It was very general about the computers were trying to donate to the Soviet citizens and particularly the folks there in Ukraine and so Victor told me that he had been asked to come to Moscow for an interview about the Larsens. The Soviet security people wanted to know did we really come and teach this workshop, were we spies you know, were we people that were trying to overthrow the government. All those sorts of things and were we there on just a technology sort of basis. So Victor did go to Moscow as he was invited and he told me he had a round trip ticket and I said well that’s probably a good sign. As a result of those interviews he was able to actually work up an invitation and as I said. By getting the workshop together the second time as well, we taught each time we went over there, the workshops sort of justified all that. But he got all that together and next trip, well to finish the story a little about the computers, a little bit later in the winter I got I letter from dosov I don’t exactly know what that stands for but it’s part of the military that basically controls the amateur radio communication and the letter (which I have it in my files in fact I’ve done a blog on it and printed that on a blog) but the letter basically said well (I’m paraphrasing) due to your letter you wrote to Gorbachev, we’ve been instructed to help get these computers into the Soviet Union. My understanding was that the letter circulated around the various bureau agencies and they decided it was probably a good thing to let us bring those computers into the Soviet Union. So we were told that if we contacted Aeroflot in New York, they would send the computers to Moscow and of course they were not cooperative for a while and after a few correspondents back and forth we did ship the computers to Moscow and they kept them in quarantine until John Douglas and Gaynell and I went over and that’ll be another story for our next trip about how we distributed those computers. Well I think once again that wraps it up for the first trip, October 1990, to the former Soviet Union it was a fascinating trip and we’ll continue this discussion with our second trip in May of 1991.

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