Travels in Siberia
The Ministry of A & I
From my first visit in 1986, and through many subsequent trips in the 1990s, I became acutely aware that this vast country, under the Soviet system, was run by a labyrinth of ministries in Moscow. No matter where you lived, all these ministries controlled commerce and lives completely. There were some 37 of them, ranging from the Ministry of Agriculture and Food, the Ministry of Coal Industry, the Ministry of Culture to the Ministry of Fisheries, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and more. There were ministries for Defense, Defense Industry, Geology, Information and Press, Shipbuilding, Oil and Gas, Metallurgy - well, it was an impressive list. And then, of course, there were agencies under these ministries, called Committees, the most noted of which was the Committee for State Security, Комитет государственной безопасности, better known by its Russian initials, KGB.
I discovered in my travels that the most important and powerful of all these ministries was a well kept state secret for decades. It was called the Ministry of Aggravation and Irritation. Even today few people know that this agency held sway over every other ministry. Nothing could be built and no policy implemented until the Ministry of A&I had applied its rules.
Here are some examples of the secret influence of the Ministry of A&I:
Until the late 1990s, all Aeroflot planes were required to have carpeting that was not anchored firmly to the planes’ floors. The result? When stewardesses rolled the food service carts down the aisle, the carpeting would bunch up in front of the wheels. The resulting bumpiness caused food trays to bounce off the carts and into passengers’ laps or on the floor. Considering the quality of the food served, this actually wasn’t as bad as it sounds.
It was decreed that no doorway entrance to any hotel or public building be larger than three feet wide. This made it impossible to enter a hotel while carrying a suitcase in each hand. (In fact, you could not enter even carrying one suitcase.) You had to stop, put the suitcases down, push one then the other through the doorway - and hope that no one was trying to exit at the same time. Regarding that last, it was also decreed that all entrances would be exits as well and that there was to be only one entrance/exit per building. On entering or leaving a hotel at busy times of day, you gained enormous respect for those NFL running backs who attempt to blast through a wall of massive defensive linemen.
No restroom in any public building was allowed to have toilet seats. You either had to bring your own or do without or wait (if possible). And it was definitely forbidden to have any toilet paper in these public restrooms. For an extensive stay in the Soviet Union you had to bring one suitcase loaded with nothing but toilet paper. The shortage of bum wad all across the country was so great that you could often use a roll or two of TP as a bribe for certain services or goods. As a gift, a roll of toilet paper was on a par with a pack of Marlboros.
All hotel elevators were required to hold no more than three small people - and with no luggage. If you had luggage, it was impossible to fit in with your bags. You then had to wait for an empty elevator, load the bags in it, push the floor button, escape before the doors closed, and then race up the stairs to your floor in order to rescue your bags when, and if, the elevator arrived. If your room happened to be on the 5th floor or above, you would be a prime candidate for cardio-pulmonary resuscitation. If the elevator made a stop at some intermediate floor, your suitcases might be off loaded so that someone could enter. This, then, necessitated a floor by floor search for your bags. Checking into a hotel and getting to your room sometimes took the better part of a day. It would not have been so bad, but after the ordeal you needed a drink badly and the bar was always on the first floor. You had to use the stairs because the elevator was loaded with someone’s luggage.
There were numerous other things that were a tribute to the success of this ministry in inflicting aggravation and irritation. For example, it was absolutely forbidden to have smooth sidewalks, especially those in the vicinity of airports, train stations or hotels. If you had a suitcase with roller wheels the irregular surface of the sidewalks made it impossible to tow it very far without it falling over.
It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the Ministry of A&I began to lose its influence. Before that all Aeroflot planes had to have open overhead bins (the ministry did not allow overheads with closed and latched doors). Any turbulence during a flight resulted in some interesting items bouncing out of the overheads and landing in your lap or on your head - chickens, paper bags full of eggs, someone’s dirty laundry, a birthday cake, and - no lie, it actually happened to me - a box of live crayfish. In full disclosure, the owner of that box, perhaps fearful that it would fall, had taken it out of the overhead bin and set it in the aisle next to his seat. The vibration of the plane panicked the crayfish and, before the owner noticed it, a number of them escaped and dispersed under the seats - causing a mild panic among the passengers before most were rescued and returned to the box. I never learned why he had a box of live crayfish - perhaps some Siberian Étouffée recipe? Today in Russia the equivalent of our TSA now has crayfish detectors at each airport.
Finally, the Ministry of A&I came up with a brilliant scheme to announce its existence and importance to anyone arriving in the Soviet Union: speed bumps the full length of all airport runways. On an Alaska Airlines flight in the early 1990s, we touched down on the brand new runway at Magadan and immediately the plane bounced and rattled so violently that passengers appeared to be on an amusement park ride. Heads bobbed up and down, eyes bulged wide with panic and knuckles whitened. The shaking and rattling continued until the plane had slowed considerably, at which time the pilot came on and, in a vibrating voice rich in sarcasm, said “Welcome to Russia.” The Ministry of A&I had notched yet another grand achievement.