Blues Notes on Red Tape


During the recent high drama in Moscow, as the Soviet Union teetered between a melancholy past and an unpredictable future, I kept remembering Andrei's Blues.

Andrei's full name is Andrei Genov. He's a slim young man of 32 with a quick smile, curly brown hair, and a habit of ducking his head slightly when he talks, which makes him seem a little younger and shyer than he really is.

Blues is a 28-foot sailing sloop with a blue hull and her name, in Cyrillic characters, lettered on the stern. (It's for the color and also for blues music, which Andrei loves.) Andrei built her, single-handedly, in his backyard in Kishinev, his home town in the southeastern Soviet Union. In the Union for now, anyway; Kishinev is the capital of Moldova, one of the republics that is likely to break away from Soviet rule.

Andrei spent seven years building his boat, and a lot longer than that dreaming about her. Long before she was built or named, Blues was his vision of freedom. "The chief idea," he said instantly when I asked why he had dreamed since childhood about a boat of his own, "is: I don't want anybody to tell me what to do."

Later, he said: "First, I want to be free. I didn't build this boat for sailing, I built to sail her where I want to sail." And still later, trying to explain where he got his passion for freedom, he told me: "Just from inside. My intuition told me. I always hated to do what [others] told me to do. I always knew they were not right, but I couldn't prove it. What's the big idea, one person telling another person what to do!"

From outside the Soviet Union it's almost impossible to appreciate how difficult and unusual Andrei's project was. It wasn't just a matter of hard-to-find materials or having to learn all by himself, through trial and error, how a boat is designed and built. It was also a matter of a society that neither understands nor trusts anyone who is a loner or a dreamer.

Except for his mother and sister, Andrei says, everyone told him he was insane, that his project would never succeed. Once the police came around to question his sister and several work-mates and friends, asking why he was doing something so outlandish. (After Blues was finished, a coast guard official still couldn't believe Andrei had actually built her. "It's impossible," the official told him. "He thinks all people are like he is," Andrei said scornfully. "If it's impossible for him, it's impossible for everybody.")

Andrei persisted, working nights so he could spend his days on the boat, improvising or scrounging from shipyards for fittings or materials he couldn't find in shops. In August 1990, Blues was ready to go in the water. Andrei quit his job and spent nearly his last 800 rubles to have her trucked 100 miles to Odessa, the closest port. There, his dream of freedom collided with Soviet reality.

First, as Andrei tells it, officials at the Odessa Yacht Club, which has the only pleasure-boat anchorage in the city, wouldn't let him put Blues in the water at all. In what looked like a clear case of extortion, one of the club's "captains" offered to buy her for a ridiculously low price, telling Andrei he would never get permission to launch her.

With no money to pay for another truck and nowhere else to go anyway, Andrei swore he would blow up his boat rather than sell her.

After that, the club agreed to put Blues in the water. But then Andrei was told the regulations didn't allow privately-owned yachts in the anchorage. (Virtually all Soviet pleasure boats are owned by government bureaus or factories or other state-owned enterprises, not by individuals.) Reluctantly, through his sister in Kishinev, Andrei put the boat's registration papers in the name of a television factory there.

That solved the problem of an anchorage. Then the Yacht Club refused to recognize Andrei's yacht master's license from Kishinev. He could only take his boat out, they insisted, with one of their captains aboard. The man they sent knew no more than how to steer, Andrei says. "He didn't know seamanship, navigation, how to tie up, anything." Even worse, "he wanted to make orders. He broke the chief idea of my boat. I wanted nobody to tell me what to do, especially in this very small space!"

When I met Andrei, last May, that rule had been lifted. But all sorts of other restrictions remain. He has to get permission FTC stamped in his logbook each time he takes his boat out, must have at least one other person on board ("We have instructions you can't sail by yourself," a club official told him; "I don't know myself why, but you can't.") and must be back in the anchorage no later than eight o'clock each evening.

Sailing even to another Soviet port would require extensive paperwork and official permission that can be denied for utterly arbitrary reasons. (Andrei knows one other man who built a boat and then applied for a permit to sail to a destination only 25 or 30 miles away. He was told: "You ought to take a bus.") As for sailing to any foreign port, Andrei thinks there is "maybe one percent hope" of getting permission, so he hasn't bothered applying.

So, almost a year after launching Blues, Andrei's dream of sailing where he wants can be realized only inside the small space of sea within a few hours' sail of Odessa. He has not given up on his "chief idea" of freedom, he insists. But he is depressed and resentful. "Why should I spend my life waiting because of these rules, these stupid laws?" he asked bitterly.

Amid the euphoria after the Moscow coup, the story of Andrei's Blues is a useful reminder that while reform and glasnost have brought political freedoms to the Soviet Union, such as the freedom to criticize in speech or in print or to organize politically in opposition to the Communist Party, they have not dismantled a heavy-handed bureaucratic system that imposes all sorts of controls on people's lives.

Rigid rules -- regulating where people may live, among many other things -- restrict not just the quirky souls like Andrei, but virtually every Soviet citizen. (Olga, for example, who when I met her had just graduated from the Odessa Conservatory and was desperately pulling every possible string for a permit to stay in Odessa instead of having to return to her home town in the Crimea, where opportunities for a pianist would be much less. At almost the last minute before she would lose her residence permit, Olga finally succeeded.)

I never had a chance to sail with Andrei, but once I saw Blues out on the water. She was reaching on a steady ten-knot wind, heeled over, white sails and blue hull gleaming in the slanting afternoon sun. She looked, and I imagine Andrei at that moment may have felt, gloriously free. Like the jubilant citizens of Moscow, perhaps, after the tanks rolled out and the statues fell and the world hailed a great victory for freedom.

The distant, graceful image of Blues out there on the sunlit sea, after Andrei's lonely, stubborn struggle to build her, seemed in its own way another small triumph for the same cause. For Andrei and for his countrymen, though, much more must change before the dream of freedom is fully real.

Arnold R. Isaacs, a former foreign correspondent, recently spent six weeks teaching in Odessa.

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