"History, brewskies, and living like a Russian."
After being denied the shot of my book Russian Roulette at Red Square the previous day, I made this a priority for today. I had one other book remaining and I was going to be presenting it to our host, Alla Larina, at the Moscow Brewery tour later on.
So, when Vlade picked us up at our usual time this morning, we made a bee-line – as fast as a bee could travel in the snarl of Moscow traffic – back to Red Square. When we arrived about an hour later, Vlade parked the car close by and Tim, Dave and I jumped out to – as indie filmmakers say when they operate without a permit to shoot – steal the shot. I just hoped that our favorite spy Natasha wouldn’t be there to derail our plans.
As it turns out, it took a bit longer than we thought as Tim started chatting up a visiting group of tourists from Kazakhstan. It was a very large family and they were very friendly, especially when they found out we were from the US. We took a couple of pics with them along with my “money shot,” and then headed back to Vlade’s car, our mission completed.
The museum was easy to spot in the distance as it had a large edifice of a rocket being launched into the heavens. After taking a few photos outside, we got our tickets, went through security and entered.
The museum was large, two stories and contained literally hundreds if not thousands of displays. Once a huge source of pride for the Soviets, they had scored some early firsts in the 50s and 60s, quickly besting our own American space program. They had the first satellite in space, the first man in space, the first man to orbit, the first woman in space and on and on. Eventually we caught up and overtook them, but for a while they clearly had us on the ropes.
Inside we saw many displays and mockups of some of their early space hardware. Their was a full-scale mock-up of Sputnik 1, the first satellite to ever enter space and one that I had a very special kinship with; after all, it had been launched just one day after I was born.
Only the size of a basketball, it was sent into orbit with a path that deliberately put it right over the continental United States just to make sure the Americans couldn’t refute its existence. As added insurance, it broadcast a pulsing beep that was at a frequency that the Russians knew many US HAM radio operators could listen in on. The Russians were not to be denied their accomplishment.
Besides unmanned vehicles, they also had plenty of ones for man – and beasts! The Russians had used dogs as test subjects in the early days and they had mock-up of their capsule as well as their four legged spacesuits.
The greatest homage though was not surprisingly, to Yuri Gagarin. The first man in history to go into space and orbit the earth, he had reached such heroic stature that some in the country believe it eventually cost him his life. All of us were stunned to hear Vlade share with us the belief that many in Russia held that Gagarin was becoming TOO popular and outspoken about the government, and that they purposely sabotaged his aircraft and caused him to crash to his death. You see, even the Russians have their conspiracy theories.
One fanciful theory they did not hold with was that we Americans had not made it to the moon before them. There were several displays that lauded our own country’s own accomplishments in space, including a nod to the Apollo 11 crew. This is especially telling as they would much more to gain by denying the landing than any of the crackpots in our country that believe it was all a hoax.
Vlade again expertly guided us to our next location and we entered the cavernous factory and asked to speak with our host, Alla. Always curious about new and unique things to explore in Moscow, Dave had found out about the brewery and when he learned that they gave tours in English, set the wheels in motion for us to be their guests today.
Alla was attractive, charming, and spoke perfect English. Soon we were introduced to Mikhail, the head brew-master for the facility. He was short stocky lad who, besides beer making, was also was an expert in martial arts.
He and Alla began the tour by first showing off some of the many products that they manufactured. You could really sense a feeling of pride in Mikhail’s voice as he introduced us to the various brews, many of which had won competitions.
Next we saw some of the huge vats and mashing units that were part of the process. Unlike my experience in an oil refinery, the equipment and facility were so clean here you could literally eat off of the floor if you wanted to.
After seeing some of the vats, we were taken into an R&D lab where various brews were concocted, tested and, best of all – tasted! In short order, glasses were produced and we were all sampling our first Russian beers.
Our whistle wet by several varieties, we moved on to the control center. Like most modern facilities, the process was very automated and ran 24/7. Operators sat at control displays and monitored the process for any upsets or parameters going out of spec. Like the operators I knew at Chevron, and like most operators of automated systems everywhere, the hardest job they had to do all shift was to not go crazy with boredom.
We next moved to the automated packaging line where various brews were put into cans or bottles, boxed and palletized for delivery. In many ways the brewery was unremarkable and relied on the same automated machines that others did. The difference was in the people here, who exuded a real pride in their work and affection for the company.
No brewery tour would be complete though without more tasting and so we were escorted into the company canteen. Even though it was already into the afternoon, the canteen was filled with employees, mostly females. We would later learn that one Thursday a month, the company would put on a tea for the employees. Mikhail steered us through the room and over to a full-length bar. Again, glasses were produced and soon we sampling any one of the ten or so beers that were on tap.
We were all having a great old time imbibing with our hosts when I noticed a group of 4 young women sitting at a nearby table, eyeing me and whispering conspiratorially among themselves. Could they be co-operatives of our personal spy Natasha? I asked Mikhail what was going on and he went over to them to check it out.
He came back a few minutes later laughing and told me that they were arguing about if I was a celebrity or not. My curiosity piqued, I went over to the table and asked them exactly which celebrity did they think I was?
They all laughed at being caught and then proceeded to tell me that 3 out of the 4 of them thought I might be James Hetfield from the heavy metal band Metallica, while the lone holdout thought I looked like a movie star, but she couldn’t think of who. I’ve only been told once before that I looked like a movie star and that was the actor, William Hurt. When I told her my thoughts, she immediately felt vindicated and looked up William Hurt on her phone to show the others.
It was so much fun, I took a picture with them before we left.
Vlade’s apartment was on the 15 floor of a large building surrounded by others that were very similar. Even though we had been all over the city and had seen so many things over the past week, the one thing we had not seen were any single family homes. Vlade explained that “Dachas” were mainly located outside of the city and were typically owned by the well to do olgarchs. Most people owned – not rented - apartments in large units like his.
After being given a tour of his place, we all sat around the kitchen table and had pickled garlic, onions, cabbage, and cucumbers as a precursor to drinking the vodka. Next up was more pickled items to clear the palate and then finally, our main meal of Pemini and another entrée that was fried and reminded me of egg rolls.
And speaking of explore, why don’t you come along with me tomorrow as we check out the tallest structure in Europe, the Ostankino radio tower!