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.