Last time Soviet ships stopped here, even the vodka didn't help

Krist Boardman

June 08, 1993|By Krist Boardman

MOST readers probably didn't notice the small article in the newspaper recently, but the Baltic Shipping Co. is resuming its calls to the east coast of the United States -- Baltimore in particular -- after a long absence.

I did notice it because in the 1970s I "worked" for the Baltic Shipping Co., with its home base in Leningrad, now once again St. Petersburg.

It was 1975 when the company started calling on U.S. ports in earnest. I'd studied the Russian language enough to converse decently. I'd also worked in the export shipping industry for a few years and had the timing and luck to get a job with the U.S. shipping agency that had just landed the contract to represent most Soviet ships calling on U.S. ports.

This was made possible by the policy of detente fashioned by President Richard Nixon's secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, in the early 1970s, and carried out by Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev and President Gerald Ford.

As a shipping agency employee, boarding Soviet ships in the harbor and talking with Soviet ship captains in those days was exciting. We were frequently entertained with glasses of the clear, unadulterated vodka, which sometimes did little to take the chill off the relationship between the two superpowers. I found Soviet ship captains to be extremely reticent about expressing views on anything, for fear there would be reprisals. Nevertheless, we were all happy to be part of the effort to bring the world closer together.

Every Soviet ship had its KGB-controlled political officers on board to supervise thought and speech. On our side, the FBI was often around to take advantage of any opportunities to get information. Frequently Soviet ship captains working the North Atlantic trade were conversant in English, but occasionally charter or tramp vessels appeared with no one on board who could speak English even passably. Then the situation got very interesting.

One day I was called to a ship where a confrontation had developed between Coast Guard officials and the crew of a Soviet tramp vessel in Baltimore by way of Argentina and Cuba. Bolstered by a strong sense of anti-communism and newly promulgated regulations issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Coast Guard officials badgered the Soviet ship's officers, who simply could not understand what they were being asked to comply with.

As well as I could, I tried to unscramble the misunderstandings that had developed over whether discharge pipes were long enough and in the right places. The ship captain, who turned out to be a better chess player than I, appreciated my efforts to work out the problems, but he vowed never to return to the United States again.

His ship, whose name I've long forgotten, came from the White Sea fleet in the sub-arctic waters of the northern coast of the Soviet Union. Its home port was Archangelsk.

The impact of detente was staggering in terms of the amount of business the Soviets did in the United States at the time. Full shiploads of grain were regularly loaded at ports such as New Orleans, Houston and Baltimore, stimulating American farmers to grow more wheat and invest in greater production capacity. On the industrial side, Soviet orders for capital equipment such as machinery for manufacturing plants and other heavy industry were enormous and gave a huge boost to manufacturing enterprises in the East and Midwest at a time when they were suffering from a recession.

Of course, the Soviets had to figure out a way to pay for all of this, as they generated little hard currency from their own limited exports. A convenient way to raise the money was through an aggressive shipping policy.

Soviet merchant traders entered established North Atlantic and Mediterranean-to-U.S. routes. They competed with U.S. and other foreign merchant fleets for regular commercial cargo that was not bound for Soviet ports. The more goods the Soviets bought from the U.S. and the West, the more hard currency they had to earn. This inevitably created resentment among the owners of Western shipping fleets, as the Soviets horned in on steadily larger pieces of the action by offering cut-rate service based on lower wages.

After several years, the honeymoon was over, and Soviet ships were not welcomed in Western waters.

It wasn't just the Soviets' predatory shipping policies. They had just invaded Afghanistan. President Carter canceled the orders for grain as a protest measure, a move which created hardship among the farmers who had geared up for more business.

By this time, I'd long been out of a job, since the Soviets had transferred their own agency work to their own company and away from the American shipping agency I worked for.

And now the Russian-owned Baltic Shipping Co. re-enters a completely different world. There is no Soviet Union, shipping is not so aggressive, and the cash-strapped Russians will not be shopping so heavily this time around.

But they will be shopping. That is good news for American industry, which has supplied the Russians with capital equipment ever since the czar commissioned Americans to build and equip the trans-Siberian railway more than a century ago.

And some things, such as the glasses of vodka offered by the Russian ship captains, will never change.

Christopher C. Boardman writes from Joppatowne. Gilbert Sandler's Baltimore Glimpses will return next week.

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