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Posts Tagged ‘Soviet manufacturing’

From Russia, with some manufactured love

December 14, 2019 3 comments

Having my old Soviet mechanical watch smoothly ticking on my wrist feels like a reunion with an old friend. This one is especially sweet to see back in action. Firstly, it was an inaugural repair job for me by a talented apprentice watchmaker, my nephew-in-law. It is also a gift from the great, late Bill Montalbano, chosen as we went wandering about the quaysides of Istanbul nearly three decades ago.

Not least, though, it is a survivor of the underestimated world of Soviet manufacturers. When Bill gave it to me, the Berlin wall had only just fallen. Many Turkish cities had what was called a “rus pazarı”, a market where the flotsam and jetsam of the Soviet Union beached up on rough trestle tables attended by thickly clad traders from Georgia, Tataristan or any of the 1,001 points of the exotic ex-Soviet compass.

New Doc 2019-12-15 12.11.59_2 (1)Bill was always my ideal of what a famed foreign correspondent should be, a larger-than-life, roving American writer for the Los Angeles Times who for several years took me under his wing as a translator and fixer in Turkey and Iraq. He was not just unfailingly generous with his gifts and commissions to a struggling freelance reporter, but he also taught me much about how to see the world – and foreign desk editors – from unexpected angles during our many shared adventures.

Bill loved to shop as well, and our visit to the rus pazarı was probably my attempt to keep him away from another foray to enrich the silver-tongued salesmen of the Grand Bazaar carpet shops. I preferred the ex-Soviet novelties and on one trestle table I was surprised to see a timepiece named a Komandirskie, or Commander. It was made by the a manufacturer called Vostok, and was graced with a tiny picture of the legendary T-34 tank, presumably to appeal to officers in Soviet armoured divisions. I loved it straight away. Wikipedia says the tank “possessed an unprecedented combination of firepower, mobility, protection and ruggedness.” The watch seemed the same, minus the firepower. But after many years’ service, it started gaining 10 minutes a day and I folded it away into my large box of not-quite-so-active timepieces.

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A few months ago, however, when I heard that my Dutch nephew-in-law Robert Stephenson had become an apprentice watchmaker, I asked him to take a look. I just got it back. It’s running sweetly as a nut, and as spot on time as any of my watches ever seem to be. Robert reported that after a few decades the insides needed a service – some dried oil on the 17 ruby jewels – and he judged the mechanics as good and slightly simpler than any Western watches he’s been practicing on. He had to buy a new Vostok movement to find a replace cogwheel or two, but that was easily available, inexpensive and little changed from my 1970s or 1980s model. A bit like a Land Rover. What other Western manufacturer, committed to rapid redundancy, would have allowed that to happen? Certainly not Longines or Breitling, whose representatives throw up their hands at the idea that my 1980s treasures can be revived.

Gazing admiringly at the red second hand scooting round the black Vostok watch face also made me think of the Western scorn of the Soviet Union and Russia, which for me surfaced memorably during a mid-2000s geopolitical talking shop in a fancy Italian villa. A British grandee who was leading a panel discussion of East-West relations suddenly and airily asked the audience: “After all, who has anything made in Russia in their houses?”

I was so astonished I failed to reply. The speaker clearly meant it as an illustration of his argument that Moscow led a nation of losers. But I immediately thought of the Kalashnikov automatic rifle, which is a Soviet product that I knew well from decades as a Middle East correspondent. It is beloved by guerrillas and some armies because it is good at keeping going in messy, dirty, adverse circumstances, that is to say, real life wars. And you can replace bits of it from any factory and any decade of manufacture. Of course, I didn’t have a Kalashnikov in my house. And by the time I’d thought through a witty enough response to the clever British lord, the discussion had moved on.

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So I had no chance to mention the bone-handled, silver-alloy set of Soviet cutlery I bought in Kyrgyzstan. The robust Russian binoculars that I use for star-gazing in Turkey. The fine drinking bowls made of Abkhaz black clay, bought in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The Soviet-era noodle bowls from Baku, whose pretty hand-painted design remains as vivid as the day I bought them. And a rugged micrometer in service in my workshop. All are more than three decades old, and still going strong. As, now, is my watch, even if it very occasionally needs a good knock on the table to get it going.

The Russians have proved equally resilient, bouncing back from their early 1990s breakdown. Back when Bill bought me my tank commander’s watch, we felt sympathy for the straitened circumstances of the ex-Soviet traders. We would never have thought that 30 years later I’d be doing podcasts on “Russia’s Winning Streak”, as I did last week for my employers at the International Crisis Group.

20191110_170843This is not to say I have many illusions about the Soviet Union. After Moscow gave up on the Cold War and we started reporting in ex-Soviet states, I well remember the dead-beat apathy of Azerbaijan, the environmental catastrophe of Uzbekistan and the empty streets and shops of Turkmenistan. But that was never the whole story. I hope that after all they’ve been through, the Russians and other ex-Soviets are now enjoying at least a few of what Bill would have called “personal indignity points”. These were personal treats, like fine meals, charged to newspapers to punish editors for, say, not recognising the full value (to us) of a hard-won story. Or, perhaps, the endurance of an overlooked watch.