“Peter…Peter Hagerty…. from Milton Academy.”
How could this be, the first Russian secretary I meet and she is talking about my boarding school? I smile and nod ‘yes’.
“I danced with you once many years ago at a party in Boston.”
Jesse Nielsen and her husband Steven had moved from Boston to join the Moscow office staff of Chilewich Trading Company, trading farm machinery, vegetable oils, precious gems and thoroughbred racehorses. I stood before Jessica elated.
“So Peter, what are you doing here?” asked Jessica over a steaming cup of morning tea. I had no memory of our past dance together but I quickly explained my idea of meeting a Russian shepherd, buying Soviet wool, blending it with our own wool and making a knitting yarn.
“Is someone expecting to meet with you here?” she asked. “Do you have an appointment?”
“No,” I replied, starting to feel foolish.
“Oh this might be interesting,” Jessica explained, sensing my faltering spirit. “First it is Friday and it is late August. Most businessmen take this day off and join their families at the dacha for a long weekend.” For some reason I suddenly became aware of my dress, old cowboy boots, a pair of stained pants and a non-matching coat and no tie. What was I doing here?
“Second, it is very unusual for a foreign businessman like you to arrive with no appointment. They often make visitors wait days, sometime weeks before they agree to meet them. This generates foreign currency for the hotels. But look, this is a slow day for us. We have good contacts; let me give it a try.”
So for the next hour Jesse worked the phones like a pro. With perfect Russian pronunciation she called friends and associates to find with whom it was I needed to meet. All at once she looked up from the phone with a smile. We had a name. Nikolai Borisovitch Emelianov, Firm Runo, 33 Architect Vlassova. Jesse called his office and just like that we had a 2 pm appointment that very day. As I rejoiced over a second cup of tea, an impeccably dressed young man entered Jesse’s office.
“Stephen, this is Peter Hagerty. He just arrived this morning from the States and he has an appointment with Nikolai Emelianov today. Strangely Emelianov seemed not surprised at my call, like he was expecting Peter.”
Stephen, Jesse’s husband and co-worker, extended me his hand in congratulations.
‘Look,” he said. “Today I only have a few things to do. I have some reports to file but I have a driver downstairs and Vlassova is a hard place to reach by metro. First we will have lunch and then I would be happy to accompany you to the meeting, if that is ok.” In just one hour everything had come together. I found my contact, met an old acquaintance and was about to go to Stephen’s club for lunch. I began to wonder if there was a higher power at work here.
“Mr.Hagerty, it is such a pleasure to meet you,” he said in perfect English. Dressed in a pin stripe tropical wool suit, Guicci shoes and Italian silk tie, Nikolai entered the door of the conference room and extended a hand in greeting. His attire stood in contrast to the bare, birch paneled walls and the portrait of Lenin by the window. He was not exactly the Russian shepherd standing on the hill with his flock but he was impressive all the same.” Why do I enjoy the honor of your presence today?”
As we had waited in this conference room for our meeting with Mr. Emelianov, the chief director of all fiber flowing in and out of the USSR, a moment of panic had seized me. My sport coat was crumpled and did not match my pants. My cowboy boots were worn and dirty. I felt very out of place and unprepared and shared my anxiety with Stephen. “Just be yourself. Don’t try and be anyone other than who you are and you will be fine.”
“Well sir,” I began “I am a sheep farmer from Maine. I am interested in purchasing a small amount of Soviet wool, perhaps one bale, import it into the US and blend it with the wool of our own sheep and market a knitting yarn called Peace Fleece.” If a smile and a frown can simultaneously coexist, it did so momentarily on Emelianov’s face.
“With all due respect,” Mr. Emelianov replied “this idea of yours will be very difficult We use all the wool we grow to meet the needs of the Soviet people. We have never exported wool to America. Why should I sell wool to you?”
“Because your President Andropov and our President Reagan agree that there should be more trade between our countries…”
“ Look, I know what our presidents say. Maybe I could sell you a container load but only one bale for your project, the paperwork would kill us. You come all this way for a bale of wool. Please tell me, why are you really here?”
I suddenly realized that this conversation was going nowhere. I remembered the woman I sat next to on the plane. “Don’t show your emotion. Be strong.” But disappointment was welling up inside as I realized how unprepared I was for all of this. I sheared sheep and cut wood, I was not an international businessman. I didn’t even have a decent business card much less Guicci suit. And I just assumed that when I met my Russian counterpart he would embrace the idea.
“Please,” Nickolai insisted “talk frankly. I am sincerely interested in your motives.”
I did detect sincerity in his words so I took a deep breath and struggled to gather my thoughts. I began by telling him some of my story, my history of the war and my wife and children in Maine.
“I have a daughter who is nine years old and a son who is five. I believe that if you or I cannot do something today, even in a small way, to bring our countries closer, then the chances that my children will survive this Cold War are lessened. My daughter may never know what it feels like to fall in love, my son may never see the birth of his own child. If you or I can do something in business to better understand who we are, maybe in a small way I will feel more hopeful.”
Emelianov stood up and walked down to the window by Lenin and looked out at the playground, his hands stuffed down into the pockets of his suit pants. Some of the children were playing summer hockey, others kicking a soccer ball into a goal. He stood there for a long time.
“You know, you sound just like my wife,” he finally said with his back to me. “And sometimes they are right ….” He then returned to the desk, picked up his phone and ordered an international call. We waited in an awkward silence for several minutes before the phone rang.
“Hello John, this is Nick. Yes, great. Hot summer here too. I thought it always rains in London. Look I have an American named Peter Hagerty in my office who wants to buy some of our Type 22 that is up in Bradford. Could you break off one bale of that lot and send it to….”
“Boston,” I mouthed.
“Boston. He can come to London next week to sign all the paperwork.” Nikolai nodded to me. I gave him thumbs up. And it was done. Peace Fleece was born.
This was the first of many trips I would make to visit with Nikolai. We became as close to friends as we could during those times. I helped to find his daughter a summer job in the States, he found me more wool when I needed it. I never visited his home and he never visited mine. There was a formality there that was necessary.
Then one day I got a call from him. He was doing some business in wool in Texas and was stopping in Boston on the way home. Could we meet and have a meal? I left Maine early on a beautiful summer afternoon and was soon shaking Nikolai’s hand in the lobby of the Harborside Hotel on Boston’s waterfront. I was regretting that I had not brought Marty or one of the kids to meet this man who had done so much for us. Nikolai invited me up to his room.
It was 1991 and things were very bad in Moscow. There was little food in the shops and it was dangerous to be on the streets, even in the daytime. He asked me if I would not tell anyone that he was staying in this luxurious hotel. He said that the Texans had paid for the trip and had insisted on making all the arrangements. Still, he felt badly enjoying this luxury when things were so rough back home.
Since 1985 when we first met, we had never been in a relaxed setting where we could just talk. Now it was awkward getting conversation going but over dinner we began to loosen up and I remember giving him a big hug when we said good-by. This would be the last time I would see him alive.
I was never sure what happened. Six months later when in Moscow I called his office and asked for him. I was passed from person to person until I reached Igor, his personal assistant. Igor spoke only Russian and after a pause, said sadly, “Peter, Nick oo-mer”. I was alone in Luba’s apartment at the time. I remembered the word as a dark one and thanked Igor in a sober tone for the news. Luba’s dictionary said ‘dead’.
The Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho believes that if one is on the right path, there will be people that will appear out of nowhere to make your journey through life a success. There have been countless numbers of people over the years that have appeared in my life to sweep away the rubble and make clear the way. Nickolai was the first on my journey and he will never be far from my thoughts.