As I sat waiting for the fifteen-minute examination time after receiving my Covid vaccine yesterday I had time to reflect on my minor role in resolving the HIV pandemic some years ago. My contribution to the defeat of this plague came by accident.
From 1992-1997 I spent weeks working in the Russian Far East, primarily in the port of Vanino on the Sea of Okhostk creating an import facility for the import of alumina and other supplies to the Russian aluminium industry and an export hub for the finished metals from the Siberian smelters. In order to get to Vanino. I would fly from London to Moscow (Sheremetevo Airport); change to a flight to Khabarovsk from Domodedevo Airport. When I reached Khabarovsk, I would try to catch a smaller plane to the airport at Sovetskaya Gavan and from there, by road, to Vanino.
The weather was not very favourable from Khabarovsk. It was often windy, foggy and snowy. This meant I had to wait in Khabarovsk until a plane was available. I was regularly stuck for a few days in Khabarovsk when the weather was too bad to fly on to Vanino. I had to either hang around for better weather or take the twenty-six-hour train ride to Vanino on the Baikal-Amur Railway. I had tried the train once and it was a Hogarthian nightmare of thieves, bandits, hookers and commerce that covered all tastes. I was sure that I could catch every communicable disease known to my species on that train if I didn’t stay awake and vigilant. I vowed never to do the journey twice.
On my days waiting to go to Vanino I walked around Khabarovsk. When I first got there, it was fairly derelict but, as the winds of commerce swept in from Asia (China, Japan and Korea) and from the West, the city prospered. New restaurants popped up. No longer were little old ladies selling shrivelled apples in the street. Soon they were dressed in Chinese down jackets and vests and they were selling ice creams, Western sweets and computer books. The change was dramatic. I even spent some time at a contemporary art show which was excellent.
I walked along the market and looked in the shops. It was very impressive. Even the young lady selling ‘kvass’ (a fermented bread drink) out of a twenty-foot tanker looked happy at the new surge in business. The only woman who seemed sad was the young lady in the food shop selling “smetana” (sour cream). I always bought some smetana from her and asked why it was fermenting instead of fresh. She told me that her boss insisted that she sell the old stock first, so no one ever got to buy fresh smetana. This upset her as other shops were starting to sell smetana which was fresh, and she was losing business. That made her smetana even older. I asked her how much smetana she had left of the old stock. She showed me three big boxes. I told her I would buy all the old smetana from her so, thereafter she could sell fresh smetana like the others. The whole transaction cost only around US$16. I bought all the smetana and gave it away in the street outside and told everyone that they would only get fresh new smetana at the store. The girl’s face beamed; I had never seen anyone so pleased. I met her a few months later and she smiled and told me I had changed her life.
In the evenings I would stay mainly in my hotel and have some coffee in the two bars. Many were filled with Westerners (as it was a hotel for foreigners) who were learning about the New Russia. There were a large number of Scottish engineers, brought in to work on the new projects in Khabarovsky Krai and on Sakhalin Island. We got on well as we compared regular notes on the state of Scottish Second Division football (they mainly supported Montrose while I have been a keen supporter of Cowdenbeath).
Downstairs there were also groups of Russian young men, with short hair, leather jackets and gold teeth. They were accompanied by a swarm of eligible females anxious for establishing good relations with these rich Western visitors. The enterprise was a thriving concern and, unless there was some conflict, satisfactory to all parties. I got to know some of the young gentlemen as they periodically offered me aluminium in small lots which they “found” in their peregrinations; some of which I bought and had delivered to Vanino for one of my ships which carried the aluminium across Asia.
One evening a young man came to me to ask if I had any contraceptives to sell as his swarm of females had run out of supply. He didn’t expect a resupply for a week and wondered if I had any for sale. I explained that I had no condoms for sale as my regular line of business was shipping aluminium, sometimes copper. I told him I always carried two condoms with me in my passport case as a matter of habit and I could give them to him. I explained that I didn’t carry two condoms with me because I was preparing for any contact with a woman but rather because I had to carry them with me on my travels in Africa as a matter of safety and health.
I explained that if you are engaged as a tourist in African wars, as I frequently was, you occasionally had to walk around in the bush in remote area. Sometimes you had to pass through marshes, rivers and streams. African water is riddled with disease; from worms, to flukes to tiny pests. If you go through the water you are exposed to these creatures like River Blindness, Guinea Worm or bilharzia. One should never urinate in or near African water as these creatures swim up the stream to infect you. The safest way is to wear a condom when you are on trek, the best precaution. That is why I always carried two condoms in my passport case.
I went to my room and fetched the two condoms and gave them to the young man. Oksana, his girl friend examined the condom and expressed great surprise. She said that these condoms were thin and strong and would allow pleasurable sensations. The Russians produced a condom of a very heavy and thick rubber which they called ‘galoshes’ (rubber boots). They deadened sensation and were, generally, unsuitable for the task. She said that the Russians had such a high rate of abortions because there was a resistance to using ‘galoshes’. She asked me if I could arrange to bring supplies of Western condoms on my next trip. I said I’d bring some. She gave me four Russian condoms in exchange for my two Western ones.
I thought no more about it until I returned to London. I was chatting with a gay friend of mine to whom I related my condom story. He asked to see the Russian condoms and expressed a keen appreciation. He informed me that he, and many of his friends at the Colherne Pub, were very worried about the spread of AIDs. It was frightening gay people all over the world. He explained that the type of sexual preferences the gay people chose to participate in was often rather rough and abrasive; particularly as there was no in-built lubrication system associated with their preferred areas of endeavour. The Russian condoms, because of their heavier construction would be perfect in reducing abrasion and the concomitant risk of AIDs.
He suggested that he would give me two Western condoms to bring to Russia for every one Russian condom I brought back. Oksana had offered me two Russian condoms for every one Western condom I brought to Russia. A market was made.
Each time I flew back to Russia I would have a box of several dozen Western condoms and, on my way back, I would have a box of Russian condoms. I made no money on this but had a sense of success as such a simple act would both save lives and safety in the West and reduce abortions in Russia, a regular sexual Mother Theresa. The best part was the nods and winks of the customs officials as they inspected my luggage in the trips.
This carried on for about two months when I stepped aside from these exchanges as a prominent Mafia family in Vladivostok decided they could do a more profitable exchange instead of my barter. They were welcome to it. I felt I had done my bit to fight a pandemic.