Russians, Vodka, and Reactors in Iran

A while back I started a new blog project of recording some of the more interesting anecdotes from my life.  This is one of them.

Our story begins sometime in 2003, I think.  I suppose I could look up the exact dates, but that would take effort.  And there’s no call for that.  I was two years out of my PhD, and had just ended a two year contract consulting for the NIH in Washington, DC.  My global health consulting career was still in its infancy, but I was lucky enough to be a consultant for CSIH for their $5 million public health strengthening project in Guyana.  It was my 4th or 5th mission to Guyana (out of umpteen I would eventually enjoy), so it was all still a little new to me.

Our team arrived in Georgetown and checked into our regular hotel, which was owned and operated by the Russian embassy.  I was shocked to see shirtless white men engaged in physical labour on the hotel grounds.  You see, in developing countries like Guyana, the labourers are always dark-skinned.  I asked around, and it seemed that the Russians insisted that any work done on their property had to be conducted by Russian citizens.  These men were Russians brought in specifically for these labour tasks.

As the days progressed, we observed Russian labourers languishing about the hotel grounds, keeping to themselves, but not seeming to be enjoying themselves.  One night, a handful of us were returning home late and were beckoned by one of the Russians to join him at his table by the pool.  He had already started drinking, and wanted us to join him.

He didn’t speak any English, but our project director spoke some Russian, so she translated for us.  The Russian was quite excited to have some company, and produced a massive bottle of vodka that we had to then drink.  If you know anything about Russian drinking traditions, then you know that when someone opens a bottle of vodka, no one can leave the table until the bottle is empty.   So the shots of straight vodka began then.

The conversation was fascinating.  Our host was a naval officer who hadn’t been home in months.  He was miserable, lonely and hated being in Guyana.  He and his crew had arrived on a submarine, which was parked somewhere offshore.  They had been brought to Guyana to complete repairs on the embassy.  He was the product of several generations of military men, had personally fought in Georgia and some other locations, and his father had fought in Stalingrad against the Nazis.  Truly gripping stuff.

As the evening progressed and the vodka filled our veins, each of us began to lose control.  For me, it was in the form of vision, as I was rapidly going blind.  That was some seriously strong vodka.  The final drops were poured and our host rose to get another bottle; luckily we stopped him before that happened!  But then I had the remarkable presence of mind to ask him an important question: “where had he and his submarine come from, before arriving in Guyana?”

“From Iran,” came the answer.

And what were you doing in Iran?

“Building a nuclear reactor.”  He said this without irony, and finished his vodka.

As drunk as I was –and really, I was fall-down, barely conscious drunk– I realized that this was important information.  The conversation continued on for some time after then, and I struggled to both stay awake and retain this important piece of information.

Finally, as we retired, I crawled on my hands and knees up the stairs to my room, with only one thought: stay conscious long enough to write down the details of our conversation. Remarkably, I got to my room –still on the floor– found a pen and paper, and scribbled: “call embassy –reactor in Iran.”  Then I passed out.

Was our bit of information important?  Who knows.  Was it even accurate?  Not my call.  But in the field of international development, you just never know who you’re going to meet or what they’re going to tell you.