In 1970 in the Soviet Union I was offered a bribe which was part of an attempt to collect compromising information,“Kompromat”.
Now, in 2017, the term “Kompromat” is widely known because there is a suspicion that the new United States President has been lured into a “compromising” situation in Moscow.
Based on my experience, I would be very surprised if Kompromat incidents do not continue in today’s Russia. It is not an elaborate scheme.
You see. The strategy was and is not to immediately act on information —maybe not to act at all—but rather to have recordings available. Just in case it could come in handy some day. You could become a timely pawn in an exchange or your country could be goaded into some position by the information. Perhaps you could be susceptible to personal blackmail.
Here’s my story of how I avoided a Kompromat situation……….
We had been living in London England for six months and decided to return to North America in the summer of 1970 by way of the Soviet Union Trans Siberian Railroad followed by a cargo ship crossing the Pacific Ocean. “Let’s take the long way home home.”
When I was handed my Visa at the Soviet Embassy in London it listed me as “Journalist”. I had submitted my “Public Relations” profession. The clerk said they had no words or understanding of that term. Who was I to argue!
In London, we had an acquaintance who had frequently traded into the Soviet Union for a major European company. I told him my concern about my new “Journalist” persona. I was cautioned immediately about “Kompromat”.
In the most likely scenario I would be put in a position where I could be detained and exchanged or expelled in retaliation for expulsion of a journalist or diplomat from Canada or elsewhere.
Our friend — wise in the ways of Russian practices– explained how he had been tempted once with a sexual situation and had the good sense to avoid that entrapment. Because I was travelling with a woman companion, there would be no sexual offer to me. I would likely be offered some information or a news scoop of some sort. His advice. “Do not buy or trade ANYTHING.”
We were also told that most often the sham is readily apparent as there are giant inconsistencies in the behaviour of the person making an approach. At that time, the state would simply engage a citizen with the promise of their being rewarded with extra domestic and holiday travel permissions.
The offers or temptations to us would not come from professional spies. Approaches would be clumsy. Our friend suggested, few Russians had been exposed to the subtleties and intrigue of trickery because during the Soviet years there were few spy films or spy novels in the Soviet Union.
When an offer of newsworthy material happened at a hotel sidewalk cafe in Moscow the script played out exactly as suggested.
…….Enter at a side-walk patio. A cheery man, with a big smile and a question. “Amerikanskaya ?” The couple at a table were fast to reply “Kanadsky”.
With the word “drink” and hand signals of throwing back a neat vodka he sat and we exchanged a few drinks.
As we talked and drank his english vocabulary and usage improved vastly.
He had relatives in the Toronto area.
He taught aeronautics at a University in the Urals and was travelling to his home province in Western Russia for holidays.
I resisted saying any thing about my occupation. We were tourists and had no work intentions. He kept insisting and I finally said, “public relations”. From that admission he finally elicited the fact public relations was a little like journalism. By that time, I was enjoying the game.
“Ah ha, a journalist”. You and I should have a tête-à-tête.”
The subterfuge was ridiculous. Anyone who knows the common usage of that french phrase in english had certainly been hiding language skills.
In our tête-à-tête he said he had photos of student unrest and killings at his university near Omsk. (The subject would attract any avid journalist. Kent State killings in Ohio had happened about two months earlier). I could have the photos for ten thousand dollars.
How convenient! We were travelling with a declared letter of credit for ten thousand dollars.
I was adamant I am not buying or selling anything.
At his invitation we three went for a walk in a small park across the side street. There was another weak attempt for a sale. I told him “No” and suggested he go and tell “them” I was not a journalist and not buying or selling anything. The man agreed.
Egad. An admission of his “mission”.
I had avoided a compromising situation, thanks to the forewarnings from our friend in London, and perhaps with some good-sense from me.
The Russian summer night in the park was peaceful. Families walking hand in hand and a late evening glow in the night sky at eleven o’clock. We all had ice cream cones from the vendor at the park entrance, and then went back to our respective lodgings
Donald J Alexander
Дон Алехандер , Цанада
Back when Go Transit and the Regional Government of Niagara were just starting out (1969), Johnny Cash wrote and performed the song “I’ve Got A Thing About Trains”. Full of nostalgia, Johnny Cash mournfully finished the song “…….. Train train train, I’ve got a thing about trains”.
Sounds like a repetitive refrain from a few present-day Niagara area mayors and councillors. Letting the nostalgia and romance of trains be a “one-note-whistle”. Train Train Train is their “focussed demand”.
The way forward is “GO Service, GO service Go Service.”
Don’t get railroaded by a self-imposed “Romance of Rail.”
The greatest number of Niagara people and communities will be better served by a transit service not solely focussed on the iron rail.
An enhanced all-day GO Service for all Niagara people with frequent trips includes:
- Express buses using the forthcoming High Occupancy Vehicle lanes on the QEW between Stoney Creek and St. Catharines. ( Some non-rush-hour Express bus trips will connect directly to the forthcoming electrified rail section starting in Burlington)
- A staged approach strategy. Use all means to design a GO transit SERVICE.
- A recognition that the two commuter trains each morning and evening will never replace the adaptability and nimbleness of connecting and through bus service.
- Transit hubs — which are glowingly described in the Region’s GO train plan—are often better located at a near-highway location with a GO terminal served also by connecting municipal bus service.
Here are some ideas for a future informed by a staged plan for GO SERVICE:
Here in Niagara for a long time we have had “Two Way” “All Day” Hourly GO Transit service. Buses from the Niagara Peninsula connect to Burlington Trains.
On some Friday trips there are express bus services making the trip from St. Catharines to Burlington in forty-five minutes. Much faster than a speeding train. An express bus links Burlington with the Park and Ride lot in Niagara Falls in fifty-five minutes. The weekend tourist trains take one hour and twenty minutes for that trip.
The new GO Transit station in Hamilton east, with rail link to downtown Hamilton opens next year at Confederation in Hamilton/Stoney Creek.
Let’s insist that GO Transit invest in a frequent Go Express Bus Service to and from Niagara hubs to the new Confederation station in east Hamilton.
The next move in the staged approach is for Niagara people to ask GO to speed-up the building of a full transit hub at Casablanca beside the QEW highway west of Grimsby. With that in place the full range of Niagara people from all parts of the region at all times of day ; students, business commuters, travellers, tourists, sport and event fans, even regional politicians, can all say “a full and frequent complement of GO SERVICES has arrived in Niagara.”
Even with those improvements the number of trains into Niagara will not be frequent nor is it likely they would be electrified beyond Hamilton. We will continue to rely on connecting buses to Burlington for many scheduled trips.
There are problems for frequent trains beyond Grimsby eastbound to St Catharines and beyond to Niagara Falls. Consider ridership, rail congestion and cost or indeed impossibility of ramping up the number of train trips.
About 16 km (10 miles) of track between Grimsby and St Catharines is one track.
A second track was taken out because all three trestle bridges in the section cannot support two fast-moving trains at the same time and it is better to highball one train at a time through that section. It was found that stopping and starting to stagger through the area of trestles was a bottleneck and the best way to solve it was one-track and direct and higher speed. Despite a 2011 environmental assessment suggestion to add the second track I think modern-day despatching on the existing single track is better than a double track requiring a “slow-order” or even a stop-and-go for all trains because of the trestle bridges in the 16 km stretch.
There are capacity limitations in the triangle of rail junctions in Hamilton near the Royal Botanical Gardens and the boundary with Burlington. Other route needs will likely limit Niagara train frequency in the near and intermediate future.
Commuter service frequency and speed has major problems on the 18km section between St. Catharines and Niagara Falls City Centre.
The number of train trips crossing the Welland Canal into Niagara Falls City is limited.
The Seaway despatch of ships is a finely tuned system that could never operate ship priorities and give too many trains right of way. The negotiated return train trips morning and evening are about all that could be expected on a scheduled basis.
Beyond the Welland Canal, approaching the stop at Niagara Falls City station requires trains to proceed with a “slow-order” of ten miles an hour for much of the way because of two long curves.
It takes a train 25 minutes to travel between St Catharines and Niagara Falls. That’s an average speed of 45km an hour on the 18km section.
For comparison, a present day scheduled Express bus trip moves from Niagara Falls to Burlington in just under an hour. The scheduled tourist weekend train takes one hour and twenty minutes for the Burlington-Niagara Falls trip.
The 2011 study to select a “preferred” solution for Niagara Region considered several services: bus, rail, and modern day demand management. A GO transit SYSTEM cannot afford to overlook any of the itemized solutions; express bus, traffic demand management and rail. A total system rather than a limited emphasis on rail would by the “preferred solution”.
The choices , as considered by the 2011 environmental assessment study are reprinted below:
1 “New or Expanded Bus Service: This alternative would involve the expansion of bus service on existing major arterial roadways and highways. The expanded service would be primarily an express service to enable the most efficient travel time for inter-regional commuter traffic. In order to improve the frequency and reliability of bus services, transit signal priority, rush-hour reserved bus lanes or dedicated bus-only roadways / transit-ways may be considered. Additional infrastructure would be required to support the increased number of buses such as new bus terminals and maintenance and storage facilities.
2 Transportation Demand Management: This alternative would involve the implementation of strategies or policies to encourage commuters to use alternatives to traveling alone (i.e., education through marketing). Some of these strategies could include High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) and Reserved Bus Lanes (RBL), area traffic/transit signal priority, parking management, congestion pricing, ridesharing, land use density increases and telecommuting.
3 New or Expanded Commuter Rail Service: This alternative would involve the expansion of rail service from Hamilton to Niagara Falls. This alternative would include construction of new commuter rail stations, corridor rail line improvements, and commuter train layover site to provide required train service to the Niagara Region. Current GO commuter rail service would be expanded within the study area, providing opportunities for increased ridership to/from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and within the expanded corridor “.
The people of Niagara and our many visitors will be best served by a melding of all three solutions.
Let’s all sing a rework of the Johnny Cash lyrics: “Trains, Buses and Traffic Systems Management.”
Don Alexander served on Niagara Regional Council and its planning committee for two terms in the 1970s. He was chair of the Transportation Committee which, lacking council interest, met rarely if at all.
In the mid 1960s Don was the Public and Government Relations spokesperson for the Seaway and was fortunate to be seconded to the Welland Canal Modernization Project which had a systems approach to designing a finely tuned despatch system and accompanying improvements that eliminated week-long delays in the canal. That project and its systems approach was led by Josef Kates of Toronto who later was a founding partner of Kates Peat Marwick , the firm that went on to become KPMG.
Don was raised in a “Railway Family” and through his father was familiar with capital projects and strategies for the pent up backlogs of infrastructure improvements resulting from the Depression coupled with World War II . He also saw the many aspects of the changeover from steam to diesel. In the early 1950s he worked for two summers as a student employee in the Bridge and Building Department of the Canadian National Railway.
Don has “A Thing About Trains” but does not let nostalgia warp design of a good transportation system.
In the 1990s Quebec was seeking Sovereignty after the Meech Lake Accord fell apart. The Accord had set out to decentralize some powers and recognize Quebec as forming a “distinct society”. The Ontario government established a Select Committee to find some different ways forward. I made a presentation called “The Idea of North”.
I had always appreciated the “distinct society” and particularly the Quebec cinema, music and theatre.
Perhaps the “arts” would be fertile peacemaking territory. Perhaps our shared northerness should be expressed as a common characteristic. In a presentation, quite unlike others, I celebrated shared northernness and then went on to express the strengths of a pan-Canadian and ultimately a circumpolar northernness. On an environmental note I spoke of the environmental fragility of the North presaging the frightening warming that’s now taken place.
My presentation became like a theatrical staged event! It seemed every time I spoke of northern cold or arctic conditions, someone came into the room from the north-facing doors and snow and wind from Georgian bay “whooshed” into the room. It became a “dramatic” presentation!!
On re-reading the following report from Provincial Hansard, published 25 years ago, I find it informative and particularly want to note that later that year Finland proposed a pan-Arctic Council and it came into being before the century was over. I still celebrate the vitality of Quebec arts, architecture and “northern spirit”. Read my two-gage presentation here: Pan Northern Presentation
I appreciated the photography of James Masters and shortly after making the presentation ordered prints of his photography from the Owen Sound Sun Times. We both liked the flag background, and the profile photo also captured the sense I was feeling at the time.
Wiarton Willie is one of the prominent Groundhogs relied on for Winter predictions. When I moved from the Bruce Peninsula to the Niagara Peninsula in 1997, I managed to remove some documents from the active Wiarton Willie files and establish the Wiarton Willie Archives in a Burrow in our backyard in central St. Catharines Ontario.
For a few years c1987 to 1991 I had served as a volunteer Public Relations and media relations person for the Wiarton Willie entourage. We were anxious to get more media outlets to pay attention to Willie and to contact us for advance interviews.
Our releases and backgrounders –refreshed each year–had some sly hints on somewhat absurd claims and colour that could be pursued in interview form with our phone bank volunteers:
-We claimed a photo was from a “Playburrow centrefold”; that Willie was an honorary citizen of the recently established Bruce Peninsula National Park, that his powers were due to his birthplace in a nearby field on the 45th parallel midway between equator and north pole, and that Groundhog reports were excluded from the Free Trade agreements being negotiated at that time.. On the free trade file we claimed that the Groundhogs could not tolerate “level playing fields” and insisted on fields of burrows and holes and mounds and uneven topography.
The topics attracted media calls from all over the Americas and broadened our reach and firmly established the preeminence of the Wiarton Willie Feb 2 Groundhog reports.
Major network and independent news outlets pursued the silly subjects and I am sure Fox news was one of the callers insisting it was all an alien plot!
I honour the founding efforts and continuing antics of Mac McKenzie who started it all on a weekend in the 1950s. Later, during his winter sailing excursions in the Caribbean, I was pleased to fill in with writing and concept of this annual postal campaign. That was a time when postal services were still used to contact media.
Three pages from the campaign are here:Wiarton Willie PR003002
Heroes in situ , Don Alexander 2014
A photo montage of banners installed on lamp-posts in downtown St. Catharines (Niagara Canada).
The banners depict local heroes from creative arts, peace and social justice achievements. Backgrounds often relate to the subject’s role or medium.
The photo montage was donated to the artist run Niagara Artist’s Centre (NAC) for a fund raising sale, “Small Feats” a collection of 200 works one-foot square donated by artists. I shot the banners “in situ” over a six month period.
The banners were painted by Niagara area artists members of the CRAM gallery and/or NAC.
Jane Jacobs – The Death And Life Of Great American Cities, 50 Years On. June 7, 2011 Niagara at Large online news
I wrote this piece with some thoughts about changing active transportation and street life in downtown St. Catharines, Canada.
Fifty years ago, we began to learn about city planning and living in a different way. The publication in 1961 of “Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs turned a corner in the way we think about cities. The book still resonates with those who think and plan about the future directions of cities.
I first read the book, with wonder, about 1963. I began to imagine a different future for cities. Since that time, I have measured many of the city sights I see against the potentials that were held in Jane Jacob’s book and in her later publications about the economies of cities and regions.
In the mid-1990s Jane Jacobs and I became friends and our friendship continued until her death in 2006. I came to appreciate the way she thought about things. Her writing 50 years ago helped turn aside the linear way of thinking about traffic growth and subdivision sprawl. As time went on she described her ideas and writing as being interlaced like a spider’s web, “a web way of thinking”.
I produced an educational TV program about her entire work and the evolution of her ideas (Jane Jacobs: Urban Wisdom, 45 minutes, 2002). In a series of video interviews over the years, Jane reflected on her writing and her ideas. She called herself a non-fiction writer and resisted the “urban-guru” nomenclature.
In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she felt the way streets worked was the key to understanding the potential of cities, “people weren’t just walking around or riding around with nothing on their minds but where they were doing all kinds of other things, by the way…the more you watched the more interesting and amazing connections you saw.
In the City of St. Catharines, for example, I have seen how a return to two-way traffic has again given pedestrians rights that had been lost to one-way traffic that was concentrating in getting through the area. It is interesting to watch cars now defer to pedestrians at crossings. A politeness has been achieved (mostly). Continue reading