One of my favorite Portland Monthly stories is “Pizza Diplomacy,” written during the exhilarating nervous frenzy that was Glasnost [November 1990]. Visit portlandmonthly.com/portmag/1990/11/pizza-diplomacy-life-on-a-soviet-freighter-2/].
The Soviet Union was collapsing, humanizing, redefining–call it what you will.
Outside the six-mile limit, the Soviet freighter Riga started to get lonely from her assignment of catching fish with a side of soft surveillance. Homesick, the crew impulsively snuck Zodiacs to the Rockland shore in the dark of night to score pizza.
In a burst of daring, our reporter jumped aboard for the return trip. (We’re sometimes asked what’s the difference between Portland Monthly and other media in Maine. Well, here it is.)
Fearless and friendly, our writer Kevin LeDuc charmed the crew, drank with them, sang with them, conducted an extraordinary interview with the captain, and returned from a whale of an encounter fresh with intimate photographs and frank observations of life on the other side of the mirror. It’s memorable for me because it’s an internationally significant story with a local dateline. It symbolizes what we try to do with every issue of Portland Monthly.
We were the watched, the Soviets the watchers. Talk about a background channel for communication.
The story idea so touched our readers and our staff that it’s followed us for 20 years. Now it’s chased me across the Baltic Sea. In fact, I’m in the city of Riga, Latvia, this very second, having just left Tallinn, Estonia, yesterday.
First, I ask our Riga bus tour guide about Konrads Ubans (1893-1981), the Riga-born artist father of Juris Ubans, the influential painter and art professor who lives in Portland’s West End. Was Konrads really the cat’s meow? “Oh, yes!” our guide says. “Konrads Ubans is a big guy. Just Google him!”
Better when someone in Riga says it.
As our bus swings past Grand Hotel Kempinski, our guide entertains us with by-the-ways like “Riga is where Mikhail Barishnikov grew up before moving to Leningrad.” Conquered so many heartbreaking times, the city has always had an itch for freedom.
During a break, I ask him off-microphone about the fishing ship Riga–which was owned in Murmansk–and the political climate in 1990. This was just before another imminent collapse–of the Gadus morhua fishing stock in Casco Bay.
Why fish so far from home? Was the Riga really visiting Maine to conduct soft surveillance of our shores?
A quick check to see who’s in earshot. He shrugs.
“Surely they were there for surveillance, too.” (Also better when someone in Riga says it.) Beyond spying on what we were up to at Bath Iron Works, the natural attraction was “shipping data from the New England coast up into Canada. Everyone was expected to do double duty. They were there for strategic reasons.” He smiles. “Also cod.”