BACK TO THE USSR
No, they weren’t sending me into exile.
As usual, lots of things were happening in the company that I knew nothing about. It seems that in the two years since I’d returned from Moscow, Mattel’s International division had begun to think differently. They had already hired an expatriate Russian, Stan Levin to explore the opportunities for us there, and when Yuri Soloviev’s proposal for American and Soviet designers to work together to create toys for children of both countries again arose, Mattel corporate thought it was a great idea. My, my, how things change. It was decided that Mari Kaestle, Stan Levin. and I would go to Russia for ten days to collaborate with their designers. Sometime later, we would invite three of their designers to join us at Mattel to continue the process. Mari is an incredibly talented designer, who, before coming to Mattel had worked personally with Jim Henson designing some of the original Muppets. At Mattel she’d been very successful having created two acclaimed lines, My Child and Hot Looks.
Now the fact that Mattel corporate was behind this project made the atmosphere surrounding our preparations totally different than they were on my previous trip. We had the support of the Mattel ‘machine’, everything from press releases to our travel arrangements. We also had time to prepare and develop ideas we wished to explore there. Having Mattel’s involvement made everything so much easier and was a great asset. Or so I thought.
I had a couple of ideas I wanted to develop a bit before we left. When I looked back over the Soviet toys I had seen years earlier, I realized that one category not represented at all was what we call ‘male action figures’. Examples were G.I. Joe, He-Man, Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles etc.
I decided to develop a line of characters, accessories and stories where the heros were an American and Soviet team who work together secretly to right some of the worlds environmental wrongs. I had some comic book covers drawn up and prepared some general story lines for discussion.
My other idea wasn’t really a toy proposal. I wanted to create a doll of Mikhail Gorbachev as a tribute. He and President Reagan were changing the world and indirectly made our trip possible. Then I realized that if I pasted the letters GO over the first two letters of the word BARBIE I got ‘GORBIE’. How cool was that.
With the talent in our group, Mari, Hussein Abbo, Mike Lehman and others, we created the first, and only, GORBIE doll.
I had fantasies of personally presenting the doll to Gorbachev himself.
Now remember when I mentioned how great it was to have Mattel’s full support? Well, when Mattel’s legal department heard about this trip they did what lawyers do, they drew up a document, maybe 10 pages long, saying essentially that Mattel was not obligating itself to anything associated with this project; not obligated to produce anything that may come from it, not licensing anything to the Russians, not, not, not..
It was legal overkill and probably unenforceable, nonetheless they insisted that we get this document signed by the Russians before we proceeded with the project.
I sent the whole thing over to Stan Levin to take care of. After all, he was the business guy, right?
AND WE'RE OFF
The three of us headed to New York where we boarded a Pan Am flight direct to Moscow. There we were met at the airport by the Soviet designers we would be working with. It turned out that they were all members of the Ukrainian Designer’s Union and we would all be leaving on the next flight to Kiev and then on to Artek, a renown Children’s camp in the Crimea, on the Black Sea.
We barely had time to say hello before we were taking off again. This Aeroflot plane was quite amazing. It was huge, all coach (no first class) but more interesting was that there was no baggage check-in. Everyone carried their luggage up the steps into the belly of the plane, and then seemingly threw everything into a big pile in what looked like a huge room with plywood walls before climbing some more steps into the main cabin. It was great.
We landed in Kiev where there was a van waiting for us for the trip to Artek.
We arrived at night and in the morning we awoke to see our amazing surroundings.
Artek was a huge and wonderful creative camp for lots of children from all over the Soviet Union and the communist world. I gathered that it was quite an honor for children to be selected to spend some time there. It was right on the Black Sea and our rooms were in a building carved into the rocky coast. In fact, the natural rock formed some of the rooms’ interior walls.
Our Ukrainian hosts had obviously gone to a lot of trouble to put all this together. With all these kids surrounding us in this magical place, I thought this whole experiment might actually succeed.
THE FIRST DAY
There was Yuri, VP of the Ukrainian Designers Union and their team leader, Leonid R., Leonid B., Larissa, Piotr, and Dimitri, their translator. They were very proud of having organized their portion of the project at Artek and had even prepared an original, creative logo and stationary for our joint venture. It seemed like we were all delighted to have actually made it this far, and were all looking forward to what was to come next. And then we hit the (legal) wall. Stan Levin took out the agreement that Mattel legal had sent along with us. Since this had never been discussed before the Ukrainians were at first surprised, then confused and then just plain angry. “Why wasn’t this done before....Perhaps we should be the ones making YOU sign...etc”. Believe me, everything is much more complicated when everything has to be translated. Stan Levin did his best to explain, but it was probably impossible for him to explain our lawyer’s obviously one sided concerns. At times the whole thing looked like it was going to collapse right then. I kept hoping that the second half of this project, with three of their designers coming to California, was enough of an opportunity for them to keep everything from falling apart. The whole discussion took hours, with their distrust and disappointment growing to the point where I wondered if, even if they signed, there’d be any real point in continuing. After we were all talked out they reluctantly signed the papers.We went to lunch hoping to repair the damage.
I showed my Russian/American superhero line and comic book pages. I explained how, in America, male-action figures were a big category of boys toys and sales, and how stories introduce characters and ‘playpatterns’. I talked about how Mattel produced ‘lines’ of toys, not ‘items. When I was finished I waited for some response from the group.
“I’ll always remember the next thing I heard: Leonid R. simply said “This is nothing. Let’s get back to the toys”. And one of the Ukrainian designers started showing their ideas.
“Nothing” I thought as I sat down quietly and didn’t hear anything anyone said for a while. Was this a response to our earlier legal disagreements? Did I not explain my idea clearly? Were our cultural differences too large to understand each other’s toy context?. Maybe.
“Nothing!” It was going to be a very long ten days.
I’m just about to close the door to my room when Leonid R. stops by to say goodnight - extending his hand. I’m hoping this is a friendly gesture to make up for his earlier “nothing’ remark, but as we shook hands I felt a note being passed into my palm.
This doesn’t really happen, does it? I quickly shut my door and leaned against it with my back. I opened the note. I read:
Dear Mr. Resnicoff... I have admired your country for so long....my family would like to emigrate...could you possibly...
Holy Shit! My first thought was “Do I have to eat this note?” All of a sudden I’m “Back in the USSR!”. Intrique...secrets...the KGB...defections...
Fortunately, I was too tired to think too much more that night and I fell asleep.
We spent the days talking about ideas and also meeting the kids at Artek and showing them
the toys we’d brought along from Mattel. Even though things were moving along, one thing that bothered me was that almost always the Ukrainian designers seemed to object to, or fight against any ideas that we proposed.
Frustrated, I finally asked just why that was, not really expecting an answer. “It is because by opposing you. we make you stronger” Piotr said, pressing his palms together isometrically to illustrate his point. Now I understood. It wasn’t because they disliked a specific idea, it was cultural and perhaps economic too. At Mattel, conversations and decisions were ultimately limited by the need to, essentially, get the product on the shelf for Christmas. In their society, with much less emphasis on consumer products, (and no Christmas) debates could go on forever. We discussed all these things and the more we learned about each other the better it got.
“So?”, Yuri said, “Your Barbie cannot stand by herself.”
Checkmated! I’d never thought about that symbolically. What he was essentially saying was; “Hey, maybe our dolls don’t smile, but your American Barbie can’t even stand on her own two feet.
Shut me right up.
In an instant I was outside too...and there it was, a light in the sky..moving strangely. I tried to steady the camera and save battery power just in case ‘they’ landed.
It was there for 15 minutes or so and then disappeared. After it left the kids went back inside to continue exploring our toys which had somehow become a little less interesting because nothing, nothing beats a U F O !
THE CHICKEN FACTORY
Once in the Ukrainian countryside it quickly became very rural. We came upon a big sign that turned out to announce a Collective Chicken Farm. We stopped there to ask where we might find the oldest person in the area who might remember my family name Resnicoff.
The ladies of the collective weren’t expecting a visit from an American that day but they were very friendly and helpful. They told us of an old man who lived in a farmhouse not too far away and we went off to find him.
Then I hoped that we weren’t too close to Chernoble.
The pins I had with me at this time were of the Statue of Liberty. I passed them to the rear seats and went back to watching the snowy landscape pass by when I heard a strange sound behind me. I turned to see Lennie and his friend staring at the little pins...and crying. Crying just for the idea of America.
That said it all.
This was the first chance I had to try to get my Gorby doll to Gorbachev, but it wasn’t like I could just pick up the phone and set it up. For one thing the Designers Union provided our accommodations and they were in an apartment attached to a factory quite far from the city
But as luck would have it Gorbachev was, at that moment, on his way out of the city for some important meeting and wouldn’t be back until after we were gone. I was disappointed but we were heading home tomorrow and right then that was pretty much all that I was thinking about.
The second half of this project was for the Soviet designers to join us at Mattel in California for ten days to continue our work. The way this was structured was that the Soviets would cover all our expenses once we landed in the USSR and we would reciprocate when they landed in the USA. The unspoken issue, until now, was that three of us had come to the USSR, meaning that three Soviets would be invited to America. Three out of six. See the problem?
It was very clear that coming to America for them was an opportunity beyond anything they could imagine.
"Of course I must be included for I am the team leader"...."I must go to translate"...."I should go because..." And then there was Lennie's note too.
There was pressure on me to decide right then and there but there was no way that I was going to do that so they all just had to settle for my "let me see what I can do when I get back".
And the next morning we took off for America.
Flying to Moscow from California (and back) was a long long trip. It just so happened that before I left LA, Nintendo had just come out with their first Gameboy that featured the wonderful, and time consuming, game TETRIS which was actually created by a Russian designer. It made the flight go a bit faster. Now before I left to head home I had the pleasure of meeting Lennie's family, his beautiful wife Svetlana and two young sons Ken and Steve. I just happened to have the Gameboy with me (which they had never seen before) and naturally they were enthralled. Now, I really wanted that Gameboy to ease the boredom of my return flight but after seeing their boyish excitement, and appreciating the kindness Lennie showed me, I decided to give it to them as a present.
They didn’t have to ask twice. I was very appreciative of Mattel’s support for my ‘ideas’ and didn’t need to bite the hand...
I went back to our office and told Susannah. “What should I do?” “Just take it out of here”, she said. “Can I have it?” “Sure”.
So I did.
Finally someone picked up, (the connections were always poor), and I began to say who I was and where I worked. Then on the other end I heard “Hey - quiet down everybody, I’ve got Barbie on the phone”. You could just tell they were all smiling in Moscow. I explained about our Artek experience, which they had actually heard about, and how I really thought Leonid would be a credit to our country and a great American. I said he had submitted his papers already and I’m sending a letter of support from Mattel. The man I spoke to said “OK, thanks for letting us know, let me see what we can do here”. I thanked him and hoped for the best.
Then I spoke to Jill and Susannah regarding the issue of how many Soviet designers we would be able to invite to California. After adding up our projected costs they both agreed that we should go ahead and invite all six. Boy, were they going to be happy in Kiev.
USSR IN CALIFORNIA
“Do you think they have it here, Stenley?” he asked.
"I’ve only heard and read about it!"
“What are you talking about?”
“Maybe it’s here?”
“Alka-Seltzer” Yuri said.
The Ukrainian designers met and worked among us for a week or so and got to sample California life. Mattel threw a really nice luncheon for them and had a show of all the Soviet toys they had brought with them.We even made it onto the evening news.
By the way, Lennie happily told me that he, and his family, had been given the ok to emigrate to the US. He seemed to think I had something to do with it. Maybe I did.
When it was over we said our good-by’s and they headed home. At about the same time as our trip the Soviet Union would break-up and the Ukraine would become independent.
PS: Lennie’s family emigrated and settled in Northridge, California in 1994, just in time for the Northridge Earthquake. They all were ok. Welcome to California !
Note: Now in California Lennie worked with me on many projects including the award-winning GeoSafari CD-ROM series and illustrating my epic poem 'THE BIG PARADE'. Check out that part of the story under the title CAPITALISM on this blog. And those boys? Well, Steve told me that the first thing they did when I gave them the Gameboy to take it apart and study every little chip and component. He said it was one of the best days of his young life!. And today, both boys are happily married with families, Steve is an engineer and Ken a doctor. What else can you say? God bess America.