ADEQUATELY describing Kenny Schaffer requires lots of punctuation.
He is a radio-hobbyist and engineer, an inventor, publicist, and entrepreneur. He is also a rock-star manager and Sovietologist.
Officially, he is a vice-president of Belka International, a small consulting company that he founded, with two friends, in 1986.
The company was named after a dog that rode into outer space aboard a Soviet rocket in 1960, and its activities are hard to categorize. Recent projects have included exporting American vodka to the Soviet Union, helping the city of St. Petersburg conduct a telethon to raise money for itself, and trying to persuade the mayor of Moscow to donate surplus Soviet prison overcoats to homeless people in New York City. In addition, Schaffer and his partners have set up what is in effect an independent long-distance telephone company inside the Soviet Union. Its clients include Chevron, Conoco, General Motors, Mobil Oil and a number of other large Western corporations that have Soviet offices but little tolerance for the primitive and unreliable Soviet telephone system.
Belka’s clients are able to circumvent this system entirely by using satellite telephone terminals that Belka imports, installs, and maintains (through a recently formed sister company called BelCom). The agreements that permit Schaffer and his partners to do this are highly unusual, and the company dominates the embryonic Soviet telecommunications market. At the Soviet-American summit conference held in Moscow last July, for example, the international telephone links used by most reporters were provided by BelCom. Schaffer’s involvement in such activities may at first seem surprising.
In appearance, manner, and general outlook, he seems less like an international businessman than like, say, a cross between Frank Zappa and Sammy Davis, Jr. He can speak only one complete sentence in Russian (“There are too many big mosquitoes”), and his view of international relations was formed not at the John F. Kennedy School of Government but in the world of rock and roll. He has spent most of his working life as a publicist for rock musicians (among them Alice Cooper, Jerry Garcia, and Jimi Hendrix) and as a quirky electronic tinkerer (he invented the wireless electric guitar). He became interested in the Soviet Union in the early eighties, after accidentally picking up Russian television shows with a satellite antenna that he had installed on the roof of his apartment building, in midtown Manhattan. “It blew my mind,” he says. “All of a sudden, I was addicted to Russia.”
Belka grew out of Schaffer’s addiction, and its success has been due partly to those aspects of his personality which seem least compatible with what he does. His “wiring,” to use his term, has turned out to be exactly suited to the task of exporting free enterprise to Russia. Schaffer and his partners have demonstrated a knack for feeling their way through the Soviet bureaucracy, and they have found lucrative opportunities where many other Western entrepreneurs have found only failure and frustration. As a result, Belka’s clients tend to be enthusiastic. The president of a large American corporation said, not long after his company received its first satellite telephone terminal, “I’ve seen people pull rabbits out of hats before, but Kenny is the first person I’ve met who could pull an elephant out of a jackass.”
In addition to being a successful businessman, Schaffer is an astute observer of Soviet affairs. On August 19th, shortly after the beginning of the Soviet coup, I called Schaffer to commiserate. He had been scheduled to leave for Moscow the day before, but his trip had fallen through at the last minute, for reasons that had nothing to do with politics. (A long-awaited shipment of telephone cable had failed to arrive in Siberia.) I expected him to be gloomy, since I assumed that the new Soviet regime would not look kindly on a company that specialized in improving communications between the Soviet Union and the West. To my surprise, though, Schaffer was upbeat, even elated. “I think Gorbachev will be back by the end of the week.”. “That’s not what they’re saying on TV,” I said. “According to the news reports I’ve been watching, troops are closing in on Moscow, and Yeltsin could be arrested or assassinated at any moment.”
“You sound like a Russian,” Schaffer said. “I spoke with a couple of my Soviet friends on the phone a little while ago, and they were in shock. They scared, and they were saying, ‘Oh, no, I knew this would happen, things will never change, democracy is impossible,’ and on and on. That’s exactly what Russians are like. Oppression and despair are so much a part of their bloodlines that these people had instantly reverted to the old way of thinking. It’s very hard for them to believe that the changes of the last few years are real. But look at these new guys. They’re bumbling morons. Maybe it’s foolish of me to speak like this, because in two days they could bring in Gorbachev’s dead body, but just look at the way this coup has been handled. It’s ridiculous. It can’t succeed. You know, in a lot of ways this so-called coup is exactly what Gorbachev needed. Yesterday, he was a lackluster performer whom no one liked. Today, the whole world is afraid that we’re going to have the Marx Brothers instead. The United States is on Defcon 3 for the first time since who knows when. This will teach us what happens if we don’t help the son of a gun out, and I think it will also teach the Russians how badly they need Gorbachev, and it will teach Gorbachev and Yeltsin how badly they need each other. The Russians are basically without experience in the art of compromise, which is what democracy really is. The whole problem with the democratic movement in the Soviet Union is that, instead of focusing on where they are united, they focus on where they are apart. That’s just immaturity, and that’s what they’re learning now. Oh, I wish I were there. I’d fix everything.”
Schaffer is wiry and his hair is dark brown. On some days, he looks a few years younger than forty-four, and on other days he doesn’t. He has a pair of horn-rimmed glasses that give him a studious, sophisticated air, but he almost never wears them. For most of his adult life, he has had a mustache, but the mustache comes and goes, and at the moment it is gone. (He shaved it off during the Gulf War, because, he said, “it made me look like Saddam Hussein.”) When he is excited, he talks at a high rate of speed, sometimes about several topics at once. He is almost always excited. A few years ago, he and a lawyer acquaintance flew to Texas to evaluate a business deal. For the return trip, the lawyer switched to a different flight, because sitting next to Schaffer on the way down had exhausted him. During interviews with Schaffer, I would typically ask him a single question — for example, “How’ve you been, Kenny?” — and then sit back in my chair while he talked, without further prompting, for the next few hours.
“We were into Russia before Russia was cool,” Schaffer told me one day not long ago in his office at Belka International, in New York. He had his feet up on a desk, he was smoking a cigarette, and a radio was playing in the background. Just audible above the radio was the theme song from “Bonanza,” coming from somewhere down the hall. Schaffer was wearing bluejeans and a sweater. On the floor near his desk was a single ant trap, and hanging on the wall directly in front of him was a small bunch of crumbling dried flowers and a black-and-white poster of a Soviet rock band. On another wall was one of those big monthly planners which highly organized people use to keep track of deadlines and appointments. Schaffer was using his to keep track of nothing.
“In the last few years, a lot of American companies have been attracted by the idea of doing business in Russia, but it isn’t as easy as it looks,” he said. “We tell our clients, ‘When you get off the plane in Moscow, forget everything you know.’ The wiring of the people over there is completely different. It’s like a Laurel and Hardy movie in reverse. In America, business deals are driven by numbers. In Russia, they’re driven by feeling. Russians have to connect very intensely before they do business — before they do anything. You don’t go in and say, ‘Stick with me and you’ll make a billion dollars in the next twenty minutes,’ because numbers are the last thing people look at. I remember being at a meeting not even two years ago, and talking with the heads of some major Soviet state committees — committees that have budgets of many billions of rubles — and one of these guys suddenly turns to me and says, ‘Kenny, please, can you explain concept of profit?’ It ain’t Madison Avenue, believe me.”
Not long ago, I talked about Schaffer with James Pike, an executive at Comsat, an international satellite communications company that provides satellite relays and international connections for some of BelCom’s satellite telephones.
PIKE SAID, “Kenny is genuinely brilliant. People sometimes underestimate him, because he can seem a little wild. His brain is sort of like a multitasking computer that has four or five programs running in the background, and every once in a while one of those programs will pop through, and he’ll say something strange. When that happens, people sometimes think that he’s a flake, but he’s far from it. When it comes to the serious side of things, he is an extremely capable guy. Several times in his life, he has done things that nobody had ever done before, and he’ll always surprise you. In Russia, we have found again and again that he can get into places and talk to people we can’t. Part of that is because in the Soviet Union a small company can often move faster than a big company, but part of it is just because of Kenny.”
In Belka’s offices last February, I spoke with one of Schaffer’s Soviet colleagues, a man I’ll call Ivan. (Like many new Russian entrepreneurs, Ivan is worried that his government’s tolerance for his activities could end at any moment, and he would prefer that his real name not appear in print.) Until a few months before, Ivan had held a secure, top-level job in a Soviet scientific agency. When Schaffer and his partners came to the agency to negotiate a contract, Ivan was so impressed that he left his job to go to work for Belka, quite literally betting his personal future on the future of Soviet economic reform. I asked Ivan to explain why he had been willing to take such a risk. He said, “When Kenny came to my office in Moscow, my colleagues and I were very much impressed, not only by the new, fresh ideas but by the personality. Kenny is a very, very unusual and interesting person, and when I went back to my office after meeting with him a colleague of mine just gave me a kick and said, ‘What a guy! A real scientist! Yet he also makes business!’ And so the idea came into the minds of my colleagues to meet Kenny again, and to feed themselves with the ideas that he generates. People simply find some material in Kenny that nourishes their minds when they talk to him. And I can demonstrate that this is my case as well. Kenny does not make my mind quiet and nonturbulent. He jumps from one level to another, and brings quite different pieces together. He makes me think always, and I like it very much.”
KENNY Schaffer has lived in the same large Manhattan apartment for twenty-two years. During that time, the apartment has become suffused with his personality. For example, among the several television sets he owns is a large one that he likes to watch while bathing. The set is too big to fit inside the bathroom, which Schaffer also uses as a storage room for electronic supplies, so he keeps it on a stool in his kitchen, which is just outside the bathroom door. Because of the way the tub is situated, he can’t see the television when it is in this position, so he keeps a shaving mirror on the cover of the cat-litter box, which is under the bathroom sink, and watches the screen reflected in that. Because the mirror reverses the image on the television’s screen, Schaffer modified the television so that the image the TV projects is itself reversed, causing the shaving mirror to restore it to its proper orientation. To change channels, he aims his remote control at the same mirror. His solution to the TV-and-tub problem is typical of his approach to many technological challenges. Rather than simply throwing money at the problem (by, say, buying a television small enough to fit on the cover of the cat-litter box), he fiddles with the materials at hand.
Schaffer’s apartment is on the top floor of a narrow building that abuts the southwest corner of the Plaza Hotel. The front door is covered with padded imitation leather held in place with brass studs — a decorating touch he picked up in Moscow. Just inside the door is the kitchen. On top of the refrigerator are some fake Coca-Cola cans, which wiggle if you touch them or make a loud noise near them. These cans are Schaffer’s second-favorite possession, after his motorized skateboard, which he kept for a while (along with his answering machine, his fax machine, his stereo, his record collection, and about ten thousand other things). A couple of steps up from the kitchen is the living room, which seldom looks the same from one week to the next. (“Moving furniture is my hobby,” he says.) The main furnishings are a large sectional couch and a rolltop desk, into which Schaffer has crammed both a high-powered personal computer and six thousand dollars’ worth of shortwave-radio equipment. Near the desk is a hexagonal aquarium that contains colored gravel, exotic-looking artificial plants, a ceramic lighthouse, and a bubbling air pump, but no fish. (“Oh, fish are too much trouble.”) On a wall near the aquarium is a control panel from which Schaffer can turn on and off all the electrical devices he owns. Down a hall is his bedroom, the walls of which are covered with dark-stained pine boards arranged in geometric patterns. The boards were installed a number of years ago by a German seamstress who had spent a few weeks as a house guest and wanted to do something nice in return. On a table beside the bed is a telegraph key that is connected to the computer in the living room. If Schaffer has a good idea in the middle of the night, he reaches from his bed and taps it out in Morse code. A program on the computer translates the dots and dashes into text. In the morning, he prints out what he wrote the night before. Then, after reading it, he usually throws it away. “That’s the trouble with ideas you have in the middle of the night,” he says.
Until recently, Schaffer’s kitchen ran along one wall of his living room. Suddenly bored with this arrangement, he hired some Soviet-emigre carpenters to move the appliances into what had previously been a small sitting room. He didn’t make the change because he needed more space for cooking. When left to his own devices, he eats just one medium-sized meal a day, usually in the evening, and takes most of his nourishment from Marlboro cigarettes. (Late one afternoon, having not had a bite to eat since breakfast, I dragged Schaffer to a coffee shop so that I could get a cheeseburger. “Eating was a good idea,” he said afterward. “I should think of it more often.”) Until a few months ago, Schaffer had an assistant named Anna Gurzon, who had emigrated from Russia with her parents about a dozen years before. Gurzon believed that Schaffer was dangerously thin, and she would sometimes call Burger Heaven and order him a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. To humor her, Schaffer would nibble at the edges of the sandwich while working at his desk. Then, when she wasn’t looking, he would wrap the sandwich in a napkin and tuck it into his shoulder bag, so that he could take it home and have it for dinner. (Gurzon’s duties at Belka also included upgrading Schaffer’s wardrobe, which stopped evolving on its own in about 1975. She is now a law student at New York University.)
If my mother ever visited Schaffer’s apartment, she would soon ask, in a polite voice, “Is there a Mrs. Schaffer?” The answer — just as my mother would have suspected — would be no.
Schaffer often says that he would like to be married someday. He has had quite a few serious girlfriends over the years, and he is constantly announcing that he has fallen hopelessly in love with someone or other — very often someone he has just met or seen from across a room. Still, it is hard to imagine him in any sort of permanent domestic relationship. He has too much energy and too many ideas, and he spends too much time watching Cuban retransmissions of Soviet news-service dispatches scroll across the screen of his computer. This is not to say that he is anti-social. On the contrary, he has many friends, and for twenty-two years his apartment has served as a sort of hostel for out-of-town acquaintances. More often than not when I have called him, there has been someone camping out on his couch. But marriage is another matter. Living with Schaffer around the clock over a period of many years would simply be too tiring for one person.
Schaffer himself has come to roughly the same conclusion. Once when we were sitting in his office, he said to me, “Without getting too esoteric about it, I think we may discover one day that ideas are just disembodied people running around the universe. There’s a better word than ‘disembodied’ — ‘dis’-something. Anyway, they’re out there, and they’re looking for a friend. And if you happen to be on the same frequency as the idea — if your wiring is right, and you have the right filters, and you’ve done your homework — then the idea will possess you. As for myself, I’m free, I’m not married, I don’t have an awful lot of day-to-day responsibilities involving the survival of other people. I have been available to ideas.”
SCHAFFER was born in the Bronx in 1947. “My parents had a storybook marriage,” he says. “When they met, my mother was a receptionist for a fountain-pen company. One day, my father called to order a pen, and each of them liked the other’s voice, and not long after that they were married. I have a sister. She is ten years older than I am, so we didn’t have much to do with each other when I was growing up. She works for the city now. My father was in the media — he drove a truck for the Daily News. He was extremely loyal, and none of us would ever dream of even looking at any other newspaper. When I went away to camp, he used to send me a copy of the Daily News every day, and I would read it in my bunk. He also moonlighted as a conductor on a commuter train. He died in 1971. He never made much money — I came across one of his pay stubs once, before he retired, and it was for a hundred and fifty bucks — but we had a nice little blue-collar apartment in the Bronx, and I always had everything I wanted. He was the kind of guy who would wear socks with holes in them so that his son could have an electric train, which I did. We set it up on a big plank, and you had to step over it when you came into the house. My father wasn’t very mechanical, so I did a lot of the work. The main thing I did was to modify the transformer so that the train would run faster. It used to fly off the tracks when it went around the corners.”
When Schaffer was ten, his father bought him a thirty-dollar Heathkit shortwave radio. “It was the best present I ever got,” he says. He taught himself Morse code, and from his bedroom he tuned in the world. He especially loved listening to the Soviet satellite Sputnik, which continuously beeped out the word “hi” in Morse code (the standard salutation used by telegraphers around the world). The idea of conversing with objects in space and with strangers on other continents appealed to Schaffer immensely, and he spent most of his spare time either listening to his set or taking it apart and putting it back together. To earn money to buy additional equipment, he charged schoolmates twenty-five cents for the chance to punch him in the stomach as hard as they could. He would flex his abdominal muscles and brace his back against a guardrail on the Mosholu Parkway while eighth graders in leather jackets lined up to take their turn. “It was a big scene,” he says. “They used to hurt their hands. I did that for about a year.”
A few years after Schaffer received his first radio, he finished second in an international Morse code competition held at the Waldorf Astoria. “I would have won,” he told me recently, “but I didn’t know how to type, so I had to take everything down in longhand, and I fell out at about sixty words a minute.” In those days, Schaffer could send messages at a rate of sixty or sixty-five words per minute. His top speed has dropped since then (to about fifty), but he is still one of the fastest telegraph-key operators in the world. Sitting beside him at his rolltop desk one day, I watched him tap out the alphabet. I sang the alphabet song (in my mind) as he tapped, and I had to sing it quickly in order to keep up.
Schaffer attended the Bronx High School of Science, where he earned top grades but was, as he put it, “not really socially-oriented.” In what historians of science now recognize to have been the golden age of nerds, Schaffer was a nerd and a half. His principal avenue of intercourse with the world passed through the amateur radio bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. One of his best friends was a boy named Richard Factor, who lived on Central Park West, and whom he did not meet in person until they had become intimate through Morse code. At school, Schaffer served as the president of the ham-radio club and the chief lunchroom monitor. During the Cuban missile crisis, it was his duty to lead daily civil-defense drills. He would stand up in the cafeteria and instruct his schoolmates to crawl beneath their tables. As he did so, he recalls, he had a sudden, terrifying realization: “Here comes the big one, and I’m still a virgin.”
A turning point in Schaffer’s life occurred on February 9, 1964, when the Beatles appeared for the first time on the Ed Sullivan show. “It was like a catharsis, a mystical catharsis that happened to me at the same moment it happened to millions of other people,” he says. “My feeling was, If God could sing, that is what He would sound like.” The Beatles themselves repelled him (“They didn’t look like members of the radio club”), but he found their music mesmerizing. Equally significant, he noticed that the girls in Sullivan’s audience were screaming and wringing their hands. Against his better instincts, he began to think that he might want to be a part of the world of rock and roll.
The following fall, Schaffer enrolled at City College and commenced a gradual self-transformation. He grew his first mustache, and he let his hair creep over his collar and around his ears. He began studying electrical engineering. He signed up for and was then discharged from the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. (“In R.O.T.C., I made the mistake of having my uniform pants tapered, which was the thing then. So I showed up for drill one day, and all the other cadets were marching in time to this horrible song about me and my pants. Oh, my God! It was too humiliating, so I decided to get out, which you weren’t supposed to be able to do. I went to the school psychologist and told him that my I grades were suffering because I couldn’t sleep. He said, ‘Do you have insomnia every night?’ And I said, ‘No, just on Mondays and Wednesdays,’ and he said, ‘What happens on Tuesdays and Thursdays?’ And I said, ‘Well, I start with R.O.T.C.’ And they discharged me. It worked so well that three other guys got out the same way, but then they caught on and retired it as a permissible reason.”) He joined and then was kicked out of a fraternity.
Finally, during his junior year, he found what he had been looking for: entree into the music world. An old Bronx Science acquaintance, Rick Brand, had become the lead guitarist of a new rock group called The Left Banke. The group’s manager (who was also the father of its lead singer) had decided to build it a recording studio. Brand mentioned this to Schaffer, who called the manager and offered his services. The manager asked Schaffer what he knew about building a recording studio. Schaffer said he knew all there was to know, and he persuaded the manager to give the job to him and two friends — Richard Factor, his ham-radio buddy from Central Park West, and Steve Katz, another shortwave-radio fanatic, whom Schaffer had met at a party. As it happened, Schaffer, Factor, and Katz knew nothing whatsoever about building a recording studio. But all three were gizmo-oriented, and all three believed fervently that rock and roll held the key to meeting girls. During the next few weeks, they immersed themselves in technical manuals, studying late into the night. The studio they built — it was at 1595 Broadway — was technologically advanced for its time. (For example, it permitted recording on three tracks, instead of just two.) The Left Banke used the studio to record its first singles, including “Walk Away Renee,” which became an immediate hit and was one of the top songs of 1967.
Schaffer, Factor, and Katz worked as engineers during the making of those recordings. “I knew all the equipment very well, of course, but I just don’t have the right kind of brain to be a recording engineer,” Schaffer says. “In those days, you had to throw a switch on each channel to protect it if you were going to overdub, and one day I was running the thing by myself — we were working on the album — and I forgot to do that. A few seconds into the recording, my life flashed before my eyes, because I suddenly realized that I had just erased the whole front of the song. So I did the only thing I could think of: I let them finish the take, then I said I had to go to the bathroom, and I didn’t come back. I went home and pulled down the shades. It was just total panic, like something on ‘The Wonder Years.'”
Schaffer remained in hiding for a week, then threw himself on the mercy of the band’s management, suggesting that he be hired as a publicist rather than an engineer. “In those days, there was no such thing as a rock-and-roll publicist,” he says. “There were just these old guys who walked elephants down Broadway, or whatever. They didn’t speak rock and roll, in other words. Well, the group didn’t care one way or the other about public relations, but they were happy to get me out of the control room, so they hired me for thirty-five dollars a week.” In his new capacity, Schaffer courted the editors of Sixteen, Tiger Beat, and. Hullabaloo as they had never been courted before. Suddenly, news of The Left Banke was everywhere. In his apartment, he has a pile of old scrapbooks that attest to his ingenuity at keeping the band’s name in the public eye. In addition to items on such subjects as Rick Brand’s collection of bullets and the fact that the group’s members never smiled, there are clippings entitled “3 THUGS BEAT UP LEFT BANKE’S SINGER” and “LEFT BANKE ROBBED AT CHARITY SHOW,” and two articles concerning Brand’s arrest for possession of five duffelbags filled with marijuana. (“Gee, I have no memory whatsoever of doing some of these things,” Schaffer said as we flipped through the pages. “You know, I think it was Paul Kantner, of Jefferson Airplane — though I’m not sure — who said that if you remember the sixties you weren’t there.”)
Schaffer made a few headlines himself during that period. In 1967, the New York Police Department awarded him a certificate of commendation for helping to capture three men who had just robbed and murdered a storekeeper. Schaffer, dodging bullets, had chased the men for several blocks on his motorcycle. He attended the award ceremony in a Nehru jacket. The Post called him a hero but referred to his motorcycle, a Honda 90, as a “scooter,” a slur that still bothers him. A year or two after his commendation, Schaffer bought a larger motorcycle. Its engine eventually developed a mechanical problem, and he removed the engine to work on it, leaving the motorcycle’s frame chained to a parking meter in front of his apartment. A short time later, the frame was stolen, and a teen-age boy was arrested for the theft. At his trial, the boy testified that he had thought the motorcycle frame was a piece of junk that had been abandoned on the sidewalk. The prosecutor asked Schaffer whether his motorcycle could have been mistaken for a piece of junk. Schaffer looked at the defendant, who was trembling, and at the defendant’s parents, who were crying. He looked back at the prosecutor and said, “Gee, I guess it could.” The prosecutor’s jaw dropped, and the case was dismissed. A few days later, there was a knock at Schaffer’s door. It was the defendant’s father, who, it turned out, was a tailor. He had made Schaffer a suit, based on measurements he had taken visually during the final moments of the trial. Schaffer happily wore the suit for several years. Today, Schaffer owns a huge Italian motorcycle, which, shortly after he bought it, appeared as the centerfold of a cycling magazine. The motorcycle is too big for him to ride in New York, so he keeps it at a friend’s house in New Jersey. “I was just going to get a little Vespa,” he told me, “but a guy in the Village convinced me that I needed a real motorcycle, so I caved in to peer pressure.” The motorcycle has informally been for sale since a few days after he bought it.
In addition to The Left Banke, Schaffer’s early public-relations clients included the Yellow Payges, who on the strength of their name became the “official teen ambassadors” of the Telephone Company in a multimillion-dollar promotional campaign, and the Chain Reaction, whose lead singer, a teenager named Steve Tallarico, later changed his last name to Tyler and is today the lead singer of Aerosmith. (Schaffer and Tallarico used to drag race at night on the Sprain Parkway when it was under construction.) In 1968, Schaffer’s success at promoting rock bands attracted the attention of a man named Alan Douglas, who had produced records by Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and John Coltrane, among others, and had just acquired the publication and recording rights to the estates of Malcolm X and Lenny Bruce. Schaffer worked almost exclusively for Douglas during the next few years. His duties included helping to produce two posthumous record albums by Jimi Hendrix, who died in 1970. Douglas had become a close friend and confidant of Hendrix’s during the final year of his life, and the executor of Hendrix’s will had put him in charge of the musical part of the estate. The albums — “Crash Landing” and “Midnight Lightning” — were drawn from hundreds of hours of unreleased tapes, most of which had been made during jam sessions at the Record Plant, a recording studio in New York. Schaffer has copies of many of these tapes. The quality is uneven — Hendrix was experimenting, and the other musicians were sometimes amateurs who had simply been swept through the door on his wake — but some of the tapes are remarkable. One of them features a lengthy improvisation by Hendrix and the British guitarist John McLaughlin (backed by Buddy Miles, on drums, and Dave Holland, who played with Miles Davis, on bass). Hendrix and McLaughlin were probably the two best guitarists in the world at that moment, and the wee hours session was their only collaboration. Schaffer played the tape for me one night after carefully positioning me in the spot (against a wall between the bathroom and the closet in which he used to keep his motorized skateboard) that he said he had determined, after exhaustive study, had the best acoustics in his apartment.
BY the time Schaffer began work on the Hendrix records, he had completed his metamorphosis from Bronx Science nerd into rock-and-roll cool guy. He had long, curly hair and a gigantic mustache, and he had plenty of dissolute-looking friends, including a number of famous musicians. In 1964, he had swooned to the sound of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan; a decade later, John Lennon, would drop by Schaffer’s apartment occasionally to watch TV and listen to records. (Schaffer owned one of the first largescreen projection television sets, and for a number of years he also had a jukebox that played entire albums. Both toys attracted visitors.)
In 1975, Schaffer was hired by the Rolling Stones to find opening acts for the band’s American concert tour that year. (He got the job through his girlfriend at the time, Lynne Volkman, who was the Stones’ tour manager.) “It was a demanding gig,” Schaffer recalls. “For example, you might have some guy who would jump into a bathtub from a hundred-and-five-foot diving board for thirty-five hundred bucks or, alternatively, a fat woman who would jump into a somewhat larger tank from a forty-foot diving board, but she would do it three times and for only three thousand. How do you decide?” The acts Schaffer did sign included an acrobatic pilot who did tricks while flying upside down just above the heads of concertgoers, and Benny the Bomb, a small, nervous man who locked himself inside a cage onstage and blew himself up with six sticks of dynamite. For the final concert of the tour, in Buffalo, Benny forgot to bring his dynamite, and Schaffer had to arrange for the Stones’ police escort to pick up six replacement sticks at the National Guard Armory.
In the arenas where the Stones played on that tour, tickets were, for the first time, sold for seats behind the stage. The people sitting in these seats couldn’t see very much, and to accommodate them Mick Jagger would occasionally switch to a wireless microphone and sing from the back of the stage. The microphone he used, like all wireless microphones available at that time, was of poor quality. “Every night, some disaster would happen during the couple of minutes when the wireless mike was being used,” Schaffer says. “It would pick up a taxicab or a police car and blast it through the P.A. at ten thousand watts, or the sound would fade out and get fuzzy. At best, it sounded horrible.” Schaffer decided that he could do better, and he set out to build not only an improved wireless microphone but also a wireless electric guitar. The guitar was especially appealing to him, because he felt that it would be harder to build, and because no one had ever built one before. “I didn’t want to just build a better mousetrap,” he says.
Schaffer spent about two years experimenting with wireless devices, eventually building what he called the Schaffer-Vega Diversity System. (Vega was the name of the firm that manufactured the devices for a company that Schaffer had formed, the Ken Schaffer Group.) The wireless guitar wasn’t really a guitar; it was a small, highly sophisticated radio transmitter (about the size of a pack of cigarettes) that attached to the back of any amplified instrument or clipped to a musician’s belt and connected to the instrument by means of a short cord that plugged in in the usual way. The wireless microphone was the same device in a different package. Individual units could be set for different frequencies, making it transmissions, including those between possible for as many as a dozen instruments or microphones to operate on the same stage without interfering with one another.
The first rock band to place an order, in 1977, was Kiss, whose members were attracted primarily by a secondary benefit of Schaffer’s invention: it protected a musician from electric shock, a significant occupational hazard in the rock world at that time. (Kiss’s lead guitarist had received a severe shock while playing on the group’s metal stage set. ) Other early customers included the Electric Light Orchestra, Pink Floyd, Peter Frampton, and the Rolling Stones. Schaffer’s systems — which sold for thirty-three hundred dollars — untethered musicians from their amplifiers and dramatically changed the look of live rock performances. They also changed radio communication in general. Among Schaffer’s earliest customers were Bell Laboratories, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, whose engineers realized that Schaffer’s technology could be used to improve the quality of all sorts of radio transmissions, including those between Earth and outer space. (Schaffer’s company also developed and sold other music-related gadgets, including a small number of electronically souped-up guitars. John Lennon bought one and loved it so much that he hung it on the wall over his bed when he wasn’t using it.)
Schaffer made a great deal of money from his wireless systems. He would have made a great deal more, except that he never patented his invention, and after a couple of years other manufacturers began to copy it. Schaffer had several reasons for not seeking a patent. One is that he takes a rather cosmic view of the ownership of ideas. Another is that he thought of his wireless system more as an engineering challenge than as a source of income. Another is that filling out forms and meeting with lawyers are not two of his favorite activities. Still, his not bothering to patent SchafferVega struck me as being pretty dumb, and I told him so.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “If I had patented it, I’d be a fat old goat right now, watching my stocks go up and down, and what fun would that be? People tell me I blew it, and that I’m just trying to justify my mistake, but I really think I didn’t make a mistake. If you let yourself get too comfortable, you start converting creative energy into defensive energy, and you spend all your time just protecting what you’ve got. You know, there have been times in my life when I have been seized by a huge idea that knocks everything else out of my being, but then my being builds up a tolerance effect, and I lose interest. By the early eighties, I was tired of the wireless guitar. Did the fact that I had thought of it mean I was condemned to keep doing it for the rest of my life?” ONE reason Schaffer lost interest in his wireless devices was that he had become interested in satellite television. In 1975, a tiny new pay-television company called Home Box Office began using satellites to distribute shows to the operators of cable-television systems. Other programming suppliers followed, and by the early eighties the skies were full of satellite-relayed television signals. These transmissions were intended mainly for cable operators and network affiliates, but anyone with a dish-shaped antenna and certain other equipment could receive them as well. Schaffer learned about satellite television from an employee of his, and was immediately curious. At a convention of satellite-antenna enthusiasts, in Washington, D.C., he bought a used twelve-foot dish on a trailer and drove it back to New York.
Receiving satellite signals in Manhattan proved to be extremely difficult, however, because there was a huge amount of interference: the skyscrapers got in the way. “I couldn’t pick up anything from West Fifty-eighth Street,” Schaffer says, “so on weekends I used to tow my antenna out into the suburbs and set it up in the parking lots of shopping malls.” A short while later, he bought a lightweight antenna that he could fold up like an umbrella and squeeze into the elevator of his apartment building. In nice weather, he would set it up on the roof. Aiming the antenna at a small gap between two buildings to the south, he was able to pick up the satellite Westar IV, which at that time carried, among other things, feeds for public- television stations in several time zones.
In search of more interesting programs to watch, Schaffer turned his dish toward the north and stumbled across television signals from the Soviet Union. The signals were garbled, in part because the Soviet broadcast standard is different from the American one and in part because the Soviet satellites followed a radically unconventional orbit. Making the signals fully intelligible required more than two years of experimentation, in the course of which Schaffer invented an audio decoder, a computerized tracking system, and other equipment. He assembled these devices into a package and offered it to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and a number of other universities and research institutions. For more than two years, he had no takers. (Professors of Soviet studies were skeptical of the value of studying television programs, and professors of engineering doubted whether the equipment would do what Schaffer said it would.) The first buyer, in 1984, was Columbia University. For many months afterward, a small room on the twelfth floor of Columbia’s W. Averell Harriman Institute for Advanced Study of the Soviet Union was the only place in America (other than Schaffer’s apartment) where Soviet television could be watched live.
The person responsible for Columbia’s decision to purchase Schaffer’s system was Jonathan Sanders, who at the time was a professor of Russian and Soviet history and the assistant director of the Harriman Institute. Sanders later left Columbia, in large measure because the many hours he had spent watching Schaffer’s television system convinced him that an American university was too remote an outpost from which to study the rapidly changing Soviet Union. Today, he is a correspondent, stationed in Moscow, for CBS News. “Kenny is a real pioneer,” Sanders told me recently. “He made that system work, and he did so at a very critical time for Soviet studies. We needed that window. It came just before the Soviet media exploded into new forms because of glasnost, and it enabled Western observers to use television to get a handle on the dynamics of a culture that was beginning to undergo revolutionary change. Television is now an accepted tool in Soviet studies, but it was not at the time. Not even the State Department had that capability then.”
One of the most devoted viewers of Soviet TV at Columbia was Schaffer himself. There were at least two reasons for this. First, he found the Soviet Union fascinating. (“A dozen time zones that never heard of Phil Spector!”) Second, he had developed a deep crush on a Columbia doctoral candidate named Marina Albee, who had long brown hair and dark-brown eyes and was thirteen years younger than he. As it turned out, Schaffer saw quite a bit of Albee, because she believed that the TV room was the best thing about the Columbia program. Both of them found eavesdropping on Soviet television to be a transforming experience. “It just didn’t look like the Red menace,” Schaffer recalls. “The Russians had their weather lady and their exercise program, and although their country and our country might officially be ‘enemies,’ the Russian people were just regular bozos like us, leading regular lives and doing dumb things on TV.”
Albee had a similar reaction. “I remember just being struck by how cute the Russians were,” she says. “There was a military show called ‘I Serve the Soviet Union,’ and it was all these soldiers dancing around and singing, and all of a sudden I realized that here was this whole world that we Americans basically knew nothing about. I guess I was struck by how harmless they seemed, and how they had their own life and their own society and their own values. I come from what I would say is basically an enlightened academic background, but the world I saw on Soviet television was very different from what I had been brought up to expect.” Schaffer and Albee also realized that Soviet society was undergoing a radical transformation. Shortly after Gorbachev came to power, in 1985, the nature of Soviet programming changed dramatically. “I would walk into the TV room,” Schaffer says, “and there would be all these graduate students and professors scratching their heads and saying, ‘What the hell?”‘ Open criticism of the Soviet government had begun to appear, and news reports about the West had undergone a change in tone. “Suddenly, instead of reports about homeless people in New York, they were showing feature stories about the glories of Fifth Avenue. And the stars of the morning exercise show were doing aerobics instead of marching in place. Long before you read about it in the Times, it was obvious on the screen that something big was going on.”
TO make conversation with Albee, Schaffer used to describe how much trouble he was having in trying to sell his system to other universities. There was interest in the system now, but the universities’ lawyers were worried about copyright. Albee told him that he ought to go to Moscow and meet with Soviet television officials. She was leading a tour to Moscow, and she urged Schaffer to come along. “He didn’t want to go,” she recalls, “mainly because he didn’t speak the language. But I finally talked him into it.”
Before Schaffer and Albee left for Moscow, Jonathan Sanders told them to be sure to look up a young Soviet named Viktor Khrolenko, who had been Sanders’ closest friend during a fellowship year that Sanders had spent at the history faculty of Moscow State University. “We called Viktor when we got to Moscow,” Albee says, “and he said that he would come over and see us, so we sat in the bar of our hotel waiting for him. To get into the hotel, you had to be a guest there — they made you show a pass — so we were worried, because we couldn’t figure out how a Soviet citizen would be able to get in. Well, all of a sudden this good-looking young guy in Calvin Klein jeans and a Calvin Klein jacket comes sailing into the bar as though he had just flown in from Los Angeles. It was Viktor. We had a drink, and then we all went up to Kenny’s room, because Kenny had brought a video camera and he wanted to make a tape of Viktor saying hello to Jonathan, who was in New York. Well, Viktor stood up in front of the camera and talked for an hour. He was telling jokes and political anecdotes, and he was gossiping about what was going on in the Politburo. He was totally charming and natural and smooth, and Kenny and I kept looking at each other and thinking, Who is this guy?”
Khrolenko, it turned out, was the son of a former vice-governor of Eastern Siberia, and a former student of Gavriil Popov, a noted progressive economist (and now the mayor of Moscow). Khrolerlko took Schaffer and Albee to meet with officials in charge of Soviet television. Their visit coincided with a new eagerness on the part of the Soviets to reach out to the West, and Schaffer was given a contract granting him the right to intercept Soviet television signals and to sell his system to other institutions. Shortly afterward, Albee, Schaffer, and Khrolenko decided to form a company that would not only sell Schaffer’s television system but also pursue a broad range of Soviet-American business projects. They called the company Belka International, and they made Albee president.
“When I went into business with Kenny,” she says, “I dropped out of the doctoral program at Columbia, and that was a huge thing for me. Both my parents are professors, and I was going to be a professor, too, and here I was, throwing all that away in order to work with him. Can you imagine?”
The offices of Belka International are on the twenty-first floor of a tall beige building on Fifty-third Street just east of Madison Avenue. During one of many visits there, I heard Schaffer speak in a calm, authoritative voice to a vice-president of a major American corporation who had called to ask about the availability of satellite telephones. During another visit, I listened to him discuss the technical specifications of some electronic-switching equipment — with an engineer. During another visit, I watched him put on some women’s underpants over his own pants. The underpants were part of a load of sample merchandise that Khrolenko was taking to Moscow later that afternoon. He was also taking umbrellas, high-heeled shoes, pornographic cigarette lighters, and assorted pieces of office equipment. These items were packed in a half-dozen cardboard cartons, which were stacked in the hallway.
Khrolenko speaks very little English. Schaffer, of course, speaks virtually no Russian, but he is fluent in heavily accented broken English — a language that he believes Khrolenko can understand. “Veektor,” he said as he modeled the underpants, “ees goof?” Khrolenko was late for his flight, and he had to pick up his suitcases at one of the four apartments that Belka maintains for Soviet visitors. He said something in Russian to Albee, then showed me one of the pornographic cigarette lighters, which didn’t appear to be pornographic, and which he couldn’t get to work. Then a young Belka employee managed to commandeer the single working elevator, and we crammed the boxes and ourselves into the car and rode down to the lobby.
“The three of us are sort of like a family,” Albee told me one day. “Viktor is the big brother, Kenny is the baby brother, and I’m the diplomatic middle child. Viktor is bossy and determined, and when he gets an idea into his head he is absolutely tireless. He is very good at certain kinds of lobbying over there, and he has an uncanny ability to sense how the Soviet power structure is changing. He comes from a very privileged background, and he knows how to get support for what we are doing from the right people, which is the most important thing when you are doing business in Russia. Kenny is as tireless as Viktor, but in a different way. He is very, very creative, and very unconventional, and he has boundless energy at all times of the day and night. He will call me at one o’clock Saturday morning and say, ‘We’ve got to send this fax right this second!’ And I say, ‘No, no, Kenny, it can wait, it can wait.’ But in the end we send the fax. There’s nobody like Kenny. I give him a lot of credit. We’ve always managed to stay ahead of our competitors, and he is a big reason for that. When we have a problem, he finds a way to fix it. He reads everything, and he has a sort of intuitive feel for the Russian people, and he has this amazing ability to sense what’s next, both in technology and in other things. My job is to be a sort of liaison between Kenny and Viktor and between the two of them and the outside world. I’m also the one who makes sure that the bills are sent and the accounting is done, and I’m the one who deals directly with the serious clients. Also, if Kenny writes anything, I read every single word of it before it leaves the office.”
Most of Belka’s early projects were television-related. In the late eighties, the company helped put together special programs involving Marlo Thomas, the Muppets, Mr. Rogers, and MTV, among others. The most significant television project came in February, 1987, when Schaffer and Albee (in the form of Orbita Technologies, a sister company to Belka) arranged for sixty-six hours of live Soviet television to be shown in the United States on the Discovery Channel, a new cable station.
The project almost didn’t take place. The broadcast was scheduled to begin on Sunday, February 15th, but, at five o’clock in the evening of the preceding Friday, Schaffer and Albee received word that the Federal Communications Commission had forbidden Discovery to receive transmissions from the four Soviet satellites that at the time carried Russian domestic TV. The F.C.C. argued that such a broadcast would violate the rules of Intelsat, a commercial cooperative (consisting of a hundred and twenty-one member nations) that owns and operates most of the world’s principal communications satellites. Intelsat members are required to use transponders on Intelsat satellites unless none are available, and the four Soviet satellites were not part of the Intelsat system. Schaffer and Albee believe that the F.C.C.’s real intention was censorship, and they suspect that the ban originated with Charles Z. Wick, who was then the head of the United States Information Agency. (Shortly after the broadcast, Wick asked Schaffer and Albee to visit him in Washington, where he told them that he believed the broadcast had been Communist propaganda, and inadvertently confessed that the order to stop it had in fact come from the U.S.I.A.) Lawyers for Orbita and the Discovery Channel thought that the F.C.C.’s prohibition was groundless. No one was paying the Soviets anything; the plan was simply to intercept domestic Soviet TV transmissions that incidentally fell on the United States. In addition, when Schaffer and Albee tried to obtain space on an Intelsat satellite they were told that none was available. This should have cleared the way for use of a non-Intelsat carrier. But the F.C.C. had left Orbita no time to challenge the order in court.
Over the weekend, Schaffer, Albee, and the lawyers devised several methods of getting around the ban. One was to tape the programs in Moscow and fly the tapes to the United States. (“Reject, not sexy,” Schaffer complained.) Another was to persuade the Soviets to make Belka the temporary owner of the four satellites — in effect, turning them into domestic American satellites, thus eliminating the basis of the F.C.C.’s disapproval. Doing this involved getting in touch with the Soviet Minister of Communications at his dacha at three o’clock in the morning and pressing him to have the necessary documents prepared in Moscow and telexed to both the F.C.C., in Washington, and the International Telecommunications Union, in Geneva — and all at a speed at which the Soviet bureaucracy is unaccustomed to operate. Surprisingly, the Soviets agreed to this plan, and Orbita became the official owner of the satellites for the following week.
The only problem with the shift in ownership, Schaffer says, was that it seemed “too kinky” to lawyers for Group W Satellite Communications, the company that owned the earth station that would receive the Soviet signals for the Discovery Channel. The lawyers were worried that Group W might lose its federal broadcast license if it angered the F.C.C. by appearing to use a loophole to evade the ban, and the company threatened to pull out at the last minute. Schaffer and Albee then redoubled their efforts to find an Intelsat carrier for the broadcast. Late on Sunday, they succeeded. This satisfied Group W but created difficulties on the Russian side. Schaffer knew through long experience that Soviet satellite television technology is comparatively crude. Most of the antennas are huge and have to be aimed manually and adjusted frequently, and at that time the Soviet broadcast day was regularly interrupted for several minutes at a time so that antenna operators could wrestle their big dishes back into alignment. Sending a “secondary feed” to an Intelsat transponder would involve aiming an antenna in Moscow at a satellite that the Russians in all probability had never used before. But they agreed to try, and it was this plan that ultimately saved the show. Three minutes before the scheduled beginning of the program, the necessary adjustments were completed in Moscow, and the broadcast went off without a hitch.
In the late eighties, Belka took part in several joint ventures with the outspoken Soviet journal Ogonyok, whose deputy editor at the time, Lev Gushchin, is a close friend of Khrolenko’s. One of these joint projects, an idea of Khrolenko’s, involved placing an American journalist in the Soviet Army and a Soviet journalist in the United States Army for a few weeks. The Soviet journalist’s report ran in Ogonyok, and the American’s ran in Life, which paid a fee to Belka. Khrolenko says the Ogonyok piece was widely read in the Soviet Union and played a part in shaping the Soviet public’s currently favorable impression of the United States. He says, for example, that Soviet citizens were surprised and impressed to learn from the article that all American soldiers are volunteers.
In 1988, Kenny brought a Soviet rock musician to the United States to meet American musicians and to record an album for sale in the West. The musician was Boris Grebenshikov, whom Schaffer describes as “the Russian equivalent of John Lennon and Bob Dylan rolled into one.” Grebenshikov and his band, Aquarium, have a large following in the Soviet Union. Schaffer says that Grebenshikov is viewed by young Soviets less as a rock star than as a “poet laureate.” (Schaffer was once able to enter Moscow without a visa by placing inside his passport a photograph of Grebenshikov sitting in his lap. The picture so impressed a young official that he waved Schaffer through. Schaffer had learned this trick from Khrolenko, who once avoided arrest for public drunkenness in Moscow by showing a police officer a photograph of himself clowning around at a party with the Soviet Minister of Finance and Alla Pugachova, a singer and celebrity.) The album, which was l put together with the help of the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, was re leased by CBS Records. CBS also released a documentary, “The Long Way Home,” directed by Michael Apted, in which Schaffer and Albee appear, about the making of the album.
For Schaffer, the Grebenshikov project came close to being the ideal Belka enterprise. It involved two of his favorite themes: improved communications between nations, and rock. In his view, there is a powerful and obvious connection between rock music and the disintegration of the Iron Curtain. Since the early sixties, he believes, Western rock and roll has exerted an irresistible influence on Soviets and Eastern Europeans of a certain age, and the allure of Western popular culture combined with advances in the technology of mass communications helped to make glasnost inevitable. The internationalization of television and the rise of the microchip weakened the ability of the Kremlin to isolate Soviet citizens from the influence of the West, or to hide the fact that the Soviet economy could not produce, for example, a decent tape player. In the Soviet Union, Schaffer believes, rock music has long been a potent underground political force, a sort of secret language of resistance and liberation. “Russia is the sixties squared.”
However one accounts for the recent transformation of the European Communist world, it is clear that Western popular culture has had a profound impact in the Soviet Union. Bootleg copies of Western records circulate in enormous numbers, often within a few days of their release in the West. At the beginning of the Aquarium documentary, Grebenshikov says that he received his “proper education” in Leningrad in the early sixties by listening to the Voice of America and hearing three-second snatches of songs by the Beatles sporadically punctuating the waves of static. He used to memorize the snatches and try to figure out what came between them. Like Schaffer’s, Grebenshikov’s reaction to hearing the Beatles for the first time was a deep yearning to get in on the act. Rock and roll, Schaffer believes, is a universal language, and it is partly for this reason that he has never felt particularly handicapped in the Soviet Union by his inability to speak Russian. “You may not know the words,” he says, “but when Eric Clapton plays that guitar you understand everything.”
Schaffer also believes that people who are temperamentally attuned to each other are capable of communicating more or less telepathically. For this reason, he frequently urged me to interview Khrolenko without the aid of an interpreter. He was so insistent that, to humor him, Khrolenko and I did try to chat one day. We sat in Schaffer’s office and talked for ten or fifteen minutes. Neither of us had any idea of what the other was saying.
Later, I was able to listen in as Schaffer and Khrolenko demonstrated how extra-linguistic communication is done. Schaffer had ordered a small cup of chili (after I had insisted that we needed to eat lunch). He took one or two small bites, then held the cup out to Khrolenko. “Veektor,” he said, “soup?” Khrolenko shook his head. Then the two of them began to talk, soon veering into the subject of SovietAmerican relations. Using his thickest fake-Russian accent, Schaffer said, “Veektor, don’t you think that maybe Pentagon directly now with Minister of Defense Russia, maybe they visit, they go to tea together? American Secretary of Defense, general Army, goes to Russia, visits Soviet troops, ‘Hello’? Russia Army comes, ‘Hello, Mr. Minister of Defense America’? Maybe already, yes?”
Khrolenko was silent for a moment, then said, “Maybe no.”
ONE day last spring, Schaffer picked up his telephone and wedged it between his cheek and his shoulder. He was calling an oil-company executive in Norway. It turned out that the executive was away from his office, and Schaffer had to leave a message with his secretary. “Tell him that Kenny Schaffer called,” he said, “and tell him that I bear good news.” Then he hung up and said to me, “I don’t really bear any news, but if you say that you bear good news people call you back in a hurry.” He made a few notations in a dog-eared spiral notebook that represented one of several recent half-hearted attempts to bring order to his life, and then turned up the volume on his radio. The radio was tuned to WXRK, an FM station whose weekday-afternoon “classic rock” show was then hosted by Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, better known as Flo and Eddie. Volman and Kaylan were among Schaffer’s public-relations clients back in the days when they were the principal members of the rock band the Turtles, and they are good friends of his today.
Schaffer’s assistant at the time, Anna Gurzon, came into the office and said, “Kenny, let me see your shoes.” Schaffer pulled his feet from behind his desk. He was wearing Adidas sneakers. Gurzon looked at them thoughtfully for a long moment and said, “There seem to be two words in Russian for ‘sneaker,’ and I am arguing with Viktor. He says, ‘Russia needs sneakers,’ so I say to him, ‘What kind of sneakers?’ He says, ‘Go look at Kenny’s shoes.”‘
“Whew,” Schaffer said. “I thought you were going to reprimand me.” Gurzon continued to study his shoes. “Viktor keeps calling them sports shoes,” she said.
“Is he wrong?” Schaffer asked. “We have to be a little careful with Viktor,” Schaffer said. “A couple of months ago, he called from Moscow and said that he needed sombreros. We spent all day running around New York looking for Mexican hats. It turned out that he meant umbrellas.”
Belka’s flourishing export business is fairly new, and it has been developed mostly by Khrolenko. (“Of the three of us, Viktor is by far the most committed capitalist,” Schaffer says.) It was Khrolenko’s idea to begin exporting American vodka to the Soviet Union. When this business began, Belka essentially acted as a distributor for two existing brands of vodka, Popov and Laird’s. Now the company has its own brand, called St. Petersburg, which it buys from a private-label bottler in New Jersey. Under Khrolenko’s direction, Belka has also begun buying liquidated consumer goods in the United States and shipping them to Russia. In Schaffer’s office one day, Khrolenko explained to me (without the aid of an interpreter) how the business works. “Business liquidation at this moment is very good business for Russia,” he said. “This price, very cheap. Every month, one big boat going to Leningrad. Jeans, videocassettes, shoes. It’s one videocassette, business liquidation, maybe it’s dollar-thirty. In Russia, it’s fifty ruble. Fifty ruble, it’s maybe two dollar. Liquidation.” Finding goods that can be sold at a profit in the Soviet Union is easy, since Soviet demand for almost any consumer item far exceeds supply. The difficult part is slashing through the jungle of red tape, regulations, and general inefficiencies on the Soviet side. It is Belka’s ability to do this which has made the company successful.
I asked Schaffer how Belka’s business had evolved since the company’s founding. He said, “Because we have usually made our money on this side of the ocean, we have had to be very responsive to what Americans see as being valuable in the Soviet Union That keeps changing. When we started out, almost everything we did was media, because nobody was putting hard money in the ground. Russia seemed exotic, and Westerners were interested in it, but they didn’t want to hand over a hundred million dollars to build a factory in Siberia, because who knew what would happen? Then Russia stopped seeming so exotic, and Americans lost interest in the sort of media projects we had been doing. I mean, watching the first live Russian broadcast is interesting, but how many people besides me would want to tune in to the second, or the tenth;fortunately, at around that same time Western companies were beginning to take the plunge in Russia, and we were able to build a nice business catering to their needs. That’s where the satellite telephones come in.”
Belka’s systems, which it calls Satphones, are ordinary ship-to-shore transmitters/receivers, which it buys off the shelf from companies that also sell them to cruise ships. I asked Schaffer why Belka’s customers didn’t simply buy their own. “There are a few reasons,” he said. “One is that the stuff is back-ordered to death, so it’s hard to come by. But the main one is that before you can use these things in Russia you need a license, which is very hard to get, and you have to get the things through customs, which is very hard to do. Then you have to transport them to where you’re going to use them, and rural Russian roads are ridiculous. Then you have to get them set up, which also isn’t easy, because you have to use Russian installers. The whole thing is really just about insurmountable to almost anybody trying to do it. Recently, we had one big company that talked to us for quite a while and then tried to go around us. The reason we know they tried to go around us is that five minutes after they got off the phone with the Russians, the Russians would call us and say, ‘Who are these people?’ I don’t blame them for trying to cut out the middleman. In their position, I would have done the same thing. But they ended up buying their system from us. In fact, they just ordered another.”
In recent months, Belka has moved beyond SatPhones to far more sophisticated communications systems. The company is a major partner in a huge new earth station, in Helsinki, which it began using to expedite the routing of calls to and from the Soviet Union. The new station has permitted Belka to offer its customers as many as eight separate telephone lines for less than it used to charge for one. “Our customers are now able to call the Soviet Union directly from anywhere in the world, simply by dialing phone numbers in Helsinki,” Schaffer told me. “We serve Moscow, St. Petersburg, Tallinn, Alma-Ata, and several other places. We think we also serve Riga, but we’re not sure, because nobody has called yet.” Belka is providing a host of other services, too, including local telephone service and television programming for customers in remote areas.
Belka still has relatively little serious competition in its Soviet telecommunications business. “All the big telephone companies are over there, but all they talk about is doing things like installing pay telephones in hotels and on street corners in Moscow, and people have been doing that for years,” Schaffer told me recently. “The big companies either don’t understand what Western companies really need or think it’s too much trouble to provide it. I mean, if you’re the head of an American oildrilling team in Siberia, do you really want to go to a phone booth in Moscow to call headquarters? What we provide is telephone service that is as close as we can make it to being exactly what our customers have at home.”
Schaffer and Albee both told me that one of the main mistakes American companies make in trying to do business in the Soviet Union is that they concentrate on their own needs, and make too many demands of the Russians. “Americans tend to come in screaming and shouting that they have to have this or that, and that they need it done yesterday, and so on,” Schaffer says. “In Russia, you can’t have things done yesterday. Usually, you can’t even have them done tomorrow. Never talk to a Russian about dates. The Russians celebrate the glorious October Revolution in November. You have to learn to go with the flow.”
SCHAFFER HAS a kind of relentless patience that enables him to maintain his equanimity in situations that might drive less adaptable Westerners out of their minds. When events turn against him, he keeps his cool. Shortly before a recent trip to Moscow, Schaffer received a telex from a Russian dog club whose members wanted to know if Belka could help them find American dog-lovers with whom to exchange dogs. “This telex was three pages long, and you could tell that whoever had sent it had worked very hard on it, even though it was written in the most broken English you could imagine,” Schaffer told me later. “It was all so touching that I decided I would meet with these people when I went over.” One thing led to another, and Schaffer wasn’t able to meet with the members of the dog club until the last day of his stay. He had an important dinner to attend that evening, and shortly after that he was scheduled to fly back to New York, but he had a little time before the dinner.
“That afternoon, a woman named Galina Semyonova, who wasn’t the president of the dog club but was sort of the person in charge of the club’s American relations, and who is also the most amazing masseuse in the world — she now lives in New York, and was written about in the Times — came by with a car and a driver and took me to the apartment of a man and a woman who were members of the club,” Schaffer said. “These people were in their fifties or sixties, and they didn’t have a lot of stuff, but their apartment was very neat, very pretty, and there was a militia jacket spread out on one of the chairs for me to see. Also, because this was Russia there was a table a mile long that was covered with every conceivable kind of food. Now, these were people who had next to no money, and who couldn’t buy anything anyway, because all their stores were empty, but because I was a guest they had put on a feast for me, and I had to gorge myself to be polite. So I did. And they opened the door to their kitchen, and out came this mongrel. It was just a mutt, but their love for this dog was so great that it was really something to see. And I could also see how proud they were that this American dog expert — me — had come all the way from New York to see their pet. So I stood there, saying nice things about the dog and watching it pant and sit on the floor, for about forty-five minutes.
“It was getting to be about three o’clock by now, so I finally told Galina that we had to go, but when we got back to the car she said, ‘Just one more stop.’ So we drove to another apartment, in the suburbs of Moscow, which belonged to a woman who was about five feet tall and was shaped like a beach ball. She was the president of the dog club. When she opened the door to her kitchen, about twenty dogs came out. It turned out that all the people in the neighborhood had brought their dogs over to be seen by the American dog expert, and of course there was another feast, and by now I was really starting to worry about the time. So, after a lot of praising and admiring, we got back in the car. After we had been driving for forty minutes or so, I suddenly realized that we were heading away from Moscow, and I said, ‘Galina, what the hell is going on?’ And she looked at me with these big Russian eyes and said, ‘One more stop, Kenny, please, just one more stop.’ So we drove and drove and drove. Then, finally, the car stopped. We were in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by snow-covered fields, with birch trees as far as you could see, and in the distance there were some railroad tracks. Every once in a while, a train would go by. Otherwise, nothing. Finally, way in the distance, I could see this little dot coming toward me over the fields, and when it got a little closer I could see that there was a smaller dot beside it. A nd then I saw a~ other dot, and then another, and another, and another. Altogether, there were about fifty people and their dogs. They were peasant people, and some of them had come from as far away as three hundred miles to see the American dog expert. When they got about fifty feet from me, they all started walking in a circle around me, like contestants in a dog show. None of them looked at me. They just walked slowly in a circle, in the snow, looking at the ground. So I stood there and looked at their dogs.”
Schaffer missed the dinner but made his flight back to New York. About a week later, he received a telephone call from Newark International Airport. A woman with a Russian accent said, “Mr. Kenny Schaffer? Your dogs have arrived.”
IN 1982, Schaffer heard about a group of Canadians who were planning to climb Mt. Everest. The Canadians intended to document their expedition on videotape, and they were interested in selling the broadcast rights. Schaffer called them and told them they ought to carry a UHF transmitter instead of a video recorder, so that they could transmit their story live. “UHF equipment weighs about a third of what video equipment does,” Schaffer says, “and, besides, who wants yesterday’s newspaper?” The Canadians were persuaded, and Schaffer sold the idea to ABC’s “Nightline.” ABC supplied most of the equipment for the broadcast, including a large satellite antenna, to beam the signal up to a satellite, and five microwave repeaters, to relay the signal from the climbers to the antenna, which was set up in the parking lot of a hotel in Katmandu. Once in Nepal, however, ABC’s engineers determined that they didn’t have enough repeaters to establish a transmission path between Everest and the hotel. There were simply too many mountains, they said, and the mountains were too tall. Unable to obtain more repeaters on short notice, ABC decided to scrap the project.
Schaffer, who had gone along on the trip to help with logistics, figured that there had to be a solution. On a hunch, he paid a visit to an old ham-radio acquaintance, a Catholic priest named Michael Moran, who ran a school in Kathmandu and was the only ham-radio operator in Nepal. “Father Moran is very famous in the ham world,” Schaffer told me. “Everyone calls him Mickey Mouse, because his call letters are 9N1MM, or Nine November One Mickey Mouse. So I explained the problem to him, and he said, ‘Come with me.'” Moran took Schaffer to meet some Swiss engineers who were building a road through the Himalayas. In preparation for their project, the engineers had made minutely detailed topographical maps of the entire region. In less than an hour, Schaffer, Moran, and the engineers were able to plot a clear path that required only four repeaters. “I went back to ABC with a map and said, ‘Please put one here, one here, one here, and one here,’ and then I went home,” Schaffer told me. “Nightline” aired live reports from Mt. Everest for more than a week; the only hitch came on the final night, when the climbers were ready to go for the summit. After Ted Koppel introduced the climbing party, the screen went blank, and “Nightline” had to cut quickly to another story. It turned out that the batteries in the UHF transmitter had frozen. “I used to tell everybody that I had forgotten to change them,” Schaffer says. “It made for a funnier story.”
The Everest project was pure Schaffer, from the initial conception, to the patched-together solution, to the self-effacing joke about its outcome. Also telling is the ham-radio connection. Ivan, Belka’s Russian employee who doesn’t want his real name to appear in print, told me one day that he believes ham radio holds the key to understanding Schaffer. He said, “When I visited Kenny’s house yesterday, I found him sitting near the ham radio and talking to a Russian guy. He was so fond of this conversation that I asked him what he was doing it for. And he told me — you know, I don’t remember his exact words, but the idea was that the radio is interesting because there is some suspense. It is not like with a telephone, where you dial the number and you know that someone specific, Mr. X or Mr. Y, is on the other end of the link. With the ham radio, you cannot predict with whom this link will be established. It really makes crazy the suspense, this penetration into the new world, you see. And maybe Russia is this unknown universe that is interesting to Kenny. He lives with it in suspense that is somehow connected with technology. And maybe this coincidence is not a coincidence at all, this opening of new frontiers, this pioneering into science and human nature.”
I LAST talked to Schaffer about three weeks ago. He was leaving for Helsinki and Moscow in a couple of days, and was rushing around trying to get ready. While we were talking, a call came through on another line, and Schaffer put me on hold to take it. When he returned, he said that the other caller had been Andy Fyodorov, a young Russian who had spent the Soviet coup inside the Russian Parliament with Boris Yeltsin. “His job during the coup was to help maintain communications between Yeltsin and the outside world,” Schaffer told me. “They were worried that their phones would be cut off, so they set up a shortwave radio network as a backup.” Fyodorov and others used the network to disseminate pronouncements by Yeltsin to hams all over the country. They also used it to gather news and to keep track of troop movements. As Schaffer told me this, the note of longing in his voice was palpable: battling totalitarianism with ham radio is exactly his idea of a good time.
I asked why Fyodorov had called him.
He said, “Oh, during the coup I kept three VCRs going around the clock on different channels. Andy wanted me to be sure to bring my tapes when I go over on Wednesday. The Russians want to see how they looked on American TV during their fifteen minutes of fame.”
My conversation with Schaffer reminded me of one that we had had a few months earlier, on the day before he had left for another trip to the Soviet Union. At that time, he told me that one of Belka’s functions was to serve as a lifeline for a growing number of Soviet friends. He told me that the best way for him to help these friends was to keep doing what he and his partners had been trying to do for the past half-dozen years: to look for new projects, for new ways to establish ties.
“Every time you open the window another crack, it makes it just that much harder for them to get the window closed again,” Schaffer told me then. “I guess that’s really the way I’ve come to view a lot of the things I’ve done in my life. Whether it’s ham radio, or rock and roll, or publicity, or Russian television, or whatever — the idea that ties all these things together is the idea of opening windows, of opening the means of communication so that maybe the world can find out that we really can have a good time together. The other guy is a threat only if you can’t see him. Once you know what he has for breakfast, it’s harder to be his enemy. I mean, on the scale of the cosmos, it isn’t terribly important that Belka has made it possible for Soviet women to buy liquidated American underpants. But it opens the window another fraction of a millimetre. Every time we connect over there, the window opens a little more. Right now, the Russians need Western businesses that they can look at and say, ‘Oh, that’s how it’s done.’ They need role models that they can relate to, and I think Belka has been able to provide them in ways that some of the big corporations haven’t. You know, we are living through one of the most amazing changes in the history of the planet. The other day, I met with a guy who’s the manager of one of the big rock bands over there. He spent nineteen years — half his life — in a Russian gulag, and last week he flew over from Moscow to sell me on the idea of producing records in Russia. One day he’s an enemy of the state, the next day he’s in my office discussing the price of vinyl. The rules have changed, man. I don’t know what it all means, but I hope this isn’t just ‘The Twilight Zone.’ I mean, if it turns out that this is all a weird aberration, and that everything we’re doing with Belka is a teeny little footnote to the same old shit, then I am going to be depressed.”
Speaking in deep, philosophical tones for long periods is physically exhausting for Schaffer. After twenty or thirty minutes in this vein, he changed the subject. “You know, the other day I got to thinking that the best way to prepare for doing business in Russia would be to spend a year as a roadie for a rock band,” he said. “You know, the concert is about to begin, and the microphones are dead, and the amplifiers are dead, and the instruments are lost, and the lights don’t work, and the lead singer is in a coma — and you have five minutes to fix everything, and all you’ve got is a pair of pliers and a roll of duct tape. That’s what it’s like in Russia, all the time. And the Russians aren’t any help, because they just throw up their hands and say, ‘Oh, well. Let’s drink.’ You have to be the kind of person who can say, ‘Brain surgery? No problem — hand me that screwdriver.’ You have to take a step back and say, ‘O.K., O.K., this isn’t reality as I know it, but I survived Alice Cooper, and I can survive this.’ “
By DAVID OWEN
Original Source – Abstract Reprinted with permission