It was the usual last-minute rush into the office, trying to squeeze too much into too little time.
“All is in the file—air ticket, hotel reservation, Visa,” breezed the latest secretarial recruit who had done the prep work for a flying visit to give some lectures in Moscow. My thanks were as heartfelt as my departure for the airport was hurried.
Dublin to Amsterdam, then onwards as we descended prior to landing at a deeply snow-clad Shermetivo. A friend’s brother was the Irish Consul and had promised to look me up during the visit. A handsome, tall, stooping, befreckled and crinkly red-haired man with a wonderful sense of humor, he had a smile that shone like a lighthouse. He was a perfect perfect ambassador for our green little Atlantic island.
“Call me when you get here” he said and his downtown Moscow number was in my mobile phone.
The queues for immigration were lengthy. We advanced inch by inch until finally reaching the kiosk. The official, clad in a gray uniform and ensconced within the kiosk was not a graduate of the charm school.
“Visa,” he barked, although I had handed the document to him within my passport. My “you’ve got it” was greeted by another, more irritated bark of “Visa !”. Still trying to be reasoned and reasonable, I smiled and said, “No, no, you have it, it’s there,” pointing at the sheet of paper with its Russian hiroglyphics as it sat beside my passport on his desk.
“Visa!” he barked again, loud enough for all those left in the queue to stare with obvious concern, anxious about their own impending fate rather than mine. “This not visa!” he roared. “This is hotel voucher!”
The sudden realization that the young lady in the office had thought the voucher was the visa, and that I had arrived visa-less, was a shock. An even bigger shock was being taken out of the queue, being placed in a small windowless room with a solitary plastic chair, and being advised that I was going to be put on the next Aeroflot flight back to Amsterdam at an immediate personal cost of £850 for the one-way ticket and that it would depart at 5 p.m.
This meant leaving my would-be hosts, the Conference organizers, with a large hole to fill in their program, the forfeiture of everything that I had spent to get there, and an acute sense of embarrassment.
Mercifully, there was mobile phone reception in my disquietingly cell-like place of detention. No reply from the Consul, but the call back to base camp got through. Sharing the shock was one thing, but the need for swift action was much more pressing.
Calls back and forth as the deadline for my enforced departure loomed ever nearer eventually brought the sigh-heaving reassurance that our utterly wonderful local diplomatic corps representative was on his way to the airport to rescue me. He arrived in the nick of time as my escorts to the departure gates swerved away from them and delivered me to another part of the complex. The Visa Office was where my friend and his opposite number greeted me with much mirth, and offered liquid hospitality to accompany their (not my) laughter.
“Give your passport to this lady” said the Breznev lookalike wearily, "and she will put the visa in it for you.” She disappeared promptly only to return with the offending passport and a worried frown. Her distressed “there’s no space in it for the visa!” was followed by Leonid grabbing it, grabbing his enormous stapler, and hammering it to the outside cover.
“Now go” he roared. And I did, swiftly ... and very sheepishly.
The conference organizers had been made aware of the airport detention of their speaker. Their anxiety had mirrored mine, but there were measures in hand to relieve same—a pre-congress party in a basement, trestle-tabled restaurant, filled to overflowing with party-goers, including a delegation from La Belle France.
The equipe Francais included fellow speakers and their agricultural attaché. The attaché had been enjoying his Russian station and regaled one and all with tales of “Uncles” seeking visas for their “nieces” to accompany them on weekend trips to Paris, contrasts and comparisons between the young ladies from differing parts of the former Soviet Union, and a description of the local liquor industry that directed us to the inevitable vodka.
Handsome bottles of wine graced the table along with jugs of similarly colored strawberry juice. The initial tossing down of the vodka and cries of "Nastrovia” were followed by pouring of the wine.
“You have to try this, it’s from Georgia. it’s the Isobel grape,” he said. Then he added, darkly, “It is forbidden in the EU. It’s an hallucinogen.”
It is possible to duck out of the vodka downing. After the first one, no one notices whether you have discretely opted for the water jug, provided you do not overdo it. The same was true with the “Isobel.” Its remarkable similarity in hue to the strawberry juice was the perfect camouflage. I was abstentious not by choice, but because mine was the first presentation the following morning. It did not take an Einstein to see where this party was going, and slipping off to the hammock was easy for me as the rest slipped off to have a few late-night beers in the nearby clubs.
One of the French revelers from the night before appeared the following morning, clad as only those who shop in the Fauberg St. Honore can do—hair glistening and swept back, a jacket, tie and trousers combination that must have cost a small mortgage, accompanied by gleaming footwear and the very smartest of attaché cases. Oddly pale in complexion when compared to his usual healthy hue, he uttered one of the best descriptions of the vodka, Isobel, and beer-induced head pain he was experiencing.
“I feel ... bizarre,” he said.
The Congress Hall seemed like a major meeting in the Kremlin. An enormous, red-curtained balcony stretched from one side to the other. Huge gold lettering, totally unintelligible to the uninitiated, stretched along its considerable length. The auditorium was filled to capacity. There were orderly rows of delegates, all of them sitting upright and attentive, with only the gentlest of mutterings to one another in advance of the Official Opening.
“We would like you to open the conference,” the organizers had said the previous evening. Conscious of the honor and feeling very undeserving, I had protested, but then after encouragement, agreed to do so. The few words that had been rustled up in the hotel room overnight were proffered to the hosts for inspection and approval.
“Good,” they said, “but would you help us a little more?”
“Of course,” I said. “How? What would you like me to do?”
They explained that some of their veterinary colleagues were in trouble with the law. They had been found in possession of Ketamine.
“Would you explain, after your words of welcome to the delegates, that Ketamine is a licensed anesthetic in your country, that you and your colleagues use it routinely in your practice, that our colleagues should be released without charge?” It was easy to give an affirmative response and incorporate these sentiments into the speech of welcome.
My few words were greeted by applause, orchestrated perhaps, but that did not seem to matter when my hosts came to me after the Opening and offered very warm congratulations.
“That was wonderful, thank you so much, they said.” A bit of self-deprecation came easily, but was followed by “It was so wonderful, we ask if you would write it, too?”
“No problem,” I replied, “but to who?”
“To Mr Putin.” Slightly taken aback, I asked for his address.
“The Staraya Palace."
So I did, and thought no more about it until I returned to Moscow some five years later. I was greeted by the same hosts, beaming and pumping my hand with the warmest of welcomes on a very cold day.
“It was wonderful what you did last time you were here, what you said and what you wrote to Mr. Putin ... with no thought of your personal safety.”
My personal safety?
From Dr. Des Leadon, March 2020: These stories fulfill a promise I made to my colleague and dear friend Dr. Michelle LeBlanc before her untimely death on April 13, 2013. Michelle and I collaborated on various projects after meeting at a Havermeyer Foundation Lecture on neonatal foals, and she soon became a wonderful friend to both my wife, Mariann, and me. When Michelle was first diagnosed with her terrible disease, I visited her in Florida. After conceding that I would not be able to visit her as often as I would have liked, I promised that I would write to her every two weeks. I honored that promise for the rest of her life. These stories formed the basis of that correspondence.
The final story, titled “Michelle’s Gift,” is among others still to be edited. These stories are a review of many transatlantic clinical equine research collaborations between her, myself, Peter Rossdale, Marion Silver and many others. At the time, I imagined these stories were my gift to Michelle. The reality, though, was that they were much more Michelle’s everlasting gift to me—a rediscovery of the joys of writing and, perhaps, an analogy for so much else in life.
About Dr. Des Leadon
Desmond (Des) Patrick Leadon, FRCVS, has worked in equine practice in Ireland, England, Australia and Spain. He has provided consultation services in Russia, China, Italy, France and many other countries, and he has been involved in equine clinical research for more than 30 years.
Leadon graduated as a veterinarian from Trinity College Dublin in 1975. He returned there and was awarded his Master of Science degree by thesis. He subsequently joined the world-famous equine specialist practice of Rossdale and Partners in Newmarket and was awarded the degree of Fellowship of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, London, by thesis, in 1982. He returned to equine practice in County Meath, Ireland, before joining the then newly established Irish Equine Centre in 1984. The Irish Equine Centre is Ireland’s independent equine diagnostic and research laboratory.
Leadon is Head of Clinical Pathology at the Centre and a member of its Management Committee. He is an external lecturer for the Equine Science course at the University of Limerick and is an Honorary Faculty Member of the Veterinary Sciences School at University College Dublin. He is both a European College and Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons Registered Consultant/Specialist in Equine Medicine.
He served as president of both the British Equine Veterinary Association (1993-1994) and the World Equine Veterinary Association (2001-2006). He continues to serve on the Past Presidents Advisory Committee of the World Equine Veterinary Association (2006 to date). He is a Founding Diplomate and former Vice President of the European College of Equine Internal Medicine (2002 to 2008). He served an initial term as the International Director of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (2009 to 2011) and was invited to serve a second term (2011 to 2012).
He has published 74 reports in equine scientific literature, in text books, and in lay publications, and he has made more than 200 presentations at national and international equine scientific meetings. His special interest areas include the problems inherent in transporting horses long distances by air, the spread of infectious disease, and Rhodococcus equi. He has received research funding grants from organizations that include the International League for the Protection of Horses, The International Equestrian Federation, The Hong Kong Jockey Club, Ireland’s National Development Plan and the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association.
Leadon is a pre-race inspector for the International Racing Bureau (for the Hong Kong International Races) and acts as an Advisor and as an Arbiter in insurance disputes for Lloyds Underwriters. He is a Veterinary Advisor to the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association (ITBA), Chairman of the Veterinary Advisory Committee of the European Thoroughbred Breeders Association (EFTBA) and Chairman of the Veterinary Advisory Committee of the International Thoroughbred Breeders Federation (ITBF). He was appointed to both the Equine Liaison Group of the Department of Agriculture and the Veterinary Medicines Committee of the Irish Medicines Board in January 2011.
Leadon was presented the “Outstanding Contribution To The Industry Award” by the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association in January 2014.