I’ve been collecting things to hang on the wall at Buck’s for 30 years, and in the mid-’90s, I decided that I wanted to get a space suit. But when I looked into it, I was told that after NASA is done with them, the suits all go to the Smithsonian. There were three companies that made reproductions for the movies, but even the reproductions were hard to get. I didn’t know what to do until one day Bill Perry, the secretary of defense under Clinton, came into Buck’s to have pancakes with one of the heads of the Russian army, General Leonid Ivashov, and three other Russian generals.

They invite me to sit with them, and I end up asking Ivashov about what he actually does on a day-to-day basis. He pokes me in the chest and he says, “I am the one who puts the pins in the map.” I say, “Well, that’s vivid—any pins around here?” Then he confers with one of his generals before saying, “The Blue Cube and the Crystal Springs Dam.” I’m thinking, That’s so specific—we’re sitting right in between those two places, and I’m looking at the guy who has his finger on the button! Well, we hit it off, and so after breakfast Ivashov hands me his card—it’s in English on one side and Russian on the other—and he says, “If you’re ever in Russia, look me up.” His office is in the Kremlin.

This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.

A few months later, I visit a friend of mine who works in Moscow. He’s a venture guy with Kleiner Perkins and is happy to have a distraction. Ivashov is in Chechnya, so we can’t visit him, but we do find out where the Russian space suits are made. We go, with an interpreter, to this building with a giant set of doors on the side. They’re big enough to drive trucks through. And then there’s a man door. And in the man door is a tiny grate for talking through. So we ring the bell, and a guy inside slides open the little sliding door that covers the grate, and, through our interpreter, we say, “General Ivashov said that you’d sell us a space suit,” and we show him the general’s calling card. The guy’s eyes pop out of his face, like a frog’s.

So the guy says, “Hold on a minute,” and closes the slider. When he returns and opens it again, he says, “Come back tomorrow at two o’clock,” then slams it closed again. We go back the next day, and they open the big doors for us—not just the man door but the big doors. We walk in and are ushered into a conference room to meet some people, and they have a space suit spread out on the table to show me.

You wouldn’t believe how these things are constructed. To get into them, you unzip the front and unroll a rubber bladder and step into it. It’s like you’re stepping into this big condom. Then you just roll it back up and tuck it in and zip up and that’s it. The idea is that if the capsule depressurizes, the condom will keep pressure in the suit. There are no special fasteners—just fold the bladder up, and you’re good to go.

jamis macniven, cofounder of buck’s of woodside, with his russian space suit hanging from the restaurant’s ceiling
Jamis MacNiven, cofounder of Buck’s of Woodside, with his Russian space suit hanging from the restaurant’s ceiling.

It’s a Sokol space suit, which is the same suit they use today. The Russians never change anything in their space program. They use the same launchpad that they always have. The Soyuz capsules are almost unchanged. The Russian space suits were designed 50 years ago. But they work, and so they use them.

We talk about the suit and life and everything until finally I ask, “So how much?” Twenty-five thousand dollars for the suit—and for another million, they’ll throw in a Soyuz capsule. I say, “Let me think about it.” So we go back to my hotel, and we let it marinate for 24 hours. The next day, we call the factory, and I say to them, “Well, the general thinks $12,000 would be a better price.”

“That’s fine. Come get your space suit.”

So I go back out with cash and hand over the money. They hand me the suit. Then I wonder how I’m going to get through customs. Well, sure enough, on the way back home, they open up my bag and they look inside.

“What is this?”

“It’s a Russian space suit.”

“What did you pay for it?”

“I didn’t pay anything for it. It’s a gift from the Russian people.”

“All right. Go on through.”

Now it hangs here at Buck’s.•

As told to Adam Fisher.

Jamis MacNiven and his wife, Margaret, founded Buck’s of Woodside in 1991, and it quickly became a Silicon Valley hot spot popular with venture capitalists and tech entrepreneurs.