1989 – Those were the days my friend

july1989First day at my Moscow office, the new boy at school. The building, not far from Paveletsky Vokzal was once grand, probably the residence of a wealthy merchant with below-stairs accommodation for the staff. Now it is bright yellow, decaying and showing the benefits of 70 years of socialism. I climb the steps and enter for the first time and am ushered into a massive room that must comprise half of the main floor. This I soon realize is the office of the General Director, a professor of engineering no less and, as he immediately informs me, a wrestler of note in his youth. He is certainly large, fit and powerful and I soon detect that the staff fear him. I am told that my office will be next door to his, but the proximity is less to do with status and more to do with observation. As a mark of respect I will be intourist-hotel permitted to meet him any day of the week provided I notify his secretary in advance. Other staff are only permitted to request meetings on Wednesdays between 14:00-16:00 as posted on his door, unless otherwise sent for. I soon learn that ‘sent for’ is his preferred mode of communication. I politely remind him of the agreement between the partners of our JV: a UK engineering company, a Moscow engineering institute and a state bank. This stipulates that although I am his deputy I will have equal signature rights in all matters and co-signatory rights for any hard currency transactions. I receive the first of the long silent stares that are to become a familiar feature of our conversations. Behind the grey eyes I am wondering whether he is preparing an explanation of the intricacies of doing business in the USSR or deciding which wrestling hold he should apply. After some time he confirms the arrangement adding that we will soon find ways to work around this inconvenience. I retire to my own office, a cheap plywood desk below the inevitable glare of comrade Lenin, and proceed to write the seventy sample signatures demanded by our banks, lawyers and notaries.

1257610306025The office toilet block is just as disgusting as every other lavatory I have encounter so far in Moscow. A robust old lady sits outside occasionally making forays into the cubicles with a bucket and mop in order to rearrange the dirt on the floors and empty the baskets of toilet paper. I learn that toilet paper is not provided but that it can be bought from the Babushka for a few kopeks a sheet, each having the appearance and texture of wallpaper. I later ask a group of my new Russian colleagues how can a company be so distrustful of its employees that it does not provide toilet paper in case it is stolen, yet still employ them? The ensuing silence and my realization that they are actually trying to produce a reason causes me to gasp in frustration. Fixing the loos will be high on the to-do list.

1257609111161Leaving the toilet and subconsciously informing myself I can stop holding my breath I see Sveta for the first time. She is rushing down the corridor towards me, flushed and flustered blowing and wiping her blonde hair from her face. At over 1.8 meters with a considerable bust she is quite simply one of the most stunning women I have ever seen and is clearly in no mood for conversation as she knocks and waits outside the professor’s office clutching papers for signing. I am clearly staring as Sasha, my Head of Trading and erstwhile minder smiles at me and mutters something under his breath.

1257610943503In the coming weeks I make considerable progress both in the job, getting to know the fifty or so Moscow staff. After patient complaining I have moved suite to one of the institute’s hotels for students and staff. A lounge, bedroom and bathroom duly supplied with a hand carried micro/convector oven, electric frying pan and toaster from the UK equips me to both cater for myself and even entertain. Dishwashing must take place on bended knee in the bath, but is the only real inconvenience apart from the resident mouse that appeared one day. Entertainment is provided in the form of a dated Russian made TV showing equally dated and dour programs that I cannot understand anyway, and my beloved shortwave radio which provides me with the BBC and daily news of events abroad. 1257609253599The Polish regime has crumbled in the face of public protests stirred on by ‘Solidarnosc’ and now the unthinkable is happening with growing protests in the communist stronghold of the GDR. In the office there is concern among my senior colleagues, each of whom professes, even boasts of being a member of the Communist Party. Because of my position in the company and the uncertainty of how to treat such issues in an international JV I am invited to attend the weekly in-house party meetings as an observer. It seems they feel that this show of openness – glasnost in action – will somehow hold back the inevitable but the insecurity is there for all to see. After the latest meeting, Sasha propose we visit the ‘snake pit’, the night club in the basement of the Intourist hotel. This is particularly welcoming because we learn they have just started selling imported German beer there. More importantly he tells me that Sveta will be coming.