Chris Manuel

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Why did you come to Russia?

I was working for a contractor in London, and we won a tender for a construction project for a subsidiary of Gazprom. The project was in a remote village called Krasnoe Znamya to which I, and my project team, travelled in the middle of a winter blizzard. I will never forget the bitter cold or how surprised we were to see the Union Jack flying from a flag pole at the factory gates; our first taste of Russian hospitality.
Our American Client had promised us a lot of things including satellite communications, a vehicle, accommodation and basic building materials such as wood, metal and plaster. We arrived on site to find that none of these promises had been fulfilled and that our accommodation was a one-room apartment for the six of us.

The Russians amazed us with their flexibility, ability to adapt and what they could achieve with the most basic of tools. Due to the lack of plaster we decided to dry line the walls and ordered 50mm x 25mm sections of wood. We were surprised when two days later it appeared on site weeping sap and then discovered that it had just been cut from the local forest and processed for our use.

It was also our first experience of working with tradeswomen on construction sites and the seventeen that we had did more work than the entire 130+ men. These ladies then went home to look after their families. They truly had our respect and gratitude!

The worst thing about the whole experience was that we had no communications with Moscow, or the outside World and were unable to contact our families. Personal messages to our families and orders for materials had to be hand written and driven to Moscow from where they were couriered to the UK or telexed.

We did however have an amazing time and completed the project in 1991, having been adopted by the village and attending the weddings and local events. In addition we worked in a local Children’s home with materials that had been kindly supplied by our Client as well as providing toys, educational materials and clothes donated by schools in the UK.

I carried out further construction projects after that, and despite not sharing the same religious beliefs, ended up working for a Mormon humanitarian aid organisation called CEBIX. We worked on construction and renovation projects for hospitals and children’s homes and shipped in medical equipment and supplies that was cleared courtesy of the Salvation Army.

In early 1995 I was working in a children’s hospital in the 1905 area of Moscow. Many of the children were in incredible pain as at that time they were rationed to one morphine vial per day. The care from the truly dedicated doctors and nurses was wonderful despite often lacking the most basic of medical needs.

We had fantastic support from an Irish Pharmaceutical company who provided us with demerol and morphine for the hospital and the deliveries were brought into Russian courtesy of the Irish community and the generous spirit of a customs official. There is one funny story related to this time, involved a barman of Rosie O’Gradys. A package of morphine was delivered to his home and his mother decided to open the package and upon seeing the vials decided that her son had become a drug dealer, and reported him to the police. After a number of calls to the Irish Garda we managed to get things sorted out and the shipment was released. He was given a hero’s welcome and much ribbing about his ‘drug dealer’ status! The generosity of the Irish community was, and still is, incredible and without their help many children would have suffered needlessly.

I had become very attached to a little girl in the burns ward who reminded me of my daughters in the UK. It came as a profound shock when she died and I returned to the UK swearing that I would never return. Life however often throws curve balls at you and an old boss of mine and I formed a fit out company called OfficeScape. An opportunity arose in Russia and I returned in late 1995.

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What are you doing now?

I left the contractor’s world in November 2015 as I felt that the business was no longer about the quality and the speed of work, and projects are now run by bureaucrats, lawyers and accountants often with little regard to the needs of the site. There are also the Technodzors (Technical Inspectors) who have a position of power, which is often abused.
The net result these days is often a poor quality projects, executed by a low skilled workforce and managed by people with little pride in the end result.

So you have set up English Workshops?

Yes, I was working for a fit out company called Shafran, which had an in-house joinery workshop. The CFO decided to close the workshops as they no longer fitted into the corporate culture of the company. As such I offered to take them over and was surprised when this was accepted and we formed English Workshops. Since then, we have expanded the production base and are now working on projects in the hospitality, residential, commercial and retail sectors.

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You mentioned a lot of problems in connection with working here. You have accrued a huge amount of experience; you could do well in almost any other country. So why are you still here?

The ability to do business in the construction sector is extremely frustrating and these days many project managers know little about the technical side of the business although plenty about the bureaucracy. I am also often frustrated at universities that teach their engineers outdated technologies. One has a lot of emotional highs and lows when working in Russia and it is a bit like being addicted to a drug; once you have been on it for a couple of years, it is very difficult to leave and get it out of your system.

Has Russian culture changed you, made you more Russian?

No, although my respect for Russians is immense. In my opinion they do some things incredibly well, and some things badly and often Russian logic just defies credibility. On the plus side there is exquisite bone china such as Lomonosovsky (LFZ), innovative rocket and aircraft designs, the amazing ballet dancers, the great orchestras, art and museums and then a wonderfully warm population.

On the other hand the things that drive me nuts are the bad roads, the fact that you have to carry a pram/pushchair down the steps of the underpass as they have designed the wrong width for the tracks, the appalling driving, the fact that when demand drops the prices rise rather than the fall as is the norm, the short term greed, endemic corruption, etc.

Have you become more understanding of the Russian point of view of the world?

It often seems that Russians have a chip on their shoulders and that they do not realise what they have. A lot of Russians believe that the West ‘has it in for them’ whereas in reality most in the West don’t give Russia a second thought. I am however often appalled at the lack of common sense with Western Politicians when it comes to dealing with Russia and its sensibilities. Russia is one of the richest countries in the World, with a great cultural heritage and yet sometimes the people do not seem to realise this.

So are you going to stay here for the rest of your life?

I was seriously thinking of leaving Russia late last year, however when I took over the workshop I felt a new zest for life. My plan is that once the English Workshops is on a solid footing, then I shall return to my passion, which is project management. This time however I will return to the Client side as this gives me the opportunity of addressing the problems with construction and fit out from the inside.

I do sometimes have regrets about not accepting past opportunities in other countries in the past although on the up side I have three wonderful children in Russia and a forgiving wife! I suspect that I will be here for some years to come and look forward to future challenges!