Welcome back to Russia!
It's been a long 12 hours getting here. We didn't get out of Toronto until 7:00pm. because of a snow and de-icing delay; just a fine start to a long haul. The flight to Frankfurt wasn't too bad, as the pilot made up for the delay of 1.5 hrs. by travelling at about 740 mph. We arrived in Frankfurt at 7:25am. their time (6 hrs. difference from Brantford), that was after a 6 hr.and 10 min. flight. I could have sworn it took us 8 hrs. last year. But what do I know?
The flight was packed with a cross section of world travellers, going to just about everywhere in europe. the crossing was mainly uneventful until we hit landfall over Ireland and for about an hour we experienced pretty heavy turbulence. On arrival in Frankfurt it was partly cloudy with a temperature of 47F and the terminal was exactly as I remembered it. It took a good half hour stroll to get from the terminal we arrived at to the terminal where I would catch the flight to Moscow.
This time I really did feel sad leaving Jo Anne at the door; the nice warm fuzzies we share when we are separating make me appreciate the care we have for one another. The luncheon we had at St. Jean de Brebeuf was a nice touch as well; it gave me a chance to say good bye to the boys and remind them to look after their mom and each other. Hopefully this trip will go quickly and we'll be back in our fold together, as we should be .
So I've slept in the waiting area in Frankfurt during the 3 hr. stopover, as people are flying all over the world. The names that came up were really incredible. They ranged from exotic Indian sub-continent names, to south America, Africa and the Orient. The Frankfurt airport has over 1,000 flights per day. You could see all the large military cargo planes for Sarajevo on the opposite side of the tarmac, as they were loaded.
As we make our final approach to Moscow, it is overcast and raining or freezing drizzle and there is at least two feet of snow on the ground. Yes, it is incredibly miserable weather. we make it down safely, and in taxiing up to the terminal note a couple of new aircraft with english lettering: one says Moscow Airlines and the other is notable because it says Aeroflot and is in amongst all the other Russian planes. A passenger comments that they are special initiatives to privatize during the last 6 months.
The gentlemen across from me on the flight were americans just coming from Lagos, Nigeria; and were part of a major american corporate initiative too encourage new american enterprise to get involved in Russia as well as other areas of the world. The one guy hasn't been home for two months and he was commenting how his wife was alone because their kids were all grown. I promise , Jo Anne I will never leave you in the lurch like that; you'll either be coming with me or I will not be going!!
The inside of the terminal in Moscow is the same. It's like the outdoors, dull, dreary and drab, and in desperate need of a facelift as everything is in disrepair. I passed a computer terminal used by one of the guards that looked as though it was on its last legs. We were herded towards the little green guard huts, which were the immigration checkpoints; typically manned by a soldier of about 20 yrs. of age, and looking somewhat uncomfortable as each perused our passports and visas. After a minimum of 3-5 minutes per person we then moved into the better lit baggage area. This is Moscow, a city of 16 million people and the airport has one luggage conveyor that snakes its way around the side of the room three or four times. It appears to be on its last legs as well, with tears in the rubber belt and continuously jettisoning baggage at each curve in the snake because the damn thing isn't wide enough to carry many of the bags on it. One more hoop to go ... that's customs. I made out my declaration on the plane identifying my medical kit, computer, camera and toiletries so that I could get in to the country. The stewardess told us to complete the form in duplicate, so when I get to the customs guy he gives me hell for having two forms, says I only need one, and then he lets me go through.
The usual array of people with hand written signs waits beyond the door, but I don't see my name. The first thought that goes through my mind is here we go again, alone, minimal language skills and open prey for the hackers trying to get you into their cars for the ride to Moscow. I stroll a little past the main crowd in the poorly lit waiting area and around the corner , by the front door is a rather forlorn looking guy holding a washed out hand drawn sign that reads " Ken Johnson"; I sighed relief!
He said my name and that was the last bit of conversation we had all the way to the Sviblova conference centre. My Russian didn't work yet and his english was non existent. We went out the doors across the oily, wet pavement leading to the entrance to the terminal. You cannot imagine the chaotic state of this place. There were Ladas everywhere. We had to go through 6 inch puddles of water and through massive leaks from the overhead roadway to get to his functional yellow Lada. Believe me it ain't like Toronto; there do not seem to be any controls on access or how or where people park; they just pull up over the curb and get out and go wherever they're going. Roads are blocked and it takes us about a half an hour just to get away from the door.
It's raining terribly and this gentleman is driving through the outskirts of Moscow and again I have this terrible sense that I have no Idea or control over where I am going. It's most disconcerting to be in a strange country; not recognizing most of the written language , so you can't read the street signs; and your zipping in and out of traffic with a total stranger who can't tell you where your going. One thing for certain I did not recognize a single land mark.
In the half hour to forty five minutes that it took to get to our destination we passed at least 50 cars or trucks that were stalled because of water splashing up into their engines. The roads don't seem designed to take the water away and consequently lakes abound! Everything is grey and wet. We pass blocks of apartment buildings that , however are notable because they appear to have afresh coat of paint in white with each window outlined in a powder blue, which is a dramatic contrast to the majority of the buildings and factories we pass. There seems to be some construction going on at a few sights but a lot less than I would expect for a city of this size.
We finally arrive at the conference centre in amongst some apartment buildings and factories. This is not your Toronto Convention Centre. The Sviblova International Centre for Social and Labour Problems is itself in need of a bit of repair. The front doors are ajar because they have swollen with the moisture and cannot be closed. As we approach the front desk it is notable for the warping and indentations in the surface from years of use. My driver introduces me and gets me registered and goes for my bags. I can't even give him a tip because I haven't changed my money and I have no small bills. I feel like a real jerk. They book me into room #1 on the 4th floor and we get to joy ride on one of those two foot wide elevators that are about six feet deep. The noise is incredible as this thing strains to lift us four floors. The vents on the wall of the elevator are smashed and the paint has all peeled; while on the floor is a completely warn piece of indian style carpeting. The hallway is well lit with a long runner , again only threads hold it together, for the full length of the hall. My room is midway and once inside is quite comfortable. There are two three piece bathrooms. On the right is the bedroom with two single beds, a white closet, two white side tables and a desk. The view out the window is of the side of an apartment and a small factory. As I'm typing I hear an alarm go off out back which sounds similar to the alarm our neighbour Mark used to set off so regularly. The room to the left is a TV sitting room with a chair, small couch and television. It ain't home but it'll have to do.
A new day dawns, and after a very restless night of struggling with my time zone shift and my very active imagination I crawl out of my bed. Actually the hostel provided quite comfortable and quiet accommodation, and clearly there were no KGB knocking down my door. I proceeded to have my shower, only to find that the water had great difficulty getting any warmer than luke warm. It makes for a very quick shower, and certainly wakes one up! There actually was western style toilet paper in this very Russian facility, which clearly puts it in the category of having greater than the usual influence in the city of Moscow, where most commodities are in short supply.
I went down stairs to the reception area, which was similar to a small hotel lobby. In the centre there was a large, burgundy , circular couch and to one side a 20" TV played the morning news, on a local Moscow channel. Warren Christopher was in town and his entire entourage from the USA was taking up the entire Radisson Slavyanskaya Hotel in central Moscow. There was coverage of a bombing at Heathrow airport in England, and a good deal of coverage on the previous days activity in the Russian parliament. Off to my right a lady about my mother's age began washing the light coloured terrazzo floor with a mop made up of what was a number of old rags tied together. Her motion back and forth seemed almost like a dancing ritual that she had undertaken for most of her life. While she worked the traffic entering the conference centre increased in waves.
The restaurant facility off to my left was not open in the morning as the number of guests simply did not warrant it. This allowed me the further luxury of people watching. A custodial clerk initially watched the TV news with me but as the traffic increased he took up his post behind a well warn wooden desk by the main entrance. Ninety percent of the people who entered were women, and the vast majority were middle aged. The custodian provided direction to the various conferences which were scheduled for the day. The people arrived in regular waves influenced by the schedule of the Moscow Metro. The Sviblova centre , according to the Metro subway map was located on the perimeter of Moscow's system about a 20 minute ride from the centre of town. The few young women that arrived were especially notable both by their lack of number and the striking difference in their style of dress. In virtually every instance they were a contrast to the conservative or more professionally dressed older women. Often in very short dresses with multi coloured tights, and with a more dramatic application of rouge and lipstick than their counterparts.
Enough, already with the girl watching.
By 9:00am. there was a significant increase in males in their traditional fur hats and carrying briefcases. Suddenly I meet my first familiar face, Sevra Rostrov, the chief interpreter for the Russian Federal Employment Service. At first he is speaking with a young lady and quite suddenly he glances over , recognizes me and rushed over. I must admit it was both a relief and a pleasure to finally see someone I recognized, and to have someone speak to me in English. Some of my anxiety washed away. His enthusiastic greeting across the room and his hug were really a surprise.
Having reacquainted ourselves for a few moments he pointed out the conference was scheduled to start in 2 min. and led me up the wide staircase to the forth floor conference room. Feodor Prokopov, the FES national director met us at the door and spoke to me regarding my place on their agenda, and he discussed a meeting he was scheduled to have with the Canadian foreign affairs attaché this afternoon regarding my activities in Russia. He was actually in very high spirits as he informed us that he had just been informed by parliament that last evening they had approved a significant budget for his ministry that would take him through the first quarter of the next year. This was a major victory because of inter ministry struggles between Employment and Labour Ministries which created a good deal of uncertainty after the elections of the new government in the fall.
The room was really quite barren and austere. It was about 50'x50' with banquet type tables arranged in a large square and seating for about 35 individuals. There were no covering on the wooden tables but there were small bouquets of flowers placed midway on each table and groupings of 3 bottles and glasses every four or five chairs. A young lady, who seems very shy is introduced to me by Sevra as my personal interpreter for the day, she will accompany me on coffee breaks and lunch to increase my ability to dialogue with the Russian Industry directors that the FES would like me to meet to encourage their participation in the establishment of Early Response Teams at their facilities.
As people approach the room I am introduced to an array of international agencies here to service the privatization of the large enterprises present. Richard Sobel is the Moscow director of the European Bank , the major venture capital resource for Russians and foreign investors supported by the European Economic Community , the international Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Richard Schryver is the Vice Pres. of the International executive Service Branch from the USA, responsible for providing an array of business expertise to each of the companies attending the seminar. There is a major initiative to develop basic business management skills in accounting, strategic business planning and marketing in order to improve the transition to a market economy in Russia. Directors from firms such McWhinnie, Bain , the World Economic Trust also joined the meeting. Each of the firms bring a bit of an entourage with them, these will turn out to be specialists responsible for various projects.
Finally the meeting gets under way and Mr. Prokopov does the introductions of all participants. When he gets to me I'm a little taken aback as he describes the successful pilot project for the FES that I established in the Vladimir region, and emphasizes his hope that the enterprises attending the meeting will consider my services through the FES as a result of the days activities. Yikes! I'm thinking as a number of the eyes around the room focus on me with a rather uncertain gaze. Like who is this foreigner who has the blessing of the Russian government. His introduction proved to be invaluable in establishing direct approaches from the European bank and supporting financial consultants who were very much interested in the adjustment process as a vehicle to stabilize and focus the development of privatization. They were unaware of the FES's work in this area and felt it would be a significant compliment to establishing a broader based approach to make their investments more accessible to the enterprise. Finally there was a network that made sense and moved the adjustment transition of Russia into a more coordinated strategy.
The European bank director made the first presentation, describing their financial support criteria; this included two initiatives: one for small business which would provide up to $50,000 US in venture capital to new entrepreneurs; the second worked with medium to large enterprises and provided between $250,000 and $4,000,000. They were working with a number of the large enterprises present in the room. Mr. Sobel then introduced a young man as the Mosrov Project coordinator for Russia. He proceeded to describe their initiative which was providing management training for newly privatized company executives across Russia. The training included Strategic Business Planning, Financial Management in a Market Economy, Accounting, Marketing and an array of supportive business practice courses geared to developing the Russian entrepreneurial abilities and using instructors from all over the western world. they had established incubator training centres in Moscow, Novokhusnetsk, Novosibirsk, Vladimir, St. Petersburg and as distant as Irkutsk and Vladivostock. They were extremely well received by their Russian hosts and were seen as a critical element of the transition support to a market economy.
Next I provide an overview with some examples from the Canadian experience on adjustment committees. This included examples of Massey Ferguson and Firestone form a closure support perspective and Westinghouse and Ronal industries as examples where committees were the main vehicle for the industries to restructure and develop new strategic and marketing strategies. Questions arose regarding our four pilot projects in Russia and the impact that they were having in easing the difficulties of downsizing to become more competitive and efficient in the move to privatization. The employment service bureaucrats provided supportive follow up on each of the projects illustrating new training initiatives developed by committees which led to laid off individuals starting their own business; to new technology and financial support saving what would have been lost positions ; and productivity improvement that had occurred as the result of committee recommendations. The pilots were continuing in a positive direction and were minimizing the effects of some drastic downsizing by creating new operational strategies for those remaining with the company; and providing those released with FES training support that was creating new small enterprises and broadening the skills base within the local community. At least to this point in time the initiative is being well received and supported by the Russian worker, management and government as a workable model for change.
The various enterprise directors then provided their own overview of their industries and what they saw as the critical elements affecting them and Russia. This was the focal point of the entire seminar, because as Mr. Sobel from the European Bank indicated, the entire world was watching these 10 enterprises in Russia as they were the largest representative industries and the first privatized in Russian history. Their success or failure in the move to a market economy will be the "bell weather" for Russia and the world as to whether a command economy can make the drastic changes necessary to be competitive in the world. Each director spoke with considerable conviction regarding their commitment to a private, entrepreneurial approach. The director of the largest High Tech. machining facility from St.Petersburg described how they have downsized from an operation of 38,000 employees in 1991 to 23,000 employees today. Creative solutions such as allowing employee buyouts in stock options of the less profitable elements of their operations have helped in this downsizing. Now most of the individuals who would have been laid off are part owners of smaller specialized plants that supply components to the major facility. The largest computer microchip manufacturer described how their firm has become the major supplier to the far east market for chips which operate calculators and games (ie.nintendo, sega etc.); because they had a facility totally geared to servicing the microchip needs of the military industrial complex , on its collapse they had to move quickly to capitalize on their extremely low cost in the world market and their relatively modern and sterile manufacturing environment. It is cheaper to produce the microchips in Russia today , given the value of the ruble, than in any third world country. They have also downsized from an operation of 5,900 employees to one of 2,500 employees in the past 18 months. Two of their facilities seceded to the Ukraine with the collapse of the USSR, and they also have encouraged small specialist operations to evolve from their facility as subsequent suppliers to their operation. They developed a new independent but computer related line in the manufacturing of 3.5" disks for computers. This created over 100 new jobs that did not previously exist in their facility and that used their skills and environmental conditions to best advantage. However the director identified the next major barrier for them is financial restructuring, as they have millions of dollars worth of orders that they cannot fill because the world standard in technology requires an investment of $20 million US in new equipment to meet that standard. Consequently they only have work in process to keep 1,000 employees busy, leaving 1,500 in the lurch until the financial support or a foreign partner can be found to invest. the opportunities are clearly developing in Russia, the difficulty is , will the timing be right to meet the need before it moves beyond a critical point. The sense is that the world must support the Russian transition or we all lose big time!
The Vladimir Tractor Works spoke of their major shift from supplying huge military requirements in tank and military vehicles to farm implement manufacturing, development of small lathes and home market tools(electric drills and saws etc) kind of the Russian black and decker. They have partnered with a West German firm to also develop products and expertise in thermoplastic production which builds housing for their small tools and also develops their export market potential. There is a strong sense of commitment from these captains of Russian industry that if the supports are there, they can and want to be successful major enterprises.
The director of the largest manufacturer of train coaches in Russia is next and speaks of the difficulties of bringing his management team up to market economy standards. The learning curve has been harsh on their operation; he points out that they sent their key 23 middle managers to the west for significant market systems training at British and American facilities only to have 20 of the 23 leave the enterprise because they could not cope with senior management who had not received the training and couldn't understand or support the concepts. We spoke of the potential for the adjustment committee approach as a way to avoid such a devastating happening; its use in restructuring in the western context puts all the players at the table and develops a comprehensive strategic business approach that gains the clear understanding and commitment from all levels of the organization including senior management before an initiative is undertaken. Considerable interest was shown in the potential for this approach to managing change.
Other enterprises recounted similar episodes in their companies move to privatization. They all emphasized the importance of involving the owners as well as management and the employees in the process and had a clear and well articulated understanding of their needs. he last speaker was the youngest of the executives attending the meeting, and he became the most relevant voice of the day. He simply confronted the agenda on the basis that yes the concept of the Russian Federal Employment Service hosting the session and offering a supportive model for transition seemed interesting? but that was not seen as the industries view. He understood the operational and financial difficulties they faced as newly privatized companies, but their agenda was clearly focused on gaining financial support for production improvement and somehow changing existing Russian legislation with the Finance , Economic and Taxation ministries of the Government. When these operational impediments would be dealt with then they might be more able to constructively deal with a new approach to joint consultation or using adjustment committee approaches to dealing with change.
Clearly the immediate need of the group was to work on getting market economy type legislation and support in place before they could commit to involving their employees in changes that might just be subverted by existing cumbersome legal barriers. To the credit of the FES they clearly accepted the consensus of the industry leaders and backed off on their agenda of introducing committees or early response teams to the companies. The process only works if it is identified by the user as a voluntary and needed approach. Without that industry or private sector driven initiative a committee restructuring approach would be seen as a government imposed mandate and it would be doomed to failure. The success of the seminar lay in the candid and facilitative approach of all parties. The sense is the Russians clearly understand what a market economy is and are making a concerted effort to get there. The government is also making phenomenal efforts to accommodate industry and the private sector approach and not to impose their will on anyone. Given the dramatic collapse in the Russian Economy my guess is this posture by the government is astonishing and laudable given their past history. Would that our western governments were as willing to not interfere or impose "help" under such a crisis. The day ended with a decision to provide follow up and support for the industries in the future when they were ready and requested it. The Vladimir Tractor Works and The computer microchip manufacturer both indicated interest in committees and partnership with the European Bank sometimes in the next 6 months.
The day was seen as a major success for bringing together the largest industries in Russia in their fist year of privatization and sharing with them a number of resources which may assist their further successful efforts. The ability for the government , consulting and banking services to meet at the same time was also a first and provides an excellent network for the future coordination of support and service delivery to the Russian business community.
For me, the time is just approaching 9:00am canadian so the meeting has in fact been an all night meeting. What a way to meet the new Russian reality.
We now plan for the evening with Molly Meacher calling her husband Richard Layard who has just finished a major news conference with the Russian and World press, introducing the new Economics Minister deputy Sergei Vasilyev. Little did I know that I would be spending the most intriguing evening with Mr. Vasilyev, Molly and Richard. We proceeded out into the traffic to wave down our transportation home. Will I ever get used to this Moscow transit approach? Finally a Lada stops Molly chats up the driver and I load my three bags into the front seat and we're of to her apartment.
After about a half hour drive through heavy traffic we pull up in front of a 15 storey red brick apartment about two blocks from the Kremlin. Molly enters a code at the door and the female custodian releases the lock and we enter a long dimly lit corridor. The custodian's desk sits next to the elevator and she screens everyone that comes into the building. We enter another of those midget elevators that creep their way up to the 10th floor where we enter #66.
Their apartment is really quite large and comfortable , not unlike a Canadian apartment. They have two bedrooms , a dining room , Living room , kitchen , and a three piece and one piece washroom facilities. Molly explains that this is not typical Moscow fair, but they are pleased to have it. The evening to come is just another unusual experience in the unpredictable Russian landscape.
We wait in the apartment for Richard to complete his press conference and then we shall go to dinner. This gives me a chance to look over the premises. The floors are all hardwood and the walls are papered in a beige, traditional floral pattern. Ceilings are really quite high and they have the apartment rather neatly decorated. There are many sketches of Moscow drawn by local street artists, and matrushka dolls of various sorts rest everywhere. In the hallway is an upright Rostol piano, which Molly says, gets tuned every three months wether it needs it or not. Each tuning costs more than the last, inflation you know. The living room is about 20x12 and comfortably seats several people; with a large oak table as well as coffee and end tables all covered with lovely hand embroidered doilies. The kitchen was a rather small area with a table to one side and a bench seat with most of the trim and decorations in red including the phone. They had regular hot and cold running water and two bathrooms(the 2nd was a one piece).
Richard arrives in his usually hurried state as we are late for a dinner appointment with Sergei Vasilyev, the new Deputy, Minister of Economics. He's a gentleman of about 35 years of age balding and very Russian. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Quickly out into the street we're at it again , flagging down our transportation to the next location. Very quickly we are transported in a Volga 4 door sedan, which is quite comfortable, to that famous new Moscow restaurant, the Patio Pizza house. The restaurant is about a year old and just about as american as you are ever going to see. Interestingly it is located off a side street just behind some rather stately embassies not far from the Kremlin. The juxtaposition of the old and the new in Russia is absolutely dramatic.
In the restaurant , Sergei is awaiting us with reservations already made. The staff are dressed in the classic Italian blue and white striped shirts with navy neckerchiefs, and the female staff are wearing a traditional Italian style dress with puffed sleeves and a frilly collar in variations of beige and brown. They all make an extra effort to greet us warmly and make us comfortable at our table. So much for the myth of cold Russian insensitivity to service after 75 years of communism. The menu is your typical pizza house fair; variations on pizza, spaghetti, lasagna and various veal, pork and seafood dishes. They also had an extensive salad bar which we all had with our dinners. I had a ham and mushroom small pizza which was quite delicious; Molly had a larger vegetarian pizza; Sergei lasagna and Richard enjoyed a breaded pork cutlet with pasta. We had a red Italian bottle of wine as well.
This contrasted with our very Russian lunch at the Sviblova Centre earlier in the day where we began with an antipasto dish of salami and bread slices followed by a nice hot bowl of rice and vegetable broth with meat lightly evident in the broth. It was exceptionally tasty stuff. This was followed by a main course of kasha with a large piece of boiled beef in the middle. An array of small desserts which were like eclairs,ie. they had a creme filling and the pastry was light and topped with a sweet sugary substance. The meal was capped off with a choice of Russian chai(tea) or a small cup of quite tasty coffee, no cream. Certainly a day of contrasts in meals.
Our dinner conversation focused on politics and the key players in the new government. Sergei is seen as a very radical reform liberal with his education in economics, consequently it was quite a surprise that in the lobbying he garnered significant support from the floor in parliament. Richard and Sergei were strategizing as to the best position for his predecessor Anatoly in the new operational structure since he had been effectively moved aside. Again I have this unreal sense of what am I doing in the midst of such a conversation. Sergei is interested in details of the pilots and we also talk about the Canadian adjustment model and the impact of the pilots. His knowledgability of the circumstances of the major enterprises we met with today surprises me, and he is particularly interested in the detail regarding their concerns around restrictive legislation.
Sergei had just returned on the 9th of March from a visit to Washington and London to meet with white house administration and # 10 downing regarding the continuing aid and interaction with the Russian government. Can this be for real!
We return to the flat driven by Sergei's driver in a comfortable large sedan, it was too dark to tell the make. The driver really did look like your classic government security type, a real contrast to every other man in the street. He would wait in the car until Sergei was ready to leave. Sergei spoke at length about the factors that he considered to be the critical elements in the fall of communism.. He felt that the children of the "nomenclature" or ruling class under communism simply read the books their parents didn't and learned of the activity in the rest of the world. Combining that with the freedom he said existed under Khruschev from 1953 to 1958; and the few uncensored Italian movies of the 70's youth made radically different conclusions from their parents. He felt the action in Czechoslovakia in 1968 was the final nail in the coffin as it clearly illustrated to the young people that the ideology was just talk and the reality was an imperialistic type application. His generation he felt was given its opportunity through Gorbachov finally playing the glasnost card to gain public support in the politburo. It was a most interesting discussion as we questioned him about TV's influence which he said was virtually non-existent as was the impact of radio . That was interesting because the west felt radio and TV were key players. Most significant for Sergei were the popular , underground dissident writers, poets and singers in the 60's, 70's and 80's. He said this was the core of the Russian spirit for change that was moving rapidly to collapse the communist system. Internal value rejection in almost a classic youth revolt of their parents values seemed to be his explanation for the ultimate collapse.
Then a very personal and classic Russian side of Sergei appeared. Molly asked if he would play and sing for us and he enthusiastically moved to the piano. He commented that he would rather have a guitar but he'd make an honest effort at the piano. Complaining that his 6 years of lessons as a youngster simply didn't help him a whole lot. He sang a variety of old ballads with a classic Russian sadness and progressed to the protest ballads of the recent era . In each instance this Russian Minister in the new government meticulously translated the songs for us after each one to give us a clear understanding of the meaning. It was an incredible experience and provided an unbelievable insight into the Russian soul. I felt very privileged to have shared in this particular experience, and had the foresight to take some pictures and tape record some of the moments. I don't believe that I will ever be able to accept someone else's assessment of another cultural group without having met and experienced it myself. Sergei's sensitivity, and openness gave me a greater personal insight into real Russian culture, that no government's view or individual's perspective could ever provide. Certainly an experience of a life time.
Sergei left and about 11:00pm. and we all retired. Tonight I slept soundly! At least until 5:00am.
When I woke I proceeded to add to my personal diary, I was afraid I might forget something important. Richard was up away by 9:00am. and Molly brought me a cup of chai while I typed away in my room. the room itself was full of a collection of Russian and french classic books; from Tolstoy to Chekhov, all in the original Russian or French. Molly had a two hour Russian tutorial which began at 10:00am; so I took advantage of the opportunity to go shopping .
Molly gave me directions to the GUM department store at Red Square, turn right out the door to the first street and then left and follow the road to the square. Ha! Fat chance I had of finding anything. I followed the road past several embassies and the beginnings of a shopping district but after the third curve I had no bloody idea where I was going. I went through a couple of pedestrian underpasses to try to find a landmark but had no success. Suddenly I was standing at a point that was familiar from my previous visits. A small cathedral had been fully refurbished with a bright gold coloured cupola and cross and across from it were the ancient street lampposts that marked the strolling lane of the Arbat or street market. To my chagrin, as I strolled down the street all the vendors tables , kiosks and the previous hustle and bustle of a vibrant flea market with countless variety of wares was gone.. I was disappointed! How could I buy the boys the neat night vision binoculars I'd seen on previous visits? What about Joanne's lacquered box and a shawl for mom. Clearly the store owners had won a battle to remove the flea market entrepreneurs as all the business facades along the street were being painted or upgraded, but they did not have near the character or the atmosphere I had so enjoyed on my previous trip.
I visited a few of the shops which carried the usual matrushka dolls and a variety of souvenirs and jewellery. There were actually some vestiges of the fall uprising as some rather large calibre holes were visible in some shops windows in random locations. Apparently from random sniper fire during the few days of fighting. I was lucky enough to find some lovely artistic lacquered boxes and chose a simple theme of a bearded man and his lover off on a sleigh ride driven by the famous troika horses of Russian mythology; I hope JoAnne finds it pleasing. A little Yeltsin doll caught my eye for Chris and Gene but the overall selection was quite sparse. As I left the Arbat to wend my way back to Molly and Richard's flat I passed an elderly lady street vendor who had several lovely shawls so I was able to get one for mom. Absolutely no luck on a picture or anything meaningful for the boys., and that was a disappointment.
Interestingly I remembered a good number of landmarks to find my way back through the winding street. First the cathedral, then a small but very new womens fashion shop, and then a tall bright coloured banking structure with a huge yellow diamond shaped symbol brought me to the corner nearest the turkish embassy. This was just a block from the apartment, so I was home free.
I remembered the 108 combination for the door and responded to the custodial lady with "Shest dysyet shest" that's # 66, their apartment and she allowed me to pass. I was 5 minutes early, but found that the elevators would quickly remedy that. I stood in front of the two foot wide elevator door and held the button. It arrived at the ground floor and just as I was about to board the lady asked me to step back so that she could remove the piece of cardboard she had placed on the floor. I backed away, she pulled the cardboard out and the damn lift left! For the next 15 minutes I watched the lights, indicating which floor the elevator was on go back and forth from 7 to 13 to 9 to 12 etc...The second elevator was down for repairs so there I stood. Finally it came back. I boarded with 6 other people and road to the tenth.
Molly was just completing her lesson as I arrived. Richard had not arrived back from the office yet so we sat and talked about how we would approach the future implementation of Early Response teams once the large industries were ready to move. Molly was in agreement to invite my colleague Bill Thompson and Mary Zelinsky as soon as she had a clear indication of commitment. She did not anticipate this happening for at least six weeks.. But this is Russia, so who can tell.
Molly's maid Luda arrives with a couple of fresh chickens and she immediately goes into the kitchen to prepare a lunch. By the time Richard arrives lunch is ready and we sit down at the kitchen table . We begin with a chicken soup which was made from boiling the chickens and adding rice and veggies. Very tasteful. Then Richard cuts up the chicken and offers it to Molly and I. It is very moist and tasty. It occurs to me that by boiling it they get a double shot at making chicken soup. first from the cooking of the chicken and second from the reduction of the left overs in a days time. Resourceful bunch these Russians are.
Now we are ready to leave for the Sviblova Centre where Molly had left here agenda the day before. She was in an absolute panic as it had all of her Moscow numbers and she was lost without it. So into the street. Molly on one side waving at cars, Richard on the other waving at cars and me standing in wonder at these two incredible people in action. We quickly had a car and for $10 US the gentleman would take us on a return trip.
This time as we pass a myriad of buildings I really notice that many of the buildings have been repaired or painted and there is clearly a more positive atmosphere that the cream and blue and beige colours add to the street as we pass by. It cannot help but subtly build a more positive atmosphere throughout Moscow. Clearly it is not a haphazard approach but rather a comprehensive effort that is making a difference.
Richard points out several landmarks and monuments to the freedom of the people as we drive along.. there is a massive stainless statue of a man and woman holding a torch as they move forward. This is located in front of an area massive in size, and dotted with huge modern and empty trade centres. We approach the monument to the Russian space program, a huge sweeping needle with a rocket at its peak. the Moscow radio communications tower at about 1500' stands off in the distance, with its multiple of antennae and dishes. Finally we are at the Sviblova Centre , Molly rushes in and is visibly relieved to get her agenda back..
We return to the inner boulevard area of Moscow which circles the Kremlin and begin our stroll. Oh! I forgot to mention that Molly and Richard spoke to their neighbour, Faia, an elderly lady who manages the special bibliotech for writers in Moscow and she has talked them into taking me to the Bolshoi Ballet this evening. I am absolutely stunned with anticipation. I mean I'm in Moscow for the briefest possible visit and I'm seeing more than I can imagine.
As we travel the boulevard Richard is enthusiastically describing various periods of the buildings. The older city structures are clearly pre-communist and have intricate stone carvings on their facades that often go up three stories. There are birds and women and ornate pillars and many are now highlighted by fresh paintings and masonry repair. The city is recovering its soul. There were just too many points to remember it all. We were getting close to the Kremlin and Richard pointed out a square six story structure and indicated that on the fifth floor at the back had been the offices of Gorbachov when they carried out the coup attempt. Richard's office had been just below on the fourth floor in his initial work in Moscow. I then noticed the guards and the heavy gates leading up to the building. It now houses general bureaucrats as all of the key government personnel at senior levels have moved back into the Russian White house.
We finally arrive onto the square where the Bolshoi is located. It dominates the broad square with its massive pillars, pink cut stone architecture and the huge cast troika statue that gallops out from the top facade of the building. Molly spots Faia dickering with the young scalpers on the top step in front of the main door. Is this hockey night at Maple Leaf Gardens ? The lads hover around us like vultures and they want $40 US per ticket. Faia says no way, we must bargain downward. They have a complete choice of tickets from the first row back. Richard decides to hand them $120, and they accept it and give us tickets for row 15 dead centre of the orchestra area of the theatre. We have an hour and a half so we cross the square to the Artists Tea Room for dinner.
This is a quite intimate and elegant restaurant frequented by the literate of Moscow. A small buffet contains linguini, a fish stew, potatoe balls, and a selection of fresh tomatoes , cabbage and desserts. We make our selection order a glass of white wine and they bring it to our table. Faia is an incredible character. In her youth she managed four floors of the Hotel Ukraina in Moscow. That was 250 rooms specifically serving the most influential Russian and foreign clientele. This lady spoke eloquently of her years of contact with the rich, famous and powerful of Russia and the world. She apparently can get tickets to any event that occurs in Moscow , no matter how short the supply, according to Richard and Molly. They have been taken under her wing on several occasions and have been to every theatre attraction imaginable. She was fluent in English and polish. So when I conversed with her in Polish she seemed overjoyed and insisted on me taking her number and bringing my wife to visit her on my next trip to Moscow. What a character, and a dear sweet lady besides. She indicated rather sadly at one point that "Russia will die." When she clarified this comment she said not in violent war but in a disintegration as the many"presidents" across the country each wanted their own domain. Not unlike the french aspirations in Canada. The result would be a slow disintegration and death! Interesting view.
It was time for the theatre. The ballet tonight was " Antoucha" based on a short story by Anton Chekhov about a young Russian girl who pursues wealth but never finds happiness. I think I've got it right, but I'll have to check the program. We enter the theatre with a throng of relatively well healed people in wear which ranged from formal gowns and minks to mini skirts and guys in jeans with open collared shirts. There is that Russian paradox again, nothing is predictable.
The inner foyer is decorated in white and pink. The walls all curve away from us and there are staircases and arches leading to the coat check prior to entering the theatre. We purchase a Russian program for 500 rubles and an english version for 3,000 rubles. The Russian version is clearly the better one. Opera glasses are provided as the coat check claim, and we proceed into the theatre of the Czars.
What a magnificent hall. As you enter the brilliance of the gold brocade ornamentation that surrounds the entire hall as the facade of each of the six balconies that go straight up to the ceiling. Gold and red are the dominant colours. There are four royal balconies at each side of the stage and the grand balcony for the Czar at the second level in the middle of the rear of the theatre. Nothing would be more than 100 feet from the stage and there is not a bad seat in the house. On the lower edge of each balcony there are crystal chandeliers about every fifteen feet and in the centre of the ceiling there is a massive chandelier, multi tiered and surrounded by a huge fresco of ornate human angels in colourful garb. The curtain is the only vestige of the communist era as it has the subtle embroidery of the hammer and sickle repeated throughout its length and width. The balcony seating goes no deeper than four rows and the six balconies arch the theatre from the edge of the stage completely around to the other edge. It has to be one of the most dramatic visual impacts I've ever experienced.
The audience was from around the world. There were many Japanese, Americans, British, Russian nomenclatura, Russian mafia( pointed out by Faia), and many young people with their parents. Not unlike theatre in Toronto. We were in for a special treat as the prima Ballerina of Russia was returning to the Bolshoi after a lengthy absence because of disagreements with directors in the past. Her husband was also to dance in this presentation. I am no aficionado of the ballet but I must say this ballet was an incredible mix of old Russian and modern with period costumes that were absolutely dazzling and a presentation that was spectacular to the eye. Even the scenery captured the Russian soul with unbelievable cathedral scenes, village centres and countryside. The dancing was exciting , athletic and dramatic as she moved across the stage with little effort yet precision like I had never seen. What an incredible experience. I keep finding myself in these circumstances with no planning and gaining the most unusual affiliations and experiences. This ballet conveyed a vibrancy and life I had not seen expressed by the Russian people to this point. The expressions of sadness were evident but the tone overall was excitement, joy of life and pursuit of happiness. The crowd gave the returning ballerina 15 minutes of ovations.
We left the theatre and were all raving about the success of the evenings presentation. Again we're waving down a Lada on the street at 10:15pm. and quickly pick up a ride home. I have to leave for the airport at 5:00am. so I thank my hosts profusely for the days adventures and their warm hospitality and retire to pack. The last two days activity are beginning to feel like a months experience, and I'm running out of gas. What a treat it will be to return home and share this adventure with JoAnne and the kids.
I decided to sleep lightly, so that I wouldn't miss my ride top the airport at 5:00 am. Once more I pull together my suitcases and pack most of my clothes; taking out my 5 cans of tuna, 2 cans of chicken and my box of crackers. I'll leave those for Molly and Richard and not have to bother with the extra weight. The box of Canadian key cases and wallets that I brought as gifts for people that I met will also be given to Molly to distribute to those company people and bureaucrats that I met over the past week.
I lay down fully dressed for the trip home at about 2:30 am. Kept the light on just to make sure I didn't have a deep sleep. Finally at 4:30 am I got up , snuck into the washroom to brush my teeth and wash up before Rafik my driver arrives.
At ten to five I awake Richard who will let me out and lock the door behind me. The corridor leading to their apartment is pitch black as the hall lights are burned out, and god knows when someone will get around to replacing them! I feel my way along the corridor towards the lights of the central elevators. While waiting for the elevator I look out the window towards the large Foreign Ministry tower, which has spot lights playing across its facade. Really it creates a pretty picture above the balance of the city of Moscow, quietly cast in street lights around and behind the building.
The elevator arrives and I get my last joyful ride in this two by six box. It creeps down the centre of the building with a noticeable squeak at each floor. The battered walls and scraped paint show its wear and age, but it beats walking up 10 floors. On arrival at the ground floor the movement of the elevator has woken the custodian. A rather small lady, in her late sixties, and dressed in a house coat approaches as I get out of the elevator. She seems very humble and apologetic as I explain that I will be waiting for a ride by the front door. Immediately beside the door is a small cubicle which is the custodian's sleeping quarters. It has a glass facing to give her full view of all that passes, and it also robs her of any privacy she might have had.
I check outside the door to see if Rafik has arrived, but the street is quite still. It's a cool morning so I'm going to wait inside. As luck would have it I can't see through the door and Rafik arrives and rings the apartment before I can get to him. I'm sure Molly and Richard will enjoy the extra interruption in their sleep. We load up the Lada, and head down the street out and around the inner ring road to the road to the international airport. Moscow at this time of day is really quite striking as many of the buildings are strategically lit, and provide a contrast to the wet street.
One gets a clear sense as you travel to the airport that the western influence is expanding. The frequency of billboards increases as you approach the airport; as does the number of signs in English advertising everything from Panasonic to American Express. It strikes me that the incursion of signs is almost a silent invasion of the Russian culture and its mystical cyrillic alphabet. Rafik and I exchange a few pleasantries about the weather which is cool and damp, but not unlike home at this time of year. The traffic seems to be greater than I remembered on previous visits. Most of it was headed towards the airport.
We arrive at 5:00 am on the button, and I grab a small luggage cart to take my bags inside. No rush of porters to take your bags and a real contrast to when I arrived. There wasn't the chaos of Ladas parked at every angle with no way to get through. Just one or two taxis or private cars dropping off travellers at the door. Inside the terminal there was the usual line up to get through customs prior to the Lufthansa ticket counter. About fifty people were lined up at three kiosks, and the lines moved reasonably with the usual North American manoeuvring for a standby ticket because they were leaving ahead of schedule. This didn't seem to disrupt the flow and everyone was accommodated. A Russian couple with 5 children moved through ahead of me, heading to Frankfurt on route to Israel. They were dressed very simply, and were extremely excited as they moved to the ticket counter. Clearance this time went quickly, with only a brief glance from the Russian soldier handling our line.
The Lufthansa folks had my revised ticket and we then proceeded through the Immigration checkpoint. Somehow these lads at Immigration have been trained to emit the most negative vibes possible. They always manage to take what seems like an eternity with each person, constantly looking from one's passport to one's face and back again. It's as though they're waiting for you to crack under the strain or for some inconsistency to suddenly pop up so they can detain you. I think the early time of day has triggered my paranoia. Finally I'm into the waiting area for our 7:00 am flight to Frankfurt.
There are the usual scattering of individuals in sleeping bags on the floor waiting for later flights to India; Mongolia and other exotic locations. All of the duty free facilities are closed but I can see through the cage doors that their prices for Russian goods have already made a transition to the western pricing. Hats and scarves are priced more like Harrods of London than what they can be purchased for in Moscow. Free enterprise is having its impact, for sure.
It has been a year since my last trip and this time the airport has made one significant improvement. The coffee shop and bar on the upper level is open this morning so that the travelling public can actually have a coffee or orange juice while they wait. The gentleman ahead of me has a beer and a plate of sliced sausage and bread for his snack. A young Canadian and his family are sitting at a table enjoying juices and bread and he decides to buy some Russian beer to take home. This stimulates my interest, and for about 1,000 rubles(.65 cents) I pick one up for JoAnne's dad. I have another 10,000 rubles in my pocket and find out that I can buy a bottle of Russian champagne for exactly that amount. Great JoAnne and I can use it to celebrate our 25th anniversary.
Time to board the big bird and off to Frankfurt. The flight is full this morning and everyone uses the three hours to catch some shut eye. When we arrive in Frankfurt it is raining and cooler than when I came through last week. Interestingly our plane is taxied to a corner of the airport far from the terminal where we are met by German immigration authorities. They are checking each persons passport as we leave the plain to board a transport bus for the terminal. There is no explanation for this activity; and it is clearly unusual since most of the passengers are in transit to other countries and would not normally go through immigration in Germany. It seemed to go smoothly and either they found who they were looking for or they didn't and just let us carry on.
Once more I'm in familiar surroundings as we travel the long moving sidewalk towards the international terminal. The sun is up and the myriad of travel posters advertising all of western Europe present a pleasant change from Moscow. Already the terminal is bustling at 8:00 am with people travelling everywhere imaginable. I think you truly can sit in this terminal and in the course of a day watch the representatives of most countries in the world go by. People are stretched out everywhere; I luck out and get a lounge chair just as a young couple leave it. This will be my bed for the next few hours as the Toronto flight doesn't leave until 12:30 pm.
I sleep lightly through the hustle and bustle of the airport, glancing up everyone once in awhile to see a new brown face or youngster or East Indian heading for their connecting flight. At about 10:30 I head over to the centrally located bar and snack service and have breakfast. Would you believe two german sausages on a bun with a diet coke. Do I know how to eat when I'm away or what? I stroll the shops waiting for my flight number to come up and confirm the gate. I remember too well my experience last year when I woke up one half hour before take off, only to find they had changed the gate and I had to run like a mad man clear to the otherside of this massive airport, only making the plane by a hair. I bought some Toblerone chocolates for Joanne and the boys and it was time to go.
There was a large group of high school kids returning from a ten day tour of Europe during their mid term break. They had just flown in from Rome and were absolutely exhausted from their travels. They were now looking forward to a long flight back to Canada and their homes in Moncton, Fredericton and St. John. Their teacher/chaperon sat across from me and indicated theywere all kids in French Immersion programs from across New Brunswick and she found that this had been an exceptional experience for them. They all conversed very comfortably throughout their stay according to her observations.
The flight would be almost four hours longer than the flight I had from Toronto to Frankfurt because of severe head winds and a shifting jet stream. Thank god for " Mrs. Doubtfire" , which played while we experienced the roughest turbulence, so it kept me positively occupied.
Toronto was reasonably mild when we arrived and I was able to book an Airservice directly to Brantford 5 minutes after arrival. I arrived in the drive way about two minutes after JoAnne had returned from the Montreal basketball tournament. It was a great surprise for her and a happy end to another Russian adventure for me.