From the Personal Archive of a Russianist, installment twenty-one

Visit to Moscow for UPS, May 1990.  Attending the US-USSR Trade and Economic Council annual gathering, 20-24 May

I stop in at the Council offices and receive confirmation of the right to attend the Council session. Sunday evening, 20 May, there is an opening cocktail reception. I go with the General Manager of our UPS-Sovtransavto joint venture Arkady Kurshin.

I imagine it will be a good setting to troll for new employment. In this illusion I am sadly mistaken: this is no place to look for work. It is a forum for those already in the field to show off. The reception is lavish – caviar, crab, smoked fish, vodka. For the next 3 days the same gluttony will repeat itself till I am thoroughly fed up with this overly rich food and 2 kg overweight.

Somehow the Council meetings depress me. Whereas my Leningrad sojourn earlier in this trip filled me with optimism, this herd of Americans in Moscow alienates me and leaves me saddened. After a week on the road my suits look rumpled and cheap. Here are hundreds of slick, freshly pressed newcomers to the field who stampede past the old guard like myself. After years of working in the desert I see that the long-awaited rains have come and are choking, flooding the delicate desert flowers and making room for a harvest of cabbages.

We were outcasts when the USSR and Eastern Europe was out of fashion. And we are bypassed by the big boys now that everyone smells money. The lawyers and management consultancies are moving in in force. They have the names and the prestige to lead the large corporations in by the nose and to charge their fat rates. They have respectability and credibility. For the major corporations finesse is not really needed. They are ready to take out their checkbooks and pay whatever is necessary to set up shop. So there will be much waste at first. No matter. The accountants will come later, in the van, and start tightening up the operations. This is exactly what I have seen in UPS’ behavior on its waves of international expansion. Guys like my boss spending bucks like wild, followed eventually by operations personnel who rein it in. 

And yet even then the familiar corporate landscape of Ernst and Whitney, Coopers & Lybrand, etc. gives comfort to corporate men just as IBM’s cachet enables DP managers to get approval for expenditures that senior management would reject if suppliers were unfamiliar. Quality is not the issue – covering your ass is!

These days I have been reading Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” in the Russian language edition that just has come out. I find Carnegie’s insights a wonderful refinement of what I myself discovered by trial and error going back to the selling of East-West Marketing services: pitching to what your audience’s interests are, what they want and expect to hear. Listening.

I put to work Carnegie’s sweet bromides at the receptions. I go up to my old antagonist Chris Edwards and Paul Hatfield of Ralston Purina and aggressively shake hands and exchange courtesies. Hatfield congratulates me on my ‘successes.’ Does he know of any? Great way to cut short any talk that might become embarrassing. Edwards looks very grey. I don’t suppose he’s enjoyed these past 10 years in St Louis shadowing Hatfield.

On Monday I find myself seated next to Margaret Chapman, the head of the business circle within the American Committee on East-West Accord. She expresses disappointment at the turnout. Not enough big shots from the old days. Indeed, Armand Hammer never shows up to claim his seat and other personalities do not in fact come though shown in the registration lists. As I later realize, this may be because of Gorbachev’s planned summit trip to the USA in 10 days; many of the captains of industry will be meeting Gorby in California, which is a lot more convenient for them than the long hike over to Moscow.

Don Kendall is probably the most visible old Russia hand here. I spot former Vice Chairman of Control Data Chet Schmidt and go over to shake his hand during a break.

Characteristic of the new turn in the Soviet business, the herd of Americans bringing their own landscape with them, is the presence of former U.S. Vice President, Senator Muskie of Maine. He is here as a figurehead to give prominence to the law firm on whose board he sits and attract business. A celebrity who has the sense to hardly open his mouth. I shake this well-dressed dummy’s hand as well…And this emptiness is what makes it all so frustrating and depressing.

Are things getting better or worse? What is the meaning of it all?  I see normalization in all this. Essentially it is good. At the same time American complacency, the false belief that we have something to bring here, that poor, ignorant Russians will not prevail. Russians are too clever and too well educated to have American hucksters dance on their heads for long. There will be a xenophobic reaction.

On Tuesday evening there is a cocktail reception aboard a steamer on the Moskva river. Together with Kurshin, I join up with the Minister of Transport of Uzbekistan, an old friend of Arkadi’s and his assistant in charge of “Aral”, a multi-activity company under the Ministry who are a putative service partner for UPS in Uzbekistan. It is a chance meeting which brings us together. However, real potential is there. I feel that the push for sovereignty among the Soviet republics has implications for business development that few others may appreciate. Uzbekistan’s rich resources (gold, angora wool, silk, Persian lamb) will now be their own to dispose of on world markets. We agree to pursue the contact during a meeting in Tashkent in late June.

During this boat ride I introduce the Minister to Jim Giffen, President of Mercator. For me, it’s interesting to see that Giffen is tied to Moscow in the fight with the republics. This will be a losing position. Here is a blindness to exploit.

On Wednesday the regular Council registrees go to dinner at the Kremlin. Having gotten in irregularly, I have no invitation. It is galling. To compensate, I take my guys out to a restaurant, to the new so-called American restaurant “TREN-MOS”. It’s another creature of the crazy entrepreneur who set up Astro-Pizza. Food is mediocre, though after last night’s drunken party on the boat, my taste buds are shot to hell. The owner and maître d’ is a greasy young guy given to back slapping and banter with all guests, using phony Yiddish. The saving grace is a fantastic American black pianist and jazz singer.

Thursday we spend out at the UPS offices in Ochakovskaya  reviewing current business. There are all sorts of tensions between the staff to mediate. A new manager has to be hired and there are further candidates to interview. The whole circus is so distracting that amazingly I manage to forget my proper departure time and to miss my flight out!  That’s totally nuts. At the same time it’s a sign of the growing normality of Russia that there is a second Lufthansa flight this evening on which I do get a seat. So out I do go. Once in Frankfurt, I decide to go all the way and so end up back home in Brussels shortly before midnight.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperbfack and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]