Translation into English of my book presentation speech

Translation into English of my book presentation speech to the Golitsyn Library, St Petersburg,16 November 2021

Shortly after I delivered a Zoom presentation of my book Russia in the Turbulent 1990s: Diaries, Memoirs, Documents  (Россия в бурные 1990-е: Дневники, Воспоминания, Документы) to the Golitsyn Library in St Petersburg, I posted on my website the Russian text of my speech. This was further carried on my Linked-In account, where it attracted a number of visitors.  How many of those visitors were Russian-speakers I cannot say, but I assume many visitors were not and so could not appreciate what is a very important statement on the state of play in historiography of Russia’s “second revolution” in the 20th century, its years of painful transition from Communism to a market economy and democratic institutions in the 1990s.

For me, the appearance of this book in its Russian edition several weeks ago was a landmark on my life’s journey, as I explain in the speech.  Therefore, I now offer to English speakers a translation of the speech so that they may follow my reasoning.

I crafted the speech itself directly in Russian and did so in a literary style which, typically in the Russian language, meant paragraph long sentences and complicated grammar with often barely pronounceable participial phrases. The painful effort of oral delivery was clearly evident in the video recording of my speech that was posted by the Library and which I have put up on my website. However, that literary style enabled me to share with lapidary quality some complex observations on the creation and translation of my new book that I wanted to share with prospective readers and with the profession generally. I do that now in English below. May this message spur other participants in the expatriate world of Russia in the 1990s to come forward and add to the literature about those extraordinary times.


Good evening to you all and thanks for deciding to participate in this presentation of my book “Russia in the Turbulent 1990s.”

Firstly, I want to express my gratitude to my Russian publisher, Liki Rossii, St Petersburg for our fruitful collaboration in creating on the basis of my original two-volume, 1200 page English edition a book in Russian coming to 780 pages which I present to you today.

For you, book lovers, it is important to know that my partnership with Liki Rossii showed how useful it is to work together with professional editors when such possibility exists.  Unfortunately, I had no such possibility in the USA or in Western Europe when I was preparing the original edition in English. In the States many authors do as I did – they publish their books according to the formula “self-publishing,” a new and very widespread form of samizdat, which in fact is a return to the system of book publishing in the 18th and 19th centuries. To be author and consultant on the organization of your book as well as proofreader is a difficult burden.

Elizaveta Petrovna and Yuri Borisovich Shelaevy and their team gave me professional advice on shortening the text and optimizing the interest for prospective readers in this country, for example, by adding photographs which illustrate important moments in the narrative, and by adding a detailed Index of Names.  They of course, checked all the facts set out in the text. But surely their most important contribution was in editing the text with a view to eliminating inaccurate or simply erroneous selection of words and figures of speech in the translation from English.

On the cover of the book you will not find the word “translation.” Nor will you find the name of a translator.  In a certain sense the translator was me, but only in a certain sense.

The basic translation from English was done by a “machine.” I used the online program on the website  I uploaded English files half a typed page at a time and a second later received back the Russian text.  Thus, I got the entire translation of 780 pages in the course of one month. Entirely for free. If I had assigned this task to a normal translator, the work would have lasted a year and the cost would have been prohibitively high.

I want to note that I myself managed to catch and correct many of the peculiar words and expressions that a machine translation gives you even today, after all the remarkable progress that translation software has made in the past few years.  Moreover, as I said at the outset, my colleagues at Liki Rossii further cleaned up the text to reach a satisfactory end result.

Bearing in mind that the Foreign Literature Department of the Mayakovsky Municipal Library of St Petersburg is one of the “sponsors” of today’s event, I think that this entire production process of my book can give my “host” some useful tips.

Thus, I have a book, and this publication is a landmark on my life’s journey. I am proud that right after its release in its English original edition, my work was purchased by the New York Public Library and by a group of other libraries in the USA. However, to be frank, the material in this book will surely be better appreciated here in Russia, where every educated person older than 50 knows the personalities in business, political and cultural life with whom I became acquainted, collaborated and wrote about in my diary notes written long before the appearance of this book.  In the USA or in Europe only a narrow circle of specialists knows about them.  This book is more about your history than about ours.

 Now I will explain to you why my book is a pioneer in its genre of diaries and memoirs about Russia written by foreigners who worked in Moscow and St Petersburg in the 1990s.

And in conclusion I will share with you several of the conclusions I have drawn from reading my diary entries published in this book as regards democracy in Russia during the Yeltsin years, as regards the challenges which both domestic Russian and foreign businesses faced at the time, and as regards cultural life in Russia during those years.  I emphasize that the diaries are in and of themselves raw material for your personal evaluation and each reader will find his or her own discoveries.

       * * * *

The foreign community in the Russian capital during the 1990s reached 50,000 English-speaking families at the peak, in 1995-1996. They held all the key jobs in the newly opened representative offices and production subsidiaries of Western companies and international organizations. As I explain in the chapter entitled “Who were we?” there were among us people of my own age, in their 50s and older, having experience of working in Russia during the Soviet period.  But there were also many youths, 15 – 20 years younger than me, who were recruited by Western companies for their knowledge of the language and ambition to earn salaries that were not available to them back home, to become managers right after completing their degree programs.

For our benefit, an English language periodical press was created. It was partly mainstream in terms of political orientation, partly “underground,” but always interesting. In my book, I quote from articles appearing there to add a measure of salt and pepper to the narrative.

After the default and financial crisis of August 1998, Western companies halted plans for expanding their activities in Russia and sharply cut their staff.  Within a year, half of all expatriates already had gone home and they were replaced by Russian managers.  This signified not so much the promotion of Russian employees up the business ladder as it did the scaling down of Russia in the global plans of international business.

Why is it that almost none of the participants of the community of expatriates have written about what they saw and did in Russia during those years? One reason is that in general and most everywhere it is not in the nature of your average businessman to keep diaries and to prepare books of memoirs. Their aim in life was succinctly and colorfully expressed by my boss in the company Diageo, Andrew, when he spoke to us, his team, at one of the corporate gatherings: “You should become filthy rich!” Period.

Furthermore, there is the contractual clause on confidentiality imposed on all managers at the higher levels of corporate life. And even putting aside the contracts of the 1990s, many of those individuals either are still working in companies or are paid consultants to companies and cannot allow themselves the freedom to speak out publicly about their past.

In these matters, I occupy a special position. First, I received an education as an historian and knew very well from the time of my doctoral research how important diaries can be: they can add color to an age and add the human dimension to otherwise dry facts in archival dossiers. Moreover, during the years of my stay in Russia as a general director of the representative offices of a number of the world’s leading companies in the field of elite alcoholic beverages, I knew that I occupied a unique perch from which to observe the life of the upper and middle strata of Russia society and their interaction with us, foreigners, during an historically rare moment of hectic change.  I felt obliged to set all this down on paper.

When five years ago I finally thought about writing a book about Russia in the 1990s, I had a rich store of diary notes written week after week during the entire period.  In addition, I had cuttings from newspapers of this period which provide a general background for my observations.

All of this was arranged in files sitting on the floor of my office in Brussels, files which I did not look at until the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. During lockdown it became clear that it was high time to write and publish this rich material. It was now or never.

Secondly, since the time that I left corporate business 18 years ago and became an analyst of international relations, a blogger, the author of books of essays and a participant in political talk-shows on television, I faced no obstacles preventing my sharing information about my past as expatriate manager in Russia which is not a commercial secret. I merely observed several precautionary measures: I deleted the last names of my immediate bosses, who might take offense at any infringement of their privacy, and I excluded mention of those personal quarrels which always arise in human relations and are not interesting for the reader. I followed the old and wise folk saying that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

The proof that my approach was correct came in the remarks of one of my colleagues from United Parcel Service, a man who made a brilliant career in the company and was for more than ten years the president of their subsidiary in Germany. He wrote to me after reading the chapter on my four years working in the company, from 1989 to 1993: “Gil, I did not know that you had such positive feelings about UPS when we worked together.”  And he then recommended my book to his colleagues and bosses in the company’s Atlanta headquarters.

* * * *

If you open the web page for the English edition of Russia in the Roaring 1990s on, you will find the evaluation of the book written by the editor of the best known daily digest on news about Russia read in American university circles, David Johnson. I quote:

“Fascinating firsthand account of work, politics and life in Russia in the 1990s. You should read it! Very relevant to today.”

I put the accent on his last words – about the relevance of this book.  I have no doubt that he was talking about the idealized view of Yeltsin’s Russia as the golden standard for democracy, in contrast to today’s Russia of Vladimir Putin, who supposedly liquidated this democracy and replaced it with his “vertical of power” – in other words, with an authoritarian regime.

You should bear in mind that 75% of my book consists of diaries which were written long ago and not of memoirs written in 2021. This means that the content does not reflect the thinking of today but instead consists of observations made in that period as regards the arbitrary exercise of power, the constant war carried on by the Executive Branch against the elected deputies of the people, that is to say, the State Duma, under Yeltsin.

These diary entries show how governance was carried out via decrees and ministerial circulars supposedly interpreting the laws, and not in accordance with the letter of the laws passed by parliament.  The decrees contradicted one another because of the constantly changing balance of forces within the Government between reformers and others. It is clear from my diaries that there was no Rule of Law, and this situation was recognized by the Western lawyers who were consultants to my employers. These lawyers told me that they were hardly doing any normal work to defend us in the courts; instead they mostly were busy with what we might call lobbying the senior bureaucracy on behalf of their clients.  At the same time, our auditors from the leading companies of the world in this specialty quietly and behind closed doors admitted that the application of prohibitions in laws and decrees issued in Russia ex post facto made it impossible to be law-abiding always and in all places.

As I remarked in my diary entries, these leading firms in the fields of accountancy and audit, leading law firms reported to the corporate headquarters of their clients in London, in New York, that Russia was on its way to reforms and that you could work calmly there.  By their own hands, these highly paid experts created in the 1990s out of Yeltsin’s Russia some Potemkin Village for the broad public in the West.

In Western media of that period we heard only about two negative factors in the New Russia: corruption and the threat to the rule of pro-Western Liberals coming from the Communists and the ultra-nationalists like Zhirinovsky and his LDPR.  Such views took hold among educated American society.

I remarked in my diary how the topic of corruption dominated conversations at a breakfast gathering organized by the Harvard Club of Moscow in 1998 on the occasion of the arrival from Beijing via the Trans-Siberian Railway of a group of Harvard alumni, top administrators and their guide, professor of economics and deputy director of Harvard’s Russian Research Center, Marshall Goldman. These gentlemen did not want to hear about anything else.

I do not deny that corruption was everywhere in Russia at that time, beginning with the bribes taken by petty law enforcement officers and reaching up to the powerful friends of the President. But we in business faced more serious problems every day about which I wrote a great deal in my diaries – namely, the massive anti-business legislation that was promulgated over 70 years of Communism and remained in force.

To be sure, in certain fields Russia did not have appropriate new laws to regulate new institutions and fields of activity, like the stock market and retail banking, to protect consumers. But in the current affairs of general business the problem was entirely different – the huge number of laws which treated all commercial operations of private business as criminal in fact or by intent.  The Government under Yeltsin used the banks as policemen, requiring justification to the bank officers for every kopek of income or expense. And no one – neither the Russian Government nor the Western media – paid any attention to this.

The only objects of their interest were the falling levels of tax collection, the national import-export account, state debt and, mainly, the privatization of state companies.  These questions are all set out in detail in my diary notes.

Finally, I direct attention to the significant part of my book devoted to High Culture in Russia during the 1990s amidst the general poverty and misery of the population. One may say that this phenomenon is rather topical today, considering how in our time of the Covid-19 pandemic the cultural life of Russia – symphonic orchestra concerts, ballet and opera performances, drama theater shows and exhibitions in art museums – are both much greater in number and far richer than in any other country in Europe or in America, where many cultural institutions still remain shut.  My book confirms the generalization that the performing and fine arts and other forms of Culture were and are a defining element of Russia among the world’s nations.

Whence the frequent entries in my diaries about cultural events and about leading artists? I had the privilege to work for producers of luxury goods, among whom it is customary that the budget for brand promotion includes not only advertising but also sponsorship of elite events. As the general director, I had a free hand to decide where to spend considerable sums of money, especially in Petersburg, where the expectations of cultural institutions from sponsors were more modest than in Moscow.

I established good business relations with the Philharmonic and with the Mariinsky Theater in the musical world. And business relations over sponsorship often became those of close acquaintances and friends. So it was with the director of the Philharmonic Society, Anton Getman and with the chief conductor Temirkanov.  So it was also with Sergei Kalagin, conductor of the Mariinsky Theater and assistant to Valery Gergiev. Kalagin presented me to the leading singers, baritone Vasily Gerello, bass baritone Viktor Chernomyrdin and tenor Sergei Naida. They all were world class talents who also performed abroad in the Met or in major theaters in Germany.

With time, my sponsorship on behalf of my employers moved from music to drama theaters and literature. Thus, together with my wife, culture journalist Larisa Zalesova, I established close friendly relations with the founder the director of the Theater on the Taganka in Moscow, Yuri Lyubimov and his wife Katalin. In the entr’actes Yuri Lyubimov invited us into his office for drinks with other sponsors, among whom at times were Boris Berezovsky, governors of Russian provinces and leading personalities in the arts. We were at the theater during the evening devoted to the 80th birthday of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, an unforgettable evening partly due to the unexpected speech by Mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov.  We met with Lyubimov abroad as well, in France, Belgium and elsewhere.

Thanks to my position in the company United Distillers – Diageo, in 1998 I was appointed chairman of the Russian Booker, which was at the time the most prestigious literary competition in the country. I remained there until 2002, that is, two years after my divorce from Diageo. During those years, I became acquainted with the country’s literary intelligentsia, along with leaders among Russia’s publishers, the book trade and the directors of libraries in the provinces.

All of this is described in detail in the diary notes of my book. I hope that you will find these entries both interesting and instructive.

Today I do not have time to talk about an entirely different dimension of the book – my thoughts at the time about domestic politics of Russia and their influence on the country’s international relations, especially with the USA and the West. I have in mind the reaction of the West to the election of the State Duma in December 1995. The massive vote given to the Communists and ultra-nationalists appeared to support the arguments of those circles in the West who feared a coming change of course of Russia, its striving to reassume the status of a Great Power and to defend its national interests. In fact, that is exactly what was already under way: the Minister of Foreign Affairs known as “Mister Yes” because of his going along with all the impositions put up by the West, Andrei Kozyrev had been replaced months earlier by Yevgeni Primakov, a man of a completely different disposition and world view. Now the West no long felt restrained and shifted course to expansion of NATO in the East. This entire process of alienation of Russia from the West and vice versa is continuing right up to the present day. I hope that there will be among my readers some who are interested in these issues.

With this I close my address. Thank you for your attention. I am ready to answer your questions.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

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