My firsthand impression of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s charitable support to the arts, 2002

Excerpt from Part Two, Diaries, Personal and Business Correspondence, Newspaper Clippings in Memoirs of a Russianist, Volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s

Meeting with the new Sponsor of the Russian Booker Prize, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s charitable foundation Open Russia, August 2002 following announcement of the Long List by the Jury

A verbatim transcript

“Help yourselves to a soft drink. I’m sorry to tell you that Program Director Irina Yasina won’t be able to see you today. She has been called away to look after another of our projects. But Maria Ordzhonikidze is here. And after she finishes reviewing your materials with our chief accountant, she will join you. That shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes. So make yourselves at home.”

The leggy blonde receptionist smiled and left the room, shutting the door behind her. Igor, Natasha Karataeva and I took bottles of Coke and soda water from the center of the conference table and filled our glasses.

This turn of events did not look promising. Yasina had overall responsibility for the sponsorship program after all, and we had looked forward finally to a face to face meeting with her to resolve several issues that had been holding up the transfer of the next tranche of funds for the competition.

Igor was at the end of his patience. “This is maddening. I have been chasing Valentina for two weeks now. If the money does not come through in 10 days, we will not be able to pay for the Short List press conference. The hotel refuses to give us credit. It has to be paid in advance. And the fact that we are using their facilities because of our Sponsors’ insistence does not change anything.”

I was yet again irritated by the professor’s naivete in financial affairs and barely contained myself. “Don’t worry about that, Igor. I’ll speak to them. They will just have to wait for their money till after the event. But the payment procedures of our new sponsor really are very unkind. And it fits together with the very one-sided agreement they imposed on us. It’s just so unfair that they can cancel their sponsorship at any minute without our saying boo. The liquor barons may not have been angels. But they did give us six months of transition and a little dowry to tide us over till new funds came in when they decided to withdraw from sponsorship.”

“There is no sense comparing foreign sponsors to Russian oligarchs,” Igor countered. “Though I am as worried over our future as you. There is the whole mess over the employment taxes. Perhaps we will hear the Foundation’s final decision today. Valentina was not very encouraging. She told me that once the budget is approved, they generally cannot go back to the big boss for more, whatever the reason. Their access to him is very limited. We have all been waiting upon his return from some trip abroad before their board can sit down and review our requests. And we still have no agreement on documentation. We will have to bring our bookkeeper in to speak to their chief accountant.”

“Yes, I am also at a loss,” I chimed in .  “They know we held the long List conference and banquet. They were there eating alongside us. And it is just incredible they refused to accept our payment of the hotel invoice because it had been signed by the Catering Manager and not by the Managing Director of the hotel. If we have to satisfy these requirements we will either have to cheat like crazy or spend more than 10% of our budget on administration. For sure, we are going to lose our qualification as a charitable foundation. There is no way we can stay within the limits on administrative spend.”

I finished my Coke and reached across the table for a Sprite. Igor was just getting into stride. This question of procedures imposed by the new sponsor had aroused his keen sense of irony. The Competition had lurched from the inefficiencies of a Western sponsor with its built in corruption and waste of funds to the inefficiencies of a Russian sponsor with encouragement of fraudulent bookkeeping to meet impossibly stringent documentary requirements. In both cases, it seemed impossible to squeeze more than 6% of the total budget out for awards to Russian authors, which is what the whole exercise of the literary prize was supposed to be about after all.

These reflections were cut short by the arrival of Ordzhokinidze and the chief accountant Ol’ga Bykova.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” Maria said brightly. ‘We ask your pardon for the slight delay in our meeting, but we have been consulting with colleagues and now have some ready answers for you. Let me begin with the question of your unplanned for $12,000 in employment taxes resulting from the change in the labor laws. We are very sorry. This is really bad luck. But we cannot help you. You will just have to make cuts elsewhere in your budget to cover the cost. Next, about your expense reports on how you spent the first tranche of the sponsorship grant. It is our hard rule that each tranche of your grant is payable only after the preceding tranche is justified to our accountants.”

“As you know, our Foundation is the private charity of the chairman of Yukos and his close collaborators. It is not paid for by the corporation. However, the tax authorities like to confuse the two and treat us as if we were in fact just an arm of the country’s largest oil producer. We are scrutinized very, very closely. There can be no irregularities in the books of the Foundation. And for this reason, we have to be very hard on the beneficiaries of our charitable grants. We require from you that all expenses not only be documented but that they look proper. For example, we cannot approve your spending three quarters of the budget for the Long List ceremony on food and drink. Alcohol cannot appear on our expenses. And we must not appear to be feasting. So please go back to the hotel and ask them to rewrite the invoice to show only rental of rooms, equipment, telephone costs, etc.”

I enjoyed this absolute victory of form over content. “But then we must ask the vendor to falsify his documents and we run up against objections there.”

“The Foundation really does not care how you persuade them to do what is necessary. Just do it and we will sign off. Then you can get the next tranche of funding without further discussion.”

I swallowed my annoyance. “All right, Maria, we will do as you say. But for your part, please have a word with the hotel management. We are using them upon your recommendation because you say you work with them all the time. So let us leverage that relationship.”

Igor was clearly not satisfied with the implicit criticism in my remarks and hastened to show a more ingratiating face to the sponsor. “We have a lot to learn in these small procedures to meet your expectations. But the big picture is very reassuring. Our objectives and yours are so well matched. We are both serving the cause of an open and just civil society in Russia that we all can take pride in.”

“Yes, and for that reason we do hope you will be attentive to the formation of the Short List. There were several entries in the Long List that could damage the popularity and prestige of the prize if they advanced in the competition. For one thing, we are not happy to see that book on the Chechnya war in the running. Why the jury ever accepted it as a novel defies our understanding. You know as well as we that it is a bit of journalism, not a novel by any means. And then there is that book by Sorokin. The man is a convicted pornographer and should be in prison, not receiving laurels as one of our semifinalists!”

“Don’t worry, Maria. The Chechnya book hasn’t got a chance of moving to the short list. Our jury just wanted to show how open minded they are by admitting it for consideration. I have polled the jury and they are all patriotic on the question of Chechnya. But Sorokin is a more difficult case. Our chairman [Vladimir] Makanin has for some reason taken it into his head that Sorokin is one of the brighter lights of Russian literature. Other jury members see him as a self-promoter, a PR man who used pornographic images just to create a scandal and sell his books in the West.  Makanin is pushing Sorokin down their throats. I cannot say what will happen next. But I will do what I can to push him to the side. It is just that Makanin is so pig-headed. Last year we had a corpse for a chairman. It took his greatest effort just to come to the meetings of the jury and then to get out of his chair and answer journalists’ questions. Two weeks after the Awards Dinner he was already resting on his catafalque. This year we are courting the other extreme. Our Makanin is a real macho who forces his will on the whole jury. No one can stand up to him.”

Maria did not respond. Instead  she looked down at her watch and then proposed that we continue the discussion in the less formal setting of the nearby Armenian restaurant ‘Noah’s Ark’, which she called the Foundation’s very own canteen, it was so popular among senior staff as a place for entertaining visitors.

And so we all left the Foundation offices, passing through the guarded reception area out onto the street, where the shabby façade of their building at the very edge of the Kitaigorod district gave no hint at the modern offices within. A few minutes later we took places at a side table to the back of the main dining room of Noah’s Ark.

I perused the menu while Igor and Marina engaged in small talk about the turn in Moscow’s weather, which had been unusually warm for late August. Notwithstanding who had invited whom, he expected that he would be obliged to pick up the bill as a token of appreciation to the Foundation managers for smooth future processing of the grant papers, and in this context he did not like what he saw. Noah’s Ark was an extravagantly priced venue more suitable for casino operators than for literary fund overseers.

“Please keep one seat free for Leonid [Nevzlin],” Maria instructed the waiter as he put down the bread basket and took out his note pad to take down their orders. She then turned to Igor to explain that the Foundation’s chairman, the second largest shareholder in Yukos, would be honoring us with a visit.

“But let us not burden Leonid with details,” Maria cautioned. “He is interested in the big picture and I know that he is delighted that the Booker brings us into contact with UK society, with your captains of industry and cultural benefactors. Leonid is very Anglophile. When he is not here in Moscow, he is in the London headquarters of Yukos International, where he maintains an office. He has even managed to learn a few words of English. But for him our grants of 100,000 or 200,000 dollars are below the threshold of visibility. So we will stay clear of money issues.”

Just then the waiter directed a tall man to our table. He was wearing a flashy diamond pinky ring and heavy gold necklace, but otherwise was ascetically dressed in black trousers and jacket, black open necked shirt.

Leonid smiled at us broadly as he took the free seat next to Maria. “Good to meet you all. I have heard very positive things about the Booker from Maria and I do hope you are satisfied with our assistance.”

Igor jumped at this invitation for an exchange of courtesies: “Yes, we are pleased to have such a prestigious sponsor whose civic purpose is so very close to our own. Money is, of course, important. But like interests and commitments to the future of Russian culture holds the promise of a long and mutually beneficial partnership. So we are also delighted to be working with you. We look forward to introducing you to our benefactors in the UK, the founders of the Booker. If you will be able to join us for our Awards Dinner in December, then you will meet Lady Emma and perhaps Jonathan. Both have said that they will put you together with their new general sponsor, who is one of Britain’s leading financial institutions [the Man Group].”

“Thank you for the suggestion. I am afraid I cannot promise to be here for your events. As you may know my corporate responsibilities take me frequently abroad on business travel, and indeed it may be easier for me to meet with your English partners on one of my stopovers in London. This dimension of the relationship is very positive. Foreign relations are my hobby. Within the State Council, I am a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs.”

Leonid rose from his chair and offered his hand to Igor and then to me for a farewell handshake. Then he purposefully strode away to the door without further ado.

“Now you see how we are run,” commented Maria softly. “The details of the charity’s operation are left totally to us at the operating level. The big bosses sometimes make themselves available to us to resolve budgetary issues, to approve our recommendations. But if they are called away on some business trip to the States or even to our own Siberian operations, then weeks can pass before they find the time to receive us. So please do react quickly when we signal to you that there is a window of opportunity to approve the budget or to draw down the next tranche of your grant.”

NB:  Leonid Nevzlin fled Russia and has been living in Israel since 2003. Professor Igor Shaitanov had been serving as Secretary of the Russian Booker Prize since 1998 while I was Booker chairman over the same period.  Vladimir Makanin, jury chair in 2002, was a Russian novelist and short story writer. Vladimir Sorokin, novelist, enfant terrible. Author of Blue Lard, 1999. “The book became widely known for its graphic sexual scenes between clones of former Soviet leaders Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev and Joseph Stalin (portrayed as homosexual lovers)….” www.britannica.com] In 2005 Sorokin’s libretto for the opera Rosenthal’s Children created a furore at the Bolshoi Theater.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[Memoirs of Russianist, Volume I: From the Ground Up is now in print and available on all national websites of Amazon.com, as well as from other leading online retailers including Barnes & Noble.  “Volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s” will go to press in one month]

What I learned as Director of an NGO in Moscow

Excerpt from Chapter Four, “Transition Year 1997-98, Consultancies” in Memoirs of a Russianist, Volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s

In the context of my various consultancies serving manufacturers, logistics companies and other businesses getting started or expanding their operations in Russia, my seeking and performing consultancy for the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX) by assuming the obligations of director of their Moscow office may seem odd. Indeed, within the IREX organization there were those who thought this was nothing more than a cynical ploy to top up my income while I was looking for my next full-time position with a blue chip international company. However, my motivation was no less idealistic …and ill-informed… as was that of most of the IREX executives I met at their Washington headquarters.

First, I had a sentimental attachment to IREX going back to my year as a Fulbright scholar in Moscow and St Petersburg during the academic year 1971-72. At the time, administering the exchange program for senior scholars and doctoral students like myself on behalf of the United States side in a bilateral state-to-state convention was the whole of IREX’s activities. To my experience, they did this very well. They also had responsibility for hosting the Soviet scholars sent to the USA on these exchanges. IREX was then based in Princeton, New Jersey and had an academic, old school tie culture.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the number of such exchanges proliferated and the monopoly of IREX over academic programs was irrevocably broken.  At the same time, we saw the launch of a great many USIA and USAID programs to help the Russian people prepare for the market economy and smooth their transition to a vital civil society. IREX competed with other NGOs for appointment as administrator of these programs. It had in its favor its Moscow office and experienced expat and local staff.

Reading through the literature I was given prior to signing on with IREX, I could feel great pride in becoming part of this benevolent American mission. As regards my own role, this was defined less in the short contract, which obliged me to visit the office daily and said not much more, but in an oral understanding with the director of IREX, Dan Matuszewski, whom I knew fairly well from the past. I was expected to spend my time mainly on liaison with US embassy and consulate officers to keep them abreast of our activities and to explore possible common interest for additional activities. Secondly, there was the hope that I could help find sponsors for some of the IREX work from among the American business community in Moscow with whom I was in touch at the highest levels. The actual day to day management of the office would be negligible, because the various programs carried out on the premises, such as organizing seminars for journalists, had their well-trained managers in place well before my arrival and had little to do with one another.

In fact there were some very pleasant occasions during my time serving IREX. I think in particular of a dinner event at which I found myself seated next to the newly installed Minister of Culture Natalia Dementieva, who had till recently been the director of the museum of the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg rather than some ministry functionary. We engaged in a far-reaching conversation. Or the time I spent with the Cultural Attache of the US consulate in St Petersburg, with whom we discussed creating a possible program to help train directors of Russian cultural institutions to better navigate the domestic market in search of sponsorship. These moments are described in the diaries of Part II in some detail.

And, to be perfectly frank, my vanity was served well by the appreciation that American diplomatic personnel showed for my fluency in Russian when I spoke extemporaneously at public events. This was something I did not feel among my business colleagues

However, there was unexpected unpleasantness that also came with the IREX office and had its origins in precisely who goes into NGOs in general, as opposed to business careers. I saw all too many of my new colleagues were by nature “opposition minded.”  That is to say, they had an instilled distaste for elites – American elites and….Russian elites.  However, like it or not, from my experience you do not go far by disdaining elites, least of all in a country with a predisposition to authoritarianism like Russia.

The feeling of “underground” at IREX Moscow was encouraged by the shambolic condition of the office premises and furnishings. These were needlessly “Soviet” in appearance, at the very time when even Russian private companies were putting in cosmetic improvements to look more appealing.

My colleagues, both in Moscow and in IREX headquarters, lacked professionalism as managers, which is not the least surprising for people coming to administration from an academic milieu. This was the first time since my difficulties at Mustang Bekleidungswerke that I was being drawn into psycho-dramas. For anyone who wonders about that, I refer them to the brief note I received from the HR Director in Washington, presented in Part Two, confirming that life in IREX was never “dull,” meaning that open personal spats and hair-pulling were the routine.

Finally, I am obliged to mention a decisive factor in my decision to resign from my IREX appointment well before my next job in business came on line: I had reason to believe that the office was being used as a base for CIA missions, particularly to the former republics of the Soviet Union at the periphery. There was just too much traffic to the Caucasus through our premises. And so with a heavy heart it was I who brought down the curtain on my IREX adventure. That was my first and last posting with an NGO.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[Memoirs of Russianist, Volume I: From the Ground Up is now in print and available on all national websites of Amazon.com, as well as from other leading online retailers including Barnes & Noble.  “Volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s” will go to press in one month]

How Moscow met the new millennium, 1 January 2000

Teaser for “Memoirs of a Russianist, Volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s

Diary notes, Moscow, Monday 3 January 2000

Another bright and cold day, the fourth day in succession that we have enjoyed our cross country skiing at Meshcherskoye. It all started the last day of the old year, on Friday, when I came home from the office for lunch and then we drove out for an hour on the trails, where fresh 15 cm of powdery snow awaited us.

New Year’s eve we celebrated first at the Bolshoi Theater, where I took a pair of $1,000 seats in the first balcony. Just to try it on. This was the first time in the history of the Bolshoi that the seats were removed from the parterre and loges to make way for a ballroom floor and dining tables. All the salons were opened to the public. Here they set up hot and cold buffets. In each salon costumed actors enacted tableaux intended as a backdrop for the guests to photograph themselves.

The theater itself is magnificently decorated and most festive. Regrettably the organizers have lacked imagination to make the event deliver its promise. They have not given much thought to their clientele, only to what they themselves do well.

Accordingly we are treated to an evening of cameo performances just as the Bolshoi has always provided to the Kremlin bosses. The difference, which they seem to have missed, is that tonight the audience consists of many paying guests in addition to the state freeloaders. And at $1,000 to $1,500 a ticket we expect our needs to be catered to.

The whole program is far too serious, far too cultural. They give very little room to the audience to participate. Finally, we are invited to join a waltz and after three minutes on the dance floor, we are reminded that this is an historic moment when the profane have been allowed to dance here, then we are asked to sit down and have a rest! Here is that complacent guardianship mentality of the Soviet school marm.

All the concern over the damage the new Russians might cause was totally misplaced. The audience is very well dressed, mostly married couples, with a fair sprinkling of young children in elaborate formal wear. Not a chance of scandal or misbehavior here.

Our neighbors in the adjacent stall are Cyrill Negré from William Peters/Malesan wines and one of the top managers from Arthur Andersen who is involved in the Bolshoi Theater fund raising work.

Our loge neighbors are both doctors; she is the cardiologist for the troupe of the Bolshoi Theater. Very sober indeed.

At our entrance we meet and shake hands with the outgoing British Ambassador, Sir Andrew Wood. He is here to receive thanks from the Bolshoi administration for his work in assisting their tour of the UK this past season. On the 2nd he will be celebrating his 60th birthday and on the 3rd he leaves for retirement in the UK.

The food is splendid. Catered by the Marriott. Heaps of black sturgeon caviar, lobster, oysters, cold sturgeon, tropical fruits. Hennessy are sponsors, but only at our insistence do we get a bottle of Moet and Chandon instead of the awful Mondoro sparkling wine. Here in this little deception we see the reflection of the bad habits of the past.

This day, Friday, 31st December was remarkable for the morning announcement of the retirement by Boris Yeltsin. A coup de foudre. Totally unexpected, but in the tradition of this master of surprise.

Yeltsin and his team have shown yet again their brilliant grasp of politics. By this act, Yeltsin is putting in place his chosen successor Putin at the moment when the victory in the Duma elections is fresh, cutting the period for presidential elections down to three months from the previously scheduled six month term, thereby putting the opposition at greater disadvantage. For the whole of the electoral period, Putin will be given the chance to be seen as presidential. And this just after the break-up of the Fatherland/All Russia coalition. It is textbook politics. We are all stunned.

It is the also the best New Year’s present anyone could have given to Russia. To enter the new millennium with a young, 47 year old president, a consolidating constitutional order, a peaceful transition of power from a president still alive and in control of his faculties.  And a curtailed presidential period, bringing forward the clarity that business needs for investment to resume.

We rather expected that the Bolshoi ball would turn out to be a feast of the victors. We anticipated that Putin and his team would be there. However, in the end we were mistaken. There was Seleznyov and a few other Duma politicians, but no one from either the RF or city of Moscow governments.

Instead, the audience seems to consist of business people and others close to the Bolshoi theater. The businessmen probably are involved in sponsorship of the theater in one way or another.

About Putin’s whereabouts there were rumors he had gone up to his native St Petersburg for the holiday. Only on Saturday morning was it clear he had done something far more sensible, actually brilliant: he had flown down to the border with Chechnya to rally the Russian soldiers.

We dance a fox trot, valse anglaise, tango on the floor of the Bolshoi. Then we take another stroll through the salons.

The ballet numbers, especially Aniashvili’s Dying Swan and the Polovetsian dances from Prince Igor, are very appealing. The operatic numbers, distorted by amplifiers, are irritating, really disappointing. The soloists and orchestra sound like a bad recording.

And so, at 10.45 pm with little sense of regret we departed from the Bolshoi and headed over to the Metelitsa casino to join my colleagues at the party we, United Distillers, are sponsoring.

To my disappointment most of my Russian team have abandoned us on this evening. Mike is there with his wife, adopted son and friends. As is External Affairs consultant Dmitri Andronenko and his wife, with whom we share a small table just next to the stage.

Here in the Metelitsa, where tickets cost only $500 per person for this evening, the audience is younger, more lively. We are treated to a brief show at midnight, then it is all music. The audience is swept by the disco fever and all are out on the dance floor. Intolerable noise level. By the time we leave at about 3 a.m., I am suffering, have ringing in the ears. Still it is good to be in the midst of this pulsating throng after the dull formality of the Bolshoi.

It is worth noting that the city is calm, the police directing traffic around the center are relaxed, well displosed. Many streets have been closed to traffic for a large pedestrian gathering.

When we get back to the apartment Larisa exchanges new year’s greetings with daughter Alexa, who is celebrating with her fiancé in the south of Belgium.

On Saturday we rose late. In the evening we drove down to Red Square and join the crowds. A steady snow is falling and the square looks fabulous, a movie setting. Strollers. Glamorous display windows of GUM. We walk up to the newly renovated Gostinny Dvor complex. The surrounding buildings are nearly all also renovated and the ensemble is positively enchanting. Even Larisa puts aside her disdain for the capital and expresses pleasure and admiration at the transformation.

Sunday. A good skiing day. More fresh snow. Temperature at minus four.

Monday. More good skiing. In the evening we take a leisurely supper with Tolya Silin. He has just completed running the city’s millennial celebrations. Says that Luzhkov has earned his defeat. He has surrounded himself with flatterers and yes-men so that he is insulated from political realities. He has stooped to every challenge and detractor. Lacked political judgment.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[Memoirs of Russianist, Volume I: From the Ground Up is now in print and available on all national websites of Amazon.com, as well as from other leading online retailers including Barnes & Noble.  “Volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s” will go to press in six weeks]

The Russians did it!

As the Russians from the time of Chernomyrdin in the late 1990s loved to say: “this time it will be different!” The follow-on, as Kremlin observers know very well was: “but it turned out just as always!” That endeared the otherwise gray prime minister to the people just the same way as Yogi Berra’s contorted English gave everyone a nice belly laugh.

However, yesterday, in a live interview with Russia Today’s Moscow studio that must have reached the East Coast at 6.30 am, too early for even the handful of people who might have been interested to be tuned in, I was given the opportunity to say loud and clear that I believe this time it was different.  Namely, yes, the Russians probably did do the hacking. 

The RT folks may have been shocked out of their skins that a certified “friend” like me could say this, but when they tuned into Euronews this morning they’d have found that my conclusion from this identification of the Russians was right on the money:  there will likely be no sanctions against the Russians over this because the overriding message of the hacking, the purpose of the whole exercise, apart from possibly stealing information about the actual numbers of US warheads in inventory to be used in any upcoming START negotiations, was to demonstrate capability of utterly destroying the United States in any war that Washington might be foolish enough to provoke.

In this sense, it aligns completely with a couple of statements that Putin made in his annual press conference on Thursday which I think not too many people in the West picked up on.   First, when asked if it was true that Russia could obliterate the USA in 30 minutes, he said “No, quicker still.”   And when asked about the alleged poisoning of Navalny with Novichok by Russian agents, he said ‘if our security offices wanted to kill Navalny, they would have succeeded.”

The latter point is most relevant to this hacking.  The allegations of Russian hacking made by the United States in the heat of Russia-gate were frivolous, appropriate to toddlers in a sandbox. Leaving fingerprints all over the supposed theft over the internet to get at Hillary’s communications and tip the election in Trump’s favor.  Only a fool would think that the Kremlin operates at this level.  And, as we know, there are plenty of fools in the USA, though it appears a disproportionate number of them are in the Democratic Party and its thought leaders like Chuck Schumer of New York and Rick Blumenthal of Connecticut.

This hacking was of a different scale and different nature entirely.  It was massive. It had no friendly or other bear tags put on by the Ukrainians.  It went straight for the jugular, the most secret and sensitive corners of the US government.  And it apparently was not destructive, did nothing that could trigger a war, just make a point:  gotcha!

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

Dacha Tales: Life in the Russian Hinterland

Further to my recent post ‘Publish or Perish,” my wife’s latest book has just been put up on amazon.com and will be available in a day or two from all their national websites as well as on all leading online book retailers. Larisa Zalesova, “Dacha Tales: Life in the Russian Hinterland.” Enter the author and title in the Amazon search box to arrive at the book’s web page

This book in the travel genre follows the tradition of Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence.” The territory to the south of St Petersburg may not have vineyards or haute cuisine village restaurants, but the local folks are as eccentric and charming as any of Mayle’s neighbors, and on a hot summer’s day the mood and the dress of those making their way to the lake at the edge of town is straight out of a Chekhov play.

Hard bound and e-book formats to be offered shortly.

Also today, a Russian language edition entitled Долгая дорога на дачу has been put on sale by amazon. 

This is in paperback only for the moment.  In a couple of weeks the e-book version will be posted on the sites of many online retailers (though not amazon, for technical reasons). That will have the especially attractive price of $3.99 and is directed to the audience in the Russian Federation.

Have a good read!

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

Donald Trump’s “Negotiations” for a Trump Tower, Moscow, 1996: the inside story

Diary notes, Moscow, Wednesday, 6 November 1996

Before moving on, just a word about the market information which I picked up in Charlotte from Sea-Land. Paul Scott, the old-timer whose business development activities preceded the assignment of Jack Helton to Moscow, was especially free with information. He says that they continue to carry large quantities of American neutral grain spirits to Riga; what happens next he does not want to know, but presumably they are sent onward with papers showing Kazakhstan as the final destination but ‘disappear’ in Russia on the way. Sea-Land is active in all the main commodities of U.S. export to Russia , and for the most part this means booze, chilled chicken parts, and cigarettes.

The chicken parts trade has now been taken over by a cartel of about 4 Russian companies including Soyuzkontrakt who have forced out all the dozens of small importers and distributors. Either they used aggressive pricing or, for the more stubborn, outright threats of violence, to get the others to back away from the business. The cartel avoids paying most of the customs duties by systematic fraud in invoicing and customs declarations; very much reduced prices are shown for customs purposes. I might add that this has the additional feature of depriving the suppliers of any legal claims on the real value of goods for purposes of insurance or non-payment.

My depressed mood is not assisted by the news yesterday of Paul Tatum’s murder in downtown Moscow, in the pedestrian underpass near the Kiev station, just a few hundred meters from the Hotel Radisson-Slavyanskaya where he was co-developer. Tatum has been locked in a public fight with Luzhkov’s Moscow Property Committee and with the Radisson over the 40% shares owned by his company Americom. His stubbornness in fighting city hall, in other words the mafia, was amazing. He surrounded himself with bodyguards, for weeks at a time was holed up in his offices atop the Radisson, issued full-page advertisements arguing his case. President Clinton twice stayed in the Radisson while this fight for control was going on. And now Tatum has been gunned down. Eleven bullets from a Kalashnikov. Larisa and I watched the news report on NTV and then the showing of his naked, bullet-ridden body in the morgue as if he were some Mussolini. There was something celebratory in the report which was deeply offensive.

In the midst of this little tragedy where the smoking gun leads back to the mayor himself, we have the concerts of Tina Turner going on now, the promotional visit of Claudia Schieffer for Revlon’s new boutique in GUM, and the visit of Donald Trump to seal a deal for the construction of a Trump Tower in Moscow. In that connection, I had learned a week ago from Norma Foerderer that she would be accompanying Donald here these days. And last night we met up with her for late drinks at The Metropole.

We chat briefly about the Tatum murder. The city officials Donald was seeing pooh-poohed this, saying that Tatum was a trouble-maker, a squatter. Now they surely knew how to handle Donald, because the very word squatter gets him going.

It is clear that Trump will go ahead with the project whatever is going on here. And so he should, because he won’t be putting one cent of his own money into it: on the contrary he is selling his name for the marketing objective and that is all. The real investors will be Ben LeBow, chairman of the board (and principal owner) of Ligget and Myers cigarettes, who is also the owner of the Ducat real estate projects in downtown Moscow, and some banks. The connections at the top to Luzhkov and Yeltsin’s circle were made by Nahkamkin, the scoundrel art dealer who set up shop in New York in the 1970s and probably made his first fortune on smuggling Russian art works to the West. Norma had a beautiful dinner arranged by Zurab Tseretelli, the official sculptor to Luzhkov. They are going from one fete to another. Below and behind it all is a very sinister reality.

Still and all it is curious that Trump is about to put his name on his first project outside the USA in Moscow. And it is remarkably curious that we met up with Norma here in downtown Moscow. How life runs in circles.

                                                                *****

Note:  Norma Foerderer was for 5 years my business partner as co-founder of the consultancy East-West Marketing, Inc. which I described at length in Volume I of these Memoirs. For more than 25 years, starting in the early 1980s, she was public relations director to the Trump Organization, snuffing out scandals surrounding Donald’s romantic life and publicizing his charitable activities such as the skating rink in Central Park, New York

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[Memoirs of Russianist, Volume I: From the Ground Up is now in print and available on all national websites of Amazon.com, as well as from other leading online retailers including Barnes & Noble.  “Volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s” will go to press in a couple of months]

Antony Blinken’s past: will it catch up with him?

When last week Antony Blinken emerged as the candidate likely to be tapped by Joe Biden to be his nominee for either National Security Advisor or Secretary of State, those of us in the camp dissenting from the ‘bash Russia’ policies on Capitol Hill during the Trump years groaned at the thought of the same policy being now enthroned in the Executive Branch by one of its most prominent spokesmen. Blinken had long served Biden as an advisor, had been in the Obama Administration as Undersecretary of State and was known to be one of those actively promoting imposition of stiff sanctions on Russia as from its 2014 takeover of the Crimea.

When he was interviewed a couple of days ago by Stephen Sackur on the BBC’s Hard Talk show, Blinken gave mixed signals on what Russia policy will be under Joe Biden.  He reiterated his long held stance that Russia would have to pay a tougher price for its [alleged] massive and malign intervention in the American political process during the 2016 presidential election. At the same time, he said that there were areas such as disarmament and climate change where the United States and the Russian Federation should cooperate. Clearly there was nothing about the way he handled Sackur’s questions to suggest he shares the opinion of former CIA Director John Brennan that Russians are incurable liars and low life because it is in their DNA.

A lot of attention has been given in the press in recent days to Blinken’s background from childhood on up. We are told, for example, that he is one of the most “European” American foreign policy specialists in memory. Not quite a Henry Kissinger, but then not a bumpkin either.

Though our journalists are quick to speak of the “fluency” of the leading personalities in our foreign policy community, as for example the supposedly Russian-fluent Susan Rice, in the case of Blinken the bouquet to him over fluency in French is very possibly justified. In 1971, at the age of nine, he left behind the exclusive Dalton School in Manhattan and moved with his divorced mother to Paris, into the household of his new stepfather, the internationally celebrated French lawyer Samuel Pisar. There he entered the Ecole Jeannine Manuel. But before jumping to conclusions about young Blinken’s studying all those years in French, I point out that the Ecole describes itself as “a French bilingual and international school.”  English clearly figures as a language of tuition. Yet, let us assume that Blinken had plenty of exposure to French over a number of years, at home as well as at school.

And what else could a childhood spent in the bigger-than-life presence of Samuel Pisar have meant for the young Blinken other than introduction to the French language?

Wikipedia’s updated entry for Blinken speaks about the link between Blinken’s mother and Pisar in their common experience as survivors, both of them, of the German concentration camps, Auschwitz and Dachau. This was a determinedly Jewish home.

When we turn to Wikipedia’s entry for Samuel Pisar, there is heavy stress on his being a Holocaust survivor, on his collaboration with Leonard Bernstein in the latter’s composition of Symphony No. 3 (“Kaddish”). We read about how he recited a poem at a performance of Kaddish at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem in 2009. Then there is mention of his fabulous education, his doctorates in law from Harvard and the Sorbonne.

Pisar is described as having “become a member of John F. Kennedy’s economic and foreign policy task force. He was also an advisor to the State Department, the Senate and House committees.”  This high profile in the 1960s carried over to his law practice where Wikipedia says “Pisar’clients included many Fortune 500 companies and many known business leaders of the 20th and 21st century.” 

 We are told by Wikipedia that his books have been translated into many languages. But the list of books shown here is on the literary, artistic side, with no mention whatsoever of the book I will present in a moment. It has been airbrushed away lest it detract from the author’s reputation as human rights activist receiving many state decorations in the years leading up to his death in 2015.

We learn almost nothing about how Pisar made his living, exactly which services he was providing to those Fortune 500 companies.  I suggest we give this full consideration because it is highly relevant to the household that young Blinken grew up in.

The fact is that Samuel Pisar was one of the earliest exponents of détente in the heyday of the Cold War and one of the most professionally successful advisors to corporations on how to do business with the Soviet Union. The cornerstone of his reputation with the broad public was his 558 page book entitled Coexistence & Commerce: Guidelines for Transactions between East and West, published in 1970 by McGraw-Hill in the United States.  The French language edition is even more revealing of the author’s intentions: Les Armes de la Paix: l’ouverture economique vers l’Est [The Weapons of Peace: the Economic Opening to the East]. Note that the publication date is just one year before Blinken came into his home.

The covers of the book display blurbs from thinkers, business people, politicians and mainstream media on two continents. Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber tells us: “The publication of Samuel Pisar’s monumental book…is a major event. For the first time, a man of impressive intellectual credentials and vast practical experience explains the entire spectrum of East-West exchange.” Henry Ford II is quoted as saying of the book: “…cuts through the fog of emotionalism, ideology and misunderstanding…a very important book…”    The New York Times wrote: “A timely and authoritative study of trade and its potential as a cold war calefacient.”

Not surprising that the Times was speaking out of both sides of its mouth even back then by likening the book to a mustard plaster…

At the start of Coexistence, on the page opposite the Acknowledgements, Pisar quotes Alexander Hamilton, 1787: “The spirit of commerce has a tendency to soften the manners of men and to extinguish those inflammable humors which so often have kindled into wars.”

I never met Samuel Pisar, though I was hot on his trail in 1979 when I accompanied the Vice President, International of Burger King Corporation to Moscow for negotiations with the Moscow City Council and the Russian Olympics Organizing Committee ahead of the 1980 Summer Olympics. The objective was to win designation as official supplier to the Olympics, to open a hamburger restaurant on the grounds of the Olympics stadium at Luzhniki and also a number of downtown restaurants to serve visitors to the Games. In parallel there was the ambition to get a ten-year exclusivity on hamburger restaurants opening in the USSR similar to what Pepsico received for cola drinks at the start of the decade.

We were welcomed into the Organizing Committee just days after McDonalds had been shown to the door following its protracted and ultimately unsuccessful talks on the same subject. McDonalds was guided in their negotiations by…Samuel Pisar, who reportedly received fees of $150,000 for his sage advice. The Russians were less than impressed. More details on this adventure can be found in my Memoirs of a Russianist, Volume I.

However, a decade later, at the end of the 1980s, I did meet several times with one of Sam Pisar’s former colleagues in his Paris law firm, Jeffrey Hertzfeld. In the Acknowledgements page of Coexistence, Pisar mentions Hertzfeld as having “collaborated in the long, arduous, multilingual research and in the drafting of Book Two.” They had in common their law profession, transatlantic culture and French-English bilingualism. In addition, Hertzfeld was fluent in Russian and his clientele when we met consisted heavily of companies entering the Russian market.

Indeed, Jeffrey Hertzfeld was paid by the International Business Development manager of the French household appliances and Teflon pots and pans company SEB-Calor to interview me in Paris and check my Russian language ability when the company was vetting me to take over management of the joint venture manufacturing facility they were planning to build in St Petersburg. I was duly given a written employment offer which I turned down to join UPS. A year later, our paths crossed again, this time fortuitously near the World Trade Center in Moscow.  Hertzfeld told me that the position at SEB-Calor was still vacant. A nice hint…

Pisar’s Coexistence and Commerce is now long out of print.  In case his stepson, our incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken should wish to take a look at what his stepfather wrought and to reconsider his own political positions on the question of sanctions and cold wars versus détente, I will gladly lend him my copy.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

Teaser: introduction to Memoirs of a Russianist, Volume II. Russia in the Roaring 1990s

                                       

Foreword

I entered Russia on a full time assignment in 1994 and through 2002 held positions as employee first with Germany’s and Europe’s leading jeans manufacturer. I later held successive corporate posts with the world’s two largest liquor producers, one flying the flag of Canada and the other the flag of the United Kingdom.

For those with some knowledge of Russia and its consumer culture, one might ask how one could not do well working in these specific industries: the jeans that the whole country’s youth craved, and liquor, in the country with the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in the world.  But Russia and the industries themselves threw up hurdles as we shall see. Life was never humdrum.

 In between these major jobs working for multinational corporations in this period I performed project consultancy work for a leading UK brewer, for one of Finland’s largest trucking firms that was a supplier to the US government in its construction of a new embassy in Moscow, to a small foreign owned domestic courier service, and finally to an innovative Russian-owned software development company active in export markets.  I even managed to do a stint as acting Moscow office manager under temporary contract from the NGO responsible for US-Russian academic exchanges, the same people who had overseen my year as a Fulbright Fellow in 1971-72. These various assignments gave me a wide ranging perspective on the entire expatriate manager experience of Russia during the Roaring 1990s which I seek to share here with the reader.

If one wonders why I had such a succession of short term employment, in each of which I entered into contracts as if a lifetime career lay ahead, with provisions for stock allotments and pension plans, the reason is that such was the game at the time.  Major corporations were hard pressed to find people like myself with “gravitas,” as they called it, with in-depth experience of Russian business and fluency in the language as they eased themselves into a tough market where their Board of Directors, rightly or wrongly, had great expectations.

In one of these assignments which I received with the help of a London head hunter, I was “parachuted in” to replace a young general manager, 10 years or more my junior who was deemed by the bosses in London to have gone rogue. I was given a three-month consultancy contract, which was extended repeatedly as the bosses above me were flung out of the company. It ended in a normal employment contract that lasted more briefly than the consultancy contracts which preceded it. The idea of my employers in each instance was to get urgent help while they prepared one of their own fair-haired boys to move in and replace me, the outsider, at the earliest opportunity. They showed me little loyalty, and I reciprocated, moving where possible to their direct competitors, who were best positioned to appreciate what I knew of the business.

The structure of this book follows the rule I established in Volume I:  one third is narrative told in the voice of 2020 and two-thirds consists of my diary entries, personal and business correspondence, news clippings which all express my own and interlocutors’ views of what we saw around us in Russia at the time. Once again I urge the reader to approach the diary entries only after reading the narrative section of the book, because it sets the context. I have reduced to a bare minimum any explanatory information within or between the diary entries themselves.

Though today I pride myself on the independence of my political views from those of the thundering herd, the need for such resolute focus on inner voice has become essential only in the past couple of decades when the major media in the United States and in the West more generally have become wholly aligned on a propagandistic treatment of everything Russia-related. In the period under review in this volume, there was more confusion over where Russia was headed, more diversity of views. Moreover, within Russia there was a lively English language underground press serving the expat community with such titles as The Exile, a publication that was as insightful as it was irreverent and kept us all mentally alert.

The value to the general reader of my diary entries changed over the period 1994 – 2000 in keeping with my career progression and increasing exposure to the broad community of expats, diplomats and businessmen. Over time, my corporate employee positions moved up. Eventually I was in charge of an organization with staff numbering in the hundreds.

Of particular importance in this progression was my move from the rather provincial St Petersburg to Moscow in November 1995. I will ration the allocation of space to the diary entries in this volume accordingly.

My career as multinational corporate executive ended with the incoming millennial year 2000 when I parted company with United Distillers/Diageo. I moved back to St Petersburg and spent another two years assisting a small Russian software development company. My material here on this final stage of my adventure living and working in Russia will be very brief because I no longer was in the midst of the current of political, business, diplomatic developments. My remaining travel to Moscow was mostly in respect to my continuing chairmanship of the country’s most important private literary prize, The Russian Booker.

This book is about a time and place. I seek to present the tumultuous times in that given place, Russia, and what we on the ground knew about the political, social, cultural environment. The subject is not the specifics of any of the companies I worked for or with. What I describe here is the challenges of working in a major emerging market – challenges to the corporate structure, to the individual manager and his or her family.

It is not my intention to characterize the quality of their management, their cultures, their business plans.  Failing to meet these challenges, as several of the companies I worked for failed, is not a condemnation, only a frank acknowledgement of how much has to come together to be successful.

I believe this book enters a niche that will widen over time but still has not been addressed. 

In the period covered, as in my 25 year business career on the whole, I moved through several different industries. While corporations cultivate what they call their “cultures,” the greater factor is sectorial.  Low margin, low paying companies in textiles, in service industries including logistics have one culture.  High margin companies in luxury goods and in technology have another culture which tends to be high pay, offset by high turnover.

Quite apart from the specifics of job rotation and tenure associated with working in a key Emerging Market that I mentioned above, there were as I saw, limitations on your stay in companies of certain industries which were not geography specific. As I saw firsthand in the Fast Moving Consumer Goods companies, nothing moved faster than the managers – in and out. 

The liquor industry which I served for more than half of my time based in Moscow in the ‘90s had a uniform factor, regardless of company or geographic location:  managers were drawn from biscuits, from whatever other consumer goods peers; they were hired to replace rogue managers who had “played with the numbers.” They were given impossible sales targets and within two years were fired for playing with the numbers, meaning reporting as sales physical transfer of merchandise into warehouses while inventory accumulated.

Then one more context must be mentioned here to appreciate fully the volatile atmosphere of the place and times described: industrial consolidation in the liquor industry where I was engaged for much of my expat working life in Russia.

In Volume I, the entry of disruptive digital technologies in the telecommunications industry where I was engaged from 1980 to 1988 with ITT was discussed, insofar as it made the lives of all of us in the sector nervous, with limited career possibilities and a depressed mood much of the time.  So in the 1990s, I found myself in another industry that on a global scale was undergoing insuperable economic challenges that forced upon the actors nonstop reorganizations ending in consolidation and the disappearance of corporations that had, in some cases, very long histories. Brands remained. They changed hands and were redistributed in the portfolios of the surviving companies, often to be redistributed in just a couple of years during the next round of mergers. My own career was directly affected. But unlike the 1980s in telecoms, the 1990s found me surfing the waves of consolidation to my personal profit.

During the period 1994 to 2000 covered in this second volume of my Memoirs, I kept weekly records of what I saw, what I did, what I and others were thinking about.  The stimuli from outside were admittedly uneven with shifting balance between what is strictly personal, often financial or familial, and consequently of little interest to outsiders, and what is in fact highly relevant to an understanding of Russia and of us expats back then.

The stimuli became most representative and I would say political-economic in a broad sense as from mid-1997 when I moved from corporate employee to consultant serving several companies and for a time one very important NGO:  I then joined the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, went to the monthly meetings of the British business community at their commercial office, and joined the newly established Harvard Club of Russia – all in Moscow. 

When a year ago I finally set about the task of processing the 50 linear feet of file folders which sat on the floor of my home office, I still did not know what this book would present that could be of general interest and also of professional interest to academic researchers for whom it would be one more primary source on the period that I drew out. I only knew that in the given period I necessarily interacted with business people, politicians and statesmen who were also at the height of their careers and so were by and large very interesting as well as influential people. Moreover, I would present the period in question from an angle that has not hitherto been developed – from the perspective of the expat community in Moscow and Petersburg. In the mid-90s this community was very large, numbering perhaps 50,000 families in the capital region.

And then a rather unexpected dimension emerged:  my memoirs as a side of the cultural history of Russia during the period described. Both from the very start and to the very end I was embedded in Russian cultural life, surrounded in particular by the musical world, later by the literary world. Partly this was a consequence of my working for much of the time in the luxury goods industry which favored cultural sponsorship and gave me, as Managing Director, a relatively free hand in choosing what to spend and where. In this connection, I entered in collegial and then often into friendly relations with people in the artistic world.  Partly, it came from the activities of my wife, Larisa Zalesova. As a widely respected journalist and card-carrying member of the Russian intelligentsia, my wife gave me access to the pinnacles of this culture-rich country’s symphony orchestra, ballet and opera theater, drama theater and book publishing milieu.

 At first as I pored over my diaries and found that I had included lengthy thoughts on the great many operas, ballets, concerts that I went to over these years I did not know what to do with this material.  But finally it gelled. These records reflect the fact that high culture, the performing arts were, are and will be a defining element of Russia and as an expat, with a lot of time living alone, with family living abroad, I filled my evenings with this rare offering.  My, our life was spent in the musical world for several years, in the literary world for several years as chairman of the Russian Booker from 1998- 2002.  Many big names like Mstislav Rostropovich, Yuri Lyubimov and Georg Szolti were involved and I think there will be general interest as I set out here interconnections in that society, expat and local.

I hope the reader will find rewards in this testimony of someone who was not privy counsellor to presidents, whose activities were more those of an observer with a trained eye and background knowledge.  Namely, I enjoyed the privilege of freedom to meet and work with Russians and expatriates from all levels of society without intermediation of partisan interpreters or journalists, so as to form my own conclusions, which I set out here. 

.Introduction  

In Volume I, I called out a turning point in the political atmosphere affecting foreign business, namely the July 1978 arrest and shabby imprisonment excommunicado in Lefortovo of one F. Jay Crawford, a service manager of International Harvester. This demonstrated that none of us foreigners was safe from the reach of the Soviet intelligence services. We became pawns in the fast changing political relations at the state to state level. This event, alongside trials of Jewish dissidents the same summer, helped to push the détente policy introduced in 1972 by Richard Nixon to the exit door.

In this Volume II, there was similarly an inflection moment as regards foreign business in Russia. It came in November 1996 with the murder of Paul Tatum, an American, part owner of a business center within one of the first western managed hotels in Moscow, the Radisson Slavyanskaya.

Tatum was shot dead in a pedestrian passage just near the hotel by criminals acting in the spirit of national assertiveness encouraged by then Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov. In case we missed the political meaning of his murder, Russian television showed on the evening news Tatum’s naked body stretched out on a table of the city morgue. This gruesome image had no precedent.

The killing of Tatum came just months after the critically important elections that gave Boris Yeltsin his second term in office, with the connivance of Russian oligarchs, who came into their own thanks to concessions that bought Yeltsin his winning margin in a run-off. It was nine months after Yeltsin changed his accommodative “Mr. Yes” foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev for Yevgeni Primakov, a strong defender of Russian national interests on the world stage. More generally, this was the onset of a xenophobic reaction that I had foreseen back in 1990 and recorded in a diary entry dated May 20-24 of that year whichI published in Volume I on page 350: “Russians are too clever and too well educated to have American hucksters dance on their heads for long. There will be a xenophobic reaction.”

As I looked over not just my own observations in the diaries, but the news and interpretation of leading journalists at the time, it is clear that changes within Russia provided grist for those in the West who were not confident about the country’s turning the corner on its past as trouble maker for the U.S.-led international community. In particular, as the reforms to replace the Communist command economy by a market driven economy stumbled, as the elections brought to the fore strong Communist and nationalist votes, there was nervous concern that the supposedly democratic America-friendly forces marshaled by Yeltsin might be driven from power. Thus, throughout the period under review in this volume the United States and its allies took actions which they may have viewed as defensive in nature, but which the Russians saw as unfriendly and threatening. This set in motion a ratcheting up of East-West tensions that ultimately led us to the head to head confrontation with Russia that has characterized the first decades of the 21st century.  As my narrative unfolds, I will call out the significant moments in the period 1995-2000.

I assumed that in my memoirs of Russia in the 1990s I would be describing corruption in high places which I had witnessed first-hand. In my mind’s eye I had a rogues’ gallery.  Everyone knows that Russia was and is corrupt.  My man bites dog story would expose the corruption of us, the Westerners dealing with Russia.  To specialists in the field, there were known cases or instances of allegations.  In 1996 Western mainstream newspapers discussed in some detail allegations of impropriety, of violation of rules of ethics by the EU’s first ambassador to the Russian Federation Michael Emerson, who had concluded agreements with Russian business interests, read thugs, that would provide him with a living after he left the service, or before as some thought.  There were allegations against Harvard university junior faculty who were seconded to US-financed aid programs to help with privatization and who engaged in “double dipping,” abusing their fiduciary responsibilities for insider trading.

These cases never came to trial, of course.  Emerson had friends in high places.  The boys from Harvard were protected by the President of the University, Larry Summers, who could pull strings back then with impunity.  However, what I saw never came to the public eye. It was corporate slush funds set up ostensibly for paying bribes in Moscow but which in large part never left London headquarters and were said to have been distributed among top managers.  It was executives conspiring with Russian distributors and importers to work against the interests of the corporation or participating in gray channel sales into Russia for which they got a percentage.

It is no secret that the liquor business in Russia, and not only in Russia, was, and surely in places remains highly criminalized.  I can vouch for that fact from my own firsthand experience in the field. From 1995 to 2000 the greatest part of my time was in the liquor industry, which was particularly infested with crooks at all levels, from the street kiosks up to the infamous tennis trainer of President Yeltsin who supervised one of the greatest scams of all time, which I saw firsthand as the manager of a business gutted by this given machination. 

But there were many less stellar thieves and schemers from among the expatriate community whom I rubbed shoulders with at the regular gatherings held in consulates, bars and receptions around town. This was all the more common in Moscow, which was and remains the capital of tusovki, chic parties that Russians so love. Here, to put a face to the characterization, I saw occasionally a well-dressed journalist turned pimp who made a fortune serving the sexual appetite of a Russian business tycoon in St Petersburg.  But, more significantly, here you had deeply corrupt Swiss bankers who were promoting sales of the highly speculative and ultimately toxic Russian state bonds to conservative American pension funds including CALPERS.

Chapter One.  Who were we, the expatriates in Russia in the 1990s?

I began my expatriate existence in Russia in 1994 at 49, an age at which most middle level corporate executives have peaked in their careers and are looking to the exit, which commonly became age 55 in the period under discussion here. In my case, this was in fact the launching age for a career in business that had begun as a consultant, on a steep incline to the top, had hit a wall in 1980 when the Russian invasion of Afghanistan triggered an intensification of the Cold War that put a shabash on all those working in the Soviet empire, which extended into Central Europe.

To be sure, there were plenty of others my age around me during my years living and working in the two Russian capitals, St Petersburg and Moscow, from 1994 to 2002.  However, there were many more youngsters in the expatriate cohort:  new college graduates, many of whom had studied Russian and had some degree of fluency in the language as the main underpinnings of their hoped for fast starts in business life at the new frontier that post-Communist Russia represented.

They had careers to begin. I had a career to cap.

Heading up corporate representations in Russia was a position I had been preparing myself for over several decades, first as an area specialist, then as a consultant to multinationals on large industrial and commercial projects in Russia (the USSR), then as a middle management executive based in the Western European coordination center of one of America’s largest conglomerates with responsibility for several countries in the East Bloc.

I do not conceal from myself or from others, that the 5 years from 1995 to 2000 when I was on corporate payrolls in Moscow and St Petersburg were the most lucrative in my professional life and provided me with the capital to carry on from then to the present in what can be described as “semi-retirement.”

I reached the height of my business career in Russia at the level of Country manager/General Manager, Russia and the CIS.  In the order of things this was either a middle management or lower rung of top management position in major corporations.  This book is therefore not about my own exploits so much as the milieu in which I lived and worked. It will be directed towards the remarkable people I met along the way.  

The 1990s Russia which I describe here was a country very different from the static, almost petrified Soviet Union that I had gotten to know from my student days in the 1960s through business visits in the 1980s.  It was a different country from Russia today in many dimensions, including the prosperity of the population, the degree of civil and political freedoms they enjoy, the conditions of doing business, infrastructure.

At the time, the Big Four global legal and accounting consultancies established a large presence in Moscow  and created an infrastructure supportive of US and international business representations. They created a Potemkin village Russia for the benefit of corporate headquarters in the West and gave to Russia an undeserved patina of rule of law that comforted the home offices though it was largely unmatched by reality on the ground which kept us expat managers on our toes all the time. There were never ending abrupt changes in the tax and legal environment that put in jeopardy all of our earnest and best made business plans, which are the highest preoccupation of every business.

The 1990s Russia was a magnet for swashbuckling characters from the West, fortune seekers and seekers of sexual adventures in an environment where everything was for sale, no holds barred. 

Many of the expat executives I associated with in Moscow in the 1990s were my own age, in their mid-40s, but many others were 15 years my junior, straight out of the university with perhaps a major in Russian and some language courses under their belts.  They were all actively recruited, as I was, to fill posts that were created by decisions from the very top of major corporations to establish a presence in the newly opened Russian market and to throw the rule book of corporate governance out the window while getting started in a land that was chaotic and where the law was a moving target.

I mentioned at the start of this volume how I had been parachuted into the Moscow Representative Office of one multinational in 1995. Since my predecessor had been fired “execution style” as so often happens in large organizations and was barred from entering the office premises to recover his personal effects, I happened to find in one drawer of my desk his cache of personal correspondence going back several years. They were very interesting because of how they reflected the type of young people who came to Russia as linguists, completed undergraduate programs in Slavic languages and literature,  perhaps got an MA in a special joint program with American universities run in Moscow and very quickly saw the opportunities to get immediate employment and move into major companies. They changed career direction and signed on to head representative offices or otherwise take marketing responsibility for Russia and the CIS. 

These new arrivals to the business world were by temperament swashbucklers.  Some married Russian girlfriends and ‘went native.’

But Russia in the 1990s was not just a magnet for footloose opportunists. It attracted some of the world’s best young talent.  Recent college graduates came in the knowledge that this new “emerging market” offered entry level positions that could very quickly turn into serious career steps in line with their professional training.  

Looking at journalism, I think first of  The Financial Times which had a strong team on the ground in Moscow covering not only business and politics but music, the performing arts and visual arts.  One of the most frequent bylines at the FT was Chrystia Freeland, then a young Canadian. Freeland later made a career change from journalism, as Boris Johnson has done in the UK, and eventually became Minister of Foreign Affairs in Toronto, then Deputy Premier. But I think few know that her entry rung on the ladder was precisely in Russia, the land of opportunity.

As I noted in passing above, Moscow in 1995 already counted an English speaking expatriate community of more than 50,000 families.  To serve them, several English language daily newspapers financed by advertising and distributed free of charge in all hotels and western business centers appeared. Some came and went, but the most successful was The Moscow Times in what became an Independent Media empire that drew on very considerable financial flows as the publisher of Russian language editions of US glossy magazines that appealed to the New Russians.  The Moscow Times attracted a very talented group of young US, UK starting journalists, as well as some talented English-speaking Russians including Leonid Bershidsky, whom we see today at the peak of career in association with Bloomberg.

This book will cover other stars in the business world and politics, Russians and foreigners, whom I met in the period with mention of where they are today.

Politics of the expatriate community

In the 60s in the USSR, a popular tune had the refrain “Ух ты, ах ты, все мы космонавты” – “Ooh, Aah, we are all cosmonauts”.  I take that to signify that each age has its mass hypnotism.  In the period of the mid-1990s, we, the expat managers in Russia were subject to such hypnotism insofar as we all shared the globalist and Liberal Democracy values which my favorite newspaper The Financial Times, and most other mainstream media propagated.  They still do. Here again, it is I who have changed.

 But I am obliged to admit that in the 1990s I saw the evolving political world of the New Russia through their lenses. It was second nature to us all.  Not surprising that when Zhirinovsky came onto the scene and did so well in the December 1994 Duma elections, I was describing him in my notes as a neo-fascist.  Where did I get that from? From the FT, which then shifted to calling him merely ‘extreme nationalist.’

Another big source of information was informal, exchange of gossip and speculation with peers and with the diplomatic corps.  The British Embassy in Moscow was a big and generous host of expat gatherings in their premises for free drinks and the opportunity to network, not merely over career issues, about housing issues, but also over domestic politics.  And there were industry associations such as the liquor lobby that I participated in at a certain point.  Add to this personal ties in the rather small community of Russia specialists going back to the times of our post-graduate studies or language programs

Then there was the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, which despite “American” in its name was de facto the preeminent association of all the world’s businesses.  Separately there was created a European Business association, and the Brits had and have their RBBC meeting in Moscow and St Petersburg, ie. the Russian-British Business Council.  These chambers all had regular luncheons with guest Russian political-government officials and visiting eminent foreigners.

And then there is another factor entering into the issue of what we expats knew and did not know was going on in the country where we were stationed:  as heads of representations we were constantly going back and forth to corporate headquarters in Western Europe, where we were immersed in the visions of Russia prevailing there. In my own case this meant traveling every couple of weeks back to London for several days of consultations.

National security

Russia/Soviet Union was from the very start of my traveling there a place that attracted marginal operators. In 1975, my first employment with a small consultancy based in New York within the premises of one of the largest public relations and advertising houses in the United States at that time provided me with a peephole on this. The brother of the consultancy’s Dutch born chairwoman who split his time between The Netherlands and Moscow at the time was widely rumored to be trading in electronics that were on the proscribed COCOM list, that is prohibited for sale to the Soviet Union. At bars in Moscow I met the same crowd of shady personalities. 

On both sides, foreign and Russian, national security was always a factor in this business.  From my days at ITT Europe in the 1980s, security officers within the company lorded it over us marketing managers with constant reminders of the mission impossible we were pursuing: going after sales of advanced communications systems in countries where the eventual licenses for export were under a question and where too much success could endanger our very extensive relationship with the US defense department.

It was a shock to find that the same security custodians would reappear in my life in the now free Russian Federation in the 1990s, both former CIA, or present CIA, and former Russian KGB. Once again their presence on the scene goes on for decades.  The same ex-KGB general who was expelled from Margaret Thatcher’s Britain on charges of involvement in the Philby affair was now the counterpart and partner of an ex-CIA officer in the service of one of the Big Five accounting consultancies in Moscow.  His name resurfaced in 2017 when his small security company received the contract to provide protection to the US embassy in Moscow following its forced repatriation of half of its staff in the diplomatic row with the Kremlin.

Personal security

In Volume I, I called the atmosphere in late 1970s Russia sinister and intimidating. It was, of course, nothing compared to the real physical dangers of working in Moscow during the go-go years of the 1990s. Then the risks came not from the state security apparatus but from the criminal gangs.  Given that most of my time from 1995 to 2000 I was in the employ of liquor companies, operating with high visibility in one of the most criminally infested sectors of the Russian economy, I am well prepared to discuss what caused our justified attacks of nervousness.

However, the risks were clear to me well before I entered the spirits industry. They were inescapable from my first days as an incoming resident manager in St Petersburg for the German jeans manufacturer Mustang.

©Gilbert Doctorow 2020

Publish or perish!

The old academic dictum “Publish or Perish” has taken on a wholly new, shall we say literal, meaning in our present-day Covid-19 pandemic.  We are in lockdown for our safety, not to fall prey to the insidious killer that lurks everywhere outside the door to our homes. In this suspended state of being we are stripped of nearly all the usual distractions which work against Sitzfleisch, that is to say against sitting tight at the computer and writing. Writing a poem, an essay, a novel, a memoir….Whatever. 

Attending social club meetings, delivering lectures or participating in debates, going out to concerts and opera, enjoying a meal in a restaurant prepared by a chef who knows his game a lot better than I do working in our galley kitchen, or traveling to Russia, to Italy, to more distant and exotic vacations, all of these desires only bring on a sigh of self-pity as the days pass one after another in a monotonous and almost solitary flow.

The consequence is that so many family members are publishing.  Our son-in-law, Dimitri Ryelandt, has just published his third book of adult comic strips, a well-respected traditional genre of Belgium. His own niche is word games, revealing to his readers the nooks and crannies of French Belgian linguistic originality which sets it apart from the French in the neighboring Republic.

Meanwhile, my wife, Larisa Zalesova-Doctorow published her Great Russian Novel in May. With the sweep of a Leo Tolstoy, she relates in The Mosaic of My Life the experience of the Russian nation in the turbulent 20th century from the near norm under the Tsar to the Kafkaesque madness of the late Stalin years, all set out in the life of one family and a handful of characters. In a couple of weeks she will be sending to the publisher her latest manuscript, Dacha Tales: Life in the Russian Hinterland. This will be a short book in the travel genre. It is built upon ten years of experience with a summer home that we built on a parcel of land in walking distance from a large lake situated in a hamlet 80 kilometers south of Petersburg.

And I have finally produced the first of a two-volume set of memoirs that mine 15 linear meters of personal archives from my work in and around the Soviet Union/Russia, 1975-2000. Memoirs of a Russianist, Volume I: From the Ground Up has just been released by publisher Author House and is already available for purchase on www.amazon.com and its related national websites, as well as from Barnes & Noble, www.bol.com and other leading online retailers.

See: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1665506911?pf_rd_r=M13NXV7R69WP9EJ00AKM&pf_rd_p=6fc81c8c-2a38-41c6-a68a-f78c79e7253f

Readers of my blogs have already had a taste of the material in this book from the installments of diary extracts that I have put up on my website in the past few months.  The book itself opens with a solid narrative which provides the context for the diary extracts. The diaries make up two-thirds of the text. They should be of value to historians, and of human interest to the general reader.  They contain a great many usually unspoken bits of advice to business school students and for those entering upon careers in Emerging Markets.

I will be pleased to receive any feedback from readers to the Contact point on this website.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020 

Donald Trump’s refusal to concede defeat

This week mainstream media in the USA and Western Europe are allocating prime attention to the stubborn challenge Donald Trump has made to electoral results in a number of swing states, to his demand for recounts and his insistence that the Democrats have “stolen” the election by encouraging massive voter fraud. There are suggestions that this behavior threatens American democracy. We hear dark intimations that The Donald is plotting a coup d’état and intends to remain in office at any cost. The boys and girls are being mentally prepared to rally in the streets to save the Republic.

For his part, President-elect Joe Biden yesterday told the press that Trump’s refusal to concede defeat is a national embarrassment and will impact on the President’s legacy.  Of course, these moderate words are intended to paper over Biden’s own calling Trump a “clown” and “the worst president in American history” during the first televised debate.  How Trump’s legacy can be further tarnished by his latest antics strains credulity.

Let us move beyond superficialities and go to the essence of what Trump is now doing.  Despite brave words about overturning Biden’s vote tally in the electoral college and winning four more years in the White House, I think it is reasonably likely that Trump knows the score and plans to vacate the White House in January as the law requires.  What we are seeing is something entirely different: he is using every resource at his disposal to delegitimize the election of Joe Biden for precisely the same reasons as the Democrats used every trick in the book to delegitimize his own election in 2016. The main thrust of their campaign then was the completely fabricated claim that the Trump team had colluded with the Russians and that Trump owed his victory to interference in the American political process by the Kremlin.  The attempted knock-out blow of releasing the Steele dossier to the press and doing it precisely via the traditionalist and virulently anti-Trump Republican, Senator McCain, was another leg of this defamation effort. We all know what followed, leading ultimately to the president’s impeachment. Russia was instrumentalized for the purpose of bringing down the sitting president. There was no concern that the attacks on the Kremlin might cross tripwires and endanger national security as a war of words spiraled upwards into something more ominous. This was an historical first for the Republic and it was a new low in political intrigue. In light of this, we can only say “as you sow, so shall you reap” – the Democrats are getting back from Trump now what they inflicted on him four years ago.

The same applies to the transition process, which Trump’s refusal to concede defeat is frustrating immensely. Yes, as our newspapers remind us, at this time in the 2016 post-electoral calendar, Donald Trump and Melania were being taken around the White House by Barack and Michele Obama. BUT, and this is an entirely relevant consideration, at the same time the Obama Administration was doing everything possible to wreck Trump’s main electoral pledge in foreign affairs, to reach a new understanding with Russia. They handed on to Trump a poisoned chalice. To be specific, they seized Russian state diplomatic property in the United States and did what was in their power to disrupt relations.  When Trump appointed General Flynn to discuss with the Russian ambassador the possibility of overlooking this offense pending the handover of power and a new policy on Russia, Flynn was ensnared by the US intelligence services in denials of that happening, which led to his facing the courts over perjury and his eventual removal from power. In fact, what Flynn was doing, reaching out to foreign leaders during the transition period, was a well-established practice going back decades. We see the Biden transition team doing the same thing today, when Biden himself confers with the prime minister of Ireland, as if he represented US diplomacy and possibly in violation of the letter of American law.  Our media find absolutely nothing wrong in this, since it is their boy, Uncle Joe, who is doing the consultations, not the authoritarian, wicked Donald Trump and his minions.

Happily the efforts of Trump to delegitimize the incoming Biden administration are based strictly on the flaws of the domestic voting mechanism, in particular on possible abuses of the mail-in voting, without bringing in some foreign actor and disrupting the nation’s relations with allies and adversaries. However, the venom which the Democrats injected into the game of alternation in power will be with us for some time. Joe Biden may try to evade responsibility for what will be a tough four years ahead, but the buck stops on this one at his desk.

©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, paperback 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.]