A wayward entrepreneur’s search for peace
After leaving from Auckland, Merv and I fly to Russia via Tokyo. The plane sets down at Sheremetyevo International Airport, 29 kilometers northwest of central Moscow. As we commence moving into the airport I’m pumped up by a couple of Bloody Marys and the Sex Pistols hammering away in my headphones. Ah, the Pistols. They’re a great band.
We are ushered downstairs into a poorly lit concourse housing a series of booths, staffed by uniformed immigration officers. The ceiling is low, much lower than in any other airport I’ve been in. It’s congested down here and some of the waiting passengers are crowded up the stairs. The available light is restricted by copper tubes of varying lengths hanging from the ceiling. The tarnished surface of each tube is coated with dust and grime. The space feels claustrophobic and uncertain.
There’s always tension when people line up to gain access to a country, but the people here are more edgy than usual. It feels as if the place has been designed to induce a feeling of vulnerability. The air is drenched with the odour of fear and close confinement. There isn’t much chatter. I want to talk, but there’s no point. What am I going to say? Maybe, “This looks grim. A few extra lights and a clean-up would do wonders, wouldn’t it?” Nah, I’m not going to say anything. I’ll just be patient and try to look calm and hope I’m better at it than everyone else.
Bolstered by the knowledge that they control every visitor’s ability to have a seamless entry (or not), the immigration officers are taking an inordinate amount of time inspecting passports. I’m bored enough to think there’s something slightly erotic about the way that officer is wearing her tight-fitting uniform and reviewing, in a slack yet arrogant way, every jittery traveller entering her booth. She makes me think of a black widow. Her wanton disregard for those lining up is amplified by their palpable uneasiness. The blokes are young and scruffy, but they too display a kind of indifference and lack of respect for the importance of their work.
Finally, after an hour and a half I’m in a booth, a structure flooded with fluorescent light and fitted with a mirror that allows the immigration officer to see the back of your body. I have no idea why. Maybe it’s to see if I’m hiding something, or maybe it’s just another method of intimidation. I greet the boy behind the screen. He reluctantly acknowledges me with a nod of his head as if to say, “What do you want?” He opens my travel documents and slowly and grudgingly studies my photograph. Then, with his detached gaze, he inspects my face. He repeats the action a second time in an overtly exaggerated manner, as if he might have missed my nose the first time. Why is this all taking so long? Merv didn’t indicate there’d be any problem getting in.
As he is about to return my passport he asks in stilted English if I have any cigarettes for him. It’s such an unlikely question I’m thrown into confusion. I pull myself together and apologetically inform him that I don’t smoke. He contemptuously slams the rubber stamp down onto my passport and passes my travel documents back to me.
I regroup with Merv in the baggage claim area, relieved that one hurdle is behind me, but also aware the journey hasn’t really kicked off yet. We collect our bags and begin negotiating our way through the melee towards the customs inspection area. The place is predominantly populated with blokes, many wearing baggy track pants cut from cheap synthetic fabric and dark, over-sized leather jackets. Most of them are shod in an assortment of rubber-soled shoes, tan slip-ons with zips, or sports shoes from some other era. Keen to display my discerning taste in footwear and my recently acquired geographical knowledge of the Soviet Union, I raise my eyebrows in the general direction of a group of travellers and say to Merv, “What a fine array of shoes. They look as though they’ve been stitched together by a Moldavian cobbler.”
Merv smiles. “Yeah. That may not be too far from the truth. This place is so rigidly controlled the left shoe was probably made in Moldavia and the right one in Estonia. The two separate shoes would have been paired up in Moscow before being distributed throughout the Soviet Union.”
“Yep. It’s how the economy has been structured. It forces all 15 countries of the Soviet Union to remain together. They can’t function without each other. All roads lead to and from Moscow. The distribution of all manufactured and consumer goods is controlled by Moscow. And that’s why we’re here. We can build an abattoir in no time compared to the Soviets because we can source all the requirements from one place.”
Looking around, I’m attracted by some stunningly beautiful women moving through this sea of badly dressed men and ordinariness and apprehension. It’s such a surprise. Beautiful Russian women? How could that be? Russian women look like shot-putters, don’t they? Far out. Not only are they completely unlike anything I expected, they are also a stark contrast to the men. They are so elegantly dressed and radiate an overt sexuality.
As we queue to have our luggage inspected a group of Asian passengers suddenly tosses a dozen bags over a glazed security wall to some men waiting on the other side. The blokes on the outside snatch the bags and run. There’s a hell of a racket as Russian security officers pursue the perpetrators through the concourse. It’s difficult to see what happens next, whether they’ve pulled off their stunt or not. Man, this is loose. I’m beginning to feel disoriented.
We make our way through the doors separating customs from the Russian motherland and find Merv’s man dressed in a grey business shirt and black trousers. He has dark, collar-length hair. Merv hugs him and then introduces him as Lukhum. Merv had informed me that the Moscow office employed a character in his twenties who was responsible for supporting the project work. Lukhum is Georgian, and he is renowned for keeping the details of his background private. It had been suggested that he is good mates with a few mafia types, but Merv said you could never really know.
Shaking my hand, Lukhum welcomes me to Moscow. He exudes a warm but street-wise confidence. He allays any concern I might have had about finding our way around. I’m pleased he’s here and very relieved that he speaks English. Then he enquires whether Merv has remembered to bring the latest editions of MAD and Skydiving. Lukhum’s face lights up when Merv removes the magazines from his briefcase and hands them to him. “I have everything in place for your trip,” Lukhum says. “The three of us will be flying out tonight at midnight.” He offers to carry the heaviest bag and we head out the main entrance. As we exit we are enveloped in a haze of combustion by-products discharged by inefficient Aeroflot jets, exhaust fumes pumped from a fleet of motley Ladas, Nivas and Volgas, all idling in unauthorised parking positions, and black, sooty diesel smoke belching from lines of stationary buses. Penetrating this effluvia are the screams of the Tupolev jet engines from the other side of the terminal building. It’s clear I’m entering a country in decay. But most noticeable is the anticipation of change that permeates the place.
Lukhum has paid an airport attendant to look after the V8 Chevy van while he was inside. It’s parked illegally in one of the non-existent parking positions directly outside the arrivals hall. Lukhum slides open the side access door to reveal four oversized seats, each the size of a La-Z-Boy recliner. Lukhum informs us there isn’t anything else like it on the streets of Moscow. In his thick accent he informs me that the Chevy is called the Pussy Wagon.
Behind the wheel he cranks the Pussy Wagon into action. He negotiates his way out of the airport and then weaves in and out of the line of cars making their way along the road leading into town. As we race through the silver-birch forest on the outer reaches of Moscow it’s becoming clear Lukhum is acutely aware of the location of the traffic police stations. Like something out of a 1950s black-and-white movie set in the Cold War, regularly spaced shabby, flat-roofed, brick buildings are manned by uniformed police equipped with poorly maintained Ladas and strange radar technology. He slows down to the 80 km/h speed limit as we approach each station, then immediately accelerates to 150 km/h after passing it.
We leave the countryside and begin driving through rows of high-rise apartments. They are constructed from grey, pre-cast concrete panels and fitted with timber-framed windows and interlinked ochre-coloured balconies. Most have an unfinished, unkempt look. Some balconies are fitted with windows that appear to have been installed by half-arsed do-it-yourselfers. The Soviet Union I imagined was different. I had no real idea what to expect, but these buildings are so not it.
“These apartment buildings were first built in the Khrushchev era,” Lukhum informs me, “and this style of architecture and construction has continued throughout the Soviet Union ever since. It’s not to my liking, but it’s where many people live.”
I look at the grassless areas of earth leading up to the concreted entrance ways. “I suppose it’s cheap and easy,” I manage to say, aware that it’s altogether too easy to see fault in anything new. Plus, it isn’t good form to openly mock aspects of someone else’s country. Shit, don’t New Zealanders get really sensitive if someone says anything even slightly derogatory about our precious little homeland?
Lukhum says, “Soon we will be in a more appealing part of Moscow, the central district. The architecture there is of the Stalin era.”
As we drive closer to the city the urban scenery takes on a more established appearance. The streets are four-lane avenues, called prospekts, and they are bounded on each side by imposing apartment buildings. Typically five to 10 storeys high, they are constructed from brick, stone and plaster. The earthy brick and stone walls support plastered façades. Variations of cream predominate, but occasionally some striking colours break the monotony: there are lime green, lemon, ochre, sky blue, oxidised-copper green, chalky pinks and teal. But whenever we have to slow down or stop, I see it’s all under attack: flaking paint, cracked plaster, missing patches of façade, disconnected downpipes, window frames that need putty replacement and timber repairs.
Shop frontages are identified with matter-of-fact signage in blue Cyrillic letters on dirty white squares. Retail and product branding appear to be non-existent. Many ground-floor windows and doors are fitted with robust metal security grilles, and grime coats every surface. But this inner segment of Moscow boasts formidable architecture. It looks resolute in the face of all odds.
After continuing in silence for a while I say to no one in particular, “There are bugger-all cars using this avenue. It’s as if the city had been planned and built for a future that never eventuated.”
“People can’t afford cars,” Lukhum says. “Besides, we have very efficient subway and trolley bus systems. Here is Yuri Gagarin,” he suddenly says, pointing to a muscular cosmonaut mounted on a titanium-fluted spire the size of a rocket.
To a pre-pubescent kid the US space programme was awesome. But NASA seemed like a whole army of people, whereas old Yuri, with his improvised missile technology bolted together and supported by a wish and a prayer, appeared to do it all on his own. And here he is – one of my all-time heroes and most certainly one of the greatest Soviet heroes of the Cold War, towering 15 storeys high in front of me, glistening in the dull autumn sunset.
“That has to be one of the most impressive sculptures I’ve ever seen,” I enthuse. “It’s easy to imagine just how excited the people here must have been when he orbited the Earth.”
Lukhum says, “There’s a word in Russian, devai, which means ‘Let’s go’. It became a very common part of our vocabulary after Gagarin said it moments before lift-off. Let’s do it, regardless of the outcome.”
I have some vague recollection that Yuri came to grief early in his life. “What happened to Yuri? Didn’t he die in a car accident?” I ask.
“He died in an aircraft crash,” Lukhum replies. “It was a fighter jet crash.”
There’s silence, and then Merv looks at me and says, “Although there was some suggestion that his body was never recovered.”
We pull up outside an apartment building, which turns out to be where Lukhum lives. As we make our way into the lobby the reek of decaying food washes over us. Apparently the landing on each floor is fitted with a tube to take away domestic waste, but then the waste is discharged near the entrance of the building. As we enter the lift I try to appear relaxed as I wonder what the hell we are doing here.
I walk into Lukhum’s living room. A portrait of Brezhnev is mounted on the wall, but it has a few additions. Hanging from his forehead and dangling over his left eye is a knitted penis cover, and pinned to his chest is a metal medal. Above the portrait, the light fitting is draped with an American flag.
“Rebellious times,” I laugh. “Where did you get the medal?”
“From a broke military officer,” Lukhum nonchalantly responds.
It is soon clear we are here for no other reason than to kill time. Six hours after arriving at Sheremetyevo it’s time to leave for Domodedovo, Moscow’s busiest domestic airport. We will be flying to the city of Barnaul, which is situated on the Ob River in the West Siberian Plain. It’s 10 at night and it has started drizzling. We leave the high-rises of Moscow and slip into the darkness of rural farmland and forest. I notice the vehicles on the road are driving with only their park lights on.
“Full beam is a prohibited activity,” Lukhum says. I don’t ask why. Maybe it’s a hangover from the Cold War. Maybe the Soviets are still paranoid about a US invasion. Or maybe it’s about conserving energy. Whatever, it adds to the mystery of the place.
We approach a badly damaged Lada. The driver’s door is folded around the front mud guard and the driver is slumped over the steering wheel. She doesn’t look well. On the verge of the road stand four people. There is no sense of urgency. I look at Lukhum. “She must be dead. Do you think they’re waiting for an ambulance?” He shrugs his shoulders. Why haven’t they covered her with a blanket or clothing? The scene is saturated with a profound sense of helplessness. Lukhum continues to drive on. Why hasn’t he stopped to help?
We arrive at Domodedovo. The Chevy is even more obvious at this airport, especially since Lukhum has just bribed two security guards to get into the zone restricted to authorised vehicles. He steers us over to an access stairway that leads to the departure lounge. The scream of Aeroflot jets landing and taking off is punishing. The entire area is filled with chaos. It’s difficult to think straight, so we just carry our bags and follow our leader.
Thirty minutes pass before the Aeroflot air hostess gives us the go-ahead to commence boarding. Lukhum, Merv and I take ownership of three seats clustered together. We are soon accosted by a disgruntled old man in a military uniform who wants his assigned seat. Like half the elderly blokes I’ve seen so far, his chest is adorned with medals and service badges. In an unwavering tone Lukhum suggests in Russian that he needs to find an alternative.
I sit back in the seat. The seat back reclines fully into the passenger behind me. I can’t believe it. I pull it back into the upright position and try again. No luck. I turn to Merv. “I’ve drawn a short straw, mate. The seat back support mechanism is buggered.”
Lukhum stands and with his indescribable presence demands attention from the hostess. She’s indifferent. “Chto delat?” she says as she puckers her lips and rotates the palms of her hands upwards. What to do?
What am I to do? Nothing. Sit upright or lean forward. “Don’t worry,” Lukhum says, “there’s a spare seat over there.” He points to the row behind us. “Take it.”
I do what he says. As the plane accelerates down the runway and lifts off, a violent vibration originating from the starboard wing starts radiating throughout the plane. What is that? An imbalanced turbine rotor? Has the landing gear malfunctioned? Is this normal? No-one else seems too concerned. Either this is a standard characteristic of the Tupolev 154 or all these punters are well rehearsed at hiding their anxiety. Lukhum is reading his MAD magazine. That’s good enough for me. What can I do anyway? After an inordinate amount of time the intense juddering subsides.
About an hour into the flight the hostess makes her way down the aisle disdainfully handing out meals. Maybe “Do not communicate with passengers” is a non-negotiable in this job. Despite some apprehension I eat the offerings and then slide into a fitful slumber for a couple of hours, waking up just in time for our descent. The downward trajectory is very slow. It takes another hour before we rejoin mother earth with the most gentle touchdown you could imagine.
I stand to disembark. “You may as well stay seated,” Merv says. “We have to wait for the most important people on the plane to leave.”
“The flight and cabin crew.” Adorned with uniforms more suited to the airforce, this prestigious group departs first, allowing the rest of us to sit in awe of their greatness. After they’ve left we have to wait for those in the rear cabin to disembark.
Lukhum turns round to talk to me. “The centre of gravity of the loaded plane is located behind the wings. If the passengers in the forward cabin bailed first, the nose of the plane would tip up and the plane’s tail would hit the ground.”
Why? I think. Maybe the location of the loaded plane’s centre of gravity in the air enhances the aircraft’s ability to fly. There must be some good reason. Mustn’t there?
When we’re finally allowed off, Lukhum guides us into the VIP lounge. We are introduced to a woman called Tatiana. She shakes my hand. Her dark hair is perfectly cut and placed and her olive complexion is highlighted by her red lipstick. She’s wearing a short black skirt and high heels. I love legs, and hers are perfect. Everything about her is delicate and sweet. Cooing at me in the most divine voice, she informs me that she’s more than happy to help us with whatever we need. I’m mesmerised. Tatiana is one of the sultriest creatures I’ve ever met.
When I ask her about herself, she informs me in broken English that she recently gave up her career as a doctor to work in the VIP lounge, a facility that had previously been available only to party officials and government functionaries. She explains that the money and conditions are better. She says her only regret is that she learnt German instead of English at school. I’m not sure that it matters.
Lukhum, Merv and I begin breakfast. It consists of black tea, boiled eggs, salami and coleslaw, all of it prepared by Tatiana. I feel uplifted and privileged to be eating a meal prepared by Tatiana. The conversation meanders, but ultimately leads to nuclear armaments.
Lukhum asks me, “Grigori, do you know what the Semipalatinsk Polygon is?” I try to concentrate but I can’t help surreptitiously snatching glances of Tatiana as often as I can. I want to make a connection with her. Feeling addled trying to focus on two completely separate things, I wonder if it’s a clever geometrical structure or a secret facility in a spy movie, or even the title of a Solzhenitsyn book.
“Ah, no, I don’t.”
“The Semipalatinsk Polygon is the site where nuclear bombs were tested.”
I can’t keep my eyes off Tatiana’s beautifully sculpted hips and waist.
“The last test was just three years ago. Initially the tests were discharged above ground, but in the final years the bombs were detonated below ground. They even used nuclear bombs to create water reservoirs . . .”
I’m excited. I love her balance of sexuality and refinement.
“. . . crush ore in open-cast mines, and create underground storage for toxic waste.”
It’s impossible to pay attention to the conversation. All I want is Tatiana.
“What was that, Grigori?” asks Lukhum.
“I thought you said something.”
“Ser’eznye. Ita Pravda.”
It’s true. I nod my head and scan the room, but with a sinking feeling I realize Tatiana has left. I sigh and try to focus on the conversation.
“There’s a lake near Semipalatinsk that was created by detonating a nuclear device. The locals call it Atomic Lake.”
“Nev-er-roy-atno,” is all I can manage. Un-be-liev-able.
Then we’re on our way again. Lukhum leads us from the VIP lounge out to a helicopter, a Vertolet, distinctive because of its bulbous nose, car-sized landing wheels and exhaust-stained fuselage. We’re introduced to the flight crew. The MIL Mi-8 requires a pilot, a navigator and an engineer. Entering the cabin I’m surprised to see comfortable padded lounge chairs, carpeted flooring, walls lined with wood panelling and double-glazed windows – it’s a flying lounge. We settle in and the boys crank up the engine. The drooping blades elevate as they rotate, and cautiously the helicopter rises about 100 metres above the deck, then commences moving forward. It’s a very systematic approach to helicopter flying and I feel safe.
We fly out over a settlement of dachas, each with its own garden plot. Lukhum explains how traditional Russian dachas are small cottages constructed from rough-sawn timber or logs. They are an integral aspect of Russian life, offering refuge from city living because many families live in small, one-bed-room apartments. The dacha garden provides a source of fresh vegetables during summer and the opportunity to preserve vegetables for the winter months. A well-located dacha can give access to swimming in nearby rivers or to social outings in the nearby woods. Lukhum adds that the dacha also allows the continuation of the Russian connection to the land and that’s important.
Lukhum gives us a sketchy overview of what he has organized. Apparently the primary objective of the helicopter is to collect a group of Austrian hunters who have just completed a guided hunting trip in the Altai mountain range. We will disembark at the hunters’ camp and wait while the hunting group is flown back to Barnaul. The Vertolet will then return to collect us and we will continue our journey to Ongudai. Given the number of aircraft parked at the end of the tarmac at Barnaul, you’d think we could have flown directly to Ongudai. But no.
Soon we drop into a clearing adjacent to a log hut. We are greeted by the guides – two wiry characters clad in khaki military clothing, dusty and stained from hunting. One has a roguish grin and badly chaffed hands, the other has greasy hair and fingers heavily stained with nicotine. After shaking our hands they go off and fetch the Austrians. Not wanting the Austrians to know what we’re up to we’re economical with our words. The tourists reciprocate, and after about 10 minutes of mutually cagey behaviour the Austrians depart with Lukhum in the Vertolet.
Hang on! What’s he doing in the chopper leaving us here without an interpreter? What are we going to do now? I ask Merv why Lukhum left.
“He said he needs to finalise some arrangements back at the airport. You never know what he’s up to. There are always smoke and mirrors at play here. But you’ll soon get used to it.”
Will I? I hope so.
It’s midday and I’m somewhere – God knows where – in the southern Siberian mountains with no means of conversing with our hosts and no clue when Lukhum is going to return. Great. The guides generously offer us some venison casserole. The meal is dished up using military-style utensils. Before we start eating, the bloke with the big grin suggests it’s time for a chut chut – a small drink. A three-finger shot of vodka is poured for each of us. He offers us a toast, and we follow his lead, draining the glass in one action. I grimace as the vodka goes down my throat. Then we all tuck into the casserole, communicating our appreciation for their hospitality with gesticulations. Very soon Merv prepares for another toast, filling up the glasses from a half-litre bottle of vodka. He delivers his few words of pidgin Russian. They seem to get it.
I love these rustic encounters. If you let your guard down and become open to anything, then truly great interactions can take place. Even without a shared language it’s easy to communicate appreciation and gratitude for what’s being given. It can be communicated with humour and body language. I really appreciate being here with these random characters. Yeah, this is the life I’m after.
We each drink four shots of vodka, everyone taking a turn to toast. My insides feel warm. I feel as though I’m on the cusp of something exciting. Realizing that my euphoria is probably induced by the combined effects of vodka and jet lag, I withdraw to a comfortable spot on the ground outside the hut. It’s not a bad day, cool but sunny. Stretching out on my back with my jumper rolled up under my head I close my eyes. I’m told heavy vodka consumption delivers one to a state of bliss for 10 short minutes, then you feel like shit for the next 24 hours.
I don’t know how long I’ve been out for, but the clatter of the returning chopper wakes me in a hurry. Hovering directly high above us, the Vertolet maintains its altitude and position instead of coming in to land. “What’s going on?” I ask Merv.
“I’d say Lukhum is getting ready to practise a dive.”
A figure suddenly lunges out the side of the chopper. He free dives until the parachute opens, forcefully arresting his fall and allowing him to circle just once above us before he lands on his feet in the clearing. He immediately recovers the parachute and commences packing it, simultaneously calling out instructions for us to get ready to board the Mi-8 as it comes into land. We bid farewell to our hosts, hugging them like great mates, and scramble into the helicopter.
Our journey continues over hilly terrain covered in alpine grasses and clusters of trees, and valleys sparsely stocked with cattle and deer and etched with clear rivers. The occasional gravel road runs alongside a braided river, connecting one small settlement with another. “How the hell did you end up doing business out here?” I ask Merv.
He explains that he was doing business in the Soviet Union long before Perestroika was initiated in the mid-1980s, but it was around that time that he first arrived on the scene in the Altai. One of the few products capable of generating hard currency here is deer velvet, cut from the deer’s head before it matures into antler. Some Asians use it as an aphrodisiac, he says. It must do wonders for those dysfunctional cocks, because they buy a shit-load of it.
Before Ashfield arrived, a Soviet ministry had the sole responsibility for selling the velvet to Koreans traders. He says it’s always difficult to know exactly what goes on in Soviet ministries, but what he does know is that velvet of this quality fetched US$1000 per kilogram last year and the local state farms received only a fraction of that. Now Merv and the regional prime minister have usurped the boys in the Moscow ministry. It means the local boys get a better return and Ashfield gets a generous clip of the ticket. Not only that, but along the way Merv hopes to get his hands on some local deer genetics.
I wonder how you could do that without pissing someone off.
At the head of the valley, the pilot changes course, gently swinging the Vertolet right into a smaller valley. Up ahead is an incongruous sight: a pristine white, newly constructed food-processing building nestled into the foot hills of this incredibly remote mountain range. The Vertolet lands.
I’m keen to meet the New Zealanders working on the site and to see how the construction is going. I hope it’ll provide me with something familiar within this disorienting Russian paradigm.
The boys on site are pleased to see us. We have mail from home plus we are fresh New Zealand faces. I chat with all the tradesmen. They appear to be capable characters. They are enjoying it here but missing home. It strikes me how the camaraderie between construction people is unique. I love the way in which a process facility unfolds from a single desire to build something, and how everyone works together to achieve that goal. Every day more hydraulic lines and water pipes appear. Machines are installed and flat surfaces are created. People take pride in their work, and it’s always easy for others to appreciate good workmanship. Recognition of such craft is an uplifting thing. As I look around the process facility I realize that I’m familiar with much of the equipment. I appreciate its simplicity and robustness. I know it works well and that it is absolutely appropriate for this environment. The straight lines of the wall surfaces, pipelines, electrical cable trays, duct work and the mechanical process equipment in this facility are a clear indicator of good workmanship.
After a couple of hours we all walk back to the accommodation for the evening meal and a few beers. As I start talking to a couple of the guys it becomes apparent that progress is being hampered by a delay in the delivery of construction equipment shipped from New Zealand via Nakhodka in the Far East. The delays are being exacerbated by the lack of crucial support from the local administration. No one knows why. The evening perks up as the frustration of the non-deliveries is displaced by the boys regaling us with their adventures.
Yet later in bed I feel restless and unable to sleep. It’s probably induced by alcohol, excitement and jet lag. I grumble my way into the new day. We eat breakfast, during which I mutter a few words in response to any comments from Merv or Lukhum.
We bid farewell to our compatriots and saunter up to the Vertolet. The three flight crew look about as shagged as I feel. The pilot looks as if he has slept in his uniform.
The whine of the jet engine drills into my cranium as I stare out of the scratched window. I feel like shit. I feel helpless. A couple of hours interacting with people is enjoyable, but most of the time I just want to be by myself. Here, I’m fully immersed in being with people I don’t know, and I’ve got another 10 days to go. I feel as if I have to be continually on my guard.
We fly on to Gorny Altai to meet the prime minister of the local government and his deputies. When we touch down at our destination I scramble out of the Vertolet feeling very uncomfortable. My bladder is inconveniently giving me problems. Our host hasn’t arrived, so, anxious to relieve myself, I stride over to the public toilet. It’s a shack knocked together from rough-sawn timber planks, just to the right of the terminal building. I enter the shed and I’m confronted by an acrid blast. The smell of urine is so intense it feels like I’ve hit an invisible wall.
Far out! I’m standing in front of a conically shaped pile of faces about half a metre high and a metre in diameter. A timber beam is positioned over the pile of crap. In order to sit on it I would need to hoist myself above the mountain of excrement, then I’d have to drop my load in front of anyone else using the facilities.
Bugger that. There’s no way I’d ever have a crap here. Two Russian boys are having a leak in a makeshift urinal mounted on one of the walls. I have to wait in line to use the urinal. No-one else seems fazed. The boy in front of me peels off and the receptacle is now available. It’s caked in filth, the residue from the ablutions of tens of thousands of vodka drinkers. My eyes are stinging. Breathing is difficult, but my bladder is distended beyond belief, so I grit my teeth and get the job done.
I try to regain my composure as I walk over to where Lukhum and Merv are engaged in an animated encounter with a character wearing a suit and tie. There is much laughter and physical embracing. I am immediately introduced to the Functionary. He has a name, but I forget it as soon as we’re introduced. From then on he’s just the Functionary.
After we shake hands the Functionary says, “Grigori, I hope you aren’t as naughty as Merv. He leads us into too much mischief when he’s with us.”
“No, no. I’m a good boy.”
The Functionary, or apparatchik, as the Bolsheviks call his profession, is an amiable character in his early fifties. He has an oversized stomach and apparently an oversized influence on the affairs of the region. His Volga is parked directly in front of the airport and soon we are being chauffeur-driven along a poorly maintained sealed road, past horse-drawn agricultural trailers, tractors and trucks, and chocolate-coloured log houses that have been sunk into the ground to provide winter insulation.
We arrive at the office building of the regional administration. The Functionary leads us into his office. It’s a large office by Western standards and a portrait of Lenin is mounted on the wall. We are invited to sit at a table in front of the large desk. The Functionary lifts the receiver on one of the three phones and orders some chai. Then he makes another call on a different phone.
The tea is delivered with a bowl of individually wrapped Russian chocolates. Biting into a chocolate it’s clear they have been crafted from quality cocoa. Lukhum says that one of the advantages of the Soviet support of socialist third-world countries has been chocolate and cigars. But then everyone thinks their country makes the best chocolate, don’t they?
“OK,” the Functionary announces. “We should leave here in 10 minutes. We are going to the Communist Party official’s dacha and Kolosov will meet us there.”
Merv reminds me that Kolosov is the regional prime minister.
Set in on the banks of the Katun River, the dacha looks like a boutique lodge. In the lobby there’s a portrait of Mikhail Gorbachev (minus the birth mark) and an intensely earnest portrait of Lenin. In some misguided gesture the dacha has been renamed Kiwi Lodge. Merv has agreed to fund the refurbishment of the building as part of his commitment to his relationship with the prime minister. In fact, the new fit-out has already started. Some of the materials and appliances, including a large refrigerator and chest freezer, have been shipped all the way from New Zealand.
We sit outside in an area near the river in the late afternoon sun. The Functionary busies himself constructing a fire and skewering pieces of lamb that have been marinated in a big glass jar of brine, mustard seeds and fennel. Communication between the group flows more easily after we are joined by Vlad, an interpreter employed by Ashfield during the construction season. The prime minister arrives just as the fire settles down to hot embers. By now it’s dark. The Functionary commences cooking the shishlick or shish kebab. A woman who acts as caretaker of the dacha with her husband brings a selection of salads and breads from the kitchen.
Puffing his chest out, the prime minister declares it’s time for a chut chut. He half fills our five-ounce glasses with vodka and proposes a toast to welcome Merv back. Then he drains his glass and we follow suit. I follow the lead of the others by quickly swallowing a glass of mineral water and eating something off my plate. Within a few minutes Merv encourages everyone to fill their glasses again. I also refill my glass of mineral water in preparation. Merv stands up and makes a toast, reciprocating the welcome, saying it really is a pleasure to be here again, enjoying good relations with the locals and engaging in serious business activities.
The toasts keep coming throughout the evening – only alcoholics drink without toasting, they tell me. Vodka is followed by Georgian cognac. Would I like some Moldavian champagne? Why not? In the absence of guidance from Merv, I respond in the affirmative.
Like old school mates on the piss together, the Functionary starts wrestling Merv. Then, grinning playfully, he offers neat alcohol. The drinking procedure is explained. There’s one hundred per cent alcohol in one cup and water in another. We drink half a cup of water from the left hand, swallow the full cup of home-distilled alcohol in the right hand, and immediately follow this with the remaining half cup of water.
Merv, shaking his head in discouragement and repeatedly telling the Functionary he doesn’t want any of it, is informed that we all must participate. Since he is a good friend and leader of the visitors he must set the example. An experienced drinker is aware of the need for self-preservation, which generally involves consuming only one form of alcoholic beverage in one sitting. Only the novice or the seriously hardened drinker mixes his drinks. Or, as in my own case, the stupid and cavalier. I eagerly consume the full glass of firewater. I notice the prime minister doesn’t participate, but it would be inappropriate for me to challenge him.
I’m quickly beginning to realise I was deluded in thinking that my ability to drink ample volumes of ale would stand me in good stead for this onslaught. I’m losing control. My surroundings are blurred and my head is beginning to spin. I don’t really know what I’m saying or what others are saying to me. I decide it’s time for bed.
When I wake up in the morning I’m pleased to have finally had a good sleep. I get dressed and find the Functionary waiting for us in the dining room. The angst-ridden caretaker of the lodge and his subservient wife have prepared breakfast for us. It’s identical to last night’s meal and vodka is on the menu again. I’m always up for a hair of the dog, but this morning the taste of the vodka repels me.
Apparently the caretaker is someone who drinks without toasting. His wife enjoys the odd vodka too. I recall his erratic behaviour from last night. He continually scolded and bullied his wife as they served us. Now his sullen demeanour and gruffness are accentuated by the quietness in the room.
After another shot of vodka, breakfast is cleared away and we settle in for a meeting to discuss the progress on existing sites and, more importantly, the new proposals for additional meat processing plants. Vlad starts translating and soon I see how skilled he is as a professional interpreter. It’s as if he doesn’t exist. Functioning as a conduit between Merv and his counterpart, Vlad gesticulates at exactly the same point in the delivery as Merv.
The meeting is adjourned and the morose caretaker is soon asked to serve lunch. It’s the same as breakfast.
Later I ask Merv: “Is Vlad available to be my full-time translator?”
“Sure. You need someone like him. Vlad is more than just an interpreter. He’ll be able to give you a sense of how things function in the Russian organisations we’re dealing with. Besides, you’ll be continually traveling and you’ll need someone like him as your right-hand man with you pretty much all the time.”
“What’s his background?” I ask.
“From what I can discover, he was employed as a translator in a scientific facility, so from an engineering perspective he’s technically very capable. But what is very unique about him is that he has quickly proved his worth translating in contract negotiations and social situations.”
We arrive in the hinterland of Russian heavy industry, Novotroitsk. Mining and steel-making dominate the landscape of this southern Ural city. Novotroitsk exists to house workers and to provide an infrastructure for the nearby steel-making plant. Inspired by Uncle Joe Stalin, this facility consists of sprawling process halls that house numerous furnaces. Its chimney stacks feed huge plumes of iron oxide particles into the rust-coloured cloud smothering the city. Shunting yards laced with overhead pylons and cables and crowded with wagons laden with scrap steel and pig iron add to the general impression of decrepitude. In the developed world steel mills like this would have long been retired and replaced by more efficient facilities.
Everything in this town is covered in a layer of grit and red dust. The dust is so prevalent that even double-casement windows need to be taped up in the summer months to prevent dust seeping into the apartments and coating everything. Here in Novotroitsk the average male lives to only 53 years. Not only does the vodka hammer any chances of longevity, but the fine dust takes its toll on the lungs. In this environment the food-processing plant, with its white exterior cladding, no doubt looks like a star gate to another universe.
In the late afternoon we are led along a railway shunting yard full of train-loads of old tanks and other military hardware that has been scrapped in compliance with agreements reached with the Yanks. Overhead cranes deliver the redundant components of the Cold War to blast furnaces. We are ushered through a nondescript door into a canteen, equipped with a dining room, banya (sauna) and plunge pool.
Here we are entertained by the men responsible for purchasing the meat-processing plant. Vlad is translating. We enter the banya naked, except for towels wrapped around our waists. It’s not exactly like business meetings back home, but what the hell.
Not long after entering the banya, the project manager offers to exfoliate my back, gesturing that I should lie on my stomach while he performs the task. I’m told that beating one’s skin with a branch of birch soaked in water is an effective way to increase circulation and remove dead skin, but this bastard beats me with such intensity it feels like he’s drawing blood. It stings like buggery. I wonder if it’s supposed to be like this? Suddenly I don’t care either way. I sit up, indicating that’s enough. I’m not sure what it was all about, but I feel as if the prick has just attacked me. We leave the banya and dive into a cool plunge pool. My skin stings.
The dining-room table is laden with food and beverages. The meal commences with a toast from the project manager. He holds up his glass and declaims, “As my counterpart in this project, I would like to toast you, Grigori. Like me, you are a young man with much to prove. My desire is that you not only fulfil your own expectations, but ours also. This project is an important investment by us. It will be a facility to provide premium-quality meat products for the people of our city. It will also be a showcase for your business. I toast to our productive engagement. As the recipient of this toast, I invite you to drink to the bottom. This is the custom in Russia.”
I need to let this boy know I’m up to the challenge. I immediately accept the toast. The smell is intense, like commercial cleaning fluid. As I drain the vodka the harsh taste of the alcohol burns my lips and the inside of my cheeks. My tongue feels numb. The alcohol lingers in the back of my throat with a slight aftertaste of aniseed. The inside of my guts burns. I’m pleased I packed some antacid. I reach for a bottle of mineral water and drink the water slowly.
Continuing to lay down a challenge, the project manager says, “Grigori, we Russian engineers pride ourselves on our tenacity. As project manager from the Russian side, it is my responsibility to ensure you deliver all that is promised.”
This boy could be a handful. I respond, “I’m looking forward to the two of us working closely together. It will be through our mutual co-operation that we both bring the project to fruition in the agreed timeframe.”
“You’re right, so we need to be good boys to each other.”
As the evening progresses the project manager reveals that during his recent visit to New Zealand he was initially skeptical of what the country had to offer, but he soon concluded that our democracy had delivered true socialism, much more in line with what Soviet communism had promised.
“There’s a well-known joke that indicates one aspect of our style of socialism. It’s a question and answer joke,” the project manager says to me. “When the final stage of socialism is built, will there still be thefts and pilfering?”
I smile. “I don’t know, will there?”
“No, because everything will have already been pilfered.”
We have a toast to what Perestroika could deliver.
One of the other Bolsheviks adds, “There’s another joke that’s also a good representation of our experiment with socialism. It’s called the seven paradoxes of the socialist state. Nobody works, but the plan is fulfilled. The plan is fulfilled, but the shelves in the stores are empty. The shelves are empty, but nobody starves. Nobody starves, but everybody is unhappy. Everybody is unhappy, but nobody complains. Nobody complains, but the jails are full.”
After the meal Merv and I stagger out of the social facility and almost collide with a locomotive that is shunting wagons loaded with billets of pig iron. The blocks of iron glow orange in the darkness, barely five metres from where I stand. Banging and creaking as they move at less than walking pace past us, the wagons and their radiant cargo make the whole scene seem completely surreal. The heavy vodka consumption and the ongoing pace of travel add to my sense of disorientation.
“This is unbelievable, mate,” I say to Merv, as I shield my face from the heat with the palm of my right hand. “What a bizarre place to entertain the boys.”
“Yep, this place sure is different.”
“Hey, how do you find that project guy to deal with? He beat the shit out of me in the sauna with that bloody birch branch.”
Merv laughs. “Initially he comes across as a tough nut, but he’s OK to deal with. He can be very exacting and dogged, but you’ll find he generally yields. They all do.”
“He seems like a competitive bastard.”
“Yeah he is, but so are you, mate. You’ll be a good match.”
I think to myself that I’ve never considered myself to be competitive. Ambitious, yes, but not really competitive. But maybe I am.
The next morning we inspect the construction site. The locals have commenced earthworks and foundation form work. As we’re walking around, the project manager suddenly picks up a crowbar and gestures that he’s going to throw it at me. He holds it horizontally in both hands and hurls it. Like I say, if there’s one consistent failure in my life it’s being unable to catch things. I brace myself. I have to perform here. I try to focus as the bar flies at me. I catch it in both hands. I caught it! But hang on – it’s light as plastic.
The project manager and his mates are pissing themselves with laughter. "What is this?” I ask.
The bloody thing is made from titanium! Although I’m jubilant that I’ve just caught a projectile for the first time in my life, I can’t believe that an economy can be so distorted that rare metals are put to such humble uses.
“Shit. Let’s get a container load of these together and see if there’s a market in the West,” I say to Merv. “The metal has got to be worth way more than the crowbar.”
“Nah. Bigger fish to fry,” Merv says.
Back in Moscow, as we drive I see long queues of women lined up behind trucks with enclosed canvas canopies. “What are they queuing for?” I ask.
“Food. Vegetables and meat,” Lukhum says.
Jesus, that looks like a highly inefficient way of going about your day.
“There is a joke,” Lukhum tells me, “and it goes like this: what is the most permanent feature of our socialist economy? The answer: temporary shortages.”
Another joke. The Russians certainly know how to take the piss out of themselves.
On the trip this totally incomprehensible world has hammered at me from every direction. The unpredictability of the people and the half-arsed way they do everything is completely unsettling. The saving grace seems to be their stoical approach to life and their sense of humour. Later, I share my confusions with Lukhum.
He responds, “The Russian poet Tyutchev said, ‘Don’t try to understand it, just feel it.’ This is the only approach.”
We soon arrive at the head office located on the 11th floor of the prestigious World Trade Centre, a modern high-rise office structure built by Armand Hammer, the wealthy American of Russian-Jewish heritage. I’m introduced to the people here. One of these is the very dapper Popov, who is conspicuous by his clear disdain of the idea of me being considered for a job here. He grudgingly shakes my hand and grunts when I am introduced.
After an hour of uncomfortably milling around the office Lukhum indicates it’s time to go to Sheremetyevo for the trip home. As we drive I think about what I want from the job. My primary focus is to help the construction guys to build the facilities. I’m also excited by the adventure. I want to learn how things are done so that I can establish my own business. I want to be a serious man and I want to make sufficient filthy lucre so that Monica and I can retire and enjoy life. But ultimately I want to be happy. Everything I’ve done in my life has prepared me for this challenge. If I'm not ready now, I never will be.
Published by Mountford Media & Publishing
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This edition published 2014
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