Starting on my own in 1993, one of my first acts was to employ a Russian speaker. Her name was Luba, only recently out of school and daughter of a Russian translator I had met on a Zirconium business. Luba had been a child at the time of Chernobyl and had been, within hours of the event, shipped out on a plane to Monchegorsk to avoid the fall out and live with a set of grandparents she had never met. For us, having a Russian speaker at this period was an absolute must. The end of the Soviet Union had delivered supply lines of metals that all had the CCCP hammer and sickle stamped on them. While many specialised in the big price-tag industries such as aluminium and nickel, I was content to park my Lada on items such as rhenium, hafnium and zirconium or the heavy duty titanium scrap that flowed for a while. We had an electronic Geiger counter for our work and the joke at the office was that Luba gave off a better reading than most of our ex Soviet consignments.
Being Ukrainian, rather than Russian, it was not long before we went metal hunting in her home country. An insight into the former Soviet system was provided on one of these trips at the courtesy of A T & T. The Ukrainians had conceived the idea that by bartering their old palladium and silver-bearing relays, A T & T would install spanking new digital exchanges across the country. One of the towns we visited was Dnipropetrovsk, the fourth largest city in Ukraine that sits astride both banks of the enormous Dnieper River. Taking a look inside the exchange, it soon became apparent that in this town of a million people, telephony had been a privilege for the very few. There were no more than 1000 lines and these were the preserve of members of the politburo and other party apparatchiks. There was barely enough metal to justify the transport. It was a fascinating insight into the control of communication in the former system.
But what a way to experience Ukraine at a time when hope sprung eternal and it was possible to swim and catch pike in the shallow waters of the Dnieper, drink orange-tinted Vodka coloured by the rowan berry or sweet Georgian red wine, and cook fish over a wood fire after a baking hot sauna.
Then and now it was a hard place with which to do business – much harder than Russia and most other former Soviet states. I think the reason was that the place never appeared fully to thaw. The old Soviet system had been annexed by a series of leaders who to begin with were more Soviet than Soviet and this kept the large Russian populations on Crimea and in the East at bay.
In Kiev, I was royally entertained by Nikolai who was married to Luba’s sister (who wasn’t really her sister but that’s how they thought of themselves). Nikolai had been a Donetsk coal miner with all that that means. Coal mining anywhere in the world is not for the faint-hearted. In the Donetsk mines, an even greater bravery was needed. At the time of the break-up, Nikolai had conceived the idea to buy an oil refinery from the state at privatisation and had travelled to Moscow and sat outside the offices of the Eximbank until they lent him the money. At the time I met him, he had every trapping of those to whom inconceivable wealth had come rather quickly. I had been met off the plane in a motorcade and driven to his home where I stayed in his half-built mansion. There he showed me his gun cabinet, his sauna and his little son in a Russian uniform and his Doberman and Alsatian dogs. The next morning I joined the motorcade on his commute into work with security vehicles both in front and behind. At his office in the centre of Kiev, his building could be mistaken for a car showroom with the number of brand new vehicles stationed outside. Opposite was the onion dome of his local church newly restored with gold leaf he had supplied and I was asked to speak at a dinner at which I noted that the 33 year old vicar carried a gun in a holster and where stray dogs were thrown pieces of steak.
But aside from the show, there was an astonishing modesty about the man. All the wealth and luxury could not take away the tastes of his hard life underground. His righthand man was Vladimir; completely useless in business, but the man who had been his mate underground. Underground, as above ground now, this was a bond that trumped all others, and one morning when I got up his wife called to me to come and view Nikolai. He was not asleep in the luxurious bedroom of his luxurious mansion but fast asleep in a basket with his arms folded round his dogs.
Where, I wonder, is he now? And where is Vladimir, and where all those who were trying to build something new and barter an old life for a new one?
This article was written by Anthony Lipmann. All views expressed are strictly his own.