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  • Lord Copper

Rolling Mills and Punctured Dykes

The metal industries in Russia under the soviets were heavily geared towards serving the military needs of a heavily militarised nation. So when the system collapsed, there was an obvious excess of metal production facilities, since the constant demand of the military collapsed. That excess of production made fortunes – large and small – for  lots of people, Russian and Western, who saw the opportunity of what were essentially low-cost plants to supply metal into the higher-priced western market. Aluminium was probably the biggest deal, and – as we all know – produced some of the most egregious violence as warring rivals struggled for control.

But as well as the headline-grabbing stuff, there were lots of other events, incidents, discoveries, that came out of that period in the 1990s. One such, for some unknown reason, recently came back into my mind, trivial though it is in contrast to the big picture.

It was a visit to Krasnoyarsk, in 1994 or 1995, when we had  – or thought we had – the opportunity to seal some major business with the people who at  that time ‘owned’ the aluminium smelter in that city. Maybe we did, but the problem in the end was that those ‘owners’ didn’t actually last very long, as events and stronger players fairly soon ousted them. 

(Now, just as an aside, this is my chance to say I disagree with Chekhov; I’m kind of equivocal about his plays, anyway – sometimes I like them, sometimes I don’t. But we don’t agree about Krasnoyarsk. He judged it to be the most beautiful city in Siberia; I judged it to be a fairly ugly industrial city, with, admittedly, some genuinely attractive architecture in the centre. Still, he probably had more Siberian cities to compare it with than I, so perhaps he was right.)

Well, after we’d been all around the smelter and told them how excited we were about the prospect of some of their three quarters of a million tonne annual capacity for our physical market colleagues, and the LME hedging for us; after we’d been to see the hydro dam on the Yenisei river; after we’d forced down identical-tasting fish or meat at lunches and dinners, accompanied by what seemed like enough vodka to drown a whale, they asked us if we would like to see the new aluminium rolling mill. Of course, we said. The more we knew about the place the better the relationship we would hope to develop.

So, into the cars we piled, and were driven to the far end of the smelter, where we went through some gates into another compound, with factory buildings stretching away from us. We were surprised at the silence when we got out of the cars. Rolling mills are normally quite noisy pieces of kit, but here all was calm and peaceful. One of the Russians opened the doors to the nearest shed, and there was the rolling mill. All packed in the crates in which it had been delivered. We kind of expressed surprise; after all, the way the suggestion had been made that we may like to see it had implied that this was a functioning part of the plant. Mmmm, said our hosts, it could be up and running really soon, if you just give – sorry, lend – us the money to get it going. Well, that was a stretch too far for us, although the next time I went there, a year or so later, I did take some bankers with me, whom we thought might like to finance some of the developments there. But that’s another story, and anyway was overtaken by events and changing ownership, which brought in a regime we weren’t really comfortable with. 

But there were two interesting things about those bits of machinery. First, they obviously weren’t that old; this stuff must have been delivered literally in the last knockings of the soviet period. That again brought home how abrupt that change of regime was. One day, new equipment delivered, ready to be installed and set in operation. The next, no money from the state any more, and harsh economic reality.

The other thing that piqued my interest was the name ‘Andritz’ stamped on some of the packing cases. Andritz is an Austrian company, based in Graz, which amongst other things builds rolling mills. In the 1970s (or maybe early 80s – I’m not sure) they took over a German company called Rheinische Walzmaschinen Fabrik, which lived in Cologne. The original owners of that company were friends of my German grandfather before the Second World War, and my father in the years after that. The son of the founder was a contemporary of my uncle, and he – the son, not my uncle – had a sort of claim to fame in the Second World War. He was a talented doctor of engineering, and was influential in the design of the – fortunately never acted upon – detailed German plan to blow the North Sea dykes and flood Holland as the war approached its end – I suppose a kind of inundated, rather than scorched, earth policy.  I should in fairness add that he visited our house many, many times when I was a child, and he was a delightful man, not some sort of ogre, as you would expect of a man who had planned in technical detail the way to destroy a country……. 

As I said, trivial, but I just found it strange to be reminded of that in the middle of Siberia, fifty years after the events – or, fortunately in this case, non-event. 

Now available in paperback!!! I’m pleased to say ‘Beyond Stalingrad’, a novel by Geoffrey Sambrook, is now published as a paperback, as well as a Kindle ebook download. Available from Amazon and other bookstores. 




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