My Life 5.1

 St Petersburg and Poland




On my first visit to Russia, we flew from Helsinki into Petersburg. At the time, you had to say how long you were staying – it was difficult to stay an extra night as it could mean trouble. As the Aeroflot flight landed, all the backs of the empty seats slammed down as the airplane braked.

 Walking down the street in St. Petersburg through the iced snow, the first thing I noticed was that the gutter downspouts ended about waist height, and were about 8 inches in diameter. I made a note not to walk here in a thaw!

 One of the main problems was that the two ‘sides’ in our consortium, the Finnish leader and the Russians, could never trust each other. It was like seeing two people with a force-field between them, hands inches apart, wanting to shake hands, logically knowing they wanted a deal, but emotionally freezing at the critical moment. Behind the Finns were the Swedes, who did not want to get involved in ‘trouble’, and the Norwegians, who given a chance would have ‘had a go’ at them!  My single virtue was I was English. I was trusted by my guys, and the representative from the Russian side was a kind, gentle man, first jumpy and aggressive with the Finn, but who listened to me and saw logic. We immediately became pals! Later, and after we’d won the deal, at a big dinner in St Petersburg, he gave a lavish speech, praising me to the skies. “When ‘Djhon’ walked in the door” he wavered, hanging on to his glass, “I knew everything would be alright!” Praise indeed! Except his alcoholic boss tried to kiss me (on the lips – they do that!). Russians are lavish with vodka and champagne, and after that, with praise. I had to get up, in turn and tell them that these were the happiest days of my life and now, all my dreams were fulfilled! They loved it as they slumped in their seats. But I did genuinely like and respect them. And my friend became MD of the joint company – I met him a few years later while on another project.

 Drinking tea in our partner’s head office, the girl who brought it was introduced to us. We all smiled and nodded. “Katya used to be the KGB agent here” One of them said. She smiled and bobbed her head. We smiled.

 Toilets! Oh god! Filthy, some stumps of pipes hammered closed. No paper, ever. (It reminded me of a visit to Prague, the ‘International Conference Centre’ a massive place, lovely, quite plush, good media facilities. NO paper in the bogs!)

 We did OK, good meeting! We crammed into a high-wheeled van with bench seats to get to the airport. The Finnish guy had bought some beer from a pavement merchant, and we toasted the embryo deal as I looked forward to Helsinki and the comfort of the SAS Royal.


I had been in Bonn on German reunification day. My German colleague and I wandered the streets, beer glasses in hand amongst the crowds. (I still have the glass).  We could not get into the square, where a choir was singing the European anthem. At midnight, massive fireworks fell from the sky! And the bells! They did not ring. My colleague told me that the City Council had had a big debate about whether they were allowed legally to ring the bells or not. There was no precedent, and as they were not sure what to do, they decided not to, in case it was illegal. Unlike Britain, where if the law doesn’t say you can’t, you can, in Germany the law tells you what you can do. If it doesn’t specifically say you can, then don’t! “What would you do in England?” My German colleague asked. “Rung the bloody bells!” I said. He nodded, thoughtfully.

 Sadly, in later years I saw many instances of Germans treating their ‘new brothers’ the ‘Osters’ in a way which indicated clearly that they were second-class citizens.


My first visit to the former Soviet Empire was to Poland. We were cooperating with the Swedes and my counterpart, Bo, said “You must come to Warsaw!” I had no visa, but it was rumoured you could buy one on arrival. Poles are mad entrepreneurs – more in common with the French than the slower, Germanic, Hungarians and Czechs. We flew in from Sweden. I was prepared to be turned away. But no! A burly uniformed officer, obviously unaccustomed to ‘customer service’ was treating us with kid gloves, like a big bruiser handling delicate china. Yes, I could get a visa here, but it would cost me money! After some discussion, I handed over one US dollar. Back came a visa stamp, and a great handful of tattered zloty notes (change). Three years later, the visa cost fourteen dollars.

 In the taxi, we had to multiply the meter by ten, or twenty, or something. It was nothing. We talked to the driver. “What’s the main difference now?” We asked. The taxi driver chuckled. “The Police are very polite!” He said.

 In Warsaw, the pavements were lined with wooden supports, holding up a roof of planks. This was because the facades of the buildings were crumbling, and stone was falling on the pavement below. Sections of the underpasses were blocked off because they were unstable. The liveliest shop on the block was a bookshop – crammed! People pushing in and scrambling for books. Money changers stood on the corners, wanting dollars.

 The first time I arrived, the airport was an old grey, concrete building, through which we walked with soldiers on guard. Outside was a triangle of mud, the car park. Signs on stalks declared notices in Russian, in red. In later years, there was a slightly more modern building. Suddenly, they had an ‘executive lounge’! Two lovely, smart young girls would take your coat, get you a drink. When the phone rang, they both giggled and tried to get each other to pick it up, like schoolgirls. That was an early period of naivety and delight with new things and a new life. They ‘got wise’ pretty quick and not more than five years later, I was sitting in a sleek modern international airport building and with a massive car park. .   

 The main railway station in the centre of Warsaw was underground – a wise precaution in the winter. It was impressive. Great trains slid into the platforms. I peeked in a window. Plush, comfortable seats, each seat back with the Coat of Arms of the Polish Railways embroidered in it. Eat your heart out, British rail travellers!

 I wanted to see the countryside, so we took a taxi for the day. The driver was a university professor, who also had a cleaning job. He pointed out his house to us – a fine old building near the centre of Warsaw, standing out from the modern construction.  We drove to Radom, 100 miles south. It was interesting to see a small town, and we were the only foreigners. We stood out uncomfortably in business suits. We stopped and bought an ice-cream, our taxi driver helping. As opposed to the locals, who were getting one ball of ice-cream, we got three, piled high! It was embarrassing. I tried to eat it quickly, to get rid of it. I thought of dropping it in the gutter, but felt I could not waste it conspicuously like that. It was freezing. I didn’t enjoy it at all.

 On the way back, passing through the acid-rained forests with bare tops, we stopped to eat. It was like a dance hall. Like much of the Soviet Union, everything seemed to have stopped in the fifties. It was all plywood, with varnish flaking off and black stains where damp had got in. The food was some kind of meat stew, with instant mash potatoes and some canned mixed vegetables. It cost almost nothing. But we each had a nice beer with it.

 Talking of plywood, I used to fly Aeroflot First Class. The stewardesses were prettier and the food and wine were better. But when I folded my seat table down, it was plywood, with two little wings on chrome hinges to extend the width, like a schoolboy would make in woodwork – and!  the varnish was flaking – and! there were dark water stains under the edges.

I knew civilisation had arrived when in the early nineties, I got to my room in the Marriot in Warsaw, looked out and saw a gigantic Ikea sign, just down from the station, where there had previously been disused factories. Looking down, I was used to seeing a familiar office building, apparently with snazzy modern bronzed windows. Close by, a factory chimney billowed out yellow smoke. By 1995, the factory had gone, and the building cleaned. No, the windows were not bronzed, they were just ordinary windows, now clean.


back to list