With Anglo/Russian ‘relations’ very much in the news I have been reminded of my times in Russia in the early nineties. And what fun they were! The newly revamped Moscow airport – still a dark and foreboding place. Being met by someone with all the credentials of an ex KGB spy – arriving half an hour late as his soviet era car broke down on the way to pick me up.
In the summer of 1992 my phone rang in my London office and a very well spoken ‘American’ sounding gentleman announced that he was from the Russian Embassy. “Why me” I asked a few days later when we met in a cafe across the road from the Embassy. “You were in the London phone book” he replied ” And your office is just down the road from here.” Turns out the Russians were looking for a way to turn roubles into dollars and I had, what I thought, was the perfect answer. In the Cold War era the Russians had quite a reputation for building war machines in alloy or titanium. I figured these skills could be used to good effect to build large yachts utilising the inexpensive Russian workforce and taking advantage of the huge currency differential. Turned out they liked the idea so a visa was duly arranged and I was flown out to Moscow – British Airways! That first trip, I had no idea what to expect. I was told I would be completely taken care of, but what transpired was some adventure!
Vsevolod Kukushkin introduced himself to me at the airport, not as an ex soviet era spy, but as a journalist who had travelled the world specialising in covering the Olympic Games since 1960. He spoke impeccable English so, on the long drive to my ‘hotel’ through Moscow and out the other side down straight roads through dense forest, I got pretty much the whole story of a Russian citizen ‘enjoying’ the freedoms of the west through the times of the Cold War. My accommodation for the duration of the trip was the original ‘gated’ community – a sanatorium for worn out Soviet officials, my host informed me.
My self contained ‘apartment’ was nice enough. The listening devices had all been removed, there was loo paper (a serious black market luxury I was to find out later) and even a plug for the bath! In fairness to my hosts they had in fact gone to a lot of trouble. The fridge was stacked with ‘western’ food. But there was no phone and definitely no ‘coffee shop’. “Make yourself comfortable – we’ll be back in the morning” the enegmatic Kukushkin said closing the door! I drew a bath before turning in – the water was muddy brown.
Late the following morning we were on our way back into Moscow starting an eerie tour of massive Soviet factories. One such, over a mile long – empty apart from hundreds of workers doing nothing that only 18 months earlier had mighty TU22M Backfire nuclear bombers rolling out the front door.
Next on the agenda was very different. An aerospace company called NPO Energia, designers and manufacturers of Sputnik – the very first space vehicle launched in 1957. A replica launch rocket stood proudly outside the factory. Inside, Yuri Gulyants, chief of production, showed us around a teaming work place full of ‘space-ships’. The surprise was they were mostly being made for McDonald Douglas. Cheaper, I guessed , than building in the States, but the beginning of a huge satellite industry. They were too busy to build yachts so we moved on.
Gennady Levenets, production director, showed us around the Myasishchev Design Bureau. Again full of people, but devoid of work. They had, for years, been making the M4 nuclear bomber, known in Russia as the Hammer and by NATO as the Bison.
They seemed the perfect place to build high spec aluminium and titanium structures. Maxi yacht hulls would be easy! It was a strangely desperate place though. All home grown military spending had dried up and these giant factories were reduced to making prototype toasters and the like, in a vain attempt to compete commercially with Morphy Richards. I was proudly shown ‘advanced composite’ facilities. It was laughable.
I spent a couple more days enjoying the delights of the sanatorium waiting for the quotes to come through for the hull and deck structures from the plane makers. Well if they ever thought they were going to compete on the price of toasters they were way out on the maxi’s. Palmer Johnson in Wisconsin could build them for less, I told the bosses.
Still, all was not lost. On the fourth day I was introduced to the man bank rolling the project so far. Turned out we were neighbours in the sanatorium. His ‘apartment’ was in another nearby block, but he hadn’t wanted to meet me until I had been thoroughly checked out. Now I was made supremely welcome at a family dinner, cooked by his wife. Much alcohol flowed, but it was only a short walk ‘home’ for me, A short walk I made much later, but a great deal richer. After dinner we had ‘retired’ to the study. A large room with shelving all around. The shelves everywhere were stuffed full of bank notes. Stacks of currencies I could only guess at. The bundle I was given was US dollars. The total amount in the room was unimaginable. His words to me would take on a significant resonance in years to come: “There are three kinds of bankers. Honest bankers, rich bankers and dead bankers”.
Safely back in the UK I set about ‘earning’ my fee. Basically I was tasked to create a plan to promote Russian diplomacy and technology to the world. Simple then! A round the world yacht race in 20 Russian built One Design 70 footers seemed like a good starting point. The race would start in St Petersburg call in on 23 countries around the globe and end in the Black Sea at Odessa. I worked up a budget to complete the programme for $94,000,000.
Meanwhile back in Russia having given up the idea of using the aircraft manufacturers, Vsevolod Kukushkin sourced two shipbuilders for us to visit. In October 1993 we delivered the provisional drawings and specifications and signed build agreements with Peter Domnin of Sointel Shipyard and Alex Mokskin of Lotos Shipyard to licence the building of twenty 70 footers.
But then, predictably, things went quiet. It was, after all, a pretty ambitious project. Roll forward a couple of years and we received our third invitation and visa to develop what had now become known as the Gardarika Europe 2000 project.
October 22 1995 we duly signed an agreement with Dr Alexandr Makarov, President of the Russian Investing Finnancial Club. Interestingly enough the Russian Finnancial Club is operating today in the banking and investment business.
Whatever happened to the three hulls that were completed for Gardarika, I guess I will never know. They looked pretty good when I made my fourth and final visit to Russia, but no requests for gear, rig or sails was ever made so it seems unlikely that they ever hit the water, but you never know!
As to the investment? Well it wouldn’t surprise me to find that loads of money, maybe even 94 million, was raised on the back of the yacht race to promote Russian Diplomacy and Technology to the World! Made me think of all that money I had seen back at the Sanatorium some four years earlier. Investment in Russia seemed then, and does now, like a code for something else entirely. A lot of dead bankers could attest to that if they could!