Ukrainian rocket fuel

Last exhibition day in Moscow – it’s a slow one, enlivened by old babuschkas with string bags prowling the stands hoping for some give away or cheap merchandise. We have nothing to give away, but some Russian stands have queues of people snaffling the products, presumably for resale in the metro stations! The show is supposed to close at four, but dismantling is well under way at three pm.

We had a lot of interesting visitors over the show, and one of them in particular is a serious prospect. The buyer invites us to visit his company after the show and we jump at the opportunity. This is apparently a big detergent manufacturer privatised a few years ago, well known brand name, glossy brochure, sales all over Russia. Presumably then we will see a modern, efficient organisation? Reality is somewhat different…

As we arrive at the factory, we notice it is plonked in the middle of the housing complex. OK, detergent manufacture is not a petrochemicals plant, but not really the sort of thing you want cheek-by-jowl to your house! The main feature of the drab entrance is the guard and a massive steel turnstile gate. Is this maybe an ex-prison? The purchasing department is up six flights of stairs. No lift. As we go up, I can’t help but notice the electric wiring festooned along the ceiling. We then make some small talk with the purchasing manager but soon discover that the real decision maker is the MD who will meet us at dinner later. So we are taken on a factory tour, and here I have the feeling of stepping back 50 years in time. The factory is a series of buildings grouped around an unpaved courtyard: big lorries move back and forth churning up the melting snow into a muddy slush. We enter the raw materials store: piles of assorted powders on a concrete floor, pallets of carton boxes stored exposed to the elements with just a sheet of plastic to protect them, open barrels of solvents, with a guy smoking nearby??! We hurry on to the powder packaging department. Here things look better: two Italian-made filling lines whizz along, filling detergent powder in carton boxes. It could even be efficient, if only there were not a squad of ladies at the end, manually glueing the cartons closed, with a pot of glue and a brush! We move to the liquid filling area: oven cleaner flows from a spigot, one lady fills plastic bottles with her bare hands, three ladies stick on labels, still by hand!

This display of modern Russian industry leaves us somewhat dazed, so we decide to continue our discussions in the restaurant booked by our hosts. We drive in the company Lada to a local Ukrainian restaurant, part of a chain called Tarasbulba named after a Cossack medieval chieftain. The place is styled after a “traditional Ukrainian house” with farm implements hanging on the whitewashed walls and waiters in gaudy costumes. Whilst we wait for the MD to arrive, we begin our meal with a few starters: pickled vegetables, pickled garlic, pickles rolled up in lard, lard slices and pickled cucumbers. As you can imagine, Ukrainians seem to like lard and pickles!! Then a bowl of Borsch, the famous “Russian” beetroot soup that is actually an import from Ukraine. This was warming and hearty, especially as there was yet more lard within (!), and little yeast fritters.

At this point the MD hurries in. After the first greetings, he has the waiter bring our drinks, what else but Ukrainian vodka, known as gorilka! A toast is called for, we raise our glasses, I pour the liquid down my throat in the customary way, then… KABOOOOM! Now, I’ve had my share of strong drinks and can usually imbibe with a certain confidence… but this gorilka is enough to launch a Soyuz rocket into the stratosphere! For the stuff is not only alcoholic, but is steeped in red peppers and honey “for extra flavour”!!!

A pause of a couple of minutes whilst I regain my breath and wipe away the tears welling in my eyes, then we resume our business discussions. The debate centres not on the price of the product, but on the payment terms: the guy wants credit, but, despite the gorilka, my wits are still with me, and I want to see the colour of his money first. The argument rolls on for several minutes, but he is no position to argue – in the end he concedes on advance payment for first order and a vague promise on future credit for the following ones.

Unfortunately, the second course was served in the midst of the animated discussion, so my rabbit stew with garlic was rather congealed, but tasted nice! Another toast to future cooperation, this time with “standard” vodka (!) rounded off the meal.

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