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.


We’re getting a lot of information at the exhibition about Russian business practices – very useful for our future dealings:

* never quote your goods delivered to Moscow or other Russian destinations – there are 20 customs offices in Moscow alone, and which one will be responsible for clearing your particular shipment is anyone’s guess. Unwary sellers have had their cargo stuck in customs for months! Russian importers have people whose only task is to deal with the appropriate bureaucrat and smooth things along.

* Russian buyers in any case *want* to arrange their own transport. Somewhere along the road East, maybe in Belarus or Ukraine, the truck somehow “loses” the papers and new ones (with much lower declared values…) are “found”.

* The state refunds VAT to companies after *seven* years, if they’re lucky – so tax evasion becomes a business necessity!

Armed with this info, we revise our offers on the spot!

Play time after the show ends. We decide to travel by metro again. We take a different line today, the circular one which loops around the city centre, and change at Komsomolskaya station. This is a real jewel in the Moscow Metro crown: marble everywhere, chandeliers hanging from the ceilings, huge mosaics with revolutionary scenes: Lenin haranguing the masses, proletariat marching with red flags, muscular workers with hammers and sickles in hand. Russians may now be post-Communist, but it’s good that they aren’t reneging their past and destroying these former emblems of glory.

We meet up with our companions and stroll around Red Square again. It’s cold. An icy wind straight from Siberia cuts through our coats. A street seller discovers us and after some negotiation we buy five fur hats, and soon we are warm again!

On to tonight’s restaurant, Godunov, in Teatralnaya Square, on the opposite side to the Bolshoi theatre and next to the Metropol Hotel. This is decidedly an upmarket establishment: located in a former monastery, with thick, frescoed walls and large ceramic stoves in each room. The patrons are mostly tourists but also a few well-heeled Russians. The menu offers classic Russian food. After the obligatory shot of vodka, what better to start with than a mound of caviar accompanied by blinis (Russian pancakes) and smetana? Absolutely delicious! As a second course, my unadventurous companions order a steak, but I prefer the Beef Stroganoff, thinly sliced beef in a creamy sauce. This is served in a “bread pot”, a large round loaf cut in two and hollowed out. Nice to look at, but a bit dry when the meat is finished. I would have preferred a simple side of rice.

The meal is enlived half way through by a folk group with accordion, balalaika and dancing ladies in folk costumes. Not normally my taste, but they were good and the Japanese at the table next to ours loved it!

My dessert is a strawberry cake – excellent and beautifully decorated with spun caramel. The wine list at Godunov is extensive but pricey: we avoid the Georgian wine and go straight for the safer Italian offerings. A good meal, but expense accounts only!

Moscow Centre

Second exhibition day in Moscow. The show is busy and we have a brisk flow of visitors to our stand, most of whom speak nothing but Russian! This looks like being a good market – several large companies and prices at a decent enough level despite a strong Chinese presence (China gets tariff-free entry into Russia – preference for ex-Commie comrades!) We also meet a couple of potential distributors who could help us handle the smaller fry. These give us some instant analyses of the Russian market: it is said that 80% of business is done in the Moscow area, 10% around St. Petersburg and just 10% in the remainder of this vast country! Still, some of our visitors come from places out in the sticks: do Tatarstan and Ydmurtia sound exotic enough?

Evening arrives and the hungry exhibitors need sustenance: I select a restaurant near the centre of Moscow, a little way from the hotel. We haven’t yet been to the city centre, so we decide on a pre-dinner stroll, but take first the fabled Moscow Metro! The tickets cost a mere seven roubles (€ 0.20), allowing unlimited travel in the vast network. It is the Moscow rush hour, so we follow the crowds of people down fast-moving wooden escalators. Prospekt Mira station has lots of marble, and quaint Soviet hammer-and-sickle decoration. The metro trains themselves are clean, but somewhat elderly, rather resembling 1960s London Underground rolling stock. The metro map is clear and the cyrillic is transcribed in Latin characters, but station signs are few and far between, so counting the number of stops is a good idea! We get out three stops along at Kitai-Gorod, “Chinatown”. On the platform we are faced with a puzzle: there are several exits and all the signs are incomprehensible, which do we choose? We take our pick and inevitably it leads to the wrong side of the square. Never mind, it gives us a chance to look at the many trading stalls set up in the station, selling everything from electronics to piles of onions!

A few minutes walk in the streets lined with classical architecture buildings (ministries?) and we then find ourselves in Krasnaya Ploschhad – aka Red Square! The nerve-centre of Russia is a vast rectangular area, bordered by the Kremlin walls and the GUM department store on the long ends, and the many multi-coloured domes of St. Basil’s church and the National History Museum on the short ends. The night time illumination makes the square even more imposing. I can well imagine the empty platforms flanking Lenin’s mausoleum filling up with Soviet grandees to watch the October Revolution parades as in the old newsreels!

We go round the lofty Kremlin walls along the gardens, and pass by the Imperial Riding School – the Manezh – that was badly damaged in a fire just a couple of days ago. The smell of smoke still hangs in the air and firemen are still shoring up the walls of the building. Moscow gossip has it that the fire was started deliberately so as to redevelop the place with an underground carpark and shopping centre! Naturally the owners, Moscow city council, deny any such project…

We soon arrive at this evening’s restaurant: Karetny Dvor at 52 ulitsa Povarskaya. This is an Azerbaijani restaurant, with several small rooms and decorated with hanging plants. Fortunately the menu is partly in English and the waiter is a cheerful chap, so our order gets through quickly. Azeri cooking, as the language, has strong Turkish influences – lots of starters, green salads, cucumbers, aubergines and mixed kebabs to follow. Two unusual dishes stand out: a kind of ravioli with a vegetable filling, and satsivi, chicken breast marinated in a creamy garlic sauce. My companions are not too fond of exotic food, so we did not order the mutton testicles grilled on the spit… To drink, we try a bottle of Georgian red wine, supposedly the best available, but gag on the rough, acid taste! Next come a few excellent Baltika beers, but the best of all to accompany this meal is a bottle of Russky Standard vodka! Goes very smoothly down the throat! To round the evening off, a couple of baklava sweets. Recommended!

Moscow exhibition

First exhibition day in Moscow: after a Pythonesque interlude when our stand was occupied by a squad of workmen wanting to add extra letters to our company name on the fascia, we are ready to go! I am pleasantly surprised by the quality of the show: stands both large and small are obviously designed with care and some attention to effective presentation – well up to so-called “Western” standards. The visitors too are mostly professional, many technically well prepared. Curiously, there are also elderly ladies with woolly hats and string bags, who go round collecting samples of any kind.

In the spare moments we can observe the latest Russian fashions: black leather jackets are all the rage for men, whilst women range from the miniskirted with very high heels (I wonder how they walk in the slush outside…) to the downright dumpy. Whilst I manage to pick up the basic Russian words: spasibo, zdrastujte, da, nyet, voda, pivo, vodka, I still have difficulty in interpreting the cyrillic signs. An interpreter is absolutely essential here as very few Russians appear to speak any other language than their own, and even the business cards are only in cyrillic! Fortunately Tanya, our interpreter, is an efficient, dynamic lady who picks up the basics of our products quickly and we get a lot of visitors. I wonder how we will manage to pursue the contacts we are making here!

In the evening, the fair organisers have organised an reception for the exhibitors. It is held in a former Imperial Army officers’ club not far from the exhibition. It has a large ballroom, very grand, all columns and chandeliers. Here I take part in a very strange buffet: there are a dozen lines of long tables, with everyone standing still, no milling about, no socialising apart with your immediate neighbours, and everyone just eating from what was placed in front. We found this all very odd and odder still that people glared at us if we helped ourselves with food from other tables! A major breach of Russian etiquette? Would we have been drummed out of the regiment in Imperial days? The questions remain unanswered, but being a roving gastronaut I have to sample the dishes: excellent sandwiches with smoked salmon, sturgeon and red caviar, assorted pickled vegetables, large mushroom vol-au-vents, little bread rolls stuffed with a spicy mincemeat, fresh fruit. The locals concentrated on the plentiful alcoholic offerings: rather than the horrible red Georgian wine, or an insipid French white vin de table on offer, the vodka was much nicer! Proceedings are enlivened by a Russian rock n’roll band that at last encourages the people to move away from the vodka and onto the dance floor!

Soon after we stroll back to the hotel passing through a small park. It is spring time, which here means above zero by day, but still well below freezing at night. The lake in the middle of the park is frozen solid, but some hardy souls have made a hole in the ice with some steps leading into the water, so as to “enjoy” an invigorating swim! Supposedly very tonic for the circulation. Methinks a gin and tonic works better…

Moscow arrival

I must confess I am not an early riser. Particularly not at 4:45 on a Sunday morning. But rise I must, as I have a 7:30 flight out from Venice – and after the initial sleepiness, I move with a certain spring in the step as my destination of today is Moscow, Russia – a city and a country I have never visited. Even the jaded international traveller has a frisson of excitement at the prospect of an unknown destination!

The early flight to Moscow goes via Vienna with Austrian, undoubtedly a softer approach than the direct Aeroflot flight, and the timing is more convenient… The view out of the window on approach to Moscow is of snowy forests with large white plains. As we descend, I notice that the plains are in fact frozen lakes and rivers, with large boats solidly iced in. March in Russia is evidently still a cold month!

Arrival in Sheremeteyevo airport. What do I expect? A drab concrete Soviet era building and surly officials poking through my bags. What do I get? A drab concrete Soviet era building, lots of glaring fuorescent lights, but the immigration is quick, the suitcases are waiting for me at the concourse, and the customs official barely glance at me before waving me through! Our hired driver is waiting for me outside, and soon we are off to the city. Faster in-and-out than any other major airport I have visited!

We spend much of remaining afternoon at the fair where we are exhibiting, conveniently right next to the hotel. The cyrillic signage leaves me baffled, and at first we cannot located the fair organisers’ office, but some waving of papers gets the message through and we manage to get the necessary badges. I am glad we will have an interpreter with us the next few days!