Russia – You Can Check in but Not Many Check Out

I’m continually amazed at the naiveté of most Americans about Russia.  I spent four years living and working in the Russian FarEast (where we could see Alaska and, presumably, Sarah Palin).  First in Vladivostok (home to the Russian Pacific Fleet) and then a bit north in Khabarovsk (home to headquarters for the Far Eastern Military District).

Russian connections

It’s a long story but I was fortunate to be there during a particularly historic time – shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  It’s hard to believe it was 26 years ago when Yeltsin stood on a tank and defied a military coup. A remarkable turn of events in light of the previous 75 years of totalitarianism.

As a typical American and survivor of the ‘Cold War’, I was thrilled to welcome Russia to the democratic fold.  As well as to acquaint them with capitalism.  We were ready to teach them a thing or two about making money.

It took all of us (or at least those who remained from the original 100 volunteers after a year), to realize that they didn’t want our advice.  The command economy was firmly entrenched after 75 years and no one was bucking the system.  In fact, the most financially successful Russians learned to profit from it.

A case in point:  my American partner and I tried mightily to find solid business opportunities in the Russian FarEast.  A South Korean acquaintance happen to point out that the materials used in the production of cable insulation in Russia was carcinogenic.  Furthermore, it was much more expensive.

We immediately scheduled a meeting with the ‘CEO’ (the plant had recently been ‘privatized’ and shares were reportedly owned by the workers).  We spent three months researching and talking with engineers, line workers, and anyone else connected with the process.   We even arranged for a shipment of the latest South Korean substitute to be used in their manufacturing.

Their response was unsettling – they preferred their own brand (shipped from Novosibirsk) because it did not produce an odor.  We were astounded.  There was scientific proof of its harmful effects (no other country in the world used this compound – it was, in effect, banned)  and it was exorbitant in comparison to the South Korean alternative.   One day, we were pulled aside by the Chief Engineer who wanted to meet with us at a local hotel.  Of course, there was a small payment involved.

The answer was so Russian – the son-in-law of the Director was one of the key suppliers in the country.  No amount of rational argument would have swayed his father-in-law to do what was best for his workers. Both the kickbacks and, presumably, his daughter’s economic well-fare were at stake.

So, after 3 months of negotiations, we were privy to the mystery – that is, self-interest.  And, that is what drives Russian business decisions to this day.  A tangled web of wannabe oligarchs who depend upon the well compensated tax authorities as well as their equally enriched contacts in the FSB (the latest version of the KGB).

This cabal of tangled contacts enjoys a long institutional memory.  A foreign investor may succeed or fail but their ‘dossier’ will endure.  Like the Roach Motel, they may check in – but they rarely check out.  Trump’s inner circle should take note.



Please, the Russian Ambassador is not a spy?

I lived and worked in Russia from 1992 – 1996 – perhaps the most promising time

Symbol of the Former Soviet Union (FSU

for a real ‘reset’ and from everything I’ve read since then (which is a ton), the situation has devolved steadily.

Even then, however, just about everyone  was a spy of some sort. Nothing of the ‘James Bond’ caliber, of course, but I can tell you (this was in FarEast Russia – bordering Siberia) that KGB officers were directly involved in the mafia.  In fact, I met one at a client’s office who was literally waiting for his extortion money.

A charming individual who spoke perfect English (not easy for a Russian), he invited me to dinner and gave me his card:  Colonel XXXXX,  CEO, XXX ‘Security Services’.  I was astounded. He was obviously very well connected and in the ‘know’.

So, no, it is not possible for an ambassador of Russia to NOT be an intelligence gatherer. Everyone with any power is expected to report to the powers-that-be.

‘Former US diplomats say Kislyak’s forte was arms control — a specialism he pursued after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was Russia’s ambassador to NATO between 1998 and 2003. As Deputy Foreign Minister a decade ago, he led the Russian side in talks with the US on extending and amending arms control agreements, and showed a detailed grasp of the technicalities, according to experts in the field.’

No one in Russia could understand the complexities of arms control agreements without access to intelligence agencies.

CNN continues: ‘Kislyak has been Ambassador in Washington for nine years — an unusually long spell.’

Translation:  He works for Putin and I wouldn’t want to be him if he does NOT provide intelligence.


Siberia Discovered Uber Before Uber

Moscow Gets First Big Carsharing System to Tackle Traffic Jams

By Anastasia Bazenkova, Moscow Times
Sep. 16 2015 19:40
Last edited 19:41

“A government-backed carsharing service launched in Moscow last week in the latest effort by City Hall to ease the capital’s (sic) infamous traffic jams.  Each carsharing vehicle can replace 10 private cars, according to Sobyanin . . .”

I found this ‘announcement’ from Moscow interesting.  Living in Siberia in the mid 90’s, it was common practice to flag down citizens for a ride.  Certainly, there was no such thing as a taxi service anywhere in the Russian Far East.

In the beginning, it was a painful experience – my unintelligible Russian exacerbated my limited navigational skills and I often found myself walking to my final destination from parts unknown.  Thank goodness the Russians built their dwellings up – that is, cities rarely sprawled beyond tight concentric circles radiating from the center.

Nonetheless, much of my cultural education was formed by the sometimes absurd conversations (no doubt, peppered with mutual non sequiturs) with these random citizens.

Some were delighted to meet an American – others – not so much. But, in typical Russian fashion, they were all eager to share their opinions about the U.S.  of A.

The ruble was fluctuating so wildly at the time (1992 – the year after the collapse of the Soviet Union) that I always paid a multiple of the price of a pack of cigarettes – depending upon the distance.  I couldn’t keep up with the currency rate but I always knew how much the street demanded for a pack of ‘Mores’.

Ukranian Crisis Not the Same as Cold War – Austin American-Statesman

Posted: 10:28 a.m. Friday, March 28, 2014

By Julie Barnes – Special to the American-Statesman


I lived in Siberia for four years shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Until that time, my feelings and perceptions of the Russian people were vaguely neutral — I respected them as fellow human beings and lamented their fates as prisoners of a repressive government.

Ironically, as the daughter of a fighter pilot, their government’s actions had shadowed my father’s career — first in France and Germany as the Berlin Wall went up, then in Alabama during the Cuban Missile Crisis and finally, in Vietnam, where he flew 100 missions over Saigon. The Cold War was a very real specter throughout our lives.

When I arrived in Vladivostok in November 1992, I was stunned . This could not possibly be the country that the Western world feared for more than 75 years. The city was in shambles. The endless rows of crumbling apartment buildings perched on the hills of the Russian “San Francisco” were shrouded by massive clouds of steam escaping from gaping holes on the road.

This was the “evil empire”? After catching my breath, I realized that it could not have been any other way. Communism, as interpreted by the Soviet Union, was a dead end — and it showed. The Russian people were profoundly dispirited — even the surrealistic lives they led in a totally dysfunctional political and economic environment were gone.

I witnessed retired engineers and professors rummaging through dumpsters to find plastic bags to wash and sell at the central market. Babushkas (grandmothers) sported casts on their arms and legs because the perennial icy streets were not swept. It was a human tragedy of epic proportions. In Moscow, babushkas were being murdered for their apartments. Chaos reigned. Greed reigned. Try to imagine if the U.S. government suddenly shut down — for real.

On the last New Year’s Eve of the 20th century, Boris Yeltsin, visibly exhausted from his turn at bat in the wild and woolly Russian political landscape, sat before the nation in a televised address and announced his successor, Vladimir Putin.

A KGB functionary who never saw any action when he served, Putin materialized from nowhere. In fact, he was such an unknown that he immediately hired several writers to hurriedly create his biography. It was published two months later, a testament to the depth of both the book and its subject.

He was chosen for a very specific purpose: to protect Yeltsin and his family from political enemies in his remaining years. As a bonus, Putin’s physicality and European suits represented a stark contrast to the aging, overweight Communist Party leaders who haunted the Kremlin. He was a one-dimensional man without history who would be made emperor.

He did not and does not have a clue about how to run a country except to follow in the path of previous dictators and to bluster — a lot. Oh, and to become so fabulously wealthy that he can build a compound on the Black Sea featuring an Italianate palace of tens of thousands of square meters with casino, winter theater, summer amphitheatre, church, swimming pools, sports grounds, heliports, landscaped parks, teahouses and staff apartments.

Many influential Americans ascribe a chess master mentality to Putin — a strategist of the highest order. Nothing could be farther from the truth. He is on autopilot, aping the same old posturing tactics of his predecessors, bolstered by an oil-rich economy.

So when I first heard about the Ukrainian crisis, I instantly recognized that the absorption of the Crimean Peninsula was a fait accompli.

Why is Putin so hell-bent on keeping the Crimean Peninsula?

National pride. For more than 200 years, the base at Sevastopol has been home to the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Navy. As their only viable warm water port in a country that is land-locked most of the year, it has played a vital and historic security interest. As Americans surrounded by friendly countries and two vast oceans, we struggle to understand its impact on the Russian psyche. Just to test your knee-jerk reaction, how about giving up Galveston to Mexico? Thought so.

Most denizens of the peninsula, both Ukrainian and Russian, remember when everyone was a citizen of the former Soviet Union, so it doesn’t exactly feel like barbarians at the door. Putin risked some international condemnation but rightly concluded that European dependence on Russian oil would cripple any U.S. efforts to stoke any real resistance.

There are several Russian political “experts” here in the U.S. who are melodramatically summoning the ghosts of crises past — the Cold War. I suppose it sells papers and conveniently telegraphs a well-digested sentiment, but I witnessed the Cold War, and this is not it. They are wrong.

The only sensible alternative is to study the Russian political environment today. Putin isn’t Stalin; Russia isn’t evil; and the U.S. isn’t saintly. Let’s recognize the complex nature of our relationship with Russia for what it is in 2014 and act accordingly.

Barnes is an Austin writer and blogs at