Those were the days my friend – Moscow 1993


We travel in silence but there is growing tension and Volodya, friend and driver for 4 years can no longer hold his peace. Volodya had recently moved with me when I left my job at an engineering JV to join what is planned to be the largest foreign sponsored construction project in the newly independent Russia, a pipeline around the north of the Caspian to take oil from Kazakhstan for international export from the Russian Black Sea coast. “I just don’t understand why you do not try the treatment! We use it all the time and we are never sick” said Volodya, crossing himself and touching the St. Christopher medal stuck to the dashboard just in case. I had a cold and a persistent cough and the treatment he was referring to would require my presence at his dacha, banya to be precise, to be partly steamed before having badger fat rubbed into me by his Father in Law. If that were not enough there was also a need to drink some concoction made from the fat, mixed with liberal portions of vodka no doubt. In my time in Russia, I had learned that every driver worth his salt is a walking encyclopaedia of home remedies. Paracetomol and antibiotics are for wimps.

We were on our way from our new offices in the Radisson Slavyanskaya to a meeting at the Ministry for Oil opposite the Kremlin, with Transneft to be precise. Transneft was a division of the Ministry responsible for the nation’s trunk pipeline system transferring the oil from the producer companies in the regions to the nation’s oil refineries in the industrial heartland, and export terminals on its southern and northern coasts. Transneft also pumped oil all the way into the centre of Europe to refineries in Czechoslovakia, Germany and Poland along what was ubiquitously known as the Druzhba or ‘friendship’ pipeline, a cornerstone of the now defunct ‘Comecon’ trading block. Our role was to plan, finance and obtain approval to construct a new privately owned and operated export pipeline from a major new oilfield in Kazakhstan using a partly-built but unfinished system and rebuilding and completing the rest of the line to the Black Sea Coast somewhere near the port of Novorossiyisk. The project was founded under an Intergovernmental Agreement which had recently been ratified by the Russian Parliament. Transneft were to be our partner in the day to day planning and development representing the Russian State’s interest.

It was definitely a time that the optimists would describe as ripe with opportunity. The President was at odds with the Russian Parliament who had threatened to impeach him. One of his compromises, the previous December, had been to appoint Victor Chernomyrdin, the then head of the state gas company Gazprom, as Prime Minister, for many an unlikely choice but at least a man with in depth knowledge of the problems within industry.

Our meeting that day took on the appearance of the Presidential negotiations, or so it felt. We walked into the building with spirits high from the recent ratification eager to meet our Transneft counterparts and begin work in earnest. After all, were we not bringing the opportunity of western investment, planning and technology exchange at a time when Russia most needed it? We had not calculated for their notorious general director however, who proceeded for the first hour to spray us with invective making it abundantly clear that irrespective of the terms of the treaty governing the project, any venture that he participated in would be run by him, and he did not care where the money was coming from; we were in Russia and would march to his tune. As we left I did my best to be positive and mumbled my thanks in Russian as we retreated from his office, much to his surprise and my colleagues concern. Apparently my attempts at a positive Russian farewell had come out as “kiss my big one” or similar.

So it went through the year, we battled on with Transneft which like many so Russian organisations had excellent specialists and managers within their ranks all wanting a successful outcome but were curtailed by their management, as Yeltsin battled parliament.

Yeltsin won the day yet again, promising fresh elections for the following year. More importantly Russia received her new Constitution on 12.12.1993. We carried on working on our project.