Krasnodar 1994


The day had started well. Volodya had taken me early to Vnukovo airport and I had flown to Krasnodar. Gone were the Intourist days when foreigners were afforded the luxury of separate check in and lounges in return for the privilege of paying in hard currency, and I had joined the jostling crowds trying to get through the rudimentary security before seeking the check in desk. Passengers cursed the newly installed security screening, convinced it was just one more way by which the authorities could check on their goods and domestic trade, electrical goods out from Moscow, fresh fruit and vegetables into Moscow. There was, however, a very real reason for the screening. Vnukovo was the main airport for southern Russia and the Caucuses, and recently there had been a considerable escalation in tension between Moscow and the autonomous areas of Ingushetia and Chechnya. Chechnya in particular, lead by an ex-soviet pilot general that had served with distinction in the Afghan war, was calling for separatism hoping to follow in the wake of the Baltic States.

We had landed on time in the sunshine at Krasnodar, capital city of the Krai (area) of the same name. The contrast with Moscow was enormous. A massive airfield littered with aircraft, both military and civil in various states of decay and row after row of ancient bi-planes used annually for crop spraying interspersed with the odd helicopter. The main airport building was white and crumbling, reminders of Lenin at every turn and packed with eager relatives and hopeful would be taxi drivers. The biggest contrasts with Moscow though were the clear blue skies, a spring temperature ten degrees warmer and air that was clean and a pleasure to breathe. I had a good feeling about Krasnodar, my new project and the day ahead.

Krasnodar Krai is special to Russia and to Russians. Bordered by open plains to the north and east, to the south it is bounded by the magnificent Caucus Mountains reaching as far down as Sochi and inland to the Karachay-Cherkess Republic border. To the west it is open to the Black Sea and possesses Russia’s only warm water ice-free port; Novorossiyisk. Various holiday resorts are dotted along the coast, which make up much of what was the Soviet’s summer playground, company sanatoria providing relief from the northern winters. The Krai is also home to the famous ‘black earth’, soil massively rich in nutrients that supports the growth of much of Russia’s wheat production, along with the Kuban Cossacks and their legendary choir.

Met by our local office manager, the bi-lingual Kristina, we drove for 2 hours to Novorossiyisk, Russia’s main southern port. In addition to dry cargo and terminals for ferries from Turkey and Bulgaria, to the south of the town is the oil port of Sheskaris, owned and operated by Transneft who were encouraging our new pipeline venture to place our planned oil loading terminal alongside their facilities. The purpose of my visit that day was to survey from a distance the layout of Sheskaris, its size, disposition, weather, vulnerability and space for expansion. As an engineer it was a part of my work that I greatly enjoyed and the best way to view the location would be to head up into the hills above the town. We drove around the cargo port and past the monuments to the Great Patriotic War, this is a Hero City where Brezhnev had made his reputation as a resistance fighter, and climbed past the cement works towards the crest of the hills. From the top we had an excellent view of the ports, their harbours and the shipping lanes and approaches. After careful note making and photo taking we decided to drive over the hill and down past Grushevaya, the location of Transneft’s tank farm from where crude oil is loaded out to waiting oil tankers. From there we could return via back roads to Krasnodar.

As we wound down the hill, a Lada overtook us with wheels squealing as he went into the next bend. The driver of our Land Cruiser muttered something in Russian, which drew looks from Kristina who was explaining the ancient history of the region, the influences of the Scythians and more latterly the Greeks and Armenians, and the fact that there is a natural spring lower in the valley the waters of which are attributed with healing properties. We had weaved down another kilometre when we came upon the Lada firmly embedded in the roadside Armco barrier. The barrier had done its job preventing the car from descending into a gully many metres below but in the process the driver, unrestrained by his seat belt, had put his head through the windscreen which had shattered. I switched off the car’s ignition and checked, he appeared to be conscious. We had no mobile back then so I told Kristina to drive to the Grushevaya terminal and to phone for an ambulance while I waited with the man. She objected. She knew that the terminal was on security alert because of the events in Grozny and even if she could get past the security uninvited and get access to a phone what ambulance service did I think she could access?

The injured driver was becoming agitated. He was clearly in great pain, and appeared to have damaged his knee, which was leaking blood and fluid but my concern was for his eyes, which had slammed into the ridge of the remaining windscreen. The left was open but cloudy and granules of glass protruded from it, the right was closed although glass poked between the lids and a trickle of blood ran down his cheek. We cleared the back of the Cruiser and gently laid him on his side. Twice he struck out in a mixture of anger, fear and confusion much of which stemmed from his inability to see. We spoke reassuringly to him that he would be OK; that he had dirt in his eyes and that they needed to be washed and drove to the Seaman’s hospital back in Novorossiyisk. On arrival I was dismayed by what I saw in the emergency area. More decay, examination rooms with tiles missing from the walls and floors, buckets in corners with used dressings, and a general lack of cleanliness. A cat curled asleep on a chair. Kristina assured me this was the nearest and probably best hospital in the area while we struggled to raise the level of urgency among the staff. After what seemed an age convincing them that we had not been the cause of the accident a doctor appeared, looked at the injured driver and gave instructions for him to be carried inside. On searching his pockets the driver only had one hundred and fifty roubles and we were informed that would not be enough to cover the fees and medications that he would require. Clearly if we were going to leave them with the problem of treating this man they would need more money, an unsympathetic administrator explained. I left with them two hundred dollars and all the feelings of wellbeing that I had enjoyed earlier that day. Kristina scribbled out our office details and asked that they let us know his progress. We never heard from them or the driver again.

I flew back to Moscow that night feeling hollow with the realisation of my own vulnerability and how little compassion had been on display at the hospital. Even Moscow now felt safe compared to the treatment available in the regions. From then on, safety in the work place and the community took on a whole new meaning for me.