18/07/2013, by CLAS

More Windows on Russia and Eastern Europe

In our latest sneak peek of the forthcoming book ‘Windows on Russia and Eastern Europe’, written by Nottingham alumni, we hear from Daniel Vowles, who worked in the Soviet Union at the fall of the Berlin Wall. Doing business was chaotic to say the least… 

My next “dream” posting was to Kaliningrad. I have to admit that even after studying Russian for five years at school and four years at university, I couldn’t find Kaliningrad on the map. I found Kalinin, but no Kaliningrad. The reason is that Kaliningrad is separated from the rest of Russia by Lithuania and Belarus, so it’s a bit like having the county of Somerset on the other side of Berlin. The Russians won’t let it go and the unfortunate population that live there are rather cut off from everywhere. They can’t leave Kaliningrad for Western Europe without a visa and to go anywhere else in Russia they need to take a plane.

The upside was that this created quite a few trading opportunities. My job, for the same UK company, was to try to interest the Kaliningrad shops in British products. For a month or so, I walked the streets of Kaliningrad compiling a list of the products that were missing from the marketplace, such as Cornflakes, Pedigree Chum and non-drip paint, to name a few I remember. I would discuss ideas with my Russian partner, ex-navy, now capitalist, who worked out of an office at the back of the almost derelict Kaliningradvagonzavod which, in better times, had been one of the Soviet Union’s prime rolling stock manufacturers. We agreed on the products and asked the UK to send us a 20-tonne lorry loaded with the selected goods.

After the delivery (two weeks later, by a rather neurotic non-Russian-speaking Suffolk driver) we had to devise a selling strategy. It was not always easy to persuade my Russian colleagues of the merits of these products. A lot of heated discussions took place about non-drip gloss, for example. I remember they held the pot upside down and tried to spread it on bits of old newspaper, accusing me of trying to sell them cottage cheese instead of paint. In the end I managed to convince them of the superior quality of the products and gained a little trust.

However, one little surprise was in store (quite literally) for me. My UK colleagues had informed me before the lorry left that they had added a few crates of jeans, as they had got a great discount on them. With my Russian business partner we went to see the boss of the most exclusive jeans shop in the town. My partner told me that it wouldn’t be easy to persuade him to take our jeans since he had contracts signed up with some rather unsavoury suppliers. To our surprise, the owner, Vladimir, decided to take a few pallets, saying that he wouldn’t order from his other suppliers for a while. A week or so later, the lorry arrived and we started to unpack it in the warehouse.

An hour later I was wishing I was still in the pea factory in Ukraine. You have never seen so much rubbish in one place. The jeans came in all shapes and sizes, some with one leg, some with one and a half legs, some with one leg purple and the other blue, some with holes, some with threads hanging out. Although it was minus 10 degrees, the temperature in the warehouse got rather hot. The shop owner, Vladimir, was impatiently waiting for his delivery so we spent a day or two sifting through it all trying to salvage enough stock to keep Vladimir happy. We finally went to see him with 20 or so pairs, telling him that the rest were still on the way from England. We sent the rest back.

The incompetence of my company then reached another high, as they messed up the papers and sent the consignment to Poland by mistake. And guess who had to go and rescue them? Off I went and yet another adventure in the Wild East was about to begin.

For further information on ‘Windows’ and to pre-order the book, contact publisher James Muckle at: bramcotepress@ilk81rr.orangehome.co.uk

Photo: Kaliningrad tram (source: Wikimedia commons)

Posted in Russian and Slavonic Studies