By John Horchner
The course of life is often determined by its moments.
For me, this was November of 1997. Despite being warned by mother and well-meaning friends about the dangers of attempting to do business in Russia, I booked a plane bound to land in St. Petersburg at dusk.
By the time the plane descended, I’d worked myself into a state of fear. I wondered if the trip would be fruitful and if I really needed to be there for eight days. Looking out the window at the landing strip below, I saw broken war planes and everything seemed to be in black and white as opposed to the colorful country I’d left.
The Russian airport lounge was crowded with people wearing heavy jackets and fur hats, and they were surrounded by cigarette smoke and shrink wrapped luggage, which I learned is often used to keep sticky fingers away.
I went to find a driver among the many who were standing around the exit.
“Pribaltyskaja,” I lobbed out to see if anyone knew of my hotel. “Pribaltyskaja,” I repeated, slightly panicked. Two drivers looked at each other not sure what to make of me. Finally, one stepped forward and said he recognized the name of the hotel.
The driver took me down a highway filled with factories, a massive statue of Lenin and some gigantic and gloomy apartment buildings cut from the Soviet pattern.
Later, in honor of its 300th birthday in 2003, St. Petersburg would polish up its most visible parts, but back then, the drive out of the airport looked to me to be dark and dreary. The cab driver didn’t speak English, and I spoke only a few words of Russian.
Before long, we entered downtown St. Petersburg. At last, I thought, I can get out, but instead, the driver made a quick turn and headed out of town at a high speed.
“Pribaltyskaja,” I said, “Pribaltyskaja.”
“Pribaltyskaja,” he said and began talking to me rapidly in Russian.
After a few minutes, we went deeper into an industrial area and there were no street lights and things just seemed to get darker and darker. I decided then and there if he wanted my bags, all my cash, passport, visa, everything, that could be replaced…if only he would spare my life. I continued thinking in this vein when in the distance, straight in front of us were neon letters rising high up towards the sky. He pointed and said, “Pribaltyskaja!”
That next morning, I was still on heightened alert. I got out of the cab on Nevsky Prospect—the main thoroughfare—armed with a map of establishments that took the American Express card.
Old babushkas lined the streets and subway entrances selling flowers; they were harmless of course, but no one seemed to be smiling.
To the extent that we see what we are looking for, at lunch I noticed a gun hanging from the inside of the sport coat of a young man I was attempting to have a conversation with and a few nights later, I heard a gunfight across Nevsky Prospect after I left a restaurant at 11 p.m.
When I decided to write this article in March, I thought it would be nice to compare notes with other Americans who were in Russia during the time I was (1997-2004).
First, I asked James von Geldern, chairman of Russian studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, what he might have seen when he was there.
In an email, von Geldern responded, “Back in 1996-1998, when I spent my summers working in St. Petersburg and on the southern tip of Crimea, what I noticed was the vise grip of the Mafia on economic life—although it wasn’t very visible on the streets. I didn’t hear nearly as much about the Communist Party as I did about the need of a strong ruling hand to re-establish order.”
Another day, I looked up Todd Lefko who is chair of the Russian-American Business and Culture Council, a group that focuses on citizen diplomacy, with an office in Elk River, MN. We decided to sit down in my home for a chat.
In addition to working with the association, Lefko is the president of International Business Development Company, Inc., an import-export firm. For the past 33 years, he has dealt with water purification equipment, art, linen, kilns and new technologies coming out of Russia such as pellets that are dropped from helicopters to put out fires. He has homes in both Moscow and Minnesota and once lived in St. Anthony Park.
I told him how I’d arrived in St. Petersburg for business in 1997 and that after a tour of a former school turned programmers’ workhouse, I was excited. However, when I’d pushed for a contract, I was quickly dismissed.
Todd said I might have been going about business the wrong way. He suggested that instead of getting right down to a contract, it would have been better to discuss anything else.
“Take three hours, if necessary,” he said. “Russians think differently; they ask questions in a different way…it took me a year to figure that out.”
He said during that initial period of openness or glasnost, “So many Americans wanted to make a quick dollar. Unfortunately, it was not always our best people…” over there.
We discussed the 2003 comedic movie about Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 comeback election campaign called “Spinning Boris.” According to the movie, Yeltsin was propped up by PR handlers from America when he was drunk.
Several years of incidents like this, according to Lefko, made the Russians feel that “…they were the last defenders of morals in the world,” instead of looking at the Americans as saviors.
Lefko said that we had a chance to show Russians our better side, and there was maybe even a chance for capitalism to work if we helped them introduce it with something like the Marshall Plan. It was a missed opportunity I think we can all regret.
For my part, I returned home from my 1997 Russian trip with no new business contacts and have never done business with any Russians since. However, on another front, something happened that changed my life.
On the third day of that trip, I was standing on a corner of Nevsky Prospect, a half-block from the State Russian Museum, donning a fake Russian beaver hat when I noticed a particularly attractive woman and asked her for directions to the museum. She smiled and answered in very good English.
After some chit-chat, she agreed to coffee and during that trip, I had other occasions to meet with this lady. I booked another three-week trip soon after that, where I marched in a Communist parade to show off to her, raised my hand for us to be serenaded by a Lenin look-alike at a fancy restaurant and spent nights at the theater all in an effort to impress her.
Besides my continuous shenanigans, we had deep conversations. She was not like me, or anyone else I knew, but she was always respectful. She was unbending in her views and that made me think she had her feet firmly on the ground.
When I told Todd Lefko that it was on my first trip to Russia when I’d met my wife Nadezhda, who now goes by Nadine in the US, he seemed thrilled. His wife is from Russia too.
John Horchner is a writing and publishing professional who lives in St. Anthony Park.