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Calling Moscow (Part 5)

by Bernard H. Wood on April 2, 2010

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[Read Calling Moscow (Part 4).]

Travel companies: they sneak up on you whilst you are looking the other way! How to “knock on doors”. Bribery: a few of my favourite things, and… making it work: life in the trenches.

Knocking on doors - bribery has always been rife in RussiaNeil speaks of the trials sent to test him as a travel-courier: “If something was going really wrong you’d almost always find someone who’d help you, or pull a few strings,” he tells me. In the case of a medical emergency, Neil was able to get the senior professor of surgery at Kiev University (the most highly qualified in the country) to treat a tourist’s acute appendicitis – out of kindness.

Apparently it’s all a case of “knowing how to knock on doors,” as the Russian saying goes. Some colleagues in Russia had insider knowledge of the system and Neil soon picked up the “ways to get things done.” As always the bribe was an effective tool to short-cut and circumvent official procedure. Neil fills me in:

“It sounds mad now but at the time it was completely logical. Without a bribe nothing happened… from the tiniest level to the top level… from the 17th Century onwards. Peter the great returned from the great northern wars to find that St Petersburg hadn’t been built and the funds had been drunk away, because no one had been paid a bribe to start.

“Almost always the bribes were not money, because money was worthless… there was nothing in the shops you could buy with it. What people were interested in was something that was of special interest to them.” Whether a pedigree puppy or a book from Japan, it was all about “helping people to get what they wanted… (something) that they wouldn’t have normal access to.”

In spite of the often chaotic nature of the tours, Neil’s ability to “make it work” was apparent and tour group members (amongst others) started asking him to organise trips for them on an independent basis. They trusted him as the man in the trenches, digging it out with a spade on a daily basis and knowing “what was going on.” This planted the seeds of what was to become The Russia Experience, though Neil didn’t know it at the time. “People who I’d never heard of were on the phone, asking if I could organise a tour.” And all through word of mouth alone.

Meanwhile, the “regular” tour work continued.

Around 1987-88, in his last year spent working for others, Neil sat in an office as a local rep trying to pull together tours for other couriers. He “…made sure that the right hotels were booked as promised, whilst the parent company watched the pennies. Groups that were considered as: ‘not to have paid very much’ were likely to have their services cut or their tours cancelled” to make up the figures. Against this was the effort spent in trying to make sure that what had been paid for would ultimately be delivered. An uneasy compromise. In the background he still organised tours by request to boost his income. Unbeknownst to him, things were due to change.

One day the lady who helped him with his freelancer’s tax return asked, “What the hell are you doing? You’re working as a travel company now, you’ve got to register as a company and get a licence. You can’t go on like this!” He was made aware that he now had 7 to 8 groups on his books plus a lot more individuals that he arranged tours for. Up to that point he had been considering it as all part of his standard freelance work, its magnitude lost amongst all the other bookings and invoices. Presented in isolation the facts and figures were a considerable surprise. In his own words: “Before I knew it a travel company had started and I hadn’t even noticed!” He certainly hadn’t given any thought to such trivialities as marketing, finances and licensing.

And so The Russia Experience (official) came to be.

Next time: Gold rush! Anarchy on Main Street. Winners, losers, survivors.

[Photo by Chelsea Koetsveld]

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