Business in the City of Extremes, part 3
“Lenin’s tomb is next to a shopping centre”, says Tech. That’s a statement right there – about the legacy of socialism and perhaps the ultimate resting place of idealism. By shopping centre, does Tech mean the Gum store? Very likely. “And they’ve put up signs with the building painted on them,” he goes on. “In front of the building!” He doesn’t get it and neither do I.
Tech spins his armoured laptop around, having pulled up an image. There’s the familiar facade, and over to one side… “There”, he gestures. And sure enough, at the far end of Gum: an ornate frontage drawn and printed on huge panels…placed on top of the ornate frontage built in stone. That’s surely a statement about… Oh shut up, I tell myself. “Maybe they’re just doing some building work?” I venture. But we do get the feeling that it’s Russia and anything goes. Just like in the old days, in the time of Shakespeare, when events turned to absurdity and characters exclaimed, “This could be Russia!” – or so the story goes.
We are sitting in Tech’s kitchen, chatting over coffee, following threads and shooting at tangents as I scribble. Literally, some of the best work starts out with a pencil and paper, at odds with Tech’s industrial slab of electronics. “I wouldn’t be in business without this,” he says, referring to the steel-plated box of technology that has been around the globe, on and off planes, in and out of factories, in a Travant with a boar’s head (oh yes) – enduring, when polite boardroom variants in moulded plastic would quite literally have fallen to bits.
The laptop features in his “Moscow Airport Story” too. Sensing in Tech’s business-like appearance a chance to engineer a tidy, work-related bonus, an enterprising customs official pulled him out of the line. As with last week’s Westerner tax: “If they think you have a few shillings to spare, they’ll take it,” he says. Now, with an expensive looking laptop, who’s to say that you haven’t just bought it in Russia, and are now “illegally” exporting it? Hmm? No English receipt or proof of purchase? I’m afraid it’s not looking too good for you, sir. I’m going to have to confiscate it… Or something like that. In this instance, Tech feigned ignorance. “Er, I’m not really sure that I understand you,” he said, as he pulled out his mobile and offered a disembodied voice, ready to clarify the situation. “But I know someone who can.” It’s the Oligarc, of course, a giant now on the phone to an opportunist bug in a uniform. Needless to say, Tech returned home with his laptop safe. And it’s probably best that the conversation wasn’t on speaker-phone.
Similarly, Tech has learnt the hard way to “go low”and vague. When they ask him how much money he is taking out of the country, he makes sure not to commit to an absolute figure. Just how potentially dangerous it is to do otherwise, I simply don’t know. Tech explains that a substantial sum (whatever that may be…) will somehow equate to “illegal”. So, naturally, the official will have to confiscate a good chunk of it. Just to “make things right”, of course. Whereas a low sum is just not worth bothering about, especially if there’s fatter prey queuing up behind you.
The whole point is that all of this, and much more, amounts to “just business”, without the animosity and sheer spite that you may find at the gleaming tip of a sharp knife here in the UK – if you should be so unlucky. Tech’s pragmatic advice for such Russian business transactions is just to keep calm and think in terms of, “Ok, what do we need to do? What has to happen to resolve this?”; to “stay public” and not be lured away to secluded, witness-free locations; and “don’t, don’t lose your temper”.
Tech mentions his original, immigrant driver, a long way from home but with a nice car, who’d ferry him to and from the hotel and the factory outside of Moscow… He breaks off to show me the video-view from the balcony window: the tall island-growths of concrete and woodland side by side. Again that city of contrasts, unfolding towards the horizon… The story continues: You see, this driver just didn’t get it – the idea of keeping cool, paying the necessary and going with the flow. No doubt he was given chances, warnings even, but one day… One day Tech had a new driver. The guy with the Travant and the Boar’s head cargo. “Oh great,” he thought, and getting on the phone to the replacement’s boss, puzzled, indignant even that he’d been apparently downgraded, he enquired: “What happen to the other driver?”. “Oh, he doesn’t work for us anymore,” came the reply. Then, after a pause: “He went for a chat in the woods”. “Eh? What do you mean?!”enquired Tech, not grasping the thread. “He went for a chat. In the woods.” And the conversation ended.
Next time: Business in the City of Extremes (Continued): Business as Usual
Passport theft, hit and runs, and the power of chess.
[Photo by Yiie]