Sacred and profane
“Lenin’s tomb is next to a shopping centre” says Tech. That’s a statement right there -about the legacy of socialism colliding with modern capitalism, and perhaps the ultimate resting place of idealism. By shopping centre Tech means the famous Gum store (pronounced Goom) of course. “And they’ve put up signs with the building painted on them,” he goes on. “In front of the same 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 store frontage drawn and printed on huge panels… then mounted over the same frontage built in stone. That’s surely a statement about… Oh shut up, please I tell myself before venturing: “Maybe they’re just doing some building work?”. We do get the feeling though, 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!” –so the story goes.
We are sitting in Tech’s kitchen, chatting over coffee, following threads and shooting at tangents as I scribble. Some of the best work starts out with a pen 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, where polite boardroom variants in molded plastic would have fallen to pieces.
The same laptop features in his “Moscow Airport Story” too. Sensing a financial opportunity from Tech’s business-like appearance, an enterprising customs official pulled him out of the line to try for a tidy, work-related bonus. As with last week’s Westerner tax: “If they think you have a few shillings to spare, they’ll take it” he says. Now who’s to say that Tech hasn’t just bought this expensive looking laptop in Russia, and is 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 Russian). Tech feigned ignorance. “Er, I’m not really sure that I understand you” he said, as he pulled out his mobile phone, dialed and offered a disembodied voice, ready to clarify the situation. “But I know someone who can.” It’s the oligarch, of course; now a giant on the phone, speaking to an opportunist bug in uniform. Needless to say, Tech returned home with his laptop safe. It’s probably best that the conversation wasn’t on speaker-phone.
Similarly, Tech has learnt 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 this approach is, I simply don’t know. There are official figures for such things -and these may vary of course. 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”. Whereas a low sum is just not worth bothering about, especially if there’s fatter prey queuing up behind you.
The 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 on a darkened street -if you should be so unlucky. Tech’s pragmatic advice for such Russian business transactions is just to keep calm and think: “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 a factory outside of Moscow. He breaks off momentarily to show me the video-view from his Moscow balcony window: the tall island-growths of concrete and woodland side by side. Again, a city of contrasts, unfolding towards the horizon. Then his story continues: You see, this driver just didn’t ‘get it’ -the notion of keeping cool, paying the necessary extras 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, before phoning the replacement’s boss. Puzzled, indignant even -that he’d seemingly been downgraded, he enquired: “What happened to the other driver?”. “Oh, he doesn’t work for us anymore,” came the flat 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 there the conversation ended.
Next time: Business in the City of Extremes #4: Business as usual
Passport theft, hit and runs, and the power of chess.
[Photo by Yiie]