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Bartering Metals (and Lives) in Ukraine

Starting on my own in 1993, one of my first acts was to employ a Russian speaker.  Her name was Luba, only recently out of school and daughter of a Russian translator I had met on a Zirconium business.  

Luba was a child at the time of Chernobyl and had been, within hours of the event, shipped out on a plane to Monchegorsk to avoid the fall out and live with a set of grandparents she had never met.  For us, having a Russian speaker in the office at that time was an absolute must.  The end of the Soviet Union had delivered supply lines of metals that all had the CCCP hammer and sickle stamped on them.  While my competitors specialised in the big price-tag industries such as aluminium and nickel, I was content to park my Lada on items such as rhenium, hafnium and zirconium - or the heavy duty titanium scrap that flowed for a while. We had an electronic Geiger counter for our work and the joke at the office was that Luba gave off a better reading than most of our Soviet consignments.

The emblem of pre and post Soviet Ukraine.

Hunting Metal

As a Ukrainian, rather than Russian, it was not long before I went metal hunting in her home country.  An insight into the former Soviet system was provided on one of these trips at the courtesy of A T & T.  The Ukrainians had conceived the idea that by bartering their old palladium and silver-bearing relays, A T & T could be persuaded to install spanking new digital exchanges across the country.  One of the towns we visited was Dnieperpetrovsk, the fourth largest city in Ukraine that sits astride both banks of the enormous Dnieper River.  Taking a look inside the exchange, it soon became apparent that in this town of a million people, telephony had been a privilege for very few.  There were no more than 1000 lines and all of these were the preserve of members of the Politburo and other party apparatchiks. There was barely enough metal to justify the transport.  It was a fascinating insight into the control of communication in the former system.

But what a way to experience Ukraine at a time when hope sprung eternal and it was possible to swim and catch pike in the shallow waters of the Dnieper, drink orange-tinted Vodka coloured by the rowan berry or sweet Georgian red wine, and cook fish over a wood fire after a baking hot sauna.

Slow Thaw

Then and now it was a hard place with which to do business – much harder than Russia and most other former Soviet states.  I think the reason was that the place never appeared fully to thaw.  The old Soviet system had been annexed by a series of leaders who to begin with were more Soviet than Soviet and this kept the large Russian populations on Crimea and in the East at bay.

Quick Wealth

In Kiev, I was royally entertained by Nikolai who was married to Luba’s sister (who wasn’t really her sister but that’s how they thought of themselves). Nikolai had been a Donetsk coal miner with all that that means.  Coal mining anywhere in the world is not for the faint-hearted. In the Donetsk mines, even greater levels of bravery were needed.  At the time of the break-up, Nikolai had conceived the idea to buy an oil refinery from the state at privatisation and had travelled to Moscow to sit outside the offices of Eximbank until they lent him the money.  At the time I met him, he had every trapping of those to whom inconceivable wealth had come rather quickly.  I had been met off the plane in a motorcade and driven to his home where I stayed in his half-built mansion.  There he showed me his gun cabinet, his sauna, his little son in a Russian military uniform, and his Doberman and Alsatian dogs.  The next morning I joined the motorcade on his commute to work with security vehicles both in front and behind.

At his office in the centre of Kiev, his building could be mistaken for a car showroom with the number of brand new vehicles stationed outside.  Opposite was the onion dome of his local church newly restored with the gold leaf he had supplied and paid for, and I was asked to speak at a dinner at which I noted that the 33 year old vicar carried a gun in a holster and where stray dogs were thrown pieces of steak.

But aside from the show, there was still a modesty of sorts about the man.  All the wealth and luxury could not take away the tastes of his hard life underground.  His right hand man was Vladimir; completely useless in business, but the man who had been his mate underground.

Underground, as above ground now, this was a bond that trumped all others. One morning when I got up, his wife called me to come and view Nikolai.  He was not asleep in the luxurious bedroom of his luxurious mansion but fast asleep in a basket with his arms folded round his dogs.

Changed Lives?

Where is he now, I wonder?  And where is Vladimir? And where are all those others who were trying to build something new and barter an old life for a new one?

This article was written by Anthony Lipman. All views expressed are strictly his own.

Published on – February 24th 2015


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