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Swimming in the Dnieper

The Dnieper at Dnieperpetrovsk (depicting the shallows brimming with pike), Photo: Courtesy of Petar Milosovic

Mikhail had been introduced to me by Elena. The year was 1990 and Elena was my new employee at our penniless metal trading company, officed in West Molesey. I had established the company in a fit of pique when my career elsewhere appeared to be stalling. Elena was Ukrainian – part Jewish, dark haired, with strong features and more experience of life in her young eyes than a roomful of English students her age. When Chernobyl went up, her mum had promptly taken her to Kyiv Airport and put her on a plane to granny. Granny, who Elena had never previously met, lived in Monchegorsk, near the submarine base of Murmansk on the Kola peninsula. Later Elena and her mother transferred themselves to London.

Our joke at the office was that when we ran the Geiger counter over Elena it made more ticking noises than the consignments of metal. She would also goosestep for us in the office if we asked nicely, and tell us how she was taught to strip rifles at primary school. My idea behind Elena, was that if we could only have a real Russian speaker onboard perhaps the ‘new Russians’ with metal to sell might take a shine to us. It was worth a try.

My other employee was Jezz. I’d met him outside a petrol station somewhere near Karlsruhe, shortly after my first hundred metric tons of molybdenum metal had started coming out of Moscow. I’d just driven to Germany from Rotterdam and sold the first batch, so I simply had to tell someone about it. Even a hitchhiker. So, seeing this person from the back, thumb out, long fair hair, obviously a girl, I picked him up. Jezz was on his way back from a Mensa meeting, he told me, and was still at university. So, on the way back to Paris, I told him how I’d just done the deal of my life and offered him a job. Back in UK, a few days later, when I wasn’t quite so bullish, he rang up and said he’d taken a sabbatical and was ready to start.

While both my new employees had one or two deficits, what they lacked in professionalism they made up for with a reckless sense of adventure. Elena’s mode of work was to come in late and place her head on her desk and go to sleep (until the clubbing of the previous night wore off). Jezz on the other hand was so brilliant that, despite my then 15 years of trading, he always knew better. But what we all got right, was the idea that there was business out there in the East and we were the people to get it.

Not a day would go by without screeds of faxes scrawled in Russian hitting the floor with lists of elements in the periodic table for sale in tonnages that had the power to bankrupt us. My strategy was to concentrate on the most complicated low volume/high value elements in the hope that competition for such goods would be less fierce. I needn’t have worried. There was 70 years of ex-Soviet rhenium, hafnium, zirconium, tantalum, niobium, gallium, germanium et al to come out - and not nearly enough people to know what to do with it.

So began my travels.

A Russian woman came down to our office from London to help us learn Cyrillic so we could read which metals were being offered and I acquired some knowledge of the basics of the Russian language and culture.

This was why I was sitting opposite Mikhail one summer day in the garden of The Bell pub in East Molesey, as he nursed a half pint of bitter and I looked forward to another adventure. Elena’s sister Natalia (who was actually her cousin) was married to Mikhail and, like many of the new Ukrainians of the day, was out of his depth with international business. I was the nearest thing, it appeared, to a connection in the West. At the pub that day I met a man who had not one word of English, was awkward but enthusiastic, but had kind eyes. Through Elena, he said I must come to Kyiv.

Arriving at Kyiv's Boryspil Airport a few days later I was, for the first time in my existence, embarrassed by a welcome. Before the other passengers alighted, a motorcade approached the plane along the taxiway, and my name was read out on the tannoy. Asked to hand over my passport, I was ushered to the middle vehicle, taken to the VIP area, offered drinks, processed, and soon escorted out of the airport with Mikhail and his entourage.

Time has gone by since those days. Elena went off and did other things and I recall Mikhail’s story now for nostalgic reasons, bearing in mind all that has happened since February 24th.

Mikhail had been a coal miner in the Donbas, living in Vuhledar, somewhere amongst the over 400 coal mines at that time operating in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, now mostly under occupation. If there is a more dangerous form of work, I have yet to hear of it. According to the International Labour Organization, the mining sector worldwide is responsible for more accidents and deaths than any other occupation. Coal mining accidents specifically exceed all other mining deaths. Ukrainian coal miners, despite the lack of data, are believed to be at the top end of that scale with deaths from gas explosions along with electric shock, rockslides, and falls – not to speak of the almost-compulsory pneumoconiosis if you do not happen to die of other causes. This was Mikhail’s world.

When the Soviet Union collapsed Mikhail had seen his chance. With - to me - astonishing chutzpah he had gone to Moscow and simply sat week after week in the corridors of the Eximbank until he was loaned the money to buy Ukraine’s largest oil refinery.

By the time I met him, his company was one of the most powerful in Ukraine, owning the biggest refinery and most of the petrol stations through which its product was marketed. At his office in Kyiv, across the road from the local onion-domed orthodox church, repainted in gold leaf at Mikhail’s expense, it looked like a Mercedes showroom. In the basement we drank vodka and ate salo smeared on sourdough bread. In the evening I was invited to dinner. As an English traveller I was regarded as an ambassador and at dinner was asked to address the room while Elena translated. The priest who attended toted a gun in a holster that was sticking out of his surplice. After dinner the leftover steak was thrown to stray dogs in the street who swallowed it whole, perhaps (like Mikhail) in the belief that if you don’t take your opportunity, someone else will.

At night we stayed at Mikhail’s house which was outside Kyiv amongst an estate of expensive modern three-storey private houses under construction, all with gardens. Mikhail’s was the only one that was habitable. I met his son, for whom he had bought a specially made child’s-size version of a Russian soldier’s uniform with replica gun. In the house I was shown his gun cabinet, offered a sauna, and given a most fabulous room. In the morning at breakfast, we drank rowanberry flavoured vodka with our ham and eggs, white cheese, and bread. And when we travelled back to the office, one car guarded us from behind while another drove in constant radio contact directly in front in case of attack. On one long weekend he took me pike fishing on the Dnieper; so hung over was I that I simply wanted to roll over and sleep in the river. And yet I recall the bliss of spinning for, and catching, young pike from our wooden boat in those reedy backwaters, then taking them to the bank where we gutted and cooked them over a wood fire; drank more vodka, had a banya with a proper banya-captain, and sobered up in the icy cold waters of the river.

Why am I telling you this? Because when I heard, like all of us, what was happening in Ukraine my first thought was ‘What happened to Mikhail?’

So, I tracked down Elena, now living on the Sussex coast, who told me the story. During his marriage to Natalia he had not been an entirely faithful husband. Just to make a point Natalia once laid an extra place at dinner. When Mikhail arrived home late and asked, 'Who's coming to dinner?', Natalia replied, 'I just laid it in case you brought your girlfriend'.

One morning, Natalia asked me to come down and see something. It was our Ukrainian oligarch asleep in the dog’s basket, his two large dogs nestled up close to him, somehow at greater peace now than in his daily life.

During this time, he had made his coalmining pal his second-in-command at his company. It is well known how your buddy underground is your bondman, the one who will rescue you in an accident. As Slava was to Mikhail, so was Mikhail to Slava. But unlike Mikhail, Slava had no business nous. But this did not matter to Mikhail. He made him second-in-command of his business because of trust. Mikhail was not just generous to his closest friend, but to everyone he employed as well as their families. He bought his staff houses, saw to their medical bills, gave them cars, and looked after everyone in his company.

Elena told me that in the last few years Mikhail’s star had fallen. His success had bred enemies and at some point an uninsured crude oil vessel he owned was confiscated and this had driven a stake through the business. He had long since left Natalia and set up home elsewhere, but now everyone abandoned him. He was penniless, drinking, and sleeping on the streets. But Mikhail had given Natalia a Khrushchyovka apartment at some point and, despite all, Natalia let him live in it to keep him off the streets.

I don’t know more about his story although I would like to. But as I watch the events in Ukraine unfold it is hard not to think of the strange world I was briefly a part of, the people whose trust was given to me, and which I returned. These were extraordinary times which witnessed the death of one type of society and the uncertain steps towards something different. Despite all that has happened to Ukraine, I cannot help feeling the tendency is forward – a country that has forgotten its pogroms and elected a partly Jewish leader to be the brave exponent of Ukraine’s wish to be another kind of society.

Today we have a new Ukrainian working for our company. Her name is Liliia and her mother made her learn English 30 years ago when all she wanted was to have dance lessons. It most likely saved her working life. Not disabled by lack of language, instead she is now learning to be a metal trader in a very different world based at our office in Hampton Court.

I can only wish Ukrainians well and that this season of hell and its illuminations will one day end.

© Anthony Lipmann 28.10.22

A version of this article was printed in the 2023 New Year Edition of East-West Review as published by The GB-Russia Society.


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