By the early 1990s, Russia and the Former Soviet Union (FSU) had earned a certain fame, summarized by a certain name for its particular blend of business and politics, it was known by its acquaintances as a mafiocracy. Now, those of us who were living in it, like in any society, hardly noticed the big image, we just dealt with our walks of life and sometimes strife on a day-to-day basis. But, those among us who were looking for investment money, such as to expand our chain of Vision Express stores into other eastern countries, well, we had to try as best we could to disguise any sign of the “real” conditions when visited by those with capital to invest.
This was the situation in May of 1993 when UK Vision Express Chief Financial Officer, Gary Tillman, brought two high-level UK Bank officers to Saint Petersburg to visit our Flagship store and talk with me. His hope would be that they would lose some of their pre-conceived negative notions, stimulated by the London papers and occassional “alert” bulletins from British and American embassies warning that Russia offered few safe places to visit and that Russians could not be trusted as partners to westerners in business.
The five-star Astoria Hotel in Saint Petersburg.
The Big Bankers were to arrive at the Astoria Hotel at noon and I was to meet them there and help them with their room arrangements. Then, we would take a tour of our historic and “friendly” city. I was concerned about what their initial impression might be so I went to the hotel an hour before they were to arrive. The first thing I looked at was the pile of free copies of the english edition of the daily St.Petersburg Times. Alhough the Astoria was a 5-star visitor hotel, this was not a tourist-oriented paper, it was an English language brief for ex-pat locals and it printed all the news, fit or not, about what had happened the day before in Saint Petersburg; the good, the bad and the incredible. I scanned the paper for problem stories and two caught my interest and squeezed my testicles.
The first was a report that a tiny Russian Zhiguli car had been stopped on a heavily trafficked intersectiion in the city for lumbering past a Stop sign ,while towing an antiquated but large 4-door Saab sedan. The traffic policeman, checking out the towed vehicle, discovered that the rear seat had been removed and, in its place, were packed four rather-mutilated male bodies, all dead. A further investigation of the trunk revealed three more bodies in the same conditon but even more squashed together to fit the narrower space. The driver explained that he was a homeless man and had been given many rubles and the keys to the Zhiguli by people he did not know, and that all he was asked to do was to drive the car and its towed Saab out of the city and dump the whole towed car and its cargo into any not too noticeable place in a woods or, if lucky, in a river. He could then sell the Zhiguli for profit. The reporters tone in writing this story was not one of shock, nor surprise nor, even humor, it was just another piece of daily reportage.
I was reminded of an incident that had occurred a year earlier, just one week before we were to open our new joint-venture, Vision Express. My Russian-born associate, Yuri Fainstein, and I were sitting in our office in the store premises on Lomonosova Street. He received a telephone call from our young driver, Sergey Tcharnin, who told him he was calling from a police phone. It seems, he had been driving rather fast in traffic along Warshavski Prospect when a drunken man, carrying his bottle of choice, rushed in front of Sergey’s car. The man was soundly hit and his head crashed into the windshield of the car causing it to crack in many places.
The man died instantly. He and his bottle were shattered.
Sergey said he had to go to the police station to sign papers and asked if Yuri could come to the site of the accident and drive the car back to the office. Yuri agreed and then, told me what had happened and to where he was going. I panicked. “Yuri, my God! We just killed a man. It will be all over the papers tomorrow. British Company Murders Father of Four” or whatever. His family will have protest groups gathered outside this store. It will be front page news!” Yuri’s face scrunched up as though trying to understand where I was coming from. “Vat front page? Man died. Who cares. Probably his family glad to get rid of him. One less mouth. Peterburg papers have other things to write about. Even a baby born with twelve fingers would be a bigger story.” He laughed. He said, “You are still such an American. Welcome to Russia, Mister Jack. Faggid-about-it”. He knew some American dialogue.
When Yuri came back with the car he said, “Oy, I had to drive whole way with head out window there was much hair and blood in the windshield”. I thought, Oh God, poor Sergey, he must be in shock. An hour later, Sergey came in, I rose to greet him and to give him some fatherly understanding and ease his pain, but he spoke before I did. Sergey said, “Where are the keys?” I was perplexed. “The car keys?”, I asked, “Why?” His answer, “I take car and get new windshield.” That’s how I learned about life and death in Saint Petersburg. It was why I knew I needed to check the Saint Petersburg Times for any more stories.
The second story was equally Russian in its understatement. At two in the afternoon, a man in the Frunzensky district in south Saint Petersburg was found struggling to drag a large burlap sack along a sidewalk leading towards one of the city’s many canals. What drew attention to this struggling citizen was that on the sidewalk where the dragged sack had passed ran a long line of wet and fresh blood. The Frunzensky police were on the job, stopped the man, opened the sack and found that it contained as the paper itemized, 1 male leg, 1 large male torso and 2 male arms, all disconnected. The police followed the blood trail two blocks back to #35 Oleka Dundicha Street and up two flights of stairs to the apartment where the blood originated. There, they discovered 1 male head and 1 male leg neither of which could fit into the dragged sack and so had been left behind for a second trip. The man explained that he and two friends were owned money by the dismembered man and that they had taken him apart after he confessed he would never be able to pay his debt to them. The “sackers” attitude was evidently “fair is fair”. The three unprofessional butchers drew straws and the arrested man explained that, as his luck would have it, he drew the short straw.
“That’s It!”, I screamed to myself. Obviously, I could not let my visitors read this Saint Petersburg Times on this day. I called upon the concierge for help. I went overboard and handed him $100 US even before I asked him what it would cost to do magic and make all the copies of The Saint Petersburg Times disappear. In about two minutes, all the copies of the Saint Petersburg paper, that had been conveniently spread on tables and reception desks all around the lobby and, even on the reservation desk in the restaurant, had disappeared. Then, at his suggestion, we went to the three Astoria rooms reserved for my visitors and took the complementary copies of ths same daily paper which had been left on the dressers next to the vase of fresh flowers and the chocolate mints in gold-coin packs as part of the extensive Astoria hospitality package.
I had done all I could. What paper might pop up during the day, I did not know. But, I felt somewhat secure in believing my guests would not be looking for English papers during their one day visit to Russia.
When Gary Tillman and his two bankers arrived, everything was in order and my new comrade, the concierge, was especially respectful and obsequious. US$100 was probably equal to two weeks of his salary. Doctors made $300/month in the early Nineties. Of course, the mafia was making untold millions thanks to the political/criminal structure of society.
Dining Room at The Astoria Hotel
After they were settled, we had lunch in the elegant, all-white, Astoria Hotel dining room and then I took them across the square into the magnificent basilica of Saint Isaacs Cathedral.
Saint Isaacs across the square from The Astoria Hotel
I felt that an intial introduction to the territory via its finest and most cultured international hotel combined with one of its most impressive religious icons would help soften the mafiaocracy reputation,
We, then, took a taxi to 5 Lomonosova Steet where Vision Express was located and they were favorably impressed by the size of the store and quality of the crowd shopping there.
Then we walked one block to the largest shopping complex in Saint Petersburg, Gustiny Divor, a two-story high square-block sized shopping mall comprised of hundreds of separate retail establishments. It, too, was busy and I was very pleased with the show of shopping because, as we all know, bankers funding retailers love cash registers that ring. As we came out the far side of Gustiny Dvor, one of the bankers said, “Jack, people keep looking over at us and sometimes pointing, what’s that about.” “I suppose,” I replied, “they are still not used to seeing this many important looking westerners in one place.” However, I had noticed some pointing and knew they were telling each other about the man on the television commercials for Vision Express. That would also be me.Across from Gustiny Dvor’s exit was a cluster of carts and small stands most of which were selling high quality, usually hand-made, souvenirs such as stacking Matryoshka Dolls and chess sets. I took them across to see these examples of Russian entrepreneurship and craftsmanship. There seemed to be a buzz of excitment created by our arrival. I happened to spot a beautiful metal chess set represenintg the famed Russian war between the Reds and the Whites. I decided to ask the price of the young Russian man selling it. He said, very politely, in english, “The price is $80.” Knowing all Russians want to bargain, I said, also politely, “Is it possible I could have it for $40.”The answer exploded out of his mouth, “For you, Mr. Vision Express, of course, of course, it would be my honor!” At that moment, older men and women, from other stalls, shouted and waved saying, “Meester Vision Express, Ochki Za Chas! Cha Cha Cha!” which are words I said at the end of every commercial which translated to “Glasses in an Hour” followed by the nonsense expression “Cha Cha Cha”.The Bankers, and even Gary Tillman, were stunned by the exictment in the crowd and the peoples recognition of me. I waved and then shook a few hands offered to me. One Banker said, “I can’t believe this – this is a city of 6 million people and they all know you! That’s what all the pointing was about, earlier wasn’t it?” I said, feigning modesty, “I’m on the air a lot and they love Vision Express and Americans.”The rest of the day was brief and pleasant with Gary wearing the broadest smile he had ever shown to me.The next day they left. Gary called me from the airport before departure. He said, “I just wanted you to know they loved Russia and have a whole different idea of the decency of its people and best of all, they’re going ahead with advancing three- million pounds for funding our eastern expansion. Thanks, Jack”That was all the thanks I ever got from Gary, “Thanks, Jack”.What would have happened if I had left the Saint Petersburg Times on those cocktail tables next to the vases of fresh flowers? Would my bunking have been debunked?