BUILDING A ROOF (In Russia)
Updated: Oct 30, 2020
(What did you really do in Russia Grandpa?)
The events that follow, are to the best of my recollection, pretty accurate. Although, after all these years, I can't recall any names, dates or places where the more salient aspects of this story occurred. Nevertheless, I do have some memory. If you read my second book, A Dollar Short, set in Moscow, you'll recognize some of these scenes, locations and situations.
In early 1994 my employer at the time, rushed to do business in Russia. This was less than two years or so after the fall of the Iron Curtain. I was the company global head of security and had become a world traveler solving various “problems” for the corporation’s business units. But I had never been to Russia.
I was one of those school children of the ‘50s and ‘60s - a baby boomer. I vividly recall the Cuban Missile Crisis where Soviet Union Premier Nikita Kruschev and U. S. President John F. Kennedy nearly plunged the world into a nuclear war. I regularly participated in classroom exercises where, with the sounding of the school siren, we would duck under our desks, scrunch into little human balls, and cover the backs of our necks. This was to help survive the effects of a nuclear attack. There wasn’t much chance of surviving, as we later learned. But at the time it was comforting, if only a little. I recall when, near the city of Sverdlovsk Oblast in the Ural Mountains, Captain Gary Powers was captured when his U-2 spy-plane was shot down over Russia and nuclear war tensions mounted again.
It was against this background of memories that I boarded a long Lufthansa flight to Hamburg Germany and then on to Moscow, Russia in the former Soviet Union.
My visit began with a very private briefing by a member of the U. S. State Department Security Office. There I got a mini-course on Russian economics, or the lack thereof. I learned the same about the structure and effectiveness, or the lack thereof, of the Russian Judicial System and the corruption of the Moscow Police Department. I was briefed on some former KGB military intelligence officers and ranking “retired” military members, and their new roles as quasi-private citizens. I also learned about the workings and hierarchies of the expanding Russian organized crime gangs - the Russian Mafia.
In order to do business in the newly emerging Russian economy, it was critically important to “build a roof” over your enterprise. A roof, as we know, can protect you from storms of all kinds, keep you dry and warm, and provide a refuge against harm. My company had failed to build a roof over their newly formed Russian business. The Russian Mafia immediately seized upon that failure and began extorting our operations manager – big time!
The manager, a U.S. Citizen of Jewish origin, had a wife and small daughter living with him in the protected compound just outside of Moscow. However, the mafia had photographs of the girl walking from her chauffeured car on the sidewalk to and from school, and playing outside her home in the compound. They told the manager that the daughter was at risk of kidnap or death (or worse) and the only way to protect her was to pay them. So the manager paid them out of corporate funds, $250,000.00 per month. That is three million US Dollars a year! It wasn’t long before our auditors realized something was amiss. When challenged about the discrepancies, our manager admitted to being extorted. And that got me on the twenty-hour flight into Moscow.
It was my job to ensure that a roof got built over the business – a roof that protected our employees and their families, as well as our business interests. It was my job to ensure that the manager and his family came to no harm. So, how does one protect against the Russian mafia? One hires someone stronger than the mafia, someone more feared, someone proven more deadly and more capable. And that is how I got introduced to an insurance representative who would help me build my roof.
My insurance agent was a former KGB officer, now private citizen. His job was to sell me a “policy” with ample coverage to ensure uninterrupted business and the safety of our workers. This policy was “the roof”. The one-time premium was $250,000. It seemed more economically feasible to make a one-time "insurance payment" than to make extortion payments of $250,000 per month. As in all matters of conducting business with new partners, it makes sense to conduct a little due diligence to see if your guy is really who he says he is, to ensure that his “company” can perform as promised. I made an inquiry with my friends, with backgrounds similar to the guys who gave me the introductory briefing, and was assured of my “agents” credentials. I also verified this fact with the security executive of a U.S. company that had been supporting a Russian business enterprise for some years, even before the fall of the curtain.
After a short trip to the bank early the next day, to set up a wire transfer, the deal was done. I was assured the policy would go into effect immediately that morning. So, later that afternoon, I had my Russian chauffeur, who could speak only very limited English, drive me to our operations warehouse so I could check in with our manager. I had the driver park across the small street from the building. Before entering, we watched the foot traffic for a while. Gone was the new Volvo sedan that had been parked down the street on every previous day of our visit. Gone were the greasy thugs lounging against that car with their obvious guns protruding from their back waistbands. But pedestrians who were walking down our sidewalk, now crossed the street to the opposite side when they approached the two huge guys standing in front of our warehouse entrance. These guys were pretty clean-cut. They had a military bearing about them and a presence of keen awareness. They did not look like the mafia punks I had seen here before or lounging at my hotel lobby. I exited my vehicle and crossed the street to the warehouse entrance.
As I approached the door, these two guys, as if on some unseen signal, each brandished a sub-machine gun from under their jackets. Their listless eyes never wavered as they aimed their weapons at me. I had the presence of mind to have my business card already in my hand and raised it visibly so they could see it. My other hand was outstretched at my side, showing it was empty. One of them motioned me forward with the tip of his gun.
I produced my card which had my name, company and title printed in U.S. English on the front, and in Russia Cyrillic on the back. When printing the card, we also were allowed a small elaboration - in Russian, my card also said “Diplomat.” I presented my card to the guy who seemed like the boss. He read it and showed it to his partner. Then, with eyes that never had any light in them at all, they gave me a very crisp salute and motioned me to proceed inside. I knew right away, these were “my guys from the insurance company”.
I spoke with the plant manager who related to me that his daughter’s driver had not seen anyone following them that morning. None of the loads had been hijacked that day. No one with guns had approached the truck drivers to rob them today as they made their deliveries. And the guys loitering down the street had been seen leaving earlier in the morning – tires squealing as they sped away.
He tentatively agreed to stay on as the manager as long as things seemed safe, but one more incident or threat and he was packing up and leaving.
As I left the building, I saw that my driver was talking with the two guys by the front door. He tossed his partially smoked Marlboro cigarette on the street and joined me as we walked to the car. His step seemed a bit brisk as he walked jauntily with me. As we slid into our Mercedes, I could see him smiling from ear to ear. I smiled back and asked him “What”? He pointed at me with his thumb and said “You Big Shot. Those two Mafia.” Then he toggled his thumb back and forth from me to him and said, “You big shot! ME big shot!”
I told him, “Nyet Mafia, Sasha. .”
But he insisted “Da, Mafia.” He extended his index finger and thumb from his fist like a gun and made the sound of a machine gun, “buh,buh,buh,buh,buh. Mafia.”
I then laid it on him, “Sasha - Nyet Mafia. KGB.”
Oh, my god. You would have thought I had threatened his entire family.
“Nyet, Nyet, Nyet”, he said. “No KGB! Mafia!” He began to lose the color in his face.
“No Sasha, KGB.” I told him quietly in English.
His hands began trembling terribly and he turned grey. It was obvious he could not drive like this. I was certain he was going to pass out. He reached for his cigarettes, but his hands were shaking so badly he couldn't nudge a smoke from the pack. I shook one out for him and he dropped it as I handed it to him. I picked it from the floor and handed it to him. When he went to light it, he could not hold his BIC lighter still enough to ignite the end. I hadn’t smoked in 15 years, but made an exception to light his cigarette for him, then handed it back. He drew heavily from it, one, two, three times - long deep draws. “Матерь Божья” (Mother of God) he kept repeating. He was truly terrified of the KGB.
I had plans for dinner that night and wanted Sasha to drive me, but I could see his comfort level had changed with me. So, after dropping me off at the hotel, I indicated he had one more trip before he could go home for the evening. I was going out to dinner and he was driving. Somewhere between fear and awe, he agreed when I told him where we were going.
I showered and shaved again for my dinner. My Insurance Agent had invited me to be his guest at the State Kremlin Palace, inside the Kremlin walls in Red Square. The event was co-sponsored by the Joint Russian and US Economic Chamber of Commerce. This old KGB agent, who spoke nearly perfect English was a jovial host, a charming conversationalist, possessed a great sense of humor and told jokes of an American nature. And to think that only two years ago, he was an active member of the most feared spy agency in the world.
As I rode home in my limo that night, I reflected on where I was.
I was leaving the State Kremlin Palace in Moscow, a former poor kid from the lower east side of Detroit. A kid who hid under his desk during air raid drills in the 1950s, hiding from the Russians who were planning to kill me with ballistic missiles. A kid who went to church every day of the Cuban Missile Crisis in case the Russians launched their missiles while I slept.
A kid who was playing political nice-nice with a KGB spy I had just hired.
I smiled and thanked my God that the Russians didn’t kill me then or now, thus allowing me another strangely momentous life-experience, and the basis for one of my most popular novels.