You can manage in Russia when you have “guys” as in “our guys will talk to your guys.”
Sergei’s grip was cold as ice. Out of his black turtleneck protruded a pocked face with the lively expression of a gravestone. The lapel pin in his navy blazer was a gold Colt .45. Valery was the tall one, gray hair, a blue suit shiny from many pressings with a heavy iron. If I watched old news reels, I was told, I would see him just behind a well-know leader I will not identify, and before that, with “someone from the past” who also remains unnamed.. Oleg wore cropped hair, had no neck, and never spoke. None offered name cards. Valery did the talking. Even before the conversation, terse as it was, I was convinced that if trouble came, I would want these guys on my side-and they were.
Recommended by an ex-Soviet minister, these three friendly men were there to be interviewed as potential security, “just in case,” as they said. We had no budget for that sort of thing and never felt the need for it. After this meeting, I figured if we didn’t hire them, the need would arise. It was insurance.
These were ex-presidential bodyguards, ex-Spetznatz, the tough Interior Ministry force. It was like a Chinese menu.
Plan 1, the “Eliot Ness” (See note below) was the lowest cost. It was a “You call us, we won’t call you” plan. If we need help, call the cell-phone, home, office, or just scream, and they send a couple of armed guys. They will ride with us to the bank, and back again. But no protection from gypsies, muggers, or angry boyfriends or husbands.
Plan 2, the “KGB in Peace and War.” (See note below.) A menacing plain clothes guy hangs around our front door and suspiciously surveys all comers out of the corner of his bloodshot eye. Another one inside. Body guards on call.
Plan 3, “Full Metal Jacket,” (See note below.) 24 hour guards in combat gear, a cold-eyed scar-face with helmet and Kalashnikov in our hallway, personal bodyguards on our heels like loyal dogs anywhere outside the apartment or office.
In each plan was the “Plus” extraa squad, platoon or regiment of a fully armed combat force, a tank if needed, depending on the plan, within fifteen minutes. We chose the “Eliot Ness” economy package and negotiated the Plus thrown in for free because we were close in town. Investigation and access to the police and KGB files on competitors would cost extra. What do they have to do anyway, but sit around watching old Rambo movies?
I visualized a big database somewhere in a dusty windowless room with a smelly toilet and dripping faucet, where the bad guys only go after those who haven’t paid their dues to somebody. Our instructions were, “If you get a threat don’t argue. Just get his name and phone number. Then our guys will meet with their guys and that is the end of it.” Simple enough. We never used these guys. That is what insurance is for.
The only threats we ever had were on the phone from irate customers, or Russian-Americans trying to act tough and set up illegal call-back systems. In one case, a Russian (from Brooklyn,) using bad language, threatened mayhem to our Customer Service girl. I got on the phone and dressed the kid down and he melted. In another call, our director, a woman, simply asked the man to repeat the threat again in Russian, and then she told him our security man was on the extension. He melted. Most of them will melt. But in case they don’t, we call Sergei with the cold hands and the granite face. It’s insurance and we get on with our business.
You think I make light of this? Not really. It is serious stuff. But if one has no sense of humor in Russia, he will die of stress long before any tough guys get to him.
Note: For those not familiar with American TV and film here are explanations of the names I gave our guy’s “plans:”
“Eliot Ness” was an authentic American anti-crime hero. His book was a runaway best seller because it was the exciting true story of a brave and honest lawman pitted against the country's most successful gangster, Al Capone. Ness won. The television series that followed in the 1950's and the Kevin Costner movie in 1987 built fancifully on the same theme. Then again in 1993, the television series was remade for yet another generation to watch Eliot Ness battle it out again with the Capone Mob.
“The KGB in Peace and War” was a wordplay on the popular radio show I grew up with in the 1940s and 50s. “The FBI in Peace and War” was a very popular radio crime drama. The theme was the March from Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges, which was ironically written by the composer when in Chicago, the center of American mafia crime. Most people my age remember the radio program when they hear Prokofiev’s music.
“Full Metal Jacket” was a 1987 war film by Stanley Kubrick. The title refers to the full metal jacket bullet used by infantry riflemen. The film follows a squad of U.S. Marines through their training and depicts some of the experiences of two of them in the Tet Offensive (1968) during the Vietnam War.
Just Google the titles for full information on these productions.
The column is about the ideas and stories generated from the 20 years the author spent living and doing business in Russia. Often about conflict and resolution, these tales at times reveal the “third side of the Russian coin.” Based on direct involvement and from observations at a safe distance, the author relates his experiences with respect, satire and humor.
Frederick Andresen is an international businessman and writer with a lifetime of intercultural experience in Asia and for the last twenty years in Russia. He now lives in California and is President of the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City. While still involved in Russian business, he also devotes time to the arts and his writing, being author of “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia” and historical novellas.