Doing Business in Russia – Part 1

Some of my long-time readers will remember the tale of my first ever visit to Russia back in February 2004, which involved a 3-day train journey from Moscow to Nizhnekamsk (or a town nearby, at least) in the Republic of Tatarstan.  On my return I published a lengthy account of my trip which remained online for a number of years before I thought it wise to take it down, a decision I have no intention of reversing.

Anyway, I recall being on the train crossing some godforsaken snowfield the size of Wales and a scruffy policeman coming into my carriage demanding to see my papers.  After handing them back to me he asked to look through my bags, and I remember him making me empty all my clothes onto the seat and explain the charger for my Canon digital camera.  Once I’d been told I could pack my stuff away, I asked him what he was looking for.  “Drugs, guns, bombs” came the answer.  I looked out the window where I couldn’t even see one of the collection of tumbledown wooden shacks which pass for Russian villages.  We hadn’t seen anything concrete in over an hour.  I asked him how long he had been doing his job, and he replied a number of years.  I asked him how many foreign tourists he had caught on a train in the middle of absolutely nowhere carrying drugs, guns, or bombs in their luggage.  Answer: none.

A rich seam of ludicrously pointless security checks runs right through Russia from the Baltic Sea to the Kamchatka Peninsular, and it does not bypass Sakhalin Island on its way.  I am currently working on a small building project of negligible significance to anyone outside the company who wants it done.  The location of the construction is on a flat piece of sand a couple of kilometres inland from Sakhalin’s east coast way up in the north of the island.  It is about as remote as remote can be.  It is a couple of hours by Landcruiser from the nearest railway station in Nogliki.  The nearest settlement of any kind is a half-hour drive away.  There is no structure or installation for miles and miles which does not form part of the facility which our construction is adding to.  A friend who worked there in 2005 said it was the closest he came to working on the moon.  I spent yesterday on the site, and it is as remote and desolate as anything Kuwait had to offer. 

The first part of the works involves carrying out a topographical survey, which is effectively a survey showing what hills, bumps, and structures are around the worksite.  It takes about 1-2 days to complete.  Before we can begin construction we must get approval from the authorities: fair enough.  The authorities insist we carry out a survey beforehand: also fair enough.  The authorities say the surveyors must be licensed: still fair enough.  The authorities demand that the results of the survey cannot be released to any foreign company without their first having been sent to the FSB for examination, which takes 30 days: WTF?!!  Yes, that’s right: no results of a survey of (from what I can gather) any kind taking place in Russia can be used by a foreign company without FSB approval, even if the survey is recording a few foot-high lumps of sand at the arse-end of Sakhalin Island a helicopter ride from the nearest sizeable town.

I suspect were I to ask the Sakhalin FSB chief how many nefarious plots hatched by foreign companies against Russian national interests had been foiled by the FSB taking a month to review construction survey results, the answer would be roughly similar, nay exactly the same, as the one my policeman friend gave me on the train to Nizhnekamsk.  Security, like so much else, rarely makes sense in Russia.


10 thoughts on “Doing Business in Russia – Part 1

  1. Security, like so much else coming from the government, rarely makes sense everywhere. See airport security rules, in London or New York.

  2. Topographic maps are very valuable in case you want to invade 🙂 … much easier to coordinate artillery strikes if you know the “few foot-high lumps” that stand in the way.

    No joke: the middle east was mapped by British “archaeologists” for quite a long time before Lawrence got a chance to use the maps, and the maps that one of the characters from the “English Patient” sells to the Germans are topographic maps.

    For a very real and very painful result of lacking detailed topographic info on regions situated in the ass of nowhere, consider the Balkan campaign during WWI: the lack of topographic info led to completely bungling the coordination between the Russian offensive in the North of the Carpathians, the Rumanian campaign, and the planned offensive on the southern front: the French and the Brits got stuck in the hills of Macedonia, which did not seem so impressive from a distance, and had fun building (and often digging) roads for almost two years before they could mount any significant offensive in the area.

  3. Security, like so much else coming from the government, rarely makes sense everywhere. See airport security rules, in London or New York.

    Agreed. The approach to airport security post 9/11 is not a rational one.

  4. When flying to UK last September I bought a flask (transparent) of maple syrup for a present. I was told by a security clerk at JFK, a tin-penny-eyed lady with a mechanical voice, that she considers it a liquid and therefore on a list of dangerous substances. On my way back, in Heathrow, I was isolated from the line at security check and guarded by two beefy officers while 3 (three) clerks were airing the unmentionables from my luggage in public. Because to a question “what do you have in your suitcase, ma’am?” I honestly answered “my personal articles”. Apparently instead I had to telepathically perceive that the xray agent was puzzled by an image on his screen of two iron candlesticks I purchased on Portobello Rd and report them accordingly.

    Plague on all their houses.

  5. Emil,

    Thanks for the historical anecdotes, I’m currently reading Max Hastings’ book on the Korean War and knowledge of the country was so poor that whole companies had to share a single map and a British officer found himself retreating from the Yalu with a map torn from the Daily Telegraph.

    I’m sure topographical information is most useful when mounting an invasion, as is photography, coastal data, weather patterns, and a host of other information. What I find totally irrational is that the Russian security organs think there is enough reason to suspect the information will be used to mount an invasion that they write into law a requirement that it all must be vetted first. Meanwhile, there appears to be not enough money to keep the water and electricity supply constant.

  6. Don’t you remember when cruise missiles couldn’t fly over Poland undetectably under the radar because the topographical maps they flew by had been modified by snow? I hope you do the maps with and without snow, so that they are usable for invasions all year round.

    Evidently the FSB thinks that a year’s delay while you did that was too unreasonable.

  7. Hi Tim, I can understand why you took down your trip to Nizhnekamsk: I married a Russian too! But if its lurking anywhere on the net, or if you could send me a copy, Id love to reread it.



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