Russia in the early 1990’s was an interesting place. It had only been a few years since the breakup of the former Soviet Union and they were still struggling with the change over from a totalitarian regime to their new “Democracy”. Most had no idea what to do, nor what it all meant.
I remember one trip in particular. I was there with the CEO of a Canadian Junior Mining company to look at and talk about a prospective Diamond mine in Northern Russia. We flew from Moscow to the town of Arkhangelsk, just off the White Sea across from Murmansk and just south of the Arctic Circle. Arkhangelsk is the Russia’s oldest port town and a military area that was strictly off limits during the Cold War. We flew in on a well worn Aeroflot Yakovlev commuter plane and coasted to a stop just off the runway.
Now, you have to understand that airports in Soviet era Russia and for some time afterwards were nothing like we’re used to now. Particularly airports in a small town near the Arctic Circle. There were no terminals, no ramps or baggage carousels. No, they were quite different.
They rolled a set of metal and wooden stairs up to the aircraft and we disembarked and waited for our luggage to be taken off, then we walked the 500 meters or so to the ‘terminal’. What was strange to me, was, we walked right through a stand of about a dozen MIG fighter jets, fully fueled and armed ready to take off at a moments notice. The pilots and armed guards were lounging in the trees used as camouflage for the planes! Couldn’t help but think to myself that we probably would have been shot if we were there 5 years earlier.
We walked into the terminal to show our papers. And, as I mentioned, I use the word terminal rather loosely. Imagine a room of say 10 meters by 10 meters. Put a desk on the far side and three rows of bench seating aligned front to back. Then put people of all ages, grandmothers, soldiers, children, girlfriends, etc.. and then add pets and chickens, (yes, chickens) and even a small goat to the mix and you can get a bit of a picture. On some of the small planes leaving this airport they would even allow your young goat to fly! I tried very hard not to laugh out loud but couldn’t keep from smiling a big smile. This was something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Aeroflot had long been the brunt of unflattering jokes, one that I remember was when a 747 landed at Frankfurt international airport its pilot radioed the air traffic controller to ask him the exact local time. The controller is reported to have replied: “If you’re Swissair it’s 10 hours, 29 minutes and 20 seconds. If you’re British Airways it’s 10.30 and if you’re from Aeroflot then today is Friday.”
We handed our papers to the guard at the desk and were checked out and off we went to our meetings. I remember thinking that this must be what it was like in North America in the 1940’s or 50’s. Power lines strewn haphazardly across streets and alleys, decaying pavement when there was pavement, and wooden buildings everywhere. Actually, the strongest memory I have of that trip was of the restaurant/meeting room we ate in. It was in the back of an older building and it had the most amazing wood paneling everywhere. The hardwood floors, the walls, the ceilings, the tables and chairs were all richly stained. The hand work was superb and could have been in any top New York hotel in the 20’s or 30’s. Incredible.
The meetings went well and after a couple of days and in spite of our inability to communicate other than through less than perfect interpreters, we were able to arrive at an agreement. What would become the world class Arkhangelsk diamond deposits and the famous Lomonosov mine were in play. Glasses were raised, hands were shaken and off we went for our flight back to Moscow. Boarding an even older plane, we shuttered and shook into the air. I shouldn’t have been surprised when the compartment above my head started leaking, but I was. I mentioned it to the stewardess who without batting an eye handed me a wooden bowl to catch the drippings. It was condensation from the poorly insulated hull of the aircraft, and since I was in first class, I got the bowl, the unlucky ones in coach behind us just had to sit out of the way or get wet…..
As an aside, the deal that we worked hard to secure ended up falling through when the Canadian Junior company was unable to arrange the funding required to move the project forward. Close.. but no cigar…