What are Russians like? People, like the rest of us. A surprising story from Vladivostok in 1994.
Josef had long dark curly hair and a roguish smile. He stood aside from the tiller. ‘Fancy a go?’ he said. We were speaking Russian.
‘I’ve never sailed a yacht before,’ I said. The sea off Russki Island stretched endlessly around us.
‘Go for it,’ Josef said. ‘Keep your eye on a point on the horizon, and head for that.’
I seized the tiller and, under the watchful gaze of Josef, his business partner Pavel and their girlfriends Olga and Galina, began to chart a path through the waves.
Olga and Galina on the yacht
I’d met Josef and Pavel months earlier, on Daydream Island in Australia. They were young, confident and had plenty of money. They were there to buy a yacht, they said, and to sail it back to Vladivostok. If I was ever in Vladivostok, I should look them up. If they were surprised when I told them I lived in Moscow and did visit Vladivostok from time to time, they didn’t show it.
Back in 1994 confident, rich young Russians were something of a novelty.
When I showed up in Vladivostok later that year, Josef suggested we go out on the yacht. I wasn’t sure what to expect – the scale of the vessel, with a couple of luxury suites downstairs, surprised me.
Me at the tiller
Josef suggested we moor off Russki Island, in the news at the time over a scandal involving the mistreatment of Russian naval cadets, and lunch on some fish and гребешки, a word new to me. The autumn day was bright, and after a beer or two I asked Josef what he did for a living. He worked in insurance, he said, страхование – one of those words, like бизнесмен, a businessman, or предприятие, a commercial venture, which were becoming more widespread in Russia in 1994 but did not always mean exactly the same in English as in Russian.
‘What kind of things do you insure?’ I asked.
‘Well, he said, ‘suppose someone buys a мехсекция of fish – ‘
‘What’s a мехсекция?’
‘A мехсекция?’ Josef frowned at me, as if my Russian must be worse than he had thought. ‘A мехсекция is five railway wagons.’
‘Who would buy five railway wagons of fish?’
Josef sighed. ‘Someone buys a мехсекция of fish. The price is, say, thirty thousand dollars. They collect the fish, and begin to sell them. But then, they do not pay the thirty thousand they owe. I am the insurance. I go and have a talk with them, and they pay the thirty thousand.’
‘Does Pavel help you?’ I asked. Pavel was lounging nearby in an inflatable dinghy. He had curly blond hair, a body-builder’s physique and a broken nose.
‘Sometimes,’ Josef said. ‘Other times we work alone.’
I decided not to ask any more questions about the business. The sun was warm. Josef stripped to his swimming trunks, stuck a knife into his waistband, and dived into the sea. Pavel, Olga and Galina began to fish, with simple lines. Within twenty minutes Josef had found twenty гребешки, which turned out to be scallops. The others had caught several fish.
We settled down on the deck around a little camping stove, on which my Russian hosts proceeded to cook the fish and the scallops – undoubtedly the best I have ever tasted. We washed it down with malt whisky, a gift I had brought with me, which we drank Russian-style, draining the glass with a toast. Everyone said the whisky was delicious.
Olga catches a fish
Not for the first time, I was impressed by the ability of Russians to cobble together a nourishing and delicious meal from nowhere (I have a story about a scientist in Akademgorodok south of Novosibirsk, and some mushrooms, which I will save for another time). Russian hospitality is second to none (apart perhaps from Ukrainian and Turkish hospitality – Ed).
I am grateful to Josef, Pavel, Olga and Galina for an unforgettable day out off Russki Island.
I saw Josef and Pavel again on a subsequent visit to Vladivostok, where the hospitality offered was of a different kind. But that, again, is another story.
All names in this blog have been changed.
P.S. I have many notes from Russia, where I lived for three years when Boris Yeltsin was President. If you would like to see more stories like this, let me know. Or you may enjoy my series The Americans on this blog.