Social and Economic Change

The blurb, or so-called ‘elevator pitch’ that I am developing to sell you my novel in the shortest possible time, has, from its very first draft contained the phrase ‘set against the backdrop of the  social and economic change in Russia in the mid 1990s’.

Feedback I have received always includes comment that one of the strongest elements of the work is the sense of place and time that I have evoked.  This is gratifying as I’ve put a lot of thought into conjuring the sense of place without it sounding like a travelogue.

Tverskaya, looking towards Red Square, circa 1997

The changes that were underway is harder to dramatise as it is only with the benefit of hindsight that we can see their extent; living them at the time it wasn’t always clear what would last and was in fact a real change and what was just a temporary blip.  And as my novel is written from the point of view of a newly arrived expat for whom everything is strange, I found myself attempting to balance and remember how things affected me and those I knew at different times during the years I was there.

It was during this period that the people we now know collectively as ‘the Oligarchs’ were acquiring control over vast swathes of Russia’s natural resources, but I had neither knowledge or experience of it.

We knew about the pyramid schemes and the ‘paper shares’ bought for the equivalent of kopeks from elderly former workers in state industries, and we knew about people being swindled out of the apartments they had lived in all their lives; we saw the proliferation of new Banks on every street corner, but the scale of the personal privatisation of Russia’s mining and oil industries only became evident later.

I worked for the Moscow office of one of the large international accounting firms.  The vast majority of our work was to assist foreign multi national companies establish themselves in Russia and the other countries of the former Soviet Union.  Depending on the nature of the products they were trying to sell, they either wanted to set up their own manufacturing facilities (for example for fizzy soft drinks), or establish joint ventures with former State operated enterprises (for example tobacco and chocolate).

The idea that there would be any Russian investment going out of the country was laughable at the time.  But it was only three of four years later that friends who were still working there told me that they were working for newly rich Russian entrepreneurs; and more recently this kind of advisory work has grown to dominate some of the practices.

Those companies trying to establish joint ventures with existing State enterprises in many ways faced some of the greatest challenges.  There was a huge divide in experience and expectations.  Many Russian managers didn’t understand the  consequences of accepting financial investment from a Western company; had no idea how to provide the information that was required, had no yardstick against which to measure the value of what it was they were producing, and at first didn’t understand the multiple strings that came attached to foreign investment.

Many neophyte western investors got their fingers burnt when local deals were undone by a random change in regulation, or the realisation that they were expected to fund the whole town where the factory they had targeted was and always had been the sole employer in the area.

And that’s not taking into account the many ‘novii ruski biznessmen‘ who interpreted free market economy in their own idiosyncratic ways.

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  1. margaret nickels

     /  May 6, 2011

    Looking forward to choosing your novel for my reading group! ( but anonymously so to speak !)


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