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[Read Read Calling Moscow (Part 4).]

Travel companies: they sneak up on you whilst you are looking the other way! How to “knock on doors”. Bribery: a few of my favourite things, and… making it work: life in the trenches.

Knocking on doors - bribery has always been rife in RussiaNeil speaks of the trials sent to test him as a travel-courier: “If something was going really wrong you’d almost always find someone who’d help you, or pull a few strings,” he tells me. In the case of a medical emergency, Neil was able to get the senior professor of surgery at Kiev University (the most highly qualified in the country) to treat a tourist’s acute appendicitis – out of kindness.

Apparently it’s all a case of “knowing how to knock on doors,” as the Russian saying goes. Some colleagues in Russia had insider knowledge of the system and Neil soon picked up the “ways to get things done.” As always the bribe was an effective tool to short-cut and circumvent official procedure. Neil fills me in:

“It sounds mad now but at the time it was completely logical. Without a bribe nothing happened… from the tiniest level to the top level… from the 17th Century onwards. Peter the great returned from the great northern wars to find that St Petersburg hadn’t been built and the funds had been drunk away, because no one had been paid a bribe to start.

“Almost always the bribes were not money, because money was worthless… there was nothing in the shops you could buy with it. What people were interested in was something that was of special interest to them.” Whether a pedigree puppy or a book from Japan, it was all about “helping people to get what they wanted… (something) that they wouldn’t have normal access to.”

In spite of the often chaotic nature of the tours, Neil’s ability to “make it work” was apparent and tour group members (amongst others) started asking him to organise trips for them on an independent basis. They trusted him as the man in the trenches, digging it out with a spade on a daily basis and knowing “what was going on.” This planted the seeds of what was to become The Russia Experience, though Neil didn’t know it at the time. “People who I’d never heard of were on the phone, asking if I could organise a tour.” And all through word of mouth alone.

Meanwhile, the “regular” tour work continued.

Around 1987-88, in his last year spent working for others, Neil sat in an office as a local rep trying to pull together tours for other couriers. He “…made sure that the right hotels were booked as promised, whilst the parent company watched the pennies. Groups that were considered as: ‘not to have paid very much’ were likely to have their services cut or their tours cancelled” to make up the figures. Against this was the effort spent in trying to make sure that what had been paid for would ultimately be delivered. An uneasy compromise. In the background he still organised tours by request to boost his income. Unbeknownst to him, things were due to change.

One day the lady who helped him with his freelancer’s tax return asked, “What the hell are you doing? You’re working as a travel company now, you’ve got to register as a company and get a licence. You can’t go on like this!” He was made aware that he now had 7 to 8 groups on his books plus a lot more individuals that he arranged tours for. Up to that point he had been considering it as all part of his standard freelance work, its magnitude lost amongst all the other bookings and invoices. Presented in isolation the facts and figures were a considerable surprise. In his own words: “Before I knew it a travel company had started and I hadn’t even noticed!” He certainly hadn’t given any thought to such trivialities as marketing, finances and licensing.

And so The Russia Experience (official) came to be.

Next time:

Gold rush! Anarchy on Main Street. Winners, losers, survivors.

[Photo by Chelsea Koetsveld]


[Read Calling Moscow (Part 3).]

The normality of madness, and the madness of normality. Greasing the wheels as the machinery slow-dives into the dirt… Strange cargoes, stray tankers and: history is closed, you didn’t pay the electricity bill…

Soviet red flying pigsAs East-West relations thawed and the Soviet system headed into the final stages of a slow-dive started in the 1950s, Neil found himself organising tours against a background of fuel shortages, train and plane cancellations, and even drivers abandoning their jobs to find work abroad. The 11th hour question, “where’s the driver?” could be met with the simple answer, “they’ve gone!” At which point Neil would put down the phone, turn to face a group of expectant tourists with a plane to catch and come up with… well… something. Measures may be considered extreme by our relatively comfortable standards. On one occasion he flagged down a local city bus and bribed the driver to eject his passengers and take the tour group to the airport in time to connect with their flight!

Over to Neil: “That kind of thing was going on all the time. It wasn’t abnormal. That was the norm. We were employed to make it happen when it fell to pieces.”

At this point it’s worth pointing out the difference between ‘a bribe’ as we know it and ‘a bribe’ in Russia during the Soviet era (and even now, we’ll get to that…) Whereas we may consider bribery to be distasteful at best (?) and highly illegal at worst, in the pre-collapse CCCP bribery part-fuelled the machine, partly-glued the whole assembly together and was the grease that helped the wheels turn. It was, in short, ‘normal’, and in fact… expected.

Likewise, the madness was normal and even expected too… and was getting worse as the walls fell in. Neil could feel it all coming unstuck. Travel itineraries changed completely, even basic mistakes were made: hotels were overbooked, four nights in Moscow were abruptly cut to one and Neil would suddenly have a group of unhappy tourists to contend with. It was easier for Neil if his clientèle ‘got it’ and knew what was ‘going on’ with the system, but some inevitably didn’t. As Neil puts it: “People want to hear about the Soviet Union falling to pieces, but not when it affects them and their holiday!” And so he pressed on, pulling solutions out of the hat and on-the-fly.

Once, an American tour group landed in Helsinki 6 hours late and with no hope of connecting with the scheduled Aeroflot flight to the Soviet Union. Finn Air had agreed to transfer the passengers to their aircraft so that they may complete the journey. Hurrah! However, it quickly became apparent that even with this boon, the American flight would still be too late, even to make the Finn Air connection… so what to do? Short of actually ‘imprisoning’ the aircraft and physically preventing it from taking off, was there any way? Well, no. So that’s what happened. A cunning bribe placed in the right hands at ground-crew level ensured that the Finn Air plane was blocked in by a strategically placed fuel tanker. The passengers arrived late from their Trans-Atlantic flight to the sound of frantic PA requests appealing for the tanker-culprit to come forward whilst they made their connection none the wiser, and no-doubt thinking just how damn accommodating these European-types were…

A late arrival could be the least concern, however. In the Soviet Union, internal air-services were laid on for the populace and covered the country, even flights to remote, unprofitable locations. Someone somewhere had decided that it should be so, and so it was. As such, outlying farmers looking to get their livestock to market would find that it was cheaper to buy air-tickets for pigs and chickens than to ship them overland. And so they did. It wasn’t unusual to find livestock travelling by jet alongside bemused passengers. Not exactly an ‘upgrade’ then.

Even the more open-minded tourist could be caught off-guard by the random madness. Some arrived with a week’s worth of food prepared, expecting bread queues… only to find plenty all around. Then they would discover that the promised museum trip was cancelled because the museum hadn’t paid the electricity bill and was closed! It was a case of never knowing what was going to happen next, but always being sure that something would… Neil stayed. He needed the money.

Next time: Neil wakes to find himself in a travel company… how did that happen? The art of knocking on doors in difficult times. And: friends in need, and in debt.

[Photo by GypsyFae]


Calling Moscow (Part 3)

by Bernard H. Wood 19 March 2010 Interview

Moscow, St Petersberg, and how Neil got into tourism from his theatre career.

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Calling Moscow (Part 2)

by Bernard H. Wood 12 March 2010 Interview

Part 2 of our Calling Moscow series, on how Moscow is primarily a Soviet city, not a Russian city.

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Calling Moscow (Part 1)

by Bernard H. Wood 5 March 2010 Interview

The first part of Moscow Calling, an interview and tour of Moscow with our founder, Neil McGowan.

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by Rob Chant 22 February 2010 Uncategorized

Our first post.

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