The public mourning was done (See “Death and Life in the Palace of Culture”). The cemetery was now history (See “The Tsar is Dead”). But, Russia was not done with Solovyev yet. His Memorial Meal at Optica lay still ahead. I had instructed my driver, Serge, to take us first to my apartment so Veronika and I could freshen up. That was not too easy. It was -20 degrees Celsius and the city had turned off all apartment building heat for the entire week.. The room temperatures at home were not that much better than outside, except there was no wind.
Veronika heated two large pots of water and we took turns at a traditional Russian hurry-up, stand-up-in-the-tub winter bath.
When we were doing business at “home” in St. Petersburg, Veronika lived with her mother, a 90-minute drive to the northern part of the city. But, for her and the company’s convenience, she kept a sufficient wardrobe in the “company apartment” to change or to stay overnight when needed. This night, however, no matter how late the affair would finish, I planned to have Serge drive Nika home after the Optica affair. During the four days since Solovyev’s assassination, for her safety, I had kept her as remote from me as possible when her presence wasn’t mandatory for interpretation.
Before we were on our way, I checked my hastily assembled and rather rudimentary security system. It was comprised of a rock climber’s rappelling rope affixed to the building’s aged and rusty steam heater , with the nylon strip of rappelling seat and the fifty feet of coiled rope placed adjacent to the balcony door. If and when some designated “hitters” blew a grenade or plastic explosive through the apartment’s steel outside door and then smashed the wooden inside door, my simple plan was to rappel off the balcony to the icy sidewalk four stories below. I had borrowed the set up from Svetlana Inozemtseva, a company employee also living in St. Petersburg. A medal winning rock climber, she had lent me her gear and given me a twenty-minute briefing the night before. The only hitch was that I had never used a rappel rope and though I remembered her caution to never let go of the rope with one of my two hands, I wasn’t sure whether she had said my left or my right.
Freshened up and dressed for the cold night, we secured the various locks on each door and left. We walked back down the four flights of stairs with me maintaining a distance of one flight between us. We had not used the elevator since Solovyev had been blown out of our partnership. The assassin had made the hit the instant Valeriy had stepped out of the elevator in his own apartment house just four days earlier.
Optica’s large office and factory complex at 120 Leninsky Prospect was but ten minutes drive from my apartment at Varshovskaya and Poebedo. Nevertheless, we were the last guests to arrive.
Armed guards, obviously part of a hastily organized security force, met us at the building’s entrance and one of them accompanied Veronika and me into the building. There we were greeted by Ivan Ivanov from Optica’s construction crew. I knew him as one of Solovyev’s most loyal employees and I had seen the workload he carried during the ten months of constructing the offices and Vision Express store of Lenam. Ivan looked to be 80-years old but Russian men routinely get old fast and he might have been as young as sixty or less. He was gnarled all over. His head was gnarled. His hands were gnarled. Even his body was gnarled. His face was folded, like the Chinese Shar-Pei owned by my Russian mafia next door neighbor. But, unlike most Russian men, his eyes laughed a little and the small lines around his lips turned upwards, showing a Russian rarity, a life history of smiles. Ivan was the reincarnations of one of Old Russia’s honest peasants. He might have been seen toiling in the fields at any time during the past eight centuries. His carrying strength was within a few dynes of that peasant’s slogging ox.
On this sacred night, Ivan’s way of showing his respect for “Jackum” was to physically hoist me up the steps ahead of him to the third floor by pushing upwards and forwards with his left hand under my right elbow as he followed from one quick step behind me. His strength was impressive, although I found it somewhat disconcerting to be climbing stairs with my feet only infrequently touching the steps. It was even comical, and Nika climbing up at my side allowed a quick smile to pass my way although neither of us dared showed a hint of that to the most dedicated and accommodating Ivan Ivanov. To do so would have been rude and an insult.
Ivan chattered ceaselessly about me as “his new chief” and how he would do whatever task I set for him as he always had for Solovyev. His Russian was simple and repetitive enough to the point that I needed no interpretation from Veronika. Nevertheless, with all his friendliness, I had a fleeting thought of not being in control and in that instant wondered “what if I am being pushed up into some “hitter’s” target range?”
Then, at the 3rd floor landing, Ivan steered me rapidly off the stairs to the wide swinging-doors entrance to the company cafeteria and pushing the right door wide open, he stepped aside and gestured for me, with Veronika close behind, to enter the vast room.
I was impressed.
Whereas, I had expected a much smaller assembly of top brass, there were six very long rows of commissary tables, thus twelve rows of seating, and each row seated some fifty mourners. Every last one of them was already drinking and eating and talking as Russian’s do – all at once together. Six hundred people represented more than the entire staff of Optica’s home office. Obviously, everyone had been invited.
“Jackum veehodeet!” Nearby voices announced our arrival. Instantly, from across the crowded room, where the leaders were obviously gathered, Grigoriy Barinberg raised his tall and impressive frame and shouted, “Mr. Byrne, please come here with us, you are to sit at the head!”
That had not been my intention. With the reasons behind the assassination still unknown, my intention had been to take a low profile, sitting in the middle as it were.
Then, Arnold Kogan, standing next to Barinberg, gave a small “join us” gesture. Next to him was Leonov, the powerful Tsar of the Optical Division of Russia’s Medtechnica who had come from Moscow to honor his former competitor. Leonov was also signaling for me to join the head table. Clearly, I was to have nowhere to hide. I wove my way through the admiring assemblage of middle management, research technicians, factory workers and store managers gathered to honor Solovyev. It was an internal company and all-Russian gathering, the business associates from other countries apparently had not been invited.
This made me feel even more alone.
As Nika and I walked between the rows of seated guests, scores of the company workers showed their respect, their warmth and, perhaps, their concern for my safety by reaching out to touch my arm or to quickly shake my hand. Some whispered to others, “Meester Vision Express”, a title earned from my frequent appearance in the joint-venture’s television commercials.
They had lost their beloved leader, their chief, and their protector who, through privatization, had given them a new birth nearly as significant as the one they came into the world with. Their pained eyes seemed to look to me for solutions and, even more so, for security. I touched them back warmly and exuded an air of confidence in the future that had nothing to do with how I felt inside.
Inside, I felt that “stone in the stomach that doesn’t go away”
The walls were lined with about thirty heavily-armed but quite ordinary looking men. Most of them, I realized, were yesterday’s Optica workers turned into today’s militia. Although a few of them looked professional, most of them looked lost. Their guns gave me little comfort as I had learned that, in Russia, if somebody wants to “touch you with a feather”, that somebody will do it.
And, get away with it.
Part of my emotional problem was that I was not sure who ordered “the feather” on Solovyev. Was it from outside or inside? Did the “Capo” touch the “Don”? If it had not been the Capo, wouldn’t he be in line for the next hit?. The two Capi were beckoning me to sit by them, in the most visible seat in the room.
When I arrived front and center, Barinberg bear-hugged me, kissed both of Nika’s cheeks, then sat us at the center position of the head table where we faced the twelve rows of Russians that filled the room. I immediately looked around to try to locate and identify any possible shooters.
As my head slowly tracked from left to right, Nika whispered in my ear, “I believe it is OK, Mr. Byrne. They would not risk the repercussions. Not yet.” I hadn’t suspected Nika knew what I had been thinking. But, I should have. Nika always seemed to know what I was thinking and what almost everybody else was thinking as well.
Then, I remembered the Russian proverb, “He who fears wolves should not enter the woods”. Realizing we had already entered the woods, I decided to stop looking and start thinking of the events so far and the events ahead. I whispered back, “No, no, it’s OK. But, we won’t stay too long.”
I was aware that Elena Drobiasko’s expressed concerns earlier in the day were not merely fantasy. I knew that Optica’s new leaders had resented my partnership with Solovyev. How often had I sided with Valeriy when Grigory or Arnold had disagreed with him in joint-venture planning and during operating meetings. Hadn’t I heard Barinberg say in Solovyev’s ear, “Crush them!” during one heated exchange. That was Gregory’s favorite business tactic. And, I was the “them” he referred to. That was why Elena had reiterated the phrase that very day. Hadn’t he seen Elena confiding in me, pleading with me, kissing me as though we had some soulful understanding? I wondered if I had become the last of the living ass-holes by agreeing to attend this post-burial function.
Enough of that, I told myself, it is time to line the stomach.
Each table was well laden with what it takes to send off a beloved leader, and the head table groaned the loudest. At every second seat, there were two liters of Stolichnaya, a liter of Georgian cognac, a liter of Armenian cognac, and a fairly cold magnum of St. Petersburg champagne. There were enormous platters of six or seven varieties of sausage, a similar selection of cheeses, garnished with cucumbers and tomatoes and various condiments. There were even larger platters of sardines, pickled sturgeon, Siberian salmon and other varieties of cold fish and even larger platters of fried chicken and even larger platters of peroshi shells, stuffed with a variety of meats, vegetables and cheeses trimmed around the edges, and red and black caviar on thin slices of black bread.
Finally there were baskets of sliced breads for sandwich making. The breads? Sorry, only two choices, white or black. As always, each was plain, tasteless and plentiful. All the breads, in all the regions of Russia, were baked under one technology, ancient, and one quality, poor. Both were found in the communist government cookbook. Regardless of perestroika and the break-up in ’92, with all their accompanying dreams of free enterprise and better foods, two years later there were still no private bakeries permitted in Russia.
So, in 1994, a tourist who wished to experience a sample of Soviet life under the communist regime could do so with ease. One needed only to walk into a bakery shop. Two choices of Clep. Belyi or Chorniy. Two types of service, offensive or inert. Time stood still. In the bakery.
At such a serious feast in Russia, you did not choose your drink, you drank first the champagne, then the vodka for the toasting, and then, if you were still standing or at least still breathing, the imported cognac. And, toasting, to be accepted as a sincere toast, required that the contents of one’s glass were to be downed in a single gulp or, at the very least, before the glass was set down again. Toasting always started in some formal manner and included the entire assemblage, but soon broke up into table groups or even into simpatico pairs who toasted each other on a schedule dictated by their chosen rate of consumption.
Obviously, in our absence, the first series of toasts to Solovyev had been made with champagne. Most of the champagne bottles at the company tables were lying on their side.
Nika wasn’t waiting for me. In her macho-Russian-woman way, she had grabbed the magnum and popped the cork and filled our glasses taking ten seconds for the process. We both wanted some food and drink before the serious round of toasting began. Each of us had chomped down a half-dozen peroshi and washed them down with three glasses of champagne before Barinberg pushed back his chair. I quickly opened the nearest Stoly bottle and poured a full measure in my shot glasses. Nika, as interpreter would not be toasting while interpreting.
I did not miss the subtle meaning of Barinberg assuming the role of host.
Before Solovyev was killed, Arnold Kogan had always appeared to be the next in command. His office was closest to Solovyev. His duties were broad and administrative. Barinberg’s duties had been more narrow and technical. But, it was Barinberg who stood first. He had a shot glass of vodka ready in his hand.
The room, until then, was rocking with serious conversations.
Barinberg clanged his knife on an empty water-glass.
Three hundred animated conversations screeched to a halt as though some speaker system had suddenly blown.
Under the circumstances, every ear wanted to hear every Barinberg word.
As Grigory talked, Nika whispered her simultaneous interpretation to me.
“My dear, dear comrades, my friends, my associates, each one of is the child of Valeriy Alexandrovich.” The room burst into an ovation, and many a “Da” was called out.
“We look all around this room. We look up and down. We look in the kitchen. We look all around. Here, where our father joined us every day, just like a worker, to eat from the commissary kitchen at a commissary tables, we look around and around and around. Is it possible he is not really here? He has always been here. Here with his people. Eating and laughing . Solving problems. Answering prayers. We cannot believe Valeriy Alexandrovich is not here.”
“Is it true he will never be here. Not tomorrow? Not for the entire life of his great company, Optica? ”
” We are bewildered. We are like children of war asking Mama why Daddy will not be home again. Somebody took our Daddy away and we weep and we wail for we never wanted our Daddy to leave us.”
The women were wiping eyes and sniffing in handkerchiefs. Many of the men were doing the same but with shorter, more manly, sniffs.
As he was speaking, Barinberg had taken the shot glass with his left hand and balanced it on the back of his right fist which he held before him, elbow bent, about a foot below his lips. Many men in the audience, including myself, had followed suit.
“Let us offer one more farewell!”
“Father, we are no longer your responsibility. We thank you for all you have done for us. We hope the gods have given you a large cup to share this final drink with us.”
He raised the glass on his fist to a position in front of his lips.
He swiftly tipped his fist and the glass met his lips as he thrust his head and fist back emptying the contents of the glass. Then, he threw the shot glass up off his fist, and grabbed it with the same right hand and slammed it on the table. Almost six hundred glasses landed, almost simultaneously. A few hit the floor. But, practice would make perfect.
Barinberg then picked up the tempo.
“Who dared to do this evil thing, we demand! How could such an unthinkable event come to be? Our tears of anger add salt to the tears of our pain. We want revenge. We are ready to kill in a way we never have been ready before.” His voice had become gravelly and harsh. “We WANT to kill!” He slammed his strong engineer’s hand on the table. I grabbed our open Stoly bottle to keep it from tipping.
“But,” his voice softened, “we are also aware that, like a child, we are weak, unsure and very afraid for our future. Yet, in every Russian family distressed by such a loss, the senior sons know they must grow quickly to fill the father’s shoes. They must, without hesitation, replace their father, become providers of bread, become protectors of all. The change must be instant, the transition seamless. They must do now, this instant, that which might have been required decades in their future. They must be able to assure all family members that the tragedy that befell their father will never again befall any family member. Never again!”
I was impressed by the strategy of his take-over speech.
“In the Optica family, as you know, there are two such sons.”
“We are fortunate to still have with us Mr. Arnold Kogan. Mr. Kogan has been at the right hand of Solovyev from the beginning, for more than two decades. Mr. Kogan knows all of this business of Optica very well. He is our finest administrator. All of us who own shares in this great company, can sleep at night knowing our business operations will continue as effectively as before.” He placed his newly filled shot glass on the back of his fist.
“Please join me in thanking Mr. Kogan for his past leadership and wishing him good luck and success in his continued administration of Optica for many years to come! To Arnold Kogan!”
Fists raised, shots downed, glasses slammed to the table. The rhythm in the room was impressive.
Kogan, pushing upwards with his left hand on the table, raised his body halfway from his seat, and, showing no expression of any emotion, waved his right hand limply towards the cheering crowd and sat back down. Kogan was not demonstrative.
Grigoriy was flushed with the vodka but more with the excitement of the event. He was, for the first time in his life, in control of the company. Somehow, I knew that he had already offered Kogan the back seat and that Kogan had accepted it. Much later I learned that Kogan would always be second in command. Only the leaders changed.
Barinberg now spoke in a more muted tone as though he was passing on a confidence he wanted no outsiders to hear.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we can never, we must never, go back. Life will be always darker behind us. We must not go back except to pay our respect to the past. The future is where life lies. A new life is ahead of us. A stronger life. Filled with fewer dreams and more reality. No longer will we be vulnerable to those who would do us in. You see many weapons here, where weapons have never been before. You see your co-workers carrying them. Get used to seeing weapons here and wherever your leaders go. But, your friends won’t be carrying these weapons.”
He pointed to a middle aged man standing against the right wall wearing a technician’s coat and carrying a Kalashnikov AK 47. “Vladimir is not a killing machine.” He pointed to a young man, similarly equipped, on the left wall in a typical Russian pea coat. “Yuri is not a killing machine. We are people of peace.”
“So, the day our leader was attacked, I made a certain call. And, yesterday, I hired a very special man with very high credentials in security and defense. He is not a man of peace. He has been a ‘killing machine’, for the Soviet Union and he has medals of a patriot to show for it. His assignment is to build an army for Optica. We will not wait for Leningrad’s poor, overworked and under armed police to ferret out the assassins or to find out who is next on the assassins unholy list. Now, Optica will have the capability of taking care of the other half of our business, the defense against invaders who would take away our profits and our company.”
There were cheers, loud ones, but only from the more aggressive of the Russian men.
” We are people of peace. But, if war is what they want, we will be the best at it.”
Encouraged, the entire assembly cheered, waved fists, pounded hands on tables and stomped feet on the floor.
“Please,” continued Barinberg as he balanced his vodka glass on the back of his right hand, with his left hand at his side, “Toast to our success in ALL our future missions.”
Fists raised, shots downed, glasses slammed to the table.
Barinberg’s thick Cossack mustache was bristling and glistening with small drops of vodka. His face was red and his eyes were shining. You could see he knew he “had them”. He knew it was time to sit down and let every Russian do what they love to do, to eat, to drink and to talk big. What bigger subject for talk than the one he had just laid upon them! He sat down. He never announced he was their new Tzar. He didn’t have to.
Nika was making a concerted attack on the food and the remainder of the champagne. She was suffering “interpreter’s disease”, starvation and thirst. You can not eat or drink during simultaneous interpretation. I made a sausage and cheese sandwich knowing I was to be in for a long session of talking and toasting. I had learned from the Russians, he who eats while he drinks lasts far longer than he who drinks alone.
I was watching Grigoriy whispering with Kogan, like new conspirators. I realized, of course, that Optica had just taken on a new form for the future. The company growth plan would no longer be based on invention and innovation but on intimidation backed by force. It didn’t take much imagination to see that “power” would be as effective in corporate operations and control as it would be in protection. The format was already well established throughout the “market economy” of the Former Soviet Union.
Change the auburn color of Barinberg’s wide bushy mustache to black, I thought, and he could be a stand-in for Joseph Stalin. The resemblance if not striking was, at least ,close. In more ways than one, I was beginning to realize.
As Grigoriy whispered on, Kogan seemed complacent and controlled. Then, when it appeared Grigoriy had asked him if we wanted to speak, Arnold shook his head in the negative and he raised his chin towards me. Nodding agreement, Grigoriy rose and walked over and stood behind me.
He grabbed my shoulders in his large engineer hands and leaning upon me, he addressed the assembly again.
“Here, we all know Jack Jamesovich Byrne!” There were instant cheers and clapping. “You know his face better than anyone because he is always telling us from our television to ‘Ochki Za Chas’ at Vision Express! Even our Mayor Sobchak’s face is not so known as Mr. Byrne’s”
“Because of Mr. Byrne, Valeriy Vassilovich’s dream to have western optical stores in Russia has become a reality. We have seen Mr. Byrne create a sale and have more people come to his store than to all of Optica’s other 44 stores in Leningrad combined. And, although many of us worked hard and long to see Vision Express become the greatest store in all the Soviet Union, Mr. Byrne brought to our venture marketing and money, one of which we did not understand and the other of which we did not have.”
Laughter and more clapping.
“Mr. Byrne is a very experienced man. He is a very successful man. And, he is an American. He can go anyplace he wants to. He does not have to be here tonight. He does not even have to be in Russia. I am not sure who of us would be here tonight if we could be in America instead. Some may have sent flowers with a message from Sochi by the Black Sea. But, Mr. Byrne is a responsible man and he knows his responsibility is to lend his support and considerable strength to the company his partner left behind.”
He let go of my shoulders, which brought immediate relief, and reached over for his Vodka which he then balanced on the back of his hand.
” On this night of pain and sorrow, for his courage and commitment and the comfort he gives all of us at Optica, let us raise our glasses to Mr. Vision Express, Mr. Jack Jamesovich Byrne.”
The glasses went up, the vodka went down, and 600 glasses hit the tables almost simultaneously again.
My ego, of course, was gratified by the applause and the trust and the enthusiasm. But, my nose kept sniffing to see if I could smell a rat. Before, I could explore that further, Barinberg, invited me to stand and to speak.
“Most of us were deeply moved by his words at the Palace of Culture, today. I ask Mr. Byrne to share with us his thoughts now as we gather here on this historical night.”
I took a small non-toasting shot of Stoly and stood up, realizing all the while that standing made me a better target. Worse, Nika, my 25-year-old Russian voice, stood at my side to interpret. I felt more anxious for her and I guess I showed it; she patted my hand as though to say, don’t worry about it.
I was aware I had to choose my comments and commitments wisely. Fresh in my mind was the panic response which had rebounded from the U.K. when told of the assassination. The most obvious result of that fear was the conspicuous absence of our company’s founder, Dean Butler.
Dean, not I, was the real partner to Solovyev. Each had founded his own company and owned a major share of its stock. Although I functioned as President in the FSU and ran the show, I was but a hired hand. Partners in all other Solovyev international ventures had made the substantial effort to attend the burial ceremonies, taking time and distance from their lives in Germany, Israel, Sweden and Eastern Europe as well as from Former Soviet Union republics like Estonia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and even from Mongolia and North Vietnam.
But, for all his enterprises, Solovyev’s greatest pride laid in his partnership with the world-famous American leader of the eyewear industry, the famous Dean Butler, the founder of the world’s biggest optical retail enterprise, LensCrafters. Although Russia’s most powerful eyewear entrepreneur, Solovyev became a world figure through his association with Dean.
Except for Barinberg, Kogan and Leonov, however, my audience did not realize the offense of Dean’s absence.
Solovyev would have felt the slap in his face to the depth of his bones.
As for the other side of the joint venture, I couldn’t be sure what effect this unprecedented event for westerners would have on the strategic development plans of Vision Express. I was certain it wasn’t going to be positive. At the same time, for my own benefit and my own faith in our project, I knew I would have to minimize and neutralize the loss of this partner to Dean and our Board of Directors. Selling trust in Barinberg as the replacement partner would not be easy. It had been Dino Tabacci, a key member of our Board of Directors (and one of the three family owners of Safilo of Italy, the world’s second largest frame company ), who had just two days before, on the phone from Padula, given me this Italian wisdom. “Jack, when a the Don is a suddenly morte, you must a first look to the Capo.”
It was even possible our Board would consider that Russia, as a market, had been shot out of my plans and into company history. However, I felt that such a result would be over my dead body, not only Solovyev’s.
Besides, tonight I had a role to play. So, I played it.
“My dear people of Optica. I am honored you feel it fitting that I should be here with you on this night so painful and personal to you all. I have known Valeriy Alexsandravich for such a short time. Some three years. And, that is a very short time with Solovyev because each day goes so fast. Look at what he has done with his great energy and dedication.”
“Only five years ago, Valeriy had a dream inspired by Perestroika. He dreamt his great Soviet enterprise, which blanketed the Northwest Region and served sixty million people, was capable of running under a different system. It would be a private system where both managers and employees would own all of the company, where the government had no role, and where the profits could and would go to those who made the profits, the company’s owners. So brilliantly did he and his associates, especially Mr. Kogan and Mr. Barinberg, present the case to the authorities that yours became the first manufacturing and retailing enterprise to be privatized in the entire Soviet Union”.
“Three thousand owners have built this business and if Valeriy Alexandrovich was your father, he certainly did a great job in bringing up his children. His and your success was visible all around you today at the Palace of Culture in the bodies of business leaders flown here from a dozen countries from all regions of the world.”
“Two years after the beginning of this private company, in late 1990, a former friend and associate of Solovyev, Yuri Fainstein, brought the world’s most famous optical entrepreneur, Dean Butler, to Russia to meet with Valeriy Alexandrovich. They became friends quickly and soon Dean Butler asked me to take over for him and to set up a Vision Express joint venture with Optica to bring the world’s most advanced eyewear stores to the Soviet Union. Before the final agreements were made, an extraordinary event occurred, due to an attempted coupe on August 19th , 1991. At that time, Solovyev stood courageously at the side of Leningrad’s Mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, as the brave Mayor declared that no forces from the coupe would ever be allowed entry into this historic city. We in America learned of Solovyev’s courage as we watched the events unfold in Moscow and here in your own great city. Then, suddenly, the coupe was over, its perpetrators imprisoned and not long later, the Soviet Union collapsed. The great nation of nations divided into its original 15 republics. And, all of these republics looked to do what Solovyev had done more than two years before, to establish a free enterprise system and enter the 20th Century world of marketing and profit.”
“The most significant new republic was, of course, Russia. More than all the others combined. You and Solovyev had a great head start, having been the visionaries to make the initial breakthrough and under Solovyev you pursued your new course with great courage, great energy and as in many new enterprises, with great risk.”
I knew that Russian managers would never have given the credit to deputy managers and workers that I was giving. And, under the Russian management system, they would have been right. Under the Russian system, an employee does not do things without a reason and the reason is always “because my chief told me to”. It’s not for the employee to decide whether the instruction is good, bad or destructive to the company. It’s simply not his problem. As for suggesting to his superior a better or even a different way to do anything is tantamount to requesting a demotion or exile to you know where. Even if through some miracle a worker might have had a thought in the first place, passing it up the ladder could cause the ladder to topple. On his head. Russian chiefs are insecure enough not to be shaken by learning that somebody under their authority has ideas equal to or better than their own.
So, although I knew I was speaking over the heads of the Optica people, I wanted them to sense that they have some strength within themselves, that the group can be more important than its leader and all that “good old American stuff”. I didn’t want them to think they faced a certain death without Solovyev or, worse, an uncertain life under Barinberg.
“Our dear Valeriy Alexandrovich, took one risk too many. Tonight, we don’t know what that risk was. But, we will find out and when we do, justice will be had.” My audience once more roared approval and shouted out agreement as though I had said “I will personally find and hang the varmint”.
It was still a time where Russian people looked upon American businessmen as heroes of the world. In my case, the overwhelming success of Lenam and my role not only as representative of the western partner, but as its spokesman in famous commercials, made me a superhero. To them, tall buildings were within my leap. Exacting revenge for Solovyev? For Jackum,, ”a piece of keks”.
What they did not realize, at least at that time, was that although the business West brought money and wisdom to Russia, only our government carried world-class weapons.
In a word, Russian crime was over my head. Thank God, my head was still on my shoulders.
“But,” I continued, “what Solovyev would want from us, much more than he would want revenge, would be to see his dreams kept alive. To see his businesses grow. To see all of you prosper in a market economy. To see all of us working harder than ever for the future of Russia as a new nation, dedicated to the freedom of its people and the freedom of their enterprise. One death will never shut us down. Look at you. You are Leningradians. You stood firm against 900 days and 900 nights of shelling by the powerful German Army and emerged with the final victory. We don’t have to win by attacking our attackers. We can win by steadfastness and continuance, making our father proud of how we stand up in his absence.”
“So let Valeriy Alexandrovich’s dream be our dream. It is now the end of 1994. Let us all set goals for 1995 that will make Solovyev smile and clap his hands in heaven.”
I paused to pour another shot and they all followed suit.
“To 1995, the greatest year ever for Solovyev’s dreams!”
With a western uncertainty I hoped was not observed, I struggled to get the shot glass balanced on the back of my hand and managed to get it to my lips without a spill.
600 glasses hit the tables almost simultaneously.
The clapping was more subdued now, maybe people were beginning to think.
I sat down. Nika had done a great job with the simultaneous translating.
No shot had rung out. I was still alive and with the half-dozen toasts downed, I had become to accept that I was not to be targeted this night. When Grigoriy pulled his chair over to sit between Veronika and me, I felt he was not all that intimidating.
He lived and now ruled in a Russian style, but he was a genius of optics and he had worked for Solovyev since he was a very young man out of University. I considered that I might have been harsh in allowing Dino Tabbacci’s case analyses take root in my mind. Perhaps, Grigoriy was the most hurt of us all and now he would have to be very brave, stepping into the shoes of someone who was just shot out of them and not knowing why.
He said, “Mr. Byrne” (Grigoriy never called me Jack partly in deference to our 20-year age difference but also partly, I felt, with a kind of light mockery, a type of “put-on” deference that a 300-lb linebacker might give to a quarterback). “Mr. Byrne, I am very grateful that you would come here to our small company and give courage to our people. It is a most difficult time for them and a most difficult time for me. I must assume leadership until the company elects a new president which cannot be until our annual meeting in March.”
“These people loved Solovyev and only Solovyev. They do not love Kogan and Barinberg. It was we who so often had to do the dirty work of firing people, cutting salaries, adding overtime without pay, making unpopular proclamations. Solovyev would have none of that. He would always act surprised when someone complained to him and would say he would look into it and after his hand was kissed in gratitude, he would go back to having Elena file his nails. It was the same with them with Elena. He loved her, so they loved her. She had the task of bringing them special gifts for good work, organizing picnics and other such happy events. She carried their praises from Solovyev and brought them special treats from her own kitchen where her mother slaved day and night so that Elena could give her tricky free gifts.”
He really did not like Elena.
“Yes, they all love Elena, she never had to make them work to earn their keep. And, when you brought us the plum pudding of the West, Vision Express, Solovyev put her in charge. She who sold tickets to cheap people to see cheap movies became Director General of Lenam, the most prestigious retail joint-venture in all of the Soviet Union. Now, she parades Vision Express successes around Leninsky Prospect like a whore waves her tail out a window.”
His head-of-steam heated the conversation. Certainly, the toasting had a hand in that.
But, he was low in tone and volume. He did not wish the workers to hear.
“You know that bitch. You know how she worked to make Lenam her own private parlor game, a place to entertain her actor and artist friends. A place to store her husband’s photography equipment and her mother’s furniture. A place to fuck Solovyev on a hot leather couch while her business callers stand outside her locked office door and wait. A place to flash her legs and her buttocks at every western salesman or Russian department chief. A place to plan trips to Siam and Vietnam and New York with her boyfriend. A place for making optical gifts to her family and friends. A place for sticking the pole up everyone’s rear end.”
Nika always softened the more vivid Russian expletives.
I was smiling and shaking my head in mock amazement at Grigoriy’s tirade. I had not been aware of the full depth of the bitter condition of the relationship of these two. Up until this day, while Solovyev still lived, Grigory would have been trampled by the pillow talk if ever he had disrespected Elena in this fashion. On the other hand, Solovyev was not a fool. He would never let his mistress cause him to lose the best optical brain in Russia. Now, the fence was shot down and the barking dog on either side would to prove the power of its bite.
“Grigoriy,” I responded, using my older and wiser voice, “I understand your frustration over these recent years. It is always the worst of times when one’s superior officer brings his outside business inside the confines of the company. And, Elena thinks like a Tsarina. She will not simply lie back and approach her lover’s assignments lightly. She feels that if she rules Lenam as he has ruled Optica, she will make him proud. And, she feels she knows what he wants more than any daytime business partner could. But, she is young, she is headstrong and she is a Russian woman learning how to be a western businessman. Of course, she makes mistakes. She has offended all of us many more times than we bother counting. And, she will again. But, she really works hard. I have seen her in the final days of construction of our store’s construction kneeling for hours on the marble floor and scraping up the spilled hardened concrete and other crew messes inch by inch, foot by foot, lasting longer than any worker at her side.”
Grigoriy snorted through his mustache. “Mr. Byrne, it was just for you she fell to her knees and put on that show. It was to prove she was a person with democratic blood just like you, that she would not demand anyone do something she wouldn’t do herself. Elena, the American housewife! Hah! She would spit on such ignominy. She was laughing in your face!”
He spit on the floor.
” Solovyev bought her six pairs of jeans for the one pair she stained on that floor.”
He spit on the floor again.
“That for her actress tricks! You want to know the real Elena, speak to Vlad V, maybe he is her boyfriend now. Maybe he could tell you what happened to Solovyev. Maybe he will be your partner now.”
What a serious turn for a conversation to take! Vladislav V had become the “roof” of Lenam. Through Solovyev’s urgings a year before we had decided that we as a retailer, could not exist in St. Petersburg without a “krishna”, a “roof” over your head. In western and bookkeeping terms, a security force. In more realistic terms, your mafia partner.
Each month, I gave Vladislav V $2,000 cash for the protection provided. This included, for the first six months or so, a sharply dressed, slick haired, gun-toting bodyguard who accompanied Elena everywhere and sat outside her office door when she was inside.
Now, I realized that Barinberg was afraid of a possible pact Elena had made with Dimitri, one that might keep Barinberg’s clutches off her and her business. One that could make her “inscrutable”. The frightened wren who had cried and sucked up my lips that morning at the Palace of Culture was a lot less vulnerable than she had presented herself to be.
Or, maybe she was really alone and had no pact with Vladislav V.
Vladislav had not come to the ceremonies nor would he have been expected or desired. However, I felt a great sense of foreboding, thinking of the possibilities of his involvement. Maybe it wasn’t the Capo. Maybe the girlfriend had made a new friend. The plot was already thicker than Borsch with pork.
It had only been a year since we had set the deal with Vladislav in Elena’s expansive but feminine office. He had been dressed in a suit straight from Guys and Dolls, wore a three-day growth of beard signifying his accomplishments and profession, but he had appeared then only as a “collector”, a “messenger”. Igor Kovalda was the man. Igor was his name, Kovalda meant “The Sledge Hammer”. Vladislav had even advised me to carry a small protective card in my wallet, which I did. It said “Friend of Igor Kovalda, call this number” and was followed by Igor’s number. In this way, any organized criminal would know I had proper protection and would either go away or call Kovalda before doing what he would with me.
About six months later, after I had not seen Vladislav in a month, we met again. He said, “Have you heard what happened to Igor?” I allowed that I had not. “He and three of his bodyguards were gunned down in his car in a drive-by attack.”
I realized instantly that I should remove my protection card right way. I took it out and said, “Guess I won’t need this anymore”. Vlad laughed. “Igor was ambitious, he had worked under another man and then decided he should have his own business. But, don’t worry, all the rest of his force now work again for Igor’s former boss, who is much more powerful and has influence all over Russia in business, politics, everything.”
“His name is Kostia Magela.”
Magela meant “Grave” as in “dig one’s own” or “have one foot in the” or simply “- digger”. The nickname sounded heavier than a sledge hammer to me.
All this made the current situation more confusing because Konstantine Yakovlev, the name Kostia’s mama and poppa had given their baby boy, already had an office at Optica. Was Kostia not the boss of Vladislav V?
If so, why did Barinberg seem so fearful of Elena’s relationship with him? One thing I could be sure of, I would not be getting all the facts or any of the facts from my Russian partners, not now that Solovyev was dead. For that matter, was there any truth before?
I decided I had to put a muzzle on Barinberg, and not encourage him to say more.
“Grigoriy, we must all work together now. We could tear apart our great business with our suspicions of each other. Maybe, whoever did this terrible deed would like that most of all. Solovyev dies and so his business commits suicide. Who could ask for more? You are a great man. Arnold is a very experienced man. Elena has a good head on her shoulders and she knows a lot more now than when she started. She will want to have the spirit of Solovyev satisfied by her carrying on the job. And, she will have to change now that Solovyev no longer shares her bed.”
“As for Vladislav, I am sure he will be looking for the killer along with the rest of us. He likes Lenam. He is proud to be a protector of such a fine business, so respected in Russia and I am sure it helps him get other clients. He would not screw that up. Please, let us give ourselves time to see how things work out as we try to recover and rebuild our company strengths. There is time for distrust later, if experience calls for it.”
“Mr. Byrne,” said Grigoriy, “you have heard my words. I have heard yours. Let us then speak no more and see, after time unravels life’s mysteries, who among us understood the situation best.”
Through his bristling and vodka dampened mustache, he smiled benignly. He seemed sure he knew the answer.
I agreed and suggested I would have to be leaving soon so that Veronika could get home at a decent time. He countered my plan, “But, no. I will have my driver take Veronika in my Mercedes. It will be faster and she will be safer for he is armed and skilled.”
It had already become “his” Mercedes, I noted. But, I agreed to his suggestion, because I felt what he said was true and because I knew that joy to Veronika Nazarova, second only to owning her own, was to ride around in a Mercedes.
The night was over, the whole day was over. I had felt I had spent 24 hours deeply immersed in a pair of interlaced Russian novels, Pasternak’s, Dr. Zhigavo, for the scenery, and Dostoyevsky’s, The Idiot, for the scenario.
The next day, I learned the party of the night before had one final twist. Barinberg’s driver, with an armed guard in the jump seat, carried not only Veronica to her home but Grigoriy Barinberg, as well.
He had spent the entire hour and one half trip trying to convince her, with guile, charm and seamless duplicity, that she was first, a Russian, and only second, Jack Byrne’s assistant. He offered to pay her twice what I paid her if she would simply keep him informed about my activities in the business and elsewhere in Russia. This was, he had assured her, “part of her duty as a patriot”. He spoke softly and sincerely without threat or intimidation as only a Russian man, riding in a chauffeured Mercedes with an armed guard in the jump seat, can speak.
She had given him no answer.
But she told me what he asked. That was my answer.