A Redhead at the Pushkin by John Francis Kinsella - HTML preview
Download the book in PDF, ePub, Kindle for a complete version.
A REDHEAD AT THE PUSHKIN
John Francis Kinsella
Published by John Francis Kinsella
Distributed by Banksterbooks
Copyright 2017 John Francis Kinsella
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favourite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the work of the author.
LONDON - PARIS - BERLIN
PART 1 EKATERINA
Since Pat Kennedy’s escapade in the Central American jungle, he had become a celebrity. The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading newspaper, had run a sensational front page headline Banker missing in jungle. That, and his run-in with the unloved City & Colonial bank, transformed Pat into some kind of a local celebrity and hero.
After he was knighted, for services to the country, my billionaire banker friend became a regular in the Daily Mail, preferably photographed with Lili, his rich and glamorous Chinese wife.
I pulled his leg mercilessly after he, an Irishman, opted for dual citizenship and a British passport, which allowed him to be addressed as ‘Sir’ Patrick Kennedy after he was made a KBE — Knight of the British Empire by the Queen of England.
In a way I suppose Sir Pat’s fame rubbed off on me. I was already a writer with a number of successful books, economics and history, to my name as well as being a contributor to the Guardian on economic questions, all very staid stuff.
That changed after I was invited to participate in a couple of BBC TV productions on the story of the 2008 Financial Crisis. I became better known and a minor celebrity in a rather narrow circle of armchair experts.
However, it was when I was photographed holding Ekaterina’s hand, next to Pat Kennedy, at the inauguration of her gallery, the Daily Mail got really interested, they loved it, comparing me to other ageing celebrities with much younger women as partners.
They described me as a world famous economist, race horse owner and friend of the late City banker, Michael Fitzwilliams, and the Russian oligarch, Sergei Alekseyevich Tarasov. Which was true, though a bit blown out of proportion.
Then, from time to time, we spotted paparazzi hanging about outside of our place, in the hope of grabbing an exclusive shot, especially when we had an evening at home with well-known friends.
It worked wonders for the Francistown Stud and Golf Club, with articles in the Irish press, and requests for interviews, which I accepted as a plug for Ekaterina’s gallery. I suppose Ireland was short of heroes, what with the bad image projected by Ryanair’s tight, penny pinching, Michael O’Leary.
A Big House
This is my story. Me, John Francis. I’m not the Pope, though if you believe the media some people might think I am. Francis is my family name. I’m not as young as I was, but in good shape, very good shape, and have reason to believe I still have a long life ahead of me. My father passed away at ninety eight and his father at ninety four, so I have every intention of getting the best out of the years ahead of me.
The reason? Well as the French say Cherchez la femme!
Ekaterina, but I’ll come to that later.
But first I’ll tell you about myself.
I’m a Professor Emeritus at Trinity College in Dublin, where I held the chair in economics for a good many years. So naturally I lectured on economics and the history of economics. I’m an academic and I live in an ivory tower. At least I used to.
For many years I’ve taught and written books on those subjects. Serious books, and also those that appeal to the public at large. Perhaps readers like you. The kind of people interested in what makes the world move. My books provide me with a steady flow of royalties and have earned me a place on the international conference circuit.
I am also head of a think tank and from time to time write for the financial press.
As a consequence of this background or life, call it what you will, I will deviate from time to time in my story to comment on the events around us, les maux du monde, and its leaders, and many other things. You can of course skip these monologues, but perhaps it’s worth spending a moment to pause and consider my observations and comments on events that may change your world.
From what I’ve said here you have guessed I have the means to chose what I want to do in life. Though between you and me my aforementioned activities are extras. Why? Because I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, as they say.
An economic rule, one commonly known to even the inerudite, is money breeds money, and in my case it’s been true.
About ten years ago I was introduced to the banker husband of Alice Fitzwilliams—one of my friends from the Irish horse breeding and racing world. It seems he was impressed by my academic pedigree, not only in economics but also my knowledge of modern Russian history.
Well, without going into detail, when the financial crisis of 2007-2008 broke, Michael Fitzwilliams asked me to head a think tank to advise his bank. The idea was to analyse world events, breaking crises, and anticipate the effects on markets. Model the effects so as to minimise the consequences and if possible profit from changing situations.
It was the start of my rise as the eminence grise, if you like, of the City bankers, Michael Fitzwilliams and Pat Kennedy, and confident of the powerful Russian oligarch, Sergei Tarasov, their partner.
Being an academic has many advantages, it offers great freedom, respect and—perpetual youth. Yes, perpetual youth, it comes from being surrounded by young people with young ideas and forever optimist. Young people who seem to appreciate the knowledge, experience, I can hopefully impart to them and who enjoy the tales I spin.
Living in the Peter Pan world of Trinity College, Dublin, where the towers may not be in ivory, but are certainly covered in ivy and steeped in the traditions of bygone ages, breeds a certain kind of laid-back approach when observing the world beyond our walls.
I’m one of a disappearing race, not the Irish in general, there’s no risk there. I mean the Anglo-Irish. Protestant on my father’s side, Dublin Protestants, nothing to do with the hard men of Ulster. On my mother’s they were Catholics from Wexford. Myself I’m an Irish Republican, through and through, that said I’ve always steered well clear of politicians, politics and religion.
I grew up in a ‘big house’ outside of Dublin. A ‘big house’ that’s the very large country homes owned by the Anglo-Irish landed classes. Ours, Francistown House, was built in 1764, near Newbridge, County Kildare, a fine example of Georgian architecture, set in one thousand four hundred acres of park, pasture and farmland overlooking the Liffey.
We never considered ourselves to be anything other than Irish, though my ancestors came over with Cromwell, not a good reference—best not spoken about, and our family name, Francis, that dates back to the Norman conquest of England.
We were lucky our house had not been burnt down like so many others during the revolt, or the civil war of 1922-23, perhaps because the family had been well considered, we’d brought work and prosperity to Newbridge.
The house and its dependencies are surrounded by rich limestone based farmland and to one side bordered by the river with good salmon and trout fishing in a green and pleasant part of the county.
The estate, of which I am now the owner, is partly a stud farm, Francistown Stud, and partly a golf club, Francistown Golf. I still use part of the house as a weekend home, the rest is given to the golf club with accomodation for paying guests and a restaurant, beyond the golf course the land is rented to local farmers.
It was my father who carried out the transformation, before he retired and moved to our house in Northside in the centre of Dublin.
I, with no dynastic ambitions, have no regrets.
County Kildare has been the heart of Ireland’s thoroughbred bloodstock tradition for generations, and my grandfather, Colonel William Francis, was one of the most successful horse breeders of his times. One of his triumphs included a grandsire of King Edward VII’s Derby winner, Minoru, at the beginning of the last century.
Those days are long gone. Regretfully the family successfully bred horses, but not sons. I am the sole surviving member of the long line of Francistown Anglo-Irish gentry.
One hundred years ago buyers came from Argentina and Russia, today they are from the Middle East, even my neighbours come from those lands, the Aga Khan and Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai. The Sheik, whom I’ve never met, or even seen, owns a stud at Kildangan, on the other side of Kildare, about twenty miles from Francistown.
Francistown is just twenty five miles from Dublin, but I rarely go to my country home these days, except to grace the club with my presence on special occasions, for a round of golf or a gallop on one of my horses.
My fixed home, if that’s what you can call it, is in Northside, and there’s a weekend place in Dún Laoghaire, a nice 18th century house overlooking the sea. My other home is in Galle in Sri Lanka, where I have spent the summer for as many years as I can remember.
I’ve always been discreet about what I own, especially in the presence of students, whose disliking for old wealth, inherited property and the upper classes is inherent with their age.
My parents sent me to boarding school in England. It was a family tradition and not any old boarding school, but Westminster School, where contrary to belief, family tradition really does count, fathers, sons and their sons, like in many such schools.
From there I went to Trinity, also a family tradition, after all we were Anglo-Irish and a long list of my ancestors studied at the venerable institution.
Why economics? Well the landed gentry didn’t go into business, at least in the past, many of us went into the Army, others into government service, and a few like myself became academics.
I grew up with horses, but after school in London and then Trinity, the idea of spending the rest of my life in Francistown was furthest from my mind. Life at uni in those days was more exciting than horses. I’d grown up surrounded by the estate, the running of which was a business, and international at that, as we sold livestock all over the world with buyers regularly staying at the house. But there must have been an ingrained streak of economics in my soul, so I drifted into my profession by default, doing what I liked rather than by making any other painstaking choice.
My father was a young officer in the Indian Army when WWI broke out. He saw service in the Middle East and his elder brother died in the Somme Offensive in 1916. Returning home in early 1922, he joined the Republican Army after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1922.
In 1930 he married, but I did not appear until 1940, apparently unexpectedly, he was forty five at the time, fifteen years older than my mother.
I had a happy childhood in Francistown, with my parents and surrounded by our estate and horses. That changed when I started boarding school in Dublin, returning home, to our town house in Dublin, or to Francistown, at weekends and for holidays.
Going to school in Dublin seemed normal, but when my father took me to London to attend Westminster School, things really changed and though I was only eleven I felt very grown up.
John Maynard Keynes said, ‘The study of economics does not seem to require any specialized gifts of an unusually high order.’ But I have to say I was good at maths and liked history, so economics seemed a logical choice.
The great man added, ‘Is it not, intellectually regarded, a very easy subject compared with the higher branches of philosophy or pure science? Though on the positive side he conceded, ‘An easy subject at which few excel!’
Now I’m not saying I excel, but when Keynes described an economist as the combination of ‘mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher—in some degree’ it was an idea that appealed to me, suited my temperament down to the ground, that is to say un-touche-à-tout!
Perhaps it was that which attracted Michael Fitzwilliams. A vision of the world, which combined with Tom Barton’s feeling for events made for the success of the think tank at INI, the London bank headed by Michael.
That all said, I’m not a Keynesian. I have my own ideas and as they say every idea to its epoch.
Looking to the future, my vision is that of a Cornucopian society. A world of plenitude, without work, where the fulfilment of the individual and his role in society is the ideal. A futuristic vision perhaps, but within our reach, even in the post-truth era of nationalistic politics, where each day Cornucopia relentlessly gathers force, where the production of our every need is made by machines, in agriculture, the transformation and distribution of food, in health services, in homes, for consumer goods and even entertainment.
Of course there will always be jobs, starting with the governance of Cornucopia and its leadership.
The only problem will be the finding the wise men needed. Men wise enough to dedicate their lives to their fellow creatures épanouissement.
In spite of man’s failings, I believe in his capacity to mould the future to suit his material needs and hope for the kind of providential leaders needed to oversee a golden age. A future where the well-being of all is more important than that of its leaders.
You may smile, but in my time the advances in technology and well-being have been staggering. Even the teeming millions of the Indian sub-continent and China can look forward to a material life of comfort compared to that of their fathers and even Africa is on the move.
After all, Keynes said in his essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, that by 2030, thanks to technological advances, the working week would be reduced to fifteen hours as workers were replaced by machines.
Enough said, my story is not one of economics.
One Hundred Years
As I left London for Moscow that balmy June day, the last thing I had in mind was a woman. My destiny had already been fixed and I would die an old bachelor, alone in Dublin. There would be an obituary in The Irish Times and a few words by the Dean of Trinity and that would be that.
What was uppermost in my mind, as I boarded the BA flight, was an article I had been asked to prepare on the events that led up to WWI in 1914 and the economic standing of the belligerents on the eve of that terrible and tragic war.
That war was foreseeable, though the scope and consequences weren’t.
A century ago, Europeans had stood on the brink of a planetary war, that ranged from Western Europe to the Bismarck Archipelago in the South Pacific. The First World War not only wreaked a terrible carnage, but announced a devastatingly new kind of armed conflict.
The result of that war brought about changes unimagined by the kaisers, czars, emperors and kings of Europe, even in their worst nightmares.
Empires disappeared, kings lost their thrones and the czar overthrown by revolutionaries. The war signalled the end of modern empires and the start of three quarters of a century of Communism in Russia. The French and British saw their empires bled white by the sacrifice of their youth, as the sun set on the last days of their fading imperial glory.
The Treaty of Versailles fixed reparations, redistributed the cards and divided the spoils and above all other things opened the way to a renewal of hostilities two decades later, which resulted in a world dominated by two new superpowers, the US and the USSR.
Those two conflicts brought five centuries of conquest and expansion by imperial powers to an end in a fratricidal conflict of never before seen proportions, the consequences of which continued to be felt across the planet as new forces jockeyed for power.
The object of my trip was to join Sergei Tarasov, Pat Kennedy and Tom Barton for the inauguration of an exhibition of mid-Twentieth Century Contemporary Art, at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, sponsored by INI Moscow and the London auction house Christie’s.
It was late Friday afternoon and we’d been talking in the car about the latest turn of events in the Ukraine, where an Ilyushin-76 transport jet had been shot down by a missile as it approached Lugansk airport in the east of the country. The heavy transport jet was carrying forty nine Ukrainian troops, all of whom died. Petro Poroshenko, the newly elected Ukrainian president denounced the attack by pro-Russian insurgents as an act of terror.
It was the bloodiest incident since February and the violent demonstrations in March.
Once in the Museum we turned our attention to art and the exhibition, which was part of Christie’s programme of events to sponsor its business activities in Moscow in the field of fine arts. The two hundred and fifty year old London auction house had been present in Moscow for twenty years and was soon to open its new office and showroom space in the Mokhovaya business centre, on the historic street of the same name opposite the Kremlin.
A couple of hours later, after the Champagne and speeches, the reception slowly wound down. I found myself in a deep discussion on the subject of Francis Bacon with Ekaterina Tuomanova, an expert on contemporary art at the auction house, and had not seen the time pass by.
‘Its late,’ I said looking at my watch, ‘I’m afraid I’m keeping you.’
‘Not at all.’
‘Well I’d better be going, if I can find the hotel,’ I joked.
‘Which one?’ she asked.
‘Oh. It’s not too far. I can show you the way if you like?’
A quick check told me Kennedy and Barton had already disappeared, no doubt as Tarasov’s guests at the Metropol.
‘Why not,’ I replied.
I wasn’t feeling up to yet another late vodka fuelled evening, drinking and clubbing with the crowd from InterBank. It was the expected thing for visitors, bars, clubs, hotels and restaurants, often surrounded by strikingly beautiful, barely dressed girls, some of whom were professionals, others just out for a good time, but all knocking back vodka shots under strobe lights or snorting cocaine in the restrooms.
I was getting too old and gladly accepted Ekaterina’s offer. As well as being able to show me the way home, she, in addition to being attractive and intelligent, would be pleasant company.
It was one of those deliciously warm early summer evenings and there was no sense of hurry as we walked in the direction of the Kremlin, then following its massive red walls towards Manezhnaya ploshchad.
Ekaterina told me of her home near Kaluga, a couple of hours drive to the south of the capital, and her student days at Moscow State University where she had studied in fine arts.
She showed me a photo of her six year old daughter, Alena. After her husband, an army officer, had been killed by a road side bomb near Grozny, she had decided to pursue her career in the world of art, returning to university and then the V. Surikov Moscow State Academy, before joining Christie’s at their Moscow branch.
In Red Square she pointed out the finer details of St Basils before we turned into the vast 19th century GUM shopping mall, then towards Okhotny Ryad where we stopped at Starbucks for a late coffee. Ekaterina was in no hurry and as we lingered over our coffees I couldn’t help noticing she still wore a wedding ring, on her right hand in the Russian tradition.
By the time we walked to the taxi stand it was almost one in the morning. As the taxi pulled away she waved goodbye, and to my surprise, I felt a sudden pang. It would be a long puzzling day before we met again, as she promised we would, for a concert at the Tchaikovsky Theatre the next evening.
The day following evening, Ekaterina arrived in the lobby of my hotel precisely on the hour. To my great surprise she kissed me lightly on the cheek and took my arm.
‘Are you ready John?’
‘Yes, no problem. I’m ready.’
‘So let’s go, we can walk. It’s about ten minutes, on the corner of Tverskaya and Sadovaya.’
‘Tonight we have the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra with Vladimir Fedoseyev conducting. The programme includes Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Bernstein.’
‘I hope you’ll like it?’
‘I’m sure I will.’
‘Not everybody likes Prokofiev.’
‘It depends on which piece.’
‘The theme is Romeo and Juliet,’ she said shyly.
‘Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet suite and excerpts from Bernstein’s West Side Story.’
I glanced at her shoes as we stepped out onto Tverskaya, they were elegant black wedge sandals in patent leather. No problem for walking. She wore a red half off-the-shoulder tulle dress. She was extremely beautiful.
Myself I wore a dark jacket, a slim-fit white shirt with a high open collar, black narrow cut designer trousers and fashionable black shoes. You should know I’m no slouch when it comes to fashion.
I’m sure we made a fine couple, more than one passer-by gave us an admiring glance, me, tall with my swept-back pepper grey hair, she with her long red hair bobbing on her bare shoulders.
The evening was warm, the continental summer climate had settled in, it was still early and in any case the night would be short, very short.
Tverskaya was the smartest avenue in Moscow and crowds of strollers, some chic, some much less so, were out to enjoy the evening. It took us just ten minutes to reach the concert hall.
I have to say I was surprised by the elegance of the concert goers gathered in the foyer. Ekaterina looked around as if she was searching for somebody. We were pointed towards the orchestra and an usherette showed us to our seats almost in the middle of the third row.
‘It’s always full,’ said Ekaterina looking around. She waved to a friend she spotted a couple of rows back to the left.
‘It’s Anna, she’s from Christie’s too, with her friend, Sasha.’
‘We always have tickets for our customers and guests.’
‘I hope I didn’t take anybody’s place.’
‘Of course not.’
‘Do you take many people out like this?’
‘It depends,’ she said teasingly.
‘On what?’ I insisted.
‘Whether I like them or not.’
‘Oh!’ I said lost for words.
A round of applause interrupted our conversation as the conductor appeared. The evening commenced with the Fantasy Overture.
At the interval she took my hand and led me to the orchestra bar where we were served a glass of Champagne with smoked salmon and caviar canapés just as Ekaterina’s friend appeared with her escort and introductions were made.
After another glass of Champagne, Anna announced they were going to the Cafe Pushkin after the concert and invited us to join them.
Ekaterina looked at me. I nodded in approval and she squeezed my hand evidently pleased by my acceptance.
The second part of the concert started with Bernstein’s Maria. As Ekaterina put her hand on mine I unexpectedly felt my heart tighten. I glanced at her, almost questioningly, but she looked ahead barely acknowledging me with her eyes as the pressure on my hand increased.
After the concert she bubbled with enthusiasm as we walked towards the Cafe Pushkin a couple of blocks away from the concert hall. The evening was warm and it was not yet ten when we arrived at the restaurant.
She told me how the French singer Gilbert Bécaud, after a concert he given in Moscow, had written ‘Natalie’ when he returned to Paris. He dedicated it to his Russian guide.
Ekaterina whispered the words, ‘We are walking around Moscow, visiting Red Square, and you are telling me learned things about Lenin and the Revolution, but I’m thinking, “I wish we were at Cafe Pushkin, looking at the snow outside the windows. We’d drink hot chocolate, and talk about something completely different…”’
‘There’s no snow now,’ I said.
Ekaterina laughed, ‘If there was I could keep you warm.’
Cafe Pushkin, named after Aleksandr Pushkin, Russia’s greatest poet and novelist, was situated in a Baroque mansion on Tverskoy Boulevard, which with the streets around it played an important role in Pushkin’s life. He was born into a noble family that went back to the time of Peter the Great. Tragically he died young, killed in a duel with his brother-in-law, Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d’Anthès, a French officer, who had attempted to seduce his wife.
The Pushkin with its salmon pink-hued façade, open twenty four hours a day, was housed in a magnificently restored 18th century mansion, originally built by a Petersburg nobleman, who had served in the court of Catherine II, then in the middle of the 19th century it passed into the hands of a German aristocrat.
The aristocratic mansion had been transformed into separate dinning rooms on different floors, accessed by an authentic looking 19th century caged lift, each with its own original décor and atmosphere. There was the Pharmacy Hall—added by the German, the Library, the grand Fireplace Hall, where diners ate under an ornate ceiling depicting the Nike—the Winged Goddess of Victory, and the Summer Terrace, where Anna had reserved a table, from which we could see Moscow’s golden domes.
It was magic, night had fallen and the lights of Moscow twinkled. Ekaterina translated the menu and we ordered blinchiki with black caviar, borscht and pelmeni, followed by the famous Czar’s Sturgeon, accompanied by vodka.
It was obviously not the first time Ekaterina and Anna had dinned at the Pushkin, which did not explain why Ekaterina seemed as excited as a young girl. Then when she excused herself for the ladies room, Anna spoke to Sasha in Russian, he excused himself and left to admire the view over the city.
Anna then quietly explained to it was the first time she had seen Ekaterina looking so happy since the loss of her husband four years earlier.
‘Be kind to her,’ Anna whispered. ‘She’s such a nice person, it’s so sad she suffered so much.’
I nodded politely, in agreement, though I was more than a little perplexed, I barely knew Ekaterina, but it was if Anna was pushing a relationship fast forward that scarcely existed. Nevertheless, I somehow felt flattered and in a sense responsible.
Sasha returned as the vodka arrived, a carafe set in a block of solid ice. The waiter poured four glasses just in time for Ekaterina, who looking more radiant than ever took her seat beside me at the table.
‘На здоровье,’ said Ekaterina raising her glass, looking directly into my eyes.
‘Sláinte mhaith,’ I replied, ‘that’s Gaelic,’ as I clinked my glass against hers.
We all laughed.
We talked about the exhibition and Ekaterina enthused about Pushkin’s poems and novels.
It was late when I walked Ekaterina back to her place, a renovated 19th century apartment building, off Tverskaya on ulitsa Yuliusa Fuchika.
We lingered at the entrance. She kissed me, took my face in her hands, kissed me on the lips. I was very surprised. Perhaps it was like kissing a dear friend, as Russians do. I hesitated unsure of myself. I responded, not very expertly, briefly wondering if I wasn’t a little drunk after the vodka.
‘I like you John. Tomorrow I’ll show you Moscow. Meet me here at ten for coffee then we’ll decide where to start,’ she said, then adding, ‘Apartment 44, Tuomanova.’
I remembered behind that cold façade Russians could be very emotional and very direct.
As I walked back to Tverskaya, I turned, she was still standing at the doorway, she waved and I waved back.
As an economist and historian in the public eye, I had always been careful with my personal relationships, steering clear of starry-eyed students and young women attracted by academics of my kind. Men of my age and profession who strayed always seemed to end up in some kind of scandal, which inevitably turned up on the pages of the Daily Mail, or some other tabloid.
That I’d stuck to the less exotic kind of women that were often found in my own somewhat cloistered world was not surprising.
Of course as a fairly well-known figure in the field of economic history I travelled extensively, lectures, conferences and that kind of stuff, and from time to time had encounters with women, when I felt sufficiently far from home to avoid snooping eyes.
That was before I met Ekaterina.
My family came from Kildare in Ireland, close to Newbridge, which had once been a centre for the British Army, and where a large cavalry barracks had been built in 1819. The men of the family had a long tradition as cavalry officers, serving mostly in the British Indian Army. One of my grandfathers served under Lord Kitchener at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898. But that’s going back quite a way.
One of my ancestors had bought land near Newbridge in those early days to raise cavalry horses and farm. He called the house Francistown and it has remained in the family ever since.
When WWI broke out my father was a young officer in Bengal, where my grandfather had been a Lieutenant Colonel in the 7th Hariana Bengal Lancers. He saw service in the Sudan and Middle East, his elder brother who served in the 4th Cavalry, died in France in 1916. When my father returned home in early 1922, he joined the newly formed Republican Army after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1922.
Newbridge barracks was then transferred to the Republican Army. It was closed and demolished soon after—it bore too many unhappy memories after being used as an internment camp during the Troubles.
He married in 1930, and I did not appear until much later, apparently unexpectedly, he was forty five at the time, fifteen years older than my mother.
I had a happy early childhood in Francistown, with my parents and surrounded by our horses. That changed when I started pre-prep weekly boarding school in Dublin at the age of seven. Until then I’d gone to the small St Patrick's Church of Ireland school in Francistown.
At boarding school I returned to our house in Dublin, or Francistown, at weekends and for holidays.
It was near home and I got used to it quickly. But cosy proximity to home changed when my father took me to London when I was eleven to attend Westminster School, in what was a strange and very different new world, one where in a way I felt grown up.
At Westminster I excelled in maths and history. Before, Irish history had been deathly boring, but it was impossible to avoid it in Dublin, then under the shadow of Éamon de Valera, a life long example of economic error. The proximity of Westminster School next to the Abbey, Parliament, Whitehall and Trafalgar Square, aroused an interest in history and after visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum I became enthralled by Britain’s imperial exploits in which my family had directly participated as officers in the Indian Army.
After leaving Westminster School, I took a long mind-broadening break travelling in Europe before heading for Trinity, where I spent three years reading modern history and economic science.
The next three years were the best, my return to Swinging London, where apart from enjoying myself, I spent three years at the London School of Economics, studying the dismal science, which I discovered was anything but dismal.
I walked from my hotel to ulitsa Yuliusa Fuchika. It was Saturday morning and I dressed relaxed, black denims, a white shirt and pullover draped over my shoulders just in case the temperature dropped, which was not on cards according the TV weather forecast.
Pausing at a kiosk on Tverskaya I bought a bouquet of different coloured roses. Then a few minutes later I arrived at Ekaterina’s apartment building, it was strange I did not recognise the entrance I had seen the evening before in the twilight.
Peering through the glass street door, I could see into an inner lobby, there was a metal wall panel with buttons and names.
I pulled the door, then pushed, to no avail. There was a plaque with a code. Perplexed I stood on the steps wondering what to do next. I looked at my watch it was past ten thirty. I turned my eyes to the garden square across the road, hoping to see someone who could perhaps help me. There was no one, just the trees swaying slightly in their spring finery, and birds hopping amongst the freshly bloomed flowers on the borders.
Suddenly the door opened as a woman and a child walked out of the building. I nodded, grabbed the door and went in. In the lobby I checked the name panel and stopped at ‘Apartment 44 Tuomanova’, and pressed the button.
‘Fourth floor John.’
There was a click and I pulled on the second door, entered and took the lift.
A few moments later I stepped out on the fourth floor. It was dark. I took off my sun glasses. At the end of the hallway daylight light streamed in through the open door of an apartment, then Ekaterina appeared.
‘John,’ she exclaimed planting a soft kiss on my cheek and ushering into the apartment.
I offered her the flowers and she kissed me again. I wished I’d bought a few more.
She looked ravishingly fresh.
A little girl appeared.
‘Say hello to John.’
‘Hello John,’ she said with an almost perfect accent.
‘What’s your name?’
‘My name is Alena.’
‘Nice to meet you Alena. How old are you?’
‘You’re a big girl.’
She smiled shyly.
‘Would you like some coffee John?’
‘That would be nice.’
I sat down and admired the little girl. She resembled her mother, but her hair was blond.
‘Where do you go to school Alena?’
She pointed and Ekaterina told me the school was a couple of blocks away.
As she prepared the coffee in the kitchen my eyes wandered around the apartment. I was seated at a table in the living room. There were three doors, bedrooms no doubt and a bathroom. Outside I could see the garden and the building on the opposite side of the square.
It was modern with stylish furniture, decorated with paintings and a couple of bronze table sculptures. A bookcase was lined with works on art and on the coffee table stood a vase in which Ekaterina had place the roses.
She reappeared with a tray with a coffee pot, Russian style glass cups and a plate of biscuits.
In the clear daylight I could not help remarking she was a real redhead, the kind you see in Ireland. It was unusual in Russia where many women were blonde and quite a few of them coloured their hair various shades of red, from a metallic wine to reddish-brown, just like women at home colour their hair blonde.
‘Have you had your breakfast John?’
‘Yes, at the hotel.’
‘How was it?’
Alena played with a Barbie doll as Ekaterina poured the coffees.
‘So John, what would you like to do today?’
I shrugged feeling a little awkward.
‘Well, I suggest we go to the market to start with, I have some shopping to do, as a working mother I have to stock up for the week, so you can help me carry the bags,’ she said laughing. ‘If you don’t mind John.’
‘Not at all, I’d be delighted.’
‘Then this afternoon we can go to Kolomenskoye. Have you been there before?
‘Kolomenskoye is one of our most beautiful parks. We can go on the metro.’
‘Eliseevsky is just ten minutes on foot. I don’t often shop there, but it’s a monument. You’ll like it, it dates from 1901.’
The three of us left the apartment and strolled along Yuliusa Fuchika towards Tverskaya past Sadovaya and Tverskoy. The weather was glorious, though the traffic was heavy as usual. We stopped looking in the windows of the fashionable boutiques. Alena skipped along holding her mother’s hand.
The magnificent pastel coloured 18th century building, housed Moscow’s largest and most famous delicatessen, originally built as a palace by Katherine the Great’s secretary of state for his wife.
It was bought at the end of the 19th century by a St Petersburg merchant, Grigory Eliseev, and transformed into the Eliseev Store and Russian, Foreign Wine Cellars. They sold tea, coffee, cereals, butter, cheese, sausages, rum, fruit, truffles and anchovies and just about every other kind of fine foods.
After the Revolution the store was renamed Gastronom N°1, though Muscovites continued to call it Eliseevsky.
The Neo-Baroque food halls with their pillars and arches were still illuminated with huge crystal chandeliers, and a portrait of Grigory Eliseev still stared down at the shoppers from its place between two pillars over the entrance to the wine hall.
There was a bewildering choice of foods, nothing had changed in more than a century, fish, caviar, fresh meat, cured meats, wines, liquors, tea, coffee, conserves, biscuits, chocolates, dairy products, fruit and vegetables. Harrods’ food hall was good, but this was astonishing and I wondered why I’d never stopped to look inside before.
Ekaterina stopped at the counters for cold meats, fish and vegetables, consulted her list and bought the different items she needed. I wandered around with Alena admiring at the displays of exotic delicacies.
From a distance I observed Katya, she was fairly tall, though not that tall. She held herself well and seemed confident as she pointed to the food and spoke with the assistant.
It was no exaggeration to say Russia is full of beautiful women, any Western man walking down the streets of Moscow cannot help noticing that. Myself I’d seen my share of jaw-droppingly beautiful women in hotels in Russia—some keen to visit my room for a fee.
Of course Russian women come in every size and shape, but over the years I’ve always been surprised by their beauty, though by the time many are forty, because of their diet and lack of care, they lose their looks.
It was midday when we returned to the apartment and Ekaterina set about preparing lunch as I watched. I had a strange feeling of déjà vu, it was as if I was part of the family and yet I had known Ekaterina barely two days.
We sat down together at the dinning table that she had set out with cold borscht and fresh cream, salad, potatoes, smoked fish, cold meats, wine and apple juice.
I was surprised by her efficiency and the spread. She poured wine for us both and apple juice for Alena.
‘А сейчас, веселитесь! bon appetit,’ said Ekaterina inviting us to start.
As we ate we chatted about our respective lives in Moscow and Dublin. Ekaterina was more interested to know about Ireland, my home in Kildare and my horses, than Trinity College or my work. Equestrian sports were not very common in Russia, apart from in the Caucasus. But whilst out of reach of most middle class families, there was a growing interest in riding.
‘I’ll show you my farm in Ireland.’
Alena looked at her mother.
‘We’ll see,’ Ekaterina said smiling and caressing her daughter’s cheek.
We took the metro to Kolomenskoye Park, a short ride from Tverskaya. At first, the street outside the station looked dismal, surrounded by drab Soviet tower blocks, then walking down ulitsa Andropova we turned towards the entrance on ulitsa Novinki where the scenery changed as the park came into view.
And it got better after we'd passed a rather cheap collection of souvenir booths, with the landscape opening out, miraculously transformed into a bucolic park with orchards and woods appearing before us with to one side the Kolomenskoye Museum Reserve of architecture and art, with its different buildings and exhibitions, and further beyond a collection of historical Orthodox churches.
With the fine weather we were joined by crowds of Muscovites out to enjoy the fresh air of the rolling parkland with its woods and meadows stretching nearly five kilometres along the banks of the Moskva River.
Ekaterina told me its history, originally a village founded in 1237, then three centuries later the village became the Czar’s estate.
The main attraction of the park was the Church of the Ascension of the Lord, built in the 16th century by Vasily III, to celebrate the birth of his son and heir, Ivan the Terrible. Its style and architecture contrasted with the modern cityscape on the opposite side of the river.
Then there was the Church of the Icon of Our Lady of Kazan with its bright azure and gold domes, built at the time of Aleksei II and the Church of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, built by Ivan the Terrible for his coronation.
We walked to the Moskva and followed its banks as Alena ran free, delighted to be out in the park. Ekaterina pointed out all the different points of interest, taking my hand, leading the way. I was surprised by her enthusiasm and couldn’t help wondering if she treated all her men visitors in that way.
I let myself be guided as she told me about herself. Her life in Moscow, the difficult period after Viktor’s death, the struggle to get back to normality, her art studies, her apartment, her parents, everything.
‘I’m talking too much John.’
‘No, not at all.’
‘Perhaps you think I talk like this to everybody?’
‘No,’ I lied.
‘Since Viktor’s death quite a few men have tried to date me, but I was not ready. I needed to rebuild my life myself.’
‘Well I’m here with you.’
‘An old man.’
‘No, John. I think you’re different.’
‘Really,’ I replied, flattered, but not convinced.
‘Let’s sit down here,’ she said pointing to a spot by the Golosov Ravine not far from the river.
‘What are your plans for the future Ekaterina?’
‘Well, I’d like to meet someone I could love and who loved Alena.’
‘Here in Moscow.’
‘Of course, this is where my life is.’
I felt a twinge of disappointment inside.
She opened her bag and set out a napkin with cakes and a bottle of fruit juice and then called Alena.
I looked on as she poured juice into a plastic cup. She was beautiful, dressed in a summer dress and flat walking shoes. She could have been my daughter. I wondered what I was doing in a Moscow park with this young woman and her daughter whom I had only just met.
‘What would you like John?’
‘Oh, some juice like Alena.’
‘What are you thinking John?’
‘Or course you are.’
‘Well we’re here together. It’s very pleasant. I’m like Alena’s grandfather.’
‘A very young grandfather. You know my mother is nearly twenty years younger then my father.’
‘Is that so?’
I felt pleased, some kind of hope stirred inside of me.
‘When are you going home John.’
‘Normally tomorrow, but I’ve changed my flight to Monday.’
She smiled with pleasure and put her hand over mine.
‘So we can plan something for tomorrow.’
‘Yes, of course, why not.’
We returned to ulitsa Yuliusa Fuchika where Ekaterina prepared the diner as though it was the most normal of things.
‘John, I can ask my neighbour’s daughter to look after Alena if you’d like to go for a walk after diner.’
‘I’d like that.’
‘She’s seventeen and Alena likes her.’
An hour latter we strolled down Tverskaya. It was after seven and the evening sky was bright, the temperature in the mid-twenties.
‘We can walk to down to Manezhnaya Square and the gardens.’
There was a lot of people out. It was Saturday evening and with the fine weather Muscovites were enjoying the long early summer evenings.
We walked hand in hand, it was as if we had always known each other. Ekaterina chattered about everything. I listened.
Thinking about it, I realised I could count the number of close friends on the fingers of two hands. I’m told that’s normal. My oldest friends dates back from those early days. First is James Herring, who I met at Westminster School, then there’s Kenneth McLaughlin and Tom Wolfe both of whom I first met in Pimlico whilst still at school.
Surprisingly, I maintained few contacts with the other boys from Westminster, perhaps because our homes were so far apart—so much for the old boy system, which certain worked for all they could, including Michael Fitzwilliams, who went to Charterhouse.
Later at LSE, when I was much older, I made one or two friends, not that close. As for Trinity, they are what I would call my academic friends, you could call them professional friends.
Westminster School was probably the oldest teaching establishment in England, a school where boys have been educated, if tradition is to be believed, since before the Norman Conquest. In any case some of the buildings date back to the construction of the Abbey in the 11th century.
I was eleven years old when I was packed-off to Westminster. Why? Because it was a family tradition that went back a long way. As I’ve said, the men in my family had served in the British army in India, or in the colonial service, and their children went to boarding school at home in Ireland, in London, or wherever.
They were cavalry officers in the Indian Army, that’s why we still breed horses in Francistown, some for the army, including Calvary Blacks, and mounts for the Metropolitan Police.
Westminster School is situated within the precincts of Westminster Abbey, a boys school until recent times, which produced many illustrious men including seven Prime Ministers. That meant nothing to me when as a rather dazed eleven year old I was unceremoniously dropped off at the Under School on Eccleston Square, in Pimlico, by my father, after having spent a couple of hours shopping at the Army & Navy Stores on Victoria Street to complete my school kit.
It was a time of reconstruction and transformation, with the wrecker’s balls demolishing the last of the majestically adorned 19th century Imperial style buildings on Victoria Street to make way for modern office buildings.
I spent the next seven years of my life in London, apart from my school trips to Paris or Rome and holidays back home in Dublin and Francistown.
At thirteen, we transferred to the Great School next to the Abbey, starting in what was called Lower School. Soon Pimlico became my playground ground, and with my friend James Herring we escaped school whenever the opportunity presented itself.
It was not always easy to creep out, but as we got older we figured out a thousand ways to escape, sneaking out to Great College Street and heading up to Strutton Ground where we could escape from the gloomy confines of the ancient Abbey precincts. One of our favourite sorties was to the Schoolboys Own Exhibition held every year at the Horticultural Hall on Vincent Square, though our tell-tale plain grey uniforms marked us out wherever we ventured.
The entrance to school was off Great Peter Street, on Great College Street, into Dean’s Yard, which we called ‘Green’, and then through Liddell’s arch into Little Dean’s Yard, simply called ‘Yard’, where the heart of the school was situated. There an archway leads through the Dark Cloister to the Abbey, and the school gym.
Dean’s Yard, a large square green, was surrounded by the school buildings on the west side, and Church House to the south, the administrative headquarters of the Church of England.
Victorian buildings for borders halls surrounded the yard, and ‘up School’, a service was held every Wednesday with prayers sung in Elizabethan Latin. A special service commemorating the School’s founder, Queen Elizabeth I, was held every two years in the Abbey, on 17th November, the date of her accession in 1558. We called it ‘Big Commem’.
We ate in the ancient Abbott’s Dining Hall now called the College Hall, which served as our canteen, eating under the watchful eyes of former deans, whose sombre portraits hung on the walls around us.
For those of feeling a little peckish between meals we bought our treats at the tuckshop, I remember the red brick walls pock marked by the sharp points of pencils and penknives by generations of impatient schoolboys waiting in line to be served. It was situated near the Fives courts, a kind of jeu de paume, played with a gloved hand and a hard ball against a wall, a bit like handball, which was still played in Ireland in those days.
It was a curious coincidence that the Adam Smith Institute, one of the world’s leading think tanks, founded in the seventies, was housed in one of the buildings adjoining the school on Great Smith Street, which gives me the opportunity on occasions to drop in on my old alma mater whenever I visit the institute.
Another legend was the ‘Greaze’, a pancake tossed over a bar by the head cook, ‘up School’, that’s the School Hall, and a mad scramble ensued as we fought to grab the biggest piece, watched by the Dean of Westminster Abbey and the head master. The pieces of pancake were weighed on a scale and a symbolic gold sovereign awarded by the Dean to the winner, not for keeps.
Starting in Under School was hard, but it became a way of life as I progressed to Lower. By the time I started Upper School, at sixteen, I’d become totally assimilated and not only that, I was a Londoner, no doubt a special one, I’d completely lost any remaining trace of my Kildare accent, to the point when I returned to university at Trinity they took me for an Englishman.
I was in Grant’s house, Petty A, and we played football and cricket ‘up Field’ in Vincent Square, a playing field in front of the Horticultural Hall, ten minute walk from our school. I still remember the smell of horses that drifted across the square from the mounted police stables on Rochester Row, which always reminded me of Francistown.
Some boarders like myself, whose families were far away, lived full time in the school, it was like our second home, though we were glad to get away at the end of term.
Weekends were not that long as there were classes Saturday morning school and football, or cricket, in the afternoon. Sundays we boarders caught up with homework or went to museums and galleries by bus, or underground, especially the Science and Natural History Museums in South Kensington.
All those years I spent in and around the Westminster Abbey and it’s precincts seemed so normal. It was part of the background décor that I like the other boys ignored. After seven years I knew every nook and cranny of the Abbey, though I could barely recite its history or identify a single tomb, statue or remembrance plaque.
I like most boys took the Abbey for granted. The Abbey was also our school chapel where I attended countless services and listened to so many lessons read by the Dean. Like all people I was marked for ever by my school environment and my early life in London.
One of the events that marked me most was being part of the Queens Westminster Rifles, a cadets corps. I liked the camps and the annual parade in Vincent Square, with a garden party, and a full military band, when we were inspected by a royal or some other top dog.
Most of my friends from Westminster went up to Oxford or Cambridge, but that wasn’t in my family’s tradition and I lost contact with many of them when I went on to Trinity.
I’m a member of the Elizabethan Club, Westminster School’s alumni association and from time to time I return to Westminster where I’ve spoken at the John Locke Lecture, a weekly programme, where a wide range of visiting speakers talk on political, cultural, business and academic subjects, but much has changed since my own school days.
It was nine when we arrived at the square under the Kremlin walls. The gardens were dominated by three large glass domes, the largest of which was surmounted by a bronze horseman, encircled by fountains. A little further was a sunken forum with more fountains, marble bridges and balustrades, and the entrance to the vast underground Okhotny Ryad shopping mall.
‘Have you visited the mall John?’
‘Yes, but we can take a look if you like.’
I’d visited the mall a number of times before, it was right opposite my hotel. For those who remembered Brezhnev it was surprising contrast to that austere Communist epoch, a capitalist paradise right under the Kremlin’s nose on three levels and with more than one hundred boutiques. To my eyes it was rather kitsch with its glass domes, sculptures and fountains, but in the winter it was a welcome escape from the bitter Moscow cold and snow.
‘Let’s look at Krasnaya ploshchad,’ she said pointing to Red Square through the Voskresenskie Gates.
The sun was going down behind the Nikolskaya Tower as we crossed the square in the direction of St Basil. Ekaterina pointed us towards the vast GUM building. Russia’s largest department store, Gosudarstvenny Universalny Magazin, or GUM, on the east side of the square opposite the Kremlin. She told me it had been originally built as a shopping arcade 1893.
‘You don’t mind looking at the shops again John?’
‘Of course not,’ I replied with a laugh. By now I’d follow her anywhere.
It was not the first time I’d spend time wandering around GUM, which was now an upmarket shopping mall with an endless number of fashionable boutiques and stores, a paradise for shoppers, both men and women.
We strolled through the colourful galleries looking at the fashions amongst the Saturday evening crowd out for late shopping.
Ekaterina browsed through the summer dresses in one of the stores as I waited outside the fitting rooms. Now and then she popped out for my opinion. When she appeared with a red off the shoulder dress, she was stunning. I marvelled at her beauty, her youthfulness. Again I felt as though I was out with the daughter I had never had.
I persuaded her to take it, a gift I told her.
‘I’ll wear it tomorrow when we go to the islands.’
We then walked back to Tverskaya and the National, my hotel.
‘Would you like to drink something?’
‘We’ll go to the bar.’
‘No, your room.’
We took the life to the fourth floor. I had a two room suite that overlooked Manezhnaya ploshchad. Ekaterina put her shopping bag on one of an upholstered arm chair, then went to the window to admire the view of the square and the Kremlin.
I stood uncomfortably watching this beautiful woman who had invited herself into my room.
‘What would you like Ekaterina,’ I asked turning to the bar.
I opened the minibar, and turned. She was there standing before me.
‘You, John,’ she said putting her arms on my shoulders and kissing me on the lips.
Before I knew it we were in the bedroom, on side of the bed. In a quick movement she had slipped her dress off and was helping me out of my polo and jeans.
Her body was perfect, her skin very lightly tanned. She pulled back the bed covers and slid in, pulling me towards her.
It was some time since I’d last made love. During my already long life there had been many lovers. In my profession there were many young women, though students I’d always carefully steered clear of, on the other hand I’d often had passing relationships with researchers and assistants, and the women I’d encountered on my many travels, but with age desires were less urgent, in any case it was a very long time since I’d experienced anything that could be described as a serious relationship.
I suppose having had no long lasting relationship was something to do with me being an only child and the independence I had grown used to at school, far from home.
I took Ekaterina in my arms and caressed her body.
She was hungry.
‘It’s a long time since I made love John.’
I restrained myself, gently taking her face in my hands, then rolled onto my back with her astride of me. I entered into her slowly and feeling her excitement pressed her body onto mine.
She climaxed quickly with several soft sighs, then relaxed. I remained inside of her as her muscles relaxed. She whispered to me in Russian.
I said nothing.
She slipped off me holding me with her arms.
We didn’t speak.
We caressed each other then slept for about an hour. Ekaterina then whispered she had to go. There was the baby sitter.
We walked up Tverskaya. Arm in arm. Little was said. It was a special moment.
I left her and walked back to the hotel. I stepped lightly, felt warm, a new lease on life, I knew that from now on things would not be as they had been before.
In three days my life had changed.
What would it mean for me, my life, my way of life, me, a dyed-in-the-wool bachelor, which didn’t mean I was against love or romance, it was just that it had never happened.
Back in my room I hummed to myself—A kiss is just a kiss. Well I’m not exactly Bogart, though on second thoughts, looking in the mirror, I saw a vague, though haggard, resemblance.
Though on closer examination it was an old man. Be it well preserved, but nevertheless old. Doubts then started to worm their way into my mind.
In a sense I suppose I’m a romantic, it’s perhaps why I never married. Marriage puts a quick end to romance I’ve heard people say.
Anyway that kiss, that encounter, had an electrifying effect on me. I couldn’t pretend it didn’t. Then I started to question the seriousness of what had happened, analyse my feelings. Platonic? Well it wasn’t any longer! Maybe there something sexual? Was I playing some kind of father figure role? Or was it a mixture of all three?
Perhaps Ekaterina was attracted by my wealth?
That was not evident, I was not a public figure, neither had I broadcast any detailed information about myself, or boasted, that wasn’t my style, in fact it was something I’d learnt to be quiet about since I was very young, families like mine did not speak about what they possessed. That said, the simple fact I was in the company of Tarasov and Kennedy at the Pushkin, obviously two friends, and both very rich men, pointed to the fact I was not a just another a bag carrier.
I was what some would call a very private individual, discrete. The value of my interests in Francistown and my Dublin home had made a spectacular jump as Ireland recovered from the economic crisis. My property holdings were known to friends and locals in Kildare. The Francistown Golf Club and Hotel alone would have provided me with a comfortable income, in addition to that were my consultancy fees and stock options from INI, which were published as required by law, though very discreetly, deep in the fine print of the bank’s voluminous annual reports. As for my earnings from academia and book sales they were relatively modest, but would have provided a less fortunate scholar with what would have been for many a comfortable income, but nothing very spectacular.
That made me a very well off individual though I’d always been careful to project an image of being nothing more than moderately well-off. It didn’t do to attract attention and families like mine had learnt that discretion pays.
I couldn’t sleep so I poured myself a drink and switched on the television to relax. It didn’t help. I was hounded by my doubts. The only thing that was crystal clear was I felt very attracted to this beautiful and charming woman, who seemed so natural and sincere, it was stronger than me.
I went to bed my mind full of churning thoughts and imaginings. I was an old man, one who would have never thought he would find love here in Moscow and with a woman I’d only just met.
But was it love or infatuation?
Would it be churlish to take the first flight back to London. In any case I decided I’d check with the booking office in the hotel the next morning. In the meantime I tried to sleep.
I woke up early. The weather outside was splendid and the thought of leaving Moscow had completely evaporated. Before breakfast I set off on a long walk around the Kremlin, down to the Moskva River, to Kitaygorodsky, up Loubiyanka, past the Metropol and the Bolshoi, and back to the hotel.
I showered and as I dried I looked at myself in the mirror. Not bad for an old fuck I thought, not a millimetre of fat.
I took breakfast in the hotel restaurant and caught up with the news in the Moscow Times and then set off for Ekaterina’s place.
Purposely I avoided the metro and its foetid air filled with the odour of peregar—the smell of metabolised alcohol. I set off on foot. I didn’t want to spoil an exceptional moment by rubbing shoulders with the seedier side of Moscow’s daily life.
I felt a spring in my steps as I walked up Tverskaya. I felt good, more confident. Life was now and I decided I would savour every moment of it.
I arrived at the apartment feeling happy. Ekaterina was glowing. I was no sooner inside than a kind of domestic bliss seized me—me an old bachelor.
We embraced. Alena looked up curiously as she played with her Barbies.
Was this her new uncle or grandfather? She had never known her father, only her grandfathers. They were old men, so was I, hopefully not so old.
‘Today we’re going to Dubrovitsy, it’s a small town about forty kilometres miles from Moscow,’ Ekaterina announced. ‘We should take advantage of the fine weather. What to you think John?’
‘Yes, it’s an estate that belonged to Boris Alexeyevich Golitsyn and his family in the 17th and 18th centuries.’
‘We’ll go in my car, it takes about an hour, depending on the traffic.’
Ekaterina drove a company car, a Lada Largus, which was nothing like the Ladas of the old days, but a re-labled Dacia Logan, produced in Russia by Renault.
I was at once impressed by the way Katya drove, confident and carefully. Not racing like most Moscow drivers, some of whom seemed hell bent on killing themselves or someone else.
She gave me a running commentary as we headed south and out of the city on the M2 towards Podolsk, a small industrial city without any particular charm, but to the west was the Dubrovitsy Estate, which lay at the confluence of the Desna and Pahkra Rivers, surrounded by parks and gardens.
Katya told me of Prince Boris Alexeyevich Golitsyn1, who had served Peter the Great and in 1690 was made a Boyar, a high ranking member of the old Russian aristocracy. He accompanied the czar to the White Sea and took part in different campaigns before becoming one of the triumvirate that ruled Russia during the czar’s many absences.
Golitsyn it seemed was influenced by Western Europe culture, spoke Latin and provided a Western education for his children. That said, he was a drunkard, which eventually caused his downfall.
The palace was originally built in the 1750s and rebuilt in a neoclassical style half a century later. But it was not the palace that surprised me, it was the church, which was in total contrast to what was expected of a Russian church.
The Church of the Znamenie, Ekaterina explained, was named after the Icon of the Mother of God, also known as the ‘Sign’, a powerful symbol in the Russian Orthodox Church.
Inside the church Ekaterina pointed out the statuary which was consecrated to the Crucifixion and the Passion of Christ.
That evening Ekaterina had the babysitter look after Alena again. We dinned at the National. A candlelight diner accompanied by a piano in the Piazza Rossa, an elegant Italian restaurant with a stunning view of the Kremlin, not that we were looking.
It was well into the night when I put Ekaterina in a taxi.
PART 2 LONDON
Back in Town
Monday morning I flew back to London where I had a meeting scheduled with Michael Fitzwilliams. Business was far from my thoughts, which were fixated on Ekaterina and when we could be together again. I would have trouble concentrating on the tasks ahead that suddenly seemed mundane, unimportant, uninteresting.
My whole programme was suddenly up in the air.
Over the years I had gotten to know Russia and the now defunct Soviet Union. From the Caucasus to Karelia and from Tallinn to Vladivostok. Before and after Mikhail Gorbachev’s dissolution in the last days of 1991. I had visited the countries of the Soviet Block, from Cuba to Vietnam and China, its Eastern European satellites and those countries that had espoused its version of socialism, from Algeria to Angola. All of which had been marked by Communism, its economic debacle and its authoritarian methods.
During the course of more than thirty years I had watched Communism fight to impose its doctrines and then its slow decline into chaos, followed by the re-emergence of its downtrodden peoples from the ashes, renewed and filled with hope.
China had transformed itself into an economic giant, hauling its peoples from deprivation into the modern consumer society. Russia, after its bitter post Soviet start under Boris Yeltsin, was on the road to building a different society, more prosperous, freer, though it was clear Vladimir Putin was creating an authoritarian government around an oligarchy of powerful economic interests, flexing his muscles in the international arena, as he placed his pawns in Ukraine and elsewhere, ready to build his version of a Greater Russia.
However, that was an economist’s vision, an historian looking back. What I now realised I had missed was the human side of the Russian story. Of course I had read of the fate of the last czar and his family, of Lenin and Trotsky, of Joseph Stalin, Pasternak’s and Solzhenitsyn’s novels, but of the ordinary people I knew little or nothing.
Now, suddenly, I was about to be cast by fate into Russia’s arms, and although it was still very early days, I sensed I would soon find myself close to its soul.
On arriving in my London apartment off Victoria Street I’d called Ekaterina. We talked for three or four minutes, it was three in the afternoon Moscow time, she was still in the office. I promised to call her that evening.
My place on Ambrosden Avenue, opposite Westminster Cathedral, seemed empty, sad. I felt very alone. I changed then set off for Broadway Underground where I took the District Line to Bank and walked to INI’s headquarters in St Mary Axe in the City.
‘How was Moscow John?’ Michael asked.
‘Its usual self Fitz.’
‘You stayed over the weekend?’ Michael asked raising his eyebrows.
‘Yes, catching up on culture. I had nothing on in London.’
We talked about the loan syndicate that Sergei Tarasov had lined up for the Yakutneft business and the risks. There was nothing else on the horizon and we agreed to review the situation after the holidays unless a crises of some kind cropped-up in the meantime.
When I returned home to Ambrosden Avenue it seemed depressingly empty. In fact it was always like that and I wondered if I’d become a recluse. A feeling that was certainly a reaction to my euphoric weekend—withdrawal.
How was it possible that my life could change so quickly, that so many doubts and hopes occupied my mind? How was it possible that Ekaterina was suddenly drawn to me the previous Thursday afternoon in the Pushkin? Someone she’d never seen before in her life.
What was I getting myself into?
I poured myself a drink and tried to think my way through the events. Then I called her.
Moscow, London, they were great cities, my own, Dublin, was a small parochial town, as small and parochial as Joyce described it. Today Trinity is comparable to many universities in the UK, but when I went there as a freshman it was small, nothing like Oxford or Cambridge, or even the many less talked about universities across the water.
It started as a monastery and in my opinion there were still one or two monks in the place when I first walked through the Arch.
The advantage of Dublin is that you can walk almost anywhere, even the college itself is very compact, which prevented it from physically expanding.
The Rubrics was built in about 1700, and is the oldest building in the college. Most of the other older buildings were built in the 19th century. The Arts block, which most agree is an eyesore, was built soon after I started lecturing. The southern end of the college is the most modern part with cricket, rugby, football pitches.
When I returned to Dublin from London accommodation at Trinity was scarce and not great, it was why I opted to stay at our town home on Northside rather in College as we called it then.
The College was a bit more than a tenth of its size today in student numbers with just a third of them girls. It was nevertheless a breath of fresh air compared to Westminster. Our lecturers were very unlike those of today, they were very what I suppose you could call individualistic and temperamental.
The majority of us boys were English or Irish with the rest from the US, or the Commonwealth, with relatively few from the Continent.
I am what some people call a West Brit Protestant, though it doesn’t mean I’m less Irish than the others, and Trinity was our Protestant college for most of its history, laying within the Pale, where many Anglo-Irish families lived, in towns like Newbridge, on the edge of the English bastion, next to the Earldom of Kildare.
We were accused by some people of being stuck-up nobs, and even at Trinity I’d heard that said. Which, if it means being well-off Protestant landowners is true, and I can’t deny that my English accent doesn’t always endear dyed in the wool Shinners to me—that’s Sinn Féiners.
In 1945, George Orwell, reviewing Sean O’Casey’s ‘Drums Under the Window’, criticised a tendency on the British left, to permit us Irish our nationalistic fervours on the grounds of our oppression, asking why was it that ‘the worst extremes of jingoism and racialism have to be tolerated when they come from an Irishman.’
Dev—or Éamon de Valera, was an old man in those days, but he had left an indelible stamp on Ireland, which was still a backward narrow society, though to me there was an air of freedom when I galloped across the Kildare country side, or strolled down O’Connell Street on my way to Trin in the mornings.
I was one of the few students who had a decent car at the time, a modest Morris Minor, and could drive to Francistown in a less than an hour. That meant I could go home for weekends, sometimes bringing a couple of friends so that we could enjoy a wild gallop across the countryside. It depended on what was going on on Saturday evening or Sunday at Trin.
At that time there were few Irish Catholics at Trinity. The Church had long forbidden its faithful from attending the college, a ban that discouraged most prospective students from even thinking of applying for a place. My family were Protestants, so my choice was in keeping with our traditions.
After Westminster I didn’t feel out of place in Trinity’s historic buildings, the library with its extraordinary Long Room, its playing fields, or the ‘Hist’ as the College Historical Society was called, the oldest debating society in the world, founded in 1770.
Trinity was more like a college than a university, everybody knew everybody. It was a happy family living together cosily in those fine old Georgian buildings, then without what I consider are the tasteless modern appendages now crudely planted amongst the college’s ancient buildings.
In those days things were more exclusive and stricter. Those living in college had to attend Commons in their black gowns, roll calls preceded lectures, women had to leave the college by eight in the evening, but we felt one and weren’t lost compared to the kind anonymous uniform mass of mostly Irish students today, spread out in different establishments across the city of Dublin.
Today the college proper, with many of its buildings ranged around large squares and two playing fields, is divided into three faculties, comprising twenty five schools, offering degree and diploma courses at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.
In my day, when I became president of the the College Historical Society, better know as the Hist—the world’s oldest student society, life at Trinity was marked by its traditions, the Regatta on the Liffey, cricket matches, its sartorial style, and its unique centuries old culture.
By the end of the decade, when I returned to take up an assistant professorship, the old life was being swept away by change, new ideas, buildings, expansion and democratisation, all of which I was, for better or worse, part of.
Today I’m a Fellow and Professor Emeritus. I stopped lecturing a few years back, though from time to time I’m invited to lecture on specialised subjects and I still drop in to Commons at Trinity whenever I’m in Dublin to meet old colleagues and friends.
The Basque Country
It was the eve of the French national holiday as Pat Kennedy and myself stepped out of the bank’s jet at Biarritz’s Parme Airport. During the one hour flight from the City Airport we had changed from business suits into summer slacks and polos. Incognito, Pat joked, ready for the drive to Hendaye in a rented yellow passe-partout Renault Twingo.
Pat had persuaded me to join him for a short summer break, escaping the stress of the on-going crisis that was still weighing on the City.
We were the guests of Tom Barton and Sophie Emerson for the five day weekend at her villa in Hendaye, twenty kilometres to the south of Biarritz. The fact Pat had more or less invited himself, was of little importance to Tom or Sophie, on the contrary it was a long-standing standing invitation and they were delighted to see us two Irishmen.
Pat had earned his break after months of jetting back and forth to Hong Kong and Beijing promoting the bank’s business in China, which as he put it, was another kettle of fish in comparison to Europe or the Ukraine, where the crisis rumbled on.
We were welcomed by cocktails and lunch served by the pool overlooking the Baie de Chingudy. The weather was perfect. ‘Not always the case,’ Sophie warned us, ‘the hills are not green for nothing.’
‘Better than London,’ said Pat.
‘….and even better than Dublin,’ I added.
‘Don’t talk about Dublin,’ complained Pat. ‘The weather’s been as bad as our credit rating.’
We all laughed.
‘Hey, we’re not here to talk about business,’ said Sophie filling their glasses. ‘I hear you’ve been back to Russia,’ she said looking at me with a twinkle in her eyes.
I took off my glasses and wiped them with my napkin. It was impossible to keep a secret.
‘Yes, I suppose they told you.’
They all laughed again. My budding friendship with Ekaterina was now an open secret. Pat Kennedy and Tom Barton had been present at the Pushkin and had missed nothing.
‘What’s her name?’ enquired Sophie brushing aside my embarrassment.
At that moment the noise of a jet approaching San Sebastian Airport on the other side of the bay turned their attention.
I dodged the question as Pat came to my aid.
‘What we’re worried about is the situation in Russia and the Ukraine, it’s already a shooting war, and if Russia tries to invade it, then anything can happen.’
I quickly picked-up the thread, talking about an idea that was making the rounds, a parallel between the on-going economic and geopolitical problems and events that had led to WWI.
Peace in Europe had reigned for seventy years and in spite of serious regional wars, the great powers had somehow, at least for the time being, managed avoided the spread of conflicts.
‘Enough politics,’ announced Sophie, in a final effort to steer us away from business and geopolitics. ‘This afternoon it’s San Sebastian, then fireworks and tapas this evening. Then tomorrow the Guggenheim in Bilbao.’
The Think Tank
The quirk of fate that had brought me to where I am is the ad hoc think-tank that Michael Fitzwilliams asked me to set-up in mid-2007. The goal of Adhoc, that’s what we called it, was to analyse world events. Michael, like most bankers, had seen the dotcom crash coming, but had not anticipated its consequences. Neither had he foreseen the changes that would come with the election of George Bush and Tony Blair. As for the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, he had been as shocked and stunned by the unimaginable tragedy as the rest of the world.
I’d realised the consequences of a banking crisis, which was taking form on the horizon, would be much more far reaching than that of the dotcom crash, the effect on Wall Street of 911, or just about any other economic event since the Great Depression.
I had spoken to Michael about the risks and by the time Lehman Brothers collapsed, he was a little more prepared than many other bankers. The burst of the sub-prime bubble left Britain’s five largest banking institutions2, staring insolvency in the face.
On Monday October 13, 2008, the government in London announced Lloyds TSB was to take over HBOS with the help of seventeen billion pounds of taxpayers’ money, and an injection of twenty billion for RBS. The resignation of RBS’s infamous chief executive, Sir Fred ‘the Shred’ Goodwin, was immediately effective.
The news of the bailout had prompted a weak, but short-lived rally on the London Stock Exchange. Markets were about to experience a stomach wrenching plunge as investors driven by the fear of God fled in every direction in search of a shelter.
I told Michael if his bank was to survive the coming storm he needed a plan. It was impossible to stagger from one drama to another as they had done over recent months. More such crises were surely on their way.
The problem with bankers, industrialists and capitalists in general, was they saw no further than the end of their noses. Of course they carried out research, but none foresaw the impact of politically charged events across the planet. The fall of the Berlin Wall had come as a surprise to many political leaders, and even more so the demise of the Soviet Union.
Equally astonishing was their failure to anticipate the astoundingly rapid rise of China and the imbalance of its trade with the West as its exports inundated world markets, creating a massive one way transfer of wealth.
Michael’s family bank had been steered for generations by the seat of the pants of its successive conservative heads, who had reacted to events as they occurred. Their role had been to conserve and defend the family’s wealth and privileges with little attention to the dangers and possibilities in the world at large.
In early 2007, the world had been laid-back, too laid-back from Michael’s belated view point. America ruled the world and Britain stood at its side as a proud ally. Five years had passed since 9/11 and its aftermath. The execution of Saddam Hussein, in the last days of 2006, seemed to have closed a chapter, and the world had entered what all had hoped would be a period of prolonged prosperity. But danger always came from the least expected quarter.
On August 18, 1991, four top Soviet officials flew to the Crimea, where President Mikhail S. Gorbachev was on vacation, and placed him under house arrest. The next day Russians awoke to the news and the declaration of a state of emergency.
The leaders of the coup appeared astonishingly amateurish and uncertain of themselves, as the country was plunged into its most profound political crisis since the Revolution.
Three days later, Gorbachev suddenly reappeared and the coup collapsed into an extraordinary farce, more in common with a banana republic than the once almighty Soviet Empire.
Quickly a pre-revolutionary czarist flag, a white, blue and red tricolour, was hoisted over the building of the Russian Supreme Soviet, the nominal legislative body, in Moscow.
Soviet Russia was simply following its satellites in Eastern Europe, where the Communist regimes had collapsed one after the other like a set of dominoes.
The Soviet empire had been agonising in a deep economic crises since the death of hard-liner Leonid Brezhnev. The end of the road had been reached. Chaos and bankruptcy awaited the USSR.
The hated hard-liners had lost and Boris Yeltsin, a former mayor of Moscow, entered onto the stage, publicly confronting Mikhail Gorbachev, the elected leader of the Russian Republic within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
The Soviet Union collapsed as its constituent parts broke away from Moscow. In December, Boris Yeltsin and the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine had met and agreed on the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev was not present. He resigned as president of a state that no longer existed, replaced by the Russian Federation, shorn of its empire, though inheriting all of its institutions.
Those institutions, which represented the dark soul of Russia’s totalitarian regime, continued to exist, slowly clawing back their prerogatives under Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin.
By 2017, those same institutions had become the instruments of authoritarian power under Putin’s rule, where censorship and one-party governance had been effectively restored and where life resembled a more materialistic version of the Soviet Union with Putin's inner circle and a few privileged complaisant oligarchs manipulating the strings of power.
The effort of rebuilding the USSR after WWII was not to be overlooked. The terrible battle against the Nazis had left vast regions of the USSR in ruins and its infrastructure destroyed. But victory over Hitler had not meant the end of severe hardships for the Soviet people and the task of reconstruction was of staggering proportions.
The transformation of the Russian war machine to that of producing goods for the people was a monumental task, but by 1950 miracles had been worked, though the economy had been geared more towards recovery of infrastructure and less for comforts and consumer goods. But with the arrival of Brezhnev the USSR fell into stagnation, politically, economically, and socially, creating the conditions that left it economically weak as growth became increasingly dependent upon oil and gas exports and the toll of the Cold War took its effect.
Authoritarian Communism did not work.
Thomas Nixon Carver, Henry George, not forgetting Karl Marx and Engels, had been the food of thought for my more reactionary students for decades. The more serious preferred Ricardo, Adam Smith, Galbraith, Keynes and the Austrians. Economic theories and their proponents were there by the shovelful for every kind of politician and demagogue, and failing the suitability of an existing model, any aspiring dictator could invent his own. As to the greatest dictator of all time, Hitler, he believed, ‘The basic feature of our economic theory is that we have no theory at all.’ In spite of that the Nazi government had in practice followed a Keynesian policy of large public works programs and deficit spending, including the building of the world’s first Autobahn network, stimulating Germany’s economy and resolving its problem of unemployment.
I had my own utopian theory. Cornucopia. It was incomplete, for the simple reason I had not resolved to my satisfaction the problems of debt. However, in my mind Cornucopia was already en marche.
I remember watching, with the world, the astonishing scene when Mikhail Gorbachev, in the closing days of 1991, declared the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was an extraordinary moment in history and I was unbelievably happy to witness such an event, history in the making, the disintegration of the USSR, Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire, into fifteen separate states.
The West had triumphed. The Cold War had been won. It was a victory over totalitarianism for democracy and freedom. The victory of capitalism over Communism.
What caused this spectacular collapse—the end of a system the world had known and feared for seven decades?
The Soviet Union had been built on the ashes of Imperial Russia within approximately the same territory.
After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Russia entered into a civil war, then after the death of Lenin, Josef Stalin rose to power and transformed Russia into a terrifying totalitarian state, a calamitous experiment in utopia, which many fellow travellers in the West refused to see.
The second World World was a catastrophe of cataclysmic scale in human and economic terms when Hitler turned against the USSR. Miraculously the Soviet Union survived, thanks the heroic sacrifice of the Red Army, and to the arms supplied to it by the US.
After the war the centrally planned economy, in spite of its initial successes, failed to provide the USSR and its satellites with their material needs, due in part to the onerous cost of the Cold War with the West, which led to a long decline and finally the bankruptcy of the Soviet Communist system.
In 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev was elected to supreme leader, he attempted belatedly to undertake the reforms necessary, but the rot had gone to far and the system collapsed. With his policies of glasnost and perestroika3, Gorbachev had not realised his plans, coupled with the dire economic conditions Russia had endured under Communism with the effects the Cold War, would unleash a wave of pent up desires for change.
The dislocation commenced on the peripheries, in the Baltic republics, first with Estonia demanding its autonomy, followed by similar moves in Lithuania and Latvia.
Gorbachev’s refusal to use repressive force led to the demand for independence from other regions and republics, encouraging nationalist movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and the Central Asian republics.
Moscow lost control of the situation and following the attempted a coup by the hard-liners, the country collapsed into near anarchy.
In late December 1991, after Mikhail Gorbachev’s resignation, the USSR ceased to exist, and Russians woke up to a new, less caring, more dangerous world. Gone was the Communist Party. Industry collapsed. Services fell into ruin. And the spectre of hunger and poverty rose as a new class of predators appeared, pouncing on and devouring the state’s assets.
At the same time the country was invaded by foreign made goods and products, many of which were beyond the reach of the ordinary people, and shortages started to appear on street corners as supermarket shelves slowly emptied.
The subway tunnels and the passages under Moscow’s streets were filled with the poor, selling books, magazines, scarves, flowers, chewing gum, imported beer—anything they could lay their hands upon to earn a few roubles as jobs disappeared and salaries went unpaid.
Crime surged, casinos and nightclubs sprung up everywhere, gangsters, drugs and prostitution became omnipresent.
After the dissolution Moscow’s streets and public places were deeply depressing. There were few advertisements and the windows of the few shops I saw were empty or spartan, filled with shoddy looking goods.
I remember the small unheated supermarkets with their lines of empty and almost empty shelves, watched over by cold sorry looking babushkas, wearing heavy coats and shawls, one of whom painstakingly weighed the biscuits I was buying on an old-fashioned scale.
Walking back to my hotel in the evenings the poorly light streets were empty, no bars, restaurants, or warm places to sit and relax, just the occasional car flashing past at great speed, throwing up showers of black slush.
On my first visit to Moscow I was surprised by the monumental scale of the city, the vast empty squares and boulevards, Stalin’s brutalist architecture, a striking contrast compared to the unplanned layout of London, or Dublin the capital of Ireland which was a mere village in comparison.
The metro stations were drab palaces filled with the streams of even drabber people, expressionlessly streaming past like automats in Fritz Lang’s classic film ‘Metropolis’. The cavernous marble platforms, halls and corridors filled with the socialist statues of heroic factory workers, their eyes fixed on some distant utopian future.
The bankruptcy and dissolution of the USSR was a monstrous disaster in the eyes of many Soviet citizens. Functionaries in government offices, teachers, nurses and factory workers were unpaid for months, surviving on handouts from their institutions, few escaped the desperate conditions, even the privileged nomenklatura had to tighten their belts, unless they were lucky enough to have a few dollars hidden away.
Slowly things got better as Yeltsin’s catastrophic reign ground to an end. Dollars circulated freely as the rouble became ever more worthless. Inflation became a scourge, the purchasing power of wages shrunk to a pittance, public services tottered the brink of total collapse, buildings already in a state of advanced disrepair became dangerously unstable, burst pipes, cables and wires hanging from roofs, façades and doorways, pavements were uncleared of snow, covered in thick black ice as pedestrians shuffled past in a strange ballet, mountains of garbage piled up in alleys, homeless, abandoned children and alcoholics roamed gardens and public parks amid fields of broken glass in a foul mist of stale urine.
Vladimir Putin ushered in change, transformation was everywhere, Moscow had a new face, cleaner, greener, and less threatening. Suddenly cafés were filled with fashionable smiling young Russians, the first generation of non-Soviets, with their laptops, sipping espresso coffees, shops were bright and filled with the latest fashions.
But Soviet style authoritarianism lingered on, overnight, demolition crews moved in and without warning bulldozed hundreds of the city’s picturesque vending kiosks, to the shock disapproval of many Muscovites, and above all the vendors, who lost their means of living.
Moscow’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, former governor of the oil and gas rich Tyumen Region, was one of the prime movers behind the transformation. Appointed in 2010 by Vladimir Putin, and elected in 2013, on a straightened budget he ran a city of nearly seventeen million, one of the world’s largest, an almost superhuman task.
For the moment, however, he had not solved a problem that was strangling the city, traffic congestion. In spite of the economic crisis created by Putin’s foreign adventures, Bentleys, Mercedes, BMWs and super SUVs were caught in the daily snarl of buses, cars and trucks as Muscovites tried to go about their daily business.
Russia had suffered less from the fall in oil than Venezuela, which was on the verge of revolution. Russia survived the market crash thanks to its more diverse economy, which in addition to having oil and gas it enjoyed a wide range of other mineral resources, along with a fairly broad based industrial sector and self-sufficiency in basic agriculture. Moscow fared fairly well though the provinces suffered as infrastructure projects collapsed for lack of funding.
The persistent, often self-inflicted, trials and tribulations of Russia, resulted in a slow seepage of its life blood. According to some estimates as many as six million young people had emigrated from the Federation since the dissolution, amongst them the most dynamic and better qualified.
A Yacht in the Aegean
When the economic crisis of 2008 closed in, it was everyone for himself. It was a myth to think that the state could help its individual citizens or businesses in extreme cases, severe economic crises, war and disaster. Yet those too big to fail like HBOS were nationalised or bailed out in one way or another.
Michael Fitzwilliams had come to the damming conclusion that his bank, the Irish Netherlands, was too small, much too small, to survive in the long term. There were few options open to him, the last of which was selling out to a larger British or American banking institution. As for the idea of building the bank, organically, into a larger more solid institution, it had been totally out of the question given the ongoing crisis.
He did not want to find himself in a situation like that of Jimmy Cayne, the former CEO of the American bank, Bear Stearns, who ended up spending more time playing bridge, golf and smoking pot than managing his business. Cayne had been worth almost one billion dollars before the forced buyout of his bank, selling his remaining shares for just sixty one million dollars, a mere fraction of their previous value.
Looking back, Michael’s merger with the Dutch bank had been a success, perhaps because linking-up with continental partners had not been within the orthodoxy of British, or Irish banks, but the idea had paid-off bringing new ideas and giving him a broader understanding of international banking, beyond that of his bank’s dabbling in the Caribbean.
With the crisis, the idea of finding a suitable partner had looked remote. Banks were licking their wounds, certain of them would not survive.
It would have required a quantum leap to escape from the fetters of City and Wall Street’s traditional merger concepts. But I’d hammered home my vision to Michael and Pat of a changing world, not that of conventional globalisation where the West led the dance. New players were already present and beginning to make their weight felt.
The Dutch were neighbours and spoke English. However, at that time the thought of a Chinese, Indian or even Brazilian partner was going too far.
As for the rest of Europe, it was in just about the same difficult situation as the UK. That left Russia. I agreed that at first sight it was not very appealing, but on the other hand it was a new territory; rich in gas, oil, minerals, few competitors and relatively speaking nearby. History had shown the crisis would not last forever and when things started to look up the world would be hungry for energy and raw materials.
I encouraged Michael to speak with his friend Sergei Tarasov, whose problems were not of the same nature as those in London or Dublin. Had Sergei not alluded to his powerful friends in the Kremlin and in top Russian business circles?
Michael’s link to Sergei went back to a meeting on the Greek Island of Santorini in 2008, where he was present with Tom Barton and his friend Steve Howard. They had been guests aboard the Cleopatra, Sergei’s sleek sixty metre motor yacht, moored off the Aegean island, where the oligarch had gathered a group of his powerful business friends to celebrate his fortieth birthday.
At the time the UK economy was in a state of shock following the collapse of its leading mortgage banks, the Northern Rock and the West Mercian, which to Tarasov presented an opportunity to get a foothold in the City.
Sergei Tarasov’s problem was to find a suitable partner for the development of his business, not only in the UK but also in Russia, which was in sore need of the City’s investment and loan capacity to develop his Siberian oil fields. With that in view, Steve Howard, a close friend of Sergei, had invited Michael to the fête, in the knowledge the Irish Netherlands was in danger as the crisis threatened to engulf many small and medium banking corporations in the City.
The Russian oligarch, like his country, seemed full of confidence as oil prices reached unheard of heights. Russia was unaffected by the financial crisis that was spreading like a bushfire across the US and the UK, reaching the countries of the former Soviet bloc, where highly leveraged European banks had accumulated over three trillion euros in cross-border loans.
It was early days and perhaps governments would come up with a plan to resolve the crisis that was threatening to overwhelm the world, following the credit binge that had fuelled a decade of spectacular growth, creating a glow of false prosperity and hope to many ordinary people.
Tom Barton told me how he’d read the well known words of Thomas Macaulay in the pages of the Financial Times on his flight to Athens,
‘At every stage in the growth of the debt it has been seriously asserted by wise men that bankruptcy and ruin were at hand. Yet still the debt went on growing, and still bankruptcy and ruin were as remote as ever.’
The scale of Britain’s debt, accumulated during the booming years of New Labour, was truly horrendous, a mind-boggling mountain of money borrowed at low interest rates with almost no thought as to how it could be paid back. Looking back it was incredible to think how blind people had been, lulled into complacency by Blair’s vision of ‘Cool Britannia’ and his almost sneering attitude vis-à-vis the country’s uncool European old fashioned neighbours.
Tony Blair had in fact taken the UK on the greatest ride in its history. The reality was Britain had put its future at risk for an unforeseeably long period of time, building up trillions of pounds in debt tied into homes on the greatly mistaken supposition that prices would continue to grow for ever, as would the means necessary to repay those debts.
I remember us talking about the irresponsible special deals offered by the now defunct West Mercian Finance, which had allowed homebuyers to borrow extravagantly through the combination of a secured 95% mortgage with the remainder on a low interest unsecured personal loan. West Mercian was not alone, it had simply been following the way shown by Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley.
Howard had chartered a private jet in Athens to ferry us to the island, a twenty minute flight, and then a short ride to Sergei Tarasov’s yacht, the Cleopatra for the three day bash. I enjoyed the occasion, since being an academic I had often talked and wrote of the rich and powerful, and though I’d met quite a few of them, I was not an intimate to the kind of high flying business personalities and socialites who had been invited to that particular party.
As well as the British Lord, the guests included a couple of billionaires, one or two celebrities from the world of fashion and show business, some with their wives or partners, and the odd politician, one of whom I recognised as a well known European Commissar.
I was most surprised by the presence of Saif Gaddafi, the suave and charismatic son of the strange Colonel, said to be committed to political freedom and free-market reform. I palled up with Tom who I suspected also felt a little uneasy amongst such guests at that time.
Informality was the rule and over the three days that followed, a flurry of high powered socialites and business people came and went, congratulating the oligarch, renewing old links and making new ones in the process.
The next day we were ferried to a small nearby island for a traditional Greek evening. It took place in the gardens of a taverna, where we found ourselves seated at the same table as the European Commissar. It was clear he was on more than just friendly terms with Sergei Tarasov, probably one of his power brokers who smoothed the path for complicated City deals where political punch counted.
Sergei moved from table to table preening his guests, encouraging them to eat, drink and dance to the basooki music that echoed into the silky night sky. Toasts were exchanged with heady local wines, guests bathed in the magic of the Aegean night soaked in the perfume of spices and olive trees that wafted through the warm air mixed with the smell of roasting lamb. Beyond, from the shadows of the night, was the all pervading drone of the cicadae, rising and falling, punctuating the animated conversation of the convives.
The simplicity of the evening amongst the olive trees that surrounded the small island taverna belied Tarasov’s enormous wealth. Not only was he rich, he now exuded the prestige of Russia’s newly found power and riches, as oil peaked at almost one hundred and fifty dollars a barrel, with Russia exporting more oil and gas than Saudi Arabia, and the Kremlin once again capable of bullying its way around the world.
Behind Russia’s newly found pride, the ghosts of once would-be powerful nations looked on. Japan for one had been the darling of crystal ball gazers, the star of the eighties, a time when economists predicted the Land of the Rising Sun would dominate the world. That vision was long forgotten. During the country’s lost decades, Japanese interest rates hovered around the zero mark, the Nikkei had fallen from its peak of nearly 40000 points to a mere 8500, its comatose banks surviving on life support and property prices halved.
Pundits pointed to Russia, China and India as rising powers. Tom Barton for one was not convinced, he had seen India first hand and the enormous problems it faced. He also knew that the Asian economies were interlocked with the fortunes of the West, as were those of oil producing nations.
‘Do you think oil will reach two hundred dollars?’ Tom had asked a stiff looking Russian from Gazprom.
‘Confidentially,’ the Russian replied, ‘I can assure you our prime minister is doing the best he can to hold the price down, but I’m afraid to say there’s a good chance we’ll be at two hundred before Christmas.’
That was from the horse’s mouth, and Tom wondered if he had made a big mistake in betting against oil, as he told me he had.
Amongst Sergei Tarasov’s Russian friends, we noticed a rather quiet grandfatherly figure, who with his white moustache looked to us like a cross between Zorba and Stalin. The grandfatherly figure appeared to be the subject of a low and urgent conversation between Sergei and the European Commissar, a creepy looking Englishman. It was something about a UK visa. From what I could catch, it concerned Tarasov’s friend, a certain Demirshian. The old man, an Armenian, who had been consistently refused a UK visa.
Unknown to us this refusal arranged everybody, except the person in question, who did however have a Schengen visa, which allowed him to move freely around a good part of the EU, including Greece, which he said reminded him of Armenia.
The party slowly unwound, new friends met, promises made, and confidential cell phone numbers swapped on small pieces of plain paper. The guests had done their best to reassure each other, hoping their futures would be as glowing as in the years just past, the longest period of non-inflationary growth in modern times. It had been a golden era, one during which the principal task of central banks had been to decide whether to increase or decrease interest rates by a quarter of a percent.
PART 3 THE BLACK SEA
It was late August, a Friday evening, in Dublin, I’d been at home idly laying on the sofa and thinking about Ekaterina. As I wondered about the future the phone rang, it was Michael Fitzwilliam. He invited me down to Wexford for the weekend where his yacht was anchored in the small harbour. I agreed, it would be a welcome diversion from the thoughts that were troubling me.
As I drove south along the coast road I was puzzled, Michael had avoided explanations, but told me Tom Barton would join us. He was clearly anxious about something. It was strange as I’d never seen him like that before, at least not to the point where he seemed unsure of himself, as he obviously was now.
I parked the car and made my way over to the yacht, you couldn’t miss it, the Marie Gallant II was almost as large as a small cargo ship.
Michael waved to me from the gangway. ‘Hello there John, how are you, good of you to come down,’ he said scrutinising my face.
‘Nice to see you Fitz.’
‘You’re looking very tanned, Sri Lanka?’
‘No,’ I replied, feeling a little uncomfortable. ‘It’s already summer in Moscow
I’m not much of a sailor, I thought as I made my way on board. It’s not my thing.
‘I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve asked you to come down,’ he asked with a weak smile.’
I shrugged non-committally
‘I hope I wasn’t interrupting your vacation?’
‘Not at all Fitz,’ I reassured him.
‘I wanted to talk to you well away from prying eyes and one never knows—microphones and all that,’ he said seriously.
He didn’t let on why I was there and kept me in suspense as we awaited the arrival of Tom Barton, who he announced had just flown in to nearby Waterford.
I was puzzled, but I held back my curiosity. At that moment a car pull up on the quayside. It was Tom who had been picked up by Michael’s driver. We waved and Tom looking as fit as ever waved back. He had been flown in on the company jet from Biarritz where he was holidaying.
After exchanging greetings we headed towards the sun deck where a table was laid out for lunch.
‘We’re lucky for a change, the weather is almost Mediterranean,’ said Michael laughing.
A waiter served us drinks as Michael pointed out the local landmarks to Tom.
‘So, here’s to us,’ he said.
We raised our glasses, looking at him expectantly.
‘Well I won’t keep you in suspense. The reason I’ve invited you both here is that I’m worried. Seriously worried. Our little meeting here is in the strictest confidence, which explains why we’re on the Marie Gallant here at Kilmore Quay and not in London.’
Tom and myself must have looked at the crowd of summer strollers on the quay.
‘I admit the boat is not very discrete,’ he said with an apologetic smile, ‘but inquisitive journalists and the like will just see me on holiday with the family and friends cruising around the south coast.’
‘I’m seriously concerned about what will happen if shooting starts.’
‘Shooting?’ Tom asked.
‘We’re in deep. I mean very deep.’
I looked at Michael, wondering if he was unwell, not entirely himself, perhaps he a little paranoid. I’d just returned from Russia and things had seemed calm. I’d followed the events in the Ukraine and the crash of the Malaysian airliner, which was obviously worrying, but I didn’t consider it would cause more than a passing crisis in the West’s relations with Moscow.
‘Yes,’ he continued, ‘and the trouble is I don’t know to what extent the bank has been used to facilitate the affairs of certain unsavoury Russians, including our friend Putin and his cronies.’
‘What I’d like you to do John, is imagine a worse case scenario and draw up a contingency plan.’
I was surprised as I didn’t have all the information Michael possessed on the bank’s dealings with its Russian partner.
‘Can you manage that John?’
‘It’s no problem Michael, I’ll need access to certain information.’
‘Tom can help you, discretely. He’s familiar with our recent expansion.’
‘Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pointing at Pat, but he’s been a bit too close to Sergei recently. Anyway, this kind of strategy is not in his brief,’ he replied. Then adding as an afterthought, ‘at the moment he’s too tied up in China—and his wife.’
I smiled to myself, I thought Michael was being a little hard on Pat, who was still very enamoured with his new Chinese wife, who was very rich in her own right, a fact that seemed to peeve Michael, who had up until Pat’s marriage with Lili always been his master and mentor. Pat was now slipping out of his control, independent, though under the influence of Lili, whom Michael seemed to see as a kind of Cixi, a younger version of the Dowager Empress, manipulating the pliable Pat from behind a screen. I’d always suspected his relationship with Pat had been more one of master and servant than anything else, but since the start of the Ukrainian crisis, Michael, to my mind, had unjustly focused his growing ire on Pat.
That in itself made me wonder whether Michael was not right in himself, though there was little doubt the growing Russian conundrum was a source of serious worry for the man.
I had to admit to myself the thought had crossed my mind that Michael had bitten off a bit too much. The bank’s ambitious expansion into Russia and China had been too rapid and though Michael was solid, the conjuncture was such that even the strongest could bend under the burden.
All that apart, in my role as Michael’s counsellor in matters of geopolitical strategy, I could not squirm out of the corner in which I now found myself in, which was essentially one of taking sides.
On the one hand was my friend, the CEO, and on there was Pat Kennedy, with whom I had grown close, sharing numerous and sometimes improbable adventures. There was little doubt Michael in his drive to develop the group had allowed Pat, his emissary, too much independence with the result Pat had become his own man, developing his own ambitions.
Pat Kennedy had achieved many things that more ordinary men could have never done so, with his intense curiosity and his extraordinary talent of turning almost any situation to his advantage, he was a human dynamo with a skin as thick as that of a rhinoceros.
As head of the banker’s think tank, my professional responsibility and loyalty was towards Michael, whose empire was in danger, and this was an unequivocal call for help.
‘I want us to be prepared in the case that things go wrong.’
I concurred, wondering what precisely he had in mind.
‘So let’s enjoy the fine weather while you’re both here,’ Michael said leaning back, waving to the sea and the sky as the Marie Gallant II slipped out of the small harbour, admired by the summer strollers visiting the picturesque fishing port.
‘Here’s to us.’
We lifted their glasses.
‘Sláinte mhaith,’ we echoed.
‘As I see it John,’ he said in a lower and more pensive tone, ‘Putin is at the source of all these problems.’
‘Well Fitz,’ I told him, ‘it would perhaps be best if you didn’t voice your opinions about Putin too loudly.’
‘Oh! Why is that?’ he asked suddenly alert.
‘It’s very simple Michael, he’s probably one of your most important individual clients.’
‘Remember, Vladimir Vladimirovich is one of the world’s richest men, and your associate, Sergei, one of his friends.’
‘Well, there’s little doubt that Sergei has channelled part of Putin’s fortune through your bank to one of your favourite offshore havens.’
Fitzwilliams stalled, a sheepish look on his face, it was not often someone cornered him.
‘Perhaps, but it doesn’t make me happy.’
‘Happy? Perhaps not, but responsible, yes.’
‘His fortune, according to some sources, is said to be between forty and seventy billion dollars, maybe even more, estimations are wild. And even if they are exaggerated, he certainly outranks any other of the world’s politicians and most business leaders.’
‘Corruption,’ said Fitzwilliams weakly, as though he felt uneasy using the word.
‘I’m sorry to say so Michael, but money overrides everything. The major oil companies are mostly pressing ahead with their plans in Russia in spite of threats and sanctions. Look at Aquitania, they have begun drilling in Russia’s Arctic with Rosneft, even though Rosneft is on the sanctions list.’
‘We’ve got a lot of money tied into oil in Russia.’
‘Well companies like Aquitania must be doing a lot of soul-searching now, we’re all getting drawn deeper into the Russian quagmire.’
‘According to what I’ve heard,’ Tom added, ‘it’s not only the political risk, some people are wondering if they’ll ever make money in their Arctic ventures. The cost of getting oil out of the ground is too high.’
‘Yes and no. Most of Putin’s wealth comes in the form of his holdings, the likes of Surgutneftegaz and Gazprom. He controls around forty percent of the shares in Surgutneftegaz, five percent stake in Gazprom, now the largest energy company in the world, and fifty percent of Gunvor, that’s a Swiss based commodity company that trades oil worth one hundred billion dollars a year.’
‘Well, he’s lost a few billion in the last couple of months,’ said Barton. ‘The Micex has tanked.’
I laughed. ‘Maybe, don’t forget he only declares a salary of a couple of hundred thousand dollars and a very ordinary Moscow apartment, not forgetting a Lada for getting around when he’s not racing through the streets with flashing blue lights and sirens at full belt.’
‘A modern day autocrat with the power of a tyrant,’ Michael said nodding ruefully. ‘And I got into bed with him.’
‘You heard what Putin said about press reports on his fortune?’ Tom asked changing the tone, ‘Gossip, nonsense, nothing worth talking about, picked out of someone’s nose by journalists and smeared on their little papers.’
‘Our Russian friend has delightfully vulgar repartee,’ said Fitzwilliams with a derisive snort.
‘Like it or not he owns Russia. Anything he desires is his with a snap of his fingers.’
‘His cronies will give him anything he wants.’
‘Is there no opposition?’
‘Of course there is, but it’s a dangerous business.’
‘He’s not invulnerable, if he miscalculates the whole thing could come tumbling down and the long knives would wreak havoc. That’s why he has to have a nest egg somewhere.’
‘It didn’t do Gaddafi or Saddam much good.’
‘He still young man—relatively speaking,’ said Tom.
‘That’s the reason why he needs to consolidate his and his friends’ wealth, in case the people turn nasty. If he makes a mistake and the economy tanks, it would not be a workers’ revolution,’ I told them, ‘It would come from the new business and middle classes who have grown used to their privileges. Little remains of Russia’s industrial might and the proletariat as such no longer exists.’
‘Well that’s another story, the question is what do we do to pre-empt the negative effects it could have on the bank if things get worse?’
Hundreds of billions of pounds were being laundered through City banks or their subsidiaries around the world and many hundreds of millions of pounds of property in London was held via suspect investment funds.
The Russian empire had shrunk, its economy commodity based, its manpower in decline, and its borders potentially difficult to defend in East Asia. Rushing into the arms of a resurgent China could prove disastrous as the Middle Kingdom held not only a number of old grudges against Moscow, but also a long list of territorial claims à la Crimea. China’s claims in the South China Sea were an illustration of the attitude it could take if and when it turned its attention to Eastern Siberia.
It was summer, Trinity entered the vacation period and the City of London the silly season. Try as I may I hadn’t been able to get Ekaterina out of my mind, and the idea of returning to Russia pervaded my every thought. I’d called her almost daily since returning home from Moscow, which was how I found myself flying into Istanbul Atatürk Airport, where I had a connecting flight to Sochi on the Black Sea.
I’d started by inviting her to London, or Galle, where I’d spent the summer for more years than I cared to remember, but she’d set her sights on a summer vacation not far from home, in Sochi with her daughter Alena. Finally, I agreed to join them and persuaded her to let me look after the hotel, booking a family suite at the Swissotel Kamelia.
Was I going to fast? Maybe. But I couldn’t stop myself, it was stronger than me. I’d become infatuated. I reasoned Sochi would be a compatibility test, of what it wasn’t clear, but I didn’t care.
The only problem was the dispute between Moscow and Kiev was getting acrimonious and anything could happen. I could be refused entry into Russia if they started shooting at each other. It was the kind of thing that happened too often.
Perhaps my infatuation would turn out to be just one of those passing affairs, quickly forgotten, if so I’d have to swallow my pride and hop on a plane back to Dublin, or head for Galle, to nurse my wounds.
Sochi, known as the Russian Riviera, lay on the eastern shores of the Black Sea, at the foot of the green slopes of the Caucasus Mountains. Its climate had provided a perfect vacation spot for Russians for more than a hundred years.
According to the guide book, it lay in the Krasnodar Krai, a region almost the size of Ireland, which it seems had become part of Russia in 1829. Covered with wheat fields and vineyards with the Caucasus as a backdrop and sandy beaches beckoning to the west. It was a small paradise twenty five kilometres north of Abkhazia, a territory disputed between Georgia and Russia, in the heart of a region wracked by conflict.
I’d never visited that part of Russia before, so I was not only looking forward to being with Ekaterina again, but discovering part of Russia I knew little of.
Sochi, the Pearl of the Black Sea as the Russians called it, enjoyed the world’s northernmost subtropical climate. With its parks and botanical gardens and nearby tea plantations it was an ideal vacation region for those who lived in the cold dismal cities to the north.
It was less than an hour from Krasnaya Polyana—once the hunting ground of Czar Nicholas II, now an modern alpine ski resort, recently transformed from a dilapidated Soviet village.
Arriving at Sochi International Airport, I discovered a sparkling new terminal complex, constructed for the 2014 Winter Olympics, situated just five kilometres north of the Abkhazia border.
Once I’d passed through passport control and collected my baggage I was met by a driver from the Kamelia and twenty minutes later checked into the hotel on the outskirts of the Sochi.
The hotel was perched on a hill, built in a pseudo classical style, and surrounded by a large park. I was pleased to discover the central building, designed by the Soviet architect A.V. Samoilov in 1951, had been magnificently renovated. It overlooked a swimming pool with a splendid view over the Black Sea and its own private beach.
Surrounding the Kamelia’s central building was the new five star hotel complex and an apartment wing most of which I learnt had been bought by wealthy Russians.
Situated on Kurortniy Prospect the hotel dated back to Soviet times, a former Intourist Hotel, which had started out as the Nauka Spa Resort in 1937. The whole of the Kurortniy Prospect was a monument to the Soviet Black Sea spa culture for the privileged with its sanatoriums and hotels, built mostly for the nomenklatura, amongst whom was the Soviet academic and political elite, and astronauts such as Yuri Gagarin, honoured international guests including Neil Armstrong, other Soviet heroes and lucky workers who had fulfilled their quotas.
The hotel brochure described it’s extensive facilities, which included a Spa centre, a gym, restaurants with European and Mediterranean cuisine, bars, a swimming pool, sports facilities, playgrounds and conference halls.
Our duplex penthouse suite, situated to the right of the central building facing the pool, had a spacious terrace overlooking the gardens and the sea.
It was modern, perhaps a little too modern to my critical mind, but what did I care, it was perfect for a bling Russian family holiday by the sea. If I was going to get involved, which I already was, I’d better get used to new ideas, more specifically, Russian ideas.
The idea of a new life was beginning to grow on me, but I was going too fast, adopting a new culture and language, a ready made family, would not be easy. My knowledge of Russia went back a long way, but it was an arms length relationship. There would be a lot of hurdles to overcome.
Dismissing the problems that would soon face me I set off to explore, what would be my home for the next two weeks, if all went well.
After admiring with the fine park with its magnolias and cypresses, I made my way down to the seafront, a pedestrian only promenade filled with restaurants, cafés and bars. The coastline was disappointingly grey and stony, though the hotel’s beach was of fine imported sand, and if that was not sufficient the pool and ornamental cascade made up for any lacune.
Many of the hotels were owned by large business corporations such as Gazprom or Sberbank, others had been sanatoriums that dated back to Communist times.
I set off walking in the direction of what appeared to be the centre of Sochi, but soon realised it was not a small resort, but a large, sprawling, undulating, garden city. Most of the beach front was private and I was forced to zigzag around gardens as I made my way to Morskoy Port, a modern marina complex, a couple or so miles from the Kamelia.
I was surprised I hadn’t encounter any signs of the Olympics. Only six months earlier Sochi had been host to the 2014 Winter Games, but the Village, lay to the south of the airport, and the ski runs were situated an hour from the coast in Adler and Krasnaya Polyana, a mountain village an hour’s drive from the airport.
I was more than pleasantly surprised by all that I saw. Relieved too, I’d had nagging doubts, a holiday in Stalin’s summer vacation spot with a young woman who in truth I barely knew.
The gardens and hotels, the roads and the port, were all so different from my usual summer retreat at Galle in Sri Lanka, where I had in reality been hiding for more years than I cared to remember.
The only negative aspects I encountered were the inevitable lingering traces of Soviet Russia, visible almost everywhere, like in Moscow or St Petersburg, whether it was in the mentalities of the people, or in hotels and other establishments. It was not easy to eliminate seventy years of Communism, to people younger than forty it was before their time, history, though the political pugnacity lingered on. It would require another generation, that of Alena’s, to forget all that.
Before setting off for the airport I showered and changed. Looking in the mirror I inspected myself closely. There were hairs growing in places where they’d never grown before. I checked my toilet bag. Apart from the usual toiletries it contained pills for my blood pressure, statins, and a correcter for my slightly irregular heart beat.
I had no particular problem for my age my cardiologist had reassured me, my blood pressure was marginally high, my heart beat a little irregular, nothing to be concerned about. The statins? Well they were just in case.
The fact was, I’d never really lived with a woman, that is since my younger days, an inconclusive experience. As a precaution, I figured it was best not to leave tell tale clues about my intimate self lying around. I carefully zipped up my toilette bag, folded my old shirt and underwear into the hotel laundry bag, then called housekeeping to pick it up and make-up the room.
After checking all was in order I ordered a hotel car for the airport and set off to meet Ekaterina and Alena, not without a little trepidation in my heart.
The Aeroflot flight was a domestic connection, direct from Moscow, two and a half hours. It was on time and after collecting their baggage, the passengers, without further formality, headed directly for the exit to the arrivals zone.
Ekaterina appeared holding Alena’s hand. She was pulling a heavy suitcase and Alena a smaller Hello Kitty case on wheels.
They looked perfect. Ekaterina, ravishing in a summer dress. Alena, in white shorts and a pink T-shirt.
I waved. Ekaterina abandoned her case and almost threw herself into my arms, watched by Alena who shyly stood by.
‘Say hello to John.’
Alena smiled as I bent down to kiss her. She kissed me directly on the lips.
‘Hello Alena, did you have a nice flight?’ I asked her in English.
‘Yes,’ she replied without hesitation.
The driver took our bags and we walked out to the parking zone reserved for hotel pick-ups.
‘Welcome to Sochi.’
‘How is the hotel?’
‘We’ve a nice suite of the seventh floor overlooking the pool.’
Ekaterina looked thrilled, happy to be on holiday, away from the everyday stress of Moscow and work.
‘It’s a long time since you’ve been to Sochi?’
‘Yes, I came here with my parents when I was still at school. I was ten or something like that. We stayed at the sanatorium, it belonged to my father’s institute.’
Alena looked out at the palm trees along the road to the hotel and asked if there was a beach.
‘Yes, and a swimming pool too.’
‘Will I find some friends?’
‘Yes of course. There are other children staying in the hotel.’
Arriving in the suite Ekaterina went directly to the terrace to admire the view, then to Alena’s room, as the boy entered with the baggage trolley.
‘Do you like your room?’ I asked Alena.
‘Yes. Is there a television?’
I pointed to a cabinet and opened the doors.
‘Here, look, your own television.’
‘Can I look at it mummy?’
‘Of course, but not long. We’ll look at the swimming pool when I’ve unpacked the bags.’
‘Do they have internet for my iPad?’
‘Yes dear, John will help you with it later.’
‘Can we go to the beach?’
The suite was in effect an apartment, its large terrace was complete with parasols, sunbeds, sofas and a low table, a view point from which we could admire the pool and gardens with the yacht club in the distance, and from where we could watch the evening sun set over the Black Sea.
Once they’d arranged their affairs we set off, first the pool, then down past the cascade and under a bridge to the beach.
A low wall separated the fine almost white sand of the hotel’s man-made beach from the naturally pebbly water’s edge where a low lying stone breakwater led out onto the sea.
Alena ran excitedly towards the small waves gently lapping the shore. It was not often she saw the sea and like all children her only thought was to paddle in the water and play in the sand.
But first she stopped, examined the transparent water, picked up a handful of greyish sand and pebbles and threw them into the sea. She then turned towards us and with a triumphant smile signalled her approval.
Ekaterina took my hand and together we laughed in relief.
We then inspected the hotel’s beach, which was neatly set out with parasols and sunbeds and a bar to provide drinks and snacks for the hotel guests. To the left was a large children’s pool surrounded by grass to which Alena threw a critical glance, it would require children of her age before being acceptable.
The beach was private with no access except from the hotel or the sea. Beyond to the right lay a small harbour and a yacht club with sailing boats and motor cruisers at anchor.
‘It’s perfect John,’ said Ekaterina enchanted.
At the main pool Ekaterina was pleased to note there were quite a few children, it was obviously family friendly, and she decided we’d start there the next morning so Alena could make some friends.
We returned to the suite and prepared for dinner. I suggested the main restaurant where there was a buffet, it would make it easier for Alena, she could easily choose whatever she wanted to eat, with her mother’s approval.
Once seated, Ekaterina took charge, informing the waiter we would help ourselves from the buffet and ordered a bottle of Krasnodar white wine and a fruit juice for Alena.
The Krasnodar region, she reminded me, was home to half of all Russia’s vineyards. To be honest I was surprised by the wine, an Usadba Markotkh Chardonnay, it was excellent. I remembered the powerful wines from Soviet times, mostly from now independent Georgia, where it was said grapes were first domesticated.
Alena chattered away in Russian to her mother, who tried to keep me up with the conversation. She was obviously excited by everything, commenting on the buffet, the different dishes, the coming and going of guests, and the other children, of whom there were quite a few in the restaurant. It was the Russian high season and the more prosperous middle classes from Moscow and St Petersburg were enjoying their vacations.
Alena served herself from the buffet and was soon chatting to a couple of other girls of her age as Ekaterina talked to me whilst keeping a keen eye on her daughter.
I started to relax and after dinner we strolled through the gardens, admiring the subtropical vegetation, palms trees and many other exotic plants. It was not difficult to understand why the region had become the summer capital for Russians, prized by the czars and the Soviet ruling class.
It was nearly ten when we returned to the suite. After Alena went to bed, we admired the night view of the Sochi coast. The centre lay eight or ten kilometres to the west with Greater Sochi stretching more than one hundred kilometres along the Black Sea coast, from the Abkhazia border to Magri at the western extremity of the Caucasus.
We called room service and ordered a bottle of wine, another Chardonnay, and settled ourselves on one of the sofas. The sun had set, but there was still a warm glow on the horizon beyond the gardens.
‘This is wonderful John, a perfect choice,’ she said, then whispered. ‘You know I missed you.’
I smiled, what else could I say. I simply basked in the pleasure of being together with Ekaterina again, and for two whole weeks.
I must say I was nervous, and probably she too. It was a month since we had first made love together in Moscow, and I have to confess I could not remember when I had last passed a whole night with an honest woman. As for Ekaterina she told me her last time had been six years earlier with her husband, Sasha.
Passion was easy, waking up together was another thing. I’d feared her reaction when she woke up to find herself next to an old man.
Later, she admitted her own fears were different, they concerned her future and that of her daughter. That I was older was not her foremost concern, it was the longevity of her happiness and what would happen after. It was not only my age, but my adaptability. She’d figured I was fixed in my ways, she was right, I was a hardened bachelor, living in a different world, far from her’s in every way.
With Alena we visited the Riviera Park of Culture and Leisure, gardens and an amusement part, next to the Riviera Beach. The funfair couldn’t be compared to those back home, a bit old fashioned, noisy—more reminiscent of Soviet times, so what, we were in Russia and besides who was comparing, it was great and Alena loved the the rides.
At the Riviera Park a cacophony of competing bands and singers almost drowned out any serious effort at conversation, but it didn’t seem to deter the evening’s crowds dressed in shorts and sandals, or summer dresses and high heels, as they listened to old favourites and enjoying cold beer after a hot day on the beach. The tourists came from all over the Federation, St Petersburg, Moscow, Ufa, Murmansk, Rostov-on-Don, Nizhny Tagil, Novosibirsk or Vladivostok, and even Kamchatka in the extreme Far East.
The region’s sea front promenades went on forever, from Adler in the south to Dzhubga in the north. Long pebble beaches, with endless lines of tacky wooden souvenir stands and restaurants, all serving the same typical Russian fare, as singers and bands beat out the same kind of music. In the evenings the boisterous crowds filled the countless restaurants and bars, eating, drinking, listening to the music and when they could dancing. They were clearly determined to enjoy themselves before returning to the grey, dreary, North, where in many places the chill wind of autumn was already blowing.
Since the the Kremlin’s involvement in the wars in Syria and Iraq, sanctions, terrorist attacks and the collapse of the rouble, saw Russians flooding back to the Black Sea. Turkey, Egypt and Cyprus were out.
The better off Russians barely poked their noses out of their luxury hotels and apartments, others avoided Sochi altogether, preferring to take their vacations in Italy, France, Turkey, Spain, Thailand or Vietnam.
If the gardens of Sochi were a paradise for those from the harsh North, where winter lasted into the month of May and summer arrived overnight with its swarms of mosquitoes, the locals, an easy going Mediterranean style cosmopolitan people, often saw the arrival of the rough-hewn tourists with a jaundiced eye. If the vast annual transmigration brought indisputable wealth, it also brought overcrowding, noise and pollution to the inhabitants of Russia’s playground.
The rich sun-blessed land of Krasnodar Krai or Kuban, was their home, colonised by the Greeks, Romans and Byzantines, before Russia settled the region at the beginning of the 19th century, and in 2014 it reached the point of asphyxiation with the Winter Olympics.
Nearby, on the other side of the Sochi River estuary, was the resorts most famous beach, the Riviera Park, a broad expanse of pebble grey sand, wider than the neighbouring beaches, but not that wide by international standards. It was set out out with deckchairs, sunbeds, bars and restaurants.
There we bought shashlik and drank beer, listened to music played by different bands, watched Russian holiday makers buy souvenirs, pretty girls tottering on unbelievably high heels over the pebbly sandy ground, their men friends playing at oligarchs, a cigar in one hand and freshly grilled shashlik in the other.
In a bar on the beach front we watched the summer sun set and listened to the music. The singer, about the age of Katya, sang a love song.
‘Нежность,’ said Ekaterina, ‘that means tenderness, it’s very popular favourite, from the sixties, Yuri Gagarin’s favourite.’
She translated the words for me:
Earth is empty when you’re not around;
Minutes flow like hours, and hours like days.
Still, the orchard leaves keep falling down,
And the cabs keep rushing on their ways.
Oh, how empty has the world become without you.
And you, you keep flying, and stars
Share with you all their tenderness...
Ekaterina placed her hand on mine, she looked into my eyes, it was a moment that would never be forgotten.
I’d often thought I was not the sentimental type, but now, when I listen to Maya Kristalinskaya singing Tenderness, it tugs at my heart strings.
There was everything for the Russian tourist, grown-ups and children alike, no need to go to the French Riviera, trampolines, banana boat, volley ball, parasailing, the lot.
We dined at the Black Magnolia, a restaurant in the Rodina Grand Hotel, a luxury hotel across the Sochi River.
It was smaller and more exclusive than ours. Forty luxury rooms. Chocolate, cinnamon, and vanilla colours, exotic wood and fine textures. Antique Pushkin and Tolstoy tomes in the library. We dined at the hotel’s Black Magnolia restaurant, we chose a Fabergé egg composed of chicken and lobster.
In Soviet times the Rodina was the reserve of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, and was complete with a bomb shelter.
We rented a car with a driver and drove to Lazarevskoye, about forty kilometres to the north. The beaches were broad, there were small bays and harbours. It was not unlike Sochi though the beaches were not fenced off and there were no breakwaters.
In the evenings we danced to the orchestra in the hotel gardens, we drank Shampanskoe from Balaklava in the Crimea, and we talked a lot, she about the future, me about the past, my childhood at home in Francistown and my horses. I knew a lot about Russia, but a romantic dinner was no place to talk about its economy, banks and politics. So I listened. The story of her family, Viktor, her dead husband, Alena.
I knew next to nothing about everyday life in Russia, about life in its small towns and villages, about schools, politics as seen by the ordinary man, religion, and so many other things.
We lived in two worlds apart. She had lived barely half of her life, I had lived almost all of my own.
I suppose people who saw us together must have thought I was Alena’s granddad. But Ekaterina seemed to notice nothing, she was happy, relaxed, as if being with me was normal.
I let her do things as she wanted, no questions, no objections, avoiding awkward or contentious subjects, money, the future.
Would I abandon my solitary life, my ivory tower, to live with her. Yes, the idea seemed to be less strange.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, she started to take care of things, arranging my affairs in the bathroom, putting my clothes in the laundry bag, asking me if I’d like more coffee, water, picking up a towel for me at the pool.
She asked me to collect Alena at the kids club, take her to the beach. Alena waved to me when I arrived, she told me everything, chatting away in English and Russian. I was pleased, like a real grandfather, it was a sign she had accepted me.
The Black Sea
In 1909, the Kavkazskaya Riviera, a luxury hotel cum spa and health centre for the wealthy, was opened in Sochi, transforming the small bourgade into the most popular leisure resort in the Czarist Empire. It opened the way to the Black Sea and one of Russia’s most beautiful coastal regions, and certainly the only one offering a Mediterranean type landscape.
With the Revolution the Kavkazskaya Riviera became a sanatorium, a label synonymous with rest and vacation for the workers, the luckier ones, in preference Party members.
There was also the Ordzhonikidze Spa Sanitoria, the epitome of Soviet luxury, built much later in 1937. Such sanitoria were built for Soviet workers where they could come to rest, recuperate from an injury or illness, or simply as a reward for hard work.
They abounded in all shapes and sizes, there was the Rossiya for the party elite, the Ordzhonikidze for miners, and Metallurg for metalworkers. They were often surrounded by luxuriant parks filled with palms, subtropical trees and exotic plants.
It came as no surprise when Ekaterina told me the Russians had a saying, ‘If I could read cards, I would live in Sochi’.
The coastline reminded me of the Ligurian Riviera overlooking the Gulf of Genoa, it was far removed from the generally preconceived image of Russia, including my own, a cosmopolitan city filled not only with Russians, but also Armenians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Greeks, Circassians, Belarusians, Tatars and Jews.
Amongst the sites startling to the eye was the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, the only one in all Russia surrounded by palm trees, and the Seaport which certainly qualified in my opinion as being one of the finest example of architecture in Sochi. Neoclassical buildings abounded, surrounded by luxuriant parks and gardens.
We visited the aquarium and marine zoo with Alena, and the market places with their stalls overflowing with exotic fruits, kiwis, pineapples, guavas, dates, persimmons, oranges and tangerines. Everywhere we were struck by the bright colours, like the blue and red roofs of the buildings in nearby Lazarevskoye.
It was easy to understand the pain the Russian people felt after the decline and fall of the Soviet Union. Sanitoria closed and fell into ruin for lack of funds as state organisations and giant state owned combinats collapsed, no longer able to send their workers to the Black Sea.
The proletariat no longer counted, profits became the order of the day, cost cutting, lay-offs and bankruptcy for businesses unadapted to the tumultuous changes.
Attempts to revive the sanitoria system were made, but the lack of quality and service took a heavy toll with the advent of competitive capitalism.
Change came slowly but surely and in spite of the difficulties and obstacles, once the season commenced, hundreds of thousands of lucky Russians headed for Sochi to enjoy a subsidized holiday, sponsored by government departments, municipalities, industries, unions and the lucky ones who could afford a holiday on the Black Sea.
It was easy to understand the surprise of holidaymakers arriving from Siberia, the Russian Far East, or Arctic provinces, when they caught their first glimpse of the Black Sea. After forty eight hours or more in their antiquated trains they were greeted by palm trees, blue seas, mountains, and the sight of the rich and pleasant garden city of Sochi with its renowned monuments.
It was a sight to see families and young people excitedly piling out of their stuffy, overcrowded, dormitory wagons, into the buses that were waiting to bring them to their respective sanitoria and the sunny beaches of the Black Sea, the realisation of a dream for most Russians.
Many of the sanitoria were situated on Kurortnaya Prospekt, which was a district more than a street, to the south of Sochi Central District, these included Metallurg surrounded by its own park with a salt water swimming pool, restaurants, sports facilities and a medical centre.
After a week or ten days it was as if we had always lived together. As if we had always been together. It seemed natural, in fact it was—for a shared holiday. What would everyday life be like? That would be another test. When we were confronted with each other’s obligations and restraints.
I couldn’t drop everything, my engagements, nor did I want to. It was almost certainly the same for her.
We fell into a happy carefree routine, the pool or an excursion, in the evening dinner at the hotel or an outside restaurant. We found a babysitter for Alena, she didn’t mind being left alone to watch her princesses on Katya’s iPad.
In Sochi’s palm-lined streets we visited the markets, buying strawberries, peaches and figs. Our curiosity aroused by the displays of exotic local fruit, nuts, cheeses, meats and conserves, fresh sea fish, and trout from nearby mountain streams.
The buildings were a strange mix of new luxury condominiums, magnificently renovated imperial palaces, Stalinist modernism, depressing Brezhnev concrete blocks and abandoned ruins, and scattered along the coast was an impressive number of sanatoriums dating from Soviet times that had survived the changes, some of them evidently thriving.
The vestiges of Communism were visible wherever I looked, they recalled the story of Russia’s 20th century history, statues of poets, heroes, astronauts, soldiers, workers, miners and peasants, sculpted in bronze and marble bas-reliefs against varying backdrops, celestial images, satellites, canons, machines and wheat sheaves, and the forever ubiquitous hammer and sickle.
We visited the foothills of the Caucasus with their cypresses, meadows, farms with fat cows, vineyards and orchards, small villages almost unchanged for centuries.
For decades Sochi had been the Soviet Union’s Riviera, a narrow band of coastline, one hundred and twenty kilometres of beaches, between the Western Caucuses and the Black Sea. In July and August its a population quadrupled as Russians headed for the sun filling Sochi’s sanatoriums, hotels, guest houses and apartments.
Now it seems they were investing in new hotels and condos, improving the resort, moving up market. Oleg Deripaska, the young billionaire, was behind a number of new developments. One of them, the luxury Grand Hotel Rodina, where we’d dined across the Sochi River, was part of his business empire, run by the Stein Group, which included The Cadogan on Sloane Street in London.
Time flew, we spent our time by the pool, on the beach, and finally on our last full day visiting the Olympic village, Roza Khutor, now a resort on the banks of the Mzymta River, a mountain torrent, in Krasnaya Polyana. On the way we tried real Caucasian cuisine at a place called Amshenski Dvor, half an hour’s drive from our hotel, along the coast to Adler and then north up to the mountains.
It was a rustic timber framed open air Armenian restaurant where white peacocks roamed the courtyard. We ate outside, seated at heavy wooden tables, shaded by grapevine covered trellises. The food was delicious, fried lamb dumplings, served with sour-cream-and-garlic, with an array of side dishes, followed by lamb shashlik sprinkled with spice, parsley, chopped white onion, and grape leaves stuffed with fresh cheese, and Armenian flat bread, all accompanied by strangely sweet Caucasian wines.
Soon we were saying goodbye, to our paradise, to each other, on our own respective flights to our very different worlds.
PART 4 TARASOV
A Meeting in Dublin
We met at Michael’s elegant eighteenth century Georgian town house on Merrion Square in Dublin, far from the eyes of the media. Our plan was to discuss the bank’s strategy in the wake of recent economic and political events.
‘Our most important question is how precisely should we develop our relations with Sergei Tarasov?’
‘Well it seems as though he wields considerable influence in Moscow,’ I said sipping a good Irish whisky.
‘You mean with political leaders?’
‘Yes, to a degree.’
I trod carefully, I did not want to hurt the sensitivity of my banker friend.
‘Well yes, his economic status gives him a certain degree of influence.’
‘I’m not sure what that means,’ replied Michael obtusely.
‘Well people like him can use it for political leverage.’
‘Give me an example.’
‘Well for example business leaders have enormous economic power, like those who made their fortune in IT, social networks and that kind of thing. They have billions, they can buy and sell companies, hire and fire. That’s one kind of power, but money is not everything. Political figures although they are not rich have immense power.’
‘So our billionaires have little chance of becoming president.’
‘Not entirely, Ronald Reagan was an actor, but you get the gist?’
‘Yes, but what’s your point?’
‘I mean a man like Tarasov has huge influence, by his proximity to Vladimir Putin and his long standing relationship with political power.’
‘I see, John, but what are you getting at?’
‘Tarasov could help your future plans, he has access to the vast resource wealth if Russia and the political contacts.’
‘Let me develop my idea Michael.’
‘We have to get closer to Sergei Tarasov, learn what motivates him, his intentions and ambitions.’
‘In what way?’
‘Yes, although Pat was neither born rich, nor the son of a lord, or a powerful personality, he has influence,’ I explained, adding with a smile, ‘He’s not even a rich banker.’
‘I still don’t see your point.’
‘It’s not what you know, but who you know. What I’m saying is Pat is a special person, he can open doors, build bridges. To many he represents the bank, he has great socio-economic status, another kind of the status, without owning the bank or being part of the founding family.’
‘Well he can do things you can’t do, or wouldn’t want to be seen doing.’
‘I see, you mean with Sergei Tarasov for example.’
‘Used wisely, he’s a valuable asset, he can ask questions you wouldn’t like to ask, offering Tarasov access to the capital he needs to develop his oil fields.’
‘Russia needs access to the City’s resources to finance its ambitions.’
‘And your role is above the melee.’
As an economist and historian, and somewhat rather long in the tooth, I knew better than most the challenge of change and the changes that were taking place, not only in Russia, but across the globe, threatening the long established order of societies and the people who lived in them.
The threat came in the form of technological change which had in fact threatened work as it had been known since the end of 18th century when Adam Smith described mass production in his opus magnum, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, published in 1776.
I owned an early copy of the three volume work, bought in an Istanbul second hand bookshop many years back. I kept it in a prominent place in my library at home in Dublin, a constant reminder of economic fundamentals and change.
Labour and economics were subjects that attracted the attention of many historical commentators. The oft cited quotation, History never repeats itself but it rhymes, erroneously attributed to Mark Twain, certainly contained some truths. However, I preferred the words from a novel Mark Twain co-wrote with his neighbour Charles Dudley Warner: History never repeats itself, but the Kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends.
Although Adam Smith was the first to have described economics in terms of manual mass production, I saw robotics, in its different forms, as its ultimate tool, in fact it was at the heart of my vision of Cornucopia.
This was confirmed by the evidence around me, where almost every industry was affected by the introduction of robotics, from white collar jobs in banking and insurance to steel and automobile production lines.
Advances in the computerisation of production tools progressed in leaps and bounds. Almost every labour oriented task was being optimised by intelligent machines in a tectonic shift that was transforming human society before our eyes.
Cornucopia was on the march and unless politicians and business leaders acted, its effects on those left by the wayside would be devastating. Some described the changes as cyclic, including myself, who believed history taught mankind its lessons, even if they were sometimes constructed out of the broken fragments of the past.
However, the difference with the past was the ever accelerating speed of change, which had reached a point where leaders and institutions were no longer capable of providing adequate responses.
Quantum changes in technology had destroyed jobs, first hollowing out the working classes, then the middle classes, and in almost every sector of commerce and industry. Worse, as jobs were increasingly automated, the effect on real wages was inversely proportional.
I had often told my students that certain parts of the UK would soon resemble, in economic terms, those of undeveloped countries. In fact it was already the case, with certain towns and districts of large cities already reminiscent of urban scenes in the Middle East or India. Regions where small businesses dominated the economic tissue, that is food and small services, outlets selling clothing and textiles, kitchen utensils, spare parts and repairs, bus and taxi services, the local transport of goods, pharmacies and medical services, local markets for agricultural products, the supply of small farming machines and tools.
In brief, primary manufacturing was absent. With the exception of services, bakers, butchers, restaurants and the like, practically all industrially manufactured goods were imported whilst the role of local businesses was supplying small industries with their needs, building materials, electrical equipment, automobiles, motor cycles, buses, trucks, tractors and household goods.
In pre-industrial times, I explained to my freshmen students, employment was created in great European cities by small trades, butchers, bakers, tailors, carpenters, printers, masons, carriage makers, locksmiths, tanners, harness and beltmakers, and so on.
Few of these trades remained and as Cornucopia approached, nothing but the butchers and bakers would be left, and even that was not certain.
Deep learning and a robotic future would see the return to a pre-industrial society, where the only work remaining would be that requiring ordinary human hands and minds, in small distributive commerce and professional services.
Already manufacturing and major distribution networks were controlled by globalised corporations that robotised the production of automobiles, electrical household goods and all the rest, delivered to the consumer by Amazon and Alibaba.
The dawn of Cornucopia was at hand. The question was how to adapt society? How to live in a world of plenitude? Ensure each one got his fair share? To prevent vast waves of uncontrolled immigration from strife torn and dystopian societies invading advanced nations.
Europe, already threatened by the loss of secure well-paid jobs, would be forced to defend itself against its neighbours to the south and east. The threat came not only from dystopian nations such as Somalia, Eritrea, or war torn states such as Iraq and Syria, but also from energy exporting nations such as Russia, Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries as the price of fossil fuels fell and as new technologies made oil and gas less viable, from all points of view, as it surely would.
The idea that planet Earth was running out of resources had always baffled me, had not technology always found new ways to dig deeper into the huge planet beneath our feet for our material needs from? An endless source of energy and minerals.
That was not the problem. The greatest fear lay in the destruction of the human environment.
The other recurrent human question was why future gazers feared ageing? I often asked my students this question. They answer lay in the fact they had always linked an ageing population to traditional macro economic concepts, societies where by definition people worked.
But what if nobody worked? What if work was not needed? Would age matter? Until the middle of the second half of the 19th century life expectancy at birth in the UK, Europe and the Americas was thirty five, from then onwards it started to rise, steeply, and it still continues to do so. The rest of the world lagged behind for another forty or fifty years, then followed the same steep curve of increasing life expectancy.
The low figures of the past were mainly due to infant mortality. In the past an adult, who reached the age of thirty five, could expect to live to sixty two or three, today this has increased to eighty. During the past century or so, the world depended to a large extent on human labour with surplus labour being diverted to the services of people, for health care, education and training.
Growing populations led to the ingrained idea of perpetual growth, but of what? Populations and goods? The idea remained that one was linked to the other and any fall in growth rates would cause economies to flounder. But what if population growth stopped with growth only in material wealth and well-being, as it would once Cornucopia gained ground?
As the age of plenty approached, all citizens in normal functioning societies could expect to share in the bountiful advantages Cornucopia offered them. The idea was not new, in 1797, Thomas Pain introduced in his pamphlet, Agrarian Justice, the concept of a guaranteed minimum income. Very much more recently, Finland, Switzerland and the Netherlands, all advanced societies, have considered the principal of providing all their citizens, every man, woman and child, with a minimum income.
It was not a foreign idea to modern society, where for example France provides aid to six million people a year in the form of unemployment, sickness, old age and a whole panoply of other benefits.
‘Those like our friends at the City & Colonial,’ I liked to explain, ‘who imagine we need more children to replenish the workforce and provide potential consumers, are akin to 19th century chimney sweeps, complaining gas and electricity would put their ten year olds out of work.’
As for those who talked of demographic suicide and the spectre of collapsing pension schemes, they forgot more people needed more jobs—jobs that could no longer be provided for the simple reason machines had already replaced them. Even in China, computers, cell phones and automobiles were manufactured in workerless factories in Chongqing, Shenzhen and Taipei.
Another social and economic model was needed to live with Cornucopia and enjoy the plenitude it offered.
The question was whether or not politicians were up to the task? I would have liked to have spoken of a governing class that was more interested in the future of the people they governed, rather than stuffing their pockets, where jobs for the boys was the rule, where former ministers and prime ministers were rewarded with rich sinecures, whatever future disaster they bequeathed the people. Could a system where old school ties counted more than real innovative talent survive. A system that proposed a referendum that risked throwing Britain’s membership of the EU to the wind on a whimsical, demagogic, vote getting promise, a system where the honey pot permitted politicians and public figures to vie for power, indulge in their fantasies, however perverted or vile. A system that allowed war mongers and complaisant friends of dictators to become billionaires.
We met with Sergei Tarasov at the the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon. I’d arrived in the RBS hospitality lounge where Michael had asked me to meet with him. It seemed he needed an impartial appraisal of the man, and his objectives, and thought I was a sufficiently good judge of men to form a dispassionate opinion of the oligarch, whom we’d first met a year before, in very particular circumstances, on his yacht in the Aegean.
I thought Wimbledon was a strange place to meet, but it didn’t particularly worry me as it would be an occasion to view the matches from the VIP area.
Shortly after I arrived, I watched George Pike, Michael’s chauffeur and personal guard, roll up at the VIP gate in one of the bank’s Jaguars. George flashed the invitations, and after a summary inspection Michael and Pat Kennedy were shown in with a smart salute from the security officer. They were the guests of the Royal Bank of Scotland for the British Tennis Open.
RBS maintained a lavish, but discreet corporate hospitality lounge for privileged guests, and privileged my friends were in their air-conditioned Jaguar, oblivious to the millions of other Londoners, who at that same instant, were sweltering in their offices in one of the longest heat waves to hit the South-East in decades.
A pretty hostess dressed in the 2009 Championship tennis outfit greeted the two bankers and guided them to the hospitality lounge, where once their invitations were inspected they were each served with a glass of refreshing Champagne.
I was already there waiting for them. After exchanging greetings, Pat turned to the vast panoramic window overlooking Court One, its new mobile roof closed for the first time in anticipation of an early summer thunder storm. Below them Andy Murray, cheered on by thousands of enthusiastic spectators, was giving a lesson in aggressive tennis to his Swiss opponent.
Michael drew me into a quiet corner.
‘John, it’s good of you to come. What I like you to do is listen and form an idea about our friend Tarasov and his pals and what they want. Be discreet and we’ll do the talking.’
I told him not to worry.
‘So here’s to the taxpayer,’ said Pat turning to us and raising his glass.
‘Taxpayer?’ retorted Michael.
‘Well they’re paying for our treat.’
‘Of course, the taxpayer, remember that includes us,’ Michael snorted.
‘Not me,’ said Pat, grinning. ‘At least in the UK.’
Surprisingly there were few people in the lounge in spite of the huge cost engaged by RBS for its very privileged guests.
‘So where is your friend Sergei?’ said Fitzwilliams turning to Pat whilst he glanced down the menu, which included Shetland Isles salmon with chocolate truffle torte for dessert.
‘Probable flirting around with those Russian girls,’ said Pat.
‘Players?’ said Fitzwilliams raising his eyebrows.
‘No, guests, you know models and the like.’
‘Oh! How are his affairs?’ he asked Pat, then adding for clarity, ‘You know—business.’
‘He’s doing very well, oil’s shot up, doubling since the beginning of the year so he must be raking it in. He’s played his cards shrewdly, still making a lot of money, buying Russian commodities at give-away prices and selling them for real money.’
‘What about property?’
‘That wasn’t his thing, recently I mean, but now he’s dived back into the Moscow market. Prices have fallen and there’s good pickings.’
There was a moment of silence as Fitzwilliams mentally compared the information to his own feedback.
‘Did you see the IMF report on the Irish economy?’ asked Kennedy unable to bear the pause.
‘Says we’re not to blame for the economic crash.’
‘That’s kind of them.’
‘But we’re to blame for overheating the economy. That’s what’s made things worse in Ireland than here.’
‘It won’t make good reading for the Taoiseach4.
‘It wouldn’t, he was Minister of Finance during the good times.’
‘A good thing we moved our key operations to London.’
‘And we didn’t get too deeply into Irish property.’
‘The other wee feekers are up to their necks, can you imagine, seventy percent of lending at home was property-related at the end of last year.’
‘Don’t forget Cassel & Powercourt—and Allen.’
‘As long as they don’t drag us down.’
‘The deal for Allen’s place is settled?’
‘Tarasov signed this morning.’
‘Hmm. Which one is Murray?’
‘The only worrying thing is all this talk of nationalisation.’
‘It’s all relative—let’s hope that nothing upsets the apple tart,’ said Kennedy.
‘Apple cart Pat,’ said Fitzwilliams slyly poking fun at Kennedy’s mixed idioms.
‘Whatever,’ replied Kennedy ignoring the barb and waving his empty Champagne glass at one of the waiters.
Kennedy knew next to nothing about tennis—their presence was strictly limited to meeting Sergei Tarasov, who, since his country’s players had reached the summit of the sport, had developed a passion for the game, like many other Russians.
Tarasov appeared accompanied by two other men.
‘Ah, Hello Sergei,’ said Michael stepping for to greet them, ‘Very nice to meet you again.’
They shook hands and turned to me.
‘John Francis,’ I said holding out his hand to Tarasov.
‘It’s a pleasure to meet you again. Pat’s spoken highly of you.’
‘Well, I hope it doesn’t prevent us from being friends.’
Tarasov looked nonplussed for an instant, then burst out laughing.
‘We’ll get along fine,’ he said turning to Michael and slapping him on the shoulder. ‘You know Steve Howard5 and Tom Barton6.’
‘Yes of course,’ Michael said turning to Barton. ‘Tom! You certainly get around n’est pas! Miami, the Caribbean, Greece!’ said Michael shaking Tom’s hand for a long moment.
‘Steve, nice to see you again,’ he said turning to Howard, ‘How is business?’
‘Still ducking and diving as they say,’ Howard replied jokingly.
They laughed, preening and stroking shoulders, as a waiter guided them to a table overlooking the court.
Tarasov attempted to update the bankers on the performance of Dinara Safina, who had just qualified for the quarter finals. But seeing his bemused Irish friends looking around, then out onto the court, he changed the subject, he realised they were not tennis fans.
‘So Michael, how is business,’ he asked changing tack.
‘Looking promising Sergei, and you.’
‘Excellent, so good I’m taking time off to enjoy the tennis, a lot of my friends are here from Moscow.’
‘I can see that,’ said Michael scanning the players’ names on the results board, where at least he could recognise the Russian names. ‘I heard you’ve just bought a new place in London.’
‘Yes, thanks to Steve.’
A waiter brought a magnum of Champagne with six glasses and Sergei ordered a bowl of caviar. He was looking pleased with himself, and justifiably so, thanks to Steve Howard’s behind the scenes negotiations he had just picked-up the hapless Brendan Allen’s London home. The troubled Irish businessman had been forced into a fire sale, starting with his racehorses, helicopters, executive jet, and now his luxurious London home.
The oligarch, who had jumped at Allen’s Knightsbridge property, a bargain at twenty million pounds, proposed a toast, ‘To my new dacha.’
Glasses clinked and they sipped the excellent Champagne, provided by the British taxpayer, as the caviar arrived accompanied by freshly toasted blinis and a bottle of chilled vodka.
‘A snip,’ he said winking at Steve.
Michael smiled with a small nod in Howard’s direction.
‘There’s plenty of great opportunities out there Michael. That’s the positive side of the crisis. With quality you can’t go wrong.’
‘Cash?’ asked Michael.
‘Cash,’ replied Tarasov.
‘Excellent,’ said Michael. And it was, the money went straight to Michael’s bank, the Irish Netherlands, to settle Allen’s outstanding loan on the property.
Tarasov poured six glasses of vodka then after helping himself to a large spoon of caviar and proposed another toast.
Then changing the subject he commenced, ‘What I’m interested in now Michael,’ looking more serious and getting directly to the point, ‘is an investment fund that can take advantage of the shake-out that’s taking place, and investing in prime properties in major cities around the world.’
‘Sounds interesting,’ replied Michael cautiously.
‘What I need are partners and a London fund manager.’
‘Have you anyone special in mind.’
‘What about your bank Michael?’
‘It’s certainly worth thinking about,’ he replied seriously, judiciously matching Tarasov’s tone.