The Saint Petersburg Times Issue #1239 (105), Tuesday, January 23, 2007
How to Steady A Sinking Submarine
By Anna Shcherbakova
It’s a tale of two firms, or rather two think tanks, (construction bureaus.) Both have a rich history of submarine design, with good contracts and comprehensive state funding. Obviously this was in the good old Soviet times, when the Army and Navy were not areas where one economized.
The general constructors of both firms were respected masterminds, top experts in military shipbuilding and organization.
In the early 1990s each enterprise had the same strengths and weaknesses. The number of contracts shrunk along with state prosperity; only limited funds were available for new research and development and even salaries often went unpaid. Each bureau possessed an enormous amount of property, skillful personnel and a good reputation both inside and outside the country. Given that their research was deemed top secret, I was surprised to see a very exact replica of a modern Soviet submarine in the toys section of a big department store in Germany — of course its potential enemies were well aware of Soviet shipbuilding techniques and could appraise their achievements.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the head of the first bureau seemed reluctant to change his mindset. He probably expected the old times to return, or just wanted to take care of himself and remain in pocket. Although he won some contracts to repair old submarines and started to design new ones, work soon stopped from want of money.
Many of the firm’s engineers and constructors left. He rented part of a newly-vacated building but it did not keep the enterprise afloat. His empire was in ruins but he sat there still, hopeless in his huge, old-fashioned office with only a secretary for comfort. Several years ago he quietly quit his job. The bureau still exists, but without sensation.
His colleague, on the other hand, plays tennis, is slim and sometimes advertises jeans and sporty sweaters despite the fact that he turned 80 last summer. 20 years ago, on witnessing the end of Communism, he started to look for new contracts abroad, duly doing some deals in India. At a time when it was prohibited to use foreign currency inside Russia, he founded a trade company that converted profit into the goods that he distributed between his own employees. It was a good idea at a time when almost everything was in deficit.
Later the company purchased Indian tea and sold it in Russia. At the same time the company helped to out-staff some engineers, which also kept people satisfied. The general constructor used his political influence to develop elite real estate, such as a business-center on Nevsky prospekt. It was followed by a hotel and mall containing St. Petersburg’s first and only oceanarium.
So this submarine designer became a very successful manager. On top of all this, his bureau was carrying out new projects, striking deals at home and abroad. When one of its submarines sunk, it even helped to rescue it.
I will not name the first bureau, but the second is Rubin and its director is Igor Spassky, who announced his resignation at the end of last week.
Enjoy yourself, Igor Dmitrievich, you did an awful lot for your company!
Anna Shcherbakova is St. Petersburg bureau chief of business daily Vedomosti.