The Oligarch’s Shoes

By Derek On November 14, 2011 Under Failed Trades

We invest in Russia among other places and when I was a junior analyst on the fund the PM asked if I wanted to see a refinery in Siberia. It was February. A Russian broker we dealt with had offered to arrange the trip. I asked the PM, my boss who was older and wiser:

“Don’t you want to go?”

“No, I don’t want to go to fucking Siberia in winter. But you do, so check it out.”

The Lunch

So I went. I spent two days in Moscow with my broker, Oleg, looking at other companies when we boarded a long haul domestic flight to some city way, way out there. I can’t even remember the name. We spent the night in the company’s “Gaz Hotel” which quality wise was a mix between Las Vegas kitsch and Tijuana border town. The next day it was 30 below zero and bundled up in all my winter clothes I joined the group and we boarded an old Soviet-era helicopter. There were about twenty of us; myself,  Oleg, a few minders and the management of the company. Our first stop was several deafening hours away over the chalk white frozen, pancake flat landscape. Who the hell would want to live out here, I thought as we spent hours passing over the monotonous ground. We landed at one refinery and had a quick tour before the customary and massive vodka-fueled Russian lunch. Being the only foreign guest, I was obliged to drink shots of vodka with everyone who offered a toast. They all did. Several times. I used to think I can drink but I wasn’t in the same league as these guys. Lunch lasted a long time and the sun was starting to go down. The pilots were anxious to get us out of there because they didn’t want to fly at night and we still had some way to go to our final stop. We bundled up and made our drunken way back to the helicopter which was all ready to go. Before the doors closed we were up and off. These ex-military pilots don’t mess around.

The Bottles

Of course, everyone had to pee and after two more thundering hours everyone REALLY had to pee. The pilots laughed when one of the guys asked them to set the bird down anywhere so he could relieve himself. Nyet! We aren’t going to land in the middle of fucking Siberia in six feet of snow in a helicopter at night so you can pee, Dimitri. Empty bottles were passed around and we did our business that way. Being on the buy side has its advantages. I filled mine, handed it to my broker and went to sleep. There were no caps or corks on board so I don’t know what Oleg did with an open container of hot piss at night in a bouncy helicopter hurtling over a darkening Siberia. I woke up an hour later when we landed at the big refinery.

The Oligarch

And we were just in time for dinner with the Oligarch. This was interesting. He flew out in his own helicopter to meet us there and was younger than I thought and nattily attired in the latest Prada shoes, pants and jacket. We were all in boots but in Russia if you wear expensive loafers in Siberia in winter you are sending a clear message. “I don’t need to work outside. I am the boss.” This boss, like most of the Russian oligarchs, had “acquired” his assets during the turmoil of the Yeltsin years and had a ruthless reputation.  I had never met an oligarch before and wasn’t sure what to expect but he was nice to me. My broker was in awe of this person and although I don’t speak Russian, I could see how deferential and careful Oleg was talking to the big boss.

The Dinner

Dinner was an even more impressive affair than lunch: reindeer meat, caviar and vodka is about all I remember but there was a lot of it. Again, the toasting began in earnest and when you are toasted by a Russian oligarch worth six billion dollars, well, you drink. We were about twenty guys sitting around the table with the oligarch at the head, me on his right side and Oleg on his left. Everyone nodded in agreement when he spoke, or laughed when he told a joke – none louder than my terrified Oleg. The drinking was insane and I even though I was faking it by taking alternate shots of water I was reaching the formerly impressive limits of my Irish alcohol tolerance. As a Russian, poor Oleg couldn’t escape and do the water shots. I thought he was starting to lose it by the way he was talking but since I was so far gone I wasn’t sure. Then the oligarch stood up to make a toast. Oleg lurched to his feet with the rest of us but turned green, tried to cover his mouth and barfed all over the Oligarch’s new Prada shoes. Yeah, he was losing it alright.

I don’t know what happened to Oleg because he left the business soon after that. But I’ll never forget the total silence around the table broken by the Oligarch roaring with laughter standing in a giant puddle of puke. It feels like everyone in Russia is living on the edge. But I like edgy. I liked the place.

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