Russian veteran Harvey Smith tells us how to cope with a 74ºC annual temperature range, find unusual ways to lift a 12-tonne spire - and why Ladas are better cars than Range Rovers
My Russian experiences started in 1997 when I was seconded to a Finnish contractor building a drinks factory in Moscow, and has continued on and off for six years. I’d tried the Middle East and didn’t enjoy it but Russia, and the Red Army, has fascinated me since I was a schoolboy.
I’ve now worked in Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Moscow, Sakhalin Island, St Petersburg and Kaluga near the Ukraine, and I can tell you this is a country of extremes. As I have said to my wife on many occasions, it’s either too hot, too cold or too damn wet.
It was -30° in the winter of 1997 and the Finns “cooked” concrete with oil heaters and electrical cabling. On Sakhalin, 2m of snow fell in 48 hours and 4m icicles hung from the roof. The snow was cleared off site by excavators and trucks, and some was used to build a river bridge. Then, in summer, the site office reached 44°. In between, some sites are hit by the rasputitsa, the liquid mud of autumn and spring. I once saw a Range Rover driven by a foreigner sink up to its axles in seconds. I remember the time when I was approving money to be paid to a French developer in Moscow and its project manager cried for more money for site roads. I explained that if it were not for the rasputitsa, Napoleon might have made the region part of France and that it was a reasonably foreseeable event. He left the subject alone after that.
On Sakhalin, 2m of snow fell in 48 hours and 4m icicles hung from the roof. The snow was cleared off site by excavators and trucks, and some was used to build a river bridge
I also enjoy the sheer the size of the projects. Last year I tried to get a job back in the UK (I fancied a more settled existence). At the interview in London, the director of a PQS, some 10 years younger than myself, asked after my retail experience. I said, “deputy project manager on a $110m, 100,000m2 shopping centre”. I did not get the job, and I was not really surprised. He was into refurbing boutiques.
The Russians are rightly a proud people, with many achievements in their history. The Radisson Royal hotel that sits on the other side of the river from our office is the second tallest in Europe, despite being completed in the fifties. And at a nearby railway station they have a P36 steam locomotive (pictured). To many this will mean nothing, but a little research will tell you it was the largest passenger locomotive in Europe.
There is a practicality about Russians that I admire. My first company car was a Lada. People may regard them with disdain, but they were designed with the same ruggedness as a Kalashnikov: they also have an enviable off-road ability and can be started at -28°C.
Russians are also hugely superstitious (a huge “don’t” is shaking hands in doorways), and their approach to projects still has the bureaucracy that characterised the Soviet period. Teos (building permits), SNiPs (building regulations) and GOSTs (the equivalent of the Kitemark) are all vital, and are often a mystery to foreigners. For instance, all surface water drainage manholes must be tanked up to ground water level. This baffles many foreigners, but in Russia it reduces leakage when the snow melts, and means that any reinforcement in the concrete of the manhole is better protected. The awareness of hierarchy also means there is great respect for qualifications, and there’s none of the shouting that happens in project meetings in some countries.
Last week at work, we were debating how to lift a 12 tonne spire onto the roof of a building. I suggested using a Mi-26 military helicopter
Then there is the language. Even after six years and two Russian wives, I still struggle with it. The sounds of the words are so different from anything in my schoolboy French, Latin or German. My advice to anyone coming here is to learn the alphabet and the numbers, and buy a small Collins phrasebook with a CD. I started off with a huge Linguaphone and a book on Russian grammar and got nowhere. Russian lessons on site were also a disaster for most. There is no point teaching foreign builders the Russian for “the monkey is on the table”. A few words, such as “concrete”, “reinforcement” and “hammer” are what is needed. And Russians like foreigners who have even the barest ability in their language. As for me, one of my Russian friends recently told me that at least I was “understandable”.
Russia is also a country of possibilities. Last week at work, we were debating how to lift a 12 tonne spire onto the roof of a building. I suggested using a Mi-26 military helicopter. I explained that it was the heaviest lift helicopter in the world and was available for commercial hire. Actually, it can lift up to 20 tonnes and its use would be great PR …
Harvey Smith is a contracts manager for Turkish contractor Rasen.
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