A Secret Meeting
In the beginning of the new millennium, stories about unacceptable violations of human rights in the Russian paper sector were rapidly spreading. One issue was dangerous forest work carried out by Russian prisoners under barbaric circumstances. My client, Ulrich Egger was responsible for corporate social responsibility in a German newspaper publisher company that regularly used paper from a paper mill in Nizhy Novgorod. He was afraid that German human rights activist would publish something like: “Russian slaves produce paper for Dortmunder Abendblatt”. Ulrich had invited me to join him on a trip to Nizhny Novgorod. We flew business class from Frankfurt: good food, reasonable white wine. Ulrich told me an anecdote about a professional pianist who lost her finger – and her profession – in a violent conflict with Russian border police. The message: Russia is a dangerous country. No problems with Nizhny Novgorod police, hardly any serious checks. We took a taxi to an address that was given to us by a Berlin based NGO. A Scottish forestry consultant, working for the Russian paper mill, joined us. At the address, in an old school, we were supposed to meet a representative of a Russian organization. He would be willing to give us more information about slavery in the forest. One of use would meet him at the railway station after giving a certain sign. Only one of us was allowed to be at the station to avoid unnecessary suspicion. When we arrived at the school building, his wife Olga (there are many Olgas in Russia) was already there. She had brought bread, sausages, cheese and wodka. Twenty minutes later, our friend Juri arrived, a short man, one head shorter than Olga. To our surprise Juri started to talk (rudimentary) German.He said his family were Volga Germans. His parents still talked German. He welcomed us and Olga took care of wodka and food. We switched to English, which was translated into Russia by one of the people present.
“Daaaas iest faantaastiesch!”: Stop that Bullshit
Ulrich gave a short introduction of the purpose of our visit. He told Juri the importance of human rights issues in Germany and how they could severely damage whole brands. Therefore the German publisher needed good information on the existence of the alleged ‘slavery’ practice in Russia forests and whether wood supplies to the paper mill were affected. Juri looked as if he did not believe a word and then switched to Volga German again. With long vowels he said slowly: “Daaaas iest faantaastiesch!” and then made clear what he meant. “I do not believe a word, Ulrich. That is all pure nonsense! Bullshit! Why would a German consumer be worried about a bunch of prisoners working in the Russian forest? Stop telling that nonsense! Nobody will believe you! They want to read the newspaper. That is all. Ulrich, be realistic and stop that bullshit!”. He concluded his short verbal eruption by proposing a new toast. Olga took care of new wodka and Juri again welcomed everybody.
We highly appreciate your initiative
After a short pause, Juri started to speak again. “Dear distinguished guests from Germany! You are extremely welcome! You have come here with a very important purpose! Representing one of the most powerful and sensitive consumer markets of the world, German companies can make a difference in the world, including Russia! Therefore, we highly appreciate you initiative and we will provide you with all the information you need.” Ten minutes later, the table was covered with detailed maps, indicating the prisoner camps and the work areas. After some food and some more wodka, we took a taxi to our hotel. We had the information we had been after. The issue ‘slavery in the forest’ was real and perhaps even more serious than many thought.
What are you talking about?
Three months later, Ulrich was travelling with representatives of a paper company in another part of Russia. on a road through the forest, their minibus had to wait for several minutes for a group of prisoners, who, chained to each other, were crossing the road. When the road was free again and the minibus continued its trip, Ulrich asked his hosts from the paper company: “Can you please tell me? Who were these people that crossed the road five minutes ago?”. The answer: “What are you talking about, Ulrich? We did not see anything!”.
For privacy reasons, names and places have been modified in this story.