Scanning the consulate short list of U.S. companies in St. Petersburg, I began my job search. It seemed as if only agitated Russian maids tended corporate America's flag in the city.
"Mr. Coca-Cola went to Oslo on Business."
"Mr. 3M has gone home."
"Who wants to know? Why do you want to know? You have no right to know, you know."
When corporate America goes abroad, she aims to impress.
Towards the bottom of the list I came to "International Group," which I interpreted as a group of people, as opposed to a board of bureaucrats, and took heart. On the other end I got John Bartson, a.k.a. Baby Bartson.
"I don't have an MBA Mr. Bartson."
"That's just fine." he drawled. "I don't either. Come on over."
The city around it may have acclimated itself to the rigors and wonders of the free market, but walking into the Hotel Oktyabrskaya on Nyevsky Prospect was like stepping back into the old U.S.S.R. Two fossilized veterans in blue uniforms, peaked hats, a few medals and red arm bands stood guard at the entrance. The Old Regime used to bestow such plush sinecures on retired KGB officers for good service, with the understanding that they'd keep an eye on the out-of-towners. The two gents were bent on carrying out their duties. After some artful negotiation in graceless Russian tailored to lower their suspicions, they let me through.
On the dimly lit third floor an attractive woman opened the door to the suite. Baby Bartson's massive bulk, adorned in sweat suit and reading glasses, spread over a large black leather couch. Jabba the Hut with a human face came to mind. On the window sill behind the fleshy expanse stood a colour photograph of the same man in a similar suit shaking hands with Boris Yeltsin in the Kremlin. "Why'd you have to get so dressed up?" my father would have asked.
Beneath a boyish blonde mop of hair, Bartson smiled with genuine charm as he spun the standard rags to riches yarn. We chatted for an hour or so, covering the requisite topics: U.S. corporate incompetence, the marvel of Russian culture, how it would soon become the seventh wonder of the capitalist world, and smart guys stood to make a fortune. Of course the primary motive was altruistic: to civilize Russia. Heady stuff. Bartson listed his Russian projects past and present, avoiding comment on their success or failure, but lamented the latent backward nature of the natives, which he termed "the old comm'nist mentality." With time I would learn this meant everything in Russia that displeased Baby Bartson. A brick plant somewhere in the Baltics, a winery in the Caucuses, and a hotel project in Moscow stood out on his list, but the Peter and Paul Fortress topped it. Bartson said he was forming a joint venture with three American multinationals to renovate the top landmark in the city, and turn it into a historical business center, theme park, with workers dressed in period costume. Suddenly a battle royal between Disney and the ex-Evil Empire raged in my mind. I placed my wager on the natives.
Yelena, the gimlet-eyed secretary, sat behind a table at the far end of the room, listened attentively, feigned knowing approval when required, but divulged nothing. Of keen mind, she possessed an imposing frame, and seemed to harbor more twists than she herself could possibly keep track of.
The meeting raised more questions than it answered. I knew I was in for an unique experience when I asked where he was from, and Bartson drawled, "Southun' California." If a man can't tell the truth about where he's from, what can he tell the truth about? He offered me a rouble equivalent salary of fifteen dollars a month, plus "a percentage" of profit from whatever project I might help to fruition. When I expressed dismay, he turned the offer into a taunt. Bartson, and people like him, would call it "a challenge." I took it. Since my first trip here in January '82, all I could think about was living and working in Russia. Ten years later this still wasn't a country to just walk into. You needed a business visa, and that was mostly what Bartson had to offer.
A month later down in Moscow at the Radison I met Bartson for breakfast, which I paid for myself with what would have been my first month's salary. Bartson's mood had changed from amiable bumpkin to Nixon in the White House basement. Surrounded by enemies, the previous day he had scuffled with the hotel security and lost. Bartson asked me to attend negotiations where I learned hotels disapprove of guests who refuse to pay for the rooms. That pesky ole' comm'nist mentality again. He said he was a partner in the Radison project, which was news to the hotel representative.
Bartson instructed me to return to St. Petersburg to rectify a disagreement with the Fortress directors who met me the next morning with steely glares and a torrent of complaints. My employer had stolen a safe, assaulted one of the secretaries and threatened two others. The vice director showed me a letter from the bank of Monaco granting Bartson credit for the above mentioned projects. Then he showed me another letter on the same letter head from the president of the bank, stating they had never heard of Bartson, had guaranteed him nothing, but would like to talk with him. At this juncture I concluded my tenure with John Bartson, and went into business for myself, whom I found more reputable and reasonable.
Baby Bartson stuck around a few more years in St. Peter, getting himself into a number of scrapes with the ole' comm'nist mentality. After an altercation with city building inspectors he spent a few nights in jail. Bartson made the nightly news when he neglected to stop at a highway patrol road block, the gendarmes gave chase, and his moll at the timenot Yelenacaught a slug in the backside. These days you can keep track of him on the front page of the expatriate St. Petersburg Press. In January of this year a Federal court in Atlanta indicted Bartson in absentia on 42 counts of bank fraud. According to U.S. Assistant Attorney John Malcom, Bartson obtained $1 million from seven financial institutions in three states during the 1980s. Arrested in Cyprus, and undergoing extradition procedures, Baby Bartson slipped through the authorities's hands and is still at large. Quite a feat for a man of his mass.