The War in Ukraine, Day 28. The Invasion had started on Thursday February 24, 2022. I was frantically trying to get in touch with a former employee and colleague who lived in Kyiv
Alexander (his name has been changed for reasons of security). I had texted him at the start of the invasion, but as the war progressed, I began to fear the worst. Finally, he was able to find time to respond.
“Julie, please forgive me that I’ve been silent. Sometimes it is hard to sit and put the words down. I would love to say something good or at least neutral but as Ukrainian I will get rid of this soft communication style, so I beg your pardon for my over straightness below. Foremost, I am so grateful for your thoughts and prayers which indeed keep me up.
After all which I witnessed and lived through in my sadly known home town Bucha I’ve miraculously survived when I had come under the fire of 30mm heavy gun, and the next day the missile hit the facade of the building just over my head, and the next day I got enormous luck to get out of the town by walk through the forests to Kyiv, and then I had been picked up by the good friends of mine and given the shelter…
After all this, I am happy with every single second of my life.
I have no idea what the next day will look like. Same time I can’t stop thinking of the future after the war. In fact, I am single, all my property is in my backpack, most likely I don’t have any future perspective with the company I worked for, my four kids are in different countries, but they are safe and it makes me almost free. When I am down, I feel I might be trying to restart my life from the scratch in the U.S. or wherever else I will be able to earn. When I am up I am full of hopes and determined to stay and renew the country I love, Ukraine.
I realize it may sound a bit dramatic for an ordinary email but I hope that with your empathy and life experience you will understand. I hope for a better future but I accept reality as well. Alex.”
Here is a picture of the apartment building showing the direct hit on Alex’s apartment followed by images of the roads he had to travel during his escape from Bucha.
We are now in the sixth week of the war in Ukraine. It’s been two weeks since the death of Madeleine Albright, the 64th US Secretary of State and the first woman to hold this position. I share an alma mater with her having received a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University, where she received her PhD in 1975, and was fortunate enough to be one of only two other women in the room with her when President Clinton met with the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia in 1996. At that time, I was the only woman on the Board of Directors and the youngest member as well. I had moved to Moscow from Manhattan in 1992 to start up Mary Kay’s corporate operations in Russia after a previous job assisting teams from Kodak, Johnson & Johnson, RJR Nabisco and Chevron on opening up their businesses in the brave new post-Communist world.
Hyperinflation was rampant with inflation raging above 1,200%. Average male life expectancy had plummeted to around 52 years for men in large part due to the loss of savings and jobs. Most of them were drinking themselves to death. I had been hired to start up and scale Mary Kay Cosmetics’ corporate operations in Russia. Every day I had scores of women in my office, with tears streaming down their faces as they pondered what would happen to them and how they would feed their families and buy clothes for their children since the price of goods was soaring and their savings were now worthless. Western businesses were entering the market and expanding but the so called “shock therapy” promoted by Jeffrey Sachs managed to pretty much destroy the economy overnight, causing tremendous human suffering and allowing the state’s most valuable assets to be scooped up by private businessmen that formed the new class of “oligarchs.”
It was a violent, magical, and chaotic time in Russia. The debauchery of Westerners partying in Moscow knew no bounds as any patron of the notorious bar The Hungry Duck could tell you. Western businessmen would flip through huge glossy photo books of gorgeous young Russian girls, choosing which ones they wanted to “rent out” for their all-night drug and booze filled parties that often turned into orgies. I saw things I thought I would never see in my lifetime.
In 1986, under the oppressive hand of the Soviet State and the horrifically inefficient and maladaptive Central Command Economy, scrounging for food was a daily occurrence. If you saw someone carrying bags of oranges or rolls of toilet paper strung like beads on a piece of sturdy string, you immediately asked them where they got it and went to stand in line to try and score some yourself. On the main street of Moscow, then called Gorky Street, on a side street across from the Main Telegraf Agency, Gazetniy Pereulok, there was a state-run cafeteria. Grim, dirty and grey, you could stand in line for some pieces of brown rye bread and thin gruel, and flimsy aluminum utensils that would send a shock through your teeth if they touched the mercury amalgam fillings that dentists used back in the day to fill cavities. It was a dull, hard, grinding existence and my classmates and I thought it would never change. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that one day there would be a McDonald’s in Moscow.
And yet, by 1993 that horrible depressing cafeteria had in fact been replaced by a bright shiny new McDonald’s, only a few blocks down from where the first and largest McDonald’s had opened in 1990 with queues of thousands patiently waiting outside for their first bite of a McDonald’s Big Mac.
Contract killings and car bombs were commonplace events as criminal elements took over businesses and used murder as a primary means of settling business disputes. It was reported that over half of the men making up one of Moscow’s newly formed and prominent business round table organizations were murdered in the span of six months. I had to start up my own security company to provide personal security for myself, my staff and Mary Kay’s business as commercial security operations were as criminal as the bandits they claimed to protect you from.
They inserted themselves into every aspect of your personal and business life, passing valuable commercial information to the highest bidder, including criminal elements who would be more than happy to take you out in order to take over your business. I had always been closely watched by the KGB since working for Ted Turner in Moscow during the 1986 Goodwill Games and partially credit their close monitoring and eavesdropping on my calls and activities as one of the reasons we were not shaken down by violent criminal elements. That and the fact that in the testosterone filled male dominated business world of Russia in the 90s, lipsticks and face creams didn’t threaten any strategic domestic companies or industries. Everyone was pretty happy to see classic Soviet perfumes like Krasnaya Moskva (Red Moscow) go by the wayside and most Soviet cosmetics were nothing to write home about.
The real action was in oil & gas and natural resource extraction where the big boys like Mikhail Khodorkovskiy of Yukos and Boris Berezovskiy and Roman Abramovich played games with oil companies like Sibneft. Lucky for us, planning the best eyeshadow and lip color trends for the next Spring Collection was the last thing on their minds. Tax and business rules would change retroactively overnight, there were no card payment systems or national distribution companies, and there was a huge lack of any kind of commercially efficient modern warehousing making doing business extremely challenging even on the best days. And yet.
The country was opening up, there was freedom of the press, there were beginning glimmers of the possibility that civil society and non-governmental institutions could actually hope to be established. Private initiatives were flourishing and Moscow was filling up with restaurants, bars, cafes, and shops. You could establish companies, start businesses, and buy, sell and develop apartments, land and commercial real estate. In the course of the next ten years my Russian husband and I would start up and run businesses in real estate sales & development, food & beverage and security & transportation.
It wasn’t until Putin came to power that things stabilized and became much more manageable. No one was really sorry to see Yeltsin go. In fact, it was a relief as after the 1998 financial and economic crisis there was a very real feeling that things simply could not go on as they had. Soon, the ruble stabilized, inflation was under control, corruption and violence as a whole diminished, people could obtain mortgages to buy property and by 2019, in areas such as the adoption of digital banking and fintech, Russia was in the top three countries globally just behind China and India and far ahead of the US who ranked 24th.
As a child, Albright and her family fled real Nazis. I can’t imagine what she would have thought about Putin’s trumped up claims that his “special operations” in Ukraine are needed to “denazify” the country and keep it from attacking Russia. According to the Levada polling center, a non-governmental research institution in Moscow, however, Putin’s popularity has jumped since the invasion of Ukraine, with 83% of respondents saying they approve of him.
In part, this shows just how effective Putin’s propaganda machine and his snuffing out of any independent press has been. Most of the population still gets their news from official Russian state-controlled media and only younger more technically savvy younger generations in major cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg know how to use virtual private networks (VPNs) to access news on the internet. So it really shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise that they actually believe that, in fact, Ukraine was taken over by Nazis and was threatening Russia with annihilation, as absurd as it seems. Especially as the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy is himself Jewish and lost family members to Nazi invaders during WWII.
After the initial period of stabilization, however, Putin seemed to lose steam. Wages began to stagnate and the limits of his willingness to allow any sort of true democratic process or civil society to grow were shown by his growing autocratic tendencies and the gradual elimination of any opposition, from the arrest and incarceration of Khodorkovskiy to the assassination of Boris Nemtsov in plain sight on a bridge by the Kremlin to the poisoning of Alexey Navalniy in Russia and the Skripals in London.
Moscow never looked more beautiful than the summer of 2018 when Putin cleaned up the city for the July FIFA World Cup Games. I had either lived in Russia or had been going every year for business since 1986, more than three and a half decades. I owned an apartment there as well as land and businesses, and I had also traveled throughout Siberia and the Far East. Although things were stagnating for most people in Russia, there was still hope that Russia could continue to grow and diversify its economy and do justice to its place as a major European country, one with unmatched human capital talent, culture, and history.
Never did I think it would end like this. With a brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Alex is still in Kyiv, sheltering with friends. When I warned him that there are fears that Putin might use biological or chemical weapons, he said:
“[The use] of the chemical or biological threatening gets more and more close as Putin finds himself in the deadlock. He is very dangerous now like a rat in the corner. I also consider the limited nuclear attack or nuclear plant accidents as realistic scenario to make the world scared of escalating war to the globe. I am already talking the iodine drug to get prepared for it.”
As for the rest of his family, his ex-wife left Ukraine for Turkey with his 12 year old daughter a month before the invasion. His older daughter, 26 also lives there. His youngest son, 17 is studying in Estonia and is safe for now. But his other son, 21, is volunteering in the war, serving in the Ukrainian territorial defense forces, under the command of the regular military forces.
He ends his missive thus:
“All Ukrainians and I are determined to do all possible to defend our motherland. To do so we need stay alive. You can use my story to spread the word of truth. And thank you so much for offering your hand of help.”
On behalf of Alex and all those who are suffering the unspeakable horrors of war in Ukraine, please donate today.