Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Magazines & Sausages

Perhaps I wasn't paying attention but I haven't heard much about the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Fortunately Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen opened that window a little, examining how Ronnie Dunn, described as a country music megastar, assembled a secret stash of Soviet art.

I was working in Moscow at that time, visiting farms, printers and state publishers. At every location I saw examples of muscular Soviet Realism, usually in the form of rosey-cheeked farmers, almost beaming productivity. This Communist propaganda, pretty much unchanged since Stalin, was the official product of the Soviet Artists Union. If you wanted to sell art or even get paint, you had to conform to this style. As Studio 360 notes, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the art that has been created secretly and hidden under beds caught the attention of collectors like Ronnie Dunn and the rest is history.

I first visited Russia in 1989 and what seemed immediately clear was the map (offical US government view) did not fit the territory (the flesh-and-blood Moscow).  The bread lines, the alcohol consumption and the utter dependence of the citizenry on the government took some of the sting out of the Russian bear. As my boss famously said at that time, "There are no hardware stores in Russia." This accurately defined the Russian soul.

It was remarkable how quickly Russians walked away from the official Communist Party line, in art, science and public expression. This was a bizarre world at a bizarre time. Communist Party officials simply "walked" across the street and became free market democrats. We didn't seem to care. We were the disciples of transformation and regeneration.

Robert Rodale, the late chairman of Rodale, asked me to help him launch Novii Fermer, loosely based on Organic Gardening and the New Farm, in Russia. We knew the collective farms were not able to feed that nation and the use of commericial fertilizers was killing the soil. There was a strong dose of American optimism and hubris in the notion that we could encourage a sea change in a country governed by collective thinking for almost a century.

At the time Russia had no legal system to speak of and very little understanding of joint ventures. Nonetheless, we pushed ahead and developed a joint venture with a state publishing company. That was the easy part. Since there were no suitable presses in Moscow, we would have to print Novii Fermer in Finland and truck to Moscow. This wasn't that unusual and caused no more of a headache that paying the hefty tolls and bribes along the route.

Unfortunately our joint venture partners were less interested in magazines than in building a sausage factory on a farm outside of Moscow. So the deal went something like this. We would buy the equipment for the sausage factory as our contribution to the joint venture. The plan was to sell high-quality sausages to the ex-pat community in Moscow who would pay in hard currency (US) that would cover the printing in Finland. What was left would help cover operating costs.

Why the sausage factory? To the best of my knowledge this was government edict.  Russia was so short of modern machinery that they tried in the years after the collapse to add similar requirements to joint ventures where possible. I think we were the first to come down the pike. Though we had a top-notch Washington DC law firm protecting our interests, the combination of our naivete and the chairman's desire to do the deal took away some of our bargaining chips.

Tragically, Rodale and three of our Russian partners were killed in a horrific car accident within hours of signing the joint venture agreement, September 1990.

We pushed ahead and produced a glossy Novii Fermer a year later which was largely subsidized. The sausage factory didn't work out and the equipment was subsequently sold.

George Green, the long-time president of Hearst International often said that what American magazines export was a can-do, DIY point-of-view. I recall my long sessions with Russian editors describing the notion that we have the power to change our lives.

That was Bob Rodale's message at home and abroad. His work is still remembered in Russia and entrepreneurs there have told me that small farms, cottage industries and local produce are on the rise, changing the face of the nation.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you liked the story! Sounds like you have quite a few of your own.