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Doing Business : For a U.S. Executive, Life in Moscow Perks Up

July 23, 1991|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Jeffrey Barrie woke up at 6:30 a.m. the other day, poured himself a bowl of cornflakes, called some overseas clients, then turned on his computer to read his electronic mail and access a database to get information on new laws on Soviet-American trade. Pretty routine--except that he did it all from a place where such conveniences were virtually the stuff of science fiction until not too long ago: his Moscow apartment.

The life of a businessman in the Soviet Union has been transformed almost overnight, according to Barrie, 50, the president of Satra Aerospace. And he and other business people who lived here before the computer age hit Moscow are delighted.

"It used to be impossible even to make telephone calls," said Barrie, a retired Army officer who has worked in the Soviet Union for most of the last eight years. "The only way was to call an operator who didn't give a damn whether she connected you or not. Now I can dial Finland direct, then a polite operator comes on the line who can connect me immediately with anyone in the world."

On this particular morning, Barrie needed some information about restrictions connected with most-favored-nation trading status.

"Over coffee, in my Soviet apartment, I dialed and connected with the Washington Post database and got an answer in five minutes," Barrie said. "It's unbelievable."

Then Barrie enjoyed one of the luxuries made more readily available because of progressive devaluations that have brought the value of a ruble down from about $1.65 in 1990 to less than 4 cents today. He got a morning massage for the equivalent of a mere $3. And that included the professional masseur's trip to the eight-story brick apartment house where Barrie is the only foreign resident.

Just two years ago, almost all American business people lived in special buildings designated for foreigners. But now hundreds of foreigners such as Barrie rent apartments from Soviet citizens.

The Satra executive's next move was to flag down a car that would give him a lift to his office about 15 minutes away and take the masseur to his next appointment.

"I had 50 rubles (the equivalent of only $2, but representing about 3 days' pay for most Soviet workers) to play with," Barrie said, "Anyone would take us for 50 rubles, so all we had to do is get a car to stop."

His office is right next to Moscow's once top-secret aeronautics center, a place Barrie only dreamed about during his first tour in Moscow, as a military attache at the U.S. Embassy from 1980 to 1983, when Soviet-American relations were icy.

"When I used to be a military attache, it was against the law for foreigners to be in this area. Now I'm working here," Barrie said with a big smile. "Many of the buildings I drove past just to see if the lights were on 10 years ago are now the places I frequently visit for meetings."

Arriving at work this morning, Barrie met with Satra Aerospace's general manager, a retired top executive from Aeroflot, the Soviet Union's state airline. A few years ago, Soviet managers never worked for American firms, but now they can even be paid in foreign currencies.

Barrie, in fact, is the only non-Soviet of the nine people working at Satra Aerospace. The company is one of the first wholly-owned foreign companies registered in the Soviet Union under a new law to encourage foreign investment.

"If I want to hire a Soviet general director, I can pay him as much as I want," Barrie said. "It's up to me to create a situation where my people want to succeed."

Barrie's first appointments of the day were at Tushino airfield, a place that was off limits to him when he was a military attache.

"I'd drive by and look longingly at the gates," Barrie, a private pilot and former sport parachute jumper, said as he walked casually up to the planes parked on the grassy airfield. "This is heavy stuff for an ex-military attache--it's a skazka (fairy tale)."

At a small complex near the airfield, he talked with some Soviet airplane designers who are working on plans for a small passenger and cargo plane Satra is considering manufacturing in the Soviet Union.

"They have the absolute lowest labor costs of any developed country in the world and the lowest raw material and manufacturing costs of any developed country in the world," Barrie said.

Barrie said he visits the designers frequently because knowing your partners well is particularly important here. Fledgling Russian business people sometimes talk a better game than they play.

"There is a popular joke about Russian business," Barrie elaborated. "One Russian says to another, 'I'll sell you a ton of butter for 1,000 rubles.' The other Russian says, 'Sure.' Then one guy turns around to go find the ton of butter and another guy goes searching for 1,000 rubles."

While at Tushino, Barrie also met Yelena Klimovich, one of the Soviet Union's best acrobatic pilots.

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