Cruising Down the Dnieper

The early 1990s in eastern Europe were chaotic. The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union created a new world overnight and few were prepared for it. A switch was thrown and suddenly communism was replaced by capitalism. Black marketeers, criminals under the Soviets, became millionaires in the new order, since they were already  capitalists. Corrupt communist cronies, who had squirreled their pilfered money away in Swiss banks, bought factories from the governments at bargain basement  prices. Crime was  rampant. Anything or anyone was for sale. It was the Wild, Wild East and I was thrilled to experience it.

Western companies from Italian restaurants to Mercedes-Benz were pouring people, products and money into the new markets. For example, the biggest and most profitable McDonald’s in the world was in Moscow. The line to enter it would wind  around the block. I worked for IBM, which was one of those companies, and spent my time supporting its expansion into eastern Europe.


Of all my adventures in that time and place, one episode stands out. It began in Kiev, Ukraine. The year was 1993 and the country was less than two years old. It was referred to as “The Ukraine” under the Soviet Union, much like Americans would say “The Midwest”. Two hundred years after Catherine the Great incorporated it as part of Russia, it was once again a free state with its own laws and language.

IBM was very careful in placing fully staffed branch offices in Ukraine and many other newly independent countries. For example, many demo machines, which were sent to them, had a bad habit of disappearing without a trace. The solution was to go into partnership with local firms called Business Partners, who would procure computers from IBM and resell them to their clients.

The Ukrainian Business Partner had decided to sponsor an eight day trip down the Dnieper River from Kiev to Odessa on the Black Sea, stopping at all the major cities along the way. They chartered a cruise ship and invited customers to travel with them on day trips while attending our presentations and entertainment. I was sent to take part and provide overviews and demonstrations of IBM’s family of Unix based computers.

Here is the list of cities we would visit. The spelling is in Russian, which was used at the time. Kiev, Cherkasy, Kremenchuk, Dnipropetrovsk (A tongue twister in Russian, but  simply Dnipro in Ukrainian), Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Nikolaev and Odessa. Many of these places have been in the headlines lately.

I arrived in Kiev for a planning session two days before we boarded the ship. Not long after checking into my hotel, I found that I had a serious problem. There were no briefs in my suitcase. I was wearing my only pair. I didn't want to ask any of the locals to drive me around to pick up some unmentionables for that story would follow me for the rest of the trip.

There was only one thing to do. I had packed a bottle of liquid detergent. That was the solution. All I needed to do was wash my remaining pair of skivvies at bedtime and hang them up to dry overnight. A hair dryer took care of the morning dampness. This would allow me to save face and protect my reputation, which was of great importance. After all, I wasn’t just selling computers. As the lone American on board, I didn't want to look like a total idiot.

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