How to break a Lada, and how to fix it

Driving an old Lada means putting yourself in interesting situations now and then. One thing that realistically could happen is that you simply drop the whole exhaust system in the centre of Kiev in rush hours, it just recently happened to us… It doesn’t necessarily need to be a huge problem though, not if you like Gustav has a habit to carry around a string in your backpack with which you can tie up the exhaust system and loudly drive to the nearest “Avtoremont” (auto service). Here you can meet with great guys like in our case, Stas, who can estimate the price of reparation from just a push up under the car.  100 UAH, or about 12 dollar and your Lada is both silent and ready to drive for another month or so according to Stas estimations. If you ever need an Avtoremont in Kiev, just write me an email, and I will send you the number of Stas.

Getting to know Kiev

Kiev is showing itself from its bright side, weather is still summerish, people are both cheerful and helpful, it’s alive, but not harmfully stressful in the Moscow way. It’s also full of opportunities for two young Swedish entrepreneurs; we are incessantly met with positive reactions on what we are up to in Ukraine, both in business and private. Frankly speaking, we feel welcomed. As far as we have understood, the thousands of Swedes who were here for the European football championship earlier this year’s also felt welcomed and according to the Ukrainians, behaved well also after losing some ball-kicking games. Actually so well that you nowadays can find a classical Swedish “Dalahäst” (Dala horse) monument together with a Swedish flag in the very center of Kiev, there to symbolize the friendship between our countries.

Speaking about Swedes in Ukraine losing something big, Ukraine has probably not seen so many Swedes since the battle in Poltava in 1709. It’s seen as the battle in which Sweden lost its status as a “big power” and it has also resulted in the Russian saying “Like the Swedes in Poltava” (Как шведы под Полтавой) which is a common expression for someone who chickens out of something. Nowadays, we are fairly underrepresented in my opinion with some 150 Swedes permanently living in Ukraine.  Yesterday we met two of them on a Fryday Kiev event – a good meeting place for professionals. It was started by the two Swedes in Kiev a couple of years ago and is now active in a growing number of cities in the CIS region.

How to find an office in Kiev in 24 hours

We had left much of the practical issues to solve upon arrival, assuming that opportunities would be much more likely to show up when physically in Kiev. So we arrived, informed all of our acquaintances about our arrival and need of a place to live and work, and waited for roughly 22 hours before receiving a positive answer of the type “I have some free space in my office you might rent for a while, come have a look”. The offer came from an architect who Gustav got to know briefly during his 1 month stay in Odessa last summer. For a lean start up, the solution offered was rather optimal, with a space just big enough for two persons to both live and work, and with absolutely minimized distance from work to bed, approximated to 20 centimeters – no waste!

Lada trip Stage two, Moscow – Kiev

This is where we spent our very first, short, ukrainian night of sleep

We started our 900 km trip from Moscow to Kiev on the Saturday afternoon, well rested and with a hope that the border cues would be shorter if we passed it in the middle of the night. It turned out to be a good choice, we had some rain in the night but traffic wasn’t too much and the boarder was crossed in some 3 hours or so. The only real hassle there was the green insurance card that we should have bought before the border, but instead I had to take a little run to the Ukrainian side, buy the card in the border insurance shop, and run back again.

One thing that we noticed then, and have noticed much more later is that every person in Ukraine seems to know at least someone who is a programmer, this goes also for the woman who works in the boarder insurance shop, so I came back with not only the insurance card but also the phone number of some random programmer in Kiev. This was around 4 AM in the morning, always at work? The trip to Kiev took in total 22 hours, including border break, ice cream break, sleeping in Lada break and breakfast break. We arrived to Kiev early afternoon and hit the address where we stayed for the first couple of days, with a fast internet connection it also served as our very first temporary office in Kiev.


Lada trip stage one, St Petersburg – Moscow

We decided to take the my Lada, or in Russian “Zhiguli (Жигули)” model 2105 from 1990 that had been standing in Kirovsk, close to  St Petersburg since I bought it the summer 2010, while I studied Russian in St Petersburg.  Why? Because it really adds to the experience moving in this way, plus Gustav had a lot of his stuff in Moscow after having studied one year at Bauman. The roads seemed to have improved since last I used them and they were of good standard most of the time.

One observation during the distance between St Petersburg to Moscow was the deterioration of many of the small villages on the way. It seems as if time has stopped in these places, and decided to move to the big cities instead. I counted to around 3-4 wooden houses with fallen roofs in each small village plus dozens of really skewed ones with old people still living. Another observation that stayed in my memory was the hundreds of “babushkas” – grandmothers, but the much fewer “dedushkas” grandfathers, who have their small stands with various eatable things for sale.

Arriving to Moscow, it quickly became clear where all the people from the village have gone… The 690 first km where done in some 9 hours and the last 10 km in another 3 hours. Moscow is just one big “probka” – traffic jam.  15 million doubtfully happy people in one place is just a bit crazy, too crazy for my taste. We were still in time to meet up some friends in the centre and finished with a night out at “Gipsy”, probably the best club in Moscow, try it if you have the chance!

[local /wp-content/uploads/2012/09/ Starting a Lada]

The helpful Russians

I found one of the really helpful Russians, in fact they are everywhere and this time it was a man called “Juriy” who was my roommate on the boat. About 60 years old and with a great willingness for a chit chat. I asked him where he is from, which is a question that often yields interesting stories from people of the former Soviet Union since the answer might be that parents and grandparents have many different origins because of the big mobility of people in the old times. It therefore also gives a good chance to learn something new about some place that you haven’t heard too much about before.

It also helps that Russians often love to tell the story of their life even on the very first meeting. Another thing to appreciate is that Russians are often very helpful to strangers (or let’s say, helpful to people they feel that they know, which can be a really quick process). Juriy was originally from a small city near the Ukrainian border on the way between Moscow and Kiev. When I told him about our planned road trip with an old Lada from St Petersburg to Moscow, he offered to call his cousin still living there, and ask him if we could stay in his place over night if need would be. From my previous experience of Russia, this is not a surprising or strange offering in any way, and I am also quite comfortable in thinking that his cousin would probably be happy to put aside whatever plans he had in order to show some hospitality.

Thoughts from Princess Anastasia

“Money makes the world go around” is the tones that are playing at Princess Anastasia, the boat I’m taking from Stockholm to St Petersburg via Tallinn, while the show dancers are doing their thing. I am sitting in the bar reflecting over how much the Russian society, after the fall down of the Soviet Union and the communistic system has embraced the capitalism in many ways. Money seems to be burning in the pockets, almost everything is for sale and commercial messages are flowing everywhere. While focus on spending is high, differences in wealth are huge and I believe this is a big part of the bitterness that could be felt from many people in the Russian society, the unfortunate ones feel so much more unfortunate.

Seeing Russian money spending from another perspective, it might not be surprising that money is burning in the pocket a bit more for people who have lost a huge amount of their savings over night in the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the economic crisis in 1998 and partly also in 2009. The quick shift towards a capitalistic view still fascinates me a lot though. The show of the evening at Princess Anastasia was a good one, and the digestion of passengers likewise, young ones, old ones, who doesn’t like a good show?

I made an odd part of the picture sitting and making notes for this text in my calendar. At least for the bartender who suddenly knocks on my shoulder and with a smile on his face asks me:  “Ты из КГБ что ли?” – Are you from the KGB or something?  I explain for him that I just make some notes for my memory and he agrees that these are good things to remember before we go into a discussion on why there are still so much less Swedes than Russians taking this boat even though it offers the opportunity to visit Saint Petersburg without Visa for a short while, Russia is just still further away for most Swedes than it actually is.

The Beginning

Leaving Göteborg without a fixed end date is something I haven’t done before, I am thinking about this fact, but interestingly enough, I don’t feel so different from those times when I have left home for a couple of month – with a clear end date. Even though leaving is a big step, in theory, the way back home is not far at any time, which makes me comfortable with not having that end date fixed. One date is more set though; we will give this project our full focus for a minimum of one year to come.

My first cultural chock came in Stockholm, why are everyone so angry in our capital? I was reprimanded by the bus driver for taking the wrong door at the bus, and had to squeeze through the whole packed bus with my 3 supersized bags in order to get my ticked stamped. Not many minutes later, a taxi driver rolled backwards into the bus, causing no material damage, but a big argument accumulating in a fist fight between the taxi driver and a passenger of the bus. I was almost late to my boat, and updating my facebook status on this interesting little incident it turned out that a dutch friend of mine had been on the same bus, and even taken a photo of me without realizing it when I was just in front of the fistfighters…. what a coincidence 🙂

The Introduction

To make a long story short, we are two young Swedish Entrepreneurs who has taken the rather big and life changing decision to set up a business in Ukraine and hence also spend much of our time here the coming year or so. Building a business from scratch always means challenges’, doing so in a foreign country, changes the nature of these challenges in a way that should result in one or another interesting experience to share.  Adding an interesting twist to the package is me doing this in combination with my one year master thesis at Chalmers School of Entrepreneurship in technology based entrepreneurship. This blog is about my personal observations made during this “field study” in building a life and a business in Ukraine.  Let the story begin…

PS. Don’t miss my colleague Gustav’s blog at DS.