Influenced by all the propaganda and news regarding the Cold War, I knew that the Russians were the bad guys. At least until such time as they became trading partners. They then became sort of good guys for a while. This was well before their invasion of the Ukraine.
I had tutored myself in HTML and website programming. This hidden talent was discovered by a Trade Commissioner, where I was working for the Canadian federal government in Toronto. She put me to work for an organization that she had spearheaded called ‘The Canada Russia Business Forum’. It has since merged with another group but was a fairly big deal in Toronto at that time. The CRBF had some government funding to aid its efforts to establish viable trade relations with Russia through local business concerns. The CRBF became quite proud of the website I designed for them in these very early years of the web.
Over time I learned a lot about the Russia trade. Although I had no vote, I went to their Board Meetings as their Internet communications person. Thus, I sat in on Board Meetings with businessmen who were both native Canadian and Russian immigrants to Canada, along with a sprinkling of Canadian federal and provincial government representatives. There was not a whole lot of difference between Russian and Canadian businessmen. A businessman is a businessman. He’s interested in business.
The political situation in Russia made it somewhat difficult, and even dangerous in the economic sense, to do business in Russia at that time. A company might invest a fair amount in trying to develop, oh, Russian silver mines or something like that, then find that the concern had been taken over by some Russian interests, and they would lose their shirts. It was a bit like building a Department Store on quicksand. The main thing about the Russia trade was resources, exports of gold, silver and oil. For imports, it was generally something like prefabricated housing where everything was pretty much done up in plastic while also incorporating local lumber. These were quite popular because they came with kitchen counters and everything all set up.
There was a great deal of talk about something called ‘transparency’. I had no idea what this meant but learned that, basically, it just meant “What you see is what you get.” You have to say who owns the business, where the lines of power ran and where the money was coming from and going to. People, if they wanted to invest, could thus see where their money was going and what, with good luck, was likely to happen to their investment.
I organized many, many, many meetings online, using email, with the help of a gentleman who was acting as the Secretary of the group. We developed a protocol and trained the email recipients. We would tell them “You have this window of opportunity to Register for this Forum or Conference. If you sign up online here then you can pay at the door. This is the cost but you have to Register. We’d Register them and show online who was Registered. Government reps, both Federal and Provincial, would look at these lists because it was part of their portfolio to keep track of such information. They needed to know where the information was flowing, as well as the money. It was of interest to the businessmen too because they wanted to be seen to attend these things. We had both local speakers and speakers who were dignitaries from Russia. Some of these were academics, some were political figures and some were businessmen. If the speaker was well known in the Russia trade there would be a huge jam to get in on that meeting. Keeping track of who was Registered by email became quite a challenge.
I developed a method of bypassing Internet security on my actual job. I could collect email from a Unix Shell account and keep track of who had Registered, for posting on the website. I can’t say I actually stole the time from work because it was all Trade-related and trade and commerce was part of my regular job, if not specifically the Russia trade. I used to joke and say I was working for the Russians but, actually, I was indirectly working for the Trade section of my own government.
The Canada Russia Business Forum paid me quite a reasonable amount and I bought a lot of computer equipment funded by the proceeds because, hey, I’m a computer nerd.
In the fullness of time, it all ended. I ran a no-frills all access government type of site and they needed something flashier with a better design that could be updated auto-magically by a secretary.
I remember most fondly meeting both Russian and Canadian businessmen. They were really nice people who were trying to make a buck. They were a good bunch. I also remember a young college student who interned with us for a short while. He was a business major. We had an important meeting hosted by a Bay Street firm and at the last moment, we had to borrow a Russian flag from our Trade department to add to the ambience. This poor young man had the joy of running down Bay Street (Toronto’s main business artery) with a Russian flag on a flagpole.
© Sonia Brock 2005