A German restaurateur who in 1987 opened the first gastronomic joint venture in the Soviet Union is tired of the heaping portions of bureaucracy, chaos and crime in Russia. He's decided to head for home.
"I thought I could turn the corner here one day, but it's just too hard," sighed Broder Drees, whose Continental-style pub Chaika ("Seagull") was once the lone oasis in St. Petersburg for tourists and expatriates seeking good drinks and service with a smile.Drees, 48, said he was returning in "an act of despair" to Hamburg, where he opened a pub of the same name in July. Drees had owned 12 restaurants in Hamburg before moving to Russia at the high tide of perestroika.
"The Russians cry for Western investors but do everything suited to scare them off," Drees said in the cozy basement watering hole alongside the Griboyedov Canal. "Government officials operate in the same pattern as the mafia here: They stick their fat paws wherever they suspect there's big money, with no regard whatsoever for the elementary laws of the marketplace."
For the last two years Drees has struggled in vain to claim his 1991 profits of $1.1 million, which were frozen without explanation by Russia's Foreign Trade Bank in 1992 together with the hard currency deposits of other firms.
Never at a loss for interesting ideas, Drees responded last fall by sailing to the small island of Fort Todtleben near St. Petersburg with eight tons of dry ice and 120 journalists, who watched as he "froze" a piece of Russian property in retaliation.
"The action raised an uproar but didn't get me anywhere," he noted.
Meanwhile, Russia's ever-changing thicket of tariffs and regulations continues to tear at Drees' profits, while his Russian partners - the city of St. Petersburg holds a majority stake in the business - increasingly shoulder him aside and inflate the administrative apparatus to familiar Soviet proportions.
"The Russians love bureaucracy the way Italians love children," Drees observed. "These administrators come and open up the cash register and leave me with all the work. They have no idea how money is made. If it were up to them, they'd keep the front door closed so they could do their paperwork in peace."
The pub's profits, which came to $975,000 in the first year of operations, have fallen to just $260,000, he said, pointing out that mushrooming import costs had raised the price of a keg of beer from $65 to $208 marks since his arrival.
While the mafia leaves the high-profile Drees alone in recognition of his well-placed friends at the police department and mayor's office, Drees said "ordinary bandits" didn't.
Earlier this year, he jumped out of a window in his apartment after four "unfriendly looking" men appeared in the dead of night, tried to break down his door with an axe and a crowbar and began shooting in the hallway.
Fearing kidnapping, Drees' Russian wife and her 5-year-old son live in Hamburg.
Despite all the difficulties, Drees said it "pained" him to think he'll soon be leaving good friends, "beautiful sailing territory" and the undeniable excitement of living in a country where he experienced two coup attempts and never knows what's going to happen next.
As for the Chaika, Drees predicted it was only a matter of time before it reverted to a "purely Russian establishment with all of the consequences."
Bartender Anatoly Sergeev, 46, one of the longest-serving members of the 50-member staff, agreed. "It'll be interesting to see how quickly we fall back into the old system."
Under the old system, Drees recalled, "the waiters stood like mummies in the corner and got a shock whenever someone walked in because that meant work and work is bad. The doorkeepers kept the door closed and expected a sum of money or another gift for letting someone in."
His six and a half years in Russia will stand him in good stead in the future, Drees said. "If you've lasted as long as I have in this business and in this promised land," he noted wryly, "then nothing in the entire world can shake you."