Paolo Bianco
I cervelli di Deviatkino


 aolo Bianco was born in Andora, a small town on the Ita­lian Ri­vie­ra in Li­gu­ria, in 1949. After ob­tain­ing his Di­ploma in Hotel Ma­na­ge­ment at the Isti­tuto Tec­nico Al­berghi­ero (Tech­ni­cal Insti­tute of Hotel Ma­na­ge­ment) in Alas­sio in 1966, he worked for a num­ber of tourism and hotel com­panies in Italy and Swi­tzer­land, inter­rupt­ed only by his mi­li­ta­ry ser­vice. In 1972 he moved to Ger­many, where he worked at the Ham­burg office of British Air­ways for seven years.

In 1979 he founded his own agen­cy in Ham­burg, de­di­cat­ed to the plann­ing, or­gani­sation, and ma­na­ge­ment of events in var­ious parts of the world for an in­ter­natio­nal clien­tele. In para­llel, he ran his own agen­cy in Saint Peters­burg, Russia, between 1992 and 2007. In 2012 he re­tir­ed from his pro­fessio­nal acti­vi­ties and moved back to Andora, where he started writ­ing about his ex­peri­ences. Paolo died in 2021.

About this story, in Paolo Bianco's words:

"The first time — which turned out to be the only one — I went to Devyatkino, I was impressed by the colorful skyscrapers and the green areas, much better maintained than their surroundings. As a way to fight monotony and the gray dullness that usually distinguish such quarters, not only in Saint Petersburg, I was told by somebody living there that the inhabitants wanted the color and the green to highlight what for them meant the word Perestroika. I did not know yet, then, that some of the inhabitants of those skyscrapers would then become protagonists of this story."


The Brains of Devyatkino:
The story is written in Italian. To get a taste of it, this is how it begins — in English.

fter long discussions, Bernd and Moritz, my two business partners, convinced me to go for a weekend to Saint Petersburg (at that time still called Leningrad).

It was in 1992, in the middle of Perestroika, and Moritz was convinced that there was a future for our business in Russia. At this time, I was a little less convinced. Anyway, we decided for mid-November. Bernd and I left on a Thursday. Moritz, who had already been in Leningrad in August, had set off a couple of days earlier to prepare the program of our stay.

We flew with SAS to Stockholm, connecting with Aeroflot to Leningrad. First thing, Bernd forgot his red cashmere scarf on the SAS plane. Thus, we had plenty to do during our stop-over.

In addition to the scarf (which cost him almost as much as an Armani suit in the rest of Europe) Bernd bought a bottle of vodka at the Duty Free — a ridiculous decision. With this money he could have bought a whole case in Leningrad. To be just as good I bought a carton of Marlboro … which in Hamburg would have cost half.

Apart from Bernd and me, the Aeroflot flight was jam-packed with Scandinavians. The hostesses were almost all not in uniform but dressed in jeans abd T-shirts. One could recognized them only because they served continuously vodka and Russian brandy, even during takeoff, turbulences, and landing. We all know the shy and reserved characters of Swedes, even if only from the films by Ingmar Bergman, but when they touch foreign soil, especially if Duty Free, they turn into boisterous and cheerful travel companions. Bernd immediately was in his element and clinked glasses right and left.

Only a young passenger, two rows ahead of us, sat calmly and silently reading a newspaper. He stood out from the other passengers by its decidedly Arab appearance. Bernd had also noticed him and gave me a slight nudge pale as ashes. I told him that my horoscope for that day did not forbode any hijacking.

We will never know if the pilot was wearing a uniform, we know however that he landed safely on the runway of Pulkovo 2 airport – in a sleet storm. On the roof of the airport building we read Leningrad. A couple of days later the new old name Санкт-Петербург — Sankt Peterburg towered up into the sky.

“Да, да, быстро, быстро, да, хорошо — da, da, bystro, bystro, da, khahrahsho — yes, yes, fast, fast, yes, okay.”

Gesticulating and talking loudly, an airport security officer accompanied the silent young Arab towards a side exit, without going through the regular passport control.

Moritz had promised to come and meet us at the airport. There was no Moritz, rather a resigned-looking little man, wrapped in a black jacket who was holding a piece of cardboard with our names. We went up to him and he made a sign to follow him. Chasing after the driver, we saw our Arab friend in the car park who communicated with a young Russian in sign language, stating more or less:

“Was everything fine?”

“Yes the flight was okay, everything is okay. Let’s check the rest later.”

OK, I thought, then all is normal, but did not mention it to Bernd who had not noticed the two.

The driver opened the trunk of a dirty-green Lada already filled with plastic bags, rubber boots and a jerry can.

We managed to squeeze in our bags too and made ourselves at home inside, I in the front and Bernd on the rear seat.

The airport is about 20 km from the city center. The route through the suburbs is not the most exciting: huge tenement buildings, bad light, and very few people on the street – also because of the ungracious weather.

At short intervals Bernd repeated the name of our hotel to the driver, who regularly indicated a yes with a nod. As we got closer to the center, the scenario changed in a positive way: magnificent palaces, some still in the decrepit Soviet state, others already being restored. Here many pedestrians were walking in all directions along the well-lit streets. Meanwhile Bernd was asleep and snoring loudly — and could not enjoy the show.

When we arrived at the "Grand Hotel Europa", our home for the next days, the driver drove past the main entrance and stopped at the corner of a side street. Seeing certain characters walking back and forth I guessed that they were the reason; to scare Bernd I told him almost in a whisper, "I hope he doesn’t play a nasty trick on us,”and saw him promptly pale.

"Keine Angst!" the driver said in perfect German. "No need to be frightened! I just try to avoid contact with the mob of taxi drivers; they would take half of my earnings." He then explained that he was a KGB agent in East-Germany until 1989; his boss in Dresden used to be Vladimir Putin.

We gave him a hearty tip and set off to the entrance with our luggage. The receptionists were young, female and blonde, one was called Natasha, the second too, and the third one Natalia.

Natasha number one collected our passports and handed us the room keys without smiling while the other two were whispering to each other, winking at us – perhaps fascinated by our appearance: Bernd tall, bald, and with a showy red scarf; I – small with a beard and a flat Sicilian tweed cap. Along with the room keys, Natasha gave us a note from Moritz: “I wait for you at the Mezzanine Café.”

We found Moritz waiting, lolled in a huge armchair, sipping a long drink — imagine my surprise: usually he doesn’t drink alcohol and, being the scion of an ancient Prussian dynasty, is prone to reserved gestures and manners, at least to keep up appearances.

We greeted each other emphatically , as if we had not met for years. Moritz ordered drinks for us: Campari with orange juice, which I just do not like: “Good beginning,” I thought to myself. He continued his show outlining the program for the evening:

"Now we wait for Volker, so we get to know us. Then the three of us will have dinner at a typical local Soviet restaurant — without Volker. After this there will be your introduction to the social life of St. Petersburg at the “Chaika” club, the one and only lounge of the city."

Volker made his entrance into the "Mezzanine Café" as if he were the owner or at least the undisputed leader: in his forties, good looking, throwing inquisitive glances left and right — in short, one of those characters that makes me immediately suspicious: which means lacking substance but big performance. He came from Berlin — most likely the East — because he spoke perfect Russian.

Volker did not live in any hotel but was staying in an institution for the deaf and dumb. He said he knew the director for a long time, a certain Igor Rutskoy. The institute was located in the Devyatkino district in the far northern outskirts of the city – also known to be the terminus of Line 1 of the metro.

Rutskoy. The name sounded suspicious, certainly not typical of St. Petersburg. Rather familiar in the Eurasian Republics. And, lo and behold: Alexander Rutskoy a leader of the Chechen mafia. He had climbed on a tank of troublemakers during the failed coup against Gorbachev – an image that went around the world.

Volker told us quickly and rather monotonous of all the contacts he had in St. Petersburg and the benefits that could be derived for any business. He did not, however, allude to the real reason why he was in St. Petersburg; however, Moritz explained that later at dinner.

The project was to acquire — through the knowledge of Igor — computers from units of the Red Army which was currently disintegrating. In the institution for the deaf and dumb in Deviatkino parts of the computer with precious metals — the so-called “brain” — were separated from the carcass and transported to Switzerland via Syria.

The funds to acquire the Soviet army computer were provided by a so-called “Russian-Swiss Joint Venture” that paid to Volker and Igor an agreed price by weight of various precious metals.

Our dinner had been booked by Volker at the "Neva Restaurant", located on Nevsky Prospekt just steps from the hotel. A huge, dark and virtually empty place. Dinner was a set menu consisting of several courses, vodka, tomato juice and mineral water: it was not really bad. The musical show was worse.

After dinner, a few steps under the annoying drizzle, and then we were at the "Chaika", at that time the only club at a certain level, patronized by an international clientele, which meant tourists and foreign businessmen of all nationalities and fixers and — female — "students" from various ex-Soviet Union republics.

The "Chaika" was opened by an adventurer from Hamburg, Broder Drews, in 1989; no one knows with what aid he had been able to obtain the necessary permits and "subsidies." Meanwhile Broder had retired from the operational management of the place; it was now the task of the new partners: a gay couple from Interlaken in the canton of Berne in Switzerland.

At the "Chaika" we meet Jana — the friend of Moritz — a student from Dnepropetrovsk, stranded, you might say, in St. Petersburg some years earlier.

The place was packed and it seemed that most of the customers knew each other, including Moritz and especially Volker. Perhaps as a favor to me, Jana had brought a friend who spoke a little Italian. She was tall, thin, and guffawed all the time. But she was smart because she knew right away that she wasn’t my type, and quickly moved her attention to a Dutch, a representative of Unilever.

Moritz was jumping between one small group and another with an important air. At one point he approached me and said excitedly:

"Come, come … there's a guy who knows you."

In one corner, at the bar, there sat a medium-sized man with South European looks. I recognized him immediately: Joao Pinto was a Portuguese; when I met him he was living in London and worked — as I do — in event organization. Now he was back to Portugal and apparently did nothing productive. He lived in Carvoeiro on the coast, and occasionally took a jaunt abroad.

This time he was on a spin through Russia, where he had been before. He wanted to go to Moscow where he said he had a fiancée and, on the following Wednesday, to watch the football match between Benfica and CSKA Moscow in the European Cup.

He had just arrived and he, like us, lived in "Grand Hotel Europe".

… More … The entire story … in Italian …

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Paolo Bianco:
I cervelli di Deviatkino.

29 pages; €9,50
Grupo Albatros Il Filo, Rome; 2016.
ISBN 978-88-567-7721-5


I cervelli di Deviatkino

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