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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pioneer Joint Venture Foiled by Crime, Red Tape

ST. PETERSBURG -- A German restaurateur who opened one of the first gastronomic joint ventures in the Soviet Union says he is fed up with Russia's mounting taxes, bureaucracy and crime and has decided to pack up for home.


"I thought I could turn the corner here one day, but it's just too hard," sighed Broder Drees, whose European-style pub Chaika was once the lone oasis in St. Petersburg for tourists and expatriates seeking good beer and service with a smile.


Drees, 48, said he will return in January to Hamburg, where he opened a pub in July. The mustachioed, tousel-haired amateur sailor owned 12 restaurants in the northern German port before setting off for Russian shores at the high tide of perestroika in 1987.


"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, just off Nevsky Prospekt.


"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."


Drees said that Russia's ever-changing thicket of tariffs and regulations continues to tear at his profits while his Russian partners -- the city of St. Petersburg, which 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 1.5 million Deutsche marks in the first year (about $960,000 according to the current rate of exchange), have fallen to just 400,000 marks, he said, pointing out that mushrooming import costs had raised the price of a keg of beer from 100 to 320 marks since his arrival.


For the past two years Drees has struggled in vain to claim his 1991 profits of 1.7 million marks, which were frozen without explanation by Russia's Foreign Trade Bank together with the hard-currency deposits of other firms.


Never at a loss for interesting ideas, he responded last fall by sailing to the small island of Port 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," Drees noted.


While the high-profile German says the mafia leaves him alone in recognition of his well-placed friends at the police department and mayor's office, what he calls "ordinary bandits" have not.


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 open the door with an ax and a crowbar and began shooting in the hallway.


Fearing a possible kidnapping, Drees' Russian wife and her son, who is 6, now live in Hamburg.


Despite all the difficulties, Drees said it pains him to think he will 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 is 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-strong staff, agreed: "It'll be interesting to see how quickly we fall back into the old system."


For Drees, the old Soviet style of running a restaurant is anathema: "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."


Nevertheless, his 6 1/2 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."