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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Englishman Looks Back at 35 Years in Russia

From coping with KGB agents to chatting with Boris Yeltsin, Gerry Preskey's three decades in the Soviet and Russian oil industry have had their moments.

"I've had an interesting life," says the head of representation for John Brown E&C, the engineering and construction branch of Norwegian multinational John Brown.

Preskey, a tastefully dressed, distinguished gentleman with a light English accent, was raised in Britain and graduated from Manchester University with a degree in chemistry.

He first came to the Soviet Union in 1967 with the British Simon Carves engineering company. Preskey, now 60, fondly remembers those early years building pipelines all over the Soviet Union. He met quite a few people who had never before seen a foreigner, but it was their warmth and hospitality that endeared Preskey to the country.

"They were surprised to see that I had two arms and two legs, just like them," he laughs. "They were very curious, and they all wanted to entertain me in their houses, which was sometimes hard because they all wanted me to drink with them."

Preskey soon fully adjusted to the country, learning the language, as he says, "Because I simply had to speak with people."

In 1976, he joined John Brown & Co., which had arrived in Russia in the 1860s to help build the Imperial Russian Railroad.

Among other projects, John Brown helped construct the Moscow metro in the 1930s, built oil pipelines all over the Soviet Union, and is currently involved in nuclear cleanup and demilitarization projects all over Russia.

In spite of inconveniences such as diplomatic quarrels between Britain and the Soviet Union and the steady presence of KGB agents, Preskey remained in the country. In 1979 he met the still-obscure Mikhail Gorbachev while working on a pipeline in Krasnoyarsky territory.

He remembers how John Brown greatly increased its rapport with the Soviets in 1984 when the company flouted a U.S. embargo and delivered hundreds of millions of dollars worth of turbines to the Soviet Union. Apparently the best way to win admiration from the Communists was to thwart their worst enemy.

"That was the best advertisement we ever had," Preskey says, adding that later on, Gorbachev personally thanked a John Brown representative.

Business became difficult after 1991 as foreign companies flooded into the country, but John Brown E&C continued its course on the Russian market.

An indicator of the success of Preskey's career in the 1990s could perhaps be measured by who he was associated with at the time. He made regular visits to the Kremlin and hobnobbed with the very highest politicians and businessmen. He has met former President Boris Yeltsin three times and planned to play tennis with him once, but that turned out to be "wishful thinking on Boris' part, considering the state of his health at the time."

John Brown left the country in 1998 after the August financial crisis. But Preskey was convinced there was still business to be done on the Russian market, so he hired a new staff and set up the company's Moscow headquarters again in March of this year.

Since 1998, Preskey says, the Russian economy has made enormous progress. According to him, the 1998 default crisis was in a way a good thing because "it brought everybody back to earth … people were making money with money, but they weren't making anything tangible," he explains, touching the table and glass in front of him by way of demonstration.

Preskey predicts a bright future for the Russian economy. He maintains that oil companies will make enormous profits within the next five years and that money will be invested in the domestic economy, especially in manufacturing, resulting in an increase in general prosperity.

"I'm absolutely certain of it," he says. "People in the West, in America or England, say 'oh, it will never happen.' They don't believe that good things can happen here," says Preskey. "But I've been here for 30 years, I know what's going on. Things will get much better within the next three to five years, and the Russian people deserve it."

However, Preskey isn't planning to live out his whole life in Russia. Instead he plans to retire within the next five years and leave Russia. "I'll enjoy my retirement in some sunny place in the West," he says with a grin.