My last night in Dnepropetrovsk. Our business dinner ended unexpectedly early, and I find myself in the hotel restaurant, reflecting on how things change-and how things remain the same.
The first time I visited Dnepropetrovsk was almost exactly ten years ago, at the end of November 1999, for a company named Ista Battery. Dnepropetrovsk was a different city then: freezing, grim, caught in the throes of the economic collapse following the Russian ruble devaluation. On Karl Marx Avenue, few stores had anything to sell. At the vast, crumbling Hotel Dnepropetrovsk, a 19-storey Stalinist hulk on the Dnieper river, there was no hot water on the upper floors, and the floor monitors cast a jaundiced eye on all our comings and goings. There were perhaps three restaurants worthy of the name in the entire city of over 1 million, and very few people had money to eat in them.
The snow came early that year, and the temperatures quickly reached freezing. A few Ladas and Zhigulis sputtered and coughed their way down the streets; the world was a perpetual state of grey. Crumbling factories, crumbling apartments, crumbling hopes.
Fast forward to November 2009, and it’s a different place. Karl Marx Avenue is lined with expensive stores: Escada, Ermenegildo Zegna, Levis. Good restaurants are on every block: Nobu, Pastoral, Paris, Charly, Kadri. Wifi connections are everywhere. New shopping centres and office blocks have been built, their marble and granite brightening the crumbling Soviet-era apartments. People are better-dressed, better-fed, optimistic.
Despite the current crisis, there is a feeling of potential in the air. Things are tough, but they will get better, and eventually things will normalise to the point where Ukraine is indistinguishable from other European countries, at least for the young. Indeed, for most of them, this point has already been reached.
My client this time around is another manufacturer. In just 8 years, they have built a plant which is among the largest and most modern of its kind in the world. All-new Western machinery. A sparkling factory floor. Top quality products. A capacity for 7 million units per year. To most Ukrainians, manufacturing comes naturally, instinctively. Their thinking is Cartesian and linear. Their ability to plan and improve a manufacturing process is unlimited by tradition or custom.
Nearly every Ukrainian oligarch I meet begins our meeting with the line: “In the next five years, we will be one of the top 10 companies in Europe.” Many of them have actually achieved this. Some of them grow complacent: they drive around in black Porsche Cayennes and spend their money on extravagance. But most of them buckle down. Seven million batteries is just a start: the next step will be another plant for industrial batteries. Then a lead recycling facility. Then renewable energy solutions. There is no limit to the progression. The only limits are of time, capital and human resources.
Sitting in this hotel restaurant, I feel rather humble. In Greece, my country, we are still arguing about the basics. Should university education be public or private? Should the government re-nationalise ports and telecoms? Should an investor dare to build a soccer stadium and mall in the wasteland of Votanikos? Should a 5,000-room hotel complex be licensed on a barren peninsula in Crete?
Looking at it from the perspective of this city, we are frivolous and spoiled. We complain about forest fires, yet every day drivers toss their cigarette butts from their cars. We expect other countries to admire our history, but seem to have forgotten that our historical achievements required sacrifice and self-discipline to achieve them. The notion of arête, of the search for excellence, has largely been forgotten. Instead, we spiral into mediocrity, into the drone of morning TV and failed expectations, empty words in a hollow echo chamber.
This city started only a short time ago from nothing. Generations of Soviet planning had turned Dnepropetrovsk into a vast zone of grey, crumbling concrete. People were disciplined to follow orders. The concept of market cost or market price had not meaning. Just 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this city has made tremendous progress. Immeasurable, if compared with our western standard of living.
And a small group of business entrepreneurs built one of the most modern factories in the world from scratch, in 8 years, from nothing, and show no signs of slowing down. I have two more meetings tomorrow morning, then sprint for the airport and the long flight home. I return to Greece inspired, with different expectations, and a higher standard of achievement than I had when I left just a week ago. Of all the places to find inspiration, I found it in this industrial city on the banks of the Dnieper River, 10 years after I first arrived.
Good night Dnepropetrovsk!