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Roman Trotsenko: It's bound to last awhile

The author of the TASS special project Top Officials, Andrei Vandenko, who has for 30 years questioned his interviewees live, face to face, is now making his debut as a ‘remote’ host on the Zoom platform. In focus this time is the founder and Chairman of the Board of Aeon Corporation, multi-millionaire and visionary Roman Trotsenko
Andrey Vandenko 
Andrey Vandenko

Andrey Vandenko was born on November 8, 1959 in Lugansk, Ukrainian SSR. In 1982, he graduated from the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kiev with a degree in journalism. Since 1989, he has been living and working in Moscow. For over 20 years, he has built his career as a journalist specializing in interviews. His work is published predominantly in Russia’s leading mass media outlets, and he is the recipient of numerous professional awards.

Part 1
On the ideal storm and government guarantees to businesses

- How are you doing, Roman?

- Not bad. So far as this troubled time permits. Discouragement is one of the deadly sins. Never give into it at any cost.

- You are suited up, as I can see.

- I’m about to have my eighth Zoom teleconference today, so I have to stick to the business dress code.

- Has the lockdown interfered with your business routine?

- You bet! In business, just like in journalism, by the way, a lot depends on personal contacts, understanding details, and the chance to actually hear your partner. On a tiny telephone or computer screen most nuances are lost. This does create problems, but it has to be tolerated.

Back in March we shifted our head office to teleworking so as not to jeopardize our families and our colleagues who are in the senior citizen category. I’ve been sticking to teleworking myself ever since.

- Everybody around is talking about the ideal storm. Aren’t you a sailor by any chance?

- I took up yachting in my youth. At a certain point, I was a member of the Synergy Yachting Team. In fact, it was Russia’s national team in the Trans-Pacific class – sea-going sports - sailing vessels 52 feet long. Our gang achieved some impressive results, I should say. We took home the European Cup and clinched second place twice in the Louis Vuitton World Series, which is actually a world championship. Valentin Zavadnikov was the backbone of our team. He is a former senator turned businessman and a big friend of mine.

Synergy Yachting Team won bronze at the World Championship in Valencia, 2010 Personal archive of Roman Trotsenko
Synergy Yachting Team won bronze at the World Championship in Valencia, 2010
© Personal archive of Roman Trotsenko

- Where did you go out sailing on your voyages?

- Most of the competitions were in the Mediterranean, at some two dozen locations.

- What was the worst storm you’ve ever experienced?

- There was one, but it occurred not during an official race. In 1993, we wound up in a category nine storm on the Beaufort scale in the English Channel. Huge, steep waves and wind speeds of about 20 meters per second…

It was really frightening. You suddenly realize that a 17-meter long yacht is a twig in the raging sea. At certain moments, when you’re between two waves nothing could be seen at all. No ships next to you. No horizon. Nothing. In fact, you’re trapped in a canyon between walls of water ten to twelve meters high.

- Doesn’t sound like child’s play at all.

- One ship next to us sank. None of its crew were found.

- How long did your yacht bounce around like that?

- Three days. Until we pulled into Plymouth. Mind you, the port’s rescue service was very helpful. The navigation conditions were so bad that we would not have managed on our own.

- Is this ongoing ideal storm worse than your English Channel ordeal? What do you think?

- It’s different. The main distinction is that it will not be over in three days. In this respect, the current situation is far worse. According to the Russian mentality, a horrible end is better than endless horror. The odds are, we will have to live with all this for months and, quite possibly, years.

- What does all this stand for in your scheme of things? Remote work?

- I’m talking about the coronavirus, the need to get adapted to it, to rearrange our work, take care of the sick and at the same time do our utmost to prevent businesses from collapsing. It will not be over by May 1, or July 1. I suspect that a global victory over COVID-19 can be expected in 12-18 months from now. The pandemic’s aftereffects will make themselves felt for another two years, if not more.

- When did you realize that this was no joke? That this was going to be very serious?

- When the virus stopped being Wuhan’s problem or China’s dilemma and turned into a global headache. The mobility of the population is very high. Once the epidemic spilled over the boundaries of just one region, keeping it at bay became a rather tricky thing. At the end of February, we foresaw that this predicament was here to stay, and that it would take very much time.

- What steps did you take as a businessman?

- We revised our plans for all of our lines of business for this year. We began to stash cash to create a safety net. We slashed capital investment. It should be remembered that we invest and build a lot. Second, we issued teleworking instructions. There where it is not possible, we introduced a shift work strategy. In other words, we took precautions in advance.

We did our utmost… Aeon Corporation is present in four sectors: natural gas conversion, transport (Novaport is Russia’s largest airport holding company), real estate and the mining of precious metals – gold and silver. We drew up special procedures for each of these segments.

In the chemical industry, the key problem is nothing can be done through remote work. If you have an ammonia production unit to run, it has to be maintained in operation around the clock, with specialists keeping an eye on the technological parameters and safety. We have four continuous production cycle enterprises, where personnel had to be provided with individual kits for protection from the virus and all crucial instructions and regulations issued. Those four operations are Kemerovo’s Azot, the Angarsk Nitrogen Fertilizer Plant, the Meleuz Mineral Fertilizer Plant and Tatammoniy in Tatarstan.

As far as the transport segment is concerned, Novaport has offered considerable discounts to air carriers to let them fly as long as possible.

- How many airports do you have?

- Twenty. If air carriers go broke, the airports will become useless. Nobody will go there just for the sake of admiring the architecture of the terminals or enjoying the sight of grounded airplanes. We are extremely concerned about maintaining the stable operation of partner companies. We are aware that passenger flow is drying up. It has been down 90%.

In the air industry, everybody is having a hard time. Everybody is enduring mammoth losses. The reserves set aside for a rainy day during the previous season are shrinking. The industry’s operation is seasonally dependent. In the winter, air carriers service their current debts. Their main earnings are in the summer, when passenger traffic soars. This year, there will be no tourist season. The air carriers’ main problem is not staying afloat till the end of May. It is far more important how they are going to manage to carry on without ticket reservations and sales.

The tourist industry’s recovery may occur no earlier than May 2021. Swimming underwater ten meters is one thing. Holding your breath to go hundred meters is something totally different. The amount of oxygen in the lungs may not last that long. For the time being, the airlines are eating up their reserves accumulated during the previous season, and before long these funds will be used up. I believe that July will be critical. No cash will be left in bank accounts by then. You know, as far as I can remember, not a single air carrier has gone bankrupt due to large debts. Usually, they grind to a halt when there is no cash to pay for jet fuel. That’s when the real crash follows.

I am certain that this issue will emerge in July.

- Do you see any solution?

- Government guarantees that would let the air carriers and companies service their current loans. First, the government issues a guarantee. It is registered at the treasury. After that, it is possible to go to a commercial bank and ask for a loan at a normal rate, because in fact it is Russia’s sovereign risk. When an air carrier that has taken out a loan (and all of them have loans) goes to a bank and asks for more money, the first question will be: “May we take a look at your balance sheet? What is it that you have there?” It’s easy to guess what’s there. Firstly, the losses, and secondly, a shortage of its own capital. According to the Central Bank’s existing rules, commercial banks are unable to issue loans to companies within the high-risk group. The applicants will be asked to bow out.

The sole way of coping with this dire situation is to issue a government guarantee, thus ensuring the air carriers’ current balance sheets should not have to be scrutinized. Then it will be possible to borrow money to make wage and lease payments. The Federal Air Transport Agency Rosaviatsiya and the Transport Ministry support this.

Caps on loans are starting to be set. The approach must be transparent and honest. Say, the cap on a government guarantee may be 2,000 rubles ($27) per one passenger carried in 2019. For the airports it may be, say, 900 rubles ($12) per passenger serviced. This does not mean that all air carriers will get to take out government-secured loans, but they will be hypothetically available. If things go from bad to worse, it will be clear where to turn to in order to be rescued: there is a government guarantee available from the treasury and you are free to promptly convert it into cash. The guarantees must be issued for free for a period of three years, which will enable companies to make money and repay the loans to commercial banks. I should say right away that apparently some air carriers will be unable to fully repay these guarantees in three years’ time. Consequently, the company will have to be nationalized partially or completely, and eventually auctioned to compensate for the government’s expenses.

At this moment, guarantees to the air industry and big businesses are the most suitable form of government support. It does not require instant disbursement of funds and promotes a responsible approach. The money will have to be repaid anyway, but the business chains’ operating stability will get much stronger.

- Have you discussed this with the transport minister?

- We are discussing different ideas with Transport Minister Yevgeny Dietrich and Rosaviatsiya (Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency) Chief Alexander Neradko. First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov is the one who has to tackle the ways of stabilizing the hardest-hit branches of the economy. The government keeps devising various mechanisms. No final solutions are available for now, because a large amount of preparatory work still needs to be done by the agencies concerned. The rules are to be determined as to which enterprises should be granted guarantees and in what amount.

It’s up to the industrial ministries to decide. The Ministry of Industry and Trade is to take care of industrial enterprises, and the Ministry of Transport, of transport organizations. And so on and so forth.

- The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed. Does lobbying intervene at a certain point?

- You know, any crisis is a situation where demand is way above supply. You need something right away, but this is precisely something you cannot find anywhere. It’s a matter of time.

Many aspects of life concerning both society and the state have been harmed, and this includes the civil service. It is unable to instantly adapt itself to these new, unforeseen realities. A large system has to reconfigure itself before it can start to generate the right decisions.

But, let me say once again, it is naive to expect that everything will start working without a glitch overnight.

- What I’m talking about is different. The Russian government has drawn up a preliminary list of vital companies, absolutely crucial, core enterprises. Magically, one large bookmaking company got in there. But is it absolutely essential for the country’s existence at this particular moment? What I am saying is the one who knows the ropes may suddenly be recognized as an invaluable national asset.

- Lobbyists are a major force in any country. As for bookmakers, they were eventually deleted from the list. But without lobbying for one’s business, without highlighting its problems it is impossible to let anyone know about them. Civil servants do not have the magic mind-reading gadget that Soviet science fiction author Kir Bulychyov invented for Alice (his teenage character from the series “Guest from the Future”). If something troubles you, then go ahead! Blurt it out. Don’t stay quiet.

True, the list of strategic enterprises still raises a number of questions, but it was declared that this was just the first try. The final version will be adjusted.

- Are you among the select few?

- Yes, but in a rather unusual way. The airport of Chelyabinsk and Kemerovo’s Azot are in the group, while the country’s main transit air hub – Tolmachyovo Airport in Novosibirsk - is absent for the time being.

Passengers wearing medical masks at Tolmachyovo Airport in Novosibirsk Kirill Kukhmar/TASS
Passengers wearing medical masks at Tolmachyovo Airport in Novosibirsk
© Kirill Kukhmar/TASS

- Did you file a request?

- That was unnecessary. The Ministry of Economic Development formed the list on its own. But let me once again repeat, it’s a tentative estimate. The list will be revised again and again.

In the Soviet Union, there was a system of ranking industrial and transportation enterprises according to their size and energy intensity. Everybody new that the position of a Class One industrial plant CEO was open only to those with a previous record of work as a deputy CEO at another enterprise within the same group, or as a successful CEO of a lower-category business.

There is no such system anymore, but something of the sort will have to be introduced again. Not in the sense of personnel appointments, but from the standpoint of the reasons for including the nation’s top companies in the list. I believe that it will take a month to finalize such a list and make it work. Also, Vladimir Putin has urged Russia’s regions to decide on their own what businesses and industries are considered strategic for them. This is the correct approach. Each republic and each region would know perfectly well what is important and what is not.

Part 2
On aviation, hospital patients’ average body temperature, black swans, the secret lodge, and the global hodgepodge

- Wrapping up the topic of the airline industry: can you tell us, Roman, how many companies will survive?

- A lot will depend on two factors: government support (when it will be provided and how much) and on how long the crisis will last.

I reckon that more than half will stay afloat. About 60% of companies will manage to carry on.

- The management of Sheremetyevo Airport has speculated that international flights might resume in July and, if everything is well, they will be back to the level of 2019 by next year.

-I see eye to eye with them. But whenever the resumption of flights this summer is mentioned, nobody should expect that they will be instantly back to the pre-crisis level. The flight program will take a year or two to restore. How much time will be required for a full recovery of passenger traffic to all destinations? Three years, I hope.

Last year, Russia’s airlines carried 128 million passengers. In real terms we got ahead of the Soviet Union and we were very glad about that.

This year, we will have 60 million, possibly, slightly more, at the most.

Rossiya Airlines planes at Sheremetyevo International Airport Marina Lystseva/TASS
Rossiya Airlines planes at Sheremetyevo International Airport
© Marina Lystseva/TASS

- Aeroflot alone had about as many passengers in 2019.

- Now, that’ll be the industry’s total.

Next year, if the situation regains stability, all Russian companies will carry 80 million on the whole. We will be back to 130 million, let me say this again, in three years’ time, provided that there aren’t any unpleasant surprises in store for us on the way.

Are your airports still functioning, or have some had to close down?

- All of them are operating. We haven’t dismissed anyone or closed down anything.

- What about the personnel?

- In some places, employees will be asked to work shorter hours or allowed to go on paid vacation, if necessary. You see, the training and certification of each airport employee requires great investment. You can’t just hire anyone right off the street and then put him in charge of airport services. It’s not a supermarket, where it takes the salesperson a day to learn the ropes. There are a lot of licenses, certificates and diplomas, medical restrictions and requirements involved. Everything is subject to tight regulation.

This is the reason why we have no plans for massive job cuts or replacing personnel.

- How many people do you have working for you in this sector?

- There are some 16,000 employed at our group’s 20 airports. Another 10,000 are in transport. Also, 14,000 are in the chemical industry, 5,000 in mining and about 2,000 in real estate.

The group’s total workforce is 51,000.

- Do you think you will be able to avoid layoffs?

- Regrettably, not. We are working on plans for major cuts in real estate and construction. This sector suffered a hard blow. All commercial real estate is facing non-payments from tenants, who are in a very precarious predicament. We will have to minimize costs.

-You started saying something about chemistry, the continuous production cycle.

- First, we keep a close watch on employee health. Second, we’ve formed special teams who work longer shifts.

- What is so special about these shifts?

- At some enterprises and for some technological processes we made certain arrangements that let people arrive at work and spend 24 hours there. Then they have three days off.

Our products are in great demand. There has been no slump in demand for fertilizers, which inspires certain optimism.

- And what is the hospital’s average body temperature per patient, so to say? What’s the condition of Aeon Corporation? Are you counting the wounds?

- The group’s consolidated budget is reviewed every month. There is a forecast for 12 months to come. This year, we will apparently see a 50% plunge in revenues.

In 2019, we had a net profit (EBITDA) of nearly one billion dollars. In 2020, we expect to hit the 30-billion-ruble EBITDA mark and that’s counting the ruble’s devaluation and the overall slump in demand.

- How much have you lost personally?

- To tell you the truth, I haven’t made any calculations yet. I think my personal wealth has halved. Although it’s technically hard to compute… Whenever it comes to a person of means, most people usually presume that a billionaire keeps his money locked away in a safe place at home.

- OK, let’s presume that at least half of this amount is set aside. Say 500 million.

- Wishful thinking…It’s impossible in real life. Estimates include investment in industrial operations. It’s the title to the shares of operating businesses. All of them carry a certain loan burden. There isn’t a single business that does not need loans. As a result, there is a very intricate and volatile balance of assets and liabilities, of obligations to commercial banks and current operations.

True, our group is basically in the black. That’s beyond a doubt. But can we afford to launch a major investment program this year, the one we had originally planned? No. Are we prone to the risk of default? Also no. We will comply with all of our liabilities on time.

But please remember that Aeon is a large group by Russia’s standards and a diversified one.

- That’s true. A couple of years ago you made a successful investment in gold.

- We’ve been in the precious metals business for three years now. We hold a stake in GeoPromMining incorporating three major operations – two in Yakutia and one in Armenia. For now, this sector remains on the ascent for a number of reasons. Fortunately, all three are far away from densely populated areas. The risk that their employees may contract the coronavirus is small. We see no big problems here.

- Some call you a visionary, a trendy word for anyone with the ability to foresee and forecast. Honestly, did you anticipate that 2020 would see not just one black swan but a whole flock of them?

- I think nobody was expecting anything like this. We’ve all read Nassim Taleb’s books. I even met him when he came to Moscow. A world scale pandemic has always been on Taleb’s list of likely black swans, but he never pointed to it as the main short-term risk.

Few applied this to their own businesses. We believed there might be a major crisis on the money market or that some problems might occur due to the trade war between the United States and China and a fall in consumption in China, but nobody had foreseen a pandemic. The last time a virus was a serious economic factor was in 1918-1920. But who could’ve guessed this would return a hundred years later?

- Some blame the pandemic on a world conspiracy, an attempt to scare the human race to push the global reset button and establish a new world order.

- As our renowned author Viktor Pelevin once remarked: “Comrades, do remember that the world is not governed by a secret lodge, it’s a total hodgepodge.”

There’s no conspiracy behind what’s going on. There are objective laws and both nature and society follow their development.

The world’s population has soared beyond seven billion. People’s mobility kept growing with every passing year alongside progress in all means of transport. In other words, the average passenger was taking ever more flights.

Also, we can see the level of international trade and the speed of the flow of goods. This time, better transport infrastructure has brought us not only the good things, say, new mobile gadgets at an affordable price, but also some bad things, such as viruses, bacteria and other ills that we had not ordered or expected. It’s an objective process.

I should say that humanity has relied on its good luck for too long.  The past three or four decades saw a real boom in mobility, but no major epidemics. The three challenges that we had confronted recently – African swine fever, bird flu and Ebola virus disease - happened to be local and were promptly eliminated.

- Now the world is really scared.

- It’s happened for the first time. And it’s not going to be the last. I suspect that this will be our new reality. Humanity will have to go on living with the awareness that a virus may break out at some point and spread around the globe in two or three months. We should be prepared for this type of scenario. And this awareness will leave an imprint on everything from lifestyle, modes of doing business to people’s everyday habits. We are going to see many things change before our eyes.

- I’ve read your article about life after the pandemic. You say the world will no longer be what it has been so far.

- Many tend to repeat this over and over again these days. In spite of how banal this idea may already seem, it remains true. I must say once again nobody should think that the coronavirus affair will be over in a month or two, that we will wash our hands, shrug it off and go on living like before.

This will certainly not happen. The world will be different and we will have to live in it.

- What do you think, will our lives get better or worse?

- A human being tends to react negatively to any restrictions, on food or on thought. Freedom of space is going to shrink, so in this sense, it will get worse.

We’ll have to get used to this. This will concern every aspect of life. Say, restaurants will reopen, but there will be fewer tables, because clients will have to sit farther than half a meter from each other. It might look quite simple, but the enforcement of this measure will cause the profitability of the restaurant business to drop considerably. New rules will be applied to shops and airports. Special waiting areas will have to be created with two-by-two-meter square areas marked on the floor for each passenger, so that every person can observe this social distancing. Over time, people will start to get used to it.

Any long journey by plane or by train will require individual protection measures. On the plane, we will have to put masks and gloves on. Sanitizers will be placed on the wall next to each elevator. People will drop the habit of shaking hands and kissing. Individual habits will change, too. Everyone will stop touching their faces with their hands.

Each of us will stay aware at the subconscious level of potential risks. Many things will go online. Remote work will become the norm. As a result, the dress code will fade away.

Possibly, this is one of your last interviews with a person who is wearing a necktie. All other personalities that you may be questioning next time will not bother to wear one. In the end, does it really make any difference how a person looks on Zoom or any other conferencing and file-sharing platform? Right now, you cannot see that I’m wearing jeans and house slippers…

In a word, many things will be different. It only seems that this is not too serious. Just imagine how much will have to be done to reopen an ordinary hairdressing salon or barbershop. Just the thought of how all this can be arranged and made workable and safe is capable of raising what’s left of the hair on our heads.

- You still have something to be raised. I don’t.

- I’m not very far away from you regarding the amount of hair left…And what if it’s not a barbershop, but a large industrial combine employing many people? No answer for the time being. But it is clear by now that there will be no more open office spaces for 200 people sitting next to each other. Large leased offices will vanish. Shopping malls will undergo drastic changes, too. What will future cinemas look like? Possibly, they will have to be closed down. Or there will just be rooms for private viewing.

- But what you are telling me is really horrible!

- We’ve lived in world like this for a quarter of a year now, but people are still reluctant to recognize this reality for the time being!

An external factor is perceived by the public at large as the main problem. Our authorities have declared self-isolation measures, a quarantine. And they were absolutely right to do so. Perhaps, this way of life will linger until the end of May. But then this period will end and everyday life will begin with its daily risks of contracting some virus any moment. Not just COVID-19.

There’s nothing terrible about this. We’ll get used to it. Instead of going somewhere for rest and leisure or for sightseeing, we will put on VR-glasses to view some place of interest at a distance. A new type of travel – low-cost and safe – will emerge.

Part 3
On the COVID-19 lockdown, the Winzavod Modern Art Center, painting and the Bushido principles

- Has the coronavirus ruined many of your personal plans? Where would you have been now, had it not been for the pandemic?

- I make about a hundred business trips a year. I keep flying. Perhaps, I would’ve been on the way to some place or on my way back to Moscow.

- Do you have a private plane?

- I prefer regular flights. That’s more reasonable. Besides, I can see for myself the quality of services our partner companies provide to passengers. Nearly 30 million people go through our airports a year. If I fly a personal plane, I will miss the simplest and most vital pieces of information: how much time I have to spend at registration and checks, if all rules are complied with, and whether there are long lines in the waiting lounges, and so on.

I like to fly. I do that easily and with pleasure. But starting from March, I had to cancel all business trips for reasons that are too obvious to mention and replaced them with video conferencing. Also, I read more documents and rely on formal written reports, because I have no chance to invite people to my office and talk to them in private.

We’ve slashed the development program, which required much money and effort. By and large, we postponed it for one year. For the time being, we moved its launch to precisely same day in 2021. So, there have been great changes.

- Roman, you’ve jumped to the topic of business, while my question was about you personally. How does someone who is accustomed to a mobile and vigorous lifestyle feel about staying locked up staring at just four walls? This, too, may turn out a serious trial.

I’m quite comfortable. I know what to busy myself with. Oddly enough, my family turned out to be amazingly nice folks…

- Surprise, surprise! After how many years of being married to Sofia did this dawn upon you?

- We’ve been together since 1998. Twenty-two years, if I’m not mistaken… The quarantine has had some positive sides to it. For instance, I’ve had a chance to play Monopoly or some other board games with my nearly grown-up kids. To tell you the truth, it’s been a long time since we last did this.

I draw and paint, and I’m refreshing my piano skills, I sort out old photos or call up an old buddy that I haven’t had the chance in a long time to chat with. This quarantine should be seen not as something that upsets your normal life, but as a means to make it better. Just don’t be lazy. Imagine, a rubber mat is quite enough for good exercise

- Do you have one?

- I do. Even a small gym. I feel the lack of movement, so I do a simple set of exercises each day.

My daily schedule, for the most part, has remained unchanged. I get up later, though. I read books and business papers well into the night, so I get up at about ten in the morning. My whole schedule has moved by one hour, but I manage to accomplish not less than I used to. It’s the other way around: I’ve been able to do an endless number of interesting things I’d planned long ago, but had no time to do before.

- Such as?

- I’ve done several oil paintings.

- Will you show them, please?

- I will, when we are finished. On the condition you promise not to use this footage in the interview. I’ve painted a picture of my wife.

- Well?

- No. Dressed up. En plein air.

- Incidentally, how is the Winzavod Art Center that Sofia is in charge of doing these days?

- The center of modern art has shifted to teleworking, too. All instruction programs, lectures and educational courses are online. We are looking forward to the moment when Winzavod will be able to reopen to visitors once again.

But even while you have to wait, you’ve got to be active and enjoy life even under the current circumstances. It’s unnecessary to spend a long time flying or riding to some place. Many things are available at home. There has emerged a series of instruction seminars Art Stream, a course of lectures entitled Master Class. Have yourself registered and you are free to hear lectures on any subject you are interested in. Some learn to cook. Others study foreign languages or programming languages. I’ve made Italian language classes part of my daily schedule.

- How many languages do you speak?

- English and Japanese. I studied the latter back at the Asian and African Studies Institute, a branch of the Moscow State University. I’ve always liked Italian and thought it would be good to study too, someday. So why not now?

- Does the same apply to your painting skills?

- I graduated from an art school. I like painting, but I’ve been always too pressed for time. Now I can spend a couple of hours a day on this hobby. Deep down inside, I’ve geared up for living in the new realities long ago. Now I’m trying to persuade others to follow suit.

- Why has this coronavirus misfortune afflicted us? What for? What kind of answer would you offer to yourself?

- It’s an ordinary thing. A natural restriction on a large population during the period of its exponential, explosive growth. The same applies to any species: bats, frogs, and groundhogs. In this particular case, it has hit us, humans. There is a law: at a certain point congestion grows to a point where the exchange of viruses and bacteria occurs faster than herd immunity is developed. Each time, humanity achieved a new level, a surge followed. Getting accustomed to it took time.

Nomadic armies brought the plague from Asia to Europe. With the emergence of sailing vessels, smallpox crossed the ocean on the swords of (to be more precise, inside the bodies of the conquistadors) to spill over into vast territories of Central America. When large cities began to mushroom, the problem of epidemics emerged again with renewed force.

What changes have occurred this time? We’ve already mentioned the growing mobility of the population. Any person can make a journey to the opposite side of the globe within 20 hours. Such achievements in science and engineering have to be paid for. This shouldn’t be blamed on bad fortune or a curse of fate.

In Moscow, the last major pandemic and the ensuing plague riot was in 1771. Count Orlov then was in charge of saving the city and its residents from the pestilence. Dead bodies were lying on the streets everywhere and various restrictions were too numerous to count. There was no running water and public steam baths had to be closed down. Merchants from other cities were prohibited from entering the city.

The measures being taken today are not the most terrible thing that can happen. There are certain things we are unable to influence, so it makes no sense to feel depressed and dismayed. In each particular situation decisions must be looked at as a way to better one’s own life and the lives of the people you are responsible for. It’s worth following the samurais’ Bushido principles: do what is right and proper come what may.

This interview is my attempt to describe the new realities so as not to ever feel pangs of remorse: “I had known what everybody should get ready for but kept quiet.”

- What is the first thing you’ll do when this quarantine is over?

- With great pleasure, I’ll jog along the embankment to Luzhniki Stadium and then back home via Vorobyovy Gory (Sparrow Hills), Neskuchny Garden and Gorky Park. I love Moscow and I love jogging, watching people and seeing the city get better.

- Have thoughts of hopeless or doom and gloom ever entered your mind in recent months?

- I am not a quitter. I’ve been in business for quite a while, since 1998 and I’ve seen different crises. True, this one is the harshest of all, there’s no denying that. In 1998 and in 2000 it was easier. Because only one aspect was harmed – securities, mortgage liabilities and government bonds. Now, there is a full set: a crisis of demand, which has slumped to zero, and of supply, because many production chains have been severed. In addition, there are medical and social crises, because many people have lost jobs. The last time humanity experienced something like this was a little less than a hundred years ago, during the Great Depression, but, as you may have guessed, I’m too young to remember that. Now it’s our turn to see what it is like.

- For the time being, many people are trying to encourage and entertain each other by mailing jokes and memes via messengers. Do you find any of them particularly funny?

- I liked this one: “’It’s better to come down with coronavirus now, while there are some vacant beds in the hospital,’ said a ‘wise’ man who went on to lick the elevator button.”

Like any good joke, it does make sense: at a certain point there may be no vacant hospital beds to go around. Virologists warn it should be taken for granted that about 60%-70% of the population around the world, including Russia, will weather COVID-19. It remains to be seen whether they will endure a serious or slight case of the disease, if medical assistance will be available to all those who’ll need it, if there will be enough beds in intensive care wards equipped with ventilators…

While keeping an eye on the situations in Italy, Spain and France we had sometime to get ready. But the cost is very high – up to ten percent of the country’s GDP may be lost.

- Isn’t it too much? Sometimes one hears speculations of this sort: let the doomed ones – the old and the sick – die, but the global economy will be saved. It would be far worse, if healthy stomachs begin to swell up from starvation.

- You know, modern society’s main achievement is the growing value of human life. It is no longer equivalent to insurance payments or some other compensation. This is a global trend. No schemes of the sort of how many lives can be sacrificed for the sake of some percentage points of the GDP are considered even in theory.

The Russian state has not made any calculations on that score. We were told outright that human lives are invaluable and we will be fighting for each one. If necessary, we will put the economy on hold and spend money to save people. There was not a moment of bargaining. This is a tremendous achievement. Nothing like this has ever occurred in recent history.

Remember the May 1 demonstrations in Kiev in 1986. Four days after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster… The value of human life then was equal to zero. Our society has matured.

And not only our society. During the Spanish flu pandemic in the United States, the authorities of Philadelphia hesitated whether to hold a street procession on the occasion of a public holiday or not. In the end the procession took place. Several days later 200,000 fell ill. They infected each other during the ceremony, and 20,000 ended up losing their lives.

By contrast, in St. Louis, the authorities imposed a quarantine. All public events were canceled, so the Spanish flu’s death toll was far smaller. Some found it more important to hold a festive procession than protect human lives.

I am glad that in our public and private sectors nobody was questioning the costs when the health and lives of people and employees were on the agenda.

- To round up the conversation. As for Italian language classes and your painting hobby, everything is obvious. Have you started singing yet?

- Sadly, I have no voice or ear for music. I had an idea of a song once and I shared it with my good friend Semyon Slepakov…

- Yes, I’ve heard some people say that the Coronavirus Song was your idea. That’s why I’m asking.

- I believe that Slepakov is a great songwriter and entertainer in this country today. He is what Vladimir Vysotsky was in his day in the Soviet Union. He is capable of creating an image that fully fits the current situation. That’s why I made a phone call to him and said: “You must write a song about the coronavirus.” He said that it was nonsense and everything would end before long. That conversation was in February.

I tried to persuade him that this issue was going to last long enough to become a bore. I told him the song’s main goal was to encourage people and make them certain we will cope with the virus. The people need an anthem. Semyon laughed but promised to think it over. A month later, he came up with a hit that has already had millions of views.

- Doesn’t his strong language make you feel a little bit awkward?

- The Russian language is very emotional and multifaceted. It has many nuances and shades of meaning. Semyon uses them all like a real virtuoso. In that song everything is in the right place and you cannot throw away a single word.

- How about arranging a flash mob when the pandemic is over? Getting out after the lockdown and singing it in chorus altogether?

- That’s quite an option! Sounds good. We may try it…

Andrey Vandenko