As I related in Part 1, I came to Kentucky by accident in 1969, thinking I was en route to Germany to work for my old boss from Japan, as an Army civilian lawyer. Only Jimmy Carter, who replaced Gerald Ford, froze federal hiring, stranding me and my family in limbo at her hometown in Kentucky. Instead of joining the county law practitioners I joined a large textile company, Union Underwear, one of the nation’s largest. And I actually liked it, especially the months-long “basic training” on the production floors, which white-collar up-stairs management no longer is required to acquaint itself with. (Take note of that.) Had our bosses at the national HQ seen the possibilities of requiring their corporate management staff to get their hands a little greasy at the factory level, you might be seeing a different picture of American corporate management today.
But for 12 years I was the only one, and every Friday morning I would drive 100 miles just to rub the corporate staff’s nose in the things they didn’t know. At the time, I had never heard of Gordon Gekko, from the film “Wall Street”, and still have only seen clips. But in my weekly head-knocking with planners and screen-gazers about what those 60,000 hands-on production workers were doing, I couldn’t help but throw up in the faces of these “young Gordon’s” what their executive bosses, next floor up, had seen in North Africa, Italy, France and the Pacific, to then come back home and get their MBA by benefit of the GI-Bill. I think it was that GI-Bill birth certificate and who had been active in corporate front offices for over 30 years years that most raised the noses of our modern 1980s Gordon Gekko battalion.
My own personal run-in was in response to defend of one of our plant managers, a Tennessee alum from the 60s, when one of our MBA-Gekkos at the home office exclaimed “I can train monkeys to make underwear!”
That’s been my call to arms ever since, for over 30 years. I’ve watched this type leave indelible marks on the production economy in America, not just in America but abroad, always high-lighted by the total dismissal of “the people” who actually make the products, while people like Skillings and Fastow were skinning Ken Lay in the process of taking down Enron in the 1990s, all the way up to Sam Bankman-Fried, crypto-currency fraud king, on trial today.
There’s a class element in their resentment. Its found in the corporate waters these days, and apparently one has only to visit university business schools and their masters’ degree programs these days to find the genesis of their down-the-nose protocols.
A big topic actually, my main question today is to ask if any of this Gekko-virus had been exported abroad, especially to the teetering Soviet Union and its empire in the 1990s?
Short answer, apparently yes, and I was there to witness it, although I didn’t recognize it at the time. Abandoning Asia and finding ways to beat the Chinese on the factory floor, I had traveled to all the Russian-European communist world in 1991 and stayed through 2008. Most of that time, from 1993 onward, was in the former Communist Balkans, about which I have written extensively. (Famous Common People I have Known, VassarBushmills.com).
But my first visit was from December, 1991 through March, 1992, and that was to Russia and Ukraine…at the very time that empire was being disassembled, in large part, I believe, that the “bureaucratic system failure” at Chernobyl signaled to Gorbachev and the Party their system had failed. (It was also the last time I used my real name in Ukraine, hence the alias, Vassar Bushmills, since I’d been told by certain “biznez interests” in Kharkov that if I ever showed up there again, I’d be shot.)
I arrived in early December by train, via Moscow. All travel went “via Moscow” in those early days. My hosts were a private bank in Kharkov that had been set up by the Soviet Communist Party, “Gorbachev money” they called it. Everyone in Ukraine were just a-titter with excitement about their coming freedom from Moscow. They set up an office for me, where I greeted dozens of agents from all over the region, carrying proposals for doing biznez with American backers. And they appointed a handler for me, Serozhya, who was the brother of an agent in Cincinnati who was working thru a law firm that was working with the Cincinnati Sister-City Project. He was also a Spetznaz veteran from the Ethiopian conflict.
Serozhya (Sergei) organized everything. And he was a funny guy…maybe 10 years younger than me. The one thing I noted was his mannerisms, such as taking his wallet from his inside jacket pocket, and snapping it, which told me he and spent time watching American films. “The Godfather” came to mind. And Ukraine had a popular bootleg TV station where American films could be seen.
I would meet Sergei’s “type” in business settings for almost 20 years thereafter. But I met my first Gordon Gekko’s in the Soviet Union, but most of all, Ukraine.
My principal mission was to meet with small business ventures in Ukraine who were looking for a little financial support via a partnership. (With luck, I’d he hired as the midwife.) The USSR was filled with engineers and computer scientists (they had no internet at the time, and very few private computers, but still quite a few PhD’s in its study…which should tell you something about how far advanced their minds were about computer science) and ideas, which they would present to me. A great gig, as I saw it.
In January, 1992, the separation date between Russia and its satellite states would become formal. But for some reason, Sergei wanted me to meet people from the local syndicates. Cartels. “Da mob.” I was taken to various “swap meets”, and yes, the Jews had their own. I even went to meet a mob boss on a mud levee at night. Straight out of Hollywood. Remember, this was early winter, everything was white, and I was seated in the back seat with two men, while Serozhya would sit in the front, and turn and talk to me as well as the driver. We drove out into the country, then stopped, then flicked the lights. At the other side, a light came on and off, then on again. All of a sudden I heard the unmistakable sound of pistols being chambered. Sarozhya and one more got out, and we walked to the other side of the levee, where a man in a heavy fur-lined overcoat got out of his stretch limo, and walked towards us, with his own bodyguard, and we met, and shook hands.
He made no offers or suggestions, we simply spoke of small things, exchanging pleasantries, perhaps 5 minutes, and he then turned and walked to his car. Back in the car, I said to Sergei, “What the Hell?” and he replied that he is a very important “biznezman” in Kharkiv, and had seen me on television, so wanted to meet me. Apparently this entire levee trip had been to indulge him. Maybe cash changed hands, maybe not.
Now, meetings of this sort took place elsewhere, enough for me to know I was being shopped. And I was there four months. Serozhya told me that Mafia “owned” the public streets. Territory. And I saw this proved when visiting the subway tunnel near downtown, where I saw a legless Soviet veteran begging with a cup. I stood by the steps on the other side of the concourse, watching people come by and drop coins in his cup. (The legal exchange rate for dollars to rubles was very high, but the market rate had the ruble as virtually worthless, so I though “What the hell” and I crossed over and stuck five 1-Ruble notes into his cup, then walked back to my spot across the track. Shortly, a man walked up, in a very fine overcoat, fringed collar, and plush ushanka, with two men standing at his side. The crippled soldier handed the man what appeared to be his entire take, who then counted the bills and the coins, and then poured what appeared to be only a few kopeks back into his tin cup, then walked away.
Of course, that tells you a lot about a lot of things, only one can never know if that criminal was a Russian or Ukrainian. But just like New York and Chicago during Prohibition, the competitive gangs fought over territory. My only other personal run in was in Moscow when a dark-skinned young man from the Caucasus region was setting up a kiosk near one of the train stations. I looked at him and smiled and he said out, and my host translated, “I hope I get a good mafia here!”
On returning to Kentucky I did some research and found out that Kharkiv was about 50-50 Russian and Ukrainian. Much of the rest of Ukraine strayed into the 20% range for Russian, as one moves further away from the northern border. But Kharkiv was the 5th largest industrial site in the USSR (tanks, military equipment), all bossed by Russians. Just north of there was the Kursk battlefield, which was the largest tank battle in military history, and the home of a university professor I had visited lived near there, who ran an NGO digging up those mass graves and identifying as many as possible and repatriating their bodies. He was a college professor, and I was invited to his birthday party, and asked to speak on his his behalf at the round-robin exchange of toasts, on his behalf. I explained that toast this way, one of the most memorable nights of my life for entirely other reasons.
It was a celebration of Ukraine independence and I was lucky to have seen men and women understand the universality of liberty. But I also knew there were strong undercurrents of pro-German sentiment, probably because of the fact that Ukrainians were by blood mostly European, while the Russians were Slav of Asian origin, I was told.
A natural animosity existed, bu in terms of raw strength, the Slavic Russians had controlled most of that territory for centuries. While I was in Kharkiv, I was approached by a university professor (note the title) who wanted to find support for setting up summer camps much like Hitler had established for the Hitler Youth in the late 30s, in the US. And would I help? I was familiar with those summer camps, even had a book in German about it, and my male interpreter, named Peter, rolled his eyes as this professor detailed how these summer camps could be useful in America, and I would mutter under my breath, “Summer Camp from Hell”. I was polite, and accepted his outline, and Peter and I had a good laugh as we left, but it was true that many Ukrainians still had strong memories of when the Germans occupied Ukraine, and most were very positive. They liked the Germans’ manners, their style, their music, unlike the uncouth Russians, and the Germans occupied them from 1940-late 1943. I can’t count the number of people came into to see me in that bank that spoke so well of the “good days” of German occupation almost 50 years earlier.
The Ukrainians are a complex people, that’s all I can say.
On the other hand, the Russians are different, but most of the people I read know very little about them either. I only knew one Soviet Russian very closely, and he was a member if the Soviet Central Committee. His name was Valentin Suchkov and he was an engineer and head of one of the largest oil companies in the world. He was from Gorkiy, and I wrote his story here, Famous Soviet Russians I’ve Colluded With. He had gnarly hands, which you never see on executives these days, and while he wielded great power, his greatest concern were the factory workers in his district, Nizhnii Novgorad.
Because I had discovered the true intentions of my hosts in Kharkiv, and his colleagues, they threw some weight in keeping me from contacting Suchkov after I returned to the states. But I was able to follow the contest for power between the cartels in Russia. And I know both Semenov and Xhkloma factories survived, and their products had expanded when last I checked in the art bazaars in the Balkans, so my friend Suchkov didn’t lose.
Closing the management circle, you’ve never heard of Jack Goldfarb, a Hungarian Jew who came to America in the 1930s. Rather than simply take a factory job like most immigrants who came thru Ellis Island, “Mr Goldfarb” (which is what he always was called in my house ever since I met my wife) came to America with a plan to build a profitable business in what he knew best, garment manufacturing.
You probably don’t know much about how knitwear is made, but it is by three major operations; 1) knitting/weaving of the fabric, 2) bleaching and dyeing that fabric, then 3) cutting and sewing that fabric. Most of those operations do not take place in the same facility.
Mr Goldfarb came to New York with the intention of building a vertical company, and spent 30 years acquiring brands (Union Underwear and Fruit of the Loom) but mostly cut-and-sew. In 1950s Mr Goldfarb did something that doesn’t fit in with the making of modern brands, or modern genuises like Sam Bankman-Fried. He wanted to make underwear that could be mass produced but afforded by the working classes. Henry Ford did the same thing with River-Rouge in Detroit…he wanted to build a car his employees could afford. So in 1952 he designed and built a “vertical factory” putting all those operations under one roof, and he placed that factory in central Kentucky, where thousands of small farmers, or often their wives, were just tapping their toe to find additional income to augment their tobacco allotment (which, incidentally, is the hardest physical work in the world for the few days required.)
The bottom line was that by the early 1960s Fruit of the Loom/Union Underwear became the largest underwear manufacturer in the world, and their sewing room in Central Kentucky was the world’s largest until China finally went them one better in the 1980s.
I was with FOL at that time, and took a look at China’s system versus our own, and found some fatal flaws in the way China designed their system compared to the way Mr Goldfarb had designed his. By 1979, he had built two other facilities around the South and turned the management of the company over to other CEO’s. Semi-retired, he sat on the Board of Directors, but always made a point to visit the central Kentucky plant, and talk with knitters and sewing room ladies, a practice he’d begun in the 50’s.
And I mean “talk”. He would sit and chat, and watch, and exchange stories. I never got to meet him, but he was my wife’s god-father.
Jack Goldfarb had produced a system that was very profitable for the company, and worker and management alike profited from that arrangement. And he had done this by placing the mutual benefit of the workers and management higher than anything else. There was no union, nor was there any rumble to bring one in.
But that regiment of Gekko wannabes marches on.
I have been going on for years about the “Law of Generations” as if it were a good thing, a cure-all to Mankind’s ills, when in truth it has been the cause of Man’s continued and predictable downfall after every periodic rise. A form of self-inflicted destruction.
Don’t ask any sitting social scientist at a university to explain this phenomenon, nor any member of local, state or national government, for it is generally beyond their understanding. Most professionals, including historians, only understand the times they are in, whereas ordinary working class Americans, until recently, have almost always carried around with them three generations’ worth of cultural baggage.
Vlodymyr Zelensky is a little like Joe Biden, he has to have other people whispering in his ear in order to find his way. He’s also incompetent, only sane. But trust me, he is not calling many shots, at least not the big ones. It’s stagecraft and no one knows for sure who’s drafting his scripts. (I’ll leave it at that, all you need to know is that there is a collaborative effort between the “Biden machine” and the “Zelensky machine.”)
And if we (the United States) walked away today, the remaining script has still already been largely written; for Russia, Ukraine, and as well as most of Europe. But the central player is the United States, and the general notion that neither country will do much of anything bold should the United States change its stance or walk away.
I put off finishing this little piece of natural history until America signals its change of direction, which it likely has, with the removal of Speaker McCarthy, and a likely replacement with a speaker unwilling to provide Ukraine with any more money…which more or less turns the current war into a conventional war stalemate, taking Russia and Ukraine back territorially to the first week of that war, but many Ukraine bosses living in other parts of the world, much as many of America’s cartel-prone political class may find themselves, just one step ahead of the bounty hunters.
This is about natural law, and the simple fact that the United States, as a people, have always stood at arm’s length from the rest of the world, simply because Europe and the rest were all built from the top down from the Middle Ages onward, organized by a hereditary king system of governments that ensured that the king system, would remain intact. The current democracies of Europe, for instance, have never transferred power to the people to decide their own fates. Kings and barons have all gone, but the governments have retained most of their royal prerogatives, while creating a massive middle class of managers and bureaucrats to manage things.
In the long run it doesn’t work.