Underflow | 4

In this episode: Lars Lipp meets Pavel Gudichev, managing partner of Vantor, an oil-trading firm with close links to the Kremlin. Gudichev quizzes Lars in several languages, then offers him a job running Vantor's new Tallinn office. Lipp will soon be handling billions of dollars in cash and commodities for some of Russia's most powerful figures. What could possibly go wrong?

Previous episodes

November 2011 — Tallinn, Estonia

THREE DAYS after the headhunter's approach, Lars Lipp was invited to meet Pavel Gudichev at the Hansa Center, five minutes' walk from Livonia Bank's headquarters, where he was directed to a third-floor office in the name of Talcow Capital Partners.

The woman who greeted him introduced herself as Stasia. She took his coat and led him down a corridor to a door which she opened without knocking. They entered an airy room elegantly if minimally furnished with charcoal-grey carpeting, a grey velvet sofa, and a glass-topped steel-framed desk. Behind the bare desk was a high-backed chair; beneath it was a brown leather briefcase; curled up beside the briefcase was a black Persian cat.

A man was standing at the window. He gestured Lipp towards the sofa, took his place behind the desk, and waited for Stasia to leave the room. This was Gudichev.

Lipp guessed Gudichev to be in his early fifties. Grey hair cut short and a bristling grey moustache. Military bearing. Expensive-looking navy-blue suit with a white shirt and deep red silk tie. A hard, lined face; the mouth was smiling but the eyes were not. Like an army officer from Tolstoy, thought Lipp. 

"Guten Tag, Herr Lipp", said Gudichev, looking directly into Lipp's eyes. Gravelly voice. "Ich hoffe, Sie sind nicht allergisch gegen Katzen."

This use of German took Lipp by surprise. He had some command of the language, but not enough for serious conversation. 

"Guten Tag, Herr Gudichev", he replied. "Ich mag Katzen sehr. Wie heißt Ihre Katze?"


Begemot was the vodka-drinking, chess-playing, shapeshifting cat in Bulgakov's Master And Margarita. Somewhere inside Gudichev was a sense of humour.

Gudichev, meanwhile, was appraising his guest, and, apparently, liking what he saw. Lipp was wearing his standard business dress of close-cut dark suit and open-collared white shirt. His black loafers were polished, his brown hair was crew-cut, he had two days of stubble, and he was sporting his serious black spectacles from Oliver Peoples. The lenses were of plain glass, but Lipp liked to think that the glasses, along with the stubble, gave his face a touch more character.

Gudichev switched from German into brisk, formal Russian, a language which Lipp spoke well: "You look the part, Mr Lipp. That matters to me. We have a saying in Russia: If you find it difficult to smile, do not open a shop."

Gudichev then spoke a few words in what Lipp recognised as Swedish. Lipp apologised, in English, for having no Swedish. "You will forgive me my little tests, Mr Lipp", replied Gudichev in lightly-accented English. "The only way to tell if a person is at ease in another language is to hear him speak it. Do you agree? My friend Magnusson insists that if he is expected to speak English and Russian all of the time, then the rest of us must make an effort to learn Swedish. As I have done."

"My theory is always to enjoy life", continued Gudichev, still in English, "but the practice is against it. So, as much as I am enjoying our conversation now, I fear we must do a little work. I propose to ask you some questions, if you are agreeable. A sort of entrance exam."

Lipp was indeed agreeable. The first question came in Russian:

"сколько будет одна тысяча тридцать пять, умноженная на шесть целых четыре десятых?" Gudichev was asking him to multiply 1,035 by 6.4.

"шесть тысяч шестьсот двадцать четыре", Lipp replied almost without hesitation. Six thousand six hundred and twenty-four. Not for nothing had Lipp finished first in the Estonian Mathematics Olympiad in his final year of high school.

"What can you tell me about the first of those numbers?". 

"It was the closing price of gold yesterday. Per ounce, in US dollars."

"Who is the president of Paraguay?" 

"Fernando Lugo." 

"Give me an example of a heterogeneous first-order nonlinear ordinary differential equation." 

"du over dx equals u squared plus four."

"I have been told that it is impossible for a foreigner to learn the Estonian language. To speak it fluently you have to be born here. Is that right, do you think?"

"Up to a point. The grammar is complex. Our nouns have fourteen cases. I do not see why that should be a barrier to learning in principle. I believe that the autistic savant Daniel Tammett was able to acquire conversational Estonian in a matter of eight or ten weeks. But however well a foreigner learns the rules of grammar they will never pass for an Estonian among Estonians, because they will never get the pronunciation quite right — unless perhaps they are Finnish. I believe that we have 37 vowel sounds, of which 28 are uniquely Estonian." 

While Lipp was talking about Estonian philology an expression of genuine interest flickered briefly across Gudichev's face. A few seconds of silence ensued. Then Gudichev spoke again, in Russian: 

"I am favourably impressed by our encounter. I had already obtained extensive information about your present and past employment before approaching you. I do not wish to waste your time or my own. I propose to offer you a position as chief executive of Talcow Capital Partners. Talcow Capital Partners is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Vantor, which is a Swiss-registered trading company owned by myself and Bror Magnusson. Initially, you will be responsible for our treasury function. I assume that you have familiarised yourself with the activities of Vantor. If you accept this offer, you will report to me. Do you accept?"   

"In principle, yes."

"A judicious reply. Stasia will acquaint you with the concrete modalities. I have prepared a draft contract for you, anticipating that we would reach an understanding, which I hope we have now done."   

Lipp said that he would read the contract with interest. 

"On a separate matter", said Markov. "We will want to commit to a principal banking relationship in Estonia. Is Bank Livonia an efficient and trustworthy institution, in your experience?"

"In my experience, Bank Livonia is always trustworthy and usually efficient." 

"Better that than the other way round", said Gudichev with a smile. 

Stasia came back into the room. Gudichev must have summoned her by some invisible means. The meeting was at its end. 

Whereas Gudichev's office had been large and pristine, with light flooding in from a picture-window overlooking Tallinn's passenger port, Stasia's office was half the size, windowless, cluttered, and furnished from Ikea. They sat at a small table and spoke English. 

"I am Mr Gudichev's personal assistant and private secretary", said Stasia. "He likes you. That is evident. When he likes people he decides things very quickly. Did you like him?"

"I enjoyed his interviewing style. Quite unusual. Is he easy to work with?"

"He is demanding in a rational way", said Stasia. "He requires intelligence and discretion. Apparently you have satisfied him in those respects. When we were leaving his office just now he asked me whether you had made any attempt to draw me into conversation about himself, his business, or myself. I said that you had not. He approved of this." 

Stasia then pushed a sheet paper towards Lars, and waited while he read it. It was a term sheet, one page long. 

It said that he, Lars Lipp, of Tallinn, Estonia, would work solely and exclusively for Talcow Capital Partners, as chief executive officer, at a salary of €20,000 euros per month. He would report to Pavel Gudichev, managing partner of Vantor SA, the parent company of Talcow Capital Partners. 

Lipp would observe absolute confidentiality with respect to his employment. He would communicate no information about its nature or content to any third party. He or Vantor could terminate the contract at any time, but the obligation of confidentiality was binding in perpetuity.

Gudichev had signed the contract at the bottom left. 

"This is not a standard contract of employment", Lars said, more as an observation than a complaint. "I doubt that it counts as a contract at all. In legal terms." 

"The essentials are all there", replied Stasia. "We have made this agreement in two copies. One for you and one for Mr Gudichev. In case of disagreement we shall discuss. But the point is to avoid disagreement."

Lars thought for perhaps ten seconds. In effect, he would be entering into a personal agreement with Gudichev, which Gudichev could void any time. But that was the reality of the situation in any case. Anything more would be window-dressing. The prospect was intriguing. And the money was good. He signed both copies.

"When will you start?", Stasia asked.

To be continued ...

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