John Bailey: Fishing with the oligarchs ... guns and all

John Bailey in the Siberian forests cooking fish for supper

John Bailey in the Siberian forests cooking fish for supper - Credit: John Bailey

I doubt any of us is unaware of world news these days, the constant talk of Russian oligarchs and the retribution that lies in wait for at least some of them.

Because of my former life as an angling traveller and guide, I have experience of several of these men, men mostly, but two examples will suffice. First, to keep it local, we have Sergei and his son.

These two, along with “tooled up” bodyguard Viktor, arrived around 10 years ago to fish for pike with me. Sergei was around 50, I guess, the son a spotty teenager, and Viktor any age between 30 and 70. They were good value at the bar on Friday night, at the Lenwade House Hotel as I remember, but our friendship went downhill on Saturday morning when they set about chopping off the head of the first pike of the session.

Stop! I explained we love pike and put them back and Viktor explained that if I did that, he would shoot me.

Crayfish - food fit for an oligarch

Food fit for an oligarch - Credit: John Bailey

After a Russo/Britain stand-off, we compromised and set about a signal crayfish hunt along the Wensum at Swanton Morley. Viktor checked out every copse and thicket along the way for assassins, but we lived and amassed a huge haul of the critters by Sunday afternoon. Despite my protestations and quoting of Environment Agency bylaws, the crayfish were loaded on a private helicopter for London, where they were grilled that night and consumed by a gang of Sergei’s vodka-swilling cronies.

Viktor, Sergei and son were due back the following month, but the PA, Poppy, phoned me within half that time. Sergei had crossed Vladimir Putin in some way, had been recalled to Moscow, had lost his houses and helicopters and had been banished, impoverished, to a one-horse town in far eastern Siberia. As far as I am aware, he has never been heard of again.

Between 1995 and 2014, I fished in Russia, Siberia and Kazakhstan very frequently. The trips were generally set up by oligarch entrepreneurs hoping to establish international angling camps, rather like the ones in the Kola. I could tell you many tales about those journeys and those gentlemen, but the story of Makharov will suffice (I have given him different names in the past but since he has been shot dead, that hardly matters any more.)

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This was 1998 and I was on Makharov’s boat on the Volga south of Astrakhan and we were investigating the carp and catfish possibilities. There were also 30 heavily-armed men on board with us, useful in the two gunfights with the sturgeon police that I witnessed during my two week “cruise”. It seemed that my host was deeply involved in the caviar poaching business, those sturgeon eggs commonly referred to as black gold.

I fell out with Makharov over the fishing of all things. In the lagoons off the main river were colossal rudd and perch, absolute monsters, and I tried to explain how much more desirable than the stinking catfish they were. Pasha, my kind, sensitive interpreter took me to one side with urgency. Makharov was the landlord of hundreds of flats in Astrakhan, he told me. He routinely dumped the bodies of rent defaulters in the Volga and a lone English angling writer was in danger of joining them, Pasha added. Whilst I ruminated on this, a rat ran across our table.  “Why doesn’t anyone trap these?" I asked. "What is the point? There are rats everywhere,” Pasha replied. “Mostly in high office.”

I realised then that Russia is, was at least, a dysfunctional state, run by dysfunctional men who thought nothing of the law and decided most matters with violence, threats or corruption. The Russian river people I mixed with on those journeys were honest, generous, grindingly poor and lived lives of toil and hardship. Many were the times I wept for them... and with them.

It is also worth adding that during those trips east I was generally in the company of fishers from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and, yes, from Ukraine. All those days were tough. Arduous travelling. Dreadful food. Blistering heat by day, marrow-chilling frosts at night. Mosquitoes, bears, vodka for breakfast and gunfights for supper, no picnic I’ll tell you.

I was pushed to my limits but my travelling companions laughed at all hardships and dangers. These were men brave way beyond my ken and I am not in the least surprised the defence of Ukraine is as heroic as it is.