An Arctic lift-off of an Aladdin's Cave: Jeremy Hart meets a businessman who aims to send the spirit, and products, of a new Russia into space

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
ILIA BASKIN, a millionaire in pounds as well as roubles, is one of the success stories of the new Russia. Five years ago he began making children's clothing in a damp basement. He now runs an empire that extends to construction, property, charity ventures and, his most ambitious project yet, commercial space flight.

Mr Baskin has turned archaic, state-run industries into profitable private companies, raised millions of roubles for needy Russian children and is the driving force behind a project to revive Russia's aerospace industry and make it competitive with the US and European programmes.

On 20 November, an unmanned Soyuz rocket will blast into the grey skies over Arkhangel'sk in the Russian Arctic carrying a 500kg (1,100lb) cargo of consumer goods and messages of goodwill. The pounds 9m payload will be the first Russian space cargo paid for almost entirely, Mr Baskin hopes, by Western companies hoping to see sales of their products skyrocket because of their trip into orbit.

Mr Baskin is seeking more than credit for the space flight, Russia's first with a non-scientific purpose. Among the goods he is hoping to cram into the extraterrestrial Aladdin's Cave will be a bundle of children's clothes from his St Petersburg factory. 'For me, space is not something unusual; it is yet another sphere for business,' he said recently.

Such entrepreneurial ambition has more than a touch of US style. 'My success didn't happen accidentally. I learnt about business from the Americans,' Mr Baskin says. 'The George Soros Foundation ran a competition for the best Russian enterprise. Four thousand people entered and I won. The prize was dollars 250,000 ( pounds 129,500) in development aid, which I put into my business. They also taught me how to run it.

'In 1988, I hired a basement in St Petersburg and started producing children's clothes. The first money we made was spent on creating the Theatre of Children's Fashion.' As a result of this Mr Baskin started directing his money-making talents towards fund-raising.

'The president of the Russian Children's Foundation saw the theatre and asked me to help to raise money for orphans and other children in need. When he came to me they had sold six million roubles' worth of tokens and needed to sell 180 million. At that rate it would have taken 30 years.

'I told him I would sell all of them within a day. He said I must be crazy. I bought 24 hours on television and within a day had raised 130 million roubles.'

Mr Baskin quickly realised that this novel approach could yield rich dividends. 'Three months later, I organised a telethon for the victims of Chernobyl. We raised more than 90 million roubles - a huge sum by Russian standards - especially as people were giving and, unusually, not expecting anything in return.'

Selling space on Russian rocket flights may be more difficult, however. Helen Sharman's place as Britain's first astronaut on the Juno mission was funded by the Moscow Narodny Bank. Yet Mars, her former employers, did not sponsor her. 'We were offered the chance to sponsor the Juno mission, but it didn't fit our marketing plan,' said a spokeswoman. Space is not every company's marketing dream, it seems, west or east of the former Iron Curtain.

The idea for November's flight belongs to Gennady Alferenko, of the Russian Foundation for Social Innovation, an agency set up to nurture Russian entrepreneurship. Mr Alferenko asked the businessman to help with fund-raising last year after he was promised the use of a rocket by the Soyuz factory at Samara, in western Russia.

'All the banks said no to Alferenko; they all thought it was a crazy idea,' Mr Baskin says. Within a week, Mr Baskin had drummed up support worth 'hundreds of millions of roubles'. The idea became reality.

Mr Baskin now hopes to recoup his investment by selling the cargo space. He has signed a deal with a London-based company, Campbell Davison Media, to search for potential Western sponsors.

However, with only three months before the launch from the once top-secret site at Plesetsk, Mr Baskin has had a lot of interest but no firm commitments.

Barrie Gill, a British sponsorship consultant who worked with the Juno mission, says that the Russians are entering the commercial space race too late. 'Space is now a has-been,' he says. 'I think it will be very difficult to sell this project.'

Even if Russia's King Midas has met his match, however, the November flight will go ahead. 'We have bought everything, and even if we don't sell the space, we have lots of Russian companies interested,' Mr Baskin says.

'President Yeltsin supports the project,' he announces proudly. The businessman has the ear of the Russian president and sits on Mr Yeltsin's influential Enterprise Council.

Mr Baskin still has to pinch himself when talking about the forthcoming flight. 'Five years ago it would have been impossible . . . I could only have dreamt of doing this, but I couldn't have done it.'

A child of the Russian space age - he was five when Yuri Gagarin made the first manned space flight and spent 108 minutes in space in 1961 - Mr Baskin is unromantic about the November flight. 'It's symbolic,' he says with little emotion. 'I hope others will get pleasure and satisfaction from it. If you are rich, you have to share it.'

Six days after launching, the tiny 6ft (1.87m) orb at the heart of the rocket will splash down in international waters less than a hundred miles off Washington State, on America's Pacific coast. The first intercontinental space flight will carry with it the spirit, as well as the products, of a new Russia.

Danny Danziger is on holiday.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments