Cold course in building for homeless Russian troops: Coventry University takes Western know-how to tent city outside Moscow

Click to follow
RUSSIAN troops from the 117th Parachute Division, who helped to recapture the White House for President Yeltsin, are currently billeted in tents on the outskirts of Moscow. They lost their permanent base in Lithuania after the break-up of the Soviet Army.

Their chances of better shelter from the Russian winter could depend on the success of their discharged officers in setting up their own building company.

A 10-day course designed to help them starts next Monday at the Golocino nuclear rocket base, 25 miles from Moscow. They will be lectured on the finer points of carpentry and bricklaying by Edward Bowen, a former colonel in the Sherwood Foresters who now runs a DIY superstore in Latvia. Officers from the former Soviet Strategic Rocket Force will also attend.

It is one of 24 courses run by Coventry University and designed to train present and former Soviet officers in the ways of western business. Between now and March 1995 nearly 900 are expected to attend.

Noel Hibbert, director of the university's European training unit, has strong backing from the Foreign Office for his attempts to ensure that the leaders of the world's biggest army have plenty to keep them busy after demobilisation.

'The West is eager to avoid another Bosnian situation,' said Mr Hibbert. 'The former Soviet armed forces were 36 times larger than Yugoslavia's and they had enough firepower at their disposal to keep any civil war going for 400 years.'

Even after 80,000 have been demobilised there are still 360,000 men in the Russian Officer Corps alone, making it three times bigger than the entire British army.

US Aid, the European Bank and the European Commission have invested large sums in retraining but Coventry is the only British university involved. Its contract was secured in 1991 after Mr Hibbert set up a meeting between the city's then Lord Mayor, Councillor Dave Edwards, and Colonel Vladimir Mikhailov, a key supporter of President Yeltsin.

Mr Edwards, a works convenor at Peugeot Talbot, recalled: 'I've done some negotiating with managements in my time, but he was the toughest cookie I've ever dealt with.' None the less, he was eventually embraced by the colonel, who seemed to assume that a British mayor had the autocratic powers of his Russian counterpart.

The university receives a grant of pounds 317,000 from the Foreign Office and British companies are beginning to express some interest in sponsorship. Tomorrow lecturers from Coventry will meet representatives of a ballbearing company from Tiverton, Devon, who want to recruit Russian distributor agents.

Mr Hibbert regularly visits Moscow to set up courses. 'When I was there a few weeks ago, the officers were like dogs howling for meat. They were waving their business plans around and asking for grants, as though I might have the money in my briefcase.'

Now he has a representative of the European Bank on hand to offer grants of up to dollars 30,000 ( pounds 21,000) for schemes considered viable. Judging by some of the ideas put forward on Coventry University's three pilot courses, not all will qualify.

Certainly not the young commander whose plan was to sell reconnaissance film from submarine periscopes to the West. 'He just hadn't done any market research,' said Mr Hibbert. 'It hadn't occurred to him that the West has better quality reconnaissance film of its own.'

Another plan unlikely to materialise belonged to a major who wanted to import long- haired kangaroos into the southern Krasnodar region of the former Soviet Union. 'He thought he could produce meat to supply burger bars, but it was a daft idea. Even long-haired kangaroos couldn't survive in those temperatures.'

More successful was the officer who used his experience as an aeronautical engineer to develop a plastic boomerang for children. They have been selling in their thousands in Moscow, where they have become something of a craze.

(Photograph omitted)