Law: Insider who can do business with Moscow: Sharon Wallach meets Ksenya Solovyova, a Russian whose specialist knowledge is helping smooth the way for East-West commercial deals

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The Independent Online
COMMERCIAL law is almost a new concept in a Russia waking up to the idea of private business activity, says Ksenya Solovyova, who since April has worked in the City office of Lovell White Durrant. Christopher Smith, the head of the firm's East-West trade group and of its Prague office, says that through her knowledge of the Russian system, Ms Solovyova 'provides an important bridge between the business cultures of Eastern and Western Europe. There are immense opportunities in areas such as hi-tech, aerospace and mineral resources, but local know-how is all-important.'

Ms Solovyova's role includes advising Westerners on how to negotiate with East Europeans, and explaining the concept of privatisation to Russians preparing to take over their own businesses. After perestroika, she joined a Paris-based US law firm, working as its Russian adviser in Moscow, her home city. Before that she had worked for 12 years at a government think- tank, researching economic development.

She had something of a privileged upbringing. Her father was a prominent citizen, who established a series of design institutions throughout the Soviet Union. Her mother was a film actress until her marriage.

Ms Solovyova's main impression so far of Britain is that people here are very calm. 'They are not as nervous as people in Moscow. Maybe it is that they are more reserved or have a more philosophical approach.'

But comparisons between English and Russian law firms are impossible. 'When I graduated as a lawyer, I went into research. There were no law firms then as you know them. Those who worked for clients settled very primitive issues, dividing the property of divorcing people or doing criminal work. There was practically no business law.'

Mr Smith says: 'Russia never had the chance to develop a true commercial structure. My firm has acted for Soviet government departments and trade organisations for many years, but inward investment and joint ventures are recent things. We had no real experience, so we took on Ksenya.'

Her decision to leave Moscow was prompted by concern for her children's safety. 'Since perestroika, kidnapping has become a way of life. Children should be free to move and to communicate. They feel safe now.'

They enjoy their English school. 'Russian schools are very different: old-fashioned and traditional,' Ms Solovyova says. 'There, teachers believe the purpose of school is to educate. Here the purpose seems to be to make children happy.'

She will not admit that the concept of 'culture shock' can apply to a move from Moscow to London. But after working alone, being in a large firm is 'very different', she says. 'You have to walk down a long passage just to get to the ladies' room.'

She is also amused to find herself following local custom by sending a memo to someone two floors down.

She comments on the quality of office equipment, computers and so on, compared with what is found in Moscow. Mr Smith chips in to say that she also loves 'shiny pencils', in common with people throughout Eastern Europe.

Ms Solovyova defends herself: 'Because my father is a designer, I grew up with the notion that you should feel comfortable with everything round you. We spend so much time in the office, it is important to have lovely things around.'

She readily admits to missing Moscow. 'I am very unfortunate in a way. For the rest of my life I will miss Moscow when I am here, and miss what I have here when I am in Moscow.'

Her husband, a film actor, has remained in Moscow, but her parents have joined her and her children in England. The family has set up home in Welwyn Garden City - an unusual choice perhaps, but the venue was partly dictated by immigration requirements that force them to live within 25 miles of the capital. 'We Russians are obviously still considered dangerous,' she says.

She believes that her job here is useful. 'Russia is in general a sophisticated and intelligent nation - but this also means there are many ways of cheating people and the Western client runs many risks. For instance, if he is negotiating with a Russian company, he may be unaware that it has no right to dispose of assets that belong to the government. The companies that are investing over there are often very large and thinking years ahead, so these matters are important.

'There are so many different decrees it sometimes seems that Russian government departments work only to keep lawyers in business. Russia is very rich, but it is like a minefield, and you need someone who knows where the mines are to lead you through.'

(Photograph omitted)