Out of Russia: For a price, even weather is up for sale

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - I saw God the other day. He has white hair, two silver teeth and grey-blue eyes. He celebrates his 57th birthday on Tuesday.

We met in his office, up a flight of stone steps, each one worn into the shape of a saddle by a century of feet. It is a fine address, just down the Moscow river from the Kremlin. But money is tight, the decor simple: a scuffed linoleum floor, mock-wood wallpaper, fluorescent lighting, two desks and a telephone. The only hint of any unusual powers are two paper charts tacked to the wall. They detail God's main area of expertise: governing the heavens.

Lev Pokhmelnykh - for that is God's name when it comes to deciding whether it rains or shines - is a scientist by profession. He used to work for the state meteorological bureau; before that he studied physics. Today, he has his own company, Elate Intelligent Technologies (EIT), small in size but hugely ambitious. Its product: 'weather made to order'.

Dr Pokhmelnykh explains: he can - for a fee - make the heavens smile on your wedding day or drench the garden party of an enemy; halt a gale or whip up wind to puff away pollution from Los Angeles. No problem is too big for the doctor. His brochure lists a few of them: hurricanes, tornadoes, typhoons, rain, floods, hail, fog, snowfall, sandstorms, urban smog, acid rain, storms.

For dollars 6m ( pounds 3.5m) plus 60m roubles ( pounds 106,000) - 'we have a few expenses in Russia' - he promises a hurricane-free Florida. Smaller jobs - weddings, birthdays and sports events - cost less. Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium, for example, can, if it ever pays the necessary 5 million roubles, ensure that rain never stops play. And this is just the beginning. 'I can do a lot more. This is just a small part of my work.'

Unfortunately for Dr Pokhmelnykh - and, he quickly points out, for the people of Florida who could have been spared Andrew's fury if the US embassy in Moscow had listened - only a handful of people take him seriously. He is not helped by the fact that his name, to Russian ears, sounds a lot like 'Dr Hangover'.

'I've been working 16 hours a day for 25 years and don't feel like God at all. It is very hard work. We just have to keep going. The potential of my work is immense.'

The source of this potential is a small plot of land at Bukovo airport outside Moscow. On it stand a row of 25-foot metal posts strung with wire. A shed nearby contains more wire and computers. What they do, precisely, is a secret - patent applications are kept in a safe next to Dr Pokhmelykh's desk. It has something to do with electrical charges reacting with ions in the air.

From this jerry-built set-up, he says, EIT can control weather over 10km (6 miles). He dreams of a world studded with his metal posts. One day, he says, ships and oil rigs will carry them too.

But can Dr Pokhmelnykh deliver? Two people, at least, think he can. They are his marketing director, Igor Pirogoff, who claims to be a count descended from an ancient family in the Crimea, and his chief engineer, Dmitri Pestov, who boasts ties with another Russian aristocracy, the military.

'When it comes to weather, we can do anything. We guarantee it 100 per cent, or money back,' says the Count, a lanky young man with a ginger moustache and a slick salesman's patter in English and Russian. From a thick binder stuffed with newspaper articles about harrowing storms, he takes out a satellite picture of Russia. The whole country is covered with cloud, except for a small clear patch around Moscow: 'We did that,' the Count says proudly.

Mr Pestov, explains it this way: their firm is a sort of celestial subcontractor. 'God has other moral and philosophical tasks to worry about. He has given us the technical engineering side. He got tired of all the complaining. No one was ever happy. Some wanted rain, others sun.'

EIT is not the first company to try and cash in on Russia's new free-market creed and the talents of its scientists. A nuclear physicist at the Kurchatov Institute, home of the first Soviet nuclear bomb, has tried to use complex probability theory to predict prices. Just one problem: it didn't work. The firm went bust.

Whether Mr Pokhmelnykh is a charlatan or a genius is more difficult to judge. Russia's weather men consider him a nut, but the military is intrigued. So far, though, the only firm client is a businessman who paid a paltry 5,000 roubles for good weather on his son's wedding day. I ask for his name. Sorry, says Count Pirogoff, the contract also guaranteed confidentiality. 'He didn't want people to make fun of him.'

Last month, Dr Pokhmelnykh did agree to stage a free demonstration for a curious American. Weather men predicted a downpour; EIT promised three days of sun. The trial got off to good start: clouds cleared, and the sun shone. Then things came unstuck. Moscow was drenched. 'We suspect vandalism,' says the Count: someone turned off their contraption in the middle of the night.

How about another try, I ask. No. Too expensive. The next day, though, the Count phones excitedly to say Heathrow airport has sent a letter and wants to do business. I ask to see the letter. It begins: 'We have no knowledge of the 'Elate' system and are not familiar with its technology.' Hardly a ringing endorsement. But it does at least show some interest. The Count is delighted.

I ask whether Dr Pokhmelnykh and his colleagues ever worry about trespassing into dangerous territory. Might they, like Icarus, not be punished for their hubris. 'No, not at all,' says the ex-military engineer. 'Icarus was a very long time ago and used very poor wax. We have far better glue - Russian military glue. We know what we are doing.'

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