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Raw Materials: Grigory Likhter interview excerpts

Grigory Likhter is an incredibly talented artisan and craftsman from Sunapee, NH; woodworker, furniture maker, interior designer, contractor. His talents are so wide-ranging that he's occasionally had trouble finding enough work, because he doesn't fit into a single category. You'd think his ability to do it all would be in high demand, but it doesn't always happen that way. Here, he describes the kinds of things he does. 


Woodcarving or restoration happens once in a while. It's usually a serious project; people approach me, they've known me for years. I work for museums, I've worked for the Smithsonian. It happens once in a while for private people. Redoing or repairing furniture. I don't just break everything down and replace it with new pieces; I try to preserve as many original pieces as possible, and retain the type of joinery, gluing and finish, as it was originally done. 

The second major part: I have a degree in interior design from Parsons School of Design in New York City, I graduated in 1985. I like to do interior work as well as furniture. I like to make people comfortable in their space. 

Interior design, some people confuse it with interior decoration. I don't decorate, I don't put up shades. Just to make space work conveniently, you know. 

That leads me to construction, which is the main thing. Remodeling, finish carpentry. If somebody wants high quality work, that's where I come in. 

So that's the scope of my work, and this shop [behind his house] is used for everything. I built this bench, special bench with two vises, special bench for woodcarving. I have more than 400 chisels and gouges. I have all the tools I need. 

One thing I would love to do here in New England -- I'm sure you know the beautiful houses, decorative architectural detail, the houses in Newport and Claremont? It used to belong to England, the English came here to get timber. On the way to New England, they had craftsmen on the ships, who used to carve all these beautiful decorative elements, and they used to exchange it with the local population. That's the uniqueness of this area, the decorative architecture is very unique. Unfortunately, vinyl came, and people ripped everything down and put that up. I would love to establish a business trying to restore the wood. That's what I'm doing with my own house. 



Likhter and his mother emigrated from Russia to the United States in the late 1970s. In the early 90s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, he decided to go back to his homeland. 


One of my clients was Bob Schmidt, owner of C-SPAN. He asked me to go to Russia with him as an interpreter. I said yes. So for about a year I was flying to Moscow with him. And then my wife, she is Finnish. I realized this was expensive and time-consuming, why don't we just move to Finland, which is about an hour and a half away from Moscow. So my son was born in New York, we moved to Finland, and I worked with Bob until the first coup. They tried to reverse everything, but they lost and Yeltsin won. First thing he did was, he demolished the Communist Party.  New guys brought in, Bob's deal fell through, and he left and I decided to stay. 


(In those early post-Communist days, it must have been a chaotic place to work.) 

I learned to work in this country, where you don't have to bribe anybody. If you work hard, you are rewarded. That's what I believe in. So you come to Russia, there's corruption, bribery. Nobody believed in the present or the future. There was a fear that the Soviet government would return. A huge country like the Soviet Union cannot just collapse without pain. There was pain, anguish, and a desire to go back. It was a miracle that there was no civil war. 

It was tough. Whenever there's a change from one system to another, everything is disorganized. There was no control, so the criminals came up. It was dangerous politically, but also physically. Things are getting better now. 

People asked me why I didn't bring my family to Russia, but it was too dangerous. 


(So you were living in Finland, and working in Russia?) Yes. 


(What were you doing in Russia?) 

I love building, I love organizing things. The whole thing started with the Russian White House. It's like the Russian Senate. They call it White House because it's covered with white granite. It's a white building. It's right on the Moscow River. 

How I got involved replacing windows. I'm sure everybody remembers Yeltsin, when there was a coup, when Gorbachev was in Yalta, there was a coup, old Communists were trying to take over. So Yeltsin took an enormous risk, he put everything at stake. He climbed on a tank and shot at the White House, where the leaders of the coup were located. So a lot of windows were shot out.

The White House was surrounded, the water shut off, the electricity shut down. Nobody knew how it would turn out, and the Soviet Army was present, and they didn't do anything. That was the turning point. It could have gotten bloody, it could have been crushed. 

So when the tank shot at the White House, all the windows were blown out. I knew people in the government at the time and they knew what I was doing -- glass construction -- and they asked me to assist. 


(How did you get involved in glass?)

At the time, I was thinking what kind of business can I start in Russia? One of the things I was interesed in at the time, and even more so now, is the environment. Passive solar energy. How can you preserve energy inside the living space? With modern technology, we can build glass that can keep us warm or cool. 

So when I came to Russia, there were a lot of young businessmen, they were all thinking the same way, they wanted to import alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, and I was not interested. And I discovered that glass construction was not developed in Russia. And the Soviet people, once things turned upside down, they wanted to live like people in the West. Driving western cars, wearing western clothes. In construction, I presumed that people would want to build buildings like in the United States -- skyscrapers with a lot of glass. But in the Soviet Union, glass technology was not developed. Insulated glass, double panes. That's what I started promoting. And by having good contacts at the government level, I was interested in big projects. And that's where the money was at the time. 


(How long keep doing that?) 

In total, about 8 years. And it was constantly developing. First it was technology, then just design, and then it was just consulting, putting things together. 

Several times I was cheated -- by Russians and by foreign companies. Everybody was cheating everybody. The most horrible thing for me was bribery, which I refused to do. I'll pay for your services, but I don't understand bribery. That was a difficulty for me. But I was getting jobs. A lot of the work was in the Baltic countries [Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania]; they were more developed. 


(Could you tell me about one of the times you were cheated? 

The cheating part always happened on the border, okay? So let's say I have to deliver insulated glass. I bring it to the Finnish border, the papers are clean, but it gets stuck on the Russian border. They would find hundreds of excuses to make you pay extra. 

At the beginning, I thought I would handle it. But I realized that the Russian border should be taken care of on the Russian side. I wouldn't deliver to Moscow; I'd have the client pick up stuff at the border. 

At the beginning, I allowed payment to be made upon delivery. But I lost it several times. They found excuses not to pay. So I set up an escrow account at a bank, so I would get paid. 

Sometimes, things would happen along the road. It's glass, it's fragile. Once, the truck tipped over. 

That was the first problem. Second problem, once you deliver it, to reduce costs, I'd have Russians install the glass. A Finnish crew would be much more expensive. So I would teach Russians how to do it. They would understand, and then once I leave, something would be done wrong and the glass would fail or crack. Then they would ask us to replace it, and I would have to go and explain that it had been installed incorrectly. 

I couldn't rely on the people I hired, the Russian people. I used to hire people who spoke English. But I discovered that they would work for a little while and then quit. Somebody would buy them off. The competition would steal my people. There was a shortage of people who spoke English or Finnish, and have knowledge of this field. 

Then I was hiring just Russian speaking people. But I couldn't get them to think long-term. Everything was short-term. The reason was, you have to understand, the country just changed from a Communist system to democracy. Nobody believed it would stay. Everybody wanted to earn today, steal today, survive today. That was the main reason it was so difficult to conduct business. 


(Why did you leave Russia once again?) 

I missed America, and finally I got cheated big time. Big, big, big number. And I just had it. And I wanted my kids to experience this, to grow up here. 

So we came back at the end of 2000. I came back first, I found a job and housing, and then the family came. I got a job in New York City as a project manager, working for a company based in New Jersey, that's where I bought a house. And then, September 11, 2001 happened. I lost my job, and so did a lot of people; construction just stopped. For eight months, I couldn't find any work. I used up all my savings. And I had always wanted to return to New England. 

I spoke to my friends. The priest in Claremont [Andrew Tregubov] took me around to find a good place to live. I was told Claremont doesn't have a very good school system, and that was the most important thing for me. Newport, not so good. I settled on Sunapee. 

E-mail me at john [at] johnswalters [dot] com