Nick Holdsworth
Journalist, writer, author, filmmaker and film and TV industry expert – Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

This short documentary provides a Czech viewpoint on a 21st century car factory that is still behaving in decidedly mid 20th century ways.

The Russian job

Petr Horký

Czech Republic, 2017, 70 minut

There’s something very Soviet, almost clichéd about the opening of Petr Horký’s brief feature documentary The Russian Job. A snowy Russian car factory, seen from above and at street level, where feral dogs run barking after cars and workers stream to and from their shifts; a brief segue to introduce the new (foreign) managing director brought in to turn around the fortunes of the once great Soviet car maker, Lada. Then a quick shift of gear to a warm spring day and a Victory Day parade on a dusty square, complete with youngsters dressed up in 1930s white sports costumes, performing staid Soviet gymnastics.

For an introduction to a film set in Russia, little is left to chance: vast frozen wastes, wartime victory and healthy, disciplined youth.

Bleak Beauty

The bleak beauty of central Russia’s river Volga region (the car factory is located in Samara on a broad bend in the river) and the plentiful sports and recreation activities available to workers are shown, giving some context to what, for foreign viewers, may otherwise fit into stereotypes of provincial Russia as simply awful beyond belief.

Like so much in Russia, it all looks good on the surface. But as dour Swede Bo Andersson, an ex-SAAB executive brought in to turn around Lada’s mother company AvtoVAZ, drily observes at an early meeting which identified persistent delays in unloading components that are seriously denting productivity: “I want to do a very deep dive of what are the issues.”

«The big, buff Swede swiftly identifies the key opportunity and challenges: good people working under bad managers who care only about themselves.»

For those of us old enough to remember the days when a Škoda was pretty much synonymous with a Lada (though no longer, since German carmaker Volkswagen took the Czech carmaker under its wing), bits falling off of a Communist-bloc car are nothing surprising. But those were the old days, and a Czech view on a 21st century car factory that is still behaving in decidedly mid 20th century ways is a fascinating take.

But Russia is nothing if not eternal and although beyond the scope of Horký’s documentary, it is interesting to note that the Swede lasted just two years before he was dismissed in 2016 after doing his best to rationalize production, reduce costs and lay off more than 30,000 workers he deemed surplus to needs.

Challenging Change

The Russian Job, while perhaps not quite as exciting as the classic 1960s heist-by-Mini, The Italian Job, from which it takes its tongue-in-cheek titles, examines in fascinating detail some of the challenges Andersson faced.

The big, buff Swede swiftly identifies the key opportunity and challenge: good people working under bad managers who care only about themselves. He quickly announces the launch of the first new model in years, the Lada Vesta [and, though Horký does not mention it, orders senior managers to buy their own product. A number of swish foreign models on the company car lists are sold.]

Horký tells the story of Andersson’s time at the plant through interviews with him, workers and a key Czech executive charged with launching the Lada Vesta. That Andersson does not speak Russian is never specifically identified as a handicap, but it is clear from the looks on the faces of some senior managers being lectured on how to do their jobs, that it might have helped him establish a little camaraderie with the people he had been parachuted in to manage.

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