Long before Russian President Vladimir Putin pushed Ukraine and possibly the world to the brink of war, as he did this week, he attended a barbecue at Harry Giesbrecht's place.
Giesbrecht, who lives in Charleswood, did business in the former Soviet Union in the years leading up to its collapse in 1991 and several years afterwards. Giesbrecht was born in Ukraine, which was then under Russian control, and speaks Russian, which helped his Winnipeg-based Central Canada Structures Ltd. win contracts in Russia.
One contract in particular was for a 500-unit hotel in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s. Putin was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg at the time.
"To build in the Soviet Union was not an easy task. You couldn't get a load of gravel without having to bribe someone," recalled Giesbrecht, now 85 and retired.
Putin came to the rescue. He cleared the way so Giesbrecht could get the materials and equipment he needed. "We didn't pay any bribes because of Putin," said Giesbrecht.
That started a friendship. They even travelled together in the same coach a few times on the overnight trains between St. Petersburg and Moscow. Everyone took the train then because Russian air service was so terrible.
In 1994, Giesbrecht played host when Putin visited Canada. Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. had sponsored Putin because it was interested in building a hydrogen production plant near St. Petersburg. Giesbrecht was also friends with then federal energy minister Jake Epp.
Putin was not accompanied by a large entourage, like today. Back then, he was just a municipal official little known outside his city. He travelled with a couple of assistants but not his wife.
Giesbrecht met him in Toronto and showed him around, including a trip to Niagara Falls. Then they flew to Winnipeg. One of the highlights of Putin's 10-day trip was a barbecue in Giesbrecht's backyard, along the Assiniboine River.
Putin ate steak, as Giesbrecht recalls. "He usually went for steaks," he said. But he kept his shirt on. That was before his "beefcake presidency" days.
They got along very well. In fact, when Putin became president in 2000, something Giesbrecht never expected, he sent the new leader a congratulatory note. "I said they have the right person running the government." Putin replied with a warm letter of thanks.
Unfortunately, many of Giesbrecht's personal memorabilia, including photographs, were lost in a house fire four years ago.
Giesbrecht did not want to volunteer an opinion on Putin's politics in Ukraine. Neither would he speak to Putin's alleged ruthless treatment of political opponents and dissidents in Russia.
One reason is Giesbrecht, who immigrated to Canada in 1948, is a board member and major donor to the Mennonite Centre in Molochansk in southeastern Ukraine, about an hour's drive from the Crimea. The centre tries to stay politically neutral. It's a benevolent society that provides social services to the village's poor. Giesbrecht grew up near the village.
He would only speak of the Putin he knew before the presidency. "He was a very pleasant individual, very pleasant," said Giesbrecht. He described Putin as "down to earth."
Giesbrecht got to know Putin so well that when Putin was making his first trip to Canada as Russian president, the Canadian government phoned him to find out more about the new leader.
"Putin was not a complex man at all. He was very approachable and knowledgeable," Giesbrecht said.
Giesbrecht knew about Putin's spy days as a former agent of the KGB, the former security police inside Russia. Putin did not talk about it but didn't deny it, either, Giesbrecht said.
In fact, Putin did not volunteer information easily. "He did not talk a lot. In fact, you would have a hard time having a conversation with him. Maybe it was his KGB training."
And while it was rare for Putin to smile or tell a joke, Giesbrecht recalled one incident. "We drove to Niagara Falls and he asked me, 'Do you think they would let me into the United States?' " Not a chance, Giesbrecht replied. But Putin wanted to try. It was more of a lark than anything else. So they drove up to U.S. Customs and were rejected.
As he turned around, Giesbrecht made a wide U-turn over U.S. territory, telling Putin he could now say he'd been in the U.S.