Producing a book on how Cyprus-Russian affairs have changed in that time is just one of many businesses run by the workaholic driving force behind Russian newspaper Vestnik Kipra. AGNIESZKA RAKOCZY meets her
An elegant, petite woman opens the door of Limassol-based Russian-language newspaper Vestnik Kipra. It is 9am and Natalia Kardash, the online daily’s editor in chief and publisher (they also print a monthly news digest), is the only person in the building. She explains that the rest of staff are busy tidying up the cultural centre in Ayios Tychonas where the night before she, her colleagues and a who’s who of guests celebrated the 20th anniversary of her arrival in Cyprus and the launch of her book, Twenty Years in Cyprus, Cyprus-Russian Relations.
An early bird, Kardash has been in the office for a couple of hours – in her book, she says she gets up at 5.30am and is usually at her desk by 6.45. This gives her some two hours before most of the staff arrive. As she wryly notes in her book, “until 10am I work in an office locked with a key and I don’t answer the phone.”
From then on, her door is open to anyone. Come 5pm, Kardash says, she has had anywhere from four-to-eight business meetings, 20-to-25 telephone and Skype conversations, and about 12 mini-meetings of three-to-five minutes duration. She keeps track of them by measuring the alloted time with a set of hourglasses she keeps on her desk. After 5pm she starts answering her e-mails, “around 200 a day”. And then she heads out to attend business or social events, meaning her work day seldom draws to an end much before 9pm.
“I rejoice when I have an evening for myself,” she confesses with a smile, since then she can spend time with her teenage son and grown up daughter. “We have very warm relations and many things to talk about.”
With such a busy schedule, setting up an interview with Kardash has not been easy. We do it in bits and pieces – first, half an hour one summer morning in Nicosia, where she has come for a meeting with an official in the government’s finance sector, later an hour in Limassol. In between, we meet at various events she organises – the Best Invest Congress in May in Limassol, a cocktail party for business people in Larnaca in July, and, finally, the 20th anniversary celebration party in mid-September where this high-powered woman also unveils her new book.
Is it any wonder then that one of my first question for Natalia is to ask if she considers herself a workaholic. Her reply comes in the form of a very strong affirmative nod. “Yes, of course, I am a workaholic, I love working,” she says and launches into a story about of her first job ever, as a 12-year-old girl in her home town.
“I grew up on the Black Sea coast in southern Russia. There were only two of us, my mum and me, and seeing how hard she was working to provide for us, I wanted to help,” she explains. “It was 1987, the beginning of the transitional era of peristroika in what was still the Soviet Union, so I persuaded the owner of a gym in the basement of our block of flats to go into an informal agreement with me. I would sit in front of the biggest department store in Anapa all summer and measure people’s blood pressure and weigh them. The equipment was bought under my ‘business partner’s umbrella’ so we split the profits 50/50. It was good money because all summer the town was full of tourists and they all wanted to check how they were coping with the heat. Within a couple of months I had earned more than my mum did in a year. I was so proud. With my earnings, I was able to buy our first tape recorder. Suddenly, we had music at home…”
Kardash has never stopped working since. Always a brilliant student, her many extracurricular interests included becoming an accomplished ballroom dancer. She studied foreign languages, with a special focus on French. By the age of 14 she was a dancing instructor. At 16, having received her state diploma for French language, she was hired by her own school to cover as French language teacher while the staff teacher was on maternity leave.
“I was still a student in the mornings and then after lunch at 2pm I would go back to the same school and be a teacher, and in the evenings I would also teach dancing, so my programme was always very full…,” she recalls. “The only thing I didn’t have time for was my homework but by then my teachers were also my colleagues and so they were forgiving…”
Life became a bit easier when Natalia moved from Anapa to Krasnodar for university. She still had to work to support herself but her evenings were free and this is when she met her future husband. Their first child, a daughter Katia, was born. Natalia began working as a university French language teacher, her husband as an engineer-economist. Everything seemed to stabilise. Everything except for the fact that Katia was diagnosed with severe asthma and her doctors recommended that the family move in order to avoid certain plants that exacerbated Katia’s condition. The choice was simple – either relocate to some mountain region or to an island…
“They also mentioned Switzerland but with our small state salaries, it was obvious we would never be able to afford moving to Switzerland,” Natalia relates. “We thought of the Caucasus but there was a war there so it was impossible. Then we decided to look at Cyprus…”
And so one September day in 1999 Natalia arrived in Limassol on a scouting mission, her objective very clear: “We knew we could not live on the island as tourists because we simply could not afford it. I had to find a job very fast and the job had to be able to provide resident visas for all of us. I knew it would not be easy to find something like this but luck smiled on us. I met an Egyptian journalist who wanted to start an Arabic newspaper in Cyprus. He offered me a job as his PR.”
The name of the Arabic language publication was Orbit. Natalia spoke fluent French, English and, obviously, her native Russian. Her boss spoke French and Arabic. Literally, they could only share a lingua franca! Within three months of the paper being launched, Natalia was promoted to managing director even though, as she says herself, this was her first ever experience with publishing. In a year she had mastered the intricacies of the newspaper’s production.
“I studied the whole process from A to Z, learnt everything about printing machines, advertising, distribution, you name it. And then the owner decided he wanted to leave the island and said he would like to leave the paper to me.”
The only problem was that the paper was still in Arabic and Natalia, despite all her accomplishments, wasn’t 100 per cent convinced she would like to run a paper in a language she didn’t understand. It was then she discovered that the owners of a Limassol Russian language publication were also planning to leave the island and that they were thinking of closing it down.
“So I went to them and offered them a deal – they give me 50 per cent of the Vestnik Kipra’s shares and I would take full responsibility for running it. They agreed.”
The year was 2001 and she hasn’t looked back since.
Vestnik Kipra was a 24-page weekly back then and not making money at all. Natalia was determined to change all that and she had some innovative ideas about how to go about it.
“I started with an idea that, since the paper wasn’t doing well, we have to make it bigger and add more features to it in order to generate more money. For example, I knew that Russian women in Cyprus didn’t know where they could go to shop so we started publishing this new glossy shopping-cum-consumer magazine. It proved to be a perfect choice because the internet was not yet fully developed so we had no competition. Then we expanded, doing the same with restaurants, properties, tourist destinations. We even published our own Russian Yellow Pages directory. And we distributed them all free of charge because we were making money from advertising.”
Natalia had other ideas too – lots of them. After her initial success, she started looking beyond the immediate horizon and began participating in various international media conferences. It was at one such conference in 2005 that she heard a lecture by a well-known expert who predicted that the internet would rival and replace print media with a decade. That made her think.
“There were 200 media professionals at the conference and nobody believed him. But I went back home and thought what if he is right? It would mean I would lose all my business since all my business is printing.”
Natalia decided change was both necessary and inevitable. Her children (by then she had a son too and had divorced) needed to learn more about their language and Russian culture. She herself wanted to master Greek. She was aware of other Russians in Limassol who wanted to learn English and knew that there were Cypriots who needed Russian for their own business purposes. It wasn’t long before she was researching how to establish an education centre where such needs could be taken care of. She also realised that people who advertised in her newspaper required translation services. So she opened a translation office with expertise in corporate business and legal documents. At the same time she decided to take a closer look at Vestnik Kipra’s website and modify it in such a way that it would keep up with developments.
“In this way we started to be a daily newspaper, producing news updates daily especially for the website.”
All her efforts were to pay off but there were some turbulent times as well. By 2010, she could see that the lecturer/expert had made a correct call about predicting the long reach of the internet. Her print business was beginning to see a drop in revenues. First, the crisis in the property market meant that she had to fold her property magazine… then by 2013 the main newspaper started suffering too.
“Our advertising was 50 per cent property-based, 30 per cent banks and the remaining 20 per cent – service-based industries such as lawyers, accountants, auditors as well as some expensive jewellery retailers. Very quickly, I lost 90 per cent of my income but I still had to go on… and this is how I proved to be right when five years earlier I started preparing to earn income from other sources… This is how we survived…”
So what about the current situation?
Natalia smiles and says that the newspaper, which she now fully owns, while never managing to return to its peak years, remains a very strong flagship brand under which many of her other initiatives flourish.
“We have always worked very closely with our readers so we are not just a newspaper… we have a certain community around us… for example, the paper was instrumental in creating the Association of Russian-speaking Residents of Cyprus because we were sufficiently realistic to know that sometimes writing articles is not enough and that we need to find other ways to help our readers with various problems they have on the island.”
According to Natalia, between the newspaper and its associate magazine, Successful Business (launched in 2011), her business organises some 30 events a year. These include Best Legal Conference, Best Invest Congress, the Cyprus Russian Festival, the Digital Marketing Conference (DMC-CY) and the Health and Beauty Forum.
Does this multi-tasking list leave her time for anything else, one can’t help wondering aloud.
“Well, as we already agreed I am a workaholic and as such I need to work very hard on reminding myself that sometimes my body has to stop and rest. But as time goes by I am getting better at it,” she laughs.
“My children are older now, grown or growing up, and I have this dream that within the next several years I would like to go on a four-month cruise around the world. So now I am hard at work practicing how to be able to disappear from the office for such a lengthy period while still working via internet. This summer I managed to do it for seven weeks – so you could say that slowly slowly I am getting there.”