The carrots were small, even by Siberian winter standards. A day away from the office politics had its attractions of course, but not in exchange for being bounced along poor roads in an unheated Lada in temperatures of minus twenty; and the chance to visit the birthplace of Boris Yeltsin, the remote village of Butka in the Urals - the last stop on a road that nobody went down anyway - seemed a tiny orange vegetable indeed for the ordeal of conducting a live interview on an emotive topic in a language that was not my own. I declined the offer. Or tried to.
"You are the only Russian-speaking expat in the office, so you don't have a choice," asserted my linguistically-challenged American boss. "And make sure you take a picture of Yeltsin's house for me."
News spread and caused much mirth among the ladies in the office. Unlike my foreign superiors, they knew the truth - my Russian sucked. They clearly enjoyed telling me that the interview would be live on local television in the small town of Talitsa, but would also command a slot on the evening regional news. Great. How to become a laughing stock in one easy step.
I tried to look at the positives as Mansur, my Tartar driver, slid along the road east of Yekaterinburg, where our office was based. I wonder what he made of it all, these random trips to the edge of civilisation to hear about cows being fed milk powder, unloading industrial cans of peanut butter with the Red Army and now this, a live television interview defending the programme. Whatever his thoughts, he kept them to himself and drove as professionally as he smoked - jobs paying $300 a month in the Urals in 1993 were hard to come by.
By the time we reached the small town of Talitsa a couple of hours later, I had relaxed somewhat. My laptop battery was good and I had caught up with some reports. Although this was my first interview on television, it couldn't be too taxing, surely? As I was running the distribution programme, I knew about all aspects and had answers prepared for the obvious questions.
If anything, I was even more reassured on arriving at the small studio, where I was warmly greeted by a Soviet relic of an interviewer, but her welcome seemed genuine. We conversed a little as I went through make-up, and she even acquiesced to my request to go through all the questions before the interview, in order to ensure that I understood the Russian. I did. I was pleased and was even starting to enjoy myself.
The project was groundbreaking and a little controversial, but it was the realities at the coalface that prompted the demand (not request) for the interview. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the social network also disintegrated, leaving millions of former Soviet citizens, Russian and non-Russian, without an effective safety net. America was keen to support the fledgling democracy and to get its message of support and some practical help to as many people as possible.
Operation Provide Hope was born, a series of humanitarian aid delivery projects to all the former Soviet republics, targeting the needy. The bulk of the food came from American military warehouses, stockpiled food for an anticipated long war in Iraq. Of an estimated 90 items that were sent in military size rations (4kg tins of ketchup, anyone?), the agency had to find a nutritional mix and reach as many people as possible and therefore limited each recipient to four items each.
With the differing linguistic scripts causing much confusion (I fondly recall spending ten minutes with an agitated pensioner going through the four letters on one 4kg grey tin - C was the Russian S, O was common ground, R an inverted Ya and N an inverted Ee), I supported the idea of inserting a helpful leaflet with not only a translation of each of the 90 items, but some helpful explanations as well.
But this was post-Soviet Russia where nobody trusted anyone. The joy of receiving something for free quickly disappeared with the discovery that they had been robbed. How else could one explain a nice leaflet with 90 items in a box containing just four? With accusations of theft levelled at the local authorities, it was deemed that the best rebuttal would be a live interview in Russian with an expat working for the agency by a renowned ruthless local journalist.
All was set. I had even gone through my answers with my new best friend, and she promised it would be a gentle and friendly interview. The cameras rolled and I was introduced and was encouraged to greet the camera. I was by now totally relaxed as the camera returned to my host.
"Paul, thank you for coming on the show. What we would all like to know is how you can justify sending humanitarian aid to Russia when it all gets stolen and ends up in kiosks?"
I did a quick recap on the prepared questions and must have missed this one. I fumbled out what I thought was a spirited defence, but the next attack was soon forthcoming from a different angle:
"I understand that this aid has come from the American military and half has been sent to Russia and the rest to Somalia?" Nodded assent. "So do you Americans view Russia and Somalia on the same level on the world stage?" It would have been pedantic to have claimed my British heritage, and I longed for some remote Somali desert to eat me up, but I survived. Or so I thought.
"And Paul has now kindly agreed to come with me to meet some disgruntled beneficiaries to address their concerns face to face, haven't you Paul?" With the camera zooming in on my nasal blackheads, I acquiesced meekly.
I was on a hiding to nothing, and I knew that whatever awaited me would include some footage of me with an invalid of the first degree. Disabilities were graded according to severity - short-sightedness is a degree for example - with the most severe disabilities categorised as Invalids of the First and Second Degree.
She cut a pathetic figure outside her tumbledown shack of a wooden house somewhere outside the town. The journalist expertly picked at her complaints, pulling the heart strings with her tale of losing her husband in Stalingrad in 1943, struggling though life with various disabilities, only to experience a brief ray of hope - the delivery of humanitarian aid from America.
With Herculean strength, she struggled to the Ministry of Social Welfare and received her package. Emboldened by this nutritious bonus, she returned home and opened her parcel. The outrage was intense, the disappointment indescribable. One of the tins had a dent in it! She was incandescent at the local authority's decision to refuse to replace it.
"And so," pressed my nemesis, exposing my blackheads to more regional spotlight, "what are you going to do about it?"
Mansur was silent as we toured the carrot in Butka, and he smoked a little more on the cold drive home, but I was angry at being set up. I told my boss to never ever ask me to do another television interview.
"I am sorry you feel that way, Paul, because we had another call while you were away, and we have booked you in to do a live demonstration on what to do with peanut butter on Thursday in Nizhni Tagil."