World-class craftsman rebuilds career in N.H.

Grigory Likhter is a remarkable man: an entrepreneur, a world-class wood craftsman, a furniture builder, interior designer and contractor. His life has taken him from his native Moscow to New Hampshire — not once, but twice. Now, having survived a decade as a businessman in the wild frontier of post-Soviet Russia, he is trying to build a business in the Granite State.

Likhter spent his first 17 years in the Soviet Union. His mother Vera was a dissident who joined the Helsinki Group human-rights effort. “In 1979, the government decided to let a lot of people go,” he recalls. “Her group, the KGB basically told [her] that either you leave, or you go to Siberia. So when she asked me, I said of course we should leave.” They decided to move to America.

The teenager brought with him a love for freedom and a real talent for working with wood.

“When I was 14, I found a piece of wood on the ground,” he recalls. “I took it home and started carving it.” He absorbed his new skill quickly, through hours and hours of practice, and the tutelage of a local craftsman who volunteered his time in Grigory’s school.

After leaving the Soviet Union, mother and son settled in New York City. He became involved in the Orthodox Church — not out of any profound religious belief, but rather a desire for a connection to Russian culture. Soon thereafter, he came to the attention of Andrew Tregubov, a young Orthodox priest who had just been called to the Holy Resurrection Church, a dying parish in Claremont, N.H. Tregubov hired Likhter to work on a new iconostasis — a wall of icons, paintings and religious art. (Orthodox worship has a strong visual dimension. As Tregubov says, “The image gives us an opportunity to know God in a very unique way.”)

Still only a teenager, Likhter fashioned beautiful, intricate woodcarvings that cover most of the iconostasis and many other surfaces inside the church. Those carvings still inspire worshipers today.

After finishing his work in Claremont, Likhter returned to New York. He earned a degree at the prestigious Parsons School of Design (“I took interior design and drove a taxi”) and became a well-known wood craftsman in the city.

Returning home

Likhter had a comfortable life in New York, but he put it all behind him after the Soviet government fell. His wife was Finnish, and they decided to move to Finland, while he pursued business opportunities across the border in Russia. (They have since divorced.)

He found a country full of opportunities. “The market was so hungry for anything,” he said. There was very little domestic production to meet the demand, so he realized “that if you bring anything into the country, you could become rich. In my case, glass.”

Out of his training at the Parsons School, he had developed an interest in environmentally friendly construction. Soviet-era glass technology was severely lacking, so Likhter started importing state-of-the-art glass from Finland.

“Once things turned upside-down,” he explains, “Russian people wanted to live like people in the West. Driving Western cars, wearing Western clothes. In construction, I presumed that people would want buildings like in the United States — skyscrapers with lots of glass.”

Thanks to some connections in the Russian government, he began to get major contracts. One notable example: He provided new glass for the Russian White House, one of Moscow’s most important government buildings, after it was damaged in the abortive anti-Gorbachev coup of August 1991.

But the new Russian economy had a definite Wild West flavor. “The one problem I had from beginning to end was corruption and bribery. I learned how to work in America, where somehow there are ethics. Morals.” A wry smile plays across his face. “This bribery thing, I couldn’t do it.”

As time went on, it got worse — and it wasn’t just the Russians who were to blame. “The numbers were growing, and competition was growing. There were a lot of foreign companies that were willing to pay bribes.”

There also was a problem with getting his workers and his clients to think about the long term: “Everything was short-term. 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.”

Employee retention was a constant challenge, as was quality control with glass installation.

He was often cheated. In time, he learned to get payment in advance or have the payment put in escrow. If he waited for payment until after delivery, “they found excuses not to pay.”

Then, after almost a decade in business, “I got cheated big time.” He was the supplier for a new glass ceiling in the main railway station in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. “There was a final payment I was supposed to get, and I got cheated. Over a hundred thousand dollars.”

Back to America

It was the last straw. Likhter returned to America in late 2000. He got a job in New York City and bought a house in New Jersey. “And then, September 11, 2001, happened,” he says. “Construction just stopped. For eight months, I couldn’t find any work. I used up all my savings.”

He still had fond recollections of his brief stay in New Hampshire. With the help of Father Andrew Tregubov, he found a house in Sunapee. Likhter set up a studio in the garage, and started restoring the interior of the home.

His work is a subtle, understated wonder. Thanks to his skills in designing, building and woodcarving, he is creating interior spaces that are beautiful, functional and harmonious. The rooms include built-in furnishings that match the wooden paneling and trim. Nothing flashy; he is capable of intricate, ornate work, but he is keeping his home deliberately simple.

It’s an example of the kind of work he would most like to do. “You know the beautiful old houses with decorative architectural detail?” he says. “That’s the uniqueness of this area. I would love to establish a business restoring those homes.” His broad range of skills makes him uniquely qualified to do that kind of work, but it also makes him difficult to market. He transcends the usual boundaries of contractor, designer, carpenter and craftsman; he is all of that, and more.

Likhter is frustrated at his lack of progress in finding clients who could use his unique set of talents. Frustrated, but not discouraged — he’s survived a lot worse, and is confident in his abilities. He’s not starving; he’s just not getting the kind of business that will bring him a sense of fulfillment. In the meantime, he takes what work he can find: crafting furniture, fashioning interior fixtures, architectural detail work — “I’ll build a garage if you need one.”

If there’s any justice, he will soon be working at a much higher level. And if you have a home that needs some loving restoration, you couldn’t do better than to hire Grigory Likhter.