By Tom Bell
KHABAROVSK – Igor Golubkov was working as a security guard one night and fell asleep. When he woke up, his mink hat was gone. That’s when Igor decided to quit the security business. The hat was worth more than his annual salary.
Igor, 27, doesn’t work anymore. He stays home most days and reads detective stories. Still, he lives better than his friends. He owns a Japanese color TV, wears foreign-made clothes and eats fresh fruit. He owns a car. Considering Igor can’t even guard his own hat, how does he manage to live so well? The answer: Igor is a lucky man. His wife Lena is a stewardess.
Stewardesses are Russia’s high-flying commodity brokers. They jet around the country, buying low and selling high. The last time Lena flew to Turkey she bought two leather jackets for $100 each. Igor sold them at the Khabarovsk bazaar for $200 a piece. During trips to Moscow, Lena buys shirts, gloves, cosmetics, stockings. The Moscow stores sell higher quality goods than the Khabarovsk stores, so Lena and Igor find ready customers here.
Igor recently used some profits to buy a 1986 Toyota Sprint in Vladivostok. He paid a Russian sailor 400,000 rubles for the car. He and two friends drove it to Khabarovsk and sold it for 800,000 rubles — a profit of $850, about double the annual salary of a Russian doctor. There was some risk involved. Gangsters routinely cruise the 450-mile-long highway between Vladivostok and Khabarovsk and rob people of their Japanese cars.
Igor said he’s too ambitious to get a real job. “Young people like me don’t work in factories,” he said. “Only old people — because they don’t know what else to do.”
My friend Sergey first introduced me to Igor several weeks ago. I don’t particularly like him, but he gave me a good rate when I traded him dollars for rubles. When I visited this week, his wife served me peaches from the Crimea. I hadn’t seen peaches in four months. While I sucked down the peaches, Igor told me his wife was going to buy more leather jackets in Istanbul. He suggested I invest. If I gave them $200, he said, Lena would buy two more leather jackets, and we’d split the profits. Lena said she would get through customs by stick the dollars in her undergarments.
The idea of my money traveling 4,700 miles through seven times zones in a woman’s panties to buy some leather jackets in Istanbul seemed ridiculous. Legally, the deal violated Article 88 of the Russian criminal code, which prohibits trading with hard currency. You can get three to eight years in prison for violating Article 88, but almost everyone is trading in dollars these days. And as crazy as it sounds, Lena’s shopping trip to Istanbul is typical of the way Russians are doing business now. Only four percent of Russia’s industrial firms are privatized, and almost none produce anything big.
With Sergey’s assurance that Igor could be trusted, I lent the money. Three weeks later, not long after his wife returned from Turkey, Igor gave me my $200 plus an additional $200. This was my share of the profits.
I had become a speculator.
For most Russians, capitalism means speculatsia — buying something and re-selling it at a higher price. In Khabarovsk and other cities, sidewalk capitalists peddle Snickers bars, Nike athletic shoes, Camel cigarettes, Fischer skis, neon-colored Chinese coats, Italian spaghetti, Kazakhstan onions. Every week something new and amazing arrives on the streets. During the Communist regime, speculators were called criminals. Now the government calls them entrepreneurs. Many older people, like my Russian teacher, Evgeny Kucheryavenko, are disgusted by the speculators, blaming them for rising prices. “Why should they profit?” he asked me. “They don’t make anything. They haven’t added any value to the products.”
For my hard-working but poorly-paid friend, Dr. Andre Bevzenko, a kidney specialist, it’s depressing to look out the window of a crowded bus and see uneducated young men drive around in new Japanese cars. Dr. Bevzenko can’t even afford a pair of American-made athletic shoes. “The professional class languishes while the wheeler-dealers swim in profits,” he said. “It’s not just.”
But Igor said he deserves whatever money he makes, even if he is a lazy bum who can’t hold on to his hat.