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from the September 2013 issue


Back in the early 1990s, when Wild-West capitalism came to Russia, I was a chelnok, or shuttle trader. My wife and I (we weren’t married at that stage) traveled the whole world in search of cheap merchandise and markets to sell it at. Well, not exactly the whole world—but almost. The most common way of doing business was to buy merchandise in Russia, take it to Poland, sell it for ten or fifteen times as much, and get hold of dollars at a good rate; then you traveled to China, used the dollars to buy cheap, low-grade consumer goods, took them back to Russia, and sold them for two to five times more. That might sound like riding the gravy train, but considering that inflation was around 300 percent in those days, you had to do a trip like that twice a month to make any decent money. Talk about stress. And given the problems with transport, extortionists, and the cops, you couldn’t call the work relaxing by any stretch of the imagination.

But we didn’t care: we were young, and the freedom that had come like a bolt from the blue created a kind of a euphoria. I’ll never forget our first trip to Poland. To start with, we traveled to Moscow by train, in an open-plan sleeping car. The whole carriage was full of traders, each with trunks and suitcases crammed with goods. Booze flowed freely. A popular drink at the time was Royal brand absolute alcohol—real nasty stuff. People diluted it with fetid “railroad water” and took it internally, where it corroded their liver and destroyed their brain. The aromas of this chemical wafted through the whole train and drove people to weird and wonderful acts. All around us people sang, got into fights, had casual sex, and that night in the next compartment (or whatever it’s called in an open-plan car) some fat bourgie was even knifed. He’d got in at a station along the way, already plastered, and made the mistake of insulting a tough guy who’d just been released from jail. The ex-con took him out to the platform of the car and with one deft movement . . . There were no cops on the train, but the guy was calm and didn’t touch anyone else—otherwise who knows what might have happened. He accepted his fate, turned himself in when we arrived in Moscow, and admitted everything.

First of all we were questioned, since they considered us witnesses to the murder. Then we lined up at McDonald’s for about five hours to have our very first hamburger and almost ended up missing the train to Kaliningrad. Later things got even better: the tickets for the local train from Bagrationovsk to Poland had all been issued twice. We had to sit on top of each other and cram our cargo in wherever it fit. The drunken customs officials yelled at us and demanded that we clear the aisles immediately or they would send the train back.

When we arrived on the Polish side of the border thе head of our group was apprehended for having more cigarettes than allowed, although each of us had more than she did. It was a miracle that she managed to throw us our documents out the window as the train was leaving to go back over the border; I hate to think what it would have been like to be stranded in a foreign country without passports, visas, and return tickets.

The trip’s organizers had chosen the provincial town of Olsztyn as our “hub of commerce.” The market of this jerkwater place looked like a reservation: a large, dirty square bounded by railroad tracks on one side and a trash dump on the other. We were carted there by bus in the morning, still rather hungover, and dumped twenty yards from the iron gate. The market manager then appeared and showed us to our “points of sale.” These were trestle-tables of rough-hewn boards covered with gray paper (but that was OK—in some other towns you had to lay out your wares on the ground). We were busy optimizing our assortment for the first hour or so, and then the first clients started to turn up.

The main buyers of our socialist consumer goods were working-class Poles. They came specially to Russian markets because they could find everything: meat grinders, bottle openers, toys, cigarettes, vodka, gold, sets of garden implements, scarecrows, horns, decorations, knives—you name it. And these Russian goods could be had for Soviet prices, although Poland was already in Europe. We lugged our wares by the sackload, panting, with bulging eyes. What better way of getting hemorrhoids and a bad back?

The head of the second group, a guy with a roguish appearance, didn’t sweat and toil like us. He came to Poland with just a medium-sized sports bag and didn’t loiter about the marketplace. Everyone looked at him enviously and tried to guess what he had in his bag. I’d tried to lift it at the train station to get an idea what kind of weight was in it, but I couldn’t raise it off the ground! The lucky dude got rid of his wares on the very first day and sat around drinking beer for the rest of the time while we were busy bargaining and haggling.

Everyone envied him terribly. He obviously had some hot commodity—exclusive merchandise. Every shuttle trader dreamed of hitting a mother lode like that. Later we plied this “favorite of fortune” with drink and found out that he sold spare parts for Druzhba chain saws. These were still widely used by Polish farmers, so components were in demand. He sold the whole bag of them to a shopowner and made the trip to Poland once a week. Now that’s what you call profit for no sweat! Cool.

But actually a few deals come to mind that were even more lucrative. One of my friends stumbled across a real gold mine: women’s riding breeches, which he got from a Russian knitted-goods factory and sold in Iran. I don’t know why riding breeches were in such hot demand there. But the folks at the factory really rolled out the red carpet for him. He was the only client in those times who paid in cash (all the others having barter arrangments), and he dispatched the goods by the planeload. Later he bought the factory. And ultimately he was murdered because of it.

I also discovered a moneymaker on that trip. We often bought things to try out, hoping to extend our range, so among other things I got several packets of naphthalene. My wife flew off the handle: mothballs and stuff like that would never sell, she claimed. At first it seemed she was right, but on one of the following days an elderly Polish gentleman, who spoke Russian, came up and bought all of the naphthalene. He asked if there was any more. I said there wasn’t, but I could bring more the next time. We exchanged telephone numbers. The next trip I came with three times more. He bought it all. The third time I organized a whole suitcase of naphthalene. I collected it three days before leaving, lugged it home, and hid it in the pantry. The naphthalene had a remarkable effect: all the insects in the apartment—and you’d be surprised how many there are even in seemingly clean dwellings (not to mention the virtually ubiquitous cockroaches, although I never had any)—came crawling out of their hiding places, converged in the middle of the living-room ceiling, and fell asleep. And not just in my apartment but in the whole whopping nine-storey building! One neighbor was convinced a poltergeist was at work; theories like that were very popular at the time. They called the emergency services and the police. It caused quite a stir and there was even a report in the paper. From then on I had to hide the naphthalene in the garage. Anyway, I sold the Polish guy a total of five suitcases of naphthalene, which he resold in his shop at a 100 percent markup. Until the Chinese undercut me.

There’s a funny anecdote from toward the end of the first trip. We’d made a good profit and got rid of everything—well, almost everything. We converted our zlotys into dollars and hopped on the bus back to Russia. Close to the border the bus had to stop and wait in line. One hour passed, two hours, three . . . We were patient, but everyone has their limits. Nature called. The bus stood alongside some kind of station, so we got out to have a look. There was a pay toilet. Going in the bushes was prohibited and there was a fine. And a pretty hefty one at that; many in the group had learned the hard way. We had no more Polish currency and didn’t want to waste our bucks. So Vitek reached into his bag and produced two toy pistols left over from the market. When you pulled the trigger they rattled and little lights flashed on the barrel. “We can go and piss with these pistols,” he said. We went into the toilet and gesticulated to the old lady that we needed to piss but didn’t have any money, just two plastic pistols. She looked at us sympathetically, nodded in agreement, and told us to put the toys in the next room. We went in and saw a large table with a humungous pile of Russian toys and utensils on top. We roared with laughter.

She’d sure found her niche!

This story usually goes down well, but occasionally people say that we demeaned ourselves and denigrated the whole Russian people before a Polish toilet lady. What a load of baloney—as if they knew anything about Polish toilets and toy pistols!

© Dmitri Novoselov. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Will Firth. All rights reserved.

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