The Self-Made Man

“I have a way with people. I am worthy of more than working for the man.” Robert thought to himself, and, without further analysis, resigned from his position as a senior sales manager.

Robert was a tall, handsome young man of twenty-five with remarkably gentle manners. His big brown eyes and long eyelashes, like a woman’s, had the power to mesmerize. Intelligent and energetic, he could talk his way into and out of any situation. He was a master of human psychology, which he picked out of endless tomes he read while growing up in a provincial Soviet town.

Having been infected with this idea, Robert persuaded his inseparable childhood friend Petya to leave his wife and toddler daughter, and to run for the unknown. The unknown became Moscow. A rented flat in the city centre. It was no billionaire penthouse: zero furniture, an old television set, and decrepit tulle curtains adorning the windows. But it would do for these newly minted entrepreneurs.

* * *

The noise of a big city’s buzzing streets and summer sunshine burst through the apartment’s open windows. Cars rumbled on the street, drivers honking mercilessly at the frozen traffic. Buses and trolleys slowly shuffled along, contributing to the scorching viscous heat – this was Tverskaya street in the center of Moscow.

Late afternoon. Robert opened his eyes. His head exploded. He wondered why he was completely naked, when a sudden touch startled him. A slender arm crept up his back and wrapped itself around his torso. Turning his head, Robert saw a smiling woman, her wavy blonde hair covering her shapely breasts. She clung closer to his body, conveying her desire, but he could not reciprocate.

“What happened last night? What is her name?” Robert thought, trying to piece together the night before. A blur.

“Well, if there’s a woman in my bed, then all is well.” He concluded, got up and walked into the living room; he gave it a critical look-over. Empty beer bottles were huddled in the corners. The coffee table hosted a proudly standing “Stolichnaya” vodka among the zakuski and muddy glasses, picturesquely scattered fruit, and broken plates overflowing with cigarette butts. The orange slices and bananas already attracted a gang of fruit flies.

Yesterday was fun, but today the future looked bleak and hopeless. Cash reserves were running out, so it was time to get up and act.

Petya strolled in, wearing only his underpants; a sandwich in one hand, a beer in the other. The 27-year-old Petya sported a growing belly, a round face with shifty eyes, full lips and a crown of dirty blonde hair. Hangover was not a good look on him. He croaked:

“Dude, so what’s the plan for today?”

“A big one! But first things first, let’s have a bite.” Robert looked in the direction of the kitchen. “Do we have any beer left?”

“I think so,” Petya turned to the kitchen.

“Petyusha,” A woman’s voice poured in from the adjacent room. “I want a beer too.”

“We gotta get rid of them,” urgently whispered Robert.

After the women left, the two friends huddled in the kitchen. In contrast to the extravagant dinner of yesterday, they were met with a humble breakfast. It was made of the reserves: pale processed cheese, two eggs, a piece of cheap sausage and the ever-present ice cold vodka in the freezer.

“So, what is the big plan?” Petya was slicing bread and sausage. Fried eggs squeaked loudly in the pan.

Robert glanced at the unnaturally pale yolk. “We’re going to run a test today!”

“A test, eh? What are we testing?” He was slicing the cheese now.

“We are going to test the limits of hunger and need,” Robert smiled and reclined in a chair. “We will make money by deception without compromising the physical wellbeing of the victims. Fraud.”

“How’s that?” Petya stopped in his tracks, and turned his now puzzled face to Robert.

“Oh, Petyusha, Petyusha, let’s first down this breakfast of champions, and then let me fill you in.” He lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply and exhaled smoke through his nostrils.

“There is a saying, “Every man is the master of his destiny.”

Pause. Both men were deep in thought.

* * *

On bright and humid summer days, like the one on July 7, 1993, Moscow smiles at everyone, causing twinkles in the eyes of even the most hardened faces.

A clean-shaven, tall young man in a dashing suit and polished shoes walks into a jewelry store aptly named “The Diamond”. It is Robert. He hesitates at the door, a painful expression on his face, and looks around the store, as if searching for something. Distressed and scanning the space in the hope of finding it, he turns to an attractive sales woman with bright lips the colour of rowanberry. He explained that he had lost a black folder containing classified documents for the government. They were of absolutely critical importance.

Rowanberry shrugged and replied, “I haven’t seen any folders, sorry.”

Robert walked up to her, looked deeply into her eyes, and with the softest voice, he asked her to help him. If the folder turns up, she should immediately call his number, and he handed her the business card of a senior Defense Ministry employee. “I will certainly repay in full,” he concluded, and gently placed his hand on that of the woman. He hurried out of “The Diamond”, the scent of French cologne trailing behind him.

An hour later, a disheveled young man ran into the store. His sly eyes and casual demeanour indicated a street-smart approach to life, no doubt hardened by surviving on Moscow streets in the Soviet 80’s.

When he spoke, it was obvious that he had asked the same questions several times over today, while visiting every office and store on the block. He noticed the pretty woman and confidently walked up to her.

“Hey miss, I found some serious-looking documents outside your store. Say, do you know anybody who might’ve lost these babies?” He stared intently.

“How do you know they’re important?” Rowanberry perked up.

“Well, don’t know about you, miss, but I ain’t no idiot. I know who runs our country now and know what the Ministry stamps look like.” He squeezed the folder. “This looks serious.” He smiled, satisfied with his savvy. “Judging from the contents, this is worth at least 10,000 dollars.”

Her eyes flashed.

“But…” he continued, pacing around the store, “I ain’t got all day, maybe I should call a few numbers here and see what the Ministry says about what I’ve found.” He opened his mouth to say more –

“Hold on a minute!” She stopped him. “I need to make a phone call.”

The woman went to the back of the store and dialed a number. Whispering and looking over her shoulder at the man who was now glued to necklace displays, she explained the news to the government employee. He was elated.

“What a miracle! Thank you!” Robert explained that he was currently at a very important meeting with the mayor, so he would only be able to come in a few hours. He begged her: could she take the folder off the man’s hands and keep them safe until his arrival? $10,000 is petty change compared to the documents’ value, and he would bring thrice as much as her reward. What time does she finish? How about dinner?

Without further questions, and charmed by Robert’s smooth talking, the woman took the money out of the cash register and handed it to Petya.

One hour, then two hours, passed. When at the end of the day, the sales woman opened the folder, she saw that it was filled with empty sheets and old newspapers. Meanwhile, the euphoric Robert and Petya were savouring the famed Georgian cuisine and drinking away at Aragvi, Stalin’s favourite restaurant.

* * *

Robert boldly chose the criminal life. He falsified documents, exploited the human psyche, pushed sales techniques and facilitated deals on much more favourable terms than the law-abiding businesses would. But in the early days of capitalism, laws were optional in Russia.

The young man presented himself as a successful businessman from what was a dummy company. He always waltzed in as a potential buyer, exhibited counterfeit cheques for large sums, and gracefully moved merchandise out of the seller’s warehouse. No vendor ever received payment, and the fraudster pocketed the goods for free. This continued for over a year.

What made Robert a total success was a combination of ingenuity, quick wit, artistic sensibilities, and adaptability to any plot twists. On top of that, he knew how to talk and possessed stunning looks. He aspired to be a lucky and the ever-successful swindler, which were considered elites of the criminal world.

Thus began a fun and easy life for the seemingly invincible self-made men. They wanted to squeeze everything out of life. Enter the big money, numerous friends, endless restaurant parties, girlfriends, booze and drugs.

In time, the duo’s high earnings put them on the radar of the bigger fish in the pond. At a yet another party, a youth wearing a sports jacket and striped Adidas trousers approached the impeccably dressed Robert. The sportsman muttered:

“Buddy, we noticed you working on our territory. You will pay a monthly tax of $5,000 from now on. Got it, sucker?”

“But of course!” Robert exclaimed, conveying his terror. “Understood. Whom do I pay?” He smiled, but his mind immediately turned to devising an exit plan.

“Good boy.” The bandit handed him a scrap with phone numbers.

Robert found Petya watching a film on the living room couch of their now furnished apartment. The room stank of marijuana.

“Petya, get up. Change of plans. Get your things. We’re skipping town.”

“What’s up, dude?”

“I received a warning from a pawn in Bear’s gang. He told us we now need to pay them, if we want to carry on here. We must change our base.”

Without saying a word, the two comrades quickly gathered bags – designer clothes, a few flashy watches, a gaudy vase by an emerging artist, their stash of cocaine and weed. Opening the metal door, they carefully looked around. No one. They rushed to their sports car.

Robert took the wheel, Petya rode shotgun. No speed limits existed for them. Streetlights blended into a bright ribbon of colour, and the crisp autumn air reminded them of starting a new school year.

Robert broke the heavy silence when they were far from their former base.

“Everything will be tip-top for us”. He said confidently and turned on the radio.

Alla Pugacheva was lamenting the loss of a lover, just as she had done in the 70’s and the 80’s.

Thick, dark clouds covered the moon and the stars, and with every second they tore away from the capital, from the heart of the country with a painful past and an uncertain future.

Gradually, the fear of punishment receded, and Petya purred:

“My life is in your hands! Where are we going now, Captain?”

“Right now, to Petersburg, and from there a flight to Vladivostok.”

“We must leave Moscow?!” Petya bolted upright.

Robert ignored him.

“Moscow is over.” He snapped. “I don’t care if I see the Red Square again. Our new base will be Vladivostok.” He smiled his best smile.

Robert pressed the gas and started overtaking other cars, carefully avoiding potholes of all shapes and sizes. Infrastructure remained poor in the country, an echo of the past. In his usual cheerful manner, he started to paint a colourful picture of their future journey and a new life in Vladivostok. Petya glanced at the passing building, streets, and cars, captivated by Robert’s enthusiasm and his typically Russian blind faith in a better tomorrow.

The story was originally written in Russian by Andrei, Karin Abramova’s father. In 2014 the duo embarked on a joint project focused on bringing his memories of early 90's newly capitalist Russia to the English-speaking audience.

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