Oleg Tinkov I’m Just Like Anyone Else




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Chapter 2

The Tinkov Homestead in Leninsk-Kuznetsky

The Tinkov family is descended from nobility who lived near Tambov. There is still a village in the area called Tinkovo. I even managed to find my family’s coat of arms in the St. Petersburg Public Library. My grandparents, escaping political repression during the dekulakization period, or because of the famine, perhaps, boarded a train and left their home in 1921. They disembarked at Kolchugino Station (as Leninsk-Kuznetsky was then known) and settled there. When my grandfather Timofey started working in the mines he was provided with housing—half of a cabin, that is, thirty-two square meters in house #16 on Kooperativnaya Street, 300 meters from the mine.

It was in this house that my father, Yury Timofeyevich Tinkov, was born in 1937, the second youngest of eight brothers and sisters. The eldest, Vasily Timofeyevich, was 15 years older than my father. He manned a tank in the war and is still alive, thank God. After the elder brothers had grown up and married, they began moving their wives into the cabin too. They had to sleep on bunk beds so that everyone would fit. As though this weren’t enough, they started having children. In these Tinkov breeding grounds three generations were born. In time, the family members went their separate ways. But my father remained to live in the cabin.

My grandfather spent his entire life working in the mines. In 1953, he died of acute poisonous gas inhalation after helping to put out a fire.

My mother’s parents were also nobility. They moved from the Far East, from close to Samara, to Khabarovsk Krai. It was there, in 1938, in the city of Dalneperechensk (known as Iman, prior to 1972), that my mother was born. The family had three daughters and no sons. My grandmother was a capable seamstress. She also kept a farm with a cow and some pigs. My maternal grandfather, Volodya, served as Building Superintendent in Iman during World War II. Afterwards he ran a sawmill. Vladimir Petrovich, as they called him, was feared and respected by all. They say I look like him. He passed away not so long ago, in 2001. A portrait of Stalin hung above his bed until the day he died. It always made me feel a little uncomfortable, but I loved my grandpa.
In 1966, my mother, Valentina Vladimirovna, made a trip to Leninsk-Kuznetsky, to visit her sister Nina. She met my father there. So my mother remained there with her eldest son Yura.

As one of my favorite poets, Vladimir Vysotsky, once sang, “I’m not quite sure of the hour I was conceived”. I do know, however, that I was born at 2:45 p.m. on December 25, 1967. I weighed 4 kilograms. The maternity clinic was 15 kilometers away from Leninsk-Kuznetsky, in Polysayevo. That’s where I was born, although my passport says I was born in the city of Leninsk-Kuznetsky, in Kemerovo Province—which is where I spent the first 18 years of my life, in any case.

Leninsk-Kuznetsky was a typical Soviet-era industrial city. In 1928 the Communists began to enact their policy of industrialization and for that you had to have coal. Coal was required, not just for energy production (the Russian State Electrification Plan was already well underway), but also for metallurgy and railroad-construction. The Kuznetsk Basin field became a prime focus. The first mine in Leninsk-Kuznetsky was commissioned on November 7, 1931. Komsomolets Mine was opened in 1933 and Kirov Mine, where my father worked his entire life, in 1935.

My father was a very bright man. Both of his older brothers, Uncle Vasya and Uncle Vanya, held degrees and lived quite comfortably. Also wanting an education, my dad spent two years studying at Tomsk University. With a family came the need to make money, however, and he went to work at the mines in the transport section. His job was to operate the wagon dump, a machine used to unload coal coming in from the backwall. Father retired from the mine when he was 50 years old, following an accident where he suffered a head injury. Two of his friends died.

This turn of events ended in Yury Timofeyevich’s untimely death from a stroke in 2002. He was a month shy of his 65th birthday.

I’ll be ever grateful to my father for giving me my main character traits. He taught me to be honest and to be myself, straightforward and resilient. He also taught me to love freedom and to hate totalitarianism in all its forms.

For a miner he was very sophisticated and articulate, an intellectual. After all, he was descended from blue blood. His genes showed! From the time I was a child, my father implanted in me a hatred of the establishment. Even relative to the current regime in Russia, I remain a nonconformist. And I don’t like what’s been going on around us, especially the recent movement to reinstate the USSR.

I remember the 26th Convention of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union well. It was in 1981 and it was the last convention of Leonid Brezhnev’s tenure. In Siberia there was only one channel, Channel One, and to get Channel Two you had to hook up a special, enormous antenna. From morning to night all that was broadcast on the only available channel was Brezhnev and the 26th Convention. Mother turned on the television and Dad pulled out the cord.

“Enough listening to this nonsense!” he exclaimed.

The sun was setting on Communism.



* * *

Thanks to my Father, I was raised with ill feelings towards the Soviet government. Nevertheless, in the eighth grade I was accepted into the Young Communist League. I started at the very bottom of the ranks as a good for nothing. I couldn’t have cared less. I recognized that it was all a sham. My thinking with regard to Communism was fairly lucid. I wrote an application letter to the Communist Party while in the army for the sole purpose of becoming a warrant officer. (Thank God, I changed my mind afterwards, but more on that later.) The story was different when it came to the Pioneers, the Communist government’s children’s organization. It was in an atmosphere of great celebration that they tied the scarf around my neck and pinned the badge to my shirt. I was quite worried when it took me two attempts before I was accepted.

My father, unlike most in the Soviet Union, loved America. He was a miner from a city of 130,000 and had never been abroad. He had only been to Moscow and Leningrad. He called America a “good country.” For him this love was a kind of protest. According to what was always said on television, it was a bad place, but he claimed it was good. In 2001 I completed my mission and brought my 65-year-old father to this country. As it turned out, this was shortly before his death. He lived for a month in California. He was not doing well at the time and was a bit depressed. Of course he liked America, but his emotions didn’t appear to be that strong.

Many of my positive qualities were developed in me by my father. My Pa means everything to me! Of course my involvement in sports and my education at the Mining Institute also had their impact. But it was my father who laid the foundation for how I see myself today. He always pressed me to be constructive and to respect others in order to become an upstanding member of society.

I was not instilled with any special values; nor did my parents carry on philosophical conversations with me. We weren’t even a reading family. My mother didn’t read at all and my father would only read periodicals. He liked the newspapers Trud and Sovyetsky Sport. He listened to Mayak (“Lighthouse”) Radio and followed sports news in particular, since he had played basketball in the past.

An unquestionable authority in our family was Grandma Senya, my father’s mom, whose full was name Xenia Tinkova. She was a unique woman. In addition to my father and his seven siblings, she gave birth to several other children who passed away. This was in the twenties and thirties, after all, and medical science was still underdeveloped.

Calling me a heretic, Grandma Senya tried to get me involved in the Orthodox Church. It was only when I was twenty and had moved to Leningrad that I began to think seriously about it and was baptized.

Grandma Senya taught me important life lessons:

“You little dummy. Who puts their sugar in the cup?”

“What are you talking about, Grandma Senya?”

“You should eat bits of sugar while you drink. That’s the only way to smell and taste it.”

When she was young, sugar was the only delicacy available and people tried to savor it. People today are worried about how to lose weight; in those days, the problem was different. People were preoccupied with their survival. I was reminded of this when I was in the army. Shortly after we had been drafted we were spreading butter on our bread and the dischargees laughed at us:

“What kind of person eats like that?” After a couple of weeks we understood them perfectly and found ourselves dipping frozen pieces of meat in salt and eating it without bread so as to taste it better. Until the day that I was discharged, twenty-three and a half months later, I never spread butter on my bread. If you served in the army, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Grandma Senya stocked up on bags of salt, grain, and peas and kept them hidden in the house. This was surprising to me:

“Grandma Senya, why are you hiding those?”

“You’d be hiding some too, if you’d been through a famine.”

Grandma and Grandpa were alive in the twenties, during the civil war. It was a time of great hunger. Grandma Senya died in the winter of 1980. As a twelve-year-old, I was astonished by the funeral, with the incense wafting from the censer, and by the prayers.

My mother, Valentina Vladimirovna, worked as a seamstress at the local tailor’s shop, sewing and ironing. She led a prudent life. Now she’s over seventy and in good health; she remains active and looks her age. I inherited limitless energy and the seeds of my entrepreneurial qualities from my mother: even during Soviet times she tried to make extra money by doing sewing work from home.

For my parents, discipline and routine meant everything. It was a well-established pattern in our family that I would be home by 9 o’clock in the evening, when the TV programme Vremya started. My friends would laugh at me when I would stop playing and head home—even in the long days of the Siberian summer. This was what we called “making a break for home.” We played hide-and-seek. We fought battles with machine guns cut out of wooden panels. We would play soccer in the middle of the street, in the dirt, sometimes with no shoes on. Each of us got only one pair of sneakers for the season and these quickly wore out if they were not torn in half first.
“Mom, why do you come to get me to go home? None of the other children’s parents look for them and it’s embarrassing!”

“I feel better that way. You never know what could happen…”


I would go home, while my friends would keep playing soccer till midnight. Who knows what they did afterwards? As for me, I never hung around. Indeed, it was unheard of for me to spend the night away from home. Only when I was 18 and about to start military service did I finally do so. The first time my parents let me ring in the New Year at a friend’s place was when I was in sixth grade and 16 years old.

I’m very grateful to my parents for all that they invested in me. After all, I grew up in a depressing part of the country. Many of my neighbors were in prison; some remain there to this day. The people I lived among were miners and former inmates and you’d often find them drunk and stoned. After spending time with such people, the St. Petersburg gangsters in their tracksuits seemed like pathetic caricatures.

The Siberian environment is harsh and there are very strict cultural norms to follow. Say the wrong thing and you might get hit. The rules to which one had to adhere came close to what is demanded in prison. There are three penitentiaries around Leninsk-Kuznetsky, two for adults and one for juveniles. This fact left its mark on the city—to the point where, in Leninsk, it’s shameful to call the police. You have to be able to resolve issues on your own, otherwise you will lose respect. You have to be a real man. You have to put your money where your mouth is. I’m still in the habit of not making extra promises.

Many people still remember the infamous scandal involving the mayor of Leninsk-Kuznetsky, Gennady Konyakhin. (Konyakhin and I went to the same school—No. 33.) There was a lot in the press and on the news saying gangsters had taken over the city. The magazine Izvestiya called its publication on this matter the Bullheaded Times. President Boris Yeltsin fired the mayor himself.

The eighties saw a rise in street fighting, neighborhood against neighborhood, both in Leninsk as well as in other cities throughout the USSR. Compared to the mass fighting in Kazan, the fights in Leninsk were not quite as bloody and got less coverage. Nevertheless, there were a few dozen guys per side. Sticks, knives, and metal bars were the weapons of choice. The teenagers injured and sometimes killed one another. An eighth grade classmate, for instance, was shot through the leg. Sometimes you’d wake up in the morning and the fence outside would be missing, the stakes pulled out during the night to be used in the fights. There was even an article (The Sweater Thieves) in the Komsmolskaya Pravda about these bloody fights in Leninsk-Kuznetsky.
The park where the municipal discotheque was held was in District 4. If anyone came from a different neighborhood, they’d be beaten up because they were in the minority. Central kids weren’t allowed to go there and neither were the Bazaar kids (of which I was one). I did go to the disco a couple of times. On the first occasion I had to run away though; on the second I got my head smashed in. I tried to avoid showing my face there after that. I’ve never been one to pick a fight—neither on the streets, then, nor in business, now. My experiences in Leninsk gave me a sense of where I ought not to go and a sense of when I ought not to go there.

One day, for example, I went ice-skating at the stadium. These huge punks came up to me. One of them asked,

“Where are you from?”

“From the Bazaar.”

“I see. You’re from the Bazaar.”

Then he socked me in the face.

I fell flat on the ice, blood gushing from my nose. To make a long story short: they beat the crap out of me. I couldn’t run away in the skates and I couldn’t hit those big losers back. What was I to do? I packed up my skates and went home. I never went back there, but instead skated exclusively at my local stadium next to Kirov Mine.

After I finished eighth grade, I changed schools, enrolling at School No. 2 in another part of town. But things got so bad there that I had to switch schools again. I could not study at all because of the emotional and physical torment. Why were they doing this?

Still, these experiences made my self-preservation instinct what it is today. On the one hand, given what I suffered, I’m not afraid of anyone. On the other hand, nowadays, I can see gangsters or tough guys from afar and know exactly how to maneuver away from them.

When people tell me that the Soviet era was a good time, I can’t help but smirk. This is because I remember all the bullshit—and I remember it well. What was good about those times? Maybe you could make a case if you were talking about Moscow or Leningrad—but in our city it was neighborhood against neighborhood, stolen clothes, ex-cons, crime lords, fights, and murder.

The mass fighting stopped in the late eighties, as drugs became more widespread. Getting high brought people together; it rendered them friends and brothers. At first, grass started to circulate; later on, heroin came on the market. In the early nineties, a lot of my peers and some younger kids died. They say that the youth of today saw what was going on back then and are afraid of drugs. From what I can tell, though, drug abuse remains a serious problem.

Strange things were always happening in Leninsk. People would go missing on a regular basis (and still do). When my parents lived in Polysayevo and I was serving in the army, their neighbor’s husband Slava disappeared. The last that anyone saw of him was one day in Kuznetsk Mine. He was gone, after that, for two weeks. As it turned out, three of the miners were standing at the bus stop, waiting for their bus, which was late. A car drove up and three jock types jumped out. They shoved the miners inside and drove away. The three were taken into the wilderness where they were made to do slave labor, hauling cement, bootlegging vodka, and making marijuana products. Somehow Slava managed to escape. Making his way home, he would walk only at night, hiding out during the day. He returned two weeks after his disappearance, all scraped up, wearing clothes he had found in a dumpster. Before he could get inside his apartment he collapsed from exhaustion in front of the elevator.


In the eighties fat women started to go missing. The public said they we were being cut up for ravioli. There was a serial killer in our town too. During the day he worked in the mines; by night he would kill young women in the park.

Our neighbors in the duplex were constantly getting drunk. At night, arguments would develop into screaming matches. Once, as I was falling asleep, I could hear fighting on the other side of the wall—the usual. In the morning, we found out that our neighbor had killed his wife, Auntie Valya. When the police came, I looked in the room. She was still lying on the bed with a knife sticking out of her. My neighbor was sentenced to prison and his son became a virtual orphan.

It is scary to think about it, but a significant number of my childhood classmates have passed away. Some of them died in jail, others were murdered, and still others drank themselves to death. Strict discipline, routine, and sport were my salvation. Now I’m trying to raise my kids the same way. God forbid they should ever know what it is like to lose their freedom. My daughter Daria is 16; I never let her stay over at her girlfriends’ places, even though she asks.

Of course, I tried to do things my parents did not allow me to do. I tried alcohol for the first time in the eighth grade, at a party on March 8—Women’s Day. I was with my friends Slava Zuyov (who died from pneumonia in 2009) and Misha Artamanov (who was shot five years ago under stupid circumstances on a hunting trip). We drank a bottle of Cahors wine and went to the disco to dance with girls. As though puking all night wasn’t enough, my dad beat me with his belt for disobeying. My classmates, on the other hand, came home drunk and their parents closed their eyes to it.

Later, when I was in the ninth and tenth grades, I drank, of course, but rarely. And I always kept it a secret from my parents. At the same time, though, I was getting into cycling—and sports and alcohol, as you know, are incompatible. Although I messed around with booze that last year before military training, it was mostly out of boredom. We would chip in and buy a bottle of wine for 3 rubles 42 kopeks—or sometimes vodka—and would sit drinking it in the playhouse outside the daycare.

My father almost never drank and I guess he passed those genes on to me. I like to relax with a drink, but I wouldn’t do so more than once or twice a month, to be honest. Large amounts of alcohol make me sick, just like my dad.

In the summer the boys and I would go swimming in Inya creek, a tributary of the Ob river. It was against my parents’ rules, so I had to dry my hair and take measures to prevent them from finding out. Sometimes, though, they figured it out nevertheless and would punish me. But really there was nothing to worry about. We had a blast, daring each other to jump off rocks and cliffs three or four meters high. The creek was small and you had to come straight back out of the water as soon as you dove in if you didn’t want to break your neck. It is true that a lot of people drowned there, so my parents’ worries were not completely unfounded. Now, at least, I can dive head first, five meters down off a yacht with no problem!

One day I smoked a little, and when I came home I smelled like smoke. Once again dad got out his belt. This was a common punishment in our family.

A belt is a handy thing. My father’s was brown and hung in his wardrobe. I was whipped a lot. The worst part was the buckle. It was only when I was 16 or 17 and getting bigger that I grabbed the belt and stopped him from hitting me—and my dad ended the practice.

I feel no resentment towards my father. No, I am thankful for what he taught me. Otherwise I would not have made it, considering what was going on around me as a child. Everything you are comes from your family, from how you were raised. We Tinkovs stood apart. My parents made their living honestly and were not drinkers and this gave me a strong foundation. Up until I left for the army, my parents kept me on a tight leash. I had no choice but to behave myself.



I’m almost three in this 1970 photo. At that time, Leonid Brezhnev ruled the country, which would remain at a standstill for a long time afterwards.


From left to right: Marfa Yefanova, Timofey Vasilyevich, and Xenia Evstafyevna Tinkov (my grandparents); Evstafy and Anna Yefanov (my great grandparents) and Praskovya Yefanova


My grandfather Timofey Tinkov worked in the mines his whole life. He died in 1953 from inhaling poisonous gases while trying to put out a fire.


My father, Yury Timofeyevich, loved to read the newspaper Trud. Smokey the cat helped him with this.



This honor roll certificate from when I was in the first grade shows how well behaved I was. It was also the last time I made the honor roll.



My father and grandfather ruined their health in Kirov Mine
Valentina Vladimirovna, Oleg Tinkov’s mother:

Oleg was born on December 25, 1967, at 2:35 p.m., weighing 4 kilos. He was always a healthy, active, good boy. He started walking at nine and a half months. We enrolled him in preschool at two and a half. He sang songs there and played on spoons made of wood.

Oleg learned the letters of the alphabet from his older brother Yura. At five, he could read and count and even knew a few English words. The newspaper Leninsky Shakhtyor [Leninsk Miner] was published in the city and he would read lines from it.

Our eldest son would slack off at times. Oleg, on the other hand, always helped his mom and dad. I remember once when he was still a toddler, when we were renovating our home, we were building an embankment and we had to carry in bucketfuls of sand. Oleg got his toy dump truck and started hauling sand with us.

I raised my children with a firm hand. Who knows what would have become of them otherwise? At some level they may even have feared me.

My eldest, Yura, brought a friend over one day with some nuts and a little money.

“Mom, some idiots at the market left their spot and asked us to guard their nuts.” We carefully took 30 kopeks each, and when they came back they gave us some more money and these nuts,” he told me. I took the money and the nuts and brought everything back—we don’t need what doesn’t belong to us. I struck him on the hand then and there. Later, when Oleg and I came across an army belt lying on the ground with the name Slava inscribed on it, he told me, “Mom, it’s not ours, so we aren’t taking it.”

Vyacheslav Sitnikov, Oleg Tinkov’s neighbor:

I clearly remember an episode involving a swing. I must have been around five, so Oleg would have been four. My father had set up a swing in the courtyard. What a celebration! We would swing until we were sick to our stomachs and Oleg and I would always argue over who would go first. It got so serious that one day we got in a fight. It was a huge scandal. In the end my dad cut the ropes on the swing. You cannot imagine what it felt like looking at the frame where that breathtaking swing used to hang!

Oleg was stubborn from a young age and he always got his way. Apparently it was his stubbornness that helped him become what he is today. This is not surprising, given that he is a Siberian and that his character was hardened from the time he was a child. It gets really cold back home, but we’d run and play outside and not get sick.

Edward Sozinov, Oleg Tinkov’s friend from school:

Oleg started at our school when he had finished eighth grade. Consequently, we spent only the ninth and tenth grades together. We met through a fight. About what? Far from the Russian heartland, neighborhood brawls were constant. Those were tough times. It was better not to be seen in someone else’s neighborhood—you were bound to get beaten up. Oleg was not from around the school, so we bullied him, wanting to show the new kid who was boss. A meaningless fight—common enough among young people. We turned out to be one another’s worthy match. We remained close from that moment on.

It was clear then that Oleg was unique. Not your average cookie-cutter Joe. He stood apart from the crowd. He was well read, articulate, and it was always a pleasure to converse with him. At the same time he was in professional sports, even though athletes aren’t usually thought of as people who care much about intellectual development.

The quality of the education in districts like our District No. 10 was low. Because of this, we had to educate ourselves. If you liked to read, you would gain knowledge by reading books, newspapers, and magazines. If you did not enjoy reading, it meant you weren’t studying at school either, and that you were unlikely to succeed. Somehow I always knew Oleg would come up with something and succeed. It was clear his money situation would be in order.



Lidia Irincheyevna Baturova, Oleg Tinkov’s homeroom teacher:

Oleg lived in a small mining town. His wooden house was near Kirov Mine. In this town everyone’s life seemed to follow the same pattern. You were born into a family of miners, you grow up around miners, all you would see your whole life were miners—and so you were destined to become a miner yourself. And it is true that most of the city’s residents either worked in the mines or supported the mining industry by working in mechanical trades or as electricians. At that time the school operated on an extended daily schedule. Why does Oleg remember the first to eighth grades? This is because the kids were at school from 7:30 in the morning until 5:00 at night. They grew up as a team. They would go home only to change, spend some time with their parents, and sleep. School was truly their second home. The first half of the day was spent on lessons, while the second half was taken up by self-directed study, homework, and physical education. It was in school that the children would become independent and that their characters developed. There were 36 students in Oleg’s class: 20 boys and 16 girls. This class in particular was made up of good kids, interested in self-expression, self-determination, and in proving themselves to each other. In schools today, it’s different. One kid does the work and the rest copy it. In those days, each student would find his or her own solution to each problem, even in difficult subjects like physics. In class Oleg found it hard to sit still and could be a bit obnoxious, but he was not completely out of control. Or, well, sometimes you’d turn your head for a moment and he’d have hidden under the desk. He’d be pulling at the legs and spinning around and then he’d come up his hair in a mess. But strangely enough, he still knew all the answers. He would pick everything up on the fly, but he was no nerd. He never turned down an opportunity to participate in school events. The teachers treated him quite well, although, truth be told, they would at times compare Oleg to his older brother—with the latter winning out in these comparisons. I was his brother’s homeroom teacher as well. They have completely different personalities. Oleg may have had a short fuse, but he was forgiving. No one can remember him making digs at his schoolmates or hurting their feelings or acting spitefully.




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