The Leningrad Mining Institute is the oldest technical school in Russia and is, for all intents and purposes, where international mining science originated. Because of this, at the end of the eighties, the Institute’s student body included people, not just from the socialist camp, but Americans and Western Germans as well. For the most part though, international students came, naturally, from “third-world” countries in Asia and Africa.
When they came back from holidays, they would bring merchandise with them. A lot of them flew through Berlin, while students from former French colonies (Algeria, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire) had stopovers in Paris. They all wanted to earn some extra cash. They came to Russia with jeans, perfume, and cassette tapes. After exams were over they would return home with their money in foreign currency—dollars, marks, or francs.
The foreigners were not good at selling on the street. Maybe they were just scared to do it. Instead they sold their goods to Russian speculators, like me. On the street, my profit would reach fifty to one hundred percent. I lived off this margin. To tell the truth, though, I did not save much as we loved to party in the dorms.
I soon realized that, in Siberia, goods that were in short supply could be sold for twice as much again. For instance, I could sell cosmetics kits in Leningrad for 25 rubles, while in Leninsk-Kuznetsky they sold for 50. Lipstick was 15 rubles in the city, but 25 in Siberia. Of course, when I could, then, I tried to sell in Siberia.
In Leninsk I would come to the shoe or yarn factory, which were staffed mostly by women. Because they would not let me in through reception, I had to climb through a window. The workers already knew that there was this guy named Oleg from Leningrad and that he traded in scarce, imported products. I was able to make even more money there than I would have if I had sold the stuff at the local market. This was because the women liked the idea of making their purchases from the comfort of their own place of employment. This is just another example of the importance of service in business.
(I still remember the lessons that I learned then. In particular, the savings program launched in 2010 by Tinkoff Credit Systems is based on the same principle: a bank representative comes to where you are when you want to open an account.)
Of course, sometimes, the merchandise turned out to be complete crap. Once I bought lipstick with glitter in it from some Gypsies on Staronevsky Prospect. Later I saw how they made it. They would take shiny chocolate wrappers, cut them into tiny pieces, and add them to the lipstick.
In the main, I sourced my merchandise from foreigners. Another source, however, was a fellow student at the Mining Institute, Igor Spiridonov. He was from Prokopyevsk in Kemerovo Province. Igor sold in small bulk: cosmetic kits came in full boxes; lipstick in blocks of 100 each; VHS cassettes in packs. I bought my first consignment in cash and sold the goods individually in Siberia. A week later, I bought more. Because Igor and I were fellow Siberians, he offered me a larger consignment and said I could pay him back after I had sold the product. In this way I made money off the difference with no investment.
At one point I was flying three or four times a month. I would load up a couple bags, buy a ticket to Kemerovo for 60 rubles, and then sell the goods in Siberia for twice as much or more than they would have cost in St. Petersburg. Of course my trips were not just about business. I also spent time with my friends, Edik Sozinov, Alexei Smirnov, Zhenya Brekhov, and Alexei Prilepsky. I even convinced the latter two to apply for university in Leningrad.
Later, I started bringing stuff back to sell. A group of Yugoslavian construction workers were building a hospital in Leninsk-Kuznetsky. They lived in what was called the Yugoslavian Village, in trailers. They brought German marks with them from Europe. You could not buy anything in Soviet stores with foreign currency, however—be it vodka or treats for the girls. Because the Siberians had no need for foreign money, I bought the marks from them at a ludicrously low price and sold them to speculators on Vasilievsky Island. If I remember correctly, they cost me five rubles each and I sold them for nine. Such was the Soviet Forex!
Most of the people studying at the Mining Institute were from regions where there was an active extraction industry. There were a lot of students from the Kuznetsk Basin, Don Basin (Donetsk, Chervonograd and Shakhty), Vorkuty, and Ukhty. There were a few students, too, from Slantsy and Yakutia, where diamonds are mined. I tried to stick with guys from Kemerovo Province; we were from the same area and I was used to trusting my own. I considered them more reliable and understanding.
But this approach almost backfired. Vitalik from Kemerovo, who was about five years older than me, got me involved in some shady dealings having to do with gold. And I crossed a few lines. I am ashamed to admit it, but it got to the point where I was taking part in some straight-up thievery. Thank God, I had the strength and soundness of mind to get away from these people. The Lord led me away. They wanted to expel me from the Institute. I lost so much. Worst of all, I lost my good name in the dormitory. The most important thing, though, is that I stopped hanging out with that crowd.
So why am I writing about this? None of us is perfect. Young men arriving in a new city are bound to get mixed up with bad apples. You have to try your best to avoid them, but if it is too late for that, then you have to have the strength to walk away. Now, I never judge people for their mistakes—remember that even Pinocchio got mixed up with the wrong crowd. But he showed what his character was like by breaking away. I was like Pinocchio in that story. I was led astray by their high life: the restaurants, discos, and strip clubs…it was all so tempting. After all, before I came to Leningrad I had not even seen the inside of a restaurant, really.
One way or another, I decided that I would never become involved with crime. And although the article against speculation was only removed from the Criminal Code in 1991, it had been largely unenforced for a long while before then. Undoubtedly, I should have been more careful, but I was afraid of nothing in pursuit of the good life. I had to keep speculating.
Every day, during our long break after second period, we speculators would meet at the Mining Institute, in a wide square hall, which we called the “meeting spot.” People could get onto campus without documents and speculators from various neighborhoods, from places like Aprashka (Appraising Door) and Galyora (Gusting Door), came to the Institute to buy product. The meeting spot was a place of intense commercial activity. Items for sale included clothing, appliances, and electronics. Currency was also exchanged. Trade was evolving. At first clothing and perfume were the most sought after items; later, demand for electronic gear grew. For two years dual-cassette tape recorders were all the rage. We called them soapboxes.
The Mining Institute speculators were famous far and wide. Even though the large Leningrad State University was also located on Vasilievsky Island, our speculators put theirs out of business. In essence all of the city’s dormitories were controlled by people from our Institute. Some of our students came to school in 2107 and 2109 model cars made by AvtoVAZ, which were considered fancy at the time. Just imagine: these were students who were receiving a stipend of 50 rubles and they were driving new cars that cost 20-25 thousand rubles on the black market!
Looking back, I can say that it was at the Mining Institute that trade in St. Petersburg made its start. Now, the city is full of businesspeople that attended my school. I am sure that for all of us, our thoughts take us back, now and then, to that long break, to the meeting spot, where we grew up. There are people in the highest echelons of business, today, that were there with us in the beginning, with us early speculators—including the founder of the retail chains Lenta and Norma, Oleg Zherebtsov. He came from the Kabardino-Balkarian town of Tyrnyauz to study at the Mining Institute. We met right after moving into the dorm, when both of us came to the laundry room to wash our socks. My deepest gratitude goes to Oleg because he advised me to use the Soviet Regional Supply system in my sales. But more about that later.
We students made money any way we could. I would buy vodka at the store, during the day, and then sell it in the dorm, at night, for 20 rubles. Some people accused me of being an animal for this, but I disagree. If you do not go to the store, during the day, to get your vodka—and you want some at night—then you have to pay up. Nothing is free, including drink, when a sudden urge to have some sets in. My fellow students would get mad about it, but they would buy the vodka. One kid got a VCR from his parents and he used to charge a ruble to anyone who wanted to watch a movie in his room. All was right and fair: the VCR was an asset and assets should bring you profit. We would stay up all night watching movies starring Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Lee, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. We thought action movies were the height of cinematography.
* * *
I liked it in Leningrad, but I missed my friends in Leninsk dearly. In the winter after I had finished my first midterms, I almost made the biggest mistake of my life. There was a university transfer system in the Soviet Union, which allowed you to transfer to a more prestigious school after you had been accepted to a lesser one. In the winter of 1989 I went to the Kuznetsk Basin Polytechnical Institute in Kemerovo. Like the Mining Institute in Leningrad, it trained future mineworkers.
The young woman in the transfer department looked at me like I was an idiot.
“What! Are you stupid?”
“I’m sorry. What do you mean?”
“We have fifty students waiting on transfers from Kemerovo to Leningrad. What are you doing, man? Don’t screw around.”
She changed my mind; I withdrew my transfer documents. I feel like God was at work here too. That girl at the Institute could have taken all my papers without saying anything. I probably would have ended up working as an engineer or something in the mines in Leninsk!
Cosmetic kits cost 25 rubles in Leningrad. In Siberia, their price was double.
One of my first investors, Oleg Korostelev, his wife Vera, Rina, and I in Morskoi Restaurant.
Eduard Sozinov, a friend of Oleg’s from school:
Every time Oleg came to Leninsk-Kuznetsky, he would bring something to sell. It was the simplest way to make extra money. Before, this was called speculation; now we call it business. At the time, though, I thought it was a completely normal thing to do. He’d bring jeans and coats people had ordered—in small amounts, though. Mostly he sold cosmetics, however. Women go crazy over things like that and the stores didn’t carry anything. Lipstick and perfume sold like hotcakes, because the price was reasonable. Jeans, on the other hand, were something very few people could afford…
Igor Spiridonov, Oleg’s business partner during his university years:
I lived in a dormitory on Maly Prospect (Oleg lived on Shkipersky Stream). Oleg had good connections when it came to sales in Siberia. I knew where you could get stuff cheap in Leningrad. During our early days of speculation, the main products were clothing and toiletries. Later we started speculating on currency and electronics and started making grown-up money.
The first time Oleg came to my dorm on Maly Prospect, he told me that he was from Leninsk-Kuznetsky (we were practically neighbors, as I was born in Prokopyevsk in Kemerovo Province). He had heard from someone that I had merchandise for sale. A week later he came back and said he had sold everything. “Nice turnover,” I thought. Mostly Oleg bought cosmetic kits, VHS cassettes, and lipstick. Later on, like good neighbors, we agreed that he would take a bigger shipment of merchandise to Siberia and pay me when he got back.