YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Moguls at the Gates : Part Robin Hood, Part Robber Baron, Russia's Wild Capitalists Are Skirting The Law, Making Fortunes And, Maybe, Saving The Country

August 29, 1993|Carey Goldberg | Carey Goldberg is a correspondent in The Times' Moscow bureau. She has reported from Russia since 1989.

Sergei Shashurin, possibly the richest man in Russia, leans back with a drowsy, contented smile. His leased Yak 40 business jet is winging him from Tatarstan, where he is known as an organized crime kingpin and construction titan, to the Arctic Circle city of Vorkuta, where he has designs on some of Europe's biggest coal mines.

The six-hour flight stretches long. Shashurin, 36, watches with lofty amusement as his bodyguard, Tolya, and his deputy, Mars, begin setting up for an ex-cons' card game called rubbish. First, they pull out a few wads of rubles from the black plastic garbage bag Tolya uses to lug them around. Then a fan of $100 bills. Then, seeing a nice still-life taking form, they slap down a couple of Makarov pistols and a bottle of vodka, getting a kick out of their own image. Classic Russian Mafia. "Russian robbers playing with American money," Shashurin laughs as the game begins.

He has the look of a beefy bully, but his coarse panache is so irresistibly winning that it soon seems unimportant that he got so rich, with a foothold in everything from Amur gold to Sakhalin oil, largely because he was so good at stealing from the Soviet state and parlayed that skill and his contacts into cash as the old system collapsed.

Shashurin tells tales from when he was cooped up in a mental hospital--which he calls a durdom, a loony bin--after one of his many spells of hooliganism. Like McMurphy in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," Shashurin used to have a tendency to beat up cops. He landed in prison four times and thrice in mental hospitals, where he quickly became the charismatic leader of his fellow inmates.

Once, he recalls, the doctors told him to get the patients to clean up the lakeside hospital's garbage. "Well," he says. "You can't organize idiots. So I told all the crazies there was a wine factory on the other side of the lake, and we had to build a boat to get there and get some wine. They gathered up all the stuff lying around, and the truck, and then asked for days about the boat to the wine factory."

Overall, Shashurin decides, "It was easier to run things in a durdom than in current-day Russia."

But what better training?

Amid the chaos and illogic of Russia's transition from socialism to what is now known here as "wild capitalism," Shashurin has risen from his underworld roots to become one of the foremost of a new breed of Russian tycoons. From the ruins of the old centralized economy, the new Russian magnates are building empires fueled by their own whirling entrepreneurial energy, founding 50, 100, 200 companies, borrowing money at 200% interest, buying off bureaucrats, importing, exporting, making supplies, workers and deals move.

Like the robber barons of pre-Depression America--the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Carnegies--these are big men who get enormously rich by quick and usually somewhat dirty means, then use their money for power, charity and making more money. The difference is that like so much in Russia these days, their empire-building appears to happen on time-lapse film, taking them only two or three years to attain what took a generation or two in America.

As the economy opened up under ex-Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, a few Mercedes sedans started to appear on Moscow's streets, where once a boxy Soviet-made Volga was the status symbol of choice. Then more. About a year ago, a sleek gray stretch limousine with regular Moscow plates--not rental, not government--appeared. Mouths gaped and necks craned wherever it slid by.

The moguls had arrived. These days, whatever major Russian city you visit, there always seems to be one limousine floating like a capitalist mirage through the gray Soviet-built poverty--from the grimy Western Siberian miners' town of Novokuznetsk to the Tatarstan capital of Kazan, where Shashurin drives a spotless white stretch. Moscow media estimate there are now some 15,000 Russians worth more than $1 million--scores of them worth much, much more. When President Clinton talks about aiding Russia through the private sector, these are the business leaders who would be America's most likely partners.

At first, the public reaction to these new magnates was the predictable result of traditional Russian envy and Communist ideology. People hated them. "Three years ago, the word 'entrepreneur' existed only as a word from the criminal code," says Konstantin Borovoi, himself a millionaire and leader of the popular Economic Freedom Party. "Today, the word 'entrepreneur' is accepted absolutely differently by society."

Los Angeles Times Articles