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Forging Ahead in Moscow

Want to buy a fake vacation, medical degree or `Siberian purebred' alley cat? Anything's possible, as long as you don't care if it's real.

July 10, 2006|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Always wanted to brag to your friends about your trip to Brazil, but couldn't afford to go? No problem!

For $500, nobody will believe you weren't sunning yourself last week on Copacabana Beach, just before you trekked through the Amazon rain forest and slept in a thatched hut. Hey! That's you, arms outstretched like Kate Winslet on the bow of the Titanic, on top of Corcovado!

Persey Tours was barely keeping the bill collectors at bay before it started offering fake vacations last year. Now it's selling 15 a month -- providing ersatz ticket stubs, hotel receipts, photos with clients' images superimposed on famous landmarks, a few souvenirs for living room shelves.

If the customer is an errant husband who wants his wife to believe he's on a fishing trip, Persey offers not just photos of him on the river, but a cellphone with a distant number, a lodge that if anyone calls will swear the husband is checked in but not available, and a few dead fish on ice.

Of course, it's not the real thing. But in Russia, this is a distinction that easily can drift into irrelevance. If there is a world capital of audacious fabrication, it must be Moscow, where fake is never a four-letter word.

Forget fake Rolexes and Gucci bags -- that's kids' stuff. Russian entrepreneurs offer million-dollar fake Ivan Shishkin paintings, forged passes to the Kremlin bearing President Vladimir V. Putin's apparent signature, false medical school diplomas and alley cats palmed off for $300 as "Siberian purebreds."

An old-fashioned brawl at a wedding can be had for $300 to $400. ( "If you read any book about traditional weddings in Russian history, there must be a fight," said 22-year-old Alexander Yermilov, who recently made a living at it.)

Any Russian market is likely to contain jars of malodorous fish eggs masquerading as $100 Beluga caviar, fizzy tap water bearing the label of a rare mountain spring, "wine" with exclusive French labels containing grape juice and cheap alcohol, and pricey Japanese cellphones or Sony PlayStation 2 consoles that were assembled on the outskirts of Moscow.

International experts say that 12% of the pharmaceutical drugs in Russia are counterfeits. In one recent study, a large proportion of the headache remedies surveyed contained no active ingredients at all.

The Ministry of Economic Development and Trade has estimated that 50% of all consumer goods sold in Russia are fake; the counterfeit trade, Minister German O. Gref announced in January, has reached $4 billion to $6 billion a year -- no one knows exactly, because the books are cooked.

American trade officials, who for years have battled rampant piracy here of U.S.-licensed DVDs and CDs, say the situation has gotten worse. Russia is the world's biggest exporter of pirated music products -- many of them brazenly manufactured behind the locked gates of former military bases.

"What you're witnessing on the piracy front is kind of emblematic of what's happening in Russia generally," said Neil Turkewitz, executive vice president of the Recording Industry Assn. of America. "It's a kind of decision, whether it's an overt one or subconscious, to kind of 'do it on its own terms.' And that you don't really need to play by the rules of the international community to move forward."

Every Russian must ford a river of flimflam, much of which is tolerated because it makes everyone's life, for the most part, cheaper and more manageable than the real thing.

Moscow's legendary traffic jams, for example, part like the Red Sea for a vehicle with a fake VIP sticker and a flashing blue light on top. (The real ones are issued only to important government officials, but if you have a big black Mercedes with tinted windows, who's going to know?)

Stickers in the subway also offer fake work permits, fake certificates for free healthcare and "help" getting a heavy equipment operator's license. For the reasonable sum of $18.50 a year, drivers can buy a perfectly legal-looking liability insurance policy to show if they're stopped by the police.

False diplomas and term papers are the busy student's way of getting over that last hurdle at school. Even Putin's doctoral dissertation, researchers from the Brookings Institution revealed earlier this year, contained major sections lifted from a text published by academics from the University of Pittsburgh.

The revelations were barely repeated in the Moscow press, not because they were scandalous, but because they weren't -- government officials routinely rely on fake dissertations patched together by underlings.

A woman named "Nadezhda," whose number was distributed in Moscow subway stations offering to provide university diplomas, was asked by a reporter if she could come up with a degree from the Russian State Medical University.

"No problem. It will cost you 15,000 rubles ($555). What year of graduation do you want?" she asked.

"How about somewhere between 1982 and 1984?"

"It is doable."

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