The father of our Russian family is called Slava. Slava works hard. He works most days at a men’s clothing retailer and often works 24-hr shifts at the American Christian school as a security guard. We really haven’t been able to figure out when he sleeps. When he’s home he is kind, fun, and always smiling. Usually he arrives hungry sometime after everyone else has already had dinner. When the kids are doing their homework in the other room, I’ll often sit with Slava in the kitchen drinking tea, eating an omelet, and listening to him tell stories.
Where’s he from?
Before moving to Moscow, Slava and Sveta lived in Baku, Azerbaijan. They have fond memories of warm weather, watermelon, friendly neighbors, and trips to the sea. Slava served in the Soviet army before the fall of communism. He was trained as a radio operator and was about to be sent to the war in Afghanistan when the government began unraveling. He moved to Moscow and joined a friend in a venture selling various things at the six stores they owned in town. In the post-communist chaos they were making a good living providing the clothes and products that were hard to find in most stores during that time.
Jacket = Car
One day, in the early 90s, a old, scruffy-looking man with a backpack came to their store wanting to try on a leather jacket. Slava and his business partner Pushkin looked at the man skeptically but gave him the jacket to try on. The man said “I’ll take it” and opened his backpack that was full of cash. Pushkin took the money from that sale and went and bought a car with it the next day.
The 1998 economic crash
Slava and Pushkin had 6 stores full of men’s clothing that they had purchased with dollars. Overnight the ruble dipped to about a sixth of what is was worth the day before. Sveta’s family had sold their car and put the savings into a bank, the next morning they woke up to find that their account had gone down to just a few dollars worth of rubles. Slava and his partner lost an estimated $600,000 and were stuck with a bunch of men’s clothes that no one was buying. They eventually had to shut down all but one store. It was a good week when they could sell one pair of pants.
In the 90s almost no one paid any taxes. The government was so disorganized that they never knew who wasn’t paying. Sending taxes in just caught the attention of the tax ministries. If a tax collector did come they would pay him some arbitrary amount (which went into his pocket). One day Slava decided to figure out how much it would cost the business to pay all of their taxes to see if it was even feasible. After a long time of adding everything up he determined that to be above board they would have to pay 118% of everything they sold as tax.
Police protection racket
One day the police came to their one remaining store and asked if they had paid their taxes. Of course they hadn’t so the cops told them that there was a $1,000 fine. When they said that they couldn’t afford $1,000 the officer said “Listen, we’re in the same boat as you, our police station burned down and we can’t afford to build a new one. The government won’t give us any money. Now we’ve figured out that we need $150,000 to build a new station, so we are going to all of the 150 stores in our district and taking $1,000.” Slava and Pushkin refused and tried to figure out a way not to have to pay them. Eventually the cops won, shutting down their store and taking away their business license.