NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia -- Alexander Markus shook his head as he looked at the two identical boxes of men's underwear.
This is his business now, and he has learned all too well the difference between briefs that will sell and those, such as the two Russian-made models he scrutinized in his storeroom, that won't. "Too expensive," he said. "Badly packaged." And he shrugged. It's "banal," he said, repeating a word he uses at least a dozen times a day, "but I have to eat."
Alexander Markus's underwear business is growing, making him cautiously optimistic about the future.
(Susan B. Glasser -- The Washington Post)
Once, Markus studied advanced physics and was recruited to work at a top-secret Soviet nuclear research facility. Today, he is a reluctant capitalist in a country still uneasy about market forces unleashed by the fall of communism. "I'd give it up tomorrow -- with pleasure," he said. "Business for business's sake never attracted me."
In the carnivorous world of Russian business, the banality of Markus's life represents a victory of sorts, a product of the tentative stability reigning in Russia under President Vladimir Putin. "Before, it was senseless to have property because you could lose it all," Markus said. "Now, there are some rules that sometimes even the authorities obey."
But his faith in the system -- any system -- disappeared along the raucous, violent, twisting path that preceded his quiet life as a trafficker in bras and bathing suits. Markus's trade-offs mirror his country's: In return for stability, Russians have given their president a free hand and have remained indifferent to the Kremlin intrigues that make this a time of uncertainty about the future of Russian commerce.
Markus's career, recounted over several days of interviews with him, his family, friends and associates, traces the arc of Russian capitalism. In the 1980s, he embraced free enterprise and flirted with being a dissident. In the 1990s, he learned the hard way about what he sardonically calls "Russian business" -- armed mafiosi who seized his first store, crooked insiders who bankrupted the bank he worked with, Western companies that promised better but whose products were not what they seemed.
Only now, thanks to Polish panties and Turkish socks and the Putin era's relative prosperity, has Markus found a measure of economic security. At 38, he has built a chain of six stores in this industrial city on the Volga River. He employs 50 people, supports three children and plays computer games in the office because the work is not challenging for a man who planned to be a physicist.
"At last," he said, "I'm bored."
Markus has long since given up on the democrats he once believed in and who now make him "feel like puking because they are just like everyone else." He says he believes the system is dominated by "parasite" bureaucrats and greedy oligarchs such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed oil tycoon whose company, Yukos, is being carved up by the state as part of Putin's drive to concentrate power in the Kremlin.
Markus is among millions of Putin voters ready to accept a more authoritarian system as the price of a more predictable life. Yet he is not an unconditional believer in the promises of Putin's Russia.
As he drove through Nizhny Novgorod's cratered streets, Markus nodded at a new mall anchored by a vast Turkish superstore. "We haven't yet faced these giants. That's why we can live," he said. Soon enough, he explained, he would have to expand his business to match the competition. But Markus fears becoming what he disdains -- a capitalist like Khodorkovsky, making money by "stepping on the bones of my neighbors," and vulnerable to state manipulation, or worse.
So Markus remains a skeptic, his skepticism earned at the barrel of a gun. "Rich experience in this country tells me real stability will be achieved only after death," he said. And he wasn't really joking.
No Rules, Big Risks
"I don't want to spit at the mirror in the morning," Markus said, arguing good-naturedly with his best friend, Valera Nakaryakov, back for a visit after emigrating nearly a decade ago.
Nakaryakov was eager to blame Russia's "wild capitalism," for the many reverses Markus has suffered. He had considered taking the same route. "I had to make a conscious decision: either work in business here or leave," he said. "I left." Today, Nakaryakov is a British citizen, a prominent young space physicist at the University of Warwick who lists 58 scholarly publications on his résumé. He consults for NASA and the European Space Agency and his latest findings are the subject of glowing press releases.