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A Reluctant Capitalist Survives in Russia

Over a beer near the classrooms where they were once inseparable, Nakaryakov told his friend that he would always see him as an unwilling capitalist.

"You were forced to work in business," he said. "You did it against your will."

Alexander Markus's underwear business is growing, making him cautiously optimistic about the future. (Susan B. Glasser -- The Washington Post)

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Actually, it was politics -- Markus's one and only flirtation with it -- that set him on the path to becoming an underwear salesman.

The year was 1989, and the young physicist known as Sasha to his friends was one month short of finishing college. He and Nakaryakov -- both married with young daughters -- had prestigious jobs lined up at Arzamas-16, the nearby secret nuclear facility. But Nizhny Novgorod, at the time still a closed defense industry city called Gorky, seethed with activists hoping to emulate the nuclear scientist-turned-dissident Andrei Sakharov, who spent much of the 1980s in exile here. "We were all democrats then," Markus recalled.

"Everything was falling apart," Markus said. "I wanted to feel like a dissident and help break it down completely." That May Day, he joined protesters at the annual labor parade shouting pro-democracy slogans. The police detained them. "The whole crowd was happy, we were all singing revolutionary songs. Even in jail we were happy," he said.

Sympathetic professors couldn't hush up the scandal of the arrest. Not only was Markus not allowed to graduate, but Nakaryakov and other friends also lost their promised jobs at Arzamas-16. "Among the group a black sheep was found, so they decided not to let anyone go," Markus said.

He was uncertain what to do next until a friend "gave me a tip that there's this word called 'business' " and hooked him up with a group buying computers at low prices in Moscow and selling them at high prices in Nizhny. Markus became technical director because he "at least had seen a computer before." The money was great. "Any business then was super-successful," he recalled. "There were no rules of the game in the new market -- or in the new country -- and the attitude was 'easy come, easy go.' "

Never a joiner, Markus decided to strike out on his own as a trader. "I was just learning," he said. "Later I realized it doesn't matter what you trade, as long you don't trade people, drugs and weapons."

But it was disorienting. He was flush with unaccustomed money and surrounded by questionable new friends from the world of gray commerce. His marriage fell apart in 1991 as the Soviet Union dissolved. "He got into business and that's how he started drowning," said his first wife, Anna Marinichenko. "People started getting money they had not seen before; it was a party time. Many Russian men got broken at that time."

By then, Nizhny Novgorod's name had been restored and city fathers imagined a trading future for the town based on its history as the commercial crossroads of the Volga and the Oka rivers.

Markus opened a modest general store on Gorky Street. But bandits soon preyed on owners like him, demanding protection money to serve as the store's krysha, or "roof." Markus slept at home with a new wife and a hunting rifle. One night in 1993, gunmen burst into his apartment and demanded he give them his store. "They put a gun to my wife, so of course I gave them the store," he said.

When he went begging for his store back, a gangster made him a different offer, asking Markus to work with his bank. He accepted and learned from the inside about the so-called banks that proliferated in the 1990s, serving as private money caches and laundering operations for a few well-connected insiders.

Ostensibly, he was there to check on borrowers' collateral. "But it turned out nobody needed it. All these banks gave credit exclusively on the principle of friendship or direct orders from the owners," Markus recalled. In 1995, the bank imploded in what he called an "artificial bankruptcy."

He found work at a large agricultural firm selling fruit, and immediately hated it. His second wife left him. After the bank disaster, "both the bandits and the police were chasing me," he recalled. The police found him first, and he spent a month in jail until convincing them he was just a witness, not a participant, in the bank's crimes.

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