Book 2. Ringing cedars of Russia (1997)
The beginning of perestroika
At the very beginning ofperestroika, when the first law on co-operatives in the USSR was enacted, many saw it as a call to action. And a lot of young people, as well as many not so young but invariably full of energy and desire to really do something for themselves and their country, literally threw themselves into the fray And immediately found themselves surrounded by a hostile, pestering crowd.
“Down with them!” the crowd shouted. “Bourgeois smart-asses! What did we fight for, anyway?”
And even though many of Russia’s pioneer entrepreneurs ended up working round the clock, pouring in a colossal amount of energy, not to mention their unique wit and inventiveness, hardly any of their efforts met with so much as a Thank you’. The modicum of support they required was usually provided only by intercommunication and interaction with each other.
Then a concept was born — it literally came out of thin air — the idea of creating a Union of USSR Co-operators. I was part of the pilot group initiating the project, along with the well-known Russian entrepreneur Artem Tarasov.
Most of us at the time were Communists. At the first en-trepreneurs’ congress I was elected secretary of the congress’s Party Committee. I tried to explain to our overseer from the Communist Party Central Committee, Comrade Kolosovsky, that it was incredibly difficult for entrepreneurs to work un-der such pestering. We needed first and foremost the Party’s moral support. But I soon realised that we were going to be facing hostility and pestering from a segment of the ordinary public, as well as high- and low-ranking officials, for a long time to come. We could not look to the higher echelons of the Central Committee for any outward show of support, since they were afraid of losing popularity — already their power was greatly diminished compared to the heyday of So-viet communism. An internal struggle had apparently begun and was now in full swing.
In addition, entrepreneurs had begun to feel mounting pressure from a tax squeeze. And today, with maybe one or two exceptions, not a single business can keep afloat if it dutifully pays all the required taxes. Realising this, many of them have managed to escape the tax squeeze by using all sorts of tricky loop-holes. But in doing this they have landed themselves in an even more precarious situation — being outside the law. Attempt after attempt to make officials on various levels see the absurdity of the prevailing tax system have not exactly been crowned with success. Indeed, they could not be, since the ones who initiated the system (and this is my own personal assumption) understand better than anyone else the impossibility of paying all the taxes, but this was exactly what they needed. Needed for what? For power, of course! For extortion!
One false step and you can be instantly ground to powder, outlawed by tax police and inspectors.
I felt sorry for the first entrepreneurs ofperestroika, as well as for Russia’s current crop of businessmen. I decided to do for
them whatever lay within my powers. I went to the League of Russian Co-operators and Entrepreneurs, originally headed by Vladimir Alexandrovich Tikhonov,2 whom we had elected to the post in perestroika's early days. The League’s executive Presidium still maintained a headquarters, but many of the offices were empty. Vladimir Alexandrovich had died a year and a half earlier. I was told that the Chairman of the Russian Business Round Table, Ivan Kivilidi,3 had been poisoned, to-gether with his secretary, just six months ago. Artem Tarasov had resigned from the League, and the organisation’s mem-bership was only a shadow of its former self.
Thanks to my acquaintance with one of three remaining League executives, my request for space in one of the empty offices was granted, along with two telephones, a computer and a fax machine. Since the League had no organisational funds available, I was pretty much on my own. To save time and hotel expenses, I used the office for my sleeping quarters as well. I was awakened every morning at six o’clock by the arrival of the cleaning lady, and the absence of a TV allowed me to work most evenings right up ’til midnight. This sudden shift in living conditions — from a luxury ship’s cabin (where anything I wanted to eat or drink was only a bell ring away) to a drab office not designed for living accommodation — in no way embarrassed me. In many respects it actually afforded me greater opportunities to pursue my work.
I spent my time thinking out and drafting a constitution for a Fellowship of Entrepreneurs, along with compiling let-ters of appeal — these I sent out by fax in the early hours of the morning, when the communication lines weren’t as busy By hook or by crook, making use of both newspaper adverts and chance encounters, I gathered together a secretariat of various Moscow professionals who shared my enthusiasm for the project and realised its significance.
The secretariat also included three Moscow university students. First there came Anton Nikolaikin, who had been called in to fix a broken computer. Later, after learning of our work on organising the Fellowship, he brought along two of his friends, Artem Semenov and Alexey Novichkov They im-mediately began work on encoding the electronic version of the Golden Catalogue of Russia, for which they were able to put together a highly professional computer programme.