|Brenning Data||Private pages: Stories: Buying and Selling Computers the Russian Way|
Ligan (S:t Erik)
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Tomas Brenning, 1990-05-03
Iím going to tell about an odd way of making money. First some background information:
I used to play "Five in a Row". Sweden has some kind of exchange with the Soviet Union, and through this connection I went to Minsk to participate in a competition last summer. Anyway, half a year earlier I was contacted by a friend of mine who said he knew a Russian who knew another Russian called Sasha who wanted to visit Sweden. Sounds complicated, doesnít it? You havenít heard anything yet. As the Russians canít bring any money out of the Soviet Union, they need somebody from the "outside" who could pay all the expenses. In return for this favour I would get a free week in Moscow. I thought this sounded very exciting, and since I was going to Minsk I could go to Moscow as well.
Things arenít that easy when it comes to inviting people from the Eastern bloc. After having written an invitation I had to go to a lawyer to certify that Iím the one I claim to be. After that I have to go to the Foreign Department, and they certify that the lawyerís stamp is all right. After that comes the tricky part visiting the Soviet Consulate. Theyíre not very friendly there, but after a while you can convince them to approve the Foreign Departmentís stamp. After that you can send the letter, that now has more stamps than written text, to the Russian fellow whoíll do the rest of the job.
About one month ahead of my departure for Minsk Sasha came to Sweden. It was an interesting meeting between cultures this guy obviously wasnít too fond of the Russian way of living. His English was fairly good, and we had some great days together when I showed him Stockholm. Every time we discussed some ordinary Russian problems he seemed nervous almost as if he thought there were KGB agents standing behind every corner. Then Sasha told me he wanted to buy a computer!
I thought his idea was crazy, and I asked him where he would get the money from. He said he had a friend in New York who was supposed to have sent some money. After a phone call that illusion was gone. His next brilliant idea was to borrow money from me. I was a tad doubtful, and I asked him if he really thought it was such a good idea to buy a computer in Sweden and bring it to the Soviet Union by plane. It was great business selling computers at home, he said. You can make a lot of money that way. He told me that a normal salary was around 3000 roubles a year (one rouble equaled one and a quarter dollars (1989), now (1990) it is worth about a dime), and that you could sell a computer (XT-type) for about 45000 roubles no wonder he wanted to do business.
I agreed to lend him some money, and he promised that his friend in New York would send it to me, naturally including some interest. We went to a few computer stores and we found a suitable computer to buy. This was when he got his second great idea he wanted to buy two computers. He said that he would bring one of them on the plane while I could take the other on the boat to Finland and then by train to Leningrad where he would meet me.
Stupid Russians no contact with reality. Everybody knows that itís illegal to bring computers into the Soviet Union, and that you get sent to Siberia if you try something like that. He assured me that it was perfectly legal to bring computers into the Soviet Union, and that there would be no problems concerning the Soviet border guards. All I had to do was to tell them that the computer was a gift, and there would be no problems. We argued for a while; he was very persistent. Finally I gave in.
When I was down on my knees he suggested that we could add two printers on top of the rest it would be much easier to sell the computer including the printer. As I was a beaten man I agreed without arguing.
He went home with half of the stuff we had bought. After two weeks he called me and said there was a new law in the Soviet Union. You couldnít bring the computer into the country without paying 5000 roubles (remember US$ 6250) as a special tax at the border. Nothing to worry about, he said. He would meet me in Wiborg (thatís the first train stop on the Russian side of the border to Finland) where he would pay the money. Things didnít quite turn out the way I thought.
Next to the border is a village called Luznizka. Thatís where the military got on the train.
A lieutenant came into our compartment and asked who owned the large bags. I "confessed", and then he asked the others to leave us alone for a while. He asked what the bags contained, and when I said it was a computer, he wanted me to open them. He also asked me why I had brought a computer to the Soviet Union. I said it was a gift to improve to relationship between the Swedish and the Russian "Five in a Row" federations, and also that it would probably give me lots of opportunities to visit the Soviet Union again. Of course, he didnít believe a word.
After that he looked through my back-pack and found a couple of harmless letters that he opened later, and when he searched my wallet he found some receipts that seemed interesting. My phone list also caught his interest.
I began to get slightly nervous (that was the understatement of the year I was sure this was the end of my trip). Anyway, the interrogation continued. The next thing he wanted to know was who had paid for the computer. He asked this two or three times and since I hesitated a little bit he wouldnít believe that I had paid for the computer. He was convinced that I had a sponsor back home who just used me as a courier. I was told later that this was a very popular pastime for young people from the West. After a while a captain arrived and they asked me a few more questions. They wouldnít believe me, though I was rather close to the truth.
Next they took me to a very small compartment where I was left alone for a few minutes. When the door opened the first lieutenant entered together with a great-looking girl. Unfortunately she was wearing a uniform. Apparently they were changing tactics. As the lieutenant got more and more upset his English deteriorated, but the girl spoke English perfectly. She smiled, but she asked the same questions as earlier, so I didnít want to tell them anything more. I tried to convince them that I made lots of money back home, and that there were no problems for me to buy a computer as a gift. Correctly, they didnít believe this either.
Finally they gave in and said that I couldnít bring the computer just like that I would have to pay the tax of 5000 roubles. I tried to look a surprised as possible I couldnít admit that I knew about this tax.
I asked if a Russian citizen could pay this tax. They said no. Then I asked if I could use some kind of Western currency and the said no again. I continued to ask if it was possible to bring roubles out of the Soviet Union. When they answered no again I killed them with the question how I could possibly pay using money I couldnít bring into the country since I couldnít bring it out of the country! We agreed that a Russian citizen could pay this amount of money.
By this time the train had stopped in Wiborg where Sasha would meet me, and after a few minutes he knocked on the train window. I got very relieved. I and the lieutenant went into the station building together with Sasha. When we passed a giant metal door with lots of bars I looked as terrified as only a future prisoner can look and all the Russians laughed. Inside the office Sasha picked up a four inch thick bundle of rouble bills. Later he told me that he couldnít get hold of any other bills than five-rouble bills. There were six militaries who counted the money there were one thousand bills. Then there were no more problems, and we continued to Leningrad with the computer.
Later Sasha told me that when he got to the Moscow airport he couldnít find his luggage. He went into the forbidden area where he found his computer neatly stashed away on a luggage cart to be taken away. Fortunately he found it.
What happened to my money? Finally, it was sent to me and everybody lived happily ever after...
Heís coming here next month. I wonder if he wants to do business?