The fall of the Iron Curtain ushered in an era of heady, unprecedented freedom for the residents of former Soviet states. With it, however, came disquieting uncertainty, as the body politic struggled to reconcile decades of repression with their newfound liberties. Life was assuredly not all flowing Coca-Cola and crisp Levi’s blue jeans, and heeding a profoundly human amalgam of ambition, boredom, and sheer coincidence, many sought better economic prospects through less-than-legal activities. One such story is shared here. To protect our contributor’s anonymity, we’ll call her Natalia. –GUTFIRE!
It was the mid-1990s. I was living in Odessa. I had two master’s degrees but still couldn’t find a good job. That was perestroika for me. So I started selling magazines, which wasn’t bad for a while. I had a friend, another girl, and we partnered up and opened a kiosk inside a large supermarket. Things were ok for the both of us. Then one day we met him.
He came into the store and we noticed him immediately because he was very handsome. When he walked over to the kiosk we saw that he had to be younger than we were by at least five years – probably in his mid-twenties. But he was very confident. It seems almost silly to think about it now, but we were both very impressed. That’s how it started, and I don’t know if either of us realized, but shortly afterward we were a team.
He had this idea to smuggle black caviar from Russia and sell it in Ukraine, mainly Odessa. At the time, only one Russian company was allowed to sell it. And I don’t know… it was a strange time. It made sense to us and it was something else to do. So we came up with a good plan, and before long we were traveling monthly to Astrakhan, in Russia, north of Caspian Sea, where the sturgeon lay their eggs. This was excellent black caviar. Very difficult, if not basically impossible, to raise under artificial conditions.
We would buy the caviar in large cans from some of the poachers there who were doing the same thing we were. The police in Astrakhan – at the borders too – were heavy, and always looking for smugglers. But our guy was so confident all the time, and our adrenaline was pumping, so we didn’t think about it much. I mean we were careful – we’d just find ways to conceal the caviar in our car. At that time, people were always rigging engines and tubes in their cars so they could run them on natural gas and all types of things, so it was not unusual to have strange-looking things in your car. One time we hid the caviar cans in a large gas can we were carrying in the back. Many times we almost got caught, but we never did, and that just made it more exciting. If we had been caught, though, it would have been enormous fines at the least – more likely prison.
He made fake documents to support everything, just referring to us as a seafood company, that type of thing. He was the mastermind. Ukrainian Revenue agents saw the money going through the fake company, I think, and reviewed it, but nothing happened. They really couldn’t trace it. Sometimes we did lose money because caviar is very perishable and we had to sell it fast. But when things were working, it was very, very good. For the first couple of years, we made a lot of money and enjoyed ourselves. We saved nothing. Whenever we did have money, we spent it quickly because we thought of it as – and it was – basically hot.
Our guy was so dynamic and such a good storyteller, extremely convincing, always making up stories about his relatives. He’d say his father was from some noble European family, his mother was Russian. We couldn’t confirm or deny any of it. He didn’t have connections with them anymore, he said, and we never really questioned him. But it was something like a love triangle with us, so when he went cold on that, we started questioning. He ended up being gay, and he kicked us out then, basically, but he’s still in business in Kiev or Odessa, I think. That’s all past for me now, though. That was a dangerous way to live, I know, but I didn’t really think about it. This is a better life, safer, calmer for sure. I’m older. But from time to time, I do miss the action.