Chapter 5. The Underground Kingdom
The orange boots resurfaced in Moscow towards the end of 1922. Over the boots reigned a greenish coat lined with golden fox fur. A raised lambskin collar, its inside surface looking like a quilted blanket, defended the young man’s face and Sebastopol sideburns from the cold. A beautiful curly fur hat sat on Alexander Ivanovich’s head.
By this time new motorcars with crystal headlights had started running in Moscow, and parvenus wearing sealskin caps and fur coats lined in ‘lyre’ brand patterned fur were walking the streets. Pointed Gothic boots and briefcases with suitcase straps and handles were coming in fashion. The word ‘citizen’ was starting to squeeze out the customary ‘comrade’, and a certain group of young people, quick to realize what the joys of life were all about, had already started dancing the Dixie one-step and even the “Sunshine Flower” foxtrot in restaurants. The air was thick with the cries of riders, while in the large Foreign Ministry building Zhurkevich the tailor worked day and night stitching dress coats for Soviet diplomats headed abroad.
Alexander Ivanovich noted with amazement that his outfit, considered a badge of manliness and wealth in the countryside, came across in Moscow as a relic of the past, and cast an uncomfortable shadow on its owner.
Two months later, a new firm under the banner Revanche Industrial Chemical Workshop opened on Sretenski Boulevard. The workshop had two rooms. A portrait of the foundation-layer of socialism - Friedrich Engels — hung in the front room, and under the portrait sat Koreiko himself, smiling innocently in a grey English suit punctured with red silk thread. The orange boots and thick sideburns were gone. Alexander Ivanovich’s cheeks were closely shaven.
The manufacturing plant was in the back room. It consisted of manometers, graduated cylinders and a pair of oak barrels, one on the floor and the other in the mezzanine. A thin enema tube linked the barrels, the liquid flowing through with a businesslike tinkling sound. Whenever all the liquid had drained from the upper container into the lower one, a little boy in felt boots would appear in the manufacturing room. Sighing in a very un-childlike way, he would draw the liquid from the lower barrel with a bucket, haul it up to the mezzanine and pour it into the upper barrel. Upon completing this intricate manufacturing process, the boy would go warm himself in the front office, and the splashing sound from the enema tube would be heard once again: the liquid completing its habitual journey from the upper to the lower reservoir.
Alexander Ivanovich himself didn’t exactly know what kind of chemicals the Revanche workshop produced. Chemicals weren’t his business. His work day was difficult enough without them. He would go from bank to bank, trying to secure loans with which to expand production. He would go to trusts, where he signed contracts for the delivery of chemical products and was given raw materials at fixed prices. He was also given the loans. A great deal of his time was taken up reselling these raw materials to state-owned factories at a tenfold markup, while his foreign currency dealings on the black market at the base of the monument to Plevna heroes swallowed up a great deal of his energy.
After a year had gone by, the banks and trusts became desirous to learn whether their financial and material help had had a beneficial effect on the development of the Revanche industrial workshop, and whether the friendly entrepreneur need footnote might need their assistance in some other undertaking. A commission, draped in learned beards, arrived at the Revanche workshop in three carriages. The commission representative spent a long time staring into Engels’ indifferent face in the empty front room, knocking on the pine counter with his cane as he called for the leader and his employees. At last the door to the manufacturing room opened and before the eyes of the commission stood a crying boy with a bucket in his hand.
A conversation with the young representative of the Revanche revealed that production was going at full tilt, and that the owner had not shown up for a week. The commission did not stay long in the manufacturing room. The liquid that tinkled so busily down the enema tube turned out to bear an uncanny resemblance in color, taste and chemical composition to ordinary water, which is what it was. Having established this incredible fact, the commission chairman said “Hmm” and looked at the other commission members, who also said “Hmm”. Then the commission chairman peered at the boy and said, with an awful smile:
“How old are you, little man?”
“I’m twelve,” said the boy. And then he started to cry so hard that the members of the commission knocked into one another in their hurry to run out into the street, where they piled into their carriages and drove off in complete embarrassment. As for the Revanche workshop, all of its operations were entered into the bank and trust ledgers under the heading “accounts of revenue and losses”, and more specifically in that section of the ledgers that never even mentions revenue, but is dedicated entirely to losses.
On the very day that the commission was conducting its weighty chat with the boy in the Revanche front room, Alexander Ivanovich Koreiko got out of the sleeping car of an express overnight train in a small grape-growing republic three thousand kilometers from Moscow.
He opened the window of his hotel room and saw a little town in an oasis, with a bamboo aqueduct, a shabby clay fort, a town walled off from the sands with lindens and filled with an Asiatic hum.
The next day he learned that the republic had begun building an electric power station. He also discovered that there was a chronic shortage of funds and that the construction project on which the future of the republic depended might well be halted.
And so the friendly entrepreneur decided to help the republic. Once again he sank into his orange boots, put on a Turkmen cap, grabbed his rotund briefcase and went to see the construction manager.
He didn’t get an especially warm welcome, but he conducted himself with the utmost dignity, asked nothing for himself and kept insisting on the fact that electrification of the distant provinces was an idea extremely dear to his heart.
“Your construction site lacks funding,” he said. “I will obtain it.”
And he proposed that the construction site should set up a for-profit subsidiary enterprise.
“What could be simpler! We will sell postcards showing views of the construction site, and this will bring in the means that the construction site is so sorely lacking. Remember: you won’t have to give anything, you will only receive.”
Alexander Ivanovich chopped at the air decisively with his hand, his words sounded convincing, the project was sure and profitable. Koreiko signed a contract giving him a quarter of all profits from the postcard business and set to work.
To begin with, he needed operating funds. These had to be taken from the money set aside for building the power station – there was no other money in the republic.
“Don’t worry” he comforted the builders. “Remember: from this moment on, you will only receive.”
Alexander Ivanovich rode out on horseback to inspect the canyon, where the concrete parallelipipeds of the future station were already rising up. In one glance he appraised the aesthetic beauty of the porphyrite cliffs. Photographers rode into the canyon behind him on the Lineika. They surrounded the building site with their many-jointed, naked-looking tripods, hid under their black curtains and spent a long time snapping their shutters. After everything had been photographed, one of the photographers lowered his curtain and said with consideration:
“It would be better, of course, to build the station further to the left, in front of those monastery ruins, it’s much prettier over there”
It was decided that a dedicated print shop should be built as quickly as possible to print the postcards. Once again, the money for this was taken from the construction funds, and some of the work being done on the electrical station had to be suspended. But everyone took comfort in the fact that the profits from the new undertaking would allow them to make up for lost time.
The print shop was built in the same canyon, across from the power station. Soon, the concrete parallelipipeds of the print shop began to appear not far from the parallelipeds of the power station. As time went on, barrels of cement, iron bars, bricks and gravel gradually migrated from one end of the canyon to the other. Finally the workers themselves made the easy move across the canyon - the new construction site was offering better wages.
Six months later, distribution agents in striped pants appeared at every railroad station. They were selling postcards that showed a grandiose construction project taking place amidst the cliffs of a grape-growing republic. In every summer garden, theater, cinema, steamship and resort, curly-haired beauties spun the glass-walled drums of a charitable lottery. There were no losers in this lottery - every winner received a postcard with a view of the electrical canyon.
Koreiko’s words had come true – income was streaming in from all directions. But Alexander Ivanovich would not let it out of his hands. He took the quarter that was due him by contract, took another quarter based on the fact that he had not yet received a full accounting from all his teams out in the field, and used the remaining funds to expand the charitable organization.
“I have to be a good steward,” he said quietly, “First we need to put the business on a sound footing; then we’ll start to see genuine income.”
By that point a “Marion” steam shovel taken from the electrical station had already started digging a deep foundation for a new printing division. Work on the power station had stopped. The construction site had been abandoned. The only people who wandered there were the photographers, their black curtains flapping.
Business was booming, and Alexander Ivanovich, his honest Soviet smile never leaving his face, began printing postcards with pictures of film actors.
As it happens, one night a fully empowered investigating commission arrived in the rickety car. Alexander Ivanovich did not tarry; he cast a farewell eye over the cracked foundations of the electrical station, over the grandiose light-filled building of its subordinate enterprise, and skipped town.
“Hmm!” said the chairman, poking among the cracks of the foundation with his cane. “Where is the electrical plant?”
He looked at the members of the commission, who also said “Hmm!” The electrical plant did not exist.
However, the commission saw that work going full tilt in the print shop. Its lilac-colored lamps shone brightly, and the flat printing presses were busily clapping their wings. Three of them were spitting out monochrome pictures of the canyon, while out of a fourth, multicolored press, like cards out of a card sharp’s sleeve, there flew postcards of Douglas Fairbanks with a black half-mask over his fat samovar face, the charming Lia de Putti and the famous little bug-eyed man known as Monty Banks.
Show trials continued under the open sky in the canyon long after this memorable evening had passed. Alexander Ivanovich, meanwhile, had increased his capital by half a million rubles.
His weak, angry pulse pounded along like before. He felt that this moment, just when the old ownership system had perished and the new one was only starting to come to life, was the moment to amass a great fortune. But he already knew that it would be unthinkable to struggle openly to enrich himself in a Soviet country. And he smiled blissfully as he looked at the lonely NEP-men, rotting under their signs:
Trade in Combed Woolen Goods, B. A. Leibedev
Brocade and Ceremonial Vessels For Clubs and Churches,
H. Robinson and M. Friday Sweet Shop
The financial underpinnings of Leibedev, Friday, and the owners of the Ringing Tambourine musical workshop were groaning under the squeeze of the national press. [needs footnote]
Koreiko understood that only underground trade, rooted in the strictest secrecy, would be possible now. Any crisis that shook the young society would work to his benefit; anything that caused the State loss would bring him gain. He dealt in baked goods, cloth, sugar, textiles - everything. And he was alone, completely alone with his millions. Various go-betweens, big and small, worked in various corners of our country, but they did not know whom they were serving. Koreiko acted only through front people. And only he knew the number of links in the chain that brought him his money.
At exactly twelve o’clock, Alexander Ivanovich pushed aside his current accounts book and sat down to lunch. He took a peeled raw turnip out of his lunchbox and ate it, staring intently ahead. Then he swallowed a cold soft-boiled egg. Cold soft-boiled eggs are a very bad tasting food, and a good, happy person would never eat them. But Alexander Ivanovich did not eat; he took nourishment. Rather than have his lunch, he performed the physiological process of introducing the necessary quantities of fats, carbohydrates and vitamins into his body.
The other Herculeans would crown their lunch with a glass of tea. But Alexander Ivanovich drank a glass of hot water through a lump of sugar instead. Tea stimulated excessive cardiac activity, and Koreiko’s health was dear to him.
This possessor of ten million rubles was like a boxer carefully preparing for his triumph. He puts himself on a special diet, does not drink or smoke, tries to avoid excessive stimulation, trains and goes to sleep early, so that when the designated day arrives he can jump out into the shining ring as a happy winner. Alexander Ivanovich wanted to be young and fresh on the day that everything went back how it used to be, when he would be able to emerge from underground and open his plain old suitcase without fear. Koreiko did not doubt for a minute that the old order would come back. He was saving himself for capitalism.
And in order that no one might guess his second, principal life, Koreiko led a petty existence, staying within the confines of the forty-six ruble salary he received for his low and dull work in the financial section, painted with menads, dryads and naiads.