Timothy Harper, Moscow Madness: Crime, Corruption, and One Man's Pursuit of Profit in the New Russia, McGraw-Hill, 1999, 256 pages
Hankering for a story about an entrepreneurial upstart in Russia that's a combination of frat-boy-does-Moscow and hit-the-ground-running business commentary? Then Timothy Harper's
Moscow Madness: Crime, Corruption, and One Man's Pursuit of Profit in the New Russia
is the yarn for you.
A serious political or economic history of the post-Soviet Union this book is not. Starting with the cliche on page 1, chapter 1, about a Russian wearing a "cheap, ill-fitting suit," this book assures readers it is no work of literature along the lines of
reads like an MBA student's homework: a case history of how
to run a business in an emerging market.
But what does make
a page turner -- at least toward the second half of the book -- are the trials and travails of its unlikely protagonist, American sailor cum entrepreneur Rick Grajirena, who lights upon the idea of setting up a Miller beer distributorship in Moscow just as the Soviet Union crumbles.
Where does Grajirena get this bright idea? On a trade-exchange trip to the former Soviet Union, a Russian passenger next to him cracks open a Miller to celebrate a successful landing after a particularly harrowing airplane trip. Miller beer, Grajirena decides, is just what this vodka-soaked nation is thirsting for.
If that sounds like Moscow madness, it's a start. That "madness," by the way, doesn't apply only to Western businesspeople working vainly to slap American-pie ethics and models onto a foreign country and somehow reap a fortune. It also applies to Americans who came to Russia as historical tourists -- "getting a close-up look at the biggest political, social and economic upheaval of the late 20th century" -- who drank too much, danced on bar tables and generally disgraced themselves in a way they never could back home. Simply because they weren't at home.
If the book can turn somewhat didactic, patronizing and one-sided, it may be because the subject of the book, Grajirena, tried to run a business in Russia from his hometown in Florida halfway around the world.
But there are meaty, nuts-and-bolts business-dilemma chapters as well, including one titled Roofs that details how a small business could be forced to pay for protection from the ubiquitous Russian mafia. Harper also does an admirable job -- right down to the rubles and kopeks -- of explaining how Byzantine the country's network of bureaucrats, forms and customs could be for a small business, particularly without the backing of a multinational corporation. (Grajirena's company,
, eventually lost the support of
, which treated its Russian distributor like a provincial U.S. outpost.)
Harper has deep empathy for his subject, and it shows in the lengths to which he goes to justify some of Grajirena's most hapless business decisions, such as hiring ill-suited so-called friends -- both Russian and American -- including one dubbed merely "the Spy," who tried to turn Grajirena's American investors against him; and failing to seize upon a much more lucrative opportunity to distribute
beer in Moscow.
And then there were times when any decision, no matter what, was doomed: buying delivery trucks that turned out to be both too big and illegal to drive through the center of Moscow; renting space in a Soviet-built warehouse that collapsed in midwinter and buried 14,000 cases of beer ahead of the important holiday season; or simply trying to operate by the rules.
The latter may have been Grajirena's biggest mistake, as his successor Robert Greco, a younger American who moves to Moscow and becomes fluent in Russian, realizes: "Operating strictly legally was not possible if the company wanted to stay in business." After 70 years of communism, Russia had no tradition of free enterprise, but a deep tradition of breaking laws to survive. What's more, says the author, because "business was illegal, there was no consideration of ethics in business."
Russia's economic conditions and politics have changed even since Harper's book went to press, so it's bound to sound dated. But if you don't mind wading through some gratuitous stories about Russian bombshells -- "when she walks toward you, all you can think of are two zeppelins in a dead heat" -- and dead-end investment leads, then
might be the cautionary business tale you're looking for. Just don't go mad before you finish.
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