Across the USSR, under the blat system, embezzling from the state was taking place on a vast scale. All it took was knowing the right factory managers, paying off officials. “You could make a fortune in the ’70s if you were smart, had some balls and the right connections,” Boris says. “We didn’t even think of it as ‘organized crime’ yet. To us, it was survival—making a living under the corrupt communist system. Some guys did it with the underground factories. I did it with my work crews. I’d go out to Siberia each season, put together a crew, and pocket my cut from dead souls. Once the season was over, I’d come back to my hometown loaded with black cash.”
After a few seasons running his own work crews in Siberia, Boris was, by the standards of the Soviet Union, an extremely rich young man. Now in his late 20s, he had achieved his youthful goal of being a blatnoy and he didn’t make much attempt to hide his wealth. He went to the city’s best restaurants with an assortment of girlfriends, bought flashy shirts and jackets made in underground factories. One winter he spent more than 3,500 rubles on black market furs: a sable hat and sealskin coat with a wolverine collar—roughly two years’ salary for an engineer or other professional in the USSR. He also found a jeweler who could make customized gold pieces for him.
In my city I was the first guy to openly wear a gold Star of David. You couldn’t buy them in stores in the Soviet Union. I got a jeweler to make one special for me. I wore it over my turtleneck, openly, so everyone could see. “I’m a Jew! You got something to say about it?” You know how many people I beat the shit out of for saying the word zhid? We’d be out at a restaurant and some Russian guy would tell one of my friends, “Zhidovskaya morda!” [“Kike face!”] If I heard those words I’d snap. Whenever I heard a guy saying zhid—no conversation—I’d go straight over and beat the motherfucker senseless.
Boris was brimming with the bravado of a Jewish blatnoy, with swagger and reckless aggression, but he was also discovering the paradox of getting rich in the corrupt communist state. You could be an “underground millionaire,” but what could you actually do with all the black cash hidden under your mattress?
At the end of the day, how much caviar could you eat? How much cognac could you drink? Decent housing, for example, was a chronic problem throughout the USSR. In urban areas many people lived in crowded communal apartments or houses, and any newly constructed residential building required connections and extremely long waits—often five years or more.
I thought I’d be able to buy a nice apartment, since I had a wife and child. I paid five thousand rubles just to get on the waiting list for a new cooperative apartment building. I knew some guys high up at the Gomel basketball team—they’d been allotted a few spots in the queue for a cooperative that was being built. For a onetime payment of five thousand rubles, they gave me a position of a manager on the team.
The entire scheme was a farcical exercise in blat.
I’m listed on their books as a guy who manages and travels with the team. They keep the salary I’m being paid as the team manager. They try to make it look like I’m a former basketball player who became a coach so I can qualify for an apartment, but it’s fucking ridiculous. I know nothing about basketball. I never liked the sport. I’m five foot seven. And look at the height of these basketball players! All told, I spent seven months in the queue and the team still didn’t get me an apartment. They returned my five thousand rubles, but they kept drawing the salary for my manager’s job on the team.
The coveted new cooperative apartment might have eluded him, but by 1975 Boris arranged to buy a Zhiguli, a lightweight Soviet-made Italian Fiat, one of the first cars available to Soviet citizens. Though hardly a flashy automobile by Western standards, in the USSR owning a Zhiguli was considered a status symbol. Only a minuscule percentage of Soviet citizens owned private cars; most families with two working adults would have to save up for five or six years to afford one.
A Zhiguli cost forty-five hundred rubles, but there was no way for me to buy it in a dealership. First, there was a long queue for any new cars—some people waited years. Secondly, I couldn’t show that kind of income; I only had black cash. I paid some guys I knew seven thousand rubles to get me the latest Zhiguli and registered the car in the name of my uncle—my cousin Venya’s father.
As the saying goes, “Envy kills the Russian people.” Once I start driving around in a new Zhiguli, wearing my designer shirts, my furs, my Star of David chain, people are constantly pointing, shouting: “Oh, look at this millionaire over here! Look at how much cash he’s making!” It’s true, ninety thousand rubles for a season was a fortune, but rumors were circulating that I’d actually made three hundred thousand rubles.
At this time in the Soviet Union, if you were caught in possession of anything over ten thousand rubles, you were looking at the death penalty. The best-case scenario meant fifteen years in prison and confiscation of all property. You’d end up broke and barefoot. The worst case was execution by firing squad.
If you were caught in possession of 90,000 rubles—that was a certain death sentence. In the 1970s Soviet Union, any young man driving a new Zhiguli and wearing a sable hat and expensive jewelry was bound to catch the eyes of the authorities.
The militsiya pulled me over so many times, I lost fucking count. Bribery was a daily part of life. Even if you tried to hide it, those cops could smell it—they knew who had black cash. If you drove a new Zhiguli, if you had on some nice Western clothes, you could expect to be shaken down. It happened with the local cops—the regular patrolmen. But one time I even got pulled over by the chief of a special criminal investigation unit of the militsiya in Gomel. He says, “Give me your documents.” I said, “Why are you stopping me? You’re not a traffic patrolman, you’re the chief.”
This chief asks for my license and keeps it. “I need you to come pick this up at the station,” he says. “Meet me there at two o’clock.” He makes me park my car on the street. I’ve got no license, no way to drive home. At two, I show up with my friend Volodya.
The chief looks surprised. “Why do I see two men in my office empty-handed?” he says. He didn’t have to say another word. I give Volodya twenty-five rubles, tell him to go to the store to buy four bottles of cognac and some chocolate. When he comes back, an hour or two later, he places the booze and chocolate on the table, between the chief and me. No other words are spoken. “Here’s your license, Boris Mikhailovich. You’re free to go.”
Eventually, the militsiya in Gomel started making not-so-subtle threats. One officer in an anti-corruption unit who knew Boris well began to drop an ominous phrase into their conversations. Vyschaya myera nakazaniya.
“The supreme measure of punishment.” Under the Soviet Union’s penal code, this meant execution by firing squad. “When a high-ranking officer in the Soviet Union starts mentioning the ‘supreme measure’—I don’t care how tough you think you are—you’re scared shitless.”
The lucrative seasonal trips to Siberia continued, as did the shakedowns from the cops in Gomel, and Boris says he “sensed the pincers closing in.”
Every morning when I’d wake up, I’d wonder if this was the day I was going to be arrested. The thought of the “supreme measure” was always in my head. I’d go outside, scrape the frost from the windshield of my Zhiguli, and visualize myself standing in front of a military firing squad.
I weighed all my options, thought it through, talked it over with my family. We all decided it would be best if we left the Soviet Union, emigrated to America. And we agreed it was best if the application was completed in my grandmother’s name—as head of the family—because we had the documentation to prove that she was one hundred percent Jewish. In the seventies the Soviets were allowing some Jews—the lucky ones—to emigrate to the West. We all planned to leave together: my brother, me, our wives and children. Also, my cousin Venya and his family.
If I hadn’t picked up and emigrated when I did—I’m sure it was only a matter of time before I wound up in front of the firing squad.
Beginning in 1970, for the first time, the USSR began to increase its emigration quotas for Jews. Officially, this was done under a policy of “family reunification,” allowing Jewish citizens of the USSR to emigrate if they had a letter of invitation from a close relative in Israel. Between 1960 and 1970, only 4,000 Jewish people had left the USSR; the number rose to 250,000 in the following decade. The most popular destination in America was the decaying South Brooklyn neighborhood of Brighton Beach, where by 1980 approximately 40,000 Soviet Jews had settled, refashioning it as their own “Little Odessa.”
Douglas Century is the author and coauthor of numerous bestselling books including Hunting El Chapo, Takedown, Under and Alone, Brotherhood of Warriors and Barney Ross: The Life of a Jewish Fighter, a biography in the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters book series.