Cover image for Siberia bound : chasing the American dream on Russia's wild frontier
Siberia bound : chasing the American dream on Russia's wild frontier
Blakely, Alexander.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Naperville, Ill. : Sourcebooks, [2002]

Physical Description:
xiv, 320 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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HC340.12.Z7 S5317 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Recounts the adventures of an American entrepreneur in Siberia, where he and Russian partner built a multi-million dollar company, and offers insightsnto the life in Novosibirsk.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

In 1992, armed with a bachelor's degree in economics and an indomitable (or nearly so) American entrepreneurial spirit, Blakely set off to Siberia, where the fall of communism had opened a vast, pristine market. Following an abortive romance, he thrust himself into his various enterprises, which, with his workaholic Russian partner, Sasha, included importing cocoa beans, latex gloves, and condoms. For most of his long, bumpy ride during those early days of unfettered Russian capitalism, which involved a good deal of payoffs, kickbacks, and deal making backed by heavy drinking, Blakely's confidence in the free market never wavered--at times he is downright propagandistic as he extols the virtues of the free market--but after a few years of doing business Siberian style, his idealism and pretensions became deflated. Added to this was a newfound love that influenced him in readjusting his priorities. Blakely provides humorous episodes in his account, which successfully captures both the adventurous and pathetic qualities of the cowboy capitalism that took hold in Russia during the first years of its democracy. --Frank Caso

Publisher's Weekly Review

In 1991, Blakely joined a legion of young American college graduates flocking to Russia in search of adventure and money. What sets him apart from his many expat peers who have written about their entrepreneurial escapades is a natural gift for storytelling and a rare ability to translate the specificities of a foreign culture. With a degree in economics and a crush on a Siberian pen pal named Katya to guide him, Blakely chooses Novosibirsk as his base for sharing his vision of capitalism with the Russian masses. The frozen university town is no more primitive than the political and cultural capitals of Moscow and St. Petersburg when it comes to crafting a business plan or setting up a joint venture. Nor, it turns out, are there any fewer willing participants to undertake the unknown. Soon Blakely finds himself at the head of a large chocolate as well as latex glove concern, in which profits and supplies tumble around as randomly as the balls of a lottery draw. Blakely eventually realizes that the "pursuits of happiness" are fruitless when you don't count costs. Looking around at the unhappiness and unhealthiness that besets his colleagues, he notes, "We, the lucky few who had prospered during the economic chaos, had paid too high a price for the success." That is the somber truth for many who ventured into the speculative wilderness of Russian-style capitalism, but doesn't ring true for Blakely, who returned with wonderful memories, a soul mate for a wife and an admirable first book. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Shortly after graduating from Swarthmore with a B.A. in economics, Minnesota farm boy Blakely headed for Siberia, one of the last frontiers on Earth, in search of adventure and fortune. Learning to speak Russian fluently, he teamed up with a street-smart native to begin a chocolate factory. This account of their venture "is a look at Siberia through American eyes," says Blakely. "It is the story of how the myriad costs of democracy and capitalism affect a Siberian man, his family, his company, his town. It is about events that test an idealistic economist's faith in prosperity." Blakely's book dovetails nicely with recent works on Russia's economic state, e.g., David Hoffman's The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia and Chrystia Freeland's Sale of the Century: Russia's Wild Ride from Communism to Capitalism, as his capital-building experiences provide concrete evidence of their observations, serving almost as a case study. In the end, Blakely's book isn't just about building capitalism; it is also about his growing into a foreign culture that included business, love, and family relationships and is thus a very palatable way of learning economics, history, and cultural relationships. This very touching, sometimes humorous, always exciting account is recommended for public libraries and more general academic collections. Harry Willems, Southeast Kansas Lib. Syst., Iola (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Pandora's Box of Chocolates If you can identify what is produced inside a factory by the way it smells outside, chances are the smell isn't a pleasant one. Breweries don't smell like ice-cold beer; they reek of warm, fermenting malt. Paper mills don't smell like crisp sheets of paper; they stink of simmering cellulose. But chocolate factories are exceptions to this rule. They give off the delicious aroma of roasting cocoa beans. They smell good especially in Siberia, where city air is usually heavy and dark with a mixture of black coal smoke and bluish-gray car exhaust. The Novosibirsk Chocolate Factory was an oasis for the Siberian nose. It was less appealing to the eye. With its red brick wall, Russian flag, and metal emblem of Lenin over the front door, the Novosibirsk Chocolate Factory was indistinguishable from the Siberian factories that produced some of the world's worst televisions, refrigerators, and telephones. It was also indistinguishable from the countless Siberian factories that produced the world's best automatic rifles, chemical weapons, and supersonic fighter aircraft. Only the smell set it apart. Sasha and I stepped out of the comically cramped Russian car and scurried across the slippery sidewalk toward the entrance. We were both hunkered over against the cold. Suddenly, Sasha stopped and bolted upright, his eyes wide open. "Do you smell that?" he asked me. "That's the smell of profit." As Sasha and I stepped through the inconspicuous front door of the factory, the pleasant smell of cocoa gave way to the humid stench of bad breath. We stood in a narrow corridor crowded with thick people made even thicker by their bulky coats. We were in chocolate-factory purgatory. Judging by the long faces, some of these people had been waiting here for an eternity. In between the crowd and the door that led into the factory grounds was a turnstile that turned only for a certain few-the chosen people. The factory's version of St. Peter was a large woman sitting behind a plate of glass. Occasionally, she stepped onto a pedal that released the turnstile, allowing in one person at a time. A man screamed at her to let him in, that he had driven all the way from Tomsk, but she yelled back at him with equal venom. She didn't step on the pedal. The turnstile remained locked. The man finally retreated, red in the face. The woman folded her hands and cracked a brief smile. On the wall was a telephone. Sasha looked at the list of numbers taped to the wall next to the phone. When he found what he was looking for, he took off his black gloves, tucked them into his coat pockets, and dialed (really dialed-it was a rotary phone) the number for the deputy director. "Do you know him?" I asked. "Nope," Sasha said with a wink. "Then why not just dial up the director?" I asked. Sasha smiled patiently. "Deputies are trying to climb the ladder. They have something to prove. They have to take risks. Directors don't. A smart director would never take a chance on our plan." Before I got a chance to ask Sasha what our plan was, he stuck his finger in his ear and looked down at the floor. "Zdrasvuite," Sasha said loudly into the receiver. "I'm here with my American partner." Dozens of fur hats turned toward me. Wary eyes looked me over, trying to determine if I was indeed an American. I smiled, unintentionally confirming their suspicions. Sasha continued to yell into the phone, "We'd like to discuss a proposal. Could you arrange for us to get past the front gate?" He nodded twice, then yelled our names into the phone. He had to repeat my name three times. He hung up the phone and punched me in the arm. "Looks like you might owe me a bottle of vodka before the day is done," he said just as the phone rang next to the large woman gatekeeper. She nodded and hung up the phone, then called out our names, mispronouncing mine. The faces in the crowd glowered at us as we maneuvered toward the turnstile. The woman wrote out paper passes for us. It gave me a sense of déjà vu, as if I were back in high school and had just been handed a hall pass. The feeling was one of simultaneous empowerment and belittlement. We walked through the door that many of the loiterers would never reach. We found ourselves back outside, but within the factory's walls. As I squinted my eyes against the light and cold, I saw a chaotic and cluttered scene, except for a row of dump trucks so clean they could have just rolled off the assembly line. Why a chocolate factory might need so man), dump trucks, I couldn't figure. And if they did need them, why weren't they being used? A large brick smokestack with metal belts circling the shaft every ten feet or so cast a long shadow across the yard. Wooden barrels lay scattered about the grounds. It looked more like a 1920s bootlegging operation than a 1990s chocolate factory. We walked into a four-story brick building on the other side of the courtyard and quickly found ourselves at the door of the Zam Director. Sasha knocked once, but he didn't wait before opening the door himself. A solid man in his mid-forties sat behind a small desk. A young woman dressed in a chocolate-stained apron sat in a chair opposite him. She had been explaining something when Sasha interrupted her by opening the door. The man instructed the woman to come back later. She stepped out. We slipped in. After very brief pleasantries and handshakes, Sasha got down to business. "Why isn't there any smoke coming from the factory's smokestack?" I hadn't noticed if there was or wasn't smoke coming from the smokestack. "We have a raw materials shortage right now," the sturdy man answered. "We are only working every other day." While I had been busy counting dump trucks, Sasha had been gathering useful clues. I resolved to be more observant. I surveyed the room and its contents, looking for useful information. The deputy director had four telephones on his desk. Every so often, one of them would ring. He'd hold up a stout finger to pause the conversation, grab the phone, listen for a few seconds, bark out a command, and slam down the phone. He had a receding hairline that he didn't bother to comb over. His tie was loose around his neck and his sleeves were rolled up. "Vitaly Victorovich, what do you need?" Sasha asked deferentially. "Cocoa beans," he said. "Alexander Richardovich," Sasha said, referring to me by my Russian patronymic (my father's name + ovich ), "represents an American company that can supply your factory with cocoa beans. Isn't that right, Alexander Richardovich?" "Oh, yeah. Right. Of course we can," I agreed clumsily, then silently scolded myself for being such a dimwit. I was ruining the deal. Wait a second, what deal? "Well, don't get your hopes up, boys," Vitaly Vietorovich said. "We can't pay you money for anything. With all this insane inflation, we can't afford to hold money. As soon as we get any money, we buy something that won't lose its value overnight, like ..." "Gruzaviki," I said triumphantly, having finally figured out what all those dump trucks were for. He nodded once, unimpressed. "So, unless you're willing to accept a dump truck as payment for cocoa beans, I'm afraid we don't have enough money to pay you for any raw materials that you sell us." Just like I thought. No deal. Not flustered a bit, Sasha said, "If we supply you with cocoa beans, you could give us chocolate in return." "There is more than just cocoa beans in chocolate," the deputy director cautioned. "We would have to agree ahead of time on how much chocolate you get for the cocoa beans." "Details," Sasha brushed off the warning. "Okay. You write up a contract and come in on Friday. If everything looks okay, we can give it a try," the deputy director said with an unenthusiastic smile. One of the phones rang. He grabbed it and resumed barking. While yelling into the receiver, he nodded and pointed to the door. Our time was over. We nodded back and left. We had two days to prepare a contract. We wasted forty-five of the forty-eight hours because Sasha had insisted that I pay him the bottle of vodka for the bet I lost. And, of course, one bottle had led to another. So, with only a few hours before we were to be back at the factory, we slapped together a dual-column, Russian-English contract on an enormous and anonymous computer that could barely run the pirated Chinese word-processing software. Needless to say, it was a short contract. We left blank the exchange ratio of beans to chocolate. That we would negotiate on the spot. Back at the factory, the deputy director looked over the contract quickly, too quickly to read the terse text. After haggling for a few minutes, we came up with a figure that satisfied all parties and filled in the blank spot with a black pen that came from Sasha's briefcase. Sasha and I got up to leave. Halfway out the door, Sasha turned and said, "It will take several weeks for the beans to get here. Then it will take a few weeks for us to sell the chocolates. How about you start giving us chocolate before the cocoa beans get here. That way, we'll have some revenue to buy more cocoa beans sooner." I wanted to hit Sasha in the arm. It seemed like he was trying to seize failure out of the jaws of success. "Sounds reasonable," the deputy director said. "I can give you six tons tomorrow. Will that be enough?" "That should be okay," Sasha confirmed in a matter-of-fact voice. We shook hands with the deputy director and left. "Six tons," I said, as we went down the steps. "Sasha, six tons is a lot of chocolate! What are we going to do with it all? And where are we going to get cocoa beans?" "Anekdote," Sasha said, turning to me with a confident smile. "Two guys meet in Red Square. One asks the other if he wants to buy a train full of butter for a million rubles. The second man says he does. The men shake hands and agree to meet again at the same spot in a week. The first goes off to look for a train full of butter and the second goes to look for a million rubles." We both laughed, Sasha a bit longer than I. By noon the next day Sasha had sold all six tons of chocolate to his friends and business acquaintances over the phone. Few could pay cash up front, but they all promised to pay us after they had sold the chocolate. Sasha agreed. In the meantime, I made some very-long-distance phone calls. I was trying to find a train car full of cocoa beans. I found a company willing to sell us twenty-five tons of cocoa beans and send them by train from Amsterdam to Novosibirsk. It would take four weeks for the beans to arrive. The supplier expected to be paid in advance, of course. Sasha and I needed some capital, and we needed it now. The catch-22 of capitalism was upon us. You can't make money if you don't have any capital, and you can't accumulate capital if you don't have money. The solution, of course, is to borrow your start-up capital. But this was Siberian capitalism. There weren't any banks here that loaned money to budding cocoa bean mongers. No problem. We would simply borrow our start-up capital from a communist. I glanced alternately at the red-faced man behind the desk and at the portrait of Lenin staring down over his shoulder. Protruding from his desk was a long table. I couldn't tell if it reminded me more of a stage for naked women to strut or a pirate ship's plank. I sat on one side of this plank, Sasha on the other. Sasha and I were quickly becoming business partners, and yet, when I looked across the table, I realized that I didn't know him from Adam. It was Sasha's idea to come here to borrow money. I didn't know if I trusted Sasha, and I certainly didn't trust this crusty man with big red flags on stands in the corners of his office. Our prospective creditor had his back to Lenin. I had to look straight into the Bolshevik's eyes. But Lenin rarely looks you in the eyes. He most often has his severe gaze fixed on the not-too-distant future when communism will rule and the proletariat will be safe from capitalists-capitalists like us. "We'll need about twenty thousand dollars," Sasha said with a smile that made me want to trust him. I tried not to look as nervous as I felt. I knew that we needed twenty thousand dollars for the cocoa beans. But now, after Sasha had actually said it out loud, "dvatzat tyisyach dolorov," it seemed a ridiculously large amount of money, especially in a country where the average person's monthly income was about fifty dollars and getting less each day. I was prepared to leave the room before we were thrown out. All eyes turned to the piece of paper Sasha had pulled from his briefcase. "We'll return your money in three months, plus fifteen-hundred dollars," Sasha promised. This time I couldn't hide my surprise. We hadn't talked about that! Sasha wasn't looking at me. He had his bright blue eyes and his contagious smile targeted on our potential creditor. The red-faced man looked pained. Then again, he had looked pained from the moment we walked in. "Agreed," he finally said. "Only, no contract." With his index finger he pushed the paper across the desktop, back to Sasha. No contract? I bit my tongue. Sasha, still grinning, ripped the paper lengthwise in two, then ripped the two halves into quarters, then into eighths. He disposed of the ribbons of paper into his case. He then extended his hand to the man. As I watched Sasha's jovial expression transform into a sober, sincere gaze, I realized why a paper contract wasn't necessary. This handshake was the contract. I felt drunk with emotion. In two days, we had sold six tons of chocolate and borrowed twenty thousand dollars without a single lawyer charging two hundred dollars an hour to put words on paper to protect us from any and every eventuality. Even better, there would be no lawyers to siphon thousands of dollars from us when an unforeseen eventuality did occur and a dispute arose, a dispute that only lawyers profited from. The man extended his hand to me. I grabbed it and tried to look him straight in the eyes but couldn't help stealing a glance over his shoulder at Lenin. He looked different. The great Bolshevik's eyes no longer seemed fixed sternly on the future, but mournfully on the past. We were conducting the most blatant act of capitalism, paying for the use of other people's money, under the nose of the man who tried to eradicate capitalism. It was sacrilege, and it felt good, like sinning should. Continue... Excerpted from SIBERIA BOUND by ALEXANDER BLAKELY Copyright © 2002 by Alexander Blakely Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. ix
Introductionp. xi
1 Pandora's Box of Chocolatesp. 1
2 Sweet Dreamsp. 10
3 My Frozen Utopiap. 19
4 Beyond the Bicycle Businessp. 27
5 After Hoursp. 31
6 Chopsticksp. 40
7 Saving Laborp. 46
8 Hospitalityp. 56
9 Promise of Americap. 66
10 Edge of Civilizationp. 70
11 Border Crossingp. 76
12 Swiss Chocolate and Cheese Steaksp. 85
13 Good-bye, Americap. 95
14 Spring in Siberiap. 102
15 The Capitalistsp. 110
16 If You Can't Beat 'Em...p. 117
17 Security Mattersp. 121
18 The Currency of Desperationp. 127
19 The Entrepreneurial Spiritp. 133
20 The Road to Nowherep. 138
21 Trouble Aheadp. 147
22 South of the Borderp. 155
23 Selling Potatoes to the Father of Applesp. 164
24 Moonshine and Garlicp. 170
25 Pulling Up Rootsp. 175
26 Behind Father's Wakep. 186
27 Wounded Eternityp. 195
28 Nightmarep. 200
29 Cosmetic Changesp. 209
30 Weekend in Germanyp. 218
31 Russian Pyramidsp. 224
32 Turn of Fortunep. 231
33 Progressp. 239
34 Domestic Blissp. 247
35 The Castlep. 252
36 Siburbiap. 260
37 Getting Away from It Allp. 264
38 The Best of Timesp. 268
39 Unconditional Lovep. 273
40 Bean Countersp. 281
41 The Worst of Timesp. 288
42 Faith in Siberiap. 295
43 Success and Happinessp. 303
Epiloguep. 307
Acknowledgmentsp. 319