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If you were born in a decent, settled country, you may work for decades as an accountant, you may eat a nutritious dinner every night, and then you may die peacefully in your fluffy little bed, thinking you have lived a life.

Not so in my country. Its path is capricious and rocky; among its citizens, only a newborn baby can’t boast of engaging in some remark- ably strange activity to cope with its many world-defining upheavals. A college professor may tell you about dealing in ladies’ fur coats from Turkey or an opera diva about giving a private concert in a sauna. Many respectable citizens will just blush and say nothing.

As for myself, in the early nineties, the school where I worked paid me regularly but so little that you wouldn’t believe it if I told you. I had a wife and a child to support—the usual story. At the time, everyone (literally everyone) engaged in bizness, that is, they bought and tried to sell stuff they didn’t need. A few found riches; many more transactions ended in a cemetery. I got off easy because I started small—in cigarettes. Where I lived, cigarettes had all but disappeared, and my fellow citizens gave over their entire monthly salaries for one pack, so I decided to bring a few cartons from Moscow for resale. I raised some capital, talked a high school friend into a partnership, and bought plane tickets to Moscow—in those amazing times a plane ticket cost as much as a carton of smokes.

Oh Moscow of the early nineties! Those who saw it will never forget. The entire Garden Ring had become an unbroken open-air marketplace, and even Red Square in front of the Kremlin was lined with grandmas selling pantyhose.

We found the cigarettes in a supermarket on Novy Arbat, but the woman at the counter refused to sell us fifty cartons. Instead, she sent us to the “back” to speak with a “manager.” We met a huge man in a camouflage suit with a name tag—obviously a new breed of security guard—who waved to us to follow him into the basement. After many turns, we found ourselves in an empty chamber with cinderblock walls—and no manager. Despite my naïveté, I knew that our money and our lives were probably as good as gone, and I pitied my young widow and little daughter. “I’m listening,” the giant announced. I recited why we came. At that moment, a small boy of no more than twelve walked in and spoke sharply to the man: “Nikolai! Again? Haven’t we warned you enough?” The man drooped, mumbled that we came willingly, and slinked away. “Now, you,” the boy addressed us sternly. “Out. Fast. And never again.”

We bought cigarettes in another store and even managed to bring them home, but then we smoked them ourselves, for it seemed stupid to sell something only to buy it again for three times the price. But that’s not the point. The point is that on that very first try, I learned I wasn’t meant to be a highflier in bizness, to rob trains carrying oranges and drive a black Beemer. My destiny was to crawl in the mud from paycheck to paycheck, from fee to fee . . .

How grateful I was for this lesson! Take a friend of mine. After several successful speculations, he grew full of himself, borrowed a heap of cash, and commissioned five carloads of furniture from Belarus. Fabulous profits were guaranteed him. Two months later, when he finally realized that the furniture hadn’t been stolen along the way—it had never existed—he wisely decided not to wait for them and do it himself.

He got hold of some pills, swallowed them, promptly called his friends and relatives to say goodbye, but then didn’t die: the pills, like everything else in those days, were fake. He found more pills, this time genuine, again made the calls, again survived. Pretty soon, his near and dear were fed up and stopped picking up the phone, and when he finally managed to hang himself on a bath- room pipe, everyone sighed with relief. As for his creditors, they never even bothered to come for his children’s throats: they must have known that the money had long been gone, and most likely they were the ones who had sold him the damned furniture in the first place.

As you say—bizness.

Translated from the Russian by Anna Summers.