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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Crowds Line Up To Sell

Russians are world champions at standing in line, usually for sausages, potatoes or whatever was scarce in the days of communism.


On Wednesday, at least 10,000 of them waited, upset but patient as ever, in the forlorn hope of still cashing in on a capitalist gamble.


Clutching their shares and armed with picnic baskets and paper hats to shield themselves from the sun, shareholders in the MMM investment fund joined endless lines that wove across the lawn in front of the company's headquarters in southern Moscow but never seemed to move.


Some sold their shares to street traders at sharply reduced rates, but by Wednesday afternoon the earlier panic, following a move by MMM to stop redeeming its own shares at most of its branches, had turned into calm resignation.


Many just wandered about to find out what was going on, bought a banana or rested in the shade while relatives stood in line.


The MMM crisis brought out other Soviet relics: professional line-standers charging hefty fees and sign-up lists to determine priority in yet other lines.


Cars, double-parked right on the street, caused a kilometer-long traffic jam on Varshavskoye Shosse,.In a typed note passed around the crowd, MMM president Sergei Mavrodi pledged to continue buying and selling shares around the clock at the main office, but there was no evidence of this happening. Branches would reopen Friday, it said.


Reports circulating in the crowd that a handful of investors had gotten their money back could not be confirmed, but some were let into the building.


This gave some hope. Street traders, who had offered only 35,000 rubles per share in the morning compared to Monday's rate of 105,600 rubles, had raised their prices to 70,000 rubles by 3 P.M.


Many blamed the government for the panic, and cursed it for cracking down on what had been Russia's most profitable investment, offering profits of up to 100 percent monthly. Many more understood that they had taken a gamble but cursed the government all the same.


"Every game is a risk," said Ella, a retired English teacher who had earned money for a few shares by giving private lessons. "But we watched the game, and it went all right.


"But it is not the fault of the president," said Ella. She was not referring to Boris Yeltsin, but rather to Mavrodi, praised by many in the crowd as a modern-day Robin Hood. "The president is an honest and noble man."


Instead, she blamed the government for upsetting what had been a goose that laid golden eggs. The government was simply upset with MMM for attracting investment, she said.


Nina Bistrova, 59, said she had sold her gold ring to raise money for her son's studies.


"Why did the government allow it?" Bistrova asked angrily. "I knew it was a risky business, but they let it happen. They could have stopped it a long time ago. Why did they allow them to advertise?"


But some said they would do it again if given the chance.


"Who manages to buy early wins a lot, who buys late loses it all," Sveta summed up the logic of the pyramid scheme, which finances returns by attracting new investors, and collapses as soon as people stop buying shares.





-- Tatyana Zuyeva contributed to this report.