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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lyonya in the Flesh: A Tale of Rags to Riches

Like Lyonya Golubkov, the excavator operator who stars in commercials for the volatile MMM investment fund, actor Vladimir Permyakov was nothing before he hitched his career to the MMM comet.


Permyakov, who plays Lyonya in the commercials, by now has as well-known a face as any man in Russia, including the president, but it was not always so. His acting career has shadowed Lyonya's rags-to-riches tale.


"I came from Siberia and dragged out a miserable existence playing occasionally at a small Moscow theater," Permyakov said in an interview. "I had no money and very little hope to succeed as an actor, but my work with MMM turned everything around.


"Now I have pretty good money and offers from one French and one British producer."


These foreign producers will have to wait, however, because Permyakov, 42, believes Lyonya has not yet met his destiny.


"The idea is not yet complete, but I think he's finally becoming an honest small businessman," Permyakov said. "I do not want my character to be stopped in the middle of his way."


Lyonya's life has reached dizzying heights since he first invested in MMM shares at the beginning of the year. Using his profits, he has bought a fur coat for his wife and traveled to the World Cup in California to root for Russia's team on national television.


He has even become a political mogul, as both President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin have addressed the character personally in their condemnations of MMM, which attracted millions of investors only to leave them holding near-worthless shares three weeks ago.


But now MMM's offices have reopened, spinning the wheel of fortune again for those willing to play. In the firm's latest commercial, produced by Kazakh director Bakhyt Kilibayev, Lyonya breaks with the high life he has been leading. Instead of buying the apartment in Paris that had long beckoned at the end of his wealth chart, he decides to buy his old excavator and become an entrepreneur.


In the next commercial, Kilibayev said, Lyonya's brother-in-law will come to Moscow from a small Russian village to join in the new enterprise. The commercial has become a soap opera, caricaturing the moods and dreams of the new Russia.


Permyakov welcomed Lyonya's turnaround in the interview Tuesday afternoon, saying that building up a small business would make the role more fulfilling. "It's much more fun than just passively waiting for returns," he said.


The fates of Lyonya and Permyakov are joined by more than just a persona, however. The actor is an MMM investor himself, although he declined to say how many shares he owned, calling that "a commercial secret." He said he had no ethical problems making commercials for a firm so at odds with the law, because he believed the company and its management are innocent.


The MMM president Sergei Mavrodi was arrested for tax evasion on Aug. 4, soon after the company devalued its own shares to less than 1 percent of their previous value.


"Instead of being held in jail, Sergei Mavrodi should work in the government -- as economics minister of finance minister," Permyakov said of the MMM chief, who has conjured several fortunes over his brief career as a businessman.


Permyakov alleged that MMM's troubles had been brought on by competitors who paid government officials to initiate an onslaught on the company. But he declined to name the competitors, referring to them darkly as "structures."


"MMM attracted a lot of investors and some structures do not like it," he said.


With at least 5 million investors wandering the country bereft of savings they entrusted to MMM, one might have thought that Permyakov's fame had become a hazard, forcing him to avoid public places or to disguise his features.


But the actor said that in numerous meetings with ordinary people in the capital's streets, he had encountered nothing but support for Lyonya and for the company he symbolizes.


"Since the company was forced to devalue its shares, no one ever tried to hit me or insult me," he said. "People, on the contrary, express their solidarity." was arrested for tax evasion on Aug. 4, soon after the company devalued its own shares to less than 1 percent of their previous value.


"Instead of being held in jail, Sergei Mavrodi should work in the government -- as economics minister of finance minister," Permyakov said of the MMM chief, who has conjured several fortunes over his brief career as a businessman.


Permyakov alleged that MMM's troubles had been brought on by competitors who paid government officials to initiate an onslaught on the company. But he declined to name the competitors, referring to them darkly as "structures."


"MMM attracted a lot of investors and some structures do not like it," he said.


With at least 5 million investors wandering the country bereft of savings they entrusted to MMM, one might have thought that Permyakov's fame had become a hazard, forcing him to avoid public places or to disguise his features.


But the actor said that in numerous meetings with ordinary people in the capital's streets, he had encountered nothing but support for Lyonya and for the company he symbolizes.


"Since the company was forced to devalue its shares, no one ever tried to hit me or insult me," he said. "People, on the contrary, express their solidarity."