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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Russians Take America By Storm

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- It looks like the U.S. capital, it smells like the U.S. capital, but it feels like Moscow. I'm traveling in my very own Russian bubble, courtesy of my old friend Fedya, who arrived in these parts one week ago with a sackful of cash and a powerful urge to shop. Now I travel around my native land chattering away in Russian, with salespeople speaking to me slowly and too loudly, asking me how I like America.


I have to ask for warm beer and room-temperature milk, catering to Fedya's Russian conviction that cold drinks cause all manner of dire illness. I have to translate every restaurant menu before I can order, enduring Fedya's unspoken criticism when I stumble over Russian terms for "eggs sunny side up" or "baked Alaska."


This is not his first trip to the West: Two years ago we made a six-week sweep of America that included skiing in Vermont, sunning in California, and cavorting with Mickey Mouse in Florida's Disney World.


But a lot has changed since then. Fedya arrived in New York in 1992 with $300 in his pocket, one change of clothes and a firm belief that America was the promised land.


I can still recall the manic gleam in his eye shortly after he landed, when he saw that there was a 25 cent reward for turning in baggage carts.


"If I stay here for a few days," he began, "and gather up all the carts from the parking lot, I'll make enough to cover all my expenses. What a country!"


I think he was kidding, but his loony schemes for turning a quick buck continued throughout the trip -- everything from setting up his own booth outside of public bathrooms and charging admission to stealing and then reselling sugar packets from restaurants.


Fedya's 1992-vintage ideas of American-style enterprise were admittedly wacky, but some of his plots must have panned out in his native Russia. He has made the transition from salaried functionary to successful businessman in just over a year. In the wild-west world of Russian economics, Fedya has struck gold.


The contrast with our earlier trip is striking. Fedya was a typical Russian -- short on cash, long on soul. We gathered experiences and impressions, spending endless hours analyzing the differences in the Russian and American approaches to life and love, laughing over Fedya's brushes with American technology. His genuine delight in automatic-flush toilets and gas stoves with built-in pilot lights are still fresh in my mind.


But now Fedya is a world-weary "new" Russian with a nouveau-riche flair.


He brought no luggage with him, carrying only an attache case with $20,000 in it. When a suspicious U.S. customs official asked him why he had so much cash, Fedya replied calmly, in his rudimentary English, "I want to buy a suit."


We've hit every store on the Eastern seaboard, and Fedya is a big hit with salespeople. He strolls in, picks up, say, a leather shoe, says in amazement, "Only $150? I'll take three pairs."


I surprised him in a reverie the other day. Sure that his dreamy expression had a romantic origin, I asked him tenderly what he was thinking. He turned to me and replied, "I'm calculating how much I'll make on my investments while I'm here in the States."