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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Insane Asylum Not Only Mad Place in Yelets

I told you two weeks ago about the mental hospital in Yelets. There are some very sick people in there. But believe me, life in the town is even crazier.

The incoming highway is lined with workers, trying to sell off the leftover production from the bankrupt television factory. At night the bus station is crowded with shuttle traders, heading for Moscow, 400 kilometers to the north, to buy goods they can sell back in Yelets at a slight profit. With unemployment high, people are twisting and turning to make ends meet.

Yet a local businessman, Gennady Savenkov, has decided that what this severely depressed town needs is a casino called the Ph Club.

Mr. Savenkov, a former Soviet state arms dealer who made his personal fortune by opening a string of petrol stations, battled long and hard for the right to bring gambling to Yelets.

The town is in the "black earth" farming belt, one of the most staunchly communist pockets of the Russian provinces, and the conservative mayor refused to register the casino. It took a ruling by the regional court, upholding Mr. Savenkov's right to free enterprise, to make the venture possible.

But no court can rule that there must be customers. At 10 p.m. on a Thursday night, a total of two clients were moving from the poker table to the roulette wheel, from the roulette wheel to the blackjack table, attended by a veritable army of croupiers, cocktail waitresses and security guards. The strippers were having a night off.

"It gets busier," Mr. Savenkov said. "We are already breaking even. Rich people come in from other towns. They play with up to $2,000 a night."

Mr. Savenkov, relaxed in an emerald-green nylon sports suit and with a champagne cocktail in his hand, said he was proud to be providing employment opportunities in Yelets. But the casino owner, who has a four-story country house complete with jacuzzi and a fleet of cars including a BMW, preferred not to say how much he pays his staff.

Galya, a waitress whose dark makeup gave her eyes a bruised look, was sullen when the boss ordered her to bring him another champagne cocktail and some black caviar sandwiches. "I'm always unhappy, I have an unhappy personality," she said.

Natasha, a trained nurse now working as a croupier, was more cheerful although she admitted she would prefer to be following her profession, if only she could afford to live on the wages. "If they have earned the money, they have the right to throw it away," she said, when I asked what she thought of the clients.

The lone two players that night were sportsman Boris Gridnev, who has been entered 17 times in the Guinness Book of Records for feats of strength, and his girlfriend Vera. "We have been bitten by the gambling bug," said Vera with a laugh, adding that the couple usually spent about $100 a time.

"The players are sick. They are like alcoholics. I do not pity them," commented the owner, who said he never gambled himself. Instead he sits drinking with his bodyguards, making himself feel big by ordering little people around.

Yelets, what a crazy place. So many mad, sad people here. As many of them in the Ph Club as in the lunatic asylum.