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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

BOOKWORM: A Midas Turning Gray Days Into Gold

This is the second in my mini-series of autobiographies by famous Muscovites. Alexander Panikin's The Sixth Proof: Confessions of a Russian Factory Owner (Shestoye Dokazatelstvo: Priznaniya Russkogo Fabrikanta) offers an intriguing glimpse into business in the pre-perestroika days, when the enterprising soul had to skirt the law in order to exercise his native talents for making money.

Panikin is nearing 50, and is best known as founder, owner and director of the chain of Paninter stores located in underground passages. He trades mostly in inexpensive women's clothing made in his own factories.

He was born in southern Krasnodar, was orphaned at 14 and went to live with his aunt in Volgograd. A natural businessman, Panikin began his first enterprise at age 15, when he invented a special device to fish coins out of pubic telephones. By age 20 he had been, in turn, builder, soldier, musician, peasant and gambler.

He studied at the Leningrad Institute of Culture and at the State Institute of Theatrical Arts, or GITIS, in Moscow, and while still a student he organized a very profitable and marginally illegal business producing and selling gypsum masks, plastic earrings, zodiac charms, winter sports caps and baby booties.

After graduating from GITIS he was for several years a successful administrator for the Yermolova Theater, but he was inevitably drawn back to business.

This is the first detailed and fairly frank account of a "gray" businessman in Soviet Russia, who made more money than a state minister by craftily exploiting loopholes in Soviet laws and regulations, by paying bribes to bureaucrats, by using his sex-appeal to soften female directors of weaving factories, as well as all the other hooks and crooks known to every active Soviet citizen.

Andrei Bitov, a living legend of modern Russian literature and author of the foreword to Panikin's book, writes: "The most profound compliment that I have heard from my readers is: 'You wrote about me.' It is difficult to imagine more different people than Alexander Panikin and I. But our fate and destiny are the same. Maybe it's a book about me."

Panikin gives an account of his conflicts with the Soviet system, his temporary imprisonment and "rebirth" in a new business, his hopes and failures during perestroika, up to the present day when he is happy and content.

I, whose experiences in the 1970s and 1980s had absolutely nothing in common with Panikin's, read his reminiscences with the interest of an inmate of one labor camp listening to a story about life in another.

Panikin's book, only 175 pages, was serialized last fall in the Novy Mir literary monthly. The hardcover book is published by Paninter publishing and sells for the bargain price of 10 rubles ($1.60).