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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

BOOKWORM: New Rich Not So Different From Old




In the early 1900s, a petty entrepreneur cheated Nikolai Varentsov, a leading Moscow merchant, out of a substantial sum of money. The victim decided not to prosecute.


Several years later, after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the swindler brought the impoverished Varentsov, whose family was near starvation, a sack of food that he had received from an American relief organization. He then asked for forgiveness.


The deed saved several lives and made it possible for the elderly Varentsov to record, in the early 1930s, voluminous reminiscences about his business ventures and private life in tsarist Russia.


The manuscript was kept under the sofa by his descendants for 50 years and was then submitted to a Moscow archive. Nearly 20 more years passed before the memoirs were released, in November, by the Novoye Literaturnoye Obozreniye publishers. The 850-page illustrated book "Slyshannoye. Vidennoye. Peredumannoye. Perezhitoye" ("What I Heard, Saw, Thought and Experienced") is on sale at larger bookstores for 50 to 60 rubles, or less than $3.


There are scores of political, literary and artistic memoirs in Russia about the late 19th - early 20th century. But there are fewer than a dozen noteworthy books written by national businessmen.


This new offering by Varentsov will certainly become one of the most important sources of firsthand information about business life in tsarist Russia on the eve of the Revolution. It has detailed and useful commentaries, several indexes and can justly be deemed a serious publication.


It is also a good read for the curious layman: well-written, light, with a lot of charming details about the everyday life of Russian merchants of the "first guild" - the richest ones.


One cannot help but compare the professional behavior and personal traits of those people with those of the "New Russians." I could not find much difference.


The very first person we meet in the book, one Nikolai Kudrin, is the author's first boss and chairman of the company he works for, located next to the Stock Exchange on Ilyinka Street. Kudrin saw nothing wrong in leaving a business presentation with somebody else's hat, explaining that his own was too old. He also picked up a pair of someone's galoshes, "because it was wet outside."


And as for the marriage of private business and state power, here is one small story: A group of merchants from a Russian town approached Konstantin Skalkovsky, a high-ranking official at the Railways Ministry. "We want the new track to go through our town. Here is 10,000 rubles that nobody will ever know about."


"Double the sum," answered Skalkovsky, "and you can talk about it anywhere you like."