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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FACES & VOICES: Mail Surprises With Content Not Arrival




You never know these days what you are going to find in your mailbox. In Soviet times, you could be sure there would be a copy of Pravda newspaper and, if you were lucky, a letter from your mom that had been read by the KGB, then stuck behind a radiator for six months before being delivered.


Now, there are appeals from your local Duma deputy who, with elections approaching, suddenly cares about you, and all sorts of colorful flyers advertising the latest slimming aids and potions for male potency.


The other day, I opened my mailbox to find a bright yellow flyer printed with a skull and crossbones and the warning: Radiation. Lethal Danger! Without knowing it, Muscovites were walking in radioactive parks, it said. Fruit and vegetables at the market were contaminated. But help was at hand. The Radiation Help Service was selling hand-held Geiger counters at a 30 percent discount.


I do not go in for mail-order jewelry or age-defying skin creams, but this little life-saving device I had to have. I rang the service at 737-9342. The receptionist was friendly, but when she realized I was a journalist, she thought an issue of secrecy might be involved and referred me to the boss. Eventually, I got an interview with Vadim Levin.


Since the receptionist had been worried about secrets, I expected to find Mr. Levin in some broken-down, old Soviet factory that had indeed once been off limits to foreign journalists. On the contrary, he was working in a modern business center in the city's Baumansky district.


An American-trained businessman who rejected the label New Russian and said he was just working hard for his success, Mr. Levin took me into the billiard hall and cafe of his private firm, Uniex Direct.


Commercial considerations rather than ecological concerns motivated him, he said, but he liked to sell a product that was useful. And Moscow was indeed polluted by hidden radiation that made the Geiger counter, manufactured at an engineering and physics institute, a must.


Mr. Levin explained that in Soviet times, nuclear waste had been carelessly buried in Moscow and it popped up from time to time in parks and near housing. Fruit, vegetables and meat from the Chernobyl region could be contaminated. Building materials sometimes exceeded the roentgen norm, and even contact with money, from a stock kept in a bank vault next to some radioactive metals, could make you glow in the dark.


He showed me the Geiger counter, a natty little device encased in blue plastic, slightly larger than a pager. In his office, it recorded a level of eight micro-roentgens on a scale where danger starts at 40.


Then he gave me a tour of the building. I saw the cheerful receptionists, all working as busy as bees. As well as the Geiger counters, they were selling some of Mr. Levin's other products - slimming aids and preparations to enhance male potency.


Proudly, Mr. Levin announced that he would be giving his services free to the campaign of Fatherland-All Russia, in which he believed.


I remembered my mailbox. Pravda and the personal letters, opened courtesy of the KGB, came basically from the same place. But I had not realized that the political appeals, the adverts for slimming pills and sex aids and the Geiger counters also came from a single source.