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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Puns Make Siberian Capitalist's Business Fun

TOMSK, Western Siberia -- Yury Lirmak is a Siberian with a sense of humor. So when he wanted a name for his new nightclub, he reached deep into his English dictionary for a word that would amuse him (and any passing foreigner).

He settled on a short description of the Russian national pastime: Graft.

For residents of Tomsk, a midsized Siberian city of brightly painted wooden houses and Soviet concrete high rises, Graft is just another casino. Its only distinction is a car on a horseshoe-shaped pedestal, a tantalizing promise of winnings.

"To the Russian ear, the word means nothing," said Lirmak, sipping tomato juice through a straw in the casino. But to Lirmak, 44, a fluent English speaker, his choice of the name was "like pulling the tiger by its whiskers."

"I'm entertaining myself in my life," he said, smiling.

He speaks from experience. Kickbacks have been a part of life for him and others in business since Russia's early days of capitalism, when he made his first fortune selling photocopy machines and videocassette recorders. At first, local bureaucrats were standoffish. Later, they took phone calls at any time of day or night.

"The transition from socialism to free enterprise was all about grabbing," Lirmak said. "People change when very big bags of money are involved."

In those days, the profit from the sale of one machine could buy a new car. Speculators made fortunes by buying goods hard to come by like VCRs and selling them in far-flung Russian cities. Meanwhile, a larger scale property division was taking place. Russians with ties to officialdom were snapping up oil fields and aluminum plants.

"The stealing phase was unavoidable," Lirmak said.

The transition from communism to capitalism "could only be completed in an unfair way," he went on. "What does it mean to evenly divide property? Who is doing the dividing?"

Graft, in fact, was Lirmak's fourth in a long line of witty company names. The first, Nal, the gritty Russian slang word for cash, became one of the city's first private companies in 1989. It provided English teaching services. Lirmak was in his late 20s then, a graduate student in a plodding applied physics laboratory at Tomsk State University.

"My dream was a VCR," he recalled. "It cost 10,000 rubles -- a symbol of inaccessibility."

Lirmak had tried other businesses, as early as the mid-1980s. A mushroom-growing enterprise never made it out of the basement of his small apartment. Later, he focused on making rolling serving tables. He had to give it up when his carpenter disappeared drunk for weeks at a time, leaving him with a big supply of small wheels.

The decade rolled on. Lirmak moved out of his one-room apartment into a larger one. He named his next company Notax. The name sounded foreign, a plus at the time, when Russians hungered for international goods. Lirmak, who has a proclivity for philosophizing, preferred to think of it as a business credo by the rules of the jungle. "My delight in life is to say what I think," he said.

Another favorite saying refers to removing the copyright protection from DVDs, a specialty of Lirmak's father when he was alive. Lirmak pronounces the word copyright, and then, with a spreading smile, repeats a different spelling, in two parts, as a sort of call to action for duplicators: Copy? Write!

The third company name was perhaps the most daring. Laundry, pronounced in Russian with a rolled "r" came later in the 1990s, a tongue-in-cheek reference to legalizing money.

Lirmak's exhibitionism is famous in Tomsk. Graft, which began as a nightclub, featured a striptease in which a male dancer wore a Lenin mask that Lirmak bought on the sidewalk in Thailand, and stripped to patriotic Soviet tunes. Lirmak has sold his stake in the Graft casino, though a household appliance store and a tourist agency by the same name still do a brisk business.

The dancing Lenin "was my revenge," said Lirmak, who added that he hated Soviet life and once dreamed of emigrating. Now he says he is settled in Siberia for good, with frequent trips abroad. Still, life in Tomsk is getting better, he said. The streets of colorful wooden houses with gingerbread shutters and downtown buildings are being groomed for the city's 400th anniversary next year. Wages are rising slightly. Politics remains the same, but business is taking a firmer hold, said Lirmak.

"We have 69 tourist agencies and 35 computer companies in a city of half a million," he said proudly. "The quality of garbage removal still indicates that we live in a developing country. But overall, things are improving."