Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fraudster Mavrodi Gets a Movie Makeover

MTMavrodi in a Moscow court in 2007.

In the early 1990s, Sergei Mavrodi, an unassuming, bespectacled mathematician, persuaded millions of Russians to put their savings into his MMM pyramid scheme.

Now the story of Mavrodi’s rise and fall is being turned into an action film, “Pyramid,” with a $2.5 million budget.

Last weekend, stuntmen fixed fuses into a plywood mock-up of a Chaika limousine as they prepared a scene showing an attempt by bandits to blow up the hero’s car.

The lead actor, Alexei Serebryakov, moodily smoked cigarettes as he waited for his next scene, dressed in a drab brown raincoat, blue jeans and white sneakers.

The film is based on an autobiographical novel by Mavrodi, also titled “Pyramid,” and is scheduled to hit movie theaters next spring.

In a series of e-mails, Mavrodi, 54, described his excitement about the film.

“I’m very positive about the making of the film ‘Pyramid,’ specifically about the fact that they are making a film about me. I guess most people would like that,” he said.

Although he wrote prompt e-mails punctuated with smiley faces, Mavrodi declined to meet for an interview, explaining that he prefers to write because he is afraid he will forget something if he speaks.

Even the film’s director, Eldar Salavatov, has never met him. Mavrodi said there was no point in meeting with Salavatov, while Salavatov said meeting Mavrodi would ruin the film because he would lose his impartiality to the story.

The movie is moving ahead after stalling for two years as filmmakers retooled the screenplay away from Mavrodi’s book, which they said lacked action and needed to be substantially rewritten. The car attack attempt that was filmed last weekend, for example, doesn’t appear in the book.

Mavrodi offered an alternative take on the film’s faithfulness to his book. “They made some cosmetic corrections and changed the authorship for reasons that are very clear — because of the notoriety of my name,” he said.

But he talked of his fears that the book would be dumbed-down on screen. “The film could be really very artistically strong. But it could sink to the level of an ordinary, average action film,” he said.

The story of MMM is worthy of a psychological thriller.

Mavrodi was a mathematician who became one of the country’s first computer programmers. He got involved in selling pirated videos and cassettes in the 1980s.

In the late 1980s, he set up MMM with two partners. As controls on the market fell away, the company began selling “vouchers,” promising a 10 percent return — per week.

A crew member on “Pyramid” held out a wad of green-toned notes, decorated with Mavrodi’s bespectacled, pudgy face. “That was the price of five apartments,” he said.

The vouchers were promoted with one of Russia’s first television ad campaigns, showing blue-collar characters boasting of the money they made on MMM. “I’m not a freeloader, I’m a partner,” one investor, Lyonya Golubkov, said proudly.

“The ordinary viewer says, ‘Well, if these idiots made money, then I definitely will. I won’t get fooled.’ It’s a classic con trick that works with everyone,” said Salavatov, the film’s director.

“Pyramid” will recreate the filming of the famous Lyonya Golubkov ad, including the original actors, said Salavatov, a 33-year-old ad director whose film credits include the little-known 2007 comedy, “Semeyka Ady”, and the soon-to-be-released gangster sequel, “Anti-Killer 3.”

A teenager at the time of MMM, Salavatov expressed little sympathy for the investors, saying it would be “madness” to attempt to return their money now.

“We aren’t making the lead character a black-and-white villain,” he said.

The lead actor, Serebryakov, who has starred in the TV detective series “Banditsky Peterburg” and more than 20 films over the past three decades, including the acclaimed 1996 drama “Bolse Vita,” also spoke contemptuously of MMM investors. It was “a great scheme in which you could do nothing, sit on the couch and receive 25 percent interest per month on the sum that you invested, not even suspecting that you might be deceived,” he said.

A lean thoughtful man, Serebryakov looks nothing like Mavrodi and said he won’t attempt to imitate him.

“I’m not playing Mavrodi, I don’t bear the least resemblance to Mavrodi and therefore it’s pointless,” he said. “I’m not playing a concrete historic figure. I’m playing a kind of compilation of a successful businessman-wheeler-dealer of the mid-1990s.”

The director said he wanted to capture the feeling of the era, and the appeal of MMM at a time of overwhelming grayness and poverty. The colorful vouchers “simply fascinated” people, he said. “The vouchers should be the brightest thing in the film.”

At its height, MMM had so much cash that it literally counted its wealth in rooms, Salavatov said. “We will have huge spaces scattered with money.”

The storm clouds began to gather over Mavrodi in 1994 when he was handed a huge tax demand. Investors tried to sell their vouchers en masse, and the company went bankrupt.

Mavrodi was arrested but walked free after getting himself elected as a State Duma deputy, although he was later stripped of the seat for nonattendance. In 1996, he mounted a bid for president.

In 1997, after he was added to Interpol’s wanted list, he went into hiding and was only arrested more than five years later, in 2003. It turned out that he had holed up in a shabby apartment near Moscow’s Frunzenskaya metro station.

Mavrodi said he spent most of the pretrial detention in a special federal prison called IZ 99/1. “After a year, people start going mad. They bark at the guards and so on. I was held for four,” he said.

He said writing helped him survive the experience. He managed to get permission to have a desk lamp and spent his time writing a mammoth, yet-unpublished book called “The Son of Lucifer,” of which his published novel “Pyramid” is a chapter.

In 2007, Mavrodi was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for fraud. Since he had been in detention since 2003, Mavrodi spent less than a month in jail. He was met outside with a bouquet of lilacs from well-wishers, although a pro-Kremlin activist threw a container of sour cream at him.

The court examined the cases of 10,000 people who lost 110 million rubles ($4.3 million), although millions of people lost money in the scheme. Mavrodi was ordered to pay some 20 million rubles to compensate victims of the scam. Some of the money has been returned.

In 2008, the courts released 18 million rubles belonging to Mavrodi.

On Tuesday, the head of the Moscow court marshals said they would sell a parking shelter in Moscow and a house in the Tver region belonging to Mavrodi, but the property would cover only about 15 percent of his debts, Interfax reported.

Mavrodi said he had sold the rights to his book to the Leopolis production company, which is bankrolling the “Pyramid” film, but the money had been seized by court marshals. He would not say how much he had been paid.

Leopolis general director Georgy Malkov also would not say how much Mavrodi had been paid. He added that one of the film’s other producers, Sergei Livnev, knew Mavrodi personally because he had been among his campaign staff when he was elected to the Duma.

Mavrodi continues to insist that he broke no laws, despite his conviction.

“I don’t think that I committed a crime. I didn’t break any laws. And all this talk about a pyramid isn’t worth a bent penny,” he said. “On the whole, I think I acted correctly and absolutely don’t regret anything.”

Amazingly, he still has supporters. People ask him for autographs on bank notes, Mavrodi said. “The only negative reaction in all this time was from a madam in an expensive Mercedes, all in diamonds, who stuck her head out of the window and shouted, ‘Swindler!’” he said.

He said he still lives at Frunzenskaya and spends time writing. He has a blog where he publishes poetry, and freely gives out his e-mail. He also makes occasional public appearances.

The big question is where the MMM millions went, and no one seems to be able to provide an answer.

“Mavrodi knows but he won’t say,” quipped the director. “Go to the Kremlin and ask there.”