SECRET SWAPS. Icon for your Nikon? Samovar for your Sony?
SERGEI pulls off to the side of Nevsky Prospect and checks his Rolex for the time. His head is lost in a fog of rhythm, as Grace Jones blares from his Pioneer car stereo: ``I'm not perfect, but I'm perfect for you.'' Sergei's friend Sasha is five minutes late for lunch. Peering through the windshield, Sergei spots two down-jacketed figures. The unzipped jacket of one boy exposes his L.L. Bean sweater. Americans, Sergei notes. Those coats must cost a lot in the West and would probably bring in five times more here. He hops out of his car. Why not talk to two young tourists?Skip to next paragraph
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Sergei (not his real name), one of countless black market dealers throughout the Soviet Union, approaches his trade with the assured air of a Wall Street stockbroker. He shies away from the riskier game of money exchange, where dollars go for as much as five rubles, rather than the official rate of 0.64 rubles. (The government jealously guards the flow of foreign currency, which it needs for foreign trade.) Instead, Sergei exchanges things - clothing, cassette tapes and players, even aspirin - for the standard Russian treasures: icons, Soviet flags, and black lacquer boxes.
Sergei approaches the two young men and begins speaking English. His own self-taught version mixes phrases from Western movies and rock music with a good measure of American slang. The college men are impressed: for them this is a rare opportunity to meet a ``real'' Russian. They agree to dinner that evening - 6o'clock in the park by their hotel.
This is not an isolated incident for Sergei since he is usually in pursuit of foreigners. He says he thrives on conversations about politics and Western music - topics he can't discuss with most of his compatriots. ``You know better than I do the level of discontent in this country,'' he tells a visiting foreigner. ``I don't like to talk about it with other Russians.''
But he also, of course, thrives on the foreigners' goods. For the average Soviet citizen it's hard to make ends meet. Even a pair of inferior-quality shoes can cost one-third of a typical monthly salary. This situation often drives Soviets to find alternate sources of income and consumer goods. In a good week, Sergei can earn 400 rubles (about $625) - an amount it takes an average Soviet more than two months to earn.
``Everyone in the Soviet Union is involved in the black market,'' Sergei says. And many instances support this assertion: A priest listens to Andrew Lloyd Webber's ``Requiem'' on a Sony cassette player; a university professor pads around in Nike running shoes; an author reads the English version of Boris Pasternak's outlawed ``Dr. Zhivago.'' Although some goods are received from foreign friends or relatives living abroad, most are acquired through the black market.
Traders obtain their goods in a mysterious fashion, sometimes from another black marketeer who has access to a supply of lacquer boxes for sale for rubles. Less well-connected marketeers rely on fur hats available in Soviet stores and old family icons to attract trade.
Some marketeers have regular channels to the West through tourists who come regularly and know precisely what to bring. And unlike Sergei, many marketeers trade for American dollars, which they can use to buy goods in a beryozka - a foreign-currency store. Although it is illegal for Soviets to have foreign currency, many marketeers find foreigners to do the buying for them.