Russia's TV Hero Captures Hearts, Wallets of Millions


IN a wildly popular Russian television commercial, little Lyonya Golubkov uses a chart to show his domineering - and much larger - wife Rita the monthly rewards the fictional couple can expect from investing in the MMM investment fund.

Lyonya, who already bought his spouse a pair of boots in a previous commercial, explains that thanks to MMM's promised annual dividends of 3,000 percent, soon he will be able to afford a fur coat, new furniture, a car, and a new house. ``In Paris?'' asks the rotund Rita, happily munching chocolates.

Forget Lenin, Stalin, and even writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In today's Russia of quick money, fast cars, and gangster politics, it's Lyonya Golubkov, the bumbling, boy-next-door star of Russia's most popular TV commercials, who almost overnight jetted into telestardom to become a new national hero.

Lyonya has become a daily fixture on Russian television, where until recently advertising did not exist. Whether conversing with his wife or arguing with siblings, his mild-mannered adventures have delighted audiences to such a degree that MMM, despite being robbed during daylight several times over the past few months, has become a beloved household word.

In another commercial in the series, tiny Lyonya is sitting behind a kitchen table across from his slightly inebriated brother, Ivan. In traditional Russian style, the table is covered with bowls of beet and potato salads, plates of dried fish, a bottle of vodka, and other obligatory national delicacies.

``You freeloader, Lyonya. Have you forgotten what our parents taught us, to work honestly and not to deceive anybody?'' Ivan says, glancing despondently at the floor in a pose reminiscent of Rodin's sculpture ``The Thinker.''

``Whaddya mean, freeloader?'' Lyonya retorts. ``How can I be a freeloader when I live on honestly earned money.... I'm not a freeloader, I'm an investor.''

Remember the old Wendy's Hamburgers ``Where's the Beef?'' ad? Lyonya is probably just as popular - if not more so - thanks to his reassuring, neighborly image along with the motley selection of amateurish, grainy ads competing against him for airspace.

Even President Boris Yeltsin felt inclined to mention good old Lyonya in a recent nationally televised press conference (Lyonya evidently is hard to miss, since MMM ads ran 2,666 times from March through May this year, or an average of 30 times daily, according to Russian television).

``There are too many tempting offers promising fantastic dividends and houses in Paris,'' President Yeltsin said, making a veiled reference to MMM before announcing a new decree that will punish companies that profit from false advertising.

``Unlike TV's Lyonya Golubkov, I'm not going to publicize where I invested my voucher,'' Yeltsin added. ``Otherwise, everyone will rush off to the same place.''

The Neft Almaz (Oil Diamond) Invest, for example, attracted 876,000 investors - although it has nothing to do with either oil or diamonds - and bilked them out of 7 billion rubles (about $3.6 million), according to Russian media reports. Other funds promise up to 4,000 percent annual interest on ruble accounts, and 30 percent on dollar accounts.

But despite the presidential warnings, MMM's advertising seems to be working. ``My parents had [privatization] vouchers and didn't know where to spend them,'' admits office manager Lena Artikova. ``My mom didn't know anything about vouchers, but she liked MMM's advertisements.''

``You might not know how to save money to go to the Canary Islands or to buy a new BMW or Cadillac. But everyone knows how to spend a couple of thousand rubles from their miserly salaries on MMM,'' the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper chimed in last week.

But Lyonya, a k a actor Vladimir Permyakov, recently admitted in a rare interview with the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda that he himself has not profited from MMM, which reportedly has attracted over 5 million investors. Although he had once invested in MMM stock, Mr. Permyakov said, he eventually sold the shares because he desperately needed cash.

Once a starving actor from Siberia, Permyakov said he was so poor before gaining his new-found fame that he had moved out of a rented room because he couldn't afford to pay 1,500 rubles in back rent (less than a dollar). But he now claims to be ``satisfied'' with his life.

``These days, anyone with a head on his shoulders can make a heap of money,'' Permyakov said, adding that soon he will be in the United States filming yet another MMM commercial, which will feature Lyonya and his fictional brother Ivan in San Francisco watching the World Cup - thanks to dividends from their MMM stock.

``I exchanged all my [ruble] savings, and now I have $130,'' Permyakov confided. ``Do you know what I can buy [in the US] with that?''

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