In 1986, my uncle Michael got summoned to the offices of the KGB in Nikolaev, Ukraine. They wanted to know about his friend, Tolic Dobrusin. Did Tolic have any relatives outside the country? Michael plead ignorance, and the KGB let him go.
When Michael got home, he called his friend Tolic. He told him that the KGB had been asking questions about him, and that they needed to talk. Tolic came over to my uncle’s (actually, most of my family’s) apartment for an evening chat. Over vodka and pickles, he admitted that he did indeed have a relative in Germany. It was his uncle, with whom he recently met in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). However, Tolic did not give his uncle any military secrets, because his uncle was working as a cleaner in a hotel and didn’t care about any of that stuff.
The next workday, when my uncle showed up to work to the shipbuilding plant, the KGB was waiting for him at the gate. He was taken away to their HQ, where he was questioned about his meeting with Tolic. My uncle tried to evade, by claiming that he was just trying to confirm the KGB’s hunch about Tolic’s relatives. However, the KGB was not happy with having their investigation revealed, especially by a party member (my uncle had joined the communist party at the behest of his father, my grandfather). “We didn’t want you revealing our investigation. We’re going to put you away.”
My mom’s good friend, Ira, had a father who was a cornel in the KGB. Around that time, Ira came to talk to my mom. She was asking about whether our family was in serious trouble, but my mom was ignorant about the conversations her brother was having with the KGB. Mom claimed she didn’t know what Ira was talking about, which made Ira think that Mom was playing some kind of crazy political game with her.
In the meantime, my uncle’s friend in the police department came to speak with him. He told him that the KGB was sure to arrest him in the near future. “Get out of here while you still can” was the message.
Michael was walking down the street and he saw a sign on a streetpost about workers needed in Deputatsk. Deputatsk was a small settlement about two hour’s flight north of Yakutsk, which claimed home to one of the only tin mines in the USSR. At incredible expense, tin was mined there. The raw ore was loaded onto planes, which was shipped to Yakutsk for processing. 3 tons of ore yielded several kilograms of tin. Deputatsk was a totally fabricated Soviet affair, with a single restraunt, a move theater, block housing, and triple hazard pay for workers.
Shortly, over a near-heart attack from my grandmother, my uncle found himself in Deputatsk. He showed up to talk to the head of the electric plant there, and shortly realized that everyone in the settlement was doomed. “Look,” the head told him, “here’s the deal. The whole town survives on the electricity from the plant. It produces electricity via diesel turbines manufactured at a plant in Nikolaev. However, we have no access to maintenance materials or spare sparts. We are running on the edge of capacity, and no government plan has room for us to receive the necessary materials.”
My uncle claimed to be able to use his personal connections in his home town to get the necessary parts. However, it was going to take money. He named the first price that came into his head: 10,000 rubles. The plant head claimed that this would be no problem, and also approved any additional travel expenses.
My uncle moved into the dormitory while he waited for his wife to come join him in Deputatsk. He quickly made friends with his dorm mates, and explained that he was about to go on a trip to the “mainland” to procure spare parts for the settlement’s electric plant. The housemates were desperate for any products from the mainland (top request: apples, vodka). They quickly gathered another 2000 rubles each (which they all had because they were receiving triple hazard pay for living in that frozen hellhole). They assured Michael that if he was unable to procure anything that would be fine, but they would like him to please try.
My uncle showed up back in his home town with close to 30k rubles in his pocket. For that kind of money, in Nikolaev in 1986, he coud buy a house, a car, a dacha and furniture for those. His wife convinced him that he had to do the right thing for the people counting on him.
Via his personal connections at the turbine plant, he was able to procure the necessary supplies (which did not appear on any Soviet production plan). He packed them into suitcases, and set off for Moscow, an intermediate destination on the way to Siberia. In Moscow, he still head several thousand rubles to spend. He bought the produce his dorm mates were asking for. He also managed to buy special checks which granted access to special stores selling rare foreign goods destined for sailors getting off long-haul voyages and for party officials. In these stores (where he saw goods he’s never seen before), he purchased among other things several cases of French perfume.
My uncle got back to Deputatsk, and began handing out his bounty. Word quickly spread around town about his perfume purchase, and girls from all over the settlement begged for a chance go buy some, at a price some 7 or 8 times what he had paid for it in Moscow. Of course, this was speculation – strictly forbidden in the USSR.
The next day, my uncle found two officers from the local police department visiting him at work. They asked him about the goods he had brought back from Moscow, and he mentioned the perfume (which was insanely popular; almost all of the females in the settlement had bought some from him). He spun the cops a yarn about how he was planning to profit from his trade. However, his young beautiful wife told him that if he sold the perfume for even a ruble over what he bought it for, she would kick him out into the street.
Via some magical chance, the cops bought my uncle’s story. They told him to thank his wife for her good advice, and left.