The Book - Human Pyramid.

Chapter 1.2, Moscow, 2008

"Hey, boss. We are here." I open my eyes and find myself in the back seat of my father's limousine. I see his driver.

"Do you know the difference between Stalin and Hitler?" he asks me.

"All right, Olegych, tell me."

"Moustache styling." He bursts into laughter. I smile. Olegych has been with us for more than a decade. He was one of the first people my dad hired for himself, and he is a family member at this point. Despite this he never forgets his place in the hierarchy. Perhaps that's the true reason behind his longevity. Well, besides the obvious fact that he drives like a devil and has little respect for any laws, except those of physics. I look outside and see the gloomy grey building of the Sheremetyevo Customs Terminal.

"Olegych, how the fuck do they manage to recreate a soviet vibe with everything they build?" I ask him.

"It wasn't all bad in the soviet times, boss." He laughs, "We had security, you know?"

"Security that your ass is gonna land in prison for one of your favourite Stalin jokes, you mean?"

"Well, yes, but they were much funnier when the price was that high."

"I bet they were. Right, I think that's my guy. Thank you, Olegovich; I will see you later."

"Good luck, boss."

I walk out from the comfort of my father's limousine into the rainy outskirts of Moscow. The colours are grey all around, and so is the broker who is waiting for me. He puts on a smile and leads me through security into the terminal. I hand him over the customs payment slips, and after a long and tedious procedure with the customs officer, they finally lead me to the warehouse, where a brand new silver Lexus LX570 is waiting for us. It looks like a spaceship in contrast with the surroundings.

"Well, this is my personal best, US to fully cleared in Russia in one week." the broker brags.

"For the kind of money we are paying, it better be." I snap back. "Thank you. I'll take it from here."

I sit in the car, and it feels even more spaceship-like inside. I look for the place to insert the key and find a start-stop button. I press it, and everything lights up; there are so many buttons. I feel dizzy looking at them. Lexus never understood the lesson in subtlety that is required today. They pair cutting-edge technology with horrendously overcomplicated interfaces, reminding me of the German cars of the nineties. There is a difference, though – somehow, the complexity worked with analogue tech. Now that everything has gone digital, it feels too much.

It doesn't matter, though. What matters is that the customs officer just confirmed this is the first new LX in Russia. It took me four months to get my hands on one of the first top spec cars delivered in the States and almost double its price if you count the premium I had to pay to the greedy fucker that ordered it, air freight cost, customs fees, and bribes for speed at every stage. You might wonder, what's the rush? Why not get the car when it hits the market, with official support from a dealership, warranty and localised everything?

It's all about the correct type of show-off. In the post-Soviet world, the highest praise for swag is not awarded to the person who spends the most money but to those possessing things not easily accessed. The platonic ideal is the ownership of something nobody else can have. Vladimir Mayakovskiy imported the first foreign automobile, Renault NN, for his femme fatale, Lilya Brik. Another poet, Vladimir Vysotskiy, was the first to import a privately owned Mercedes 450SEL in 1976 for his favourite guy - himself. My father cracked this code quite young. Some of my earliest memories are of him and my mom hand dyeing Turkish jeans in our kitchen. Turkish jeans were overflowing the young Russian market at the time and my parents were not making them better, they were making them unlike all others. Exclusivity is a language spoken everywhere, even by the poorest people on Earth. 

Nowadays, with the free market and open borders, it is much more challenging to reach this ideal. But guess what? For a period of a few months, I just did. I got the first new LX in the country, which means a lot, given this car's special status in the pantheon of must-have vehicles for a successful dude. You can be a 7 series guy or an S-Classe guy, you can be into G-wagons or Cayennes, or even Q7s for god's sake, but when it comes to an off-road vehicle, one must have the Land Cruiser or its rich brother - the LX. By going through all the trouble in getting this car as fast as possible, I have secured a high spot in Moscow's social hierarchy for my father that nobody else can have. For the next few months people will gawk at his car, more than they gawk at exotics. Although he doesn't know it yet, he will be one happy camper when I pick him up at the airport tonight.

I am rolling into the Vnukovo 3 airport terminal compound. It's the most convenient airport in Moscow, located on the Kyiv highway. Reaching the fancy suburban Rublevka where my parents live only takes half an hour from here. There are never any queues, the building is well designed and has none of the terrors of commerce forcing you to buy unnecessary shit while you wait. The only downside is you have to travel in a business jet to use it.

I am a little late; they should have landed, but it has yet to happen. I hope they got delayed leaving Cannes, because the alternative is much worse. They might be stuck in a holding pattern waiting for permission to land. That is the second downside of Vnukovo 3 - it shares the landing strip with Vnukovo 2, the government terminal that our president and his crew are using and those guys love to make everyone wait for them to come through. When we  first moved to Rublevka, I learned the skill of timing our president's route to work and back. I had to, because driving out at the same time meant being stuck stationary for at least 20 minutes. Sometimes they would block the road and something would delay the president at home, and all the happy people that follow the same route would be stuck for an hour or more with no way to escape. Little did I know that this hierarchical order stays the same even as you get so rich as to afford a private plane. 

I mean sure, you can land in Domodedovo-2 or Sheremetyevo A, but those are for losers. They are older terminals and the traffic that you have to endure on your way back to Rublevka is horrendous. Some wise asses have built their compounds and lives closer to those airports, but their cheap-ass attitude is not fooling anyone. If you want prime comfort, you fly to Vnukovo-3. Even if it means waiting now and then for the leadership of the country to land ahead of you. Even if they are flying from the same airport in the south of France and they left a full hour after you.

If you think of the world's toughest jobs, many people would list the same professions: surgeon, firefighter, astronaut, member of the special forces, or the police even. My entry would be Vnukovo air traffic controller.  Every day that person has to make countless decisions on the basis of perceived and real hierarchical status of countless Russian government officials and oligarchs. To further complicate matters there are also civilians on their unimportant commercial flights landing on the same strips. Any small mistake in establishing who has priority and how much exactly may cost them their job, and some mistakes may cost them way more than that. 

The Vnukovo-3 security guy steps out of his booth – the Lexus doesn’t have a licence plate yet. I open the window as he approaches, and he recognises me, waving me through. I park the car next to Olegych and my father's security detail, shake hands with his men and walk into the terminal. 

As I enter the building, I am surprised to see an unusual number of people inside. I have only seen this many people here once before - when Paris Hilton came to visit Moscow. I remember she smiled at me, and I turned away, not recognising her and thinking that this petite, unsexy blonde must be the daughter of someone very important. Today, it is different, though. Unlike her entourage, who were all grouped up waiting for her, I see roughly 30 people in the terminal, pretending to do mundane things. Some read newspapers, a couple talk over coffee, and someone is busy on their laptop. It is a regular sight in a typical airport, yet here it feels eerily out of place. I have been here dozens of times; nobody does these mundane things here, ever. I look for the terminal director, Roman, to find out what's going on, but he is busy with a couple of mean-looking suits, so I decide to wait it out.

Suddenly, the arrival doors open, and a gorgeous couple walks in. He is tanned, tall, wearing a tailor-made olive linen suit and a pair of python slip-ons. She is tall, in a gorgeous blue silk dress, rocking a wide-brimmed hat, a crocodile Kelly bag and wearing what looks like a million dollars in diamonds on her neck. I can't help but stare at them, but nobody else is paying attention except for a couple of guys who must be their security. A tower of luggage is brought in behind them and stacked onto the customs X-ray device. Their passports are stamped and handed back to them, and as they are about to cross the customs line, the officer on duty casually asks them: "Anything you want to declare for import?" There is a slight pause in the air after the question; the guy stares at the officer with a puzzled look. I understand him; in my years of using this terminal, never have I heard the question. There is an understanding with the airport management that if you are importing something of value, you pay a small bribe of 5k USD in advance, and everyone looks the other way. After some hesitation, the guy says, "Nope!" and the officer responds with "Good! Welcome home, then," while making a welcoming gesture with his hand.

As soon as the hot couple crosses the insignificant red line on the terminal floor that I had never noticed before, the whole terminal comes into motion. The guys reading drop their papers, the laptop guy walks away from his laptop, the smoking men drop their cigarettes heading inside, the coffee guys, everyone is synchronised suddenly. They move in an eerily beautiful law enforcement polonaise, forming a large circle around the couple. A pair of mean suits approach the guy and wave their identification.

"Russian Tax Service, you are under arrest for the evasion of customs duties on an immense scale; you need to come with us." The guy looks baffled.

Tries to play it cool, "This is a mistake, gentlemen. Do you know who I am?"

The suits have none of that, "Yes, Viktor Mikhaylovich, we know precisely who you are. Now, would you come with us willingly, or would you like us to arrest your lady partner, too, on suspicion of your crimes committed by a group of persons by prior conspiracy?"

The guy's face loses all colour, and his head sinks. "No, that won't be necessary; I am coming with you."

With a flurry of motion, the terminal building is suddenly empty. It's just me, Roman, the terminal director, the lady who works in the cafe, and the border guards. Roman finally comes up to me and shakes my hand. I realise I am standing with my mouth open.

"Roman, what the fuck just happened?"

"This poor cat got stung, is what happened. He went on a romantic getaway with his girl and bought her north of 3 million euros worth of jewellery on a spending frenzy in Monaco."

"That happens, but how did the customs find out?"

"Well, this shrewd fellow here decided to get the VAT back when he left France and applied for a tax return. I guess he didn't think it was true that all tax returns Russians claim above 10k are reported to our customs service."

"I've heard that, but never actually seen this happen."

"Well, normally, they don't care, but this was a record-breaking amount, so they decided to move. It is going to get very expensive for him," Roman laughs.

Finally, I see my father come into the terminal. He is quickly done with all the formalities and is coming to greet me.

"Hey, son, what's that sour look on your face? Are you not happy to see your old man?" I tell him briefly what I just witnessed as his bags are brought in.

"Well, the poor cunt didn't pay Roman is what happened, son. What a cheap scoundrel; you are getting more than half a million back and fail to pay the measly 5k to the fair folks that look after you."

"I don't know, Dad. Would that help, given the record-breaking case for our customs?"

"You are going about this all wrong. The guy is an amateur, a nouveau riche who tried to impress his girl without thinking it through. He had gone to the shop in Monaco and bought her all the fancy bling she desired, dropping a few million in one go. He saw her admiration, how she was already crafting that story for all her socialite friends in her mind. He felt the sweet surge of power in that moment. The sex afterwards was out of this world. The next morning he woke up with a feeling of having been fucked over. He wasn't used to spending this much money. Sure, the sex was great, but not a thousand times better than a good escort delivered for 1/1000th of a price. He remembered how long he had to suck cock before he found a way to skim out those 50 million USD that made him feel all powerful that day. And he decided to get some of it back, by claiming the VAT refund. He had done it before when he travelled to Paris and Milan a couple of times a year to buy his Brunello suits. He had read in self-help books that rich people count every penny and thought of himself as a progressive by following this rule."

"Is he wrong?"

"Of course he is fucking wrong. Rich people count every penny, that much is true, but they do it by not paying stupid taxes in the first place. Everyone has a guy for bling. Best guys in that line of business happen to be extravagantly attractive ladies by the way. When I want to impress your mother, I call our lady and pick the best Graf or Van Cleef set she has. We then arrange an off-shore payment for it, skipping the idiotic VAT-theatre nobody needs. Your mother is a modest woman, she doesn't need a show and she is happy for me to just bring her presents home after the payment is cleared. However it costs nothing to arrange a mock purchase in any fancy boutique you like. Just a little foresight. Had he known his way around such things, he'd do that. They would even run his card for the gazillion he spent in a way that it would go through even if his broke ass didn't have a penny on it. But that cheapskate decided to claim a VAT refund on a 3 mil purchase. Can you imagine the face of the French customs officer when he saw a request to return six hundred thousands euros? The kind of hate he was feeling for the cocksucker in front of him? The joy he felt in reporting him to the Russian tax office? The extra mile he went to make sure they acted on it?"

"Well, fuck, I hadn’t really thought of that."

"Yeah, neither did he, and that's why he is going to experience what it actually means to get fucked over by a group of very unfriendly men. Not spending more is not the same as being cheap. Both result in a reputation, however only one improves your standing in the human hierarchy." He laughed. "Let's get going. I don't see your car."

"I am picking you up in your new car today, Dad. See this silver pig? That is yours, first in the country. Happy belated birthday, Dad."

"Holy shit! A Jew's Mercedes! How much did it cost me?"

"You don't want to know, Dad. But it's safe to say nobody will have one for at least a few months."

"Mike's gonna be jealous as hell. Will you come along and join me and your mother for dinner?"

"I was going to take Olegych back to my place, Dad; I have a date tonight."

"What another one of your carton box ladies? What happened to that blonde one I didn't hate?"

"We are on a break, Dad. I'll see you later."

"See you, son."

With his childlike smile, he is already on the phone as he climbs into the car. "You won't believe what our son got me. A Jewish Mercedes! No, not a damn Volga. Who would drive a Volga? A Lexus, honey! I'll be home in 30 minutes. Of course I am hungry"

I get into Olegych's limo and ask him to head to my place. I doze off and dream of being arrested on arrival from holiday. After a week on our family boat, I am with my ex-girlfriend and a bunch of people. Everyone is wearing black tie and has a whole bunch of luggage. For some reason, I am naked with no bags, and the customs officers are swarming me, and everyone is laughing, and I can't understand what's going on.

I ask "Why are you harassing me? I have paid in advance as usual," and they laugh, "Your bribes are no good, boy! Hahaha, times have changed, boy! The oil prices are failing, boy! Hahaha, rich people are the new oil, boy!"

I ask them, "But why me? I have nothing with me!"

They laugh, "We know who pays for everything here, boy. Who is on top of this pyramid, boy! We know your place in hierarchy, boy! You are under arrest! Under arrest, hahahah, under arrest! You will pay, boy, hahaha!"

I wake up with a cold sweat and shake off the stupid, nonsensical dream. Olegych is doing over 200 km/h heading into town on Lenin Avenue. Moscow suburbs fly by, looking sinister in the night's glow. Olegych notices I am awake.

"Hey, do you know why Lenin wore shoes while Stalin wore jackboots?"

"Not a clue."

"Because during Lenin's time, Russia was in shit only up to the ankles", and he bursts out laughing at his joke.

This post is a work of fiction ,based on a true story. It is part of a bi-weekly publication, "a fall from grace". Take a glimpse behind the iron curtain into the world of Russian extreme wealth, power and the true cost of it all. Subscribe to never miss a post.

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