The Amerikans

Vahid Houston Ranjbar
15 min readNov 18, 2016

(Part IV of my Will and Testament)

Jack Anderson was a real American unlike me. I always had the feeling I was either a fake American or at other times a fake Persian, this feeling seemed to become more pronounced when I was living abroad. This is because when I was abroad some how I was duty bound to represent one or the other, but I wasn’t either. I guess I was much more American. I could faithfully produce the nice chocolate American accent, I knew about the pop culture, music and the desolation of the suburbs. I loved western counter culture, but I still felt I was faking it somehow. Jack was from Minnesota he had come to Novosibirsk several years ago as a high school exchange student. Now he returned to take classes in economics. Economics! of all disciplines? I remember a former economics student explain to me the nature of economic studies during the soviet years. They would spend much time building elaborate computer models to predict the demand and thus production, which never could work, since it was an insanely complex problem. Now all the socialist economic theories were being discarded and western market economics was being learned furiously.

Jack came to Russia very well prepared. Unlike me he had organized everything in advance. He had studied Russian for many years, and arranged his classes in coordination with his university in the US. Also he was financially equipped for his semester in Russia. I recall that for some reason the heat came on very late in our apartment that first year. It was cold and there was only two thin blankets which I would sleep pulled over my head to trap the heat. Jack went out and bought a large radiant space heater. I envied the fact that he could afford such a thing. Eventually he bought a much better one and loaned me his spare one. I was very grateful for that and the glowing coils illuminating my room at night.

I remember being impressed by the brightness and whiteness of his clothes when he arrived. There were no washing machines available to me so laundry was done in the bathtub by hand. As a result you never could get clothes too clean. Another thing, Jack would visit his old Russian friends who lived in the country and would send him home with large sacks of potatoes which he generously would share with me. Thus I lived off fried potatoes and eggs plus my daily trip to the cafeteria. I became very skinny. Potatoes were very important not just for me but for everyone trying to survive those times. Most people had a small lot in the country where one would plant and harvest potatoes. All of the academics did this as well and it became a sort of social outing to plant and harvest your potatoes.

Later I met a lady from the US. She was running some kind of program at the university to try and educate the students about ‘democracy’. One of my Russian classmates took me to her seminar. She organized the Russian students into groups to argue with each other. Somehow with her fine higher degree in political science, this was democracy to her: ‘conflict’. This is was the great thing the west was going to teach these students, conflict and argument. Somehow if you weren’t arguing you weren’t doing democracy right. To her chagrin and the glee of a number of students I told her I believed she was incorrect and that our western partisan, conflict based democracy was not beyond reproach.

The US spent lots of money on this kind of so called aid, teaching the savages about the glories of laissez-faire capitalism and partisan based democracy. On careful inspection this money just exposed the inherent crony capitalist corruption of the systems they were peddling. There were the Deloitte and Touch offices teaching the Russians about how to run a business, which was in actuality really a way for them to set up shop in Siberia on the dime of the US government.

“But thats how things go.” Jared explained to me puffing on his cigarette. I met Jared towards the end of my time in Russia. I recall him remarking once that he hoped the economic chaos in Russia would continue, since he thought that would be a great thing for the evolution of a strong market economy. He was to me some kind of metaphor for the excesses of Americana and consumption. He was a very large man from Minnesota who drank and smoked hard. I recall how he explained to me that he couldn’t survive on less than 100,000 dollars a year. How he would spend that just on clothes every year. The thing he missed most about the US was the blockbuster movie season.

Then there were his stories. How an American businessman friend of his had been banished from Russia. He had come over earlier than even Jared had and become involved in the Aluminum export business. But then his Russian partner decided that he didn’t need to pay the bribes to secure the export licenses. This was a mistake. One day the police showed up and arrested them both and sent the American fellow packing.

Jared had is own tale of Russian partners and betrayal. Several years earlier his younger brother had come to Novosibirsk to study Russian. He had then managed to put Jared in contact with a Russian entrepreneur. At that time the market had just opened and Jared would send over containers filled with just about anything from the US. His partner would then just literally sell it off the truck. Apparently they both became very wealthy doing this. Later they decided to open an American style SuperMarket in the Academic city. However not long after completion of the project, Jared lost all his investment. What he didn’t realize was that his partner was involved in several other real estate ventures which sent him into bankruptcy and took all Jared’s investment with him.

Jared used to expatiate on how he was connected to the monied class of Minneapolis. Although he never went to college, his parents had managed to send him to an exclusive private high school where he rubbed shoulders with the progeny of the rich and powerful. Apparently he had a natural aptitude for the entrepreneurial sciences and had established T-Shirt company while in school. I recall how he would use the word ‘powerful man’ when referring to certain individuals back home. I began to understand over time that this was probably code for rich gangster.

Now Jared was ready to try again and was looking for a new Russian business partner. When I left Russia he was beginning the process of setting up a Pizza shop with Oleg. Several years later when I was back in the States, I read an article in the news which featured Jared as a successful American doing business in Siberia.


I was sitting in the Tajik brother’s dorm room when in marched two Russians. The first one I recognized as the businessmen I had met several days before in this very dorm room. He was a kind of business associate of the Tajiks. He ran a small grocery in the academic city and the Tajik brothers would help ship fruit up from their home in Uzbekistan. When I discovered what he did, I told him that I was looking for work. The fellow behind him was dressed in a pair of blue sweat pants and hoodie. He had blond hair, a strong jawline and blue eyes with an excited look. He was saying in English, “Where is the American? Are you the American?” He looked at me and I nodded my head.

“Great! I am Oleg” he extended his hand. I shook it and told him my name.

“You’re going to be rich! We will make lots of money together!” He said excitedly.

“Come with me! I need to introduce you to the Borises.”

I said “Now?”

He said, “Yes come with me have to go to the city and meet my partners!”.

When I had originally conceived of my plan to study physics in Novosbirsk, I had imagined that I would support myself by teaching English. However I discovered quickly that in the academic city, while there was great desire to learn English, no one had the money necessary to pay enough to support both my living expenses and my education. The best I found was school in the city which would pay me about 100 dollars a month, since the Sun Sparks station cost about 3 thousand dollars there was no way I could accomplish this by teaching English. While I had relied on my parents help up to this point I was fairly determined to become self-supporting. It became clear that in this society the only people with enough money to accomplish my goals were to be found in the emerging commercial class. So whenever I met someone with any relationship to this class, I would see if they knew anyone who wanted to hire someone like me.

Before I could process what was occurring. I found myself in his white Chrysler sedan driving to Novosibirsk to find the Borises as he called them. He proceeded to tell me how there were two partners both named Boris and they had become very rich. They had opened a store in the Novosibirsk department store ‘Tsum” selling electronics. He explained how they had friends in the Mayor’s office; they drove Mercedes, all these details poured out of him excitedly. “I also use to be poor. But now look, I bought an American Car!” Honestly, at that time, the possession of such a car did seem an impressive thing. Outside of the expensive taxi ride from the Airport in Moscow and a brief jeep ride from the train station, I hadn’t travel by car with anyone since I had arrived in Russia. I didn’t actually know anyone who owned their own car. All of the cars I had seen on the street were old half broken down Russian Lada’s. Oleg was the first person I had met who owned a car, and a foreign one at that. After arriving in the city, Oleg proceeded to drive around town in an attempt to locate Boris’s Mercedes. We finally came upon it in a parking lot near a low building. “Here is Boris! He is in the Casino.” Oleg exclaimed. Though there was no way one could tell that a Casino existed here. There wasn’t the usual bright, flashing signs or neon lights one would expect. For that matter after the sun fell Novosibirsk was a dark place. There were no commercial signs and lights for shopping or restaurants that one normally sees in other cities. This would change dramatically in the coming years as commerce spread outward with more and more force. We parked and walked over to a lit doorway, which led down to a basement. At the bottom of the stairs was large older man with a scared long face and protruding brow somewhat reminiscent of ‘Lurch’ from the Adam’s family. He was dressed in a suit and was guarding a metal caged room where he would store customers’ coats and possibly other items. He proceeded to search us for weapons and then permitted us entry. There were several tables around which dealers dealt cards or spun roulette wheels. Many men in suits where seated around them. To one side there were tables where others sat drinking. Lingering here and there were young pretty ladies dressed in tight tube dresses smoking looking on.

I think it was about this time that I realized I might have stumbled into the clutches of some local gangster. Fear gripped me as I imagined how I could extricate myself from this situation. Oleg approached Boris seated at the roulette wheel and spoke fast to him in Russian and pointed to me. Boris didn’t seem too impressed. He was very stalky man with a thick neck and crew cut. He had an air of command about him. He wore a shortish tie with a dark green suit. Finally coming over to me he shook my hand with a firm pudgy grip; still seeming unimpressed he turned slightly sucked on his cigarette and blew smoke off to the side. We exchanged greetings in Russian, and then him and Oleg prattled some more, while I stood there quietly terrified.

Eventually we were back in Oleg’s car. “ You must come over to my home and meet my wife.” We drove across town to the entrance of a caged lot. Oleg rolled down his window and summoned an old man in a fur cap. He was toting a long shot gun and chained dogs were barking around him. The old man returned and swung open the cage doors and we drove in and parked. I remember crossing the street and stopping at a Kiosk while Oleg bought some items. In the windows of Kiosk you could see various bottles of booze displayed prominently. Then there was Terminator Vodka, complete with cyborg Arnold glaring with his red shinning eyes.

Later I would have a discussion with another fellow who for time worked in these Kiosks. He would explain how after about midnight they would double the prices on the alcohol since they knew the drunks would come out on a binge and pay any price to get their fix. Alcohol was the bane of this society laying waste to the villages and countryside. I recall once hearing a historical antidote of dubious truth; that Russia nearly embraced Islam during its heyday but the fact that alcohol was forbidden was the thing that stopped it.

Baha’is like Muslims don’t drink and in most of the cultured, intellectual crowds I traveled in this was not an issue. Most of those people actually rarely drank. Even during my time with Oleg he also rarely drank in front of me. He was in the process of quitting smoking and was espousing a new healthy life style, complete with exercise and trips to the woods. However from time to time I would encounter the drinking culture in strange ways. One time I was visiting a neighbor and her grandmother offered me hard liquor, I politely turned it down, explaining that I don’t drink. She looked cockeyed at me and smirked “what are you a little girl?” She said with much contempt. That was the first time a grandma had tried to push booze on me.

Over the next several months I would visit Oleg’s home nearly everyday, until a real office was finally opened downtown. Over time I began to loose touch with my academic studies. I would miss classes, homework, finally in the middle of the following year I dropped out of school totally. There was this pace of work which Oleg set. I called it ‘Hurry up and Slow down’. There were times when a new idea hit him and things for some reason had to get done this instant. We would rush frantically to meet some imaginary deadline. Then nothing we would just hang out chat and discuss life. There were always new ideas for how to make money. Every day some new scheme we would research, plan and figure how we would turn a profit.

I realize later this way of thinking represented a common problem among the new entrepreneurs. Invariably they were the type of people who would not just get an idea, but act on it. Since the market at that time was wide open, they would become wildly successful regardless of any innate competence. They would then start another business in the same fashion. Again they would be very successful for the same reasons. After a while the idea occurred to them that there wasn’t anything they could do wrong. They began to believe that they were some kind of ‘Renaissance’ super businessman. Since everything they touched turned to gold they would do everything and eventually they would either over-extend their abilities to manage or do something ill advised. The result was their little Empire would come crashing down rather spectacularly. If they were lucky they might survive to play again. I heard and saw this same story repeated many times during my life in Russia.

Our collective was not immune to this hubris. By the time things began to fall apart they were involved in over 8 distinct businesses. Early on I had offered my services in accounting and finance since I actually had studied business finance prior to returning to my real love physics. I left the US with a degree in Finance. Oleg communicated this to Borises. The response was “we have our own way of doing finance in Russia. You don’t need to worry about it”. Finally the cracks became evident when years later I was commissioned to look for investors from the west. So I now needed to understand the financial situation of their companies. I asked for an accounting of assets, liabilities and cash flows. To this I was met with a blank wonder of what these things are and how to determine them. After much effort I managed to coax them to extract this information.

When I began to construct a financial picture of their companies it became evident that they were headed quickly for insolvency. Apparently they had made a very unwise investment in a new shop and the interest on the loan for this was consuming their whole business. We sat down together and I showed them how to build a simple cash flow statement using a spreadsheet and went through the projections. When it finally dawned on them where they were headed panic ensued. The Borises and Oleg sold off their fancy foreign cars and cannibalized many of the businesses that were not their core profitable business.

I was dumbfounded when I realized that they had managed to run such a profitable business for so long without ever understanding such an essential tool as a cash flow statement. They had two accountants, however they knew nothing of cash flow statements. All their accounting was for the government for taxes and had no connection to the real financial health of the business. Money would come in go into a drawer and then be paid out of that drawer. That was their method of cash flow control.

The longest Day of 94

It was around midnight during the summer solstice, when we watched the sun go down over the Obscure More the lake near the academic city. A few minutes later we turned around to watch it rise again. It was my first birthday in Russia. I have this image of standing about a camp fire, the smoke periodically blowing in my face. There are many friends around, most of them I had met through Costa. Costa was an army friend of Oleg’s, but unlike him he had managed to graduate from Novosibirsk University a few years before. For some stupid reason the powers that were, decided to pull this whole generation of students out of their second year of studies and send them to the army to waste two years of their lives. When they returned the country was falling apart around them and many were forced to resort to whatever they could to survive and provide food for their families. This effectively ended the educational career for most of them including Oleg. However Costa had managed to return to school and finish his degree in physics. When Oleg first introduced me to Costa you could see he looked up to Costa since he had finished his degree and knew English well. This would change.

From that day forward I would see Costa every so often at my door with a new friend. These people were different from my classmates and I found it easier to relate with them. I don’t think it was just because they were a bit older and closer to my own age. They just were more similar intellectually, interested in art, literature and music in a way that my old friends in college were. We would get together often, talk about philosophy, religion and music. I loved it. It seemed as if my hippie dreams from Tallinn were remerging in a wonderful way in Siberia. A few of them had been in a local rock band together and were fairly accomplished musicians. They loved jazz and disliked much of contemporary rock music that they had been exposed to from the West. For me it was like I was transported back to some time in the 60’s when the cool jazz beatniks ruled.

I have this image of sitting in a circle with a group of friends in a darkened dorm room with only burning candles for illumination. A powerful feeling of transcendence courses through us amidst the sounds of poetry, music and prayer. I have this image of a lady sitting casually on the sill of her bedroom window, which was a top, a 16 story high-rise. The windows were flung open perilously before her as she drew smoke out of her cigarette. She wore a dark sea blue tight jeans with a light blue horizontally stripped sweater hanging on her frail frame. Perched on the right wall was a turntable emitting the haunting sounds of Miles Davis’s trumpet. We were so high up you could see over the birch trees spreading out before us and the dimming sunset glowed through her straight brown hair illuminating her cheekbones and those pale blue eyes with a wild pharaoh stare, full of some unknown deep knowledge, gleaned from motherhood and her stacks of books reaching to the ceiling.

“All things move towards their end..” -Nick Cave

Part III of my Will and Testament



Vahid Houston Ranjbar

I am a research physicist working on beam and spin dynamics. I like to write about connections between science and religion.