MOSCOW — Sergei Mavrodi was once the most infamous man in Russia.
Feeding on a post-Soviet population wholly unacquainted with the ways of the free market, he sold shares in his company to millions of unsuspecting Russians amid a wave of privatizations, building a pyramid scheme that defrauded investors of $1.5 billion.
Now, a decade, a jail sentence and a lost reputation later, Mavrodi is back and aiming to relaunch his career as — what else — a serious analyst who will advise Russians on how to make it through the global financial crisis.
Bernie Madoff, you may want to take note.
“I have nothing. I live off the help of friends,” Mavrodi said during an interview at a restaurant in central Moscow.
He is 53, with thinning hair and a dejected air. His uniform is a tracksuit and thick oversized eyeglasses — a look incongruous with the leggy models and sharply dressed waiters who swarm the restaurant.
When Mavrodi was at the top of his game, in the mid-1990s, he was a force to be reckoned with.
Back then, everything in Russia was new — stocks, investing, advertising — and Mavrodi manipulated it all to full effect. Commercials for his company, MMM, were all over TV, showcasing typical Russians who became rich by investing. The most famous character was Lyonya Golubkov, who kept doubling his returns with MMM, allowing him to buy his wife boots and then a fur coat, and a trip to the U.S. for his brother.
Where Madoff fed on the affluent, Mavrodi fed on the average. Where Madoff took advantage of a regulatory system that failed to function, Mavrodi took advantage of one that had yet to be formed.
And while Madoff faces a potential sentence of 150 years in prison, Mavrodi served just four years — and that after managing to avoid charges for nearly a decade, during which he served a short stint as a deputy in the Duma, or lower house of parliament, and made a failed bid to run for the presidency.
His attempt at a comeback only adds to the absurdity.
“Now is the time,” Mavrodi said. On April 2, he and his partner, producer Evgeny Lesnoi, will launch a weekly radio show called “Pyramid,” where Mavrodi will take calls and dole out financial advice, giving life lessons along the way. A television show is due to follow, and his assistant says they are negotiating for a weekly program with one of the three main channels, all state-run.
“When we are living through such times where there is a real need for help — Sergei can give useful advice,” Lesnoi said.
But ask Mavrodi for examples, and they are few and far between. Who has the best chance of getting ahead during the crisis, which has pushed unemployment here above 8 percent, cut 30 percent off the value of the ruble and led to projections of recession after a decade of uninterrupted growth?
“I don’t know who will live through the crisis,” Mavrodi said. “Probably the stupidest people – they have nothing to lose.”
Understood. Then what lessons, Mr. Mavrodi, did you take from the downfall of Madoff, who is believed to have swindled investors of nearly $65 billion?
“It demonstrated the weakness of the regulatory system,” Mavrodi said. “It also destroyed the myth that pyramid schemes are things that happen only in Russia.” Eye-opening.
And what piece of advice would you give to Madoff if you had the chance? “Hold on.”
Mavrodi served four years in prison on fraud charges, most of it in pre-trial detention at Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina, infamous for overcrowding and disease. He said he shared a cell with 85 men.
“I spent four years like that. It’s a record — after two years, anyone else would have gone crazy.”
What was the biggest lesson he learned in jail? “Have no regrets.”
Mavrodi was released in 2007, and to this day insists that MMM, which destroyed the financial lives of 10-15 million investors, according to Mavrodi’s own estimates, was not a Ponzi scheme.
“I don’t recognize that it was a pyramid,” he said. “It was a new financial structure. It’s like a bicycle — you have to keep going or you fall off.”
The problem, he insisted, is that the company simply got too big. “It was a healthy structure, and was destroyed artfully. It became so big that it became competition for the government.”
Now Mavrodi sits a broken man. He said he owes 700 million rubles ($21 million) in a civil suit, and all proceeds from his projects — the upcoming shows and several books — will go toward paying that off. In the meantime, he can’t leave Russia. He admits he has never been abroad, and said he has no desire to go.
So he spends most of his time writing poetry and lyrics, a pastime he picked up in prison.
Here’s an example, from a poem entitled Angel:
“You tell me, demon, about love and about truth —
Do they exist on earth, or is this all nonsense?
Maybe this is just a pose, folly and affectation?
And a game, and a drawing, and an empty conversation?”
It seems Mavrodi has found his true love: “I find my gift for literature even better than my gift for finance."
More related GlobalPost Dispatches:
Russia's Teflon 10
For more on the global economic crisis: