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Sergei Mavrodi has advice for Bernie Madoff

The head of Russia's infamous 1990s Ponzi scheme offers advice for investment and life.

Sour cream is thrown at Sergei Mavrodi (in the green shirt), the former head of a collapsed 1990s investment scheme, as he gets into a car after leaving prison in Moscow, May 22, 2007. (Alexander Natruskin/Reuters)

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.