Twenty years later, a Georgian writer recalls the pursuit of money in the years immediately after the Iron Curtain came down.
The first time they got him was on the night of his thirtieth wedding anniversary. He had dropped the women off and gone to park the car, and now he was coming back, staggering just a bit because he had been drinking hard that night. There had been a dozen relatives and a great band playing the folksy old Tbilisi music that he liked, and as he entered the lobby, he remembered everything that had been good about that evening, all of the toasts that had been said, how the table had looked with all of the food and booze laid out. He was almost definitely smiling. He might have even had his eyes closed. And that’s probably why he didn’t see them until the last second.
Five men, waiting for him by the elevator. Dressed in black. Georgians. Robbers.
Their boss, potbellied and graying around the temples, opened his jacket to show the gun in his belt.
“We were planning on kidnapping you and ransoming you off,” he said. “But if you take us upstairs and give us what you’ve got, we can avoid all that.”
Misha wondered why he wasn’t scared. Was it the booze, or was it his luck, pulsing through him, making sure that everything turned out okay?
“My wife and daughter are up there,” he said. “If you can give me your word that nobody gets hurt, you can have it all.”
The boss promised, and into the elevator they all went. When they came into the apartment, Nino, who was in the kitchen, heard Georgian being spoken and figured that Misha met some friends on his way from the garage and brought them upstairs, something he had been known to do. She sighed and began laying plates and leftovers out on the kitchen table. When they got to the kitchen after surveying the rest of the apartment, there was a good meal waiting.
“We have some company, Nino,” Misha said. “Just take it easy, and we’ll be fine.”
Nino’s eyes went to the men, then to her husband’s face.
“There’s food,” she said in a half whisper.
They all looked at the table. There was a plate of cucumbers and gigantic, deep-red tomatoes, the most expensive ones you could get. There were boiled eggs and red caviar, several different types of sausage, a chicken Nino broiled that morning and three different cheeses, a pitcher of apple juice and a bottle of vodka from the freezer, still covered with frost.
Misha couldn’t help but chuckle.
“In my house, even the thieves eat well,” he said. “Go ahead, guys, go ahead. Have a bite, do what you have to do, then get out.”
He sat down and began pouring shots of vodka. He offered one to the boss, who became instantly conflicted. On the one hand, he was robbing a house. On the other, there was the automatic politeness that any Georgian man of a certain age displayed when being asked to the table. In the end, the politeness won out.
“Thank you,” he said. “I’ll just have a bit.”
The thieves all sat down, one by one. The irony of the situation did not escape anybody.
“I’ve been on a lot of jobs, but this . . .” said one of them to no one in particular, shaking his head.
They proceeded to have a quick, quiet meal, and followed it with a quick, quiet robbery. Misha never really believed in banks, and kept his money, literally, under his mattress. There was also gold, silverware, fur coats, jewels, a coin collection, and several worthless but expensive-looking family heirlooms. The robbers took it all. But when one of the men asked Nino to take off a heavy gold chain she had on, the boss stopped him.
“Don’t touch the lady, or anything she’s wearing,” he said, and thanked Nino for the meal.
A shot rang out. Wild with adrenaline, Misha fought. He would die today, he decided, but the door to the house was staying closed, the family safe.
Nino says that it proved he was a professional, knowing people could get out of hand when their personal space is violated and things are taken off their bodies. Misha said that it proved that the son of a bitch, may he rot in hell, was nonetheless a gentleman thief of the old Tbilisi variety. In any case, the necklace stayed.
But most everything else they had was gone.
The next time the robbers came, they were not so nice. It was six months later, and a different set of robbers, and when Misha saw them standing in front of his door he could tell that this lot, who he described as “a bunch of scumbag killers from various parts of the Caucasus,” would not be gentlemen. Without even thinking about it, he knew there was no way he was letting them into the apartment with his wife and daughter.
“No way,” Misha said. “Go fuck yourselves.”
After all these years, he could still move. When they tried to grab him, he stepped aside, whirled around, slipped through their fingers, shoved, swung, was almost past them and at the staircase, where he could make a dash downstairs. But there were five of them. Someone caught him by the collar, and before he could shrug his jacket off and run, they had his arms and were pulling him to the door.
“Nino!” he yelled. “Get my gun!”
Nobody knows why he said that. He didn’t have a gun. But the robbers did.
A shot rang out. Wild with adrenaline, Misha fought. He would die today, he decided, but the door to the house was staying closed, the family safe. And then, incredibly, the robbers fell back, then turned and ran down the stairs.
Misha looked around. Yes, it was the hallway outside his apartment, but everything felt unreal. He wondered if he was dreaming. Then the door flew open and his wife and daughter rushed out, and Misha realized he was on the floor only when he saw their faces bending over him.
Later, they found a bullet hole in the door, inches away from where Misha’s head had been. His luck had held, but not completely; while the bullet missed, they’d gotten him with a knife, deep enough that his spleen had to be taken out.
Misha healed in body, but his mind remained deeply troubled, and his finances only grew worse. He put what little money he had into opening a currency exchange booth on the edge of Moscow, but the business required long hours and its profits barely stocked the refrigerator. Everything else he tried failed almost immediately. The worst part of it was that everyone around him was making money—the ruble had rebounded, oil was soaring, and real estate prices were doubling every year. But Misha, who had never found out who put the robbers onto him in the first place (and the robbers never just found you, someone—a former business partner, a competitor, a jealous relative—always sold you out), was now suspicious of everyone. Most of all, he became suspicious of other fellow immigrants from the Caucasus, especially other Georgians.
His mistrust drove his old business partners away and kept him from attracting new ones. Connections withered, and fresh opportunities appeared less and less frequently. As the money dried up, the once-grand apartment began to come apart, seeming to peel, crack, and leak everywhere at once. He crashed his BMW and could not afford to repair it. He began suffering from strange, hard-to-diagnose ailments. The doctors told him they were all in his head, and he told the doctors they were all a bunch of assholes.
“Nice family you married into, eh?” Misha said, giving me a wink. “In any case, you can relax. There’s nothing to worry about.”
Nobody believed that, least of all me.
Always, looming over every word and action, were the robbers. For hours on end, he thought about who could have sent them, and why, and whether they were coming back. The family was plagued with mysterious phone calls, men with Georgian accents inquiring about Misha’s well-being.
“It was after they came that all of this started,” Nino often said, as if the robbers had left some small, radioactive piece of themselves that was slowly poisoning the family’s good fortune.
They say that if something happens once, it might never happen again, but if it has happened twice, it will surely happen a third time. On an autumn night in 2003, a black Volga pulled up to Misha as he was walking home from the parking garage.
“We have to talk, Misha,” said a young man with an Armenian accent. “We have your daughter.”
My wife was at home with Nino and me—Misha had just talked to her a minute ago. His other daughter was in Tbilisi, with her husband, and Misha felt there was a pretty good chance she was safe as well.
“You don’t have shit,” Misha said. “Now leave me alone.”
Misha turned around and walked away. The Volga did not follow.
“We’ll deal with you later,” someone called out as the car pulled away.
“They were amateurs,” Misha later said. “Flunkies.”
We were having a war council of sorts; Misha, my wife’s uncle Anzor, who had flown in from Tbilisi to look for a job, and me, the new son-in-law. It was the autumn of 2004, a mere six months since I’d left New York to get married and move to Moscow.
“Nice family you married into, eh?” Misha said, giving me a wink. “In any case, you can relax. There’s nothing to worry about.”
Nobody believed that, least of all me. I’d been the one who had seen his face, ashen with fear, when he came home. These particular robbers might have been bumblers, but that didn’t mean they weren’t dangerous.
Life took on a surreal quality in the weeks that followed. Every time Misha left the house, Anzor and I went with him, armed with a motley assortment of items culled from around the house, like a band of deadly carpenters—Misha usually carried a short axe, Anzor had a carving knife, and I packed a hammer.
Misha, for his part, was strangely upbeat. When I asked him why, he said it was because of the Rose Revolution, which that autumn had swept Georgia’s corrupt president out of power and replaced him with the fiery, hopeful Mikheil Saakashvili.
“Georgia turned things around,” he said. “Things will turn for us, too.”
I wondered if that was it, or if Misha was once again feeling his luck.
A few days later, Misha told us that he had met an old friend who was coming over tonight to help solve our problems. When Misha said the friend’s name, Nino shook her head in dismay.
“That’s exactly what we need,” she said. “More gangsters.”
The gangster in question was G.R., who grew up together with Misha on the same twisted, crumbling street in Kharpukhi, one of Tbilisi’s oldest and poorest neighborhoods.
“He had a bad leg and couldn’t run,” Misha recalled. “He liked to watch me play football. I felt sorry for him, and we became friends.”
G.R. was small for his age, and quiet. He liked the way Misha’s mother made lobio, a traditional bean stew, and came over whenever she served it. He rarely went to school, but neither did anyone else in the neighborhood. This is the sum of what Misha could tell me about the childhood of G.R., who had once been one of Georgia’s most notorious gangsters.
They saw each other less often as they grew older. Then G.R. disappeared completely, and Misha heard that he was doing time for robbing a bank in Rostov. When G.R. got out of jail a decade later, it was widely known that he was now a vor v zakone, a term from the Russian underworld that can be roughly equated with a “made guy” on The Sopranos. Whenever he and Misha ran into each other, G.R. was reserved but friendly, always asking about Misha’s mother and her lobio. Then, after many years, he happened to walk into Misha’s currency exchange booth to change a fifty-dollar bill, and Misha asked him to come over.
He arrived exactly at eight, after calling in advance to say that he wouldn’t be staying long, wouldn’t be eating and couldn’t drink because he was on blood pressure medication. When I opened the door, there stood a short, potbellied man with salt-and-pepper hair, leaning on a cane. He wore a black sweater, dusted with dandruff around the shoulders, and shapeless black pants. His handshake was limp, his voice, tired. And yet… there was something about him, a kind of crackling, unfocused menace—similar to the unsettling vibration you feel when standing next to a power station—that warned you away.
We sat down at the table. Nino informed G.R. that despite his request to withhold dinner, she had made lobio, and he shrugged his shoulders and said well, he was just going to have to eat it. After dinner and some halting conversation, we sat drinking coffee and watching the evening news.
Putin came on, and G.R. grunted his approval.
“My type of guy,” G.R. said. “He forces people to respect him.”
Then they went live to Tbilisi, where a hundred thousand people were joyously celebrating the Rose Revolution in the streets of the city. They carried flags and crosses and of course, roses, danced traditional Georgian dances and honked their car horns.
I asked G.R. what he thought of Saakashvili.
“I hated the Communists,” G.R. said. “But look at what people have to go through now. You think what they have in Georgia is freedom? Being able to eat, that’s freedom.
“An idiot,” he said. “What does he need America for, when Russia is right next door?”
Maybe Russia hadn’t been such a good neighbor over the years, I started to say, but G.R. cut me off.
“Let me tell you something,” he said. “In all of its history, Georgia never lived as well as it did during Soviet times. Everyone had their piece of bread, and some people got wealthy. Culture, art, sports, all the best of everything came from Georgia. Everybody was friends, and nobody got in each other’s face. You can thank the Russians for that.”
Was living in the Soviet Union, a country that was once called “The World’s Biggest Prison,” really that good? I asked.
G.R. lit a cigarette, took a long pull and exhaled an enormous cloud of smoke. He stared into it for a long time.
“I hated the Communists,” he said. “But look at what people have to go through now. You think what they have in Georgia is freedom? Being able to eat, that’s freedom. They ruined a great thing, those bastards.”
I looked at Nino and Misha. They had moved closer together and were both wearing that dreamy, contemplative look they often got when thinking about the old days. G.R., too, was looking at some place near the ceiling, a slight smile on his face. I sipped my coffee and looked for some football on television.
The next day, G.R. accompanied Misha to work. Misha had his currency exchange booth in a kind of open-air market in northern Moscow, a bustling place occupied mostly by foreigners. First G.R. sat with him at an outdoor café, drinking tea out of a plastic cup. Then they had khachapuri at a tiny restaurant filled with Georgian migrants. After that, they took a long, slow walk through the winding lanes and alleys of the market. G.R. made sure that enough people saw that Misha was with him, that Misha was a friend. Then they shook hands and G.R. went home, and in the following weeks, everything—the robberies, the phone calls—stopped, as if a faucet had been shut off.
In the next few months, Misha’s luck slowly began to turn. He started selling Georgian pastries—baked at home, by Nino—to cafés around the city, and customers couldn’t get enough. Pretty soon he expanded the menu, and before he knew it, he had a catering business on his hands. It’s a thriving operation, but small, and that’s the way he likes it. A big business attracts the wrong kind of attention, which is the last thing he wants. And sometimes, usually after we’ve had a few shots of cognac, he’ll settle back and tell about the old Georgia, the mythical Soviet Shangri-la where they burned money just for the hell of it.
Irakli Iosebashvili was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, grew up in New York City, and now lives in Moscow, where he is an editor at the Moscow Times.