Russian roulette as casino comes to the backwaters

Helen Womack reports on a post-Soviet route to success

Yelets - The local newspaper reporter declined the black caviar sandwiches offered by Gennady Savenkov, arms-trader-turned-casino-owner, catering for the few people with money in the depressed central Russian town of Yelets. "I do not want to be dependent on that man," he said.

But a sandwich consumed will hardly inhibit your correspondent from telling the truth about the Ph Club, or as much of the truth as one can ever establish in this land of absurdity.

Depending on whom you ask, Mr Savenkov is either a greedy villain or a hero struggling for the right to free enterprise in one of the most staunchly Communist pockets of the provinces. But nobody is indifferent to "Papa Genna", whose taste for nylon sports suits belies his wealth and power.

He admits to having spent "big money" financing the political opponents of the Communist-leaning mayor of Yelets, Viktor Sokovikh, so far to no avail. Mr Sokovikh remains in office, "putting up endless bureaucratic obstacles to enterprising businessmen", as the casino-owner says.

But Mr Savenkov has had one victory as the regional court has just overruled the mayor and allowed him to register the Ph Club (Ph for Phoenix). "Seventy per cent of my energy goes into the war with the mayor. But thank God there are some people who respect the law," he said as he welcomed the press to his leisure complex.

A sauna and restaurant are still being built but the casino is already in full swing - by Yelets' standards. In other words, at 10 o'clock last Thursday night, two clients were moving from the poker table to the roulette wheel, from the roulette wheel to the black jack table, attended by a veritable army of croupiers, cocktail waitresses and security guards.

"It gets busier," Mr Savenkov said, sipping a champagne cocktail. "We are already breaking even. Rich people come from Lipetsk, Voronezh and Moscow. Typically, they play with up to $2,000 a night. But yes, I have to admit, you can count the number of wealthy people in Yelets on the fingers of one hand."

There is no doubt that Mr Savenkov is the fattest finger. A former army officer who helped carry out the state trade in weapons to Soviet clients such as Angola, Ethiopia and Iraq, he made his undisclosed personal fortune by opening a network of petrol stations on the road to Moscow. "Undiluted petrol" is his slogan.

With his petrol business, he is indeed providing a public service for. Before him, a driver who did not have the foresight to fill his tank in Moscow, 400 km to the north, could find himself spending the night in his car on the empty road, waiting for someone with a canister to take pity on him. Now, instead of motorists begging for petrol, the road is lined with people selling vases and television sets, the left-over production from bankrupt local factories.

Unemployment in the town is high. Giving work to 250 people, Mr Savenkov is proud to call himself a major employer. How much this man, who has a four-storey country house and a fleet of cars, pays his workers is "one of my secrets".

Galya, a cocktail waitress whose dark make-up gave her eyes a bruised look, was sullen. "I'm always unhappy, I have an unhappy personality," she said. Natasha, a trained nurse-turned-croupier, was more cheerful. "If they have earned the money, they have the right to throw it away," she said, when I asked what she thought of the clients.

The players that night were sportsman Boris Gridnev, who has been entered 17 times in the Guinness Book of Records for feats of strength, and his girlfriend, Vera. "We have been bitten by the gambling bug," laughed Vera, adding that the couple usually spent about $100 a time.

"The players are sick. They are like alcoholics. I do not pity them," commented the owner, who said he never gambled himself and drank only in moderation. Whom did he pity ? "Children," he said, adding that he gave some of his money to charity. For example, the local ambulance service received his petrol free of charge.

But he admitted he found as many ways as possible to reduce his tax burden. "The taxes are too high in this country," he said. "The authorities are cutting the branch on which we sit."

Did he fear the rich could be swept away in a new Russian revolution? "Russia will not go Communist again," he said. Then after a moment's thought, he added: "Of course, I was a Communist once myself, you know." Gennady Savenkov is a survivor, a man who will adapt and thrive whichever politicians are in power.

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
football
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Life and Style
tech
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Assessor

£26000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: SAP Assessor Job T...

HR Advisor (Employee Relations) - Kentish Town, NW London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor (Employee Rela...

Derivatives Risk Commodities Business Analyst /Market Risk

£600 - £800 per day: Harrington Starr: Derivatives Risk Commodities Business A...

Power & Gas Business Analyst / Subject Matter Expert - Contract

£600 - £800 per day: Harrington Starr: Power & Gas Business Analyst/Subject Ma...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering