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.