Forging Ahead in Moscow

Times Staff Writer

Always wanted to brag to your friends about your trip to Brazil, but couldn't afford to go? No problem!

For $500, nobody will believe you weren't sunning yourself last week on Copacabana Beach, just before you trekked through the Amazon rain forest and slept in a thatched hut. Hey! That's you, arms outstretched like Kate Winslet on the bow of the Titanic, on top of Corcovado!

Persey Tours was barely keeping the bill collectors at bay before it started offering fake vacations last year. Now it's selling 15 a month -- providing ersatz ticket stubs, hotel receipts, photos with clients' images superimposed on famous landmarks, a few souvenirs for living room shelves.

If the customer is an errant husband who wants his wife to believe he's on a fishing trip, Persey offers not just photos of him on the river, but a cellphone with a distant number, a lodge that if anyone calls will swear the husband is checked in but not available, and a few dead fish on ice.

Of course, it's not the real thing. But in Russia, this is a distinction that easily can drift into irrelevance. If there is a world capital of audacious fabrication, it must be Moscow, where fake is never a four-letter word.

Forget fake Rolexes and Gucci bags -- that's kids' stuff. Russian entrepreneurs offer million-dollar fake Ivan Shishkin paintings, forged passes to the Kremlin bearing President Vladimir V. Putin's apparent signature, false medical school diplomas and alley cats palmed off for $300 as "Siberian purebreds."

An old-fashioned brawl at a wedding can be had for $300 to $400. ( "If you read any book about traditional weddings in Russian history, there must be a fight," said 22-year-old Alexander Yermilov, who recently made a living at it.)

Any Russian market is likely to contain jars of malodorous fish eggs masquerading as $100 Beluga caviar, fizzy tap water bearing the label of a rare mountain spring, "wine" with exclusive French labels containing grape juice and cheap alcohol, and pricey Japanese cellphones or Sony PlayStation 2 consoles that were assembled on the outskirts of Moscow.

International experts say that 12% of the pharmaceutical drugs in Russia are counterfeits. In one recent study, a large proportion of the headache remedies surveyed contained no active ingredients at all.

The Ministry of Economic Development and Trade has estimated that 50% of all consumer goods sold in Russia are fake; the counterfeit trade, Minister German O. Gref announced in January, has reached $4 billion to $6 billion a year -- no one knows exactly, because the books are cooked.

American trade officials, who for years have battled rampant piracy here of U.S.-licensed DVDs and CDs, say the situation has gotten worse. Russia is the world's biggest exporter of pirated music products -- many of them brazenly manufactured behind the locked gates of former military bases.

"What you're witnessing on the piracy front is kind of emblematic of what's happening in Russia generally," said Neil Turkewitz, executive vice president of the Recording Industry Assn. of America. "It's a kind of decision, whether it's an overt one or subconscious, to kind of 'do it on its own terms.' And that you don't really need to play by the rules of the international community to move forward."

Every Russian must ford a river of flimflam, much of which is tolerated because it makes everyone's life, for the most part, cheaper and more manageable than the real thing.

Moscow's legendary traffic jams, for example, part like the Red Sea for a vehicle with a fake VIP sticker and a flashing blue light on top. (The real ones are issued only to important government officials, but if you have a big black Mercedes with tinted windows, who's going to know?)

Stickers in the subway also offer fake work permits, fake certificates for free healthcare and "help" getting a heavy equipment operator's license. For the reasonable sum of $18.50 a year, drivers can buy a perfectly legal-looking liability insurance policy to show if they're stopped by the police.

False diplomas and term papers are the busy student's way of getting over that last hurdle at school. Even Putin's doctoral dissertation, researchers from the Brookings Institution revealed earlier this year, contained major sections lifted from a text published by academics from the University of Pittsburgh.

The revelations were barely repeated in the Moscow press, not because they were scandalous, but because they weren't -- government officials routinely rely on fake dissertations patched together by underlings.

A woman named "Nadezhda," whose number was distributed in Moscow subway stations offering to provide university diplomas, was asked by a reporter if she could come up with a degree from the Russian State Medical University.

"No problem. It will cost you 15,000 rubles ($555). What year of graduation do you want?" she asked.

"How about somewhere between 1982 and 1984?"

"It is doable."

She told the caller to provide his full name and education specialty, and asked what kind of grades should be listed on his transcripts and whether he wanted to have attended day classes or night school. "By the way, have you studied medicine?" she inquired then, in an apparent attack of conscience.

"Frankly, no."

"Then maybe you don't need to go into it."

"Well, I need it badly."

"Well, I mean, if you have nothing to do with medicine, maybe you should reconsider it and maybe settle for something else."

"No, really, I need a medical degree quite badly. I can't explain it to you over the phone now."

"Well, OK then, let's do it. When will you have the information ready?"

Yuri Lubimov, advisor to the economic development minister on piracy issues, said to understand the Russian public's appetite for fakes, one must understand the importance of appearances.

"It's like the French notion of faire montrer. It's better to look like something than to be something. It's a very Eastern way of thinking," he said. "I know people here who have not very much money at all, but he will buy a very big car so that other people will see that he's rich, he's powerful."

Or maybe, that he has a photo proving he was on the Great Wall of China during his last vacation, wearing his "Adidas" sport shoes and his "Dior" sunglasses.

Of course, no one can spot a fake like a Russian -- ask any woman who ever looked with disdain at a rabbit fur coat going down Tverskaya Avenue. Or ask Maria Babalova, music critic at the newspaper Izvestia, who raised an eyebrow when she saw billboards pasted all over town for an upcoming performance of "The Rising Stars of La Scala."

Why hadn't anyone ever heard of this tenor and soprano, if they were from La Scala?

Grigory Papish, general producer of the Moscow International Music House, where the performance was scheduled, said he learned too late that the singers were "on their way to having contracts" with La Scala.

"The man, the tenor, he showed some hints of a voice, some signs of the old Italian school of singing," Babalova said in an interview.

"As for the woman, she was a tragicomic sight," she said. "Her dress barely covered her aging knees. One of the straps didn't want to stay on her shoulder, and she was more concerned with fixing it than with her performance. She had no voice to speak of. Instead of singing, she howled, squeaked, slurped."

The not-quite La Scalites came on the heels of some not-quite Royal Opera House Covent Gardenites at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, and one of the biggest art scandals to hit Europe recently -- the revelation last year that hundreds of works of Russian art had been faked and sold for tens of thousands of dollars more than their worth.

"I personally know of 120 faked works of which I have firsthand knowledge of what they were originally, what they became through forgery and where they were sold. I also know of about 200 more of such cases, but I don't know where they were sold," said Vladimir Petrov, an expert at the Tretyakov Gallery who has documented the forgeries.

The scam involved acquiring relatively cheap works by lesser-known Northern European painters of the 19th century, then altering them slightly, inserting a Russian motif such as an Orthodox church in place of a Dutch windmill, to make it look as if a well-known Russian painter of the same period had painted them.

Paintings purchased for $1,500 to $20,000 were altered and sold as Russian masters by Vladimir Orlovsky, Alexander Kiselev and others for $50,000 to $1 million. "I'm afraid there are many others. It's like an epidemic," Petrov said.

The issue of counterfeiting reached a crisis of sorts late last month, when government officials in what was said to be an attempt to crack down on the huge quantity of fake wine on the market issued new excise stamps and declared that all the old, easily copied stamps would no longer be valid.

Wine store shelves were left nearly empty; merchants and buyers alike flew into a panic. Suddenly, it seemed possible that even fake wine was better than no wine at all.

Blame was thrown equally at sluggish bureaucrats, greedy customs officials and corrupt inspectors -- the main engines of the status quo, when it comes to fakery in Russia.

"To maintain a struggle with fakes in the market, you need to have a well-functioning system of law enforcement organs, a good judicial system, a customs system. All of this is lacking," said Dmitry Yanin, head of the Confederation of Consumer Societies in Russia. "I think everyone understands that there will be no qualitative change on the market in fakes in Russia."

Dmitry Popov, founder and chief executive of Persey Tours, certainly hopes not. Last year, he made $2,000 helping a Siberian gas station owner convince his friends that he had rented a ride on the Russian space shuttle to the moon.

"Of course he was smiling when he ordered this," Popov said. "But he paid."

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Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.

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