Russian Roulette

At the height of the cold war, Outdoor Life's shooting editor went on a high-stakes deer hunt behind the iron curtain with a suitcase full of rubles and a mysterious man flashing a magic badge.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Did I ever tell you about the time I paid $100,000 for a deer? The money wasn't mine, of course, and it was in rubles, but that's what the tab officially came to in U.S. currency.

The whole thing happened before the fall of Soviet communism. The Russians wanted to do some trading with an American computer manufacturer. (I'm going to leave out some names and change those of the Russians involved, because for all I know they could still get in trouble over what happened.) What the Russians wanted was not the type of high-powered computers used for strategic military purposes or stuff like that (they already had plenty of good ones, and in any event we couldn't sell to them anyway); they wanted ordinary PCs for innocent chores such as retrieving library and medical records. As it happened, there was at least one U.S. maker of such computers willing to do business with the Russians, but the catch was they didn't want Russian money. Their reason was that rubles were virtually worthless outside of Russia. (They weren't worth much inside Russia either, but more about that later.)

So what the Russians had in mind was swapping some of their products for our computers, and among the items they wanted to trade were guns-mainly sporting shotguns. The U.S. computer company was interested in trading for the guns, but they didn't know anything about guns or the American gun market. And that's how I came to be involved.

The deal they offered was irresistible: Two American gun guys-my good pal John Amber, the legendary editor of _Gun Diges_t, and myself- accompanied by a trade specialist from the computer company, would visit some of the Russian gunmakers and size up what they had to offer and give our opinions as to what appeal Russian guns would have for American hunters. In return for our services they would treat us to an exclusive hunt for Russian stag. On top of that they promised a private tour of the fabled gun collection inside the Kremlin itself. I would have been happy to go just for a peek at the gun factories and the Kremlin tour, so the hunting was gravy. As it turned out, even our State Department was in favor of the deal, so I agreed to go and on a drizzly November evening found myself in the dark and dreary bar of a Moscow hotel in rather mixed company.

Aside from Amber and myself, there was the American trade specialist, whom I'll call Dave. The other two members of our suspicious-looking group were Hans, an Austrian who looked after the computer maker's affairs in Europe, and Viktor, a Russian whose English-printed business card proclaimed him to be a "Consultant for Technical Product Trade Alliances," or some such unfathomable bureaucratic title.

Viktor and I didn't hit it off very well at first, beginning with my rather discourteous inquiry as to whether it was possible to get a gin and tonic in Russia, followed by his scowling admonishment that they were not "uncivilized bears." As we sat glaring at each other and contemplating an escalation of the Cold War, Hans relieved the growing tension by asking if we'd like to go upstairs and see the money.

"The what?" I asked.

"The money," he replied, chuckling at my befuddlement. He then began explaining one of the peculiarities of doing business with the Soviet government. [pagebreak] Funny Money
As the ancient birdcage-shaped elevator creaked and bumped its way to the top floor of the hotel, Hans let us in on the strange fact that the Soviets paid cash in their international trade deals. The catch to paying rubles on the barrelhead, however, was that the money was almost worthless, and besides that, it couldn't be taken out of the country. This is why their so-called cash business had to be propped up with trades for Russian goods, such as the guns we had come to inspect.

As a result of such dealings, so much Russian money had been accumulated by his coany that Hans had rented a hotel room in which to store it-in fact it was the entire top floor of the hotel! "Why bother with a bank," he said, "when rubles aren't worth stealing?" And having thus explained what we were about to witness, he produced a key and swung open the door of a large room.

There, in great piles in the middle of the floor and terraced against the walls, were big bundles of rubles, all in large denominations. Astonished by so much money lying around, relatively unguarded, I was somehow reminded of the Donald Duck comic books I'd read as a kid in which Donald's Uncle Scrooge McDuck hoarded huge piles of money that he played in like a child in a sandbox.

"Part of my job," Hans went on once my companions and I had recovered our collective breath, "is to look after this money and keep inventory. New shipments come in often."

"But what will become of it?" I had to ask.

"Who knows," Hans answered with a shrug, as if he had no particular interest. Shrugs, as I was to learn in coming days, are part of the Russian language, especially in official circles.

Over the next three days we looked at guns, were escorted from place to place like dignitaries, indeed saw the Kremlin gun collection, ate some awful meals (I'll tell that story another time), went skeet shooting with Eugene Petrov, the Gold Medal-winning Olympic shooter (I let him beat me), saw the changing of the guard at Lenin's tomb (impressive) and took in a beautiful performance at the famed Bolshoi Ballet. After the ballet we went to a fancy reception at one of the gilded, chandelier-filled government palaces. [pagebreak] The Mysterious Viktor
Meanwhile, Viktor and I were hitting it off better. He spoke American English with a New York accent, picked up when he was a member of the Soviet delegation to the U.N. He was a man to be liked, I discovered during our jaunts, and also a man to be feared.

One late afternoon, after Viktor and I had taken a walking tour of Moscow, we decided we were too far from the hotel to walk back and had better take a taxi. There were plenty of empty cabs going by but none seemed interested in stopping, apparently because their daily quotas had been filled and they were just joyriding. After several minutes of fruitless cab hailing, Viktor calmly stepped into the lines of traffic and held up his hand so that the oncoming cabdrivers could see what was in his palm. From my angle I couldn't see what it was, but it was clearly powerful stuff because immediately a half-dozen or so taxis screeched to a halt, their drivers tumbling out and jerking the rear doors open for our entry, all grinning and bowing like boys caught misbehaving.

We selected the cleanest looking and best repaired of the taxis. Once inside I took a long look at Viktor and suddenly "KGB" flashed in my mind like a fluttering neon sign-the dreaded Soviet secret police. "So that's it," I realized. "Viktor's job is to keep an eye on us and make sure we don't get into trouble." He must have sensed my questions in the making because before I could speak he simply shrugged and settled back for a silent ride through the darkening streets of Moscow.

When we arrived at our hotel a light snow had begun to fall and I wondered if I was seeing the beginning of the Russian winter. It had defeated Napoleon's might and a vast German army-would a couple of American gun writers fare any better?

According to our schedule we were to fly to the city of Krasnadar, several hundred miles south of Moscow. From there we would drive to a camp where we would hunt the fabled Russian stag. None of us, Viktor included, had any idea what a Russian hunting camp would be like, or what services would be like, so to be on the safe side we figured it would be wise, before leaving Moscow, to stock up on some caviar, smoked salmon and other such nutrients vital to survival in a hunting camp. And a few bottles of vodka wouldn't be a bad idea either.

To pay for these necessities we raided Hans's hoard of rubles at the hotel and filled a scuffed and ancient crocodile suitcase we found in one of the rooms. But as it turned out the foodstuffs we needed were not available at the bare-shelved people's markets. In order to buy caviar and other such desirable Russian goods we had to go to relatively swanky state-run shops that catered only to foreigners and their currency, preferably U.S. dollars.

When we flipped open our ruble-stuffed suitcase and offered to pay in local greenbacks the husky saleswoman scowled and slammed the lid closed. "Nyet!" But when Dave produced an American credit card she brightened instantly and dazzled us with a galaxy of gold teeth.

The catch to shopping at these stores was that they charged at the government-imposed exchange rate, which was then about $3.50 U.S. for one ruble. The illegal street exchange rate, however, was about 10 rubles for a single dollar. The ridiculous exchange rate, as it turned out, was to bring our hunt to an almost unhappy conclusion.

When we got back to our hotel, laden with our survival foods, we finished packing for departure. At that point, another Russian mystery presented itself: Viktor's almost psychotic fear of flying. Except he didn't tell us of his deep distrust of flying on Aeroflot, the Soviet state airline; instead, he lied about the airport at Krasnadar, our destination, being closed for repair and said we would have to go by train. His explanation about the closed airport seemed a bit thin, but none of us questioned his motives except to ask whether the train reservations had been made.

Viktor shrugged, "We'll take care of that when we get to the station." I had visions of us all being crammed into a drafty boxcar filled with smelly peasants and chugging across a frozen landscape like in a scene from Doctor Zhivago. [pagebreak] On The KGB Express
The reality of the train we were to take was pleasantly different. It was huge, with tracks of a wider gauge than ours, and pulled by a gigantic, gleaming engine surmounted by the symbolic hammer and sickle of Soviet Communism. But very uncommunistic, for a supposedly classless society, was the fact that the train offered four classes of travel. Upon learning this we naturally hoped we could get first-class seats, but without prior reservations it seemed doubtful.

"I'll see what I can do," Viktor said with a shrug. Then he casually walked up to a pudgy, cheerful-looking young woman, dressed in what appeared to be a stewardess uniform and standing by the steps of the yacht-like first-class car. He spoke quietly to her for a few moments and was answered by a vehement shaking of her head and a flurry of negative hand gestures. Clearly, there was nin a hunting camp. And a few bottles of vodka wouldn't be a bad idea either.

To pay for these necessities we raided Hans's hoard of rubles at the hotel and filled a scuffed and ancient crocodile suitcase we found in one of the rooms. But as it turned out the foodstuffs we needed were not available at the bare-shelved people's markets. In order to buy caviar and other such desirable Russian goods we had to go to relatively swanky state-run shops that catered only to foreigners and their currency, preferably U.S. dollars.

When we flipped open our ruble-stuffed suitcase and offered to pay in local greenbacks the husky saleswoman scowled and slammed the lid closed. "Nyet!" But when Dave produced an American credit card she brightened instantly and dazzled us with a galaxy of gold teeth.

The catch to shopping at these stores was that they charged at the government-imposed exchange rate, which was then about $3.50 U.S. for one ruble. The illegal street exchange rate, however, was about 10 rubles for a single dollar. The ridiculous exchange rate, as it turned out, was to bring our hunt to an almost unhappy conclusion.

When we got back to our hotel, laden with our survival foods, we finished packing for departure. At that point, another Russian mystery presented itself: Viktor's almost psychotic fear of flying. Except he didn't tell us of his deep distrust of flying on Aeroflot, the Soviet state airline; instead, he lied about the airport at Krasnadar, our destination, being closed for repair and said we would have to go by train. His explanation about the closed airport seemed a bit thin, but none of us questioned his motives except to ask whether the train reservations had been made.

Viktor shrugged, "We'll take care of that when we get to the station." I had visions of us all being crammed into a drafty boxcar filled with smelly peasants and chugging across a frozen landscape like in a scene from Doctor Zhivago. [pagebreak] On The KGB Express
The reality of the train we were to take was pleasantly different. It was huge, with tracks of a wider gauge than ours, and pulled by a gigantic, gleaming engine surmounted by the symbolic hammer and sickle of Soviet Communism. But very uncommunistic, for a supposedly classless society, was the fact that the train offered four classes of travel. Upon learning this we naturally hoped we could get first-class seats, but without prior reservations it seemed doubtful.

"I'll see what I can do," Viktor said with a shrug. Then he casually walked up to a pudgy, cheerful-looking young woman, dressed in what appeared to be a stewardess uniform and standing by the steps of the yacht-like first-class car. He spoke quietly to her for a few moments and was answered by a vehement shaking of her head and a flurry of negative hand gestures. Clearly, there was n