The young men and the sea: the outtakes

Last week the FT's Big Read hosted my deep dive investigation into illegal amber prospecting off the shores of Kaliningrad. (And no, the investigation wasn't prompted by SEO opportunism due to news Johnny Depp is suing ex-wife Amber Heard for defamation while accusing her of having an affair with Alphaville's favourite fantasist Elon Musk — Musk's rep has denied the claims. Nor controversy about Amber Rudd's clumsy language.)

In case you don't already know, Kaliningrad is the Russian exclave that used to be part of East Prussia, where Immanuel Kant spent his life and where Potemkin façades are a real thing. It is also home to about 90 per cent of the world's amber reserves.

Young amber divers in Yantarny, Kaliningrad

The story explains how young and desperate men are diving down into icy water, in highly dangerous conditions, in search of this so-called “Baltic gold”, which they then sell -- illegally -- to the Chinese, who buy it raw, in large quantities.

You can read the full story online here. But here are some exclusive out-takes for FT Alphaville readers who might want to know more.

About the mayor and his Kant collection...

The story features Alexey Zalivatsky, the mayor of Yantarny — the seaside town founded in the 13th century by the Teutonic Knights, where much of Kaliningrad's huge amber reserves can be found — describing just how perilous the pursuit is. From the piece:

“There is no particular relation with the level of experience or technical training of the diver,” Mr Zalivatsky wrote in a Facebook post in December, after another diver had drowned. “This is more like a devil’s lottery. Someone must get a terrible ticket.”

But the mayor is a story in and of himself. A former businessman, Zalivatsky is prolific on social media. He showed us a video of 150-200 amber divers' automobiles on the beach, which he'd posted to Instagram, accompanied by a recent popular Russian rap track featuring luxury cars. He's now built a car park especially for the divers a bit further down the beach so that they don't destroy the part where the tourists are, despite what they're doing (using pumps to get amber from the seabed and then illegally smuggling that to China).

The mayor is also a proud Kaliningrader who takes delight in a huge personal collection of figurines of Kant — allegedly the largest in the world — most of which are made out of amber. Here he is in his office, with one of his figurines:

About the ongoing importance of Kant and influence on local infrastructure....

At the end of last year there was a protest against the idea that Kaliningrad's airport should be named after Kant, which appears to have been successful. Nonetheless, all the Kaliningraders we spoke to appeared almost as proud of the philosopher as they were of their amber (and indeed the fact that the name was even being considered surely attests to this enthusiasm).

Although Kant was Prussian not Russian, his influence on Marx (who was crucial to Soviet philosophy) meant the cathedral in which he was buried was saved, and even restored after being damaged in the second world war, at a time when churches were being demolished or turned into public toilets.

Here it is, on the left.

On the right are buildings that have been reconstructed in the Hanseatic style, and in the middle is the House of Soviets, known among Kaliningraders as “the monster” or “the buried robot”. It has stood empty ever since its construction, which started in 1970 and finished in 1985, but in preparation for Putin's visit to the city in 2005, it was painted a gentle baby blue and white, and windows were fitted for the occasion. (I told you about the Potemkin facades.)

Alexander Salenko, a lawyer and professor at the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University, told me:

There had been an idea to destroy it because of the bad conditions and also for ideological reasons, because it’s a church. But because of Immanuel Kant in the tradition of German classical philosophy and his influence on Karl Marx, who was everything for the Soviet Union, it remained.

About the thespian wheeler-dealer-stealer...

In November last year, a TV show, The Yellow Eye of the Tiger, aired on the state-owned Russia-1 channel, starring Russian hearthrob Pavel Priluchny.The series, depicting the illegal amber business in the post-Soviet era between the early 1990s and 2005, when gang culture was rampant across Russia, was also partly funded by the government. (You can watch it online here if you understand Russian.)

The makers of the government-endorsed TV series seem keen to portray the black market as a thing of the past. “We tried to show that now it’s all controlled by the government,” the producer, Mark Gorodets, told me.

But somewhat ironically, they used the current illegal amber dealers, diggers and divers as reference points, using them to try to understand the black market -- its workings and its culture.

One part-time actor who plays a bit-part in the series is a man called Illya Vasilev, who calls himself an all-round “businessman”. He also makes an appearance in the Big Read as follows:

“It’s really easy to con the Chinese guys — you can buy cheap amber from Colombia, have it sent over in the mail, and sell it as Russian amber. I’ve done it,” says Illya Vasilev, 35, a trader who previously spent eight years in the police force. “The quality of this amber is lower, but they only find out about that once they start manufacturing it in China.”

Vasilev is a wheeler-dealer type — one of many I met in Kaliningrad — who didn't seem at all worried that he should be publicly bragging about conning the Chinese. Nor did he seem worried about openly telling me that when he's not doing that, he's selling amber bought from security guards at the state-owned Amber Combine (according to him):

I don’t really buy from the divers because the stones they have are quite small. I’m more interested in the bigger stones — that’s what the Chinese want. I buy from security guards at the Combine.

When I spoke to Kaliningrad's governor Anton Alikhanov about this, he told me:

Rostec, which is now in charge of the amber sector here in Kaliningrad, has managed to clean it up so nobody is robbing the plant any more, as they did in the past.

Here is Vasilev, happily being pictured by me, in an arty picturehouse/bar in the centre of Kaliningrad's capital:

Vasilev told me that he once made a 5,700 per cent return on an amber deal, after buying a stolen piece of amber from one of the guards for 450,000 roubles (6,000 euros) and then selling it on to China for 350,000 euros. “The quality was very good. It had a grasshopper inside,” he told me, showing me a picture of the enormous gem on his iPhone.

Although pretty much all of the black-market amber goes to China, the Chinese visitors in Yantarny aren't keen to chat about that.

One well-dressed young Chinese man at the Schloss Hotel in Yantarny, the best place to stay in the town, became nervous when I approached him in the hotel's reception. He was sitting with three bits of luggage, waiting for a taxi to take him to the airport.

“Are you here for amber?” I asked. “No!” Oh, you are on holiday?” “Yes.” “Oh! Have you been to Europe or other parts of Russia before, or just Kaliningrad?” “No, just here.” “Is this your first time here?” “No, second time.”

A small, not very wealthy town with 6,000 inhabitants in a remote bit of Russia, where the dinner options are limited to a couple of hotels and a chicken shop (more on that in a bit) seems like a strange holiday destination for a solo millennial traveller from China making his first (and second) ventures Westwards.

Another group of Chinese visitors quickly walked off, ignoring my questions, when I approached them.

One likely reason for their caution is that Chinese amber-buyers have become targets in Kaliningrad, not just for men like Illya who sell them fake stuff. They all pay in cash, and because there's not much reason for a Chinese person to be in Kaliningrad other than to buy amber (unless they have a particular interest in strange former-German outposts), they are easy to spot, and to rob.

I asked another amber businessman about the Chinese man's response, who told us:

Many Chinese people are being robbed here. If this guy had come for the amber he would have never told anyone. Two or three days ago a Chinese guy was robbed of 130,000 euros' worth of amber and money.

About the Breaking Bad-esque chicken shop...

So back to the chicken shop. There is one man in Yantarny who triggers memories of Gus Fring, the owner of chicken shop chain Los Pollos Hermanos in Breaking Bad. (Spoiler alert: Fring's business interests stretch beyond the world of overfed, cage-reared poultry.) For the purposes of full disclosure, I should tell you that it's actually an all-round fast-food joint, but it does sell fried chicken. Its name (according to Izzy's GCSE Russian) roughly translates to “Café Tasty Yum-Yum”.

Here's a picture of it, with some guys in hoodies who I was told fancy themselves as amber gangsters. Yes, amber gangsters. At Café Tasty Yum-Yum:

I never actually got to meet the owner, "Pavel", who apparently lives behind the restaurant. But I was told he ran an amber dealing operation, and he seemed like a bit of local legend in Yantarny. One amber diver who I met in the fast-food joint — which had several CCTV cameras installed in it — referred to him as “Chef Pavel”, and I was told he donates to the local community and is mates with the police.

Outside of Yantarny, however, people didn't seem particularly impressed by Pavel's status. Once upon a time, several years ago, there was a man called Viktor Bogdan, who was dubbed “the amber king”. Bogdan is now on an international wanted list, having fled Russia after having been accused of fraudulently trying to get about 250m roubles' worth of illegal VAT refunds. In a search of his property, $30m worth of illegally mined amber was reportedly found, with some pieces reported to have been worth around $100,000 each.In 2015, Poland refused to extradite Bogdan to Russia; nowadays, no one is quite sure where he is.

Nobody I spoke to in Kalininrad seemed to think that there was anyone resembling Bogdan these days. One illegal amber dealer, who also didn't want to be named, told me, of Pavel:

Bogdan was the king. Now there isn’t one... This guy just has several boats. He’s no Viktor Bogdan. He has several boats with divers. He provides the boat and equipment to the divers and they split the revenue 50/50. There are a lot of people like Pavel. A lot of people don’t want to go into the water themselves so they buy equipment and find guys to dive for them.

And about that wrestler on the run...

One man mentioned in the story, a wrestler on the run from the Russian police, has particularly captured everyone’s imagination. From the piece:

“In the Far East of Russia, everyone is involved in caviar”, says Aleksey Krupnyakov, a Kaliningrad-born former Olympic wrestler on the run from the police over extortion charges related to the amber black market. “Amber is like the caviar of the Far West.”

Krupnyakov is such an interesting character however he deserves his own piece. For more on that stay tuned.

Related links:
The devil’s lottery: the perils of diving for ‘Baltic gold’ — FT
Mining for bitcoin in a remote Russian outpost — FT Magazine
Crypto-courting in Kaliningrad — FT Alphaville
Urban redevelopment, Potemkin façade edition — FT Alphaville
Alphaville gets FOOC'd — FT Alphaville
The mere thought of Kant stirs Russian nationalism — FT

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