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Alimjan Tokhtakhunov and his Silk Road

21.01.2009 13:11 msk

Maria Yanovskaya (Ferghana.Ru)


Businessman Alimjan Tokhtakhunov (he was born in Tashkent but lives in Moscow) better known as Taivanchik wrote a book My Silk Road. Plot of the story begins with his arrest in Italy and ends with his release and return to Moscow. It is not a story of the ten months spent in Italian jail, it is a collection of reminiscences.


Whoever would like to know how Tokhtakhunov made his fortune should put the book aside right away. It is not a financial report or confession. It is not even a textbook on card playing even though Taivanchik began his career as a professional player. He played for high stakes - very high stakes, actually - even in the Soviet Union.

Tokhtakhunov never cheated meaning that he always paid his dues on time. To earn money, he had to "travel by train every now and then and play there." "There were lots of plungers there dying of sheer boredom but no professional gamblers. In a word, fleecing passengers was no problem." Taivanchik also "worked" airports and railroad terminals. "It was not a particularly honest period in my life because I was a better player than others," he wrote in the book. Here is another excerpt. "Virtuosity of hands matters a lot because one may do all sorts of tricks. It is not cheating because everyone is aware of the possibility and should therefore watch the other's hands. It is but one of the means."

Tokhtakhunov gives a thorough account of gambling in the USSR: how people met at apartments where cards were played round the clock, how debts were paid, how they were made in the first place. According to the author, it was not the Soviet militia or imprisonment that players feared. What everyone feared was being called a cheap bastard.

Tokhtakhunov’ book

All of that is described in so detailed a manner that the impression is that this is how Taivanchik made his fortune, built up his clout, and met practically all celebrities of the Soviet Union, Russia, and perhaps the rest of the world. The impression is that the whole world played cards and that Alimjan or Alik knows everyone.

The book includes lots of photos showing Alik with his friends - Kobzon, Rotaru, Pugacheva, Kirkorov, Yudashkin, the Mikhailkovs and the Konchalovskys including the founder of the dynasty, the Boyarskys, Fyodor Bondarchuk, Timati, Moiseyev, Leschenko, Nikolayev, Gurchenko... The whole list will take several pages. Captions seem to imply that Alik is friends with all of them. "Tell me, Alik, should I have another tattoo made?" Timati says. Or the following caption, "Sergei Soloviov approached and said, "It's been nearly 100 years, and not days, since childhood." Or this one below the photo where Alik is with Anna Mikhalkova, "Anna! Tell your Dad that he has my respect and that I like his films but he should forget about persuading me to star in one of them."

One of the photos shows Alik side by side with Mike Tyson. As a matter of fact, Tyson will have his photo taken with just about anyone as long as he is paid - his bodyguard always carries a Polaroid camera for this purpose. There is also a photo taken at a restaurant where Alik is with Charles Aznavour. Tokhtakhunov and his friends noticed Aznavour sitting unobtrusively in a corner and sent him a bottle of wine with the waiter. They had a photo taken of them together and that was that. Tokhtakhunov never met with Aznavour again but the photo is in the book. In a word, Alik knows everyone. He never misses a chance to have his photo taken with a celebrity. He likes it.

Judging by celebrities' faces, they like Alik too. Why? The book does not answer this question. One might say that being friends with Alik is nice because he knows what a friend of his might want or what will please him or her (this is the impression left by excerpts from interviews with celebrities where they speak of Tokhtakhunov, these excerpts are available in the book too).

Dear friend

Instead of answering question, the book raises new ones. Reader feels him- or herself one of those dumb French policemen who wouldn't leave Tokhtakhunov alone. However hard they tried, these policemen were never given answers to their question "Where did you get the money? Is it dirty money? How come you do not pay taxes? And why do you pay cash?"

Do not look for answers in the book. Serious analysis of the book leads to the inescapable conclusion that Tokhtakhunov is an angel. Alik made money by honest means - honest by his own standards. He paid no taxes but it was impossible to pay taxes in Russia then. He was imprisoned in the Soviet Union for parasitism but so was Iosif Brodsky. Very many served time in Soviet prisons including people like Solzhenitsyn and Scharansky. Shall we consider all of them godfathers of the Russian mafia?

Tokhtakhunov gives a simple account of his life. Accusations of being a mafia don are but fiction invented by journalists and eagerly taken up by the French and Americans. Tokhtakhunov left Russia for Germany where he founded a successful business venture. What he made playing cards for money was transacted from Russia. The book does mention some offshore account once, but so what? Readers are not detectives to wonder where a man gets his money. He saved. He won it. Forget the how or you will be no better than the Europeans who wouldn't leave Alik alone.

Tokhtakhunov's problems began when envious (so he believes) Russian immigrants in Germany spread the rumor that he was mafia. "Immigrants are a special breed. They betrayed their Motherland... they severed the ties with the past. They learned to be different. They betrayed their past lives. These people left their native country for Germany to make money. It was for the sake of money that they estranged themselves from friends and conscience. Money is all they care about." Malicious Frenchmen (slovens, according to Alik) and Americans took it up with gusto. Why? Answer to this question is as simple and unadorned as the book itself. Because they wanted to humiliate Russia. He who is against Tokhtakhunov is against Russia - this is the leitmotif of the book and author's logic. As a matter of fact, he is not too wide off the mark.

One's own notions of what is honest and what is not, nontransparency of income, unclear origin of capitals - all of that is typical of all of the Russian elite. Is Tokhtakhunov a symbol of Russia?

Not exactly educated (or hiding his education) and not particularly busy (or hiding his preoccupation), Tokhtakhunov sticks labels to European peoples and monarchs. He flew into a rage when they expelled him from Monte Carlo. "I was expelled on orders from the rulers who considered themselves monarchs and therefore thought that they could be rude to all others. I was not a pauper... but they do not hesitate to expel a man, even when the man in question is rolling in dough."

A scandal in Salt Lake City (when the second set of gold medals was given to figure skaters and when the French arbiter said she had been put under unprecedented pressure) reflected on Tokhtakhunov. He was accused of having bribed arbiters and arrested. Tokhtakhunov spent over ten months in an Italian prison and was released because he was innocent.

That's what he wrote in the book.

Maria Yanovskaya (Ferghana.Ru)