Kiev millionaire Korogodsky: My mother’s main occupation was to worry
Garik Korogodsky is a Ukrainian businessman, co-owner of the Akvarium fitness center and the Dream Town shopping mall, the general director of the Vita Veritas company, radio host, writer, blogger and showman. According to Forbes, Vita Veritas held first place among Ukrainian rentiers with an income of 419 million hryvnia in 2014. He is a very well-off person, a public and flamboyant personality. This is the limited way that Garik Korogodsky is regarded by people who haven’t met him. They’ve just googled his name, found news reports about the millionaire’s “stunts”, heard his radio program about things that didn’t exist in the Soviet Union, read his posts with censored and sometimes very harsh expressions of facebook, or seen a photo of this Jews in bright glasses, which Garik has been collecting for a long time…
We’re not going to talk in detail about his “houses, newspapers and ships”. These topics are very tedious for Garik. He created a successful system in his own business, got it up and running and boldly revealed a new side of himself – a writing talent. His book “How to make a million that doesn’t exist” has been a bestseller for a year. Every story smells of the “Jewish spirit”: it’s written lightly and humorously, and the entire book is about himself and the people he values.
On 7 March, Garik’s new book “We Had Sex” was released, written in co-authorship with the editor-in-chief of “Publichnye Lyudi” magazine Natalya Vlashchenko. And soon there’ll be a sequel to “Million”, the second part of the biography of the Jewish boy Garri Korogodsky.
Writing a book, especially one about yourself, is often a long and torturous process. How did you find it?
It was long, but I wouldn’t call it torturous. The writing process itself turned out to be tastier than anything! [at the presentation of the first book, the author made the comparison “tastier than sex” – note by L.L.]. When you write you go into a trance, like you’ve been drugged, I think.
But writing about yourself is still a “crooked mirror”: either criticism or self-praise…
Criticism? Well, that’s when you don’t like yourself as much as I do! [laughs]
Promo film for Garik’s book
But still, you make a lot of jokes about yourself in the book, I’d even say you mock yourself…
I wanted say that a lot in the book is untrue, but there’s certainly a lot of artistic invention. It’s pointless to give examples of where there’s invention, and where there’s truth. Let it remain a mystery, and everyone can decide for themselves. But to start with I had around 80% of truth, and at the end I reduced it to 60%, approximately, and in the second volume, I think, it will be 50% or less. Above all, they’re works of literature, not autobiography. Do you know the book “Republic Shkid”? [the characters of this book were familiar to every Soviet school pupil – Grigory Belykh, Leonid Panteleev – also the authors of stories about the lives of orphans who ended up in a commune school – L.L.’s note]. My book is exactly the same kind of autobiography.
This year “Republic Shkid” was republished, with photos confirming the real biography of the people in the book who became the prototypes…
Yes, but there are real people everywhere. I was incredibly surprised when I discovered that 90% of all the books in existence are autobiographies, according to experts. And in my book the basis is also real people: I changed some of their surnames, others I kept.
So you think Hemingway went to war for…
…for material! I’m also going to Israel tomorrow for material to write about. Before that I went to Moscow for the same reason!
What environment or energy component is important for you so you can write so easily and tastily?
On my last visit to Moscow I met with friends from those times, the post-student period, and we recalled various situations. Any word they say can turn into a story. The last book that I couldn’t read was Pelevin’s “Love for three…” I could hardly get through the first 17 pages. It just wasn’t for me! But during those two days I wrote three stories for my second volume, which have no relationship to reality, and they came into being because I found it so difficult to read Pelevin.
Jewish homes are often noisy and cheerful. What was your childhood home like?
I can’t say that it was very noisy. But it certainly wasn’t quiet! It was warm, open, and anyone could visit us without calling beforehand, they could call and say “we’re already coming to you”… There were always lots of guests. That’s how I remember it.
The book is especially tender in its description of the apartment in Otradny [a district in Kiev], where you grew up. I know that you even tried to buy it recently…
Yes., I’m still trying to buy it, unfortunately or fortunately. The fact is that everyone’s prepared to sell it, apart from the head of the family, a man of rather advanced years. He’s had two strokes, and his wife said that if she tells the owner that she wants to sell the house, he’ll have a third stroke, and that death will be instantaneous for him. Of course, no one wants to be responsible for hits. So I can’t buy it at the moment.
What memories are connected with this house?
I lived in it from the age of 4 to 15. I often walk in this district, and drive into the yard with my children…. Recently I showed my son our balcony. I said: “See, Danya, I get the impression that we never left. At least 35 years has gone by, and it’s the same blue balcony, the same clotheslines, and woolen stockings drying on them”. DO you know the ones I mean, which left a mark just above your knees which you couldn’t wash off? And my son looks over the entire balcony, not knowing what’s what, and asks: “Who hung the cats?”
What were your parents like?
You know, they weren’t much different from all other Jewish parents. My mother was a pessimist: she always said: “It’s not so bad today…” my father, on the contrary, was an incorrigible optimist. They simply had different characters. In my father’s family everyone was an optimist, and in my mother’s they had both kinds. I was brought up in a strict patriarchate. What Dad said wasn’t discussed at all! Like many Jewish children, I grew up poor, but loved. There was no lack of love, although my father hardly talked to me. Half an hour a day at weekends would be the most, and even that happened quite rarely. I knew that even if I was in the wrong, Dad wouldn’t analyze it and would protect me. I felt complete protection, from everything!
What about your mother?
No, she wasn’t like that! She always made sure that I was right so I didn’t hurt others’ feelings: she was worried what people would think. My mother taught me to listen to public opinion. She would say: “The main thing is not to stand out.” That was very popular among Jews at that time.
Looking at you now, we may conclude that you didn’t listen to this advice…
Yes, I argued with my mother about this from the start. I said that I did everything I could to stand out, and she was teaching me to do the opposite. To anything I did, she would say: “Do you really need to o that?” Then I would analyze it. Nowadays I ask myself this question before I start to do something.
Were you a diligent pupil at school?
I studied badly, like all Jewish people, at least like many of them. Up until the fourth year I was an A student and won competitions, but after that I just stopped studying.
Did you have a Jewish yard?
There were 10 Jewish apartments in the building out of over 100. But the yard wasn’t Jewish. The yard education gave me a great deal. For example, if you’re hit and you don’t hit back in time, then you better not go back into the yard again. Regardless if what hitting back will mean for you later, you must respond.
Did you always hit back?
There wasn’t much choice! Either you only go into the yard with your parents, or you live by the rules of that yard. It’s a very good school of life, which over time becomes part of your nature: you know that you should always respond to a blow with a blow, and not turn the other cheek. Sometimes this ends sadly, of course…
How did your parents’ love show itself?
My mother’s main occupation was to worry. My mother and grandmother (her mother) would always say the same thing: “He was supposed to be here, but he’s still not here… It’s already quarter to two… Good heavens! Who should I call?” That was my mother for you! And when I went to study in Moscow, she’d say: “You promised to call yesterday, we don’t know what to think… You haven’t called for four days…” My father didn’t even think about this.
Your book has a story about a Jewish hairdresser in Kiev who gave exclusive haircuts for those times. You were one of his clients.
Haircuts from Misha Urman were perhaps the only luxury that we allowed ourselves back then: we went to him once a month. My father first took me there when I was 12. He didn’t have any service at all, that is to say the service was terrible.
By modern standards or even in those times of “state standards”?
By those standards! We washed our hair ourselves, for example. The hairdresser usually washes it, even then that was how it was done. But Misha gave recognizable haircuts: afterwards people can see that you’ve had your hair cut with Urman [he says the name with pride, like a brand – L.L.’s note] And you could talk about it. It wasn’t so easy to get an appointment with him! It also cost a ruble to get your haircut at “Charodeika”, but that wasn’t cool. “Charivnitsya”, as it was called, on the corner of Kreshchatnik and Karl Marx.
By the way, Urman’s son has returned from America to Ukraine, and he also cuts hair like his father Misha before him.
Were there advantages to be had in the “Jewish mafia”?
They themselves were the only ones who thought they were the mafia. [smiles] Yes, there was a Jewish hairdresser, who gave me great haircuts; yes, there was a Jew at the “Siphon Fill-up”, who gave me more bubbles; yes, there was a Jew at the bottle depository – I learned to trade in bottles for 10 kopecks without standing in line, and not for 12; the butcher was a Jew… That was the sort of “mafia” we had in Kiev!
“Our people” were everywhere…
As there were a lot of Jews in the city, they ended up in many different professions. There were always a lot of Jews in the service industry. But not all of them, my father worked in construction all his life – he rose from being an electrician to the head of a site, and my mother worked as an accountant all her life, while my uncle worked at the Kiev felt factory, and made fur boats.
You followed fashion as a teenager. What items were you proud of?
I was the first person in the city to have “Wild Cat” velvet pants. Or almost the first, at least, they were very rare at the time. I had very fashionable items, because I played cards with black-market dealers and I won expensive things that I didn’t even know how to sell. I was 15 at the time. So I had to wear them.
I already had sneakers back then, and that was cool. People divided into two groups: those who had Vietnamese or Chinese sneakers and those who didn’t Sneakers cost 3 rubles, but ours cost 2.20. It wasn’t much of a difference, but the first kind were not easy to find!
What about the Soviet approach that everyone should be equal? Did the people around you react to your “foreign” appearance?
I was thrown out of school for “clothing that did not match the uniform”. We did not have a uniform, but you couldn’t turn up in a shirt with peacocks on it, like I did, for example. In the senior classes pupils were supposed to be dressed neatly, I was told.
How did your parents see you?
My mother wanted me to get married as soon as possible, to have grandchildren and for me to live a life that would allow her to talk about her son at work. After my fourth year at school there wasn’t much she could say about me. Not until I enrolled at the institute.
That was the time when the box for ethnicity was like a “red card” when you enrolled at university…
It was simply impossible for a Jew to enroll at an institute in Kiev. It wasn’t even worth trying. At the Kiev Polytechnic Institute there was an intake of 5,000 students, and eight Jews were accepted (that was the quota). I think that in every place there were 20-30 Jews who came to an agreement, whose parents had money and administrative capabilities. My parents didn’t have either of these things. My cousin tried to enroll at an institute in Kiev with a “gold medal” – and immediately after the enrollment exams he went into the army. It was impossible to enroll. So I decided to receive my education in Moscow.
How did your mother feel when you left?
It was a very difficult moment for them. My elder sister died young. And my parents were left on their own. They were 52 years old, not so old at all. Also, they didn’t have many interests in life apart from their children: just their children and work. But they let me go. My mother showed weakness for a moment, and asked: “What about us?” But then she started to look for money for tutors, and for the trip… And my father immediately gave the eloquent advice: “Let him go!” – and that was it.
How did Moscow greet the Jew from Kiev?
I liked Moscow immediately, and I still do: I like it, and it likes me [smiles]. I had the feeling that I had come home. I was accepted everywhere, and everything went well, from the day I arrived up until the present day.
I know that you have dual citizenship – Russian and Israeli. You’ve traveled half the world, and visited the most beautiful cities of the planet, including Lviv, Haifa and Prague…
I like Lviv and Haifa in their own ways. I don’t like Prague – I get bored there… But Moscow is closest of all to me because of its active rhythm: I like it when everything flies!
In Russia Garik made his first fortune and returned to his native Kiev in 1996. As he says in numerous interviews, he would have swapped his Russian citizenship for Ukrainian a long time ago, but to do so he needs to give up his second, Israeli, citizenship. The Jewish millionaire cannot agree to that!
The second part of the interview will appear on JewishNews.com.ua on 25 March.
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