In the novel The Little Golden Fleece, Ilf & Petrov satirized Russian social life in the early 1920s. As individuals sought a place in the new Soviet order, there arose a class of con men who claimed to be descended from heroes of the revolutionary movement. In this chapter, llf & Petrov dubbed them “the children of Lieutenant Schmidt,” after a hero of the 1905 revolution. In my update, the action is moved to New York City, and the con men are replaced by our Internet hoaxers, hackers, and identity thieves, whose actions are possible because of ARPANENT, the first iteration of the Internet.
The frantic morning came to an end. Ostap Bender and Shura Balganov walked quickly away from the Internet cafe in silent agreement. A long blue couch was being carted along the street by two hipsters. The street was filled with cars and bikes and pedestrians. The sun was breaking through the glass window of a store selling Goth and Steampunk fashion, where two skeletons sat locked in a friendly embrace above a set of globes, skulls, and the merrily painted cardboard liver of a drunkard. In the meager window of a shop, most of the space was taken up by enameled signs reading HANDMADE SOAP, and ORGANIC SOAP, and GOATS’ MILK SOAP, and the simple NATURAL SOAP, and, finally, a sturdy blackboard with the golden letters HANDMADE SOAPS. There was clearly a great demand for these soap types in the Village. The soap shop offered only a single little blue sign for another life necessity: ORGANIC TOOTHPASTE.
Further along stood three stores in a row selling vintage items. Copper pots lay gleaming lecherously atop a mid-century modern buffet. An Eames chair was especially handsome. It looked powerful as it warmed itself lazily in the sun, like parents could take their children to see it on Sundays and holidays and say “There it is, my child. The Eames.” And the children would look at it, their big eyes filled with wonder.
At any other time, Bender would have noticed the Jacobsen chair, the Jalk table, the vinyl records, and bolts of retro fabric, which brought to mind the old adage that everything old is new again, but his mind was on other things today. He was hungry. “I assume you are standing on the edge of a financial abyss?” he asked Balganov.
“You mean cash?” said Shura. “I haven’t had cash for a whole week.”
“In that case, young man, your future is grim,” pronounced Ostap. “The financial abyss is the deepest kind of abyss; you can spend your whole life falling into it. Still, don’t sulk. I did manage to activate some prepaid restaurant cards earlier. The credit card gods liked me today.”
But the two stepbrothers weren’t able to take advantage of those. A large sign on the door of the restaurant read, CASH TODAY ONLY. CREDIT/DEBIT SYSTEM DOWN.
“Of course,” said Ostap bitterly, “the system is down. We’ll have to eat fast food.”
“Those cards won’t work there,” said Balganov dully.
“I know. I do have a little cash, a few dollars. But keep in mind, my esteemed Shura, that I don’t intend to give you a free lunch. I’m going to demand a variety of minor services for every vitamin you’re fed.”
Finally, the brothers were eating their dinner. “So tell me,” added Ostap said, “what that cutthroat Panikovski did wrong. I like stories about this kind of thing.”
The sated Balganov looked upon his savior with gratitude and began his story. It went on for a while and included some exceptionally interesting information.
It is well known that there exist institutions to regulate the supply and demand of labor. An actor sets out for New York after ascertaining that he can compete there, and that his skills are as good as those of his rivals. Rail workers are taken care of by their professional unions, which post announcements in their newsletters that baggage handlers are wanted on certain lines, or that stewards are needed on another line. An expert in human resources knows where to place ads, so that good candidates will know where they might fight employment.
It is all self-regulating, flowing down clear channels, completing natural cycles both in harmony with and under the full protection of the law.
Only one very unusual market existed in a state of chaos, and that was the market of hucksters, scammers, hoaxers, hackers, and phishers, all those we might call the children of ARPANET. Anarchy was tearing these children apart. They were not able to extract from their profession the comforts that would have doubtless been theirs, given even a momentary acquaintance with any number of Internet users, who for the most part are surprisingly gullible people.
The Nigerian prince who needs help moving money out of his country, the fake grandson who lost his wallet on a trip abroad, the FB “like” farmer, the fill-out-the-survey, win-a-prize scammer, the boy who has lottery winnings for you, the my-child-has-cancer hoaxer, the chain email writer who only needs $1, the “your account is locked” phishers, the “oops! I added too many zeroes to your check” overpayer: all crisscrossed the Internet, wheedling and extorting. From every point on the dateline, from boiler rooms in capital cities across the globe, from young men creating malware at flickering screens in bedrooms all over the earth, you could find the Internet-savvy criminals on every platform, anxiously attacking security measures. They rushed about. They were very busy.
At one point, the supply of scammers exceeded the number of targets, and this unique market experienced a depression. The need for reform made itself felt. And so some began to go legit, to clean up their act, to find honest work on the net, with the sole exception of the thriving group of children of the ARPANET, who, like the American Congress, found themselves riven by anarchy. They were all rude, greedy, and contrary, and they made it impossible for one another to earn a living.
Balganov, who considered himself ARPANET’s firstborn, had begun to seriously worry about the trend things were taking. More and more frequently, he would run into the work of colleagues who had completely besmirched the fertile fields of the “gold bullion stolen by corrupt government official” approach with such an obviously fake government document that the mark was immediately suspicious, and deleted the email.
“These difficulties were haunting you?” asked Ostap mockingly.
But Balganov didn’t notice the irony. Drinking his free-refill of soda, he continued his story. There was only one way out of this tense situation—a conference. Balganov worked on putting together the web conference all winter long. He corresponded with the competitors he knew personally. Those he didn’t know, he invited through the various grandchildren of ARPANET he’d met on his Internet travels. Finally, in the early spring, almost all of ARPANET’s children got together on a webinar platform. The quorum was large—it turned out that the ARPNET had hundreds of sons, from eighteen to sixty-two, and four daughters, all of them unattractive.
In his short introductory speech, Balganov expressed the hope that the brothers might find a common language and work out a treaty that life had rendered imperative.
According to Balganov’s plan, the entire world was to be broken up into operating districts, to match the number of participants. Each district would be entrusted to one of the children for their long-term use. None of the members of the corporation would be allowed to cross the border into another’s territory with the goal of making money there.
No one objected to these new work rules with the exception of Panikovski, who right then announced that he could live without a treaty. There were some ugly scenes, however, when it came to dividing up the country. The parties that had been in such lofty agreement fell to bickering right from the start, and would only address one another with the addition of vulgar epithets. The whole argument hinged on how districts were to be defined, and assigned.
Very few wanted geographic districts. Email addresses came in blocks that had little to do with geography. Though some wanted the university towns, finding them ideal for grandma scams. Some wanted the big cities, others wanted the hinterlands, as their inhabitants lacked familiarity with children of the ARPANET.
“You think you’ve found yourself some fools?” squealed Panikovski. “Give me the AOL email addresses, and I’ll sign your convention.”
“What? All of them?” said Balganov. “Maybe you want us to throw in Yahoo addresses too?”
The assembled parties gave a painful howl at the mention of Yahoo. Everyone was ready to go with something there that very instant. Yahoo users were the least savvy of all.
“Fine, not the whole thing,” insisted the greedy Panikovski. “Just give me half. I am a family man, after all, I have two families.” But they didn’t give him even half.
After prolonged shouting, it was agreed that districts would be assigned by random. An Excel spreadsheet and the RAND function doled out email address providers, international dating sites, and social media sites. Joyful cries, dull moans, and profanity accompanied the drawings.
Panikovski’s unlucky star showed its influence. He got gmail users. He was beside himself with wrath as he signed the treaty. “I’ll try,” he yelled. “But I’m warning you, if I can’t get around that spam filter at all, I’ll break the treaty. I’ll cross the border!”
Balganov, who got a golden Hotmail sector, took fright and announced right there that he would not stand for any infringement of the operating norms.
One way or another, the deal was worked out, after which ARPANET’s sons and four daughters went off to go to work in their assigned regions.
“You saw for your yourself how that swine defied the convention, Bender,” Balganov finished his story. “He’d been crawling around my territory for a long time, but I hadn’t been able to catch him until now.”
To the storyteller’s surprise, Panikovski’s wicked deed aroused no judgment from Ostap. Bender sprawled out in his chair, looking distractedly ahead.
An even line of trees with dense foliage was painted on the rear wall of the restaurant, like a picture in a children’s book. There were no real trees in the outdoor patio, but the shadow cast by the wall provided a refreshing coolness and the patrons found it completely satisfactory.
A green car went by, going full tilt. The driver was bouncing on his seat and yelling along with unintelligible music. Ostap watched it pass and said: “Now listen, Balganov, you pussy. Don’t get offended. By that, I just mean to clearly define the position you occupy under the sun.”
“Go to hell!” said Balganov rudely.
“You got offended after I told you not to? Does that mean you think being a son of the ARPANET is not being a pussy?”
“You yourself are one!” cried Balganov.
“You are a pussy,” repeated Ostap. “And the son of a pussy. And your children will be pussies! What happened this morning, with those prepaid cards, it was lame, a whim. I know how to steal them, so I did. But fishing at miserly odds is not in my character. And what kind of a profession is this, for God’s sake? ARPANET’s son! Maybe for another year, two on the outside. And then what? Then people will get wise to your “old Russian rubles found in a wall” scam, and they’ll start blocking you.”
“So what do I do?” worried Balganov. “How do I win my daily bread?”
“You need to think,” said Ostap sternly. “Me, for example, it’s ideas that keep me fed. I don’t hold out my hand for a few dollars, I cast my net wider. I have observed that you have a selfless love of money. Tell me, what kind of amount would be suitable?”
“Twenty-five thousand,” said Balganov quickly.
“Then I’m not the guy for you. I need five hundred thousand a year. And I need it all at once, not in installments.”
“Maybe you would take in installments nonetheless?” asked the vengeful Balganov.
Ostap looked at his interlocutor attentively, and in complete seriousness replied: “I would take it in installments. But I need it all at once.”
Balganov wanted to make a joke out of that answer, but looking up at Ostap, he stopped cold. The man sitting across from him was an athlete with a sharply defined face that looked as if it were stamped on a coin. A thick white scar ran across his dark throat. His eyes shone with a menacing bemusement.
Balganov suddenly felt an unconquerable desire to snap to attention. He even wanted to clear his throat, as happens with people of middling responsibilities when they are talking to one of their higher-ranking colleagues. And actually clearing his throat, he asked bashfully. “Why do you need so much money… and right away?”
“Really I need more.” said Ostap. “Five hundred thousand is my minimum. I want to get out of here, Balganov, go far away, to Rio de Janeiro.”
“Do you have relatives there?” asked Balganov.
“Do I look like the kind of person who would have relatives there?”
“No, but I…”
“I don’t have any relatives there, or anywhere. I am alone in this world. I had a father but he died long ago. That’s not the point. Ever since I was a child, I’ve wanted to go to Rio de Janeiro. You, of course, weren’t even aware that such a city existed.”
Balganov nodded his head dejectedly. Of all the centers of world culture, he only knew New York and Moscow.
Ostap tossed his phone onto the table. “Here’s Wiki on Rio de Janeiro.” Balganov read through, about the bay on the Atlantic, mulattoes, samba, main streets every bit the equal of the greatest cities in the world…
“Can you imagine, Shura? I want to leave here. Over the last year, some serious differences have arisen between me and the government. Now do you see why I want so much money?”
“Where will you get five hundred thousand dollars?” asked Balganov quietly.
“Wherever I can,” replied Ostap. “Just introduce me to a rich man who is hiding his money off-shore, and I will take it.”
“How? Murder?” asked Balganov in an even softer voice, casting a glance at the neighboring tables.
“You know,” said Ostap, “you should never have signed that treaty. The intellectual effort clearly exhausted you. You are getting dumber by the minute. Please note that Ostap Bender has never killed anyone. Have others tried to kill him? They have. But he himself stands pure in the eyes of the law. I’m no cherub, of course. I don’t have wings, but I do honor the Criminal Code. That is my weakness.”
“How do you plan to take the money?”
“How do I plan to take it? The taking or removal of funds varies based on circumstances. I personally have four hundred comparatively honest methods of extracting wealth, small amounts. But it’s not about how it’s done. The point is that right now, I need a wealthy man, and that is the difficulty of my position. Another person in my place might throw himself at any millionaire but not me. You know the respect I have for the Criminal Code. There is no point in robbing an honest man. Give me a rich dishonest man. But I don’t know any such individuals.
“What do you mean!” exclaimed Balganov. “There are some very dishonest rich people.”
“Do you know them?” said Ostap instantly. “Can you give me the name and exact address of just one? And yet they exist, they must exist. Once you have a country in which there circulate certain financial instruments, there must exist people who possess them in large quantities. But how do you find such a catch?” Ostap even gave a sigh at this point. It was clear he had been struggling with these dreams of rich individuals for a long time.
“How pleasant,” he said, immersed in thought, “To work with a millionaire in a well-organized bourgeois country with established capitalist traditions for hiding funds. People know his address. He lives in a house of his own. You go straight in to see him as a visitor and right there in the front room, after exchanging your first hellos, you take away his money. And all this politely, pleasantly, you see. ‘Hello, sir, don’t worry. I will need to importune you a little bit. All right… Done.’ And that’s it! What could be simpler? A gentleman doing a little bit of business in the society of other gentlemen. Just don’t shoot into the chandelier, that’s overdoing it. Just find the hidden money, the money even the IRS can’t find.
“So you think,” asked Balganov after a pause, “that if you found such a secret millionaire, you would…?”
“Stop right there. I know what you’re going to say. No, not that. Not that at all. I don’t plan to strangle him with a pillow or beat him on the head with a black revolver. There won’t be any rough stuff at all. Oh, if I could only find an individual, I’d set it up so he brings me his money himself, on a little platter.”
“That’s very good.” Balganov smiled. “Five hundred thousand on a little platter.”
He got up and started walking around the table. He smacked his tongue sadly, stopping and starting, even opening his mouth, as if he wanted to say something, but then he would sit down without saying anything and then get up again. Ostap followed his movements with indifference.
“He’ll bring it himself?” Balganov asked suddenly in a creaky voice. “On a platter? And if he doesn’t? And why Rio de Janeiro? Forget about all that, Bender. You can live well here for five hundred thousand.”
“No doubt, no doubt,” said Ostap, amused. “You can live here. But don’t go flapping your wings for no reason. You don’t have five hundred thousand.”
A deep wrinkle appeared on Balganov’s untroubled, unlined forehead. He looked at Ostap hesitantly and said: “I know a millionaire like that.”
All the liveliness left Bender’s face in a flash. His face instantly became hard and again took on the features of a medal. “Go on, go on,” he said, “I only offer handouts on Saturdays, no point in trying to con me.”
“I swear it’s true, Bender.”
“What is this millionaire’s address?”
“He lives in Chicago.”
“I should have known. Chicago? Is he a drug dealer?”
“No, no, let me explain. He’s a real millionaire. See, Bender, not long ago I happened to be serving time in one of their penitentiaries …”
Ten minutes later, the stepbrothers left the patio. Bender felt like a surgeon who must carry out an extremely serious operation. Everything is ready. A nurse in a white moves silently across the tiled floor, the medical porcelain and nickel are shining, the patient is lying on a table, his unseeing eyes rolled up towards the ceiling. The surgeon walks up to the operating table, his hands spread, takes a sterilized scalpel from his assistant and…
“That’s how it always is with me,” said Bender, his eyes shining. “I end up having to start a million dollar job with a tangible lack of monetary instruments. My entire personal capital—base, operating and reserve—amounts to five bucks. What did you say the underground millionaire’s name was?”
“Koreiko” replied Balganov
“Yes, Koreiko. A beautiful name. And you claim no one knows about his millions.”
“No one except for me and Pruzhanski. But Pruzhanski, like I told you, is going to be spending another three years in jail. If you could only see how he railed and cried when I went free. He could feel that he should never have told me about Koreiko.”
“The fact that he revealed his secret to you is nothing. That’s not why he was railing and crying. He evidently had a premonition that you would tell the whole story to me. And that truly is a direct loss for poor Pruzhanski. By the time Pruzhanski gets out of jail, Koreiko will be finding consolation only in the despicable proverb ‘there’s no shame in being poor.” Ostap took off his summer cap, waved it in the air, and asked, “Do I have any grey hair?”
Balganov sucked in his gut, spread his socks a rifle butt’s width apart, and in the voice of a front line soldier answered: “Absolutely not!”
That means they’re on their way. Great battles lie ahead of us. You’ll go grey too, Balganov.”
Balganov suddenly gave a silly giggle. “How did you say it? They’ll bring the money on a little platter?”
“Mine on a little platter. Yours on a little plate.”
“And what about Rio de Janeiro? I want to wear white pants, too!”
“Rio de Janeiro is the crystal dream of my childhood,” the great con man replied sternly. “Keep your paws off it. Let’s get to the point. Send out the emails, they are to arrive in Chicago as soon as humanly possible. And pack your bags. Dress code is casual. Sound the march! I will lead the parade.”