Back Shop On Line

The Dallas Morning News

Wednesday, June 16, 1993

RUSSIAN

RELICS

Mikhail Frumkin

engineer-turned-

entrepreneur,

sells artifacts

in a new

Fort Worth shop

By Deborah Bradley

Staff Writer of The Dallas Morning News

FORT WORTH - It might be enough to make Vladimir Lenin rise from his tomb. In the midst of capitalism's most visible shrine - the suburban mall - Mikhail Frumkin is selling Russian artifacts from 70 years of Communist rule.

Mr. Frumkin's Russian Island, stocked with traditional crafts and relics from the former Soviet Union, is in the hub of Victoria's Secret and The Gap at Hulen Mall in Fort Worth.

The Soviet flag, with its hammer and sickle, once represented the communality of the factory workers and farmers. Now it's priced on the open market for between $9.95 and $149; the most expensive, made of silk, drapes the store's ceiling

A three-star admiral's overcoat, made of heavy wool, carries a $290 hand-scrawled price tag; a police uniform goes for $195. Shoulder boards from the KGB, police and army can be bought along with an assortment of commemorative pens once owned by Russian brass. A glass case holds collectible currency dating back to the late 1800s and the days of Czar Nicholas2.

"It's like a museum. It's fun to come even if you don't buy anything," says Mr. Frumkin in his thick Russian Accent. "Each item has a story behind it."

For example, there's a hand carved figure of an old man who, as the fable goes needs the help of his family, his dog, his cat and even a tiny mouse to pull up a giant turnip. This Russian folk tale teaches the importance of getting along and how even the smallest creature is needed.

When "Catherine the Great" came to Fair Park last July, Mr. Frumkin used his connections in Russia to procure enough imported items to open a shop at the exhibit. With its success, he opened the Hulen location a month later. Today the shop is making a profit and importing shipments monthly.

Before Mr. Frumkin came to the United States 14 years ago, he was a civil and structural engineer - a coveted position in Russia. He half jests that he was sold to America for grain. "President Carter and (Soviet leader Leonid) Brezhnev made a deal. Russia needed grain. Carter said he'd send grain in exchange for letting 50,000 people go."

The aspiring capitalist had put in his application to come to America two years earlier. He wanted freedom.

"Those two years were a difficult time because you don't know if you're going to Siberia or the U.S.," says Mr. Frumkin, 46. "You feel pressure all the time - emotionally not physical - they (the former communist regime) just give you a miserable time. If you have a high-level position, they try to push you down. But what happened was a very long time ago and most unpleasant. I don't wish to go into it."

His wife, Larrissa, and his 1-year-old son Mark, came with him to America.

Mr. Frumkin says that when they got to this country the U.S. government offered to relocate him to New York or Dallas.

He picked Dallas. New York was too crowded and had a large Russian community, he says.

Learning new ways

"When you come to a new country, you have to learn the new ways," says Mr. Frumkin. If he had stayed in a Russian community it would have been too easy to speak his native language and not learn English, he says.

While Mr. Frumkin began his search for a job, the government set him and his family up in an apartment and helped with living expenses.

Without speaking a word of English, He began his search. In two months, he was hired as a draftsman for a small engineering company called The DeShazo. Two years later, after learning enough English to communicate, he was promoted to project manager. He stayed with the firm for 12 years.

Today, he's divorced and lives in southwest Arlington. He came to America looking for economic and personal freedom. He wanted a life without the restrictions of working under a Communist government. "If you've always had freedom, this is something you don't understand. Because you take it for granted," says Mr. Frumkin.

Now, he has fulfilled his dreams.

"Here everything depends on you, he says. "If you work hard and hit your target, you're going to be fine. So far, I'm hitting my target."

In getting the shop started, Mr. Frumkin had his share of naysayers. His Russian friends said it was impossible to get goods through customs.

"They said Russia's a great country, but not to do business with." Correcting himself he adds, "When I say Russia, I mean the former USSR I forget that Russia is no longer Russia. It's heartbreaking."

His melancholy quickly fades, and he shifts back to his original thought: "It's not easy to get goods through customs. You have to have good connections. There are a lot of laws, 'cause a lot of people work for the government. They need work so they must put their signature on everything."

It can take several months to get all the proper signatures - that is, without government connections. Mr. Frumkin says that with his friends, he can usually have goods shipped within a week or two. "If you have two good friends, you can be friends with anybody in the world.

Jobs program

Mr. Frumkin says the Russian government is interested in ventures such as his because of the great need to employ people. For instance, he says, the wooden egg he sells for $6 are hand painted at a factory that used to make nuclear bombs. "There's not much business in that these days, so now they make eggs"

Mr. Frumkins favorite store item comes from his collection of political caricatures.

"This was made back when (Mikhail) Gorbachev was still in power. He's holding the papers signed by Boris Yeltsin saying he's fired," he says with a chuckle.

Then there are the hand painted nesting dolls called matrioshkas. "The dolls are traditionally good luck presents, especially for pregnant women," explains Mr. Frumkin. "They represent the many generations."

The cylindrical figures open to reveal smaller and smaller dolls. Some house as many as 14 dolls, with the smallest standing only one sixteenths of an inch high.

"When Gorbachev is opened Yeltsin is inside, then (Leonid) Brezhnev, Then (Joseph) Stalin, then the littlest is Lenin," he says.

Prices vary widely. A doll made by a craftsman on a factory line can go for as little as $15, while a hand painted one, carved and signed by an artist, costs anywhere from $70 to $1,500.

Even with the caliber of the goods, the shop has some of the feel of a Mexican market. It's a place where haggling might be expected and where all the goods are "very special and very high quality" - right down to a Muslim dagger adorned with synthetic jewels, which is made of "very special metal."

Intentionally or not, Mr. Frumkin has patterned himself after Ross Perot, the colorful Texan he clearly admires and speaks of frequently. Mr. Frumkin wears a no-nonsense short haircut and sports neat but simple attire. He's quick with the salesman's gab and grin. And, like Mr. Perot, he thinks big.

Mr. Frumkin says he is determined to turn his quaint one-man operation into a multimillion-dollar national chain. For now, he hopes to open a second store in Dallas.

"Ross Perot started with computers a long time ago," he says. "I think this will be very big business, too. The second thing I want to do is to educate. It's good for Russians and Americans to know each other. Here I can teach about Russian culture - some think we only have bears."

And Mr. Perot, if you're reading, Mr. Frumkin says he has a proposition he wants to discuss. "I'd like to talk to him about doing business in Russia. I could help him. He knows business but I know Russia. If we could talk for 10 minutes, we could make a deal."

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