During the Soviet era, Russians were not allowed to own private property. Fifteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow has nearly as many multi-millionaires as New York. And some of them are Nepalis.
Knowledge of English and Russian as well as prior exposure to the free market allowed Nepali students in the Soviet Union to adjust faster to the consumer boom in the post-communist era. So they got married and settled down here. Not even in that bastion of global capitalism, the United States, has the Nepali diaspora struck it as rich as it has in Russia.
Jiba Lamichhane came to Russia to study engineering in 1986. He used to be a dealer for Sony, LG and Samsung in Russia. "There would be long queues even before we opened the stores, we sold goods worth hundreds of thousands of dollars every day. There was just so much pent-up demand the profit margin was 35-40 percent," recalls Lamichhane of the period just after 1990.
The Nepalis thrived because locals lacked the business acumen in banking and exposure to the outside world. But now the Russians have learnt fast, and the business is more competitive. Lamichhane is managing director of Techno Trust, a company manufacturing the Elson brand LCD tvs for the Russian market.
There are more than 150 Nepali entrepreneurs and more than 36 business conglomerates in Russia and the CIS countries which are Nepali-owned. From Moscow to Minsk, Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa, St Petersburg to Volgograd, you will find successful Nepali traders dealing in electronic goods and appliances. Even the newly-arrived are doing well. Dile Lama came here not to study but to do business. He now runs the Tibet and Jhomolungma restaurants in Moscow and Minsk.
But by far the most successful Nepali in the CIS is Upendra Mahato, who did a PhD, and after 1990 set up a business empire spanning electronics, oil, real estate, banking and heavy machinery. Mahato now has 12,000 employees, 50 of them Nepali. Starting off as an electronics trader, Mahato now owns a television factory in Voronezh, 400 km south of Moscow, making one million sets annually. And he owns the outlets to sell them: a huge electronics mega mall in Gorbushka which sees 80,000 customers a day. He is building a 26-storey $50 million apartment block in a prime residential area in Moscow.
Russia's Nepali millionaires are now reaping the rewards of the hard work and struggle of their early days here. Most have dachas in the countryside, children attending the most expensive schools in Europe or the United States. They commute to work in limousines.
But the success is tinged with the fear of violence from extortionists and skinheads.