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To Russia, with love.

Not two weeks after the pathetically mishandled coup in the Soviet Union collapsed, an article in the Sunday New York Times business section proclaimed: "Now Is the Time to Invest in the Soviets." Positively jubilantly in its declaration that "the hardliners are out; pent-up consumer demand is enormous," the paper of record rhapsodized about the enormous potential awaiting American marketers.

True, the potential is great, but this raises the question: What are the products most likely to sell in the new, free-market society that emerges from the wreckage of the Soviet Union? What are the industries best positioned to take advantage of the collapse of Marxism? Conversely, what are the industries that stand to lose the most as the Iron Curtain comes crashing to the ground? With so much euphoria in the air, this is a good time to examine the potential for forward-minded American businesses as communism is safely dumped into the dustbin of history.

First, let's have a look at the losers. Although it will come as a surprise to many, the demise of the communist system has not been a cause for celebration at every American firm. Hatmakers, for one, predict that profits will decline by some 20 percent now that the Communist Party has been banned in the Soviet Union.

"Throughout the long, gloomy years of the Cold War, Russian bigwigs--and that means everyone from Soviet diplomats to KGB officials--never went anywhere without a dark fedora," laments Sidney Terkel of Transglobal Natty, the U.S.'s largest exporter of men's headgear to the Soviet Union. "Russia has a population of around 280 million people, but 35 million of them worked for the KGB--and they all wore fedoras. With the collapse of Marxism-Leninism, fedora makers could be in for a very tough winter."

Publishing houses specializing in Cold War espionage novels will also be severely impacted by the death of communism. With the Soviet Union fragmenting into a dozen small, relatively impotent republics, writers such as Tom Clancy and John Le Carre will be hard pressed to find empires sufficiently evil to arouse readers' dread. Le Carre is supposedly working on a pair of novels that will pit Western spies against maniacal Third World villains in Africa (The Spy Who Came in from the Heat) and the Near East (The Baghdad House), while Clancy is reportedly finishing a novel about a renegade environmentalist group that gets it hands on a nuclear weapon (The Hunt for Green November). Sadly, neither title has the same fearsome ring as the authors' most popular works, and their success is by no means assured.

If fedora manufacturers and spy novel publishers are the folks who stand to lose the most, the most obvious winner in this unique historical moment is the comedy industry. Humor has been virtually nonexistent in the Soviet Union since Josef Stalin took power; the last stand-up comic to achieve any renown in Russia was Rasputin, the wild and crazy, prerevolutionary entertainer who perished in a contract dispute in 1916. American TV producers plan to bombard Central Asian television screens with a host of U.S.-produced comedy programs. Next spring, a U.S. cable channel will broadcast a series of weekly comedy specials from each of the emerging Soviet republics. "Live from the Uzbekistan Improv," "Azerbaijan Comedy Tonight," and "The Best of Kazakhstan Female Stand-Up Comics" are all certain to be big draws, as are such made-to-order Soviet situation comedies as "Married... With Armenian Children" and "Designing Tadzhikistanian Women."

The disintegration of the Soviet Union will also be a boon to the New York building industry, which will now be commissioned to build permanent United Nations embassies for each of the dozen or more independent republics that will emerge from the rubble of communism. Mapmakers, flagmakers, and encyclopedia companies will also benefit mightily, as will Berlitz, which can now add Georgian for Travelers and Ukrainian in 30 Days to its fall 1992 list. Similarly poised to capitalize on the unexpected demise of the U.S.S.R. will be the makers of such books as Central Turkmen on $5 a Day and Moldavian Without Tears.

The list does not stop there. American personal hygiene companies have reported an enormous increase in orders for eyebrow clippers, as former proteges of Leonid Brezhnev try to change their images, and even their identities. Novelty makers have been deluged with requests for whoopie cushions, fake eyeballs and water shooting flowers--gags that Russia's morbid citizenry have been denied for more than half a century. But the greatest economic gains of all will be reaped by American cable TV stations, which are moving full speed ahead to get the whole of the Caucasus wired as soon as possible.

"Just think of it," says Lance Dostoyevski, who produces many of the infomercials seen on late-night cable TV. "We're talking about hundreds of millions of people who have never had a chance to purchase a Richard Simmons exercise video, get rich quick by buying dirt-cheap Hawaiian real estate, or obtain a high school diploma through the mail."

Last, but not least, come the 900-LOVE phone lines.

"We're basically talking about 280 million repressed, depressed couch potatoes who have never even seen Jessica Hahn on |The Love Connection,'" beams Stud Latimore of the Las Vegas-based DIAL-A-SWEETIE. "Once we get all those lonely guys in Byelorussia dialing long distance in the middle of the night at $3.95 a pop, you're going to see this whole industry go through the roof."

Eat your heart out, Karl Marx.

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and the Wall Street Journal.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Comment; opportunities for American businesses in the Soviet Union
Author:Queenan, Joe
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Article Type:Column
Date:Nov 1, 1991
Words:940
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