Tax Business, Russian Style

Working in the tax business is usually a pretty safe gig. You really just need an office, a computer with an internet connection, and a fast laser printer for all those piles of paper. There's not much heavy lifting — and even less intrigue or danger. But sometimes the tax business is a different story. Just ask Pavel Petrovich Ivlev, who works (now) in suburban New Jersey.

Pavel was born in 1970 just outside Moscow. He earned a law degree from Moscow State University in 1993, studied more in Amsterdam and London, then joined an international law firm. At that point, he appeared set to become another one of a new breed of Russian lawyers, helping newly-privatized companies negotiate the awkward transition to "real" capitalism.

Pavel's clients included Yukos Oil, and its charismatic chairman, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky had started out collecting dues for the Communist Youth League. But as the Soviet Union collapsed, he rejected his old Leninist ideology. Taking advantage of glasnost and his party connections, he became an entrepreneur, published his own capitalist manifesto called The Man with the Ruble, and traded his way up to controlling 20% of Russia's lucrative oil production. For one brief shining moment, Khodorkovsky's $16 billion fortune made him the richest man in Russia and the 16th-richest man on earth.

In 1999, Vladimir Putin succeeded to Russia's Presidency. Putin had started his career in the KGB — working counterintelligence, no less — and he was no stranger to blunt force. (Google "Putin+thug" and you get 2,190,000 hits. 'Nuff said.) Putin quickly moved to tighten his grip on power, clamping down on elected officials and billionaire oligarchs alike. Khodorkovsky naturally pushed back, and at one point in 2003, embarrassed Putin in a nationally televised meeting of business leaders. Unfortunately, such resistance amounted to bringing the proverbial knife to a gunfight.

Eight months later, Putin had Khodorkovsky arrested, and slapped everyone else associated with Yukos with tax and fraud charges. And that's where our tax attorney friend Pavel comes back into the picture. Here's how he describes his own interrogation by government investigators. Clearly, they felt no need to screw around with the usual "good cop-bad cop" shtick — or maybe the good cop was just off grabbing a ponchiki (Russian doughnut):

"On November 16, the lead detective in the case said to me 'Now I am going to interrogate you.'

I said, 'You can't do that, it's against the law.'

'I guess we are going to have to break the law then. Tell me all.'

'What do you want me to say?'

'You are the lawyer — you know the penal code. Whatever you say, we'll use.'

'You want me to describe how we took sacks of cash out of Yukos and delivered them to Khodorkovsky personally?'


'But nothing like that ever happened.'

That's when he threatened to arrest me."

Pavel's momma didn't raise any dummies. He caught the next plane out of Moscow and didn't even call his wife till he landed. But he remains under indictment in his homeland for stealing $2.4 billion, laundering $810 million, and evading tax on the gain. At least he's better off than his former client — Khodorkovsky has spent the last seven years in a series of former Soviet prisons.

Look, there's nothing fun about the IRS. And we've all met someone who went through an "audit from hell." But few people actually flee abroad to shake off the tax man! So while we gripe about how much we pay, we can at least appreciate the IRS playing on a level field. Let Pavel's story help you feel fortunate that we won't be chased out of this country for paying less tax!

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