Russian consultant writes U.S. success story
Dmitry Afanasiev's time in the United States has been filled with international drama and professional success.
After helping resolve a kidnapping case in Russia, he has started his own firm advising Russians and Americans on how to do business with each other.
Last year Afanasiev, then a 23-year-old student from St. Petersburg studying in Philadelphia and working in a local law firm, was asked by his senior partner to investigate a very peculiar case.
One of the firm's clients had received a call from an Australian relative, Daniel Weinstock, who said that he and his wife had been kidnapped in Moscow. The kidnappers wanted 1.6 million in ransom. Afanasiev, the sole Russian in the law firm, was told to find out what was going on.
For four days and four nights, Afanasiev was on the telephone coordinating the activities of the FBI, the Russian Foreign Ministry, the KGB and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. His phone bill skyrocketed to over 5000, but the FBI and U.S. media credited him with helping the rescue go smoothly.
Afanasiev recalls those tense days in a conversation in his cozy office in downtown Philadelphia where he conducts business deals for his new firm, Egorov, Pughinsky, Afanasiev & Associates, which he formed with Russian partners on January 1 this year. The firm has offices in Philadelphia, Moscow, St. Petersburg and Ekaterinburg and is believed to be the first and so far only Russian law firm with its own outlet in the United States.
In its first five months, the partnership has accumulated more then 40 clients, most of them Russian commercial entities. However, the firm's Russian legal and consulting services also have been used by the World Bank, Revlon, Marriott and other American corporations.
"We evaluate the Russian laws for foreign clients, help prepare contracts, conduct U.S. legal counsel for our clients, even help with getting permanent residence stature in America," Afanasiev said. "Some Russian businessmen use our services for buying real estate. We even organized medical treatment for one of our clients."
The partnership also assists a Russian television production company in negotiating its advertising contracts here and services off-shore companies in the Bahamas, the Isle of Man and Cyprus.
Afanasiev's ascent up the business ladder wasn't an easy one. His phenomenal success story began back in 1988 when while a law student in St.Petersburg he wrote an essay that was submitted for an international competition called Semester-At-Sea that sends winners on around-the-world study voyage that go to more than 20 countries.
Afanasiev was a finalist and when his trip ended in America, he contacted a long-time American pen pal who invited him to the University of Pennsylvania to look around. That was in early 1990 -- a time when students from the Soviet Union were still a novelty in the United States and it was fairly easy to get scholarships.
The university offered Afanasiev a scholarship but then came unfamiliar hardships: looking for work, financial difficulties, working as a door-to-door fund-raiser for an environmental group.
"In Russia I was a card-carrying, tie-wearing member of the Communist Youth League, while here was a whole new ball game," Afanasiev said.
At some point he was planning to quit and return to his friends and family in St. Petersburg but he stayed on.
By mid-1990 Afanasiev found part-time work in a law firm where Jerome Shestack, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, was a partner. It didn't take long for Afanasiev to understand where his luck lay.
That summer Afanasiev took his mentor to Russia and organized three prestigious contracts for the law firm -- to represent in the United States the interests of the Russian Parliament and the mayors offices in St. Petersburg and Moscow.
When he got back to Philadelphia, Afanasiev was made a full-time associate at the law firm.
"But by 1993 I started understanding that although law firms helped me out, I wanted to try something else," he said. "Our American clients that worked in Russia needed not only legal advice but also consulting. I decided to try to fill this niche."
His idea blossomed into a partnership that counts among its partners leading Russian lawyers and economists and even a few American lawyers.
"Many of my Russian colleagues are former government officials but they are professionals and always were," Afanasiev said. "There is nothing wrong with having been an apparatchik for as long as the old contacts can be complemented with new, Western experience. When I worked in the law firm we used my partners as local counsel in Russia."
Recently, local authorities from Russia's Far East asked Afanasiev's firm to help out in evaluating a potential partner -- an American oil company that offered the region what appeared to be a lucrative deal.
Afanasiev found out the deal wasn't as lucrative as it seemed at first and also that the company had been violating environmental laws in the United States.
Another Russian client delivered over 10 million worth of metals to an American buyer in a Western European country. But the buyer was slow with his payment so Afanasiev's company was working to arrest the shipment until payment was received.
Many of the services that are performed by the partnership are out of the ordinary and don't really fit in the narrow framework of legal advice. This is one of the reasons why Afanasiev has so many clients.
"Compared with some other Russian-American companies, we try not to get involved as middle men in trade deals," he said. "I tried to forge trade deals some time ago but I was so often embarrassed by Russian and American businessmen alike that now I'll only get into such a deal with a...