CAN YOU MAKE ANY MONEY IN RUSSIA? Not much, not yet. Sure, the Malta summit marks the end of the economic cold war. But Westerners seeking big profits in this millennium aren't likely to find them.
By Lee Smith REPORTER ASSOCIATE Jennifer Reese

(FORTUNE Magazine) – CALL IT CRAZY. Call it courageous. An American entrepreneur arrived in Moscow not long ago hoping to sell popcorn for microwave ovens, a dicey undertaking in a nation where such devices are all but unknown. Another unsinkable soul is trying to sell Afro hair products. Even before the recent seaborne summit, Western capitalists had gone a little giddy. Of the tens of thousands who have traveled to the Soviet Union in recent years, most have been on missions only slightly less impossible than selling high-tech snacks. Says a former official at the U.S. embassy in Moscow: ''I've seen executives set up businesses there that they would be fired for starting in Oklahoma.''

Now with the U.S. moving to end the economic Cold War, more dreamers are sure to follow. At Malta George Bush promised Mikhail Gorbachev that if the Soviet Union puts its recently liberalized emigration policies into law, he will ask Congress to grant its exports most-favored-nation status and to extend U.S. government credits and investment guarantees to companies that trek to Moscow. Clearly, corporate powerhouses with global aspirations ought to come to the U.S.S.R. The economy may be slumping, and perestroika could yet perish. But IBM and General Electric, which sell only a handful of computers or generators there now, know that if they stay home, rivals like Fujitsu and Siemens will happily take their place. A market of 287 million yearning people sitting atop enormous natural resources and slowly rejoining the world economy is not going to remain poor forever. The IBMs and GEs belong in Moscow. DOES ANYBODY ELSE? Conventional wisdom says that it is foolhardy to expect a return from an investment in the Soviet Union in less than a decade. To test that proposition, I spent two weeks traveling from Moscow to Kiev in the Ukraine to Riga on the Baltic coast looking for opportunities that might pay off for a Western newcomer before the next century starts. There's certainly no shortage of locals eager to enrich foreigners and themselves. Says Peter Orenski, who runs a consulting firm in New Milford, Connecticut: ''You can't finish a cup of coffee in Moscow without a stranger offering to launch a hosiery factory with you.'' Half a dozen Soviet capitalists show up at the U.S. embassy every day in search of partners. Many are part of the growing cooperative movement, some 135,000 private organizations licensed by the government to run restaurants and fleets of taxis, to repair cars and TV sets, and to manufacture dresses and bathroom tiles. One of the most ambitious cooperatives, called Research, has been started by a group of scientists who quit safe jobs at places like Moscow State University to develop new superconducting materials. Operating out of a laboratory that has barely evolved from the abandoned brick factory it once was, Research hopes to sell its technology overseas. Says chief engineer German Chesnokov: ''Sony didn't start in very promising surroundings either.'' But while cooperative comrades are bright, ambitious, and inspiring, most ought to be ignored by foreigners. As private citizens, these entrepreneurs have almost no access to land and raw materials. Dealing with government entities poses another set of problems. Often, managers at state-owned companies think less about potential profits than perks. Says one American businessman with long experience in Moscow: ''The first questions they ask are 'Do we get a Mercedes?' and 'When do we travel to the U.S.?' '' PERESTROIKA IS ALSO making joint ventures riskier. John P. Minneman, Chase Manhattan Bank's man in Moscow, points out that in the old days foreigners could sign contracts only with the Ministry of Foreign Trade. That ministry's signature was backed by the Soviet government, which has a sterling record for honoring financial obligations. But in the brave new world created by Mikhail Gorbachev, thousands of state-owned enterprises can strike their own deals. Few guarantee a Kremlin bailout should promises remain unkept. The biggest operating problem a Western business faces is how to convert its largely worthless ruble earnings into real money. Soviet cabdrivers have long gotten around this problem by demanding payment in cigarettes. ''My office is a pack of Marlboros from your hotel,'' an experienced expatriate instructs a newcomer. Most old corporate hands in the Soviet Union also rely on barter deals. In one of the most successful, PepsiCo for 18 years has swapped soft-drink syrup for Stolichnaya vodka. But much of the good stuff to trade is spoken for. Consider these items recently on offer from the Soviets' stockpile: World War II submarines (suitable for scrap metal or the novelty collector who has everything) and 250,000 field mouse skins (but wallet-quality skins, mind you). Since no one expects the ruble to become a potent, exchangeable currency any time soon, the trick for foreign businessmen is to avoid bleeding to death in a fatal trap: spending hard currency for raw materials outside the U.S.S.R. and selling the finished products inside for rubles. McDonald's, for example, is building 20 restaurants in partnership with the city of Moscow's food service division. The first should open in January on fashionable Pushkin Square. To survive on a pure ruble diet, McDonald's plans to buy all its beef, pickles, and buns locally. No recent Western arrival knows more about the constant headaches and untapped opportunities of doing business in the U.S.S.R. than Tambrands of Lake Success, New York. In 1987 this $563-million-a-year company launched Femtech, a joint venture with the Ukrainian Health Ministry, to make the first tampons ever manufactured in the U.S.S.R.

Femtech's factory operates on the outskirts of Kiev, a city whose gold-domed churches make it one of the country's loveliest. Like most new Soviet buildings, this ten-month-old structure already looks as if it had been around for decades. The ceiling lines are uneven, the paint job splotchy. Telephone and electrical wires are strung along the walls rather than buried inside. But then, there aren't a lot of wires. The neighborhood waiting list is so long that Femtech has so far gotten only one phone for a work force of about 70. FEATHERBEDDING is king-size, another standard feature of Soviet life. The secretary of Femtech's general manager, D. Ross Dineen, answers the phone -- but she doesn't do letters. So the company employs a staff typist. It also keeps a plumber on duty around the clock in case the sprinkler system breaks. Still, the factory works, and so do the people. Says Dineen proudly: ''Our workers reached peak efficiency faster than at any Tambrands plant in the world.'' Femtech pays the going local wage (the average Russian worker earns 200 rubles a month) but motivates employees with bonuses of scarce imports, like electric shavers and hair dryers. The women of Kiev have been grabbing tampons off pharmacy shelves so eagerly that Femtech plans to expand output as much as tenfold over the next few years. That would please the Soviet government because tampons require less than a third of the fiber used in homemade pads. Femtech uses its customers' rubles to buy Soviet cotton. Since that cotton is not processed to tampon specs, the company sells it overseas for hard currency, buys the right stuff, and then brings the imports back to Kiev. Even so, Femtech can't quite escape the hard-currency snare. The land of endless forests, you see, suffers from a chronic shortage of the linerboard used in packaging. So to pay for its imports of cardboard boxes, Tambrands is drawing on earnings generated outside the Soviet Union. But in 1990 -- maybe -- state suppliers in Moscow will provide Femtech with an allotment of boxes that can be bought with rubles. Says Dineen: ''Someday the ruble will be convertible. We're here for the long haul.'' If you want to make an honest dollar in the Soviet Union today rather than someday, your best bet is to set up a business that advises, transports, houses, or feeds other foreign businessmen. At least these people carry hard cash. For example, the Worsham Group, an Atlanta real estate firm, is helping Moscow's city council convert old buildings to modern offices. The council locates sites and relocates the inhabitants; Worsham supervises the ( reconstruction and finds new tenants. Foreigners are so desperate for Moscow accommodations that a basement suite with a tiny window was recently snagged for $110 a month per square foot, about twice the cost of quarters in midtown Manhattan. I came home persuaded that the conventional wisdom about the Soviet Union is right. This is mainly a market for big companies with deep pockets and distant vision. Western executives and entrepreneurs who insist on making money in this millennium should probably explore other new frontiers. Thailand or Turkey, anyone?