Valenki are traditional Russian felt boots. Smorodeov noticed that modern machine-made ones were much stiffer than the ones he remembered from childhood. So he set out to interview elderly craftsmen and women to learn their traditional methods. He also bought up all the old valenki-production tools he could find. In the end, he decided to make flexible valenki the old-fashioned way, but make them more practical by adding latex soles.
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In Smorodov's tiny factory, entrepreneurship has done battle with gangsters and crooked officials, and traditions persist in the midst of what is supposed to have changed. It is a snapshot of what Russia has been, and of the tireless force of its people, even amid the vagaries of international economic tides.But Smoldorov and 25 employees soldier on, producing beautiful and useful wares that marry the ancient and the modern. I would buy his boots if he shipped to LA.
"I made a heap of money. By local standards, I was an oligarch," he says, laughing ruefully. "I thought, OK, I won't have to work again until my pension. But then the currency reforms began."
In a string of monetary revaluations that marked Russian capitalism's birth in the early 1990s, Smorodov's savings evaporated.
"I suffered three bankruptcies in a year and a half," Smorodov says. "People all around me were just committing suicide, hanging themselves. It was a time of suicide and bandits."
Correction: I would buy the shoes if they were sold in LA. Wool felt boots are no more improbable than Uggs in LA. I smell an entrepreneurial opportunity here.