MOSCOW - How soon did I meet the New Russia?
Right after arriving at Sheremetyevo Airport. I was at passport control and called my producer. He was already in the city for our shoot for HD Net's "World Report" about the "New Russia" airing this week.
But the New Russia was already in my face. The guy behind me, a Moscow investment banker, stared at my cheap phone. "What, you don't have a Blackberry?"
Another guy couldn't believe I didn't already have rubles with me. He opened his overstuffed wallet and thrust 20 bucks in rubles at me as if I'd just arrived on a Greyhound bus from Iowa.
During a week spent with multi-millionaires, club kids, publishing tycoons, beauty queens, reformed gangsters and Russia's biggest rap star - I often felt the object of pity and scorn.
The American dream? Very yesterday's news here where the smell of well-laundered money - and lots of it - is in the air.
Our report focuses on the rise of the new power players called "minigarchs." Dirty '90s money, co-opted in the Darwinian struggle for control after privatization by Communist party operatives-turned-"oligarchs," has gotten cleaner over time. The minigarchs - young, brand-obsessed, fiercely ambitious entrepreneurs - are benefiting. Gangster has gone Gucci.
"We have a new Russian dream," one of the minigarchs told me. "We don't want the American one. It's over."
Sure, it was cold and Moscow was choked with traffic and the Kremlin rose majestically above the Moskva River like an outtake from an old Bond film - but the motherland has changed.
"Wheels up!" shouted our Russian fixer, Zamir Gotta, every morning - sounding like Victor Garber before each week's new spy mission in "Alias."
Zamir, who speaks flawless American English, herded us into a van going all over, including the Beverly Hills-like suburb of Rublevka - filled with designer malls like "Luxury Village" and "Dream House" and where anyone worth less than $10 million is hopelessly middle class.
Zamir was my one touchstone with reality during the week. As we rolled by Jed Clampett-style mansions, Zamir reminded me about the pre-Bolshevik revolution era of serfdom and how it haunts the country to this day.
There are now officially 110 billionaires and 130,000 millionaires in Russia - among them the "new tsar" and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Everyone else either doesn't have much money, or they're very poor.
"Every day I squeeze a little of the slave out of me," said Zamir, quoting Chekhov.
Back in Moscow, I strolled with 23-year-old Victoria Lepyrova, Miss Russia 2003, through the Gucci, Prada and Rolex-stuffed GUM super-store on Red Square.
Old Soviet songs played on the audio system. One store was devoted to all things Soviet. Boxes of sugar and cereal from the 1960s and '70s were displayed in the window.
The U.S.S.R. is now retro-chic - even at the store where Russians once queued for hours for the same products now so jauntily arranged for show. "Aren't the older people a little pissed off?" I asked. Victoria said yes. And they miss the old days.
"They knew exactly how much they would make and when they would have a vacation," she said. "Now most of them are too old to start over and make the money we do."
But she quickly changed the subject. She wants to get a new Mac Book Air. Do I have one yet? I don't - but then again I live in Europe and make some of my money in dollars. Hence my ancient 2004 Mac laptop.
Victoria looked sympathetic - but can't relate. Last year, for example, thieves stole "many" of her diamonds when they broke into her apartment. It didn't seem to make much of a dent in her net worth.
Crime is almost a casual byproduct of the new wealth. We interviewed two guys who run one of the hotter Moscow restaurants - and one laid his gun on the table for us to see the rubber bullets.
Victor Shkulev, who's worth more than $200 million after starting up the Russian branch of the Hachette-Filipacchi magazine empire, spent his youth in Siberia as a Young Pioneer in the Communist Party. Victor transitioned from comrade-ship to mogul-dom thanks to nerves of steel. When gangsters showed up at his dacha wanting a cut of his early action, he said he convinced them he knew their boss. Then he actually made friends with the boss. P.S. No one screws with Shkulev anymore.
Max Tikhonov, a yuppie lawyer for some of the more powerful figures in Moscow admitted that his lucrative position has drawbacks, like driving around with people who use armored cars.
We interviewed Max in his ultra-modern Moscow apartment. Because it was snowy outside and we were covering a lot of ground, I wore Ugg boots. Later Zamir told me privately Max was shocked by my dowdy boots - he couldn't believe a TV reporter would wear them.
We met up with an old friend of mine, Eduard, who edits a magazine for Moscow's superrich and attends events like the annual Millionaire's Fair. We met Eduard for lunch at an elite restaurant in Rublevka. Eduard worried we wouldn't know to tip the waiter after the meal and would embarrass him.
One of the savviest Russians we met was Timati, a 24-year-old rap superstar who is the third most-recognized person in Russia. Timati lived in LA as a teen-ager and talks, disconcertingly, with an accent and a vocabulary straight outta Compton.
He buys a new car every three months, he says, has more than one "crib" - and no desire to move back to the States.
"People here want to be rich and powerful and successful," said Timati. "We don't want to be like you."
Victoria Lepyrova agreed. "People in other countries, " she said, "will probably be following us in the future."