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Faculty Feature: Alexander Kurov

Kurov

When Alexander Kurov operated a hydraulic press making refrigerators at the Biryusa factory in Krasnoyarsk, southern Siberia, he would not have imagined that someday he'd be at West Virginia University writing for the Journal of Banking and Finance.

Kurov's birthplace, Krasnoyarsk, is reported to have been called by Anton Chekhov the most beautiful city in Siberia.

In 1986, one year after the Soviet Union's Politburo elected Mikhail Gorbachev to be general secretary, Kurov, a 17-year-old electrical engineering student, was far afield from finance and the United States. He was at the Siberian Aerospace University (SAU), where undergraduates were required to do factory work full-time during three years of a six-year education.

"The refrigerator plant Biryusa, named after a Siberian river, was part of a large conglomerate, Krasmash, which was also making rockets, ballistic missiles for submarines, and communication satellites," Kurov said. "I remember that when I started at SAU in 1986, we listened to a talk by a staff KGB guy who said something like, 'Imagine that someone asks you what is it that they make at Krasmash? What do you tell that person? There is only one correct answer. Refrigerators.'"

After working at the refrigerator plant as a student, Kurov stayed there as an engineer after graduation. He wanted to travel abroad someday, and those who had worked with rockets knew too much to be allowed out of Russia.

Few of Kurov's ancestors came to Siberia on their own will. His great grandfather, Mikhail Britenkov, a store owner in Ulyanovsk region, about 800 kilometers east of Moscow, was part of Karl Marx's petite bourgeoisie, which earned him a train ticket to Siberia, courtesy of Joseph Stalin back in the 1930s.

"Their entire Siberian village was built and populated by exiles like him," Kurov said. "The authorities just dropped them in the middle of nowhere, and they had to survive and build everything from scratch. Two of Mikhail's five kids died in the first winter."

Britenkov worked as a carpenter for the next few years, and the family history tells that he created a small Bible group and read to the people because many in the countryside were illiterate. It was reported to the NKVD (KGB's predecessor). He was arrested in December 1937, promptly convicted for counterrevolutionary activity and shot three days later.

"That was a very common story at the time," Kurov said. "He was one of millions. Mikhail's wife died in childbirth around the same time. Their remaining kids had to grow up in a hurry."

Despite such difficulties Britenkov's descendants include Dr. Alexander Kurov, associate professor of finance, and his family, wife Irina and daughters Anna, 3, and Elena, 8, who live in Morgantown, W.Va. He joined the College of Business and Economics in 2004.

That's one side of the family's story. On the other was Grigori Bogdashkin, Kurov's grandfather by way of his mother's stepfather. Born in 1923, Bogdashkin may not have known it, but his chances for a long life were slim. It has been calculated that 80 percent of Russian men born that year did not live to see the end of World War II.

grigori

Bogdashkin lived until 2005, but might just as easily have been killed in the spring of 1942 when his unit was involved in an ill-fated offensive by the Red Army against the Nazi invaders in the Kharkov region. Along with many thousands of other Soviet soldiers, Bogdashkin was taken prisoner by the Germans.

The decimation of Russian prisoners of war was second only to the Hitler's extermination of Jews. Out of 5.7 million of Soviet POWs, about 3.3 million perished in Nazi custody. The fact that Bogdashkin survived the battle of Kharkov and German imprisonment is extraordinary. Kurov's great grandfather Konstantin Kondratov was less lucky. A decorated veteran of World War I and the Russian Civil War, he went missing in action in the battle of Kursk in 1943.

Dr. Kurov came to know his grandfather Grigori, and learned an important life lesson from him and his experiences during WWII. "Where most saw a world divided between 'us' and 'them,' he understood that there is no 'them'. There is only us. And that is a lesson worth taking to heart," Kurov said.

Kurov's grandfathers weren't the only ones in the family who served in the Soviet Army. After his second year at the SAU, in 1988, Kurov was drafted and became a tank gunner and then tank commander, serving in the Russian Far East.

Kurov first arrived in the United States in 1995. He enrolled in an MBA program at Fairfield University in Connecticut. This was shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Communist economic system, during a period of economic dislocation when millions of citizens lost their life's savings in hyperinflation.

"Irina and I had a common dream -- getting a business education in the United States," he said. "It didn't seem terribly realistic, because we had no money. But we worked hard, and there were people who helped along the way. In the end, it all worked out for us." Kurov and his wife Irina, who has an MBA and master's degree in accounting, have green cards and plan to apply for U.S. citizenship next year. They will retain Russian citizenship to ease visits to Russia.

After receiving an MBA with concentration in finance from Fairfield University in 1997, Kurov worked as a stock analyst at a brokerage company in Moscow. He later received a doctorate in finance from Binghamton University. Additionally, Kurov holds a Chartered Financial Analyst designation.

His current research looks at how prices of energy commodities react to news about topics such as monetary policy or amount of oil and gas in storage. For example, in a current working paper with Arabinda Basistha, Kurov shows that energy prices immediately respond to unexpected changes in short-term interest rates. In another paper, with Oleg Kucher, a doctoral student in the Division of Resource Management, he finds that energy prices are much more strongly influenced by unexpected changes in inventory of energy commodities than shown in previous research. This finding helps to explain why we often see large moves in energy prices in response to moderate shifts in supply and demand.

His most recent journal publications include: "What Determines the Stock Market's Reaction to Monetary Policy Statements?" in the Review of Financial Economics, and "Trader Survival: Evidence from the Energy Futures Markets," with Naomi Boyd, a B&E assistant professor of finance, in the Journal of Futures Markets.

He teaches graduate finance courses and, of course, has interesting things to tell his class. This would include a brief lesson on watching for fraud, based on his experience during the dark days of financial collapse in Russia.

In August of 1998, when the Russian government defaulted on its domestic debt, triggering a full-blown financial crisis, Kurov and Irina were in Italy, visiting a friend in Rome. They were having dinner and watching TV news when they noticed Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president, speaking. Unfortunately, the news was in Italian. "We didn't realize what was going on. We found out the next morning, on a tour of the Vatican with a Russian tour group. I remember running around St. Peter's Square, looking for a copy of The Wall Street Journal. The rest of the vacation was spent worrying about what would await us in Moscow," he said.

Things were bad, and Kurov soon lost his job at the brokerage company, but it so happened that his Italian friend put him in touch with Gianfranco Lande, a financier and hedge fund manager, who wanted to establish a foothold in the Russian financial market.

Lande wanted him to establish a subsidiary firm, Dharma Derivatives, in Moscow, and Kurov got started. However, he left in the summer of 1999 for his Ph.D. education in the United States—a good thing in many ways. Years later, out of curiosity, Kurov googled Gianfranco Lande and learned that Lande's hedge fund was a Ponzi scheme.

"Turns out that Gianfranco is in prison for multiple counts of fraud," he said. "His Ponzi scheme is estimated to have cost a roster of elite Roman investors about €300 million. Now called Madoff of Parioli, after a wealthy neighborhood in Rome, Gianfranco will spend 10 years in prison."

Today, professor Kurov is happy to teach, conduct research and enjoy the simple things of life.

"I enjoy doing research and helping students learn. And in my professional life, I am still closer to the beginning than to the end of the road," he said.

Regarding being in the United States and moving toward citizenship, Kurov said he already has fulfilled a dream. "My American dream has come true. My thanks to all who helped make it happen," he said. "Life's journey took me far from where I started. Along the way, I realized that I have everything I need to be happy, and I always had it. Happiness is not to be found out there. It's in here. The gate to the Garden of Eden is open, and it's inside us. To see this, I had to come to the country that has pursuit of happiness written into its founding document. I have arrived. I am home."

Honoring the past, but not being defined by it, and not seeking fulfillment in the future, Kurov said he tries to focus on the moment and the joy of living and family. "I keep reminding myself to pay attention to the joy in everyday life. Life happens moment by moment. Unless I live fully in this moment, life passes me by," he said. "My time is limited, and I don't want to spend it dwelling in the past or reaching for the future. The best things in life are simple. Watching the sunset. Being with my wife and kids without thinking about what's next. Doing one thing at a time."