As recently as four years ago, there were no commercial bankers in Russia. At least not the breed of private-sector banker represented by Andrei E. Lovjagin.

Mr. Lovjagin, in fact, is a living, breathing break from his country's past. He is chairman of Baltijskiy Bank in St. Petersburg, one of 1,800 banks in Russia -- and some 3,000 throughout the former Soviet Union -- created since the perestroika reforms of 1988.

Just 37 years old, he would stand out in a crowd of bank chief executives from any country. In Russia's developing economy, the profession is attracting a whole generation of "best and brightest" who, like Mr. Lovjagin, think like entrepreneurs, are highly computer literate, and otherwise don't fit the mold of the established Western banker.

|This Is Very New for Us'

"The Russian banking system is shaping up as truly free market like you have in the United States," Mr. Lovjagin said during a visit to the United States last month. "This is very new for us."

His first stop was the Bank Marketing Association's annual conference in Chicago. In a speech there, and in subsequent meetings with bankers individually and in sessions organized by Coopers & Lybrand in Richmond, Mr. Lovjagin sought to awaken Americans to some international banking opportunities and lay the groundwork for correspondent banking ties to exploit those opportunities.

Mr. Lovjagin was well aware that foreign business is not a high priority for most U.S. bankers, given the hobbled state of the domestic economy and financial system. Despite an influx of U.S. investment -- he said 250 Russian companies have American shareholders -- only Bank of America, Chase Manhattan Bank, and Citibank have representatives in Moscow.

Mr. Lovjagin felt he owed the U.S. industry a wake-up call. He believes Russia and its economic potential are about where Germany was in 1946. And U.S. banks were not in the vanguard of those that profited from the postwar reconstruction.

|Americans Should Be Paying Attention'

"The international environment is drastically changing, and Americans should be paying attention," he said. As long as they do not, institutions like Creditanstalt Bankverein of Austria, Dresdner Bank of Germany, and Svenska Handelsbanken of Sweden will use their historical Soviet ties to get in on the ground floor in the emerging republics.

"The American banks seem rather cautious," said Olga A. Kazanskaya, Baltijskiy Bank's international director, who was traveling with Mr. Lovjagin. "Perhaps our message will be a warning not to be so cautious."

"We need some assistance from American banks," Mr. Lovjagin said. "International activities are new to us, and we cannot operate outside Russia according to domestic principles.

A Gateway to Western Europe

"We are on the eve of significant changes, especially in St. Petersburg, which is our only gateway to Western Europe, so the region's economy is going to be integrated into the Western economy."

Ms. Kazanskaya added, "American banks may want to look at [relationships with] one of the new banks because they have a new way of looking at their business. And it will be hard to make a profit without a good adviser and guide."

Mr. Lovjagin, an economics graduate with a specialty in information systems, helped found Baltijskiy Bank in 1989. Like many of the new-age Russian banks, it had backing from state industrial enterprises, including a 35% stake held by Oktyabrskaya Railroad.

Assets Have Tripled So Far This Year

Without roots in the old Soviet bank system, where Mr. Lovjagin got his start as a technology manager, Baltijskiy Bank is not yet among Russia's largest. But assets, equal to about $7 million, have more than tripled since Jan. 1. Equity capital exceeds 7% of assets.

The bank has opened branches in free-trade zones, one near St. Petersburg and another on Sakhalin, an island near Japan. It's as if a new U.S. bank opened its first branches in Laredo and Guam.

But Baltijskiy is tying its fortunes closely to St. Petersburg, where it is a charter member of the foreign exchange market and a major financer of construction projects to modernize the city's aged housing stock.

Amid Russia's persistent inflation, most of the bank's lending has been short term, even as it has built a 200-person staff and is investing for the long haul in technology, new products, and international contacts.

"We are part of the new economics," Mr. Lovjagin said.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.