Black Earth City
(Picador)In the early 1990s, everything fell apart in what had been the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: the Communist system and the former Soviet culture imploded; the Soviet Union itself disintegrated into a dozen separate countries; in a gigantic racket of "privatization," most state-owned enterprises were acquired for peanuts by well-connected former Communist apparatchiks who had turned themselves into "beezinessmeni;" salaries were often paid only months late, and in any case the value of salaries collapsed due to hyperinflation; in the student life in the foreground of this book, a wild, rock-and-roll spirit of nihilism and excess burst out. All of this was chronicled at ground-level in this insightful, personal account by Charlotte Hobson, a Russian-speaking young Englishwoman, who was a student in Voronezh in 1991-92.
She introduces the hyperinflation that afflicted Russia at that time as follows. "Alchemy of a sort occurred that year. Even the poor became millionaires. They sold their watches and their televisions and took home wads of rubles in their place. Wallets couldn't hold all the people's money."
They stuffed their pockets full of notes, bought Polish plastic bags to carry the loot. At first they found it hard to throw off their old-style thriftiness. They took their crisp new notes home, stashed them away with their valuables and papers, and in no time the value had evaporated and all that was left was paper.
Soon people became acquainted with what Charlotte calls the Rules for Hyperinflationary Times.
- Spend now, worry later. Never be cautious. Spend more than you earn; that way you'll get rich. And never leave your savings in a bank. Blow it all on fur coats.
- Don't expect your employer to pay you. Don't expect your employee to turn up every day. And by the way, job security is dead. You're fired.
- If you are a professional musician, film director, scientist, soldier, coal miner, steelworker, or academic, you'd better adapt or starve. Forget your training. Forget, above all, your career. Don't produce anything. Don't do manual labor. Import-export is the only way to keep your head above water, Buy and sell. Buy and sell. The faster the better.
- Lawful activities do not make money, thus the simple equation: a successful person is a criminal.
- In all, rely on dollars. Not the state, employers, friends, lovers. Dollars are the only real certainty.
The Russians managed to get through this maelstrom by adopting those rules, and a new set of behaviours.
"It's a strange thing, considering how lazy everyone knows Russians to be. Sloth, which wraps the gentry in their robes and sends the peasant to doze on his stove, has long been recognized as part of the national character. Yet that winter people took two or three extra jobs. They became taxi drivers, businessmen, antique dealers, and speculators in currency."
And not only did people work hard, they took risks and responded to the market. Everyone became entrepreneurs, gambling their savings on a load of Turkish fruit juice or Polish cigarettes they then tried to sell on. As paychecks were delayed, workers began to accept payment in the goods they produced. Along the big highways the rows of figures sitting quietly beside identical piles of saucepans (if theirs was a saucepan factory), or buckets, or even garden gnomes became common. How did they survive?
"Mr. Uvarov laughed when I asked him."
'How do any of us survive?' he replied, shrugging. 'Habit, I suppose.' "
I myself remember that the 1990s found many Soviet (or ex-Soviet) scientists working in Western Europe or the USA, and they did everything they could to stay there. One young Russian scientist in the USA applied to do post-doctoral work in my laboratory, so I contacted a couple of his former supervisors for recommendations. One of them, a more senior ex-Soviet researcher, was also working in the West at that point; when I reached her, she herself applied for the post-doc position in my lab.
In Russia, New Year of 1992 was the occasion for a sort of schizophrenic celebration. Although times were very bad, a new order was beginning. "From midnight, we would be living in a new country, the Russian Federation, a country with a new flag, a new anthem, and a new constitution. The command economy would be abolished and the free market would transform the way Russians lived and worked."
The legal code would be rewritten, along with the marriage service, the history books, and the maps. New banknotes would have to be printed; Soviet slogans all over the country would be taken down; institutions, streets, whole cities would change their names. The army, much depleted, would be confined to the country's new borders with the independent states of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. For the second time in the 20th Century, Russia was starting afresh. Which, as Mitya pointed out at dinner that evening, gave us more than enough toasts to last all night long.
'Farewell to the Party of Lenin!' someone yelled.
'Farewell to Young Pioneer uniforms with their little cap!'
'Farewell to 'Workers of the World, unite! '
'Farewell to the Communist Party!'
'Farewell to Lenin! Let him point his finger somewhere else!'
'Farewell! Farewell! Farewell!'
The New Year's party Charlotte describes has a deeply Russian character: hilarity over an undertone of melancholy, all drenched in vodochka, the affectionate diminutive form of the name of the Russian national beverage. "We were sitting on the beds in Room 99, crammed around a long table that the girls had somehow assembled. Plate after plate of zaluski, snacks to be eaten with vodka, lay before us; when the plates ran out, saucepan lids and pieces of paper were used instead. We fell upon the food, and Viktor, who had brought his new girlfriend, barely more than a schoolgirl, made a short speech about the fact that vodka was pure spirit, or near enough, and therefore should not be tainted by worldly things such as politics or money ('Meaning you should always drink other people's,' interjected Tanya). Vodka, he continued, should only come into contact with the finer things in life --- poetry and love."One of Charlotte's fellow students, named Pyotr (Petya for short) Pravda, took this injunction to the very limit. "Petya decided that the only sincere way of life was in the mind. He became a zealot. 'From henceforth I have decided to live by the seasons,' he announced to us all. 'In the summer --- alcohol. In autumn, the new harvest of grass. In the winter, fireworks and speed. And in the spring, all damp and tender --- the only thing for it is opium.' 'Petya is a dualist, you understand,' Lapochka said. 'He sees that freedom lies in the spirit, not the body. The demands of the world---to earn a living, to get a degree, to covet and desire and envy, there's no difference between any of them!---they're all temptations that distract one from matters of the spirit.'"
Still, certain features of the old Soviet system remained, and they could be used to advantage. Another of Charlotte's fellow students, Edik Zalyony, illustrated this strategem. "That autumn, after several years of worry and expense, Edik was finally registered as Idiot: Grade Three. I bumped into him on Friedrich Engels Street as he returned from a final medical examination and he showed me his new identity card. 'Come and celebrate,' he said, grinning. 'My mother is at home frying eggs.'
In the Soviet system the Idiot: Grade Three received various benefits: cheap transportation, coupons for food and medicine, and, on occasion, special housing. I suspected, however, the sums that had changed hands over Edik's file more than outweighed the economic benefits of idiocy. No, the real advantage was that idiots did not do military service. (Or not below the rank of general, as the Soviet joke went.)
And whereas Grades One and Two might have to spend time in psychiatric wards, sedated by unspecified doses of drugs, Grade Three was more or less left to his own devices. For a time it had looked as if Edik would have to settle for a Two --- all the Threes had been allocated for this year, according to the doctor --- which would have been a little sticky, but still worth it, apparently. But at the last moment, Edik's father managed to rustle up a few hundred extra, and the Three had come through after all."Petya and Edik reflect two sides of Russian life. Petya's grandfather, also named Pyotr Pravda, was a railway worker who fought in the Red Army during the civil war, earning a chestfull of Soviet medals, but eventually he apparently spent many years in the Gulag, as did so many others. Two generations later, his grandson takes the path of internal emigration, chemically enhanced not only in the classic Russian way with vodochka, but with the whole range of drugs that were easily obtained in Russia in the early 90s. Later during Charlotte's time in Russia, Petya Pravda dies, probably of a heroin overdose.
Edik, in contrast, deals with Russian life with a brisk practicality --- such as by becoming an Idiot: Grade Three --- and he retains material ambitions. His major ambition, shared with many of Charlotte's Russian friends (the ones who remain sober at least part of the time) is to get the hell out of Russia. In this, Edik succeeds. He first lands a temporary job in Malta (for which his careful study of English proved useful) and then, even better, he secures a position with an international bank. Slava bogu! (God be praised!)
Charlotte runs into Edik later in the year while he is on a visit back to Voronezh; he is "wearing imported spectacles and the navy blue overcoat of an international financier." Charlotte and a few others join him in a little celebration of his success at the apartment of their mutual friends the Uvarovs.
Mr. Uvarov, crushed by long exclusion, was trying to put in a few practical queries --- length of flight, cost of Parisian Métro --- but Edik was halfway through telling the girls a story. I heard him say '...and they saw 'Idiot' on my passport, and let me straight through! I didn't declare a thing!' A burst of laughter swamped all talk; Edik's mother roared, clutching her bosom, Masha flung her head back, even Valya giggled. In the center, Edik beamed. He loosened his tie and unbuttoned his vest, puffing out his stomach. I could see why. A little paunch would suit his new persona.
Edik is not the only one who succeeds in getting out. Toward the end of her own stay in Russia, Charlotte notices: "Everyone seemed to be leaving. The Horse was going to paint in St. Petersburg. Valya Uvarova was heading for the United States. Yuri, Emily's boyfriend, Igor, and Lyuba all had places to study abroad. Sasha, the guy in the hostel who'd been in the Afghan war, had been wearing dark glasses for the past six weeks. He'd had laser surgery to correct his nearsightedness: good eyes were a condition of joining the French Foreign Legion.
Even Lapochka was preparing to get out. He had scraped together ten dollars and an envelope containing articles from the Voronezh Courier that described him and the other Narcomen [potheads] as degenerates. He was going to hitch to England with his ten dollars --- he was sure he'd get there somehow --- and demand asylum. The article proved that he was in danger in Voronezh from the growing influence of the 'red-brown coalition,' the Communist and Nationalist parties, whose bigotry brought them together. What were the odds that such a plan would succeed? But a year and a half later, I met Lapochka cycling down Upper Street in Islington as though he'd lived there all his life.
"This was the first wave of purely economic emigration that Russia had seen; previously, exiles had left with a certain glow of heroism, whether they were fleeing tsarist censorship in the 19th Century or persecution by the KGB in the 20th. In Paris or New York they had dreamed and plotted revolution, so that they would be able to go home. On the face of it, however, nothing would stop these young emigrés from visiting Russia whenever they wanted. But in practice ... the invisible frontier that separates the West from the rest of the world would keep them apart."