- Russia, as the quirky and brilliant Nikolai Gogol wrote in the nineteenth century, speeds “along like a spirited troika that nothing can overtake.”The energy and drive that tear Russians away from their bleak communist past are obvious everywhere in cities like St. Petersburg and Moscow — once drab and dreary cities transformed, in places, into fast-paced, neon-bright magnets for foreign capital. But the engine of Russian change seems as intent as ever to ignore the little people; the country of tsars, Stalin, and mafiya toughs has no time or patience for its peasant base and certainly won’t slow down to make room on the troika for all. This is a selfish place, made ever more so by decades of communistic deprivation.
I made my first trip to what was then the Soviet Union in 1983 (Yuri Andropov was the “reform minded” general secretary of the USSR at the time), when blue jeans were traded as major currency and a Soviet citizen found holding $50 in US cash could land in prison for five years. Friendships with Americans were made quietly and surreptitiously, and “night life” consisted of vodka bought from stone-faced storekeepers and drunk on a deserted riverbank by Russians who couldn’t afford to be seen in public with foreigners.
Of the old ways, today only the plentiful vodka remains. (A comparably sized bottle of Evian water is actually more expensive on the streets of St. Petersburg than some brands of vodka, which sell for under $3 a bottle.) Everything is available in Russia now, for a price. Nightclubs and bars have popped up all over city centers, as have the requisite metal detectors to keep gun-toting patrons from blasting away at each other, as they have done with Godfatheresque regularity since the early 1990s. American cash flows everywhere, mostly in the brand-new $100 bills that I had read about but never seen first-hand in the States. Drunken women hang on fat sugar daddies like something out of an old Edward G. Robinson gangster movie about life in the 1930s, and obsequious waiters ask, in English, “What more would the gentleman like?”
The nightclub is a world of only a few super-elite Russians, however. Everyday people are scrambling to pay for basic needs in a country that has seen the ruble fall in value by over 1,000 percent in six years, a country where no one in the army has been paid for the past seven months. Unemployment is rampant and many industrial cities have seen 80-85 percent of their factories close down. This is not a land of euphemistic “downsizing;” this is an economic debacle as terrible and as transforming as the Great Depression of the 1930s. While Russian Eurobonds sell at inflated prices on the world market and the tiny, nascent stock exchange explodes in value, most Russian citizens do not even have bank accounts.
- The day before Thanksgiving, 1996, my friend Vadik fed me four fried eggs and a cup of tea for dinner. That was all he could afford, though he insisted on feeding me because I was a guest in his home. Vadik had been hit hard by the New Russia, as harsh and unforgiving a place as any I know. He lost everything he owned — a car, some nice clothes, a television, a stereo system — to his partner and best friend, who got caught up in the fledgling world of narcotics, smuggled up through Chechnya. The friend sold everything they both owned in exchange for cocaine. No one will hire Vadik: He was trained as a waiter and cook in a Soviet-era restaurant that served the Leningrad communist bosses; ironically, he is regarded as untrustworthy because of those old connections, none of whom probably would remember him now. His common-law wife walked out on him when the money disappeared, and he was forced to move into a dingy one-bedroom apartment on the distant edge of St. Petersburg with his retired mother and unemployed sister. Vadik, a father of two, turned thirty in February 1997.
As I was walking with Vadik one night, we saw a many lying on the sidewalk near an apartment building. (Or was it only 4:00 p.m.? The sun sets in late November by 4:00 and does not rise again until 9:30 in the morning.) In a land of $3 vodka, this is no unusual sight, but as we got closer I realized there was blood all over his jacket. I blanched and felt my body go numb as we got still closer; I saw his split head and the enormous puddle of blood next to him. As I slowed to go toward him, Vadik made it quickly and unmistakably clear that we were not going anywhere near this young man. “We’re going past,” he said quietly in Russian. “These things happen these days.” Everybody on the busy street went past, including me, leaving this unfortunate to lie dead for someone else to deal with. Most people pretended not to see him.
- “Russia,” asks Gogol at the end of his novel Dead Souls, “where are you flying to? Answer! She gives no answer.”But fly on Russia will, regardless of who might be left without promise or hope: “The road is like a cloud of smoke under you, the bridges thunder, and everything falls back and is left far behind.”
The story of this great land is not over, a land that, in spite of all its troubles, lures people like me back again and again with promises of another glimpse of the Russian “soul.” Great forces of history seem always at work in Russia; let us only pray that the sweep of these forces will take them, finally, in the right direction and that there will be room for everyone on the spirited and careening troika.
The author is the son of Editorial Advisory Board member and retired Foreign Service officer Bart Moon. Keith earned an M. A. in Russian studies at Harvard. He teaches history and the Russian language at the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut and has visited Russia eight times since 1983.