Anecdotal account of the 1994 Moscow Study Trip

Copyright 1994 by Eric Fenster

"You bastard! You're on my territory now. Bastard! You come to Russia, and I'll kill you!" It was as foreordained as the beginning of a play. We were seated and waiting to take off for Moscow from Brussels when we heard this exchange [offstage?] and a scuffle at the plane's entrance, whose view was blocked by a closed curtain. The curtain opened and the words' author, blood on his face, came forward to take a seat, then had another idea, turned and threw a parting punch at the Belgian gendarme who had escorted him. "Bastard!"

Misha, the Aeroflot dispatcher, saw me and came to apologize--as if he owed somebody an explanation. "I'm sorry, Eric, but we have to take him. It's his second offense and they're expelling him." He had tried to break up the fight and his clothes were speckled with blood. Misha then spoke to several burly men across the aisle: "Can you help if necessary?" They were part of a delegation of Russian police returning from an exchange visit to Belgian colleagues; bad luck for the Russian being kicked out.

There was more discussion. Will you sit down quietly or... No agreement. The Russian police went into action. The curtain was closed, and in seconds the offender was on the floor, trussed up in plastic ties, pushed and carried to the back of the plane and bound hand and foot into a seat.

Then a Russian in the front row rose to address the passengers. "Ladies and gentlemen! We should not have to fly to Moscow with this crazy criminal. He is dangerous and should be put off the plane. Don't you agree? Let's vote." Russian democracy in action...

Again, as if it mattered, Misha came to tell me that like it or not the man was expelled--something about women, alcohol and drugs--and he was going with us.

Now the captain came out to speak. "Ladies and gentlemen! This man can now do no harm, and five of our courageous Russian militia are on board to see to that. I promise you, I guarantee you a safe and pleasant voyage to Moscow. Will you give me your confidence? Shall we go now? Thank you, and goodby. No, no! I don't really mean 'goodby'; of course I am going to stay with you and fly you to Moscow..."

Aeroflot had recently doubled its Brussels-Moscow flights, but there were few non-Russians aboard and no apparent Belgian tour groups as in the past. These were now largely runs for the newly rich Russians to make Western shopping forays. And if some had become wealthy outside the law, perhaps we had a graphic example.

So we left, with my group expressing confidence they would come back with full journals. Sometime after lunch, I went to the back of the plane. Our "criminal" was completely untied and he and the courageous policemen were chatting with animation like old friends. When we got to Moscow, he was a free man. After all, he had done nothing wrong there, and he blended perfectly into the airport crowd and disappeared.

The interpreter who met us in Moscow was new to me, well-dressed with fine leather accessories, and the ride to the city made her interest in such things clear. I wanted to know how Russia had changed since my last visit; Nina only wanted to describe the newest luxury restaurants. The next day we were supposed to take a general tour to familiarize the group with the city, and we started at the Kremlin. I discovered that admission was now charged just to enter the territory. Nina tried to buy 20 tickets. No, she was told, each person must line up and buy his ticket individually. The woman at the window was adamant. So we did it. "One ticket, please." And passed a 5,000 ruble note to get 4,800 rubles in change. "One ticket, please." 5,000 rubles, 4,800 change. "One ticket, please." 5,000 rubles, etc. We and the Russians who had accumulated in the queue behind us were doubled over and dumbfounded, but madame in the ticket booth continued stolidly. I must have been out of practice because it took me hours to figure out. The only possible explanation was to prevent people from buying up tickets and scalping them. Of course this had long been common for the ballet and other cultural events, but who on earth was going to scalp 10- cent tickets to walk around in the Kremlin?

The real robbery was inside, and it was official. If, last year, it cost 50 rubles (5 cents) to enter all four Kremlin churches, this year those buildings had been turned back to the Church, and it was charging foreigners 5,000 rubles ($5)--per church!

Nina was determined to visit churches until the money ran out, despite my reminders that we had newcomers who required an overview of the city. She was unwilling (unable?) to provide the slightest information about Moscow except that there was a place to see American films in English for $7. Meanwhile she managed to explain how awful all Arabs are, how if there are airplane accidents in America it's probably because they allow blacks to fly planes, and how the recent strong showing of fascists in Italy (a country she'd visited often and whose language she knew well) was fine because there were 60 million corrupt Italians in need of order. Her recommendation to the group was that they visit the Slavyansky-Radisson hotel, a glittering American creation. My colleague suggested that we had come to see Russia. OK, then you should go to the Metropole, she riposted, referring to the renovated hotel where rooms start at $400/night.

It was educational for our group to meet an example of the new nationalist Russians on the make, but enough was enough; Nina had to go. A friend of long standing replaced her.

I have to talk about money to set much of what follows in context. From May 1993 to May 1994 the ruble had devalued by about half, from 900 to 1850 per dollar. The average monthly wage in Russia was about 35,000 rubles (roughly $40) May 1993 and about 150,000 rubles (around $80) in May 1994. If wages were five times higher in rubles, the price of many goods (bread, public transport, etc.) had gone up 10-fold. The minimum monthly wage is now 14250 rubles ($7.50). The "survival" basket of goods costs 50,000 rubles.

The gap between rich and poor keeps increasing. In the top 10%, million ruble-plus incomes are common, people are accumulating goods rapidly and those in commerce are rumored to squander thousands of dollars regularly in the many casinos which have been opened. Meanwhile, university professors can count on 120,000 ruble salaries and have to spend their time making ends meet instead of doing their jobs, and the women who cooked our meals took home only 30,000 rubles.

Food is available everywhere, at stalls around Metro stations and in stores, but with certain peculiarities. First, cost. For example: bananas: 2,600 rubles/kg ($1.35) apples: 3,700 rubles/kg ($1.95) tomatoes: 4,000-5,000 rubles/kg (ave. $2.30!) pears: 3,000 rubles/kg ($1.60)

Imagine being a professor and see how much of this you can buy. Second, all of these are imported: bananas from Colombia, apples from France, tomatoes from Holland, pears from Chile, and so on. The same is true for many canned goods and meats. Even in the "Russian" stores, there seems no more domestic produce than in the days of deficits. Even more strange, the hard-to-find items now are staples like carrots, cabbage and beets, which don't offer the margins of the imported products.

The "New Russians" and foreign businessmen shop in foreign-run food stores which may be next door to "Russian" ones but can get away with charging the following prices:


Irish Market
in Park Place

Julius Meinl

tomatoes/kg $6-9 [sic] $5
cauliflower/hd $6 $3
cucumbers/kg $7  
lettuce/hd $3  
red peppers/kg $10 $10
peaches/kg $7.80 (the minimum
monthly wage)
spaghetti/500g $1.80 $3
ground beef/kg $10  
pork chops/kg $18  
sugar/kg ($.35 in
"Russian" shop)
$1.60 $1.30
coffee/250g $6.20 $1.80
Nescafe/100g $11.35 [sic]  
Shampoo/250ml $6.80  
Salems/carton ($.60/pkg
in "Russian"kiosks)

These prices have little to do with import costs. Products travel much farther and are sold for much less. Black caviar cost $11 and $4.50 per ounce in the two stores, but it could be had from Russian sources for $2. Besides Russian labor costs in stores are far below those in Western cities.

One can only guess how the Russians who can afford these prices earn their money. And as for Western businessmen paying thousands of dollars monthly for apartments and buying food this way, you'll end up paying for their exploration of the Russian market...

What troubled me more was discovering a week later that admission to Gorky Park had risen to 2,000 rubles on Sundays. A few years ago the cost was a symbolic 20 kopecks, so it was up 10,000 times during a period the average wage had gone up 750 times. This was more than just an example of how authorities were abandoning any subsidies of public facilities in favor of self-financing. It meant that even the simple pleasure of going to that park with one's family on a day off would be impossible for that large percentage of people at the lower income levels. On top of all their other difficulties, there was something almost sadistic in this.

I soon began to learn of the victims of the "transition." An acquaintance had an import business which the Dagestan mafia offered to "protect" in exchange for 70% of the profits. (It should be explained that the different racketeers divide the different business sectors. Some control produce sales, others small businesses, others raw materials. Nobody doubts the infiltration of these criminals in the banks and up to the highest levels of the police and government.) Not wanting to work for 30%, my acquaintance refused, but had to live behind a barricaded door with arms, a watchdog and lots of caution. The family was threatened. Then, one day the would-be protectors simply announced they were buying the business and gave the (low) price. The choice was obvious: take it or else. During a phone call to a friend, I learned another acquaintance was not so lucky. "Do you remember Marina?" "Yes." "Well she was murdered. In her apartment. Along with her husband." Marina was 23 and had married just last year.

I called another friend. Alla is 21. She has sung in a choir since secondary school and has toured several countries with it. She speaks fluent Spanish and has been working with an organization which charged her with the responsibility for taking children from Chernobyl to Spain for vacation. She's there again this year, and involved in other projects as well, besides continuing university studies in the face of such challenges as having classes where no teacher can be found for the better part of the year. That was the positive part. But at the end of the conversation, she reminded me that at some point soon school will end, it will be time to earn a living, and nobody will pay a livable wage for carrying on this work. People who believe advertising is a sign of prosperity used to call Moscow drab because neon wasn't telling them what to buy at every turn. That has changed. The view down Lenin Prospect, a pleasant boulevard with trees and greenery which stretches for many kilometers, is now a jumble of billboards, mostly for banks. Commercials on television have become worse than in the USA, if that is possible, and can interrupt films in mid-sentence. Here, too, banks and "investment opportunities" predominate (although many are outright fraudulent). There is plenty of cigarette advertising, by Marlboro and others, which is interesting to compare with the plaintive pleas of tobacco companies to be allowed to self-regulate.

Except for one new channel, NTV, much of the programming has become a detritus of game shows, American and Mexican soap operas and junk films. There was one droll incident on a program in which children listened to national anthems and had to pick up the flag of the corresponding country. Whether it was the French Marseillaise or the Star-Spangled Banner, one boy always headed for the Russian flag and only hesitated when the real Russian anthem was played.

At the cinema, where the Russian tradition of excellence goes back to Eisenstein, things are no better. At one theater, the entire month was nothing but a series of American "action" films. Liza Minelli arrived, and she didn't have to go farther than her airport press conference to conclude that Russians and Americans are all alike. Smiling with uncontrollable joviality, she went off to the Penta, her luxury hotel.

There are still ballet, opera and classical music, and official prices have risen to where one can even get tickets at the box office instead of just from scalpers, but it was a pity to see the excellent Obratsov puppet theater less than half full on a Sunday evening.

The official rate of unemployment in Russia is about 1½ %. We had a meeting with a group of five people from Siberia who worked in unemployment and social security offices and were taking a refresher course. They explained that for people newly on the job market (school and university leavers), unemployment compensation is the equivalent of the minimum monthly wage, enough to buy a few packs of cigarettes. For those laid off from jobs, compensation amounts to 75% of previous salary for three months, then four months at 60% of salary and five months at 45%. I asked if these amounts were indexed. By law they are supposed to be, they said, but the necessary funds are never sent. Given the salary changes, it is hardly worth anybody's time to collect 45% of what he was earning a year ago. It begins to be clear why so few people appear as officially unemployed.

A week later a specialist in this field who worked for parliament confirmed the lack of indexing unemployment benefits (contrary to pensions, etc.) and said it was a deliberate government policy based upon advice received from Germany that when workers are supported by unemployment compensation for more than a few months they lost interest in finding a job.

The USSR used to be accused of doublespeak, but this truly breaks new ground! With the drop in production (50% in the last few years) and the inability of enterprises to pay employees for months at a time, forced vacations mean that the real rate of unemployment is already 18-20%. At the same time, enterprises are encouraged to shed excess employees in the interest of productivity and the government is hoping to drive large numbers of enterprises bankrupt altogether. There is no particular retraining program and not much yet to train people for. Moreover many factors, especially lack of housing, make mobility almost impossible for Russians, and hundreds of thousands of Russians are immigrating as refugees from the former USSR. So while increasing unemployment is a conscious part of the reform policy and there are only limited opportunities for new jobs, the government has opted for an imported puritan ethic to put the blame on the unemployed themselves.

We live in the residence hall attached to our host institution. It has been the scene of potential construction for several years because an Italian firm was supposed to renovate and use half the floors and also complete a cafeteria begun seven years ago. The result of this "work" in progress has been mud from the street to the door every time it rains. The Italians picked up and left after last October's events, leaving behind such a huge utilities bill that the institution was strapped for funds and staff went unpaid for several months.

Suddenly, during a single day, the entire area was graded and paved with asphalt, practically by hand. TIBET, a financial institution with a reputation for actually paying off on term savings was opening a branch on the ground floor. As soon as the asphalt was solid, big trucks pulled up to unload imported furniture and computers, which were set up auditorium style to follow the commodities exchanges. The same day, the guards appeared in camouflage uniforms and flak jackets and well-armed. This is the typical greeting at any business location these days, including restaurants.

Upstairs we had our own guards, elderly women hired to be on duty 24 hours daily as extra assurance that no strangers visit our rooms. Last year, the one who was working when we returned from a trip outside Moscow was in tears. She expected us two hours earlier and was worried we had met some misfortune. This year, she was depressed: "I had a higher education. I taught mathematics all my life. And now, I sit here. I sit. This has what has become of me." She had retired ten years ago, but her pension was no longer enough to survive, so she sits, mothers us, earns $22 a month and feels shame.

On the second day, the group complained that their rooms were gloomy because most of the light bulbs in the ceiling fixtures were burnt out. Recalling the desperate light bulb shortage of the previous year, I was pessimistic when I asked the attendant about replacements. "No problem," she said. "We can get all we need. But not today. The maintenance man has died." "From what?" I asked. "Alcohol." Then I noticed her somber mood, looked out the window and saw an ambulance arrive. Indeed, he had JUST died, and a few minutes later the body, bloated from years of drink [like those I'd seen at autopsies] was carried out.

I later asked my group if anybody could guess why, a year before, one Russian did a roaring business because he realized that people would willingly buy burnt out light bulbs. None of them solved the riddle.*

We visited Sergueiev-posad (Zagorsk), the church and monastery complex north of Moscow, the center of Russian Orthodoxy. I had been many times, but never like this. We went to arrange for a guide and were told the price would be 375,000 rubles (almost $200), more than two average monthly wages, for one hour. The deal was done before I could intervene. The entrance to the complex, completely free in the past, now had a metal barrier which funneled people past church guards who had two roles. One was to turn back any women they considered offensively dressed. (Upper arms are apparently obscene--and provide brisk business for people selling shawls.) The second was to make people pay 6,000 rubles to carry in cameras, 10,000 to carry in video recorders. This didn't have to do with picture-taking inside churches but for outside. And it was for possession of a camera, not necessarily using it. Several in our group had cameras outside their sacks and were ordered to pay the fee. I tried to intervene: those who want to take pictures should pay, those who forego doing so should put cameras in their bags and keep them there.

Nothing doing, said the guard. We know they have the cameras and they must pay. But those who don't pay promise not to take pictures, I replied. "What people say doesn't count. Only paper counts. Paper. We must see the paper that says they paid."

A useless philosophical argument followed.

--How can you, a religious institution, not believe in people?
--We believe only in God.
--And where is the new democracy? How can you resolve Russia's problems by behaving worse than in the Soviet period?
--Only death resolves problems. Death is the only resolution?
--And what about birth? Isn't your religion based upon resurrection?
--No, for people only death is a resolution.
--But if everybody thinks like you, there is no hope.
-He brightened. At last, I had understood: "Exactly! There is no hope."

The guide took the group past all the churches straight to the museum. When they came outside 45 minutes later, she offered to say a few words about the churches that surrounded us, but we must gather closely and warn her if any monks appear. She began to name the churches, the dates they were built and say a few words about them. Somebody saw two monks walking by and alerted her. Not those, she said. Then the real "monks" arrived, four young toughs. The guide slipped away into the museum. The lead "monk," in his leather jacket, collared our interpreter: I'm going to take you to the office and fine you for conducting an unauthorized excursion, he told her. They negotiated:

--How long was the explanation going on?
--Ten minutes.
--Much information can be given in ten minutes.
--But half the time was spent in translation.
--Still, that's too much.
--But all we were telling them were the names and dates of the churches.
--OK, I'll let you go this time, but in the future, two minutes of explanation, no more.

The whole point of course was that the Church prohibited guides from explaining anything because they wanted people to hire the monks to do so at something like $10 or more per person in a group. So here was free speech in Russia, with the Church practicing vigilante law to prevent anybody from telling anybody else the names of the churches. This same Church, which believes there is no hope on this earth (the guard at the gate was making a theological point, not conversation, with me) also has an official policy that a Tsar should be put back on the throne in Russia. As some lecturers would point out, nothing has changed since 988 AD.

Maybe it will happen. In a bookstore I saw a copy of the text of the new constitution. On the cover was the seal of Russia, not the one that is on the new coins, the plain double- headed eagle looking east and west. The heads on this seal wear the Tsar's crowns, cross on top, and the talons clutch the orb an scepter. (When I later went to the Russian Consulate in Paris, this large monarchist seal was on the wall.)

We made field trips to the same places we visited a year ago. At the children books publishing house, the director told us there were 170 employees (last year 207) making an average of 130,000 rubles monthly. The enterprise was still state-owned and still open to joining with a foreign partner. In addition to its previous contract to make apple pie cartons for McDonalds, it was making takeout cartons for Pizza Hut. The director seemed lethargic, and the walk through the print shop was perfunctory.

The return to the agricultural machinery factory was a puzzle. Instead of seeing it and then having conversations, we were told we'd visit the museum and meet at the newspaper office first. We'd seen an ambulance enter the grounds while we were waiting, and when we got to the museum a note on the door said its director was at the hospital. We went upstairs to the publishing office. The editor we'd met last year was out of town and her deputy took over. Production of large mowing machines had dropped from 26 daily to zero because the machines were unaffordable, engines were no longer available and fuel was too expensive.

Last year the factory began making a small horse-drawn version. This year, we were told there was a shortage of horses in Russia! There had been 8,000 workers in this factory, and last year management said the number would decrease to 2,000. This year we were told there were 355 workers, plus 1200-1500 technical and engineering staff of whom 80% were on forced vacations.

So what was being made? You might argue we are unwilling supporters of speculation, said the deputy editor, because we build the kiosks you see on the street, and for this some workers earn up to 400,000 rubles. He added that they also made special prison doors and doors and windows for foreign cars. There was a new director, a Georgian, who was recently elected. The mistake of the old director, said our host, was that he leased parts of the factory to small private enterprises which began production of the car windows and this resulted in the stealing of materials, electricity, water, and so on. The new director decided to return to the old structure, pushing out these sub-enterprises. Now there are some orders, but spare parts are in short supply and expensive. The factory continues to survive and meet its wage bill by the sell-off of property: the stadium, 16 nursery schools (some of which were transformed into stores), the housing fund.

Among the workers, a team leader earns 40,000 rubles. We later heard the average wage was 75,000 rubles, with less than that for engineers.

The factory was privatized by "method 2," which supposedly means that the employees buy 51% of the shares, but critics claim this is just a way for management to buy up the enterprises. That was true here if what we were told was correct: 60% of the shares were held by ten people. Viktor, the deputy plant director, who had taken us through the factory twice last year, joined the discussion and shared a dim view of this situation (though he must have been one of the ten!).

Viktor suggested we go to lunch and visit the plant afterwards. We did... go to lunch, that is. There was a problem. Viktor explained that a sudden new rule required that permission to visit the factory be signed by the director personally; security would not let us in. The director was away until two pm, so let's continue our discussion until then. Soon after two, Viktor excused himself for a previous engagement which would take half an hour. But he never came back. Sometime after three pm, several people needed a toilet. Anatoly (who had set up all our field trips), our interpreter and I went hunting. We had wandered to the third floor of the administration building before we found a toilet. I read the plaque on the office door next to it. "Anatoly, we've found the director's office! Why don't we just walk in and tell the director we want to see this bloody factory?"

Anatoly forgot about hierarchy and walked in. While we were waiting for him in the hall, Viktor suddenly walked by with two other people. He was visibly startled that we were there, but pretended not to know us. Then Anatoly came out. "The director will receive the entire group immediately." The director apologized for our wait, said he had no idea about our visit and would do anything we wanted. "Just show is the factory." And off we went.

This time we crossed Viktor on the grounds. First he ignored us, then he came up and took over the tour. The place was even more a graveyard of rusting machines and scrap than before. The foundry was still fire and brimstone where the women wore thick gauze masks over their mouths and the men nothing. I asked one man what he earned. He hesitated, but agreed that 50,000 rubles was a good figure. Children selling postcards or washing windshields at traffic lights earned many times more. Why did these people keep coming to work?

We never figured out what the plant was making or why the administrators hanging out in the director's office had such an air of affluence. The explanation of Viktor was surely prosaic. He was receiving a small stipend for receiving our group, but this was something he was doing on his own. When the new director decided to take charge of everything, even personally approving factory visits. Viktor was trapped. He weighed the risks and reached his conclusion. Rather than "confess" his sideline to the director, better let us cool our heels.

Two days later, on the way to the dairy farm, Anatoly told us that the director of the publishing house had died during the weekend, a natural death. The man was not yet 60. It was not Peter who greeted us at the farm, but his wife. As she started to take us around, I was about to ask her if Peter would be showing up when our interpreter took me aside: "He's dead."

Peter was found hanged last summer, a month after we met him for the second time. Peter had leased the land five years before, when it first became possible. He had close to 100 cows and was breeding them up to higher yields.

We had asked him a year ago if the mafia had yet made an approach. Yes, he said, but he'd told him there was nothing yet to take. And he kept a small hunting rifle handy just in case. The police decided to class the death as a suicide and close the affair. If there can be worse, there was worse. A short time later, their son, who was not involved with the farm, was found drowned "under mysterious circumstances." Then the state farm broke the 25-year lease and took back the 120 acres. After all, this was prime land to sell to the New Russians for dachas. (There was a visible building boom of large, luxury houses in the area.) Peter's wife and daughter had no pasture and had to let go the few employees and go on with the care and milking themselves. "You remember, Eric," said his wife, "that Peter promised to receive your group this year in our house." The group was offered tea in the trailer; the house Peter had been building for five years was still unfinished.

We met again with a woman who had started a successful book publishing business. I asked her the now inevitable question about the rackets. The question, she said, is to know how to choose your mafia. You must find one which is well-known and big enough to really protect you. You can say that I have found the right mafia and am under its protection. I asked if, among her wide range of acquaintances in the business world, she knew a single person who was not under mafia protection. She thought. "No, it would be impossible."

And then there was honesty. I went to a store where one pays first and takes the receipt to pick up the purchase. "250 rubles," I said to the cashier, handing over 1,000 rubles. "What are you buying?" she asked. Despite the rapid price changes of high inflation, she knew that nothing corresponded to that amount. "Half a loaf of Borodino [black] bread." She gave me change for 248 rubles. Knowing the shortage of coins, I had tried to simplify things by rounding up two rubles (1/10 cent). She'd have none of it. And near the cashier was a scale where one could verify the weight of good purchased.

A group of 80 French political science students arrived, and we attended the sessions of their seminar which were addressed by members of the Duma (parliament) from four political factions.

The French handled the communist gingerly, seeing him as a decent elderly man who was neither a danger nor in possession of any new ideas. There was sympathy toward the ideas of Yavlinsky's group even though his representative was not very capable of expressing them.

Until the last minute, it seemed that Zhirinovsky himself would come, but he sent his lieutenant, who turned out to be the most prepared and coherent person we heard. Everybody's antipathy was earned by the representative of Gaidar's, Russia's Choice. This pompous intellectual spouted an ultra-liberalism which would have made Margaret Thatcher look pink. Whether it was housing, health or education, people's problems were their own and they could sink or swim. As for the mafia, well, for now the problem was to just learn to live with it.

Afterwards, I found some Russian friends in a rage, one more than the others: "To think, Eric, that last December I voted for Russia's Choice; I voted for THAT! I'm so ashamed. Never again."

I asked our last speaker, who gave an excellent description about the development of the Russian banking system, to explain the importance to the rest of us of Russia's future. "There was a drunk where I used to live," he replied, "who always came to my neighbor to ask for five rubles for a bottle., and she always agreed. When I asked her why, she said he threatened that if he couldn't get his drink he'd set fire to her house. That's the way it is with Russia. If she fails, she'll take the whole world down with her."

At the airport, our return flight left from gate 10. At gate 10, we walked down the stairs and got onto a bus which drove us the few meters to gate 6 where the plane was parked just a meter from jetway access. I was proud of the group: nobody even asked why.

*The riddle: People took functional light bulbs from workplaces and covered their tracks by leaving a burnt out one in the socket.


Contact: Eric Fenster moscowtrip2007@yahoo.com with questions or for more information.