Anecdotal account of the 1995 Moscow Study Trip

Copyright 1995 by Eric Fenster

Getting there

It has become practically a tradition for the "adventure" to begin on the flight itself. Last year it was the theatrical reluctance of a Russian "businessman" to be expelled from Belgium; this year it was in the more prosaic form of heat.

We didn't know we were about to face Moscow's most torrid June in a century, and the announcement was rude. The day we flew, the only functional runway at Sheremetevo buckled and the airport was closed. My group was lucky. They left on time after a stop in London and were delayed "only" two hours circling Sheremetevo and waiting on the tarmac. Earlier flights had been diverted to other Moscow airports where, on the excuse there were no immigration facilities, the passengers spent hours sitting on the planes in the heat.

I was flying from Paris, and by the time the plane could leave Moscow to fetch us the delay was eight hours. We got to Sheremetevo at 2 am. The taxi sharks would be ravenous at that hour, and there was no certainty I could get into our residence. I chose a spot on the departure level where only a few years before whole families, taking advantage of the recent possibility to emigrate freely, would live for days or weeks while waiting for a flight with seats. They used to even put up string and hang blankets on it to demarcate their "apartments." The floor cleaner considerately drove by just as I arrived, so I had an unsoiled place to sleep until morning.

The signs said that the municipal buses to the northernmost stations of the Metro lines began running at 7 am. Like so many signs which haven't been changed, they were wrong, but this time in our favor: they began coming at 6 am. I got a seat on one, but it filled quickly with suburbanites going to work.

The people standing were pretty squeezed, when suddenly a burly middle- aged woman began to yell at the young man next to her. What prompted her, I don't know, but soon she was screaming that it was entirely improper to ride without a ticket. Show me your ticket, she hollered, and reached into her purse to pull out her ID card. A transit inspector! She was surely only on her way to work and not on duty, but whatever had inspired her rage, she was going to pull rank. The young man had the perfect retort. He calmly reached into his wallet and pulled out his own ID. A cop!

I was waiting for a chain reaction to occur, imagining that this crush of apparently ordinary people concealed a mass of privileges and that they'd shortly be flashing probative documents at each other. What with rules of age, youth, sex, pregnancy, health, war veteran status and courtesy sometimes causing a dance of seat priority on Russian public transport, it wasn't entirely a fantasy, but this time the offsetting IDs calmed passions and the affair ended in a quite friendly conversation. It was the first contradiction since my arrival; I felt at home.

The state of things

The macroeconomic signs have been improving in Russia, there has been rapid learning of the methods of market-oriented institutions, consumer goods are widely in evidence. But people I know who were optimists during the difficult recent years and who threw themselves into the changes expressed their pessimism and bitterness this year. They feel on the edge of a political and economic abyss.

Boris Yeltsin's tenure as the latest hoped-for "good Tsar" is over, and cynicism about electoral politics seems so complete that the failure to achieve the required 25% voter turnout in many of last year's regional elections (even in the city of St. Petersburg) could be generalized in December's parliamentary poll and threaten the legitimacy of the legislature.

Moscow's external appearance continued to change in a way which proved the complete absence of democracy at local level. The mayor (and the state) initiate projects at will, apparently without even a nod to participation in the decision process. Some continue the tradition of gigantism and symbols--like the six storey underground shopping center being built on Manege Square (a dubious priority in view of all of Moscow's other problems) or a crude "rebuilding" of the Christ the Savior church (complete with a three storey underground commercial center!) in place of the more useful year-round swimming pool. Some just substitute the fake for the real as on the touristic Old Arbat ("a year of aggression against authenticity, a year of forgeries, surrogates and copies" in the words of a Nezavisimaya gazeta article). And there are now the first tracts of single homes, "Tsar's villages," for the excessively rich that begin the process trading Moscow's greenery for commercialism just as pollution from cars is doubling and tripling hospital admissions for respiratory ailments.

For those to whom advertising billboards are the mark of urban beauty and proof of modernity and who found, in their absence, evidence for the previous system's failings--the city is well along the road to redemption. Vistas of tree-lined boulevards be damned. The most intriguing new signposts I saw were for Bistros. The story goes that the French adopted the name, bistro from the Russian word, for fast, to described cafes where one could get a quick meal.The Russian word is written with the letter, for what we could call the hard "i" sound and which is often transliterated as y. Hence, "bystro." So, in the drive to be Western, the Russians, in Bistro, have reimported their own word... with French spelling.

The street kiosks were still plentiful although some, at one bus stop near our Metro station, had disappeared along with all but one fruit seller. Perhaps some turf questions had been sorted out... At the Metro station further south, many of the kiosks had been rebuilt in brick and suggested a permanence to the street distribution of commodities. At the same time, there was more of the repetitious stress on soft drinks and alcohol and the disappearance of the more artisanal--like fresh lavash (Caucasian bread) and other baked goods.

At the approaches to central Metro stations, there was still one sign of hard times: the long lines of people, mainly women, selling personal objects or packages of cigarettes or a bottle of some drink. While this had gone on uninterrupted for years, it was still considered illegal. I was in the passage between Revolution Square and Nikolskaya Street when suddenly the hundred or so women standing along the wall began to flutter and then melt into the crowd in a kind of wave; in an instant, a "market" had disappeared. The reason was the approach of two policemen, whose arrival had been silently signaled down the whole queue. The police strolled into a shop to admire some computer games, the objective of their demarche, and pretended at least to be unaware of the dispersal they had caused. Fifteen seconds had not passed before the hundred sellers and their goods had emerged from the crowd and were back to the wall. There is a Russian saying to the effect that no matter how often one scatters the crows they will just circle and roost again. The roles had been played out. I recently saw some film footage of Moscow streets during the NEP (New Economic Plan) in the 20s, and they looked like an earlier equivalent of the kiosks and the individual sellers. So, there was nothing especially new in this form of retailing, except that in the contemporary version all of the preserved and packaged goods--as well as the fruits and vegetables--are imported. There are estimates that up to 70% of food consumed in Moscow is imported, and perhaps 50% elsewhere.

This was a sign of the great stumbling block in the reform process. To the extent there was growing prosperity (for some), nobody versed in economics could tell me other than that its basis was a kind of spending spree in which oil and gas receipts ended up as consumer goods from abroad. Investment and restructuring are still rare and difficult.

It is hard to measure well-being in Russia because no statistics are reliable. On the one hand, there is hidden unemployment: millions of people not officially out of work and seeking it but who may be on forced holidays for months at a time or who don't receive wages for equal periods. On the other, there is hidden employment: millions of people working in undeclared jobs, often as "shuttles" moving imported consumer goods from the East. As often as not, the same person is "hidden" under both categories. To a large extent, shuttle commerce is in the "shadows," and this implies that millions of Russians have a stake in and will support the illegal and semi-legal economy.

Enterprises which used to exaggerate their success during the Soviet period in order to meet the Plan now underestimate output in order to evade confiscatory taxes.

Officially the average monthly salary in Russia was the equivalent of about $75. With inflation taken into account, real wages have been decreasing. Real income has been increasing on the average in the past year because of unearned income and other sources unconnected with primary employment, but most of this increase is enjoyed by people in the top 10% or so of revenue.

The many people at the $50 or so monthly wage level), face prices like $1.00-1.50 for a kilogram of fruit and $4.00 for a kilo of sausage. A beer at a cafe on the Arbat, where the well-off and the tourists hang out, runs $6. The monthly pass on Moscow's public transportation, $12, represents a week's wages for such people compared to 2.5% of monthly wages in the "old days," a 10-fold relative increase. And who might earn such meager salaries? Professors, scientists, advisors in the Foreign Ministry with 10-15 years' experience... (The implications of the last ought to worry all of us as we see relations with Russia become more delicate.)

A Russian friend criticized me for citing these figures. You're always whining about the poor professors and their low salaries, she said, but I can tell you that my professor just bought a new flat and a new car. And in the next breath she complained that despite his opulence he skipped classes and couldn't be found in his office when he was needed. Which was, of course, just the point: If educators weren't being paid for their duties, they weren't likely to carry them out. Yet it was her next statement that was the most telling. Yes, she allowed, I suppose that after all the effort it took to become a professor he ought to get at least something for lecturing... The tone and meaning were clear: she had bought into the ethos that only activity which directly generated money deserved to be compensated. Selling Snickers merited financial rewards; teaching, one could do for amusement.

People with "good" jobs involving accounting, language skills, etc., can earn $200-500 per month, but for them the ever-present dream of having their own apartment still recedes because with the housing market now privatized even a one-room flat can cost about $30,000. Then there are those who vacation on the Riviera in the most expensive accommodations they can find or lose thousands of dollars a night in the Moscow casinos...

Last year Tibet had moved into the ground floor of the annex to our residence. Tibet was an "investment firm" with the good reputation of always paying off. The best thing about Tibet was that in a single day it had asphalted the whole space from the street and around the building entrance, putting an end to years of deep mud which made the building almost unattainable after every rain. During the year, it was found that Tibet was crooked--like the famous MMM--and it was gone. Now there was a money exchange guarded by a platoon of heavily armed and always suspicious hulks in the ubiquitous camouflage uniforms. We got into the habit of approaching our part of the building with a disinterested attitude and without making sudden moves, but this dissuasive force had its comforting features, to say nothing of the convenience of having an exchange so close (even if it sometimes felt humbling to change $20 or $50 when other clients arrived hauling attache cases).

Two cultures

There were frequent signs of contradictions in the "modernization" process. The "new Russians" may have credit cards and flaunt their cellular phones in the street, but panic spread in our residence when an utterly distraught receptionist reported that somebody in my group had used her phone to call America. "It will cost millions!" she exclaimed, figuring we'd be gone when the bill came and she'd be held responsible for the equivalent of months of her salary. Over the next couple days, I patiently explained several times how a phone card functions, but why should somebody who had probably never even attempted the agony of placing an international call be anything but skeptical. She only calmed down when a colleague she trusted told her: "They have such things in civilized countries." It was self-demeaning, but it worked.

Not two days went by before the alarm was sounded again: "He made another call to America, it's going to cost me millions!" But I thought we already resolved the phone card issue, I said. "Yes, but this time he didn't have a card!" So I had to start over and explain collect calls, the leap of faith by which the Russian phone company would believe somebody in a foreign country would keep a promise to pay for somebody else's call. This, in a country where non-payments of debts between enterprises is measured in the tens of trillions of rubles and wages are not paid for months at a time.

The banking system seems to be a sector under significant development despite bizarre jerks backward, such as the recent rule by the Central Bank that the forms for all money exchange transactions have to be filled out by hand instead of by typewriter or computer.

It was during the exchange of travelers checks to pay for the expenses of my group that I got to observe a real learning curve. The number of checks was well over 100 and each had to be stamped with the payee bank's name on the front and with an endorsement on the back.

The teller first started out as usual: turned a row of 5 checks face down, stamped them and put them to one side. But since the finished checks weren't piled neatly, there was room for only 4 checks the second round, and three the third. The procedure for the typical client was not going to work with this volume.

Step one on the curve, the teller changed to stamping one check at a time with her right hand and then putting it on a pile to her right with her left. This solved the problem of working space, but it was very awkward to pass under the stamping hand to pile the checks on the "wrong" side.

Step two: She switched to stamping checks with her right hand and collecting them with her left. This avoided the contortions, but very soon it became unwieldy to pick up more checks.

Step three: Stamp with the right hand and pile the checks to the LEFT with the left hand. This established a rhythm which went through the pile in no time at all.

A bank guard standing alongside the counter was following this process as intensely as I, and we both broke into beaming smiles at the success. It was as if the whole country was finding its way, on its own.

One step forward, two steps back

We went back to the same agricultural machinery we'd first visited in 1993. Readers of past notes will recall it had dropped from nine thousand workers to about 1/10 that number and had entirely ceased production of mowers.

This time there were some signs of progress. The old assembly line had been replaced with work areas for making gasoline pumps and the foundry- from-hell had been closed, but when I talked to a couple workers they immediately launched into a litany of complaints ranging from wages (theirs were $50 per month) to the absence of anybody or group for whom I would be worth voting in the coming December elections.

Diana, the fiery plant newspaper editor, derided the further decline in conditions which she said included the loss of medical insurance. She told of having to take up a collection so that the husband of one worker could have surgery.

Diana was absent when we came last year. I told her we had met the new factory director, a Georgian, and recalled the story she had told us in 1993 about a Georgian who had been "infiltrated" into the plant as a worker because only employees were eligible to buy shares under the version of privatization for which the workers had voted. Diana had insisted then that this "worker" had an outside "organization" behind him. Might it be that the new director was the same person, I asked."That's the one!" she replied.We seemed to be observers of the widespread result of privatization under "option two," purchase by the work collective, in which the reality is assumption of ownership by the managers.

We also returned to the private dairy farm near Moscow. It was now almost two years since Peter had been found hanged for apparently not wanting to share his success with the mob and since the state farm grabbed back all the pasture land it was leasing in order to sell it to the nouveaux riches for construction of extravagant dachas.

Peter's wife, Alla, had invited a family to live with her and her daughter to help run the place. The size of the herd had dropped further, and the cows did not look as if they were giving much milk. A Swiss farmer was working on the farm as a way to practice Russian after a few months of formal instruction. He was convinced that with the means available it would be possible to get the same amount of milk with half the number of cows and turn a profit by not spreading resources so thin. His advice to Alla was to cut the herd, but she faced at least two obstacles. One was that there could be no going back if the decision were wrong. The second was probably a lifetime of living with the mentality that more and bigger was better. Alla's choice was more radical. Russians prefer pork, she said, so by next year we'll going to get rid of the cows and raise pigs. There was a second part to her strategy. Pigs stink, she noted, and the odor would carry to the dachas of the newly rich who were responsible for the loss of the area's farming land. Revenge!

A short distance from the farm the Ministry of Agriculture owned a tract of land of which it gave parcels to its employees on which to build dachas, a common practice in the "old days." The street of small rustic cottages was lushly overgrown with the flowers and vegetables planted by the owners. We met one resident, a hale 84, who relaxed by tending his garden after a life which included construction work from Moscow's first Metro line to railways in Eastern Siberia. This, stripped of the politics and abuses, was the Soviet man, at peace with himself and modestly proud of the contribution he made to his country, but disturbed by the loss of discipline and by the fact that he now had to worry constantly about what might be happening to his tightly fastened Moscow apartment whereas in the past he went away and left the door unlocked.

At the other end of the age scale are the "new Russians," the "biznizmen." One incident gave a clue to their lives. An American working in Moscow with a consulting firm came to spend a morning discussing his experiences with my group. Afterward, a Russian friend approached me very puzzled. What I don't understand, he said, is why that guy would take the time to do that if he is in business. Is it because he owes you a favor?

My friend has a son who is in business and whom he hardly sees anymore; supposedly, there's just never time. I explained that the person who spoke to us has a family to whom he gives the time and attention they need, that he knows how to work in an organized and intensive way and to hire the right number of personnel and delegate authority, and that, besides, part of business is doing community and pro bono work and having non-commercial relations with potential future customers. In short, the Russian image of business as a universally desperate workaholic frenzy was the sure path to burnout.

And in the provinces

When we traveled for several days to the Golden Circle of ancient Russia, we started out this year in Kirjatch, some 120 km from Moscow. French television made a documentary in 1993 about how this town of about 50,000 was being affected by the reforms. The general picture was of a bucolic place, deeply provincial despite its closeness to Moscow, where people might now be "free," but free to do what? The economy was only getting worse... except for the new owners of the town's hotel. They had appeared from Moscow as the only bidders in the hotel's auction, a typical way in which mafia forces assured their ownership during the first phase of privatization.

We met with several journalists from the town's newspaper and cable radio station, who told us the film was shown for a month in the town's cultural center. In general, they were offended by the negative picture painted by the documentary and particularly because they thought that the presence of several of the town's drunks in it was meant to imply that the whole population was under the influence. (Several of us had interpreted these poetic characters as a device similar to the chorus in a Greek play and not at all demeaning.) Despite the pessimism of the documentary, there were several functioning factories in the city, we were told.

I recalled an incident when one of our group wanted to photograph the woman attendant on our floor of the residence in Moscow. She wanted to decline because she was wearing house slippers. There was no intention to take a picture of her feet, but it demonstrated a common Russian attitude that a picture is a pose to show people in their best light, not something candid or spontaneous.

Having made their point, the tone of the meeting changed. One of the editors who had been quiet to that point took the floor to explain that while the factories existed they were operating only a couple days a week and workers frequently did not receive their meager salaries. In short, two years later the impacts of the reform were just as serious as they had been portrayed. Finally, the woman presiding over the meeting and who had made the criticism of the film told us her own situation: two higher education degrees and a salary of about $50 per month. One interesting difference from Moscow. This was the period when the hostages were being held by Chechens in Budyonovsk. In the capital, the attitude was frequently indignant: "Look what they are doing to us!" The terror inflicted by Russian authorities on civilians in Chechnya seemed not to count. For the people we met in Kirjatch, the hostage situation seemed the logical result of what Russia had done.

In Russian, the Last Judgment translates as the Terrible Judgment. Last year we had the face-off with the leather-jacketed guards at the monastery in Sergeev-posad, whose doctrine was that only death resolves anything and there is no hope on earth. This year our confrontation with Russian orthodoxy occurred in the Cathedral of the Assumption in Vladimir.

We were standing under Rublev's fresco of the Last Judgment, one of uncharacteristic tranquility, listening to our guide's sober and respectful explanation. At one point she gently chided our interpreter about the difference between "repair" and "restoration." They chuckled. The breach of expected morosity in this joyless Church was observed by one of the woman caretakers watching from the shadows. A couple minutes later, our host came up to us very agitated: "They say you are laughing at them. They think you are all Catholics who have come to mock the Orthodox Church." We were kicked out of the cathedral and the doors locked behind us.

In Suzdal our guide was David. When tourism declined precipitously after it became more expensive for Russian groups and foreigners stayed away once perestroika ended, the number of guides in Suzdal dropped from about 25 to 7. David's knowledge of art history and his command of English allowed him to survive, but only at the expense of constant abuse from colleagues who wanted him to cede his place and go to Israel. With eighteen years of seniority and a floor or 100 hours per month leading groups, David earns $30 per month.

When we left to return to Moscow the Russian government was putting on a vast show of security. It had been embarrassed by the Chechens' taking the hospital in Budyonovsk and by the failure of two assaults, which luckily did not result in the mass killing of the hostages. To compensate, thousands of police and troops were thrown into the "protection" of Moscow. On the streets and in the Metro this meant the racist tactic of running ID checks on anybody with a dark complexion (visitors to Paris would find the scene familiar). And on the roads...

We had not left Vladimir far behind when we came to a roadblock manned by both police and an armored personnel carrier. A policeman got on our bus, looked us over, and got off. We had driven about five minutes when a jeep pulled alongside and, through a bullhorn, ordered us to stop. Two police came on board. One stood guard at the front with an assault weapon. The other slowly walked down the aisle and then stopped: "You took a photo through the window at the roadblock," he said to one of our members. "That is illegal," he invented. "You must expose your film."

I didn't know how many pictures on the roll had already been shot, but I didn't want this guy to lose his Russia photos. The inspiration came to play the bureaucrat. "He will give you the film," I said. "But you are required to give him a receipt for anything you confiscate. You can take the film and cut out the offensive frame and tell him where to come to recover the rest of his pictures."

"We have no such technology."

"Very well, but you must give him a receipt." I was right, I was sure. More important, the militia man thought so, and he had no forms or any other kind of paper to give anybody who would challenge his authority. He thought quickly. "How many photos did you take at the roadblock?" he asked the culprit.


"Can you roll back your film and double expose it?"

Before the negative answer could be uttered, another quick- thinking member of the group said he could. He took the camera, held it up, wound it forward and snapped the shutter.

"One more time," said the militiaman.

Wind to the next frame. Click.

"That will do." And, having saved face, the police wished us good-by and left.

Coming back

I had time to browse in the duty free shop before my flight home. I decided to buy a 9-volt battery: very expensive in France, $3 here. When I went to pay, the computer gave the price as $3.50. The clerk and I looked at every battery; every one was marked $3, but she said she had to go with the computer's price. I argued of course that she had to sell at the marked price.

Then we noticed that each price sticker covered another one, and the one on the bottom was $3.50. You might conclude--I did-- that the old $3.50 price had been reduced and covered with the new one, but that somebody forgot to change the computer's database. The clerk, and the manager who was involved by this time, argued that it was the sticker with the new price which was covered by the old one! And they both set about conscientiously pulling off all the "old" stickers to reveal the "new" one.

The problem was that in this modern outpost of Russia's new market economy nobody had thought to give the employees the authority to overrule the computer, so they had to make themselves look ridiculous.

But why should the Russians always take the fall for this sort of thing? A month before I had some film developed in Paris. It wasn't ready when I went to pick it up. I pointed out that it was supposed to be a 48-hour service. The clerk, who had no authority to propose a solution, thought quickly: "Oh, that's the minimum time," she explained.


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