Soon I’ll go back to reporting on the kind of personal, certainly more trivial, thoughts I have been posting on this site for the last ten years – although even on the subject of Russia I seem capable of great foolishness: I found in my notes just now the observation that on sampling a thimbleful of homemade hooch at a Russian couple’s home, I felt my eyebrows instantly pluck themselves. But how can I end this series without offering one last glimpse of what I saw and learned in my brief stay in this vast country, only the small northwest portion of which I actually visited?
The answer is, I can’t.
One thing I have learned with all the reading I have done about the place, both during my two weeks in the country and during the two months since my return, is how sharply its citizens feel their loss of status since the time when Gorbachev, in their minds, simply ‘caved’, as they see it, ‘giving away’ much of their nuclear might along with their standing in the world. A further shame-inducing is the fact that this country, so vast, so rich in natural resources, today stands in only 12th place for GNP according to the International Monetary Fund’s annual tally. That’s after the US, the EU, China, Japan, Germany, the UK, France, India, Italy, Brazil, Canada and South Korea.
A woman interviewed by author Svetlana Alexievich in 2011 about the brief moment of hope after the Soviet Union was first dissolved put it this way. At first, she said, “everyone had very high hopes for the future. I remember the conversations we had in the staff room: ‘Socialism is ending – what’s next?’ ‘Bad socialism is over, now we’re going to have a good socialism.’ We waited… Pored over the newspapers… Pretty soon my husband lost his job and they shut down the Institute. It was a sea of unemployed people, all of them with college degrees. The kiosks appeared, then the supermarkets where they had everything, like in a fairytale, only there was no money to buy any of it. I’d go in and come right back out. I’d get two apples and an orange when the kids were sick.
“How are we supposed to get used to this? Accept that it’s how things are going to be from now on? How? It hurts your pride. That’s why people seem so tired these days. God forbid you were born in the USSR but live in Russia!”
The wealth in Russia is now concentrated at the very top. It is held by the oligarchs, as this gangster class is euphemistically called since the early 90s. That’s when the State stepped away from ownership of the factories, the farms, the oil and the gas, and this class of enterprising bandits stepped in to grab everything up.
Oh, to be sure, Moscow today shines like a jewel. It’s the prime showcase for all this wealth. But Moscow is also the place where, as our Russian tour guide advised us, the great preponderance of housing lies miles beyond the means of all but the very prosperous. And the GUM store, situated in Red Square formerly the world’s largest department store? The GUM store is a department store no more. Now it is merely an immense Fabergé egg of an indoor mall housing shops that as far as I can tell, not even prosperous tourists can afford to patronize. I spent two hours in the place, walking past the Louis Vuitton store, the Cartier store, the stores under signs reading ‘Pierre Cardin’ and ‘Versace’ and ‘Hermès’ and did not see a single soul in the process of purchasing anything in any one of them. I saw only the sales personnel inside and the security personnel standing at the doorways. As one disillusioned Russian said in an interview “Right now there’s a commercial on TV for copper bathtubs that cost as much as a two-bedroom apartment. Could you explain to me exactly who they’re for?”
Oh but see here, the government will say, the older folks still get their pensions. Only the skyrocketing inflation that followed the dissolution of the USSR almost immediately rendered those pensions worthless. As one older woman told oral historian Svetlana Alexievich “There IS no surviving on today’s pensions. What can you afford on them? You get yourself some bread and milk, and then there isn’t enough left over for slippers. It’s just not enough! Old people used to sit on the benches in their courtyards, carefree. Prattling. Not anymore. Some collect empty bottles around town, others stand in front of the church, begging. Some sell sunflower seeds or cigarettes at the bus stop…”
I saw those begging elders, as I wrote in my last post. I also saw countless other Russians at these kiosks or under improvised canopies or just out in the open, attempting to sell what they could sell – and for sure most were NOT the glowing young people such as the one pictured at the top of this post.
Some, like this grimacing man, sell trinkets outside the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, this on the June day when it was 38 degrees with a windswept sleet and all of us tourists were quivering like so many aspen trees.
Some sell CD’s outside the Catherine Palace, like this versatile gent who exemplifies three different ways to sing for one’s supper, all in this 14-second video.
Maybe you can even argue that the Russian husband and wife we met are in the business of selling their very privacy – to the touring company that brought us to them – in the sense that many times a month they allow the various tour boats’ large cushy couches to lumber down their narrow rutted road and visit them for a mid-morning snack.
The man of this couple built the house himself, with the help of his dad, he told us through our interpreter-guide, adding rooms one by one over the years so that it is made of several different materials. Out in back, the two have a small vegetable garden, and chickens, and a tiny screen house that would maybe fit two webbed 1970s-style lawn chairs but when we were there was being used to store a bent plastic baby pool propped up on its side.
They showed us some family photographs, like their wedding picture below…
…and with great grace they offered us food: half a piece of toast and a slice of cheese apiece, as well as a cut of an oblong pastry lathered in a red glaze.
Oh and a plate of the ubiquitous pickles you find everywhere in Russia.
And, to wash it all down, shots of that powerful hooch.
But as I noted at the start here, it isn’t mainly the straitened circumstances under which most folks live that they find so disheartening. For those old enough to remember, it is also the sense of all that is lost – and that topic I can address in greater detail tomorrow.