Living in a Russian Novel

If Reagan doesn’t want to sell us wheat,
So what—he’ll miss the boat and sink.
It’s only over there they think,
That living means you have to eat.

But we don’t need his bread, we’re smart,
We’ll live on our ideas alone.
He’ll wake, and gasp—where have they flown?
And we’ll be there, right in his heart”.
Dmitry Prigov, from “The Image of Reagan in Soviet Literature”

Life in Moscow seems lived more intensely than anywhere else. Western travelers to the Soviet union are familiar with the contradictory feelings that assail you once you cross the Soviet border: on the one hand dream time takes over, and yet it seems that here is where real life really happens. You seem to be playing blindman’s bluff in a world arbitrarily ordered, where the truth of events, even the fact of their occurrence, constantly eludes you. And yet everything you do—from buying milk to hailing a cab to reading a newspaper—seems to have an urgency life lacks elsewhere.

This “genuine” life, however, is measured not in actions—how many deals done and sights seen—but in language. Jokes, gossip, rumors, official decrees, metaphors, similes, catchphrases, puns, clichés, and certain topical words are collected like treasures and brought out time and time again until, polished by conversation, they glow with the luster of reality. Events, momentous and mundane, exist not so much physically as in the words they engender. (Perestroika, glasnost, market, mafia, dictatorship, the list is long….) Sometimes the words appear to create the event. Life acquires the aura of literature, and you become a player in the Great Russian Novel.

In recent weeks this novel has taken one dramatic turn after another, and Moscow’s citizens and politicians alike are constantly jockeying news and rumor in a breathless race to maintain the illusion that the plot (any plot) is on course. But the unseen author (no longer identifiable with Gorbachev alone) keeps throwing them for a loop. Just a week after the tragic 13th of January in Vilnius hundreds of thousands of Muscovites marched through the city and gathered on Manezh Square next to the Kremlin to protest the Center’s bloody coup attempt. That night they returned home, euphoric, only to hear of the attack by the black berets on a Latvian government building in Riga. Perestroika had turned into perestrelka (shoot-out), as a popular joke of 1988 had cautioned.

I arrived in Moscow in late January, just in time to feel the initial aftershocks of another government action and hear the first installments of its oral folklore. At 9 PM the night before, on the national news program Vremia, it had been announced that as of mid-night on January 22, 100 ruble bills and 50 ruble bills would no longer be legal tender. Citizens were given three days in which to exchange a set amount of money in such denominations at their place of employment; larger sums would be accepted for deposit in…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.