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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 bank accounts provided they could be proved to be legally acquired income; bank accounts would be frozen, and for the next six months no one would be allowed to withdraw more than 500 rubles a month.

Minutes, if not seconds, after the gist of the official statement became clear, crowds of Muscovites were on the dark, snowy streets, hunting for any place of business still open (most shops close by 8 PM) where they could spend or change the doomed bank notes before the deadline. Wherever they went, it turned out that hundreds, even thousands, had the same idea. Foreign cigarettes and brandy now sold at kiosks for the “commercial” (i.e., black-market) prices of 25 rubles a pack and 250 rubles a bottle, were suddenly selling out. Crowds nearly stampeded the Central Telephone and Telegraph on Tverskaia Street (formerly Gorky Street, now returned to its prerevolutionary name) to wire cash to themselves and their relatives’ bank accounts in hopes that their money would escape invalidation. Telegram forms soon ran out and the police, it was said, had to disperse the line.

Two trolley stops up Tverskaia an equally anxious crowd mobbed Moscow’s ever busy McDonald’s. Those who made it inside tried to buy a Big Mac with a 100 or 50 ruble note at each cash register. The run on cash forced McDonald’s to close all the registers and turn most of the people away. Some enterprising souls staked out the train stations, buying up whole carfuls of tickets to any and everywhere for later sale (at scalper’s prices no doubt). The airport bank was over-run with people trying to deposit money into accounts; the next day a story was circulating that an Uzbek arrived at Sheremetevo with 4 million rubles in a suitcase and tried to slit his wrists in public when his deposit was refused.

For the next three days the city was, as I had the opportunity to observe myself, in a state of numb hyperactivity. All political battles were temporarily forgotten as people from every walk of life schemed to save their savings, or make a profit on the chaos. The phone lines, unreliable in the best of times, were so overworked it was nearly impossible to call across town. Stores, however, were unusually empty, and perhaps for the first time since it opened in January 1990, the usual hour-plus wait to get in to McDonald’s fell to a mere five or ten minutes. Everyone was at work trying to change his money, or running around town trying to place it with friends who could. By the evening of the 23rd, 100 ruble notes were selling for 10 to 75 rubles on the black market, bought up by those who had a scheme for changing them from those less privileged.

Old people were said to be dying from exhaustion and fright as they waited in line at banks, which often refused to open their doors, to exchange the maximum 200 rubles allowed them. The head of Moscow’s emergency medical service went on television to deny the rumors: only one person, a seventy-two-year-old woman, he said, had actually died of a heart attack in a bank line; a few others had been treated for high blood pressure and released. The public instantly devised strategies to ward off further disaster as a new rumor spread: 25 and 10 ruble notes were next on the hit list. This, too, was denied on television and in the press. Needless to say, the grapevine versions of events prevailed. The government was not involved in an obmen (exchange) of money, popular opinion contended, but in obman (deception) of the people.

As the panic subsided and the dull, familiar despair over the country’s condition settled in again, the political purposes of the monetary “reform” were argued in public and private. No one seemed to take it seriously as an economic measure. The timing—just after Lithuania and Latvia—was too obvious, people said. This was economic shock therapy but it had a different goal than that currently being practiced in Eastern Europe. It was felt to be a cynical diversionary tactic intended to distract attention from the bloodshed in the Baltics while simultaneously reinforcing a similar message: as long as the army and the currency are in its hands, the central government still has more power to control and disrupt people’s lives than anyone or anything else.

In case anyone missed the point, hard on the heels of the ruble fiasco came the presidential decree on joint army-police patrols, set to begin on February 1. No one knew what to expect, and so they expected the worst. The day it was announced I was attending a film festival in Leningrad and the first thing I heard was that martial law had been imposed. The next morning, the word around the festival was that tanks were scheduled to move into the city center. I talked to someone who claimed to have actually seen tank movements on the outskirts of the city. Deputies of the Leningrad City Council (perhaps the most radical in the country) were handing out flyers advising the public on how to deal with a “soft military takeover.”

Back in Moscow on January 30, I found everyone expecting tanks in the streets and a full-fledged military coup by February 1 (Yeltsin’s birthday, as it turns out). In fact, the day passed uneventfully. The official news program showed a joint patrol in the city of Saratov, but the army was no more in evidence than usual in Moscow. By the time a week had passed, I knew of only two sightings of patrols (I saw none myself). One group of police and soldiers was seen walking down an empty street in a quiet, residential neighborhood at mid-afternoon (hardly a gathering place for the “crowds of criminals” the patrols were supposed to be combating); the other was spotted across the street from a liquor store, and was composed of teen-age soldiers who nervously avoided looking directly at the rowdy men waiting in line outside to buy vodka. Meanwhile, though the patrols were theoretically meant to police major train stations, the local mafia that controls porters and taxis in such places (charging as much as twenty times the meter rate, plus a “surcharge” in foreign currency for foreigners or Soviet citizens arriving by train from Europe) was reportedly going about its business as usual.

The decree produced yet another nationwide rush of adrenaline that was left hanging in the air. Although the patrols came to seem like a non-event during the next two weeks, they were still perceived—quite justifiably—as a potential threat to democratic forces. This feeling was reinforced by the swift succession of other presidential decrees aimed at reinstating centralized control, and by the Central Television channel. Under the new, hardline leadership of Kravchenko, the critical news program Viewpoint had already been taken off the air. The national program was now showing a steady diet of entertainment (folk dance groups, opera, and lots of rock videos) and a great many old films portraying the army in a sympathetic light.

Fueled by the Baltic events, presidential decrees, impending price hikes, and approaching local and national referendums on the fate of the USSR, the rivalry between Gorbachev and Yeltsin heated up in January and February. KGB listening devices were discovered in the offices of Yeltsin and the Russian parliament. Central Television refused to grant Yeltsin airtime and he demanded it more and more stridently. The conflict reached a qualitatively new level of critical mass when his request was finally granted, and on February 19 Yeltsin took the opportunity to effectively declare war on Gorbachev. The army finally lived up to popular predictions by staging a show of force in Moscow on March 28 to prevent a pro-Yeltsin rally.

Boris Boris” signs continue to urge at demonstrations, playing on the homonymous words meaning “Fight, Boris!” But the popular slogan “Kui poka Gorbachev” (Strike while Gorbachev is in power), a pun on the proverb “Kui zhelezo poka goriacho” (Strike while the iron is hot), which reflected the optimism of an earlier period, had evolved into “Gorbacheva mogila ispravit,” a play on “Gorbatogo mogila ispravit,” (the grave will straighten the hunchback—something like “what’s bred in the bone….”)

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