• Email
  • Print

Kasha on the Brain

In addition to all the well-known problems affecting the former Soviet Union that are continually reported in the Western press—shortages of food and medicine, ethnic strife, political intrigue, and civil discontent—Russians are also suffering from the stress of what might be called psychic noise pollution. The newspapers and evening news used to offer a predictable view of reality, and history flowed in a quiet, steady stream. Now the reassuring hum of the old ideology has been replaced by jarring, John Cage–like compositions. The Soviet-Russian Empire’s “friendship of peoples” has become a Babel of warring nationalities, each with its own language and history of injustice, each demanding equal rights. Furthermore, problems that were once carefully hidden from view—pollution, homelessness, crime—are now all out in the open. As a psychologist pointed out in the January 28 issue of Izvestia: “When, almost simultaneously, people are confronted with new prices, empty shelves, the closing of nursery schools, conflict in Georgia, conflicts in Uzbekistan, border disputes, and then on top of this the harsh and not always timely declarations of the President, the speaker of the Supreme Soviet or other members of the government, they go wild.”

The August revolution delivered the final blow not only to the political power of the Soviet center, but to the hierarchic social order which shaped people’s values and consciousness; it attacked their very understanding of the world they live in. Russians of all political persuasions are having difficulty adjusting, and many are still trying to detect a coherent plot in the decentralized chaos they now feel surrounds them. In mid-January I visited an elderly Russian art collector and his wife, a former Party committee secretary, who refused to acknowledge the collapse of the Soviet Union: “It’s still our country, our homeland,” they said. Sinister forces were at work, they assured me—another occupation of the “USSR” was being planned. When I asked by whom, they responded with conspiratorial coquettishness: “United Nations troops, or perhaps even American troops. We’ve been occupied before, you know.”

Later that week, at a party of liberal-minded artists and architects in their mid-thirties, I heard at least five different versions of forthcoming catastrophe: a military coup was scheduled for February 5; a “reliable” astrologist forecast coups for March or October; war with the Ukraine was imminent. The “Moscow Tribune,” a forum for the Russian democratic intelligentsia, met in late January to discuss political strategy to deal with the growing influence of the nationalistic-fascistic right, and their predictions were equally gloomy. In this constant talk of coming coups d’état and hunger riots one sometimes senses more nostalgia for a stable world order with clearly delineated friends and enemies than analysis of the new balance of power. There are real dangers of reaction in Russia, to be sure, but the only truth that stands above the confusion of the moment to an outside observer is that no one person or group controls anything anymore: what Yeltsin, Shevardnadze, Alksnis, Zhirinovsky or anyone else says is quickly subsumed in the blur of events—war in Georgia and Nagorno-Karabakh, conflict in the Caucasus, stalled or stillborn reforms at home.

Adding to the disorientation induced by the increasingly complex political composition of the former Soviet Union is the growing influx of images and ideas from the Western world. Once the only signs on the streets were the CPSU’s white slogans on a red background, urging the population to fulfill the Plan or affirming that the Party was the mind, honor, and conscience of the people. No one paid much attention to them, but they punctuated the landscape, signs of an organized universe in which all were thought to receive equal deserts. Now, new messages proclaiming the “transition to a market economy” constantly assault the eye and ear, though it would be hard to extract even a premonition of order from them: in a society of decomposing Communist structures and appalling shortages, ads geared to Western consumer psychology might as well come from another planet.

Billboards and neon lights promote cars, audio, and computer equipment all over Moscow, often in English. They don’t gain much in comprehensibility when they’re translated into Russian. In the center of town, for example, there’s a billboard ad for M&Ms: candy that “melts in your mouth, not in your hands” seems a very odd concern in Russian. One small package of these impervious chocolates, if you can find them, costs as much as twenty loaves of bread. In contrast, the ad for Mars Bars on the neighboring billboard contains a Mayakovsky-style ditty that strikes a more natural linguistic note: “Work or Pleasure, Be Bold—Eat Mars,” says the sign, playing on the Russian proverb “When work is done, you can have your fun.”

Most of the products advertised are not for sale, or at least not readily available. More important, they allude to styles of life that simply don’t exist here. The Vidal Sassoon ad for “shampoo and conditioner in one” that runs on Moscow TV with Russian dubbed for the original English is one example. The very concept is mystifying in a place where you count yourself lucky to find any shampoo at all; further-more, to judge by the number of times women have asked me what conditioner is, few understand the timesaving point of the product. The English word “conditioner” used in this ad has been employed in Russian only for “air conditioners.” But the real message is carried by the sensation of physiological disparity produced as the pert brunette’s facial muscles stretch around the exaggerated vowels of ad-speak English, while the dubbed Russian strains to match the unnatural intonations of foreign enthusiasm. “This is not for you, and this is not your life,” the ad screams.

Nonetheless, the West has the goods, and the Russians are hungry for them, no matter how irrelevant they may seem or how expensive they may be. For all the poverty of the average Russian, a well-to-do urban class is visibly growing. More and more foreign currency shops are opening up. They sell women’s and men’s apparel as well as food and home appliances, and are being patronized by a primarily Russian clientele with dollars or German marks. Christian Dior and Benetton now have shops in GUM, the nineteenth-century department store arcade across from the Kremlin; just before the New Year, the hard-currency food shops had hours-long lines and were stripped bare by Soviet holiday shoppers. On Gorky Street, Pizza Hut, Estée Lauder, and Nina Ricci have staked their claims to the Soviet market and trade in rubles; a French beauty salon nearby offers the most expensive haircuts in the country.

But McDonald’s remains Moscow’s real mecca. It gleams on Pushkin Square in the heart of the city like a ship from outer space. Every day last summer and fall, the crowds lined up for the ride; on weekends they waited hours for their taste of the future. Recent price rises have diminished the lines, but the place is always bustling. Soviet tour bus guides, luring out-of-towners with megaphone announcements of their itineraries, often wind up their spiel with the pièce de résistance: “And, as a final stop, we’ll visit Pushkin Square, where McDonald’s is located.” A visit to McDonald’s represents more than a quick bite to eat. With its bright spaces, its swarm of polite teen-agers working to ensure fast service and clean floors, and its inexhaustible supply of food, it provides nearly as great a contrast with the rest of post-Soviet reality as the European-style five-star Metropol Hotel which recently reopened in Moscow. For many, McDonald’s is as close as they’ll ever get to America.

Local entrepreneurs are making their own contribution to the white noise of the new age, and Russian advertising is often as mystifying as Western, if for different reasons. You rarely see a Russian ad for an actual product—there’s little need for consumer ads in a place where everything is in short supply and industrial production is plummeting. But the light board at Mayakovsky Square runs around-the-clock announcements for middlemen: insurance companies, brokerage firms, banks, and auctions. A computer and office technology firm called MMM (which has now expanded into other types of business) paid for Muscovites to ride free on the subway for several days last fall, but if you ask around you’ll find few people know what MMM does. An independent TV company called REN buys time on one of the government stations and airs a one-minute horoscope addressed to businessmen’s concerns every weeknight after the eleven o’clock news; the advertising sponsors’ logos and phone numbers were featured prominently on-screen over the astrologer until they were inundated with calls from confused viewers seeking astrological advice.

By far the most prominent advertisers are the birzhi, commodity exchanges or wholesalers, where in principle anything from wheat, lumber, and paper to cars and winter coats can be bought or sold through licensed brokers. New exchanges crop up every day, and their opulent opening ceremonies, inevitably blessed by bearded, black-robed Orthodox priests, are reported on the evening news. Their advertising on television, radio, buses, and trolleys is not geared to the individual consumer, since in most cases only organizations may buy through these exchanges. In the absence of nearly anything to buy in the stores, one is often left wondering what is actually up for sale. Thus the ads tend to project an image and leave the details to the viewer’s imagination. Almost all of the exchanges’ TV spots (sometimes as many as eight or nine are aired in a row) use computer graphics and favor ominous, robotlike voices to announce the name of the exchange. The stern, uninflected diction of these voices is conceived in direct opposition to the cloying intonations of pre-perestroika Soviet announcers. But under present economic conditions, their implied promise—access to a high-tech world of computer efficiency and ergo of Western bounty—seems hardly less utopian than old-style Socialist Realist propaganda.

Much of the language of the market in the making has been borrowed from English, since the concepts represented often don’t exist in Russian. Terms like “know-how,” “broker,” “sponsor,” “speechwriter,” “holding company,” and “marketing” are perceived as marking the way to the bright future of economic prosperity. But there is a concurrent, complementary move into the aesthetics and language of the past. A recent TV ad for a newly formed bank, for example, shows two bankers in elegant turn-of-the-century dress shaking hands on a deal; the sepia tints of this “flashback” fade into the full but drab colors of a contemporary interior with two present-day bankers in ill-fitting suits, while the narrator talks about traditions of banking reliability. (Previously, the only bank was the government bank; the introduction of checkbooks and credit cards into the cash-based consumer economy is only now beginning to be discussed.) The look of pre-World War I Russian style moderne or art nouveau is by far the most popular in business advertising—from logos to typeface—because it harks back to the pre-Bolshevik golden age of the great Russian merchants. This style is more than an advertising trend: Russian society as a whole is desperately seeking to go “back into the future” and revive concepts, practices, and traditions, from business to philanthropy, that were obliterated by seventy years of Party rule.

The renaming of institutions, streets, and cities has accelerated swiftly since the failed August coup, and follows a similar pattern. In Moscow at least, this has made riding public transportation a new sort of adventure. Most of Gorky Street isn’t Gorky Street any longer; its pre-Revolutionary name, Tverskaya, has been restored, and the metro station renamed. Prospekt Marx has reverted to Hunters’ Row. Kalininskaya has become Aleksandr Gardens; Sverdlov, Nogin, Dzerzhinsky too have all been wiped off the subway map. Kirov Street is once again Miasnitskaya (the corresponding subway stop, however, has been named after the nearby Clean Ponds, reportedly, a friend told me in all seriousness, because miasnitskaya derives from the word meat, miaso, and the municipal authorities didn’t want to irritate the hungry public). But the old cartographic consciousness is difficult to replace. People can be seen shaking their heads and squinting at the subway signs in bewilderment; they look up, startled, when the conductor announces an unfamiliar name.

For all the grace of the old, pre-Revolutionary names, and the feeling of lost dignity restored that they engender, the linguistic shuffling contributes to the psychological drift that now seems a permanent characteristic of Russian life. You don’t know what street you’re on, what subway stop to get off at, or what city you mailed your letter to. After August people started to avoid saying “USSR,” but the “Commonwealth of Independent States” (SNG in Russian) hasn’t caught on yet; it suffers from geographic vagueness as well as a politically uncertain future. TV announcers and politicians most often say “the former USSR,” or settle for nebulous constructions like “our country,” “our homeland,” or, most popular, “one sixth of the earth’s surface.” The adjective “Soviet” retains its currency, however, for it describes a way of thinking as much as a political reality.

After all the drama of 1991, Russians are suffering from the vertigo of imperial collapse. The political and economic hangover is extreme. Knowledge that you are living through one of the most significant moments in world history may be intoxicating, but you can only sustain the exhilaration for so long. It quickly fades in the grind of everyday living: you can’t wear it, touch it, smell it, and it most certainly won’t quench your thirst or fill an empty stomach. You may wake up in a new country tomorrow but you still have to get supper on the table.

This has become increasingly difficult, as the whole world knows. But the problem is not simply shortages. The anxiety provoked by empty stores and decontrolled prices is greatly exacerbated by the total unpredictability of the food and consumer goods supply. Russia has been turned into a society of post-industrial hunters and gatherers. The hunting consists of making use of a complex network of friends, acquaintances, and connections, who, greased with a bribe or “presents,” will allow you to locate and target the prey (from “big ticket” items like a car, refrigerator, or furniture, to food, medicine, house paint, and extension cords). But most of life’s necessities are acquired by gathering. One quickly gets in the habit of going out with an assortment of plastic bags because you never know what you might find where and when, and whether or not you need it at the moment. (Such shopping bags, long called avoski, or “just-in-case bags” in Russians, have been jokingly redubbed nichevoski, or “nothing-at-all bags,” in recent months.) Hardly anything is sold where you might expect it, nor is anything likely to appear in the same place two days in a row.

Over the last six months the streets of Moscow have been transformed into one great motley flea market. What was sent from abroad as humanitarian aid—packets of spaghetti from Italy, apple sauce and canned peaches from Germany, chocolate, baby formula, and disposable syringes from a variety of countries—is being sold openly in “commercial” kiosks for huge sums, along with liquor, cigarettes, and odd assortments of clothes, appliances, and dishes. Several of the city’s big markets and the sidewalks in front of large stores have become vast jumble sales where people come to peddle their household goods. Subway stations and underground pedestrian passages have become secondary, “sell and run” free markets, their prices between the low prices of government stores and the artificially high, mafia-controlled prices of the established farmers’ markets and cooperative stores and kiosks. At different times I’ve bought eggs, cheese, mustard, fresh fish, pickles, and vegetables (all rarely to be found in stores) outside various subway stops—and have seen scrawny, half-plucked chickens, bricks of yeast, plumbing fixtures, sweaters, coats, and light bulbs for sale alongside the more standard subway assortment of candy, flowers, and books.

One afternoon a grimy tanker truck parked on the square in front of my subway station was selling sweet wine to anyone who just happened to have empty bottles or jars on hand; two days later I saw a similar tanker outside a different subway, but it was filled with milk, which virtually disappeared from stores in October. Another day, a friend and I noticed a line in the shadow of a truck (it was 3:30 PM and pitch dark) on my corner. That time the catch was buckwheat kasha, another of the now rare staples of Russian cooking. Our destination forgotten, we stood on line for a half hour in -15 centigrade and he bought an entire hundred-pound bag, which he distributed among friends.

Despite the disintegrated economy, or perhaps because of it, a mood of “feast in time of famine” has come to prevail in Moscow this winter. TV game shows (based on Wheel of Fortune and The Dating Game) offer big prizes like cars and exotic holidays. Splashy art openings, charity auctions, balls, and banquets take place every week, many of them broadcast on television or reported on the evening news. In view of dwindling government subsidies, people involved in the arts are forging a new alliance with the growing, would-be bourgeoisie, and so now social and cultural events are often judged by the degree to which they succeed in simulating a society of leisure and ease. New joint ventures and banks sponsor theater, ballet, and galleries where the most meaningful art is the still life of tables groaning with caviar, smoked fish, vodka, and wine.

A combined “Charity Ball” and launching of a new journal in November (still unpublished in February), to be called Dar (“Gift”), was typical of of these new aspirations. The lavish event took place in the Union House, the eighteenth-century building near Red Square that once housed the Assembly of Nobles; tickets cost 100 rubles each, but no one I talked to knew what charity they were supporting. The sponsors sought to evoke the opulent traditions of great pre-Revolutionary Russian patrons like Tretiakov and Morozov. The result, however, was more like a kitsch review of Russian culture. At prearranged intervals pages in white wigs and stockings would appear in the main hall and strike gongs to announce the ballroom dances. Professional actors in late eighteenth- and early nineteeth-century costumes mingled with the amateur public, dancing the mazurka in the Hall of Columns, where the funerals of Stalin and his successors were once held. Others, dressed as Hussars with swords and mustaches, lounged at tables playing cards under copies of famous Socialist Realist paintings like Isaak Brodsky’s Lenin at Smolny.

A stage show included performances by Russian folk singers in native dress, a military marching band in nineteenth-century uniform, a gypsy ensemble, and Brighton Beach–style crooners. A corps de ballet performed excerpts from the Nutcracker Suite. The journal’s contribution to the affair was an “homage” to the creative intelligentsia and the arts in the form of exhibitions of painting, fashion, and photography, and a literary “salon” that conducted a round-table discussion on the traumas of the current cultural situation. Regular guests crowded the buffet, lining up to buy champagne, coffee, and the plentiful if somewhat sorry sandwiches on sale; reserved banquet halls tucked into back rooms and corridors served more elaborate fare to a wealthier clientele.

Not every social event seeks to emulate pre-Revolutionary merchant culture, however. Just before the New Year, a group of St. Petersburg–based companies rented the entire Space Pavilion of the Exhibition of the Achievements of the People’s Economy, a kind of Stalinist theme park, and spent a reported one million rubles to put on a “Gagarin Discotheque.” A popular disc jockey was brought from the Baltics, a former Soviet astronaut was guest of honor, and a contingent of Petersburg bohemia descended on Moscow for the event. A special room for “VIP” guests (invitations only, in the Studio 54 tradition) offered an exhibition of fabric paintings by the Petersburg avant-gardist Timur Novikov, as well as booze and snacks at outrageous black market prices. Tickets cost five US dollars, and people came to dance and enjoy themselves. Electric heaters encircled the makeshift dance floor, but some people still danced in their coats. A professional light show provided dramatic lighting for the cavernous pavilion, with its suspended sputniks and real Apollo-Soyuz space ship. Here there were no speeches about culture in these troubled times. The only nostalgia, if it can be called that, was an ironic nod to the cultural heritage of the Khrushchev era. The rockets, UFOs, hammers, sickles, and other emblems of bygone Soviet power built into the imperial architecture were repeated in bright laser images that skidded wildly across the vast hangar in time to the music.

Living in Moscow now is like being set adrift in the shortwave ether with all the world’s radio stations jabbering at you simultaneously. Occasional snatches of talk come through clearly, but the meaning of things is inevitably lost in the static and muddle of languages. Often the result, as the Russian expression goes, is “kasha on the brain.” The well-known economist Nikolai Shmelyov wrote recently that “neither the current social crisis, nor its main component—the economic crisis—can be described and explained in purely economic categories.” Economics, like politics, it seems quite evident in Moscow, is as much a psychosocial category as anything else. This kasha of ideas, aspirations, and practices—culled from seventy-four painful years of Soviet history, popular legends about the country’s pre-Revolutionary past, and fleeting contacts with a real or imagined West—will inevitably leave its imprint on the reform of Russian society.

  • Email
  • Print