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The Way They Live Now

Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia

by David Remnick
Random House, 398 pp., $25.95

St. Petersburg, 1997. My mother (eighty-one years old) travels all the way across town to pick up her orphaned grandson’s social security payment: you can only receive the payment in person and only on a certain day of the month. She is greeted by a sign: “No money.” “And when will there be?” “Drop by and you’ll find out.” She goes back into the metro where a voice over the PA system entices her with the prospect of a vacation in the United Arab Emirates. She rides the metro for free: she’s retired. On the other hand, she hasn’t gotten her pension in two months. A friend of hers doesn’t get her salary. But this friend rented her apartment to an Englishman for $100 a month.

True, the Englishman broke the toilet, made $60 worth of telephone calls to London, and tried to leave without paying: supposedly he only had one large bill and the banks were closed so he couldn’t get change. But my mother’s friend won out, she was physically stronger: a healthy fifty-year-old woman. And she runs fast: not long ago she managed to run away from a ticket inspector on the bus. The problem is that she had a face lift ($500) and now the ticket inspectors don’t believe she’s fifty-five and eligible for a pensioner’s card (hers is in fact fake) which allows her to travel for free.

True, these ticket inspectors are often fake themselves: they counterfeit ticket inspectors’ ID cards, but are actually regular citizens, con artists who make a living by fining other con artists. Still, running away from them along the ice- and snow-covered streets isn’t easy, so on leaving the house, my mother’s friend puts on heavy dark glasses and an old lady’s hat, she hunches over and gets into her act. I watch her out the window and notice that there isn’t a single balcony left on the building across the street which used to be so beautiful. Instead there are yawning patches of bare brick. What’s going on? “Very simple,” I’m told. “Not long ago a balcony fell off a building in Petersburg and killed a passerby. The municipal authorities have no money for repairs, so they ordered all the existing balconies to be torn down….”

In the newspapers they write that one of the city bosses stole a million dollars from the municipal treasury and renovated his own apartment, but he can’t be arrested because he has parliamentary immunity; they write that Petersburg is counting on becoming the site of the next Olympic games (it won’t); that a particular firm is offering the services of sorcerers who “will erase the previous inhabitants of your apartment from your memory.” With irritable curiosity they await the arrival of the heir to the Russian throne, that fat child from France, with his fat mother and fat grandmother. The Tsar, they say, will live in his own house (without balconies?), paid for by our democratic government. (They must not have called in the sorcerers, for the memory of the monarchy hasn’t quite been erased.) All this is St. Petersburg, the former capital of the empire, the divorced wife…. But even here there are signs of the new, a kind of liveliness in business: an aide proudly tells a new young doctor come to work in the hospital: “And here’s our prestigious ward: all directors of companies, businessmen with bullet wounds….”

Petersburg is poor, Moscow is richer. Anyone who hasn’t been in Moscow for the last five years wouldn’t recognize the center: it’s clean, the store windows sparkle, and although the prices seem inaccessible, the shops and restaurants are full. In the metro at night—by my own observation—90 percent of the women are wearing expensive furs. There’s a woman in a simpler coat who sings ballads in a good operatic voice: alms fly into her box. Mayor Luzhkov, who everyone thinks is a crook and yet everyone loves, is fixing up the city, according to his own taste. The new architecture is eclectic: a mix of 1910s moderne with huge spacious windows and forged gates, and on the roofs, fairy-tale towers top almost all of the rebuilt buildings.

No concrete utilitarianism here—just the dreams and fantasies of people who made their fortune yesterday and haven’t read anything but children’s books. All in all—it’s pretty. Snobs don’t like the new buildings, but Moscow was so thoroughly destroyed by pompous Stalinist architecture, then by the desolate boxes of the 1960s and dead, barnlike factories wedged into its very heart, that it has long since lost any style, and these new fantastic creations cannot ruin it. The only thing that can is the rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Savior—a hideous, huge remake, with an abnormally large “head” which makes it seem rather short-legged. The cupola can be seen from afar, and it’s rather frightening, as if King Kong had suddenly appeared above the rooftops. A quarter of a billion dollars was reportedly spent on it, and the protests of those who feel sorry for Moscow and begrudge the money are already pointless. The Cathedral is considered a “symbol” and it is indeed: of senseless luxury in the midst of poverty, of despotism, of vainglory, of anti-democracy.

In his new book, David Remnick continues the themes of his previous book, Lenin’s Tomb, but his task is more narrowly defined: if in the first book he was dealing with the Soviet Union on the eve of its disintegration, then in the new book Remnick’s theme is Russia, collecting herself among the ruins, stealing, hoping, losing hope, and yet trying to figure out just who she is and where, therefore, she should go. The task is narrower, but no less difficult, because Russia has not managed to deal with any of the questions that faced the USSR, but new ones have already arisen.

As in his previous book, Remnick interviews a lot of different people: Gorbachev, Solzhenitsyn, Yeltsin’s entourage, businessmen, journalists, simple people. They all have different pictures of the new world, which they try to describe to him with varying degrees of conscientiousness. Many have not yet fully formed their vision of this world, or when they have, it’s unrelated to reality.

This is hardly surprising: reality itself is changing with fantastic speed and no single person can encompass it. The motley spectrum of opinions—usually strongly colored with emotions, expressively formulated, cynical, disillusioned, mad, idealistic—creates a lively account, and since Remnick is an extraordinarily good writer with a vivid sense of the comic and a wonderful dramatic sense, this book, even more than the first, reads like an entertaining novel in the spirit of Gogol.

How can one fail to think of Gogol, when the characters of contemporary history appear to have come straight from the pages of his books? Describing the 1991 meeting at Belovezhsky Pushche, in Belarus (which Kravchuk and Shushkevich attended as “presidents” of Ukraine and Belarus, and where Yeltsin autocratically decided the fate of the Soviet Union), Remnick quotes a participant:

Yeltsin was so drunk he fell out of his chair just at the moment that Shushkevich opened the door and let in Burbulis, Kozyrev and the others. Everyone began to come into the room and found this spectacular scene of Shushkevich and Kravchuk dragging this enormous body to the couch…. Yeltsin’s chair stayed empty. Finally, Kravchuk took his chair and assumed the responsibility of chairman.

In his memoirs The Struggle for Russia, Yeltsin described it this way: “I well remember how a sensation of freedom and lightness suddenly came over me…,” etc. Anyone who has ever gotten drunk will recognize this sudden feeling of lightness and freedom—it usually sets in after about the second shot of vodka, after which, if you continue drinking, you may start breaking dishes, furniture, whole countries if you are given the chance. Smart drinking companions (friends don’t let friends drink and…) could have stopped him,but Yeltsin’s weren’t smart enough. “To get a sense of how improvised this period of history was, to understand the lack of sophistication involved,” Remnick writes,

one need only know that on the night before he left Moscow for Minsk, Kozyrev [then Minister of Foreign Affairs] went to the Savoy Hotel not far from the KGB headquarters and met with an old friend, Allan Weinstein, head of the Washington-based Democracy Project and the author of a book on the Alger Hiss case.

Allan,” Kozyrev said, “what is the difference between a commonwealth, a federation, and an association?”

This entire get-together took place, as planned, outside Minsk, since the participants were afraid that Gorbachev, who didn’t want the country to fall apart, would interfere in some way and start something (just like teenagers get together to drink out of town at the country house since the city apartment is occupied by a strict father who won’t allow it).

At the same time that this boisterous party of ambitious ignoramuses was deciding on their own how to divide up the country, another group, Remnick tells us, was meeting in a dacha outside Moscow (they weren’t afraid of Gorby). This was a group of so-called “vori v zakonye” or thieves-in-law, the biggest mafiosi, heads of organized crime who had controlled numerous markets—from airports to cigarettes—for decades. (NB: the translation of this term is literally correct, but somewhat confusing. The term refers to a self-appointed category of criminals who have sworn to break forever with society and to live by special criminal “laws” or vows, which are particularly cruel, barbaric, and merciless; by no means every thief or mafioso attains the status of a “thief-in-law.”)

The mafiosi got together in order to discuss a serious problem: how to run the shadow economy in the new situation, when the country was threatened by changing borders and thus a concomitant redistribution of markets. Remnick doesn’t have much information about this meeting, which isn’t surprising, given the nature of the group. He only gives one figure—$60 billion, which by some accounts was the income of the shadow economy for 1991 alone. However, despite the absence of detail, it’s hard for me to imagine that these gangsters, before their meeting, made hasty inquiries of informed friends: “What is the difference between wholesale and retail prices?” or “What is cash?” It’s also hard to imagine that these criminals, people both practical and professional, would have acted like Yeltsin and given Kravchuk not just the whole Ukraine, but the entire Crimea—in fact all of southern Russian together with the Black Sea fleet and the Black Sea itself.

This territory—the Crimea—has no relationship to Ukraine. Russia won it at war in the eighteenth century, and Khrushchev illegally transferred it to Ukraine in 1955, as Vladimir Lukin, a historian, member of parliament, and former Russian ambassador to Washington, once confirmed to me in a conversation. The signing of the agreement on the transfer took place before the then Supreme Soviet voted its formal agreement, which violated even “despised” Soviet laws. There was an attempt to discuss this with Yeltsin, but he didn’t want to hold things up; he was in a hurry to spite Gorbachev.

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