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Russian Roulette

When I opened the newspaper on the morning of August 17, I saw the headline “Market Crashes.” I’m not an economist and understand nothing of the enigmatic world of money. For me, the word “market” means open-air stands where old ladies from villages near Moscow sell cheap freshly picked mushrooms, garlic, potatoes, and dill, and men from the Caucasus whose teeth are capped in gold for the beauty and prestige of it offer unbelievably expensive peaches and a spicy sauce called adzhika—you taste a drop and flames leap out of your mouth. Reading the words “market crashes,” I imagined dilapidated wooden stands collapsing and velvety peaches rolling across wet asphalt in consort with escaping potatoes.

Nonetheless I stopped in my tracks. No serious newspaper ever covers such trivial events on the first page. I called a friend, an English businessman. “Simon,” I said, “they’re writing that the market has crashed. Can you explain what this means?” Simon explained the default of the Russian government in paying its debts so professionally and in such detail that I understood virtually nothing. “So what should I do?”

I’d get my money out of the bank, just in case,” said Simon.

I got back on the phone and called all my relatives and friends—people even more naive than I am with respect to financial matters, and ordered them to take their money out of the bank.

What do you mean?” they asked, clearly reluctant. “We just put it in there.”

No back talk! Simon says. Get your money out.”

Who is Simon?”

It doesn’t matter!” Simon actually saved several people from losing everything—I’m sure he’ll be rewarded in the next world. In the first two days of the crisis it was still possible to withdraw money from your account. We managed to do so. The only problem was what to do with it once we had it.

By the beginning of September, the crisis in Russia had already emptied pockets and store shelves. I dropped into see a girlfriend and found her small children dressed in tutus and eating black caviar as if it were porridge.

Have you all gone mad?” I asked.

Not at all,” my friend replied. “It’s just that all our regular clothes are dirty and you can’t get laundry detergent anywhere. And caviar is cheaper than anything else at the moment. I can’t afford cheese anymore, can I?”

And she was absolutely right. The strangeness of the situation was that Russian-produced delicacies had suddenly become “bargains.” Caviar didn’t get cheaper, of course, but it didn’t go up in price either, and psychologically it went down three or four times relative to the ruble-dollar exchange rate. All imported goods, on the other hand, tripled or quadrupled in price. The exchange rate of the dollar jumped up and down, but prices only went up, reaching mind-boggling heights: merchants included the cost of possible future losses in their prices, just in case one fine morning they woke up and the exchange rate, which had been somewhere between ten and eighteen rubles to the dollar, suddenly soared to fifty. There were rumors that this might happen. And why not? The central currency exchange closed several times without setting any rate, and stores simply slammed their doors in despair: the owners didn’t know what to think or do. Other shops kept their doors open, but signs next to appealing goods on the shelves read “Not for sale.”

Those lucky people who managed to get their last paycheck, or withdraw their money from the bank before it closed, ran back and forth between stores and exchange booths, trying to figure out what made more sense: Should they buy up reserves of salt, sugar, and flour to make it through the winter? Change rubles into dollars, go into hibernation and wait for better times? Or buy yet another television while it was still possible? But salt, flour, soap, and toilet paper had already been bought up by the poorest, most distrusting and enterprising part of the population. And if you changed all of your rubles into dollars, you could end up in the position of King Midas, who turned everything to gold and died of hunger: after all, the stores don’t accept dollars—the dollar is a fiction, a “theoretical unit.” Moreover, as soon as it was to your advantage to buy dollars, they were no longer on sale, the exchange booths were closed. They opened up only as soon as it was no longer advantageous. There was one point at which the dollar cost ten rubles one day, twenty the next, and then dropped back down to ten. In theory, you could have doubled your capital, but I don’t know a single soul who did. People were confused, and anyway they didn’t have the cash for such operations. But one can just imagine the killing made by the people who planned that dip in the exchange rate.

As for buying a television, or any other sort of expensive item, you had to do that before August 26. As it happened, that was the day I decided to buy myself a new vacuum cleaner. There was a kind of vague anxiety in the air, but I didn’t give it any thought. I went to the store and inspected the selection. There were as many vacuum cleaners as you could possibly want. Having discussed their relative merits with the salesperson, I decided to think about it a bit and went to another shop that sold dishes, furniture, and lamps. Everything was expensive and not really necessary. There weren’t many customers. Guards in dappled uniforms, carrying automatic weapons and cellular phones, stood by the doors. Suddenly, as though a breeze passed through the shop, the doors slammed. Worried faces peered out of the offices, bored cashiers suddenly hopped up from their seats and huddled together, whispering and glancing around. The manager ran through and shouted in a muffled voice “Close up!” The guards immediately chained the doors. What happened? Terrorists? But terrorists could hardly be out to capture electric teapots and Venetian glass chandeliers.

What’s going on?” I said, rushing up to a guard. He waved his hand and ran off, his army boots thumping. Two more people clattered by. A woman squealed quietly.

But what’s going on?!”

It’s crawling,” the manager shouted, running in the opposite direction.

Who, what’s crawling?”

The exchange rate.”

The customers all froze in their tracks, like pillars of salt. Then everyone had the same thought simultaneously. We all ran toward the doors: the people with the automatic machine guns let us out, and I ran to get my vacuum cleaner, knowing full well that it was too late. And sure enough: a small crowd was banging on the glass shop doors in vain. “Let us in!”

We’re on technical break!” came the obtuse answer from the same salesperson who just a half-hour earlier had been sweetly convincing me to buy a French vacuum cleaner assembled in Malaysia.

We know your breaks! Open up! You don’t have the right!” yelled someone in the crowd.

If you know so much then just shut up,” the sweet-talking salesman answered rudely. And he disappeared behind the dark glass.

Bastards!” people in the crowd muttered.

But what can they do? They aren’t the owners.”

Clinton owns the lot of you now!” a communistic-looking old man suddenly grumbled. “You’re all in his pocket!”

What does Clinton have to do with it?”

That’s what he has to do with it! International Zionism! Clinton and Soros decided to divide up the world. So he’s coming to Moscow to make sure they don’t steal everything without him.” Everyone ignored the old man, but he continued prophesying to our backs.

Damn, I didn’t buy a TV,” one woman laughed.

What’s there to watch, anyway? Just that old Chernomyrdin,” a man muttered. “I need to stock up on cigarettes.” That’s right! I ran to the cigarette stand and bought five packs—all that were left—at the old price. I dreaded to think what the new price would be. Then I ran to the next kiosk—it was already empty. I looked around: all down the long commercial street people were running up to the shop windows, looking in and trying to figure out whether the store was open for business and whether or not the prices had changed. The door of a cosmetics store opened and a woman struggled out—the huge box filled with French perfumes she was carrying began to fall apart. In a fabric store several saleswomen ran along the hanging swathes of silk and tulle, pointing at them with a roll of paper: this is imported, it’s no longer for sale. In the furniture store they roped off armchairs and beds, in effect turning the place into a museum where you could look but couldn’t touch. A huge, worried line formed for fake Italian macaroni in the food store (the pasta has a soapy, mother-of-pearl glint and much the same taste) and fake Uncle Ben’s rice (also, I think, made of soap, only very old, gray soap; normally Russians don’t eat it).

A white wedding limousine stood in the middle of the street with its doors wide open: a bouquet of flowers fluttered on the hood; inside it was empty. The car had obviously broken down, but it looked like the bride and groom, hearing on the radio that “it’s crawling,” had abandoned the car and rushed off—as they were, in veil and patent leather boots—to the nearest shop to buy up whatever they could get their hands on.

When the storm subsided and the seas receded, the pitiful ruins of the Russian economy stuck out on the bared sandbars as if after a shipwreck. The rare, domestically produced objects lay here and there like clumps of matted seaweed and empty crab shells: household soap, old-fashioned clothes, crooked furniture, cheap, smelly cigarettes. Suddenly something we all knew but rarely stopped to consider became painfully apparent: we produce virtually nothing. Over seven years of reform, Russia has not managed to manufacture any noticeable consumer goods. All the abundance to which we have become accustomed in recent years was imported: today it’s there, tomorrow it’s gone. Everything disappeared: screws, light bulbs, mops, door handles, chairs, pillows, shampoo, wallpaper, yeast, coffee, computers, blankets, and pencils; they disappeared only to return a bit later at inaccessible prices. But for how long? Amid the dirt and junk our national pearls shone proudly: Kristall vodka and caviar. There was nothing to do but buy a case of vodka and a mountain of caviar and sit down in front of the TV to watch the Chernomyrdin we’d been promised.

From the newspapers we knew that he was being promoted by Boris Berezovsky, the shadiest and supposedly most dangerous of the oligarchs. Berezovsky controls the ORT television channel, so this channel presented Chernomyrdin as a young, unblemished bride who had been out of view for a time, but who resurfaced to bring joy to all our hearts. Chernomyrdin alone, so the message went, knows how to save the country from the terrible crisis created by that stupid boy Sergei Kiriyenko and his band of malicious liberals. Chernomyrdin will feed, clothe, and warm us, he’ll take care of the elderly and the homeless, give striking miners their back pay. The miners had been on strike for a long time, blocking railways and causing huge losses to the sickly Russian economy. A huge delegation of the miners camped out in front of the White House, home to the government. They demanded money, demanded that unprofitable mines be reopened, demanded a change of government. They were supported by some of the Communists, Berezovsky’s absurdly named newspaper, The Independent, and his television station.

The miners have not received their salaries in over a year, but they aren’t the only ones. Their problems need to be solved, but they are the problems of the Russian economy as a whole. Many political analysts think that Berezovsky, who facilitated the collapse of this economy, used the miners’ strike to pressure Yeltsin and promote Chernomyrdin. He did this so that Chernomyrdin—a proponent of monetary expansion—would begin to print rubles (which could well have been advantageous to Berezovsky in his shadowy dealings), and wouldn’t allow the reform of the banking system that Kiriyenko was about to undertake. If Chernomyrdin became prime minister, and later president, how grateful he would be to Berezovsky.

This outline, this explanation of one part of the scenario of the Russian crisis, proposed by “liberal” analysts, may even be true. It is thought that three people basically control the reins of power in Russia: Yeltsin’s daughter Tatyana Dyachenko—a strong-willed woman who knows how to influence her father; Valentin Yumashev—the head of the presidential administration, the ghostwriter of Yeltsin’s “autobiography,” and the man who filters information and controls access to the Patient; and Berezovsky—a sort of late-twentieth-century Rasputin, who deftly pulls the puppet strings in his personal interest. Berezovsky is reported to have a large interest in Aeroflot, whose director is none other than Tatyana’s brother-in-law, and Berezovsky was, according to The New York Times, “one of Yeltsin’s major financial backers during the 1996 presidential elections.” His power is said in the press to derive in large part from such close financial relations with the Yeltsin family. Sic transit: if Rasputin-1917 held the health of the sick Tsarevich in his hands and thus could change ministers in the Tsar’s government as he fancied, Rasputin-1998 can only advise on the ruling family’s fortune. The contemporary magician seems for the moment just as invincible as his precursor, however. Poison and bullets were used against Rasputin—and he briefly survived them. Berezovsky was blown up; a chauffeur and a guard died, torn apart by a bomb, but Berezovsky himself emerged from the wreck slightly burned but intact.

So we sat down in front of the TV screen to watch the caring, wise Chernomyrdin, who was being thrust on us as prime minister with such insistence. The candidate was supposed to talk briefly, then answer telephone calls from viewers. He doesn’t know how to speak, but most important, there was nothing to say. He muttered something along the line of “situation is very complicated, but I’ll manage.” The phones started ringing. One man called and said in a calm, insulting tone of voice that we hardly need a prime minister who has already ruled for five years and thus is responsible for everything, including the present crisis, which wasn’t created by Kiriyenko, after all. “How do you explain all your monkey business?” he asked in conclusion.

Strangely enough, Chernomyrdin wasn’t prepared for this question: it seems no one reminded him that there are human beings living in our country and that they may have their own opinions. He paled, and then got mad and sort of sputtered. He didn’t answer the question. His eyes started popping out—at which point the moderator quickly went on to the next call. “What about the price of eggs?” an energetic old lady shrilled in a demanding voice to the whole country. “No, you tell me, why were eggs three rubles, and now they’re three twenty? Are they imported or something? You said that our Russian goods wouldn’t be going up! Well? What kind of nonsense is this, that’s what I want to know!”

This was the people’s genuine voice, the voice of an angry housewife who couldn’t have cared less about the significance of the moment. There’s a power vacuum in the country, Yeltsin’s comatose, the banks are paralyzed, the Communists are rattling sabres, drunken, hungry soldiers are stealing radioactive materials, the parliament is about to be dissolved, the president’s about to be impeached, the market collapsed, investors are fleeing in panic, newspapers are closing; there’s chaos in Indonesia, a crisis in Asia, Wall Street is about to crash… But what’s it to her? A strong, cantankerous breadwinner, long accustomed to standing in lines, to carrying home heavy bags, to counting every kopeck, screamed at this thieving bull with a mindless lust for power, not as an equal, but the way an enraged mama screams at the neighbor’s kid who breaks her window: Just wait till I get my hands on him!!! Chernomyrdin had the opportunity to say something human, at least to smile—to pretend that he is truly concerned about the simple needs of simple people. But he hadn’t recovered from the previous call. Suddenly he shouted menacingly straight into the camera, right at the whole country: “No, this is what I have to say! Monkey business! I have serious business, that’s what, not monkey business! That’s right!… Monkey business. That’s what I… Right!…” and he sputtered again.

And the price of eggs?” the moderator reminded him gently. Chernomyrdin’s cheek twitched, as if a fly had settled there and he wanted to shake it off.

The market,” he growled. “Everything’s going up, so they go up too.”

We ate up the national caviar reserves and stared in amazement at the farce unfolding before us. Of course we had seen and heard the candidate before, but that was when he was swathed in the lead apron of power and X-rays couldn’t penetrate him. Now, however, naked for all to see, he seemed a stupid, stubborn animal, blinded by a thirst for power and revenge. We—the country—looked on in horror: after all, he could become our next president! He didn’t even smile. He did nothing to hide his disgust for us. He was like those fourth-rate goods that suddenly became visible after August 26—ugly, useless, smelling bad, made by an indifferent, clumsy idiot. He himself was just such a piece of goods. And he was the one being forced on us with such persistence.

The parliament voted against Chernomyrdin twice, and Yeltsin—or what was left of him—was ready to nominate him a third time. Had the parliament voted against the president’s candidate a third time, it would automatically have been dissolved. A vote for impeachment would have been its last act; and by the way, we know that this demand would likely have been considered anticonstitutional. Yeltsin managed to write such a wonderful constitution that it would be almost impossible to impeach him as long as he’s alive. So the parliament was preparing for collective suicide. New elections would have been called, and for at least three months the country would have remained without even a semblance of government—not even a thoroughly corrupt one.

Hatred and disdain for all the authorities seemed to have reach a boiling point. What awaited us? They say that it was just at this moment that Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Yeltsin’s press secretary, known for his extraordinary facility in translating “from the presidential into Russian,” managed an audience with the president and convinced the Patient to relinquish Chernomyrdin. The Patient agreed to Evgeny Primakov, who was proposed by Grigory Yavlinsky. Enraged, Berezovsky and Tatyana fired Yastrzhembsky. The rest is known: Primakov became the prime minister, bringing in a moldy group of old apparatchiks: Gerashchenko, Maslyukov, and others…

My sister wanted to buy potato starch. Jars of caviar gazed at her from all the store shelves. Kristall vodka twinkled, reflecting the halogen rainbows of the ceiling lamps. There was no starch to be had. Finally, in a shop on the outskirts of Moscow, she caught sight of the sought-after packets and, buying up a supply for the winter, brought them triumphantly home. She opened one package. A strange gray substance, rather like pumice, greeted her inside the wrapping. She peered carefully at the label. “Packaged August 20, 1981. Expiration: Use within six months.”

Back to pre-market innocence?

October 22, 1998
Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell

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