“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….”)
So unstable and unpredictable is the current political situation that even the most informed Soviet citizens cannot fully grasp the implications of the extreme polarization now spreading through Soviet society. Just keeping track of events has become an almost inhuman task. Whatever the outcome (which we may not know for years, or perhaps all too soon), it often seems that something like the Gorbachev-Yeltsin dichotomy was fated to emerge, in one form or another, because it corresponds to, and in some sense even satisfies, the mentality of a people long accustomed to perceiving reality as a cosmic struggle of good and evil. Both sides have rushed to cast their opponent in the role of satanic enemy. Negotiation and reconciliation, even in the name of the greater national good, have been rendered inconceivable—how can you make a pact with the devil?
Russians encourage this way of conceiving political experience because they are inclined to see their own lives in the same light. It may be the only feeling of power available to a people so relentlessly disenfranchised and misinformed by governments over the course of centuries. Despite many genuine changes, recent history has done little to alter this inclination—it has merely shifted the focus. Before glasnost everyone knew the story line because it never changed, nothing seemed to happen. This was, after all, the period of “stagnation.” But news and information were in short supply. Reading between the lines of official pronouncements, as much a necessity of Soviet life as standing in line, gave birth to narrative invention—and was raised to the level of an art. Details were culled from whatever sources were available, including, at times, pure fantasy. Rumor and speculation substituted for invisible events.
Since glasnost, much more information is at hand (though there are still many blank spaces in the image of power), and there is certainly no shortage of events. But the plot has gone haywire. It has come to resemble a surrealist exercise where someone writes a paragraph or page without looking to see what has already been written. Irony is laid upon irony until things are so topsy-turvy that in an attack on Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev quotes Solzhenitsyn to justify his own political maneuvers. Now the body politic’s creative efforts are invested in trying to write a coherent script. No one knows anymore what the denouement will be—though almost everyone will tell you it won’t be good.
In Russia, nothing just happens: the story is always a plot. Deeply ingrained in the Russian world view is a kind of mythopoeic fatalism that reaches far beyond dismal prognoses regarding the current political upheaval. Seemingly trivial occurences are treated symbolically as augurs of disaster as a matter of course, and are incorporated into the ongoing word-of-mouth Russian epic. If you can’t find something in a store, it has disappeared completely; if a distant acquaintance of a distant acquaintance has problems with the bureaucracy, it means a policy has changed for the worse; if someone has trouble getting a visa, it means a crackdown by the authorities. The more dramatic and convoluted the explication of events the better, and the greater likelihood that they will be accepted as truth.
Tales of this sort are immediately passed on to friends and neighbors—they are modified, embellished, and supplied with commentary and dire predictions. For Russians there is, in a sense, no such thing as personal experience; the experience of the individual is inevitably seen as applying, negatively, to society as a whole. History has trained them to perceive life as a perpetual war zone: an unpredictable they controls events and can do anything; you are always on high alert in order to minimize your losses in this a priori lost battle. Society is conceived of as a communal apartment on a monumental scale.
Success, on the other hand (in acquiring some needed item or accomplishing a difficult task), is never a portent, never cause for common rejoicing. It is rationalized either as one of those lucky flukes a chaotic society occasionally produces, or as a result of sinister forces (connections, bribes, denunciation, intrigue) that have come together at everyone else’s expense. As such, success is generally greeted with jealous speculation on the moral qualities of the haplessly successful individual. In the summer of 1989, when the Supreme Soviet was discussing a law on cooperative enterprises, one provincial deputy spoke out in a nationally televised session to caution that there would be a backlash against liberal treatment of entrepreneurs: “The people don’t mind living badly,” he said, “they just don’t want anyone else to live better.”
The Artyom Tarasov affair is a case in point, and it illustrates that the Soviet government’s superstitious attitude toward language has remained unchanged since pre-Gorbachev days. Treated somewhat diffidently, at times even jocularly in the mainstream Western press, the Tarasov affair in fact has all the elements of an important political show trial. A successful cooperative entrepreneur and Party member, Tarasov first came to the attention of the Soviet public when he paid approximately 90,000 rubles in Party dues. (Party members contribute 3 percent of their income as Party membership dues, so Tarasov had made around 3 million rubles.) He was subsequently elected a deputy to the Russian Supreme Soviet, and has been a vocal advocate of radical economic reform.
In late January Tarasov publicly speculated that Gorbachev might be willing to sell the Kuril Islands to the Japanese for $200 billion. On February 2, in an interview published in the Moscow City Council–sponsored newspaper Kuranty, he stated that he was “even ready to conjecture that a secret protocol has been signed on the transfer of the islands to the Japanese.” Gorbachev reacted with outrage: Tarasov, it was officially announced, must apologize for slighting the honor and dignity of the President, a punishable crime (as established by presidential decree in May 1990) echoing the old charge of “slandering the Soviet state,” otherwise he would be prosecuted. Tarasov immediately attempted to apologize, stating that this was only his personal opinion, his political prognosis. But though he apologized twice on the liberal Radio Russia, the authorities would not allow his interview to be aired on television on February 4, claiming that it was not a “real apology.” Slanted stories about investigations into Tarasov’s allegedly illegal business dealings began appearing on the official news program. On February 6 the Russian general prosecutor petitioned the Russian parliament to revoke Tarasov’s parliamentary immunity as a prelude to initiating criminal proceedings against him. On February 8 the police searched his business and parliamentary offices (an act likewise sanctioned by a recent presidential decree). On February 20, his ex-wife’s apartment was broken into, but wads of cash lying around were not disturbed.
The affair is hard to grasp for a mind raised on American jurisprudence: What sort of crime is “slighting” or “offending” the “honor and dignity” of the President? What constitutes a slight? Is it libel? Certainly not by Western standards. And even if so, what was libelous about Tarasov’s statement? He did not accuse the President of any illegality, or even impropriety. Finally, even if you accept that a crime was committed, what is the legal status of an apology? The mystical power of the word is writ large over the whole affair: presidential words (the decree) make a crime of certain other words which the decree does not actually specify; and yet the “crime” can be undone by pronouncing the proper words (apologizing) which, since they, too, are not spelled out, remain a mystery to the apologetic criminal.
Despite all the word games, the stakes are very real. As an excellent article in the weekly newspaper Kommersant argued, what is really at issue is the future of the free press. Successfully prosecute Tarasov, and you effectively muzzle dissent and political analysis, without resort to the unpopular step of revoking the freedom of the press act (a tactic which Gorbachev tried and failed to fully bring off on January 16). You also send a strong message to legitimate Soviet entrepreneurs about the limitations of the move to a market economy. And it is Tarasov’s wealth and success as one of the “new Soviet entrepreneurs” that makes him a prime candidate for this experiment in indirect relegislation. He fits easily into popular prejudices and preconceptions regarding the cooperative movement and “capitalism.” His success condemns him by association in the affair of the presidential slight.
Life, alas, constantly fuels the Russian predilection for melodramatic readings of society’s modus operandi. Russians live in the psychological universe of an I or we that is always pitted against a victorious, capricious they. To some extent, of course, this is the legacy of a police state. A dense wall of distrust separates private or domestic from public life, and this wall is manifest in the use of language. Real communication, real conversation is saved for the private sphere, where it is savored all the more for the contrast it provides with public life. As garrulous, warm, and effusive as Russians are at home, they are extraordinarily quiet, or gruff and rude in public places. Their everyday dialogue with salespeople, asking directions, etc., seems strangely muted from an American point of view. There is precious little of the relaxed, low-key public banter that is so common in shops and cafés in Europe, the US, or the third world. What public exchanges do take place seem conducted in monosyllables, as if the object of each encounter were to reveal the minimum possible. Other than the speech necessary to agree on destination and price, cabbies and their fares will usually remain stonily silent. In trains, buses, or the metro people speak in low whispers when they converse at all. All heads will immediately turn to stare at the rare noisemakers—usually teen-agers, drunks, or foreigners.
Public small talk is often anxious, and can quickly turn acrimonious if not downright hostile. The longest exchanges are usually arguments—the pitch is high and strident as if the interlocutor were an assailant who must be quickly repulsed. And indeed, in lines for food, lines for consumer goods, lines for acquiring something from the bureaucracy, every other person is a potential rival. If he or she gets something, there may be none left for you. If any fellowship is formed among strangers (which does happen in stores and on lines), the collective bile is directed toward those seen as controlling the situation. Thus, if you are a salesperson in a shop, every customer is a potential enemy to be immediately repelled.
I remember going to a local shop fairly early one morning, hoping to find some milk, kefir, or perhaps cheese. I didn’t see any, but experience had taught me that the milk products were not always placed in the milk section. I asked cautiously, in an elaborately polite manner, whether there was any milk that day. The saleslady responded with a loud, angry tirade: Was I blind, couldn’t I see there was no milk? Taken aback, and still a bit groggy from sleep, I asked quietly, and equally politely, whether it was really necessary to scream at me. This produced an even louder and more vigorous assault: Why were we always asking, asking, what we saw was what we got….
In the Russian languge you seldom simply “buy” (kupit‘) something. Consumer goods (and in the last year most foodstuffs) are “obtained” through various machinations or “given out” at work or by ration cards. Behind the common expression dostat’ (obtain) lies a culture of desperate strategies for acquiring things that one seldom can get. The official press presented the recent monetary “reform” as a crucial battle in the war against the shadow economy. The independent press and most of the population, however, reacted cynically. Assessments of the reform’s economic effectiveness aside, the underground economy is the only half-way functioning economy at present. So very little is available in stores—and the problem extends beyond the immediate food crisis to almost any item you can imagine—that survival requires turning to the shadow economy.
This economy is not simply a black market with high prices but an ad hoc alternative distribution network (in a constant state of flux) based on graft, theft, corruption, and connections. Virtually every Soviet citizen is, by necessity, implicated in it. On one end are the high-roller mafiosi who smuggle arms or diamonds, or pack caviar in sardine tins for export, stowing the profits in Swiss banks. But also included is the salesman at the butcher shop who slices off a choice cut and sells it to special customers under the table, or brings it home to his family. So is the retired teacher who sells at the black-market rate a Panasonic cassette player her émigré son has given her, in order to supplement the pension that forces her to live in poverty. The shadow economy embraces a friend’s mother who bought me a box of Kellogg’s cornflakes on the black market for ten rubles. The cereal was packaged in Germany for the Russian market (the cheery nutritional information looked anomalous printed in Russian), and was probably part of recent German food aid to the Soviet Union. But it never made it to the stores where it was supposed to sell for 1.50 rubles a box.
The deficit culture produces unexpected consumer equations and surprising bedfellows. The most discussed shortage of 1989 was soap: bath soap and dishwashing and laundry detergent. While living in Moscow that summer I accidentally stumbled on a subsidiary of the soap shortage. After a month or so of daily Russian tea-drinking, my teeth began to look the worse for wear. That’s easy to fix, I thought. I’ll just get some baking soda to supplement my toothpaste. After many hours of searching in fifteen or twenty kinds of stores, I decided to ask for help from friends, but baking soda, it turned out, had perished in the consumer crossfire produced by the soap shortage. It is mildly abrasive, and rather effective at cutting through grease. It can do multiple service as toothpaste, heartburn remedy, dishwashing detergent, and sink and toilet cleaner. So it, too, disappeared. (I did finally find some Soviet-made baking soda in the Armand Hammer Trade Center, for fifteen American cents.)
Soviet citizens have become adept at reading the early warning signs that a consumer product will soon disappear. To give another, equally mundane, illustration, when I was in Moscow in the summer of 1988 I bought a lovely embroidered white cotton blanket cover and a set of six blue and white coffee cups with a picture of Moscow stamped on them. At home in New York, some of the cups broke. When I returned to the USSR in 1989 I wanted to replace them. I went back to the same store on Gorky Street. In 1988 it was overflowing with a variety of dishes and linens; in 1989 it had only two types of coffee cups (not the ones I wanted), and only one kind of blanket cover. On hearing this, several of my Russian friends rushed out to stock up on sheets and glasses, assuring me that they were clearly next on the disappearance list.
By February 1991 there were almost no dishes of any kind to be found in Moscow. Both quantitatively and qualitatively the situation had worsened to an inconceivable degree. The fabric and linen stores held only a few, desultory bolts of synthetic cloth. Nor was there much in the way of clothing on sale, even in the high-priced cooperatives. One friend reported that the shoe store near his house—which used to have a large assortment of hideous Soviet shoes—had had nothing but one size of galoshes on sale all winter. Artists running a Moscow gallery could not find any string in the stores to hang an exhibition. Pharmacies had no disinfectant (iodine, etc.) of any kind in stock.
Most important, of course, is the food crisis. While there is no famine—in Moscow at any rate—even staples like flour, potatoes, cereals, macaroni, and rice, not to mention meat, chicken, fish, or vegetables, of course, are extremely hard to come by. Farmers’ market prices are exorbitant and far beyond the reach of the majority of the population. Nonetheless, long lines of Soviet people now fill Moscow’s several hard-currency food shops, formerly the exclusive domain of foreigners.
Food stores (most stores, for that matter) now resemble conceptual art installations: cavernous spaces with row after row of absolutely empty shelves. Long lines of people wait their turn to buy the one or two foodstuffs on sale at the counter. One of the most striking shops is the Gastronom at Vosstanie Square in central Moscow. Located in one of Stalin’s seven “wedding-cake” buildings, it is a Socialist-Realist kitsch paradise like Moscow’s old metro stations. Crystal chandeliers in bronze fittings illuminate marble countertops and lustrous wood cabinets; ornately framed mirrors reflect richly patterned wall mosaics. Once a government store, the shop now carries a sign informing the public that since 1989 it has been “rented” out. On the two occasions I went inside, the only food being sold in this former showcase of Stalinist bounty was a sorry heap of dried-out potatoes, and smoked salmon for 90 rubles a kilo. The other items being offered included a few shapeless brown and beige sweaters at 250–350 rubles (about the average monthly salary), a fax machine for 25,000 rubles, and row upon row of colorful animal-shaped candles representing the signs of the zodiac. But most of the counters were empty.
Conversation falls into two overlapping categories nowadays: politics and shortages. As much mental energy is expended on trying to comprehend why there is so little of everything as is spent on speculation about the course of political events. Every visit to someone’s flat features lengthy discussions of what was “obtained” where, what was “being given” by whom, how high prices have risen, and heated conjecture on how the country came to this pass and who is to blame. The government-controlled television offers a daily diet of greedy speculators and sabotage. The independent press is filled with stories of racketeers, corruption, and inefficiency in all sectors of the economy. Most people, and much of the Moscow City Council, however, seem to feel that the sabotage is right-wing sabotage, designed to discredit the advocates of liberal democracy. People are convinced that the warehouses are packed, awaiting another presidential decree, perhaps, to fill the stores. But so far the government price hikes have failed to produce even a pacifying show of goods. Despite the abundance of theories, the shortages ultimately remain mystifying. “Just think how hard you have to work,” said an acquaintance, “to get to the point where a rich country like this simply has nothing in it.”
If in Moscow heart and mind are in perpetual high gear, fed by words and conversation, neglect batters the body into passive submission. The body is scorned by the Russian urban climate; it is offered little respite from hardship, few creature comforts. Outdoors, space is vast and unwieldy: in the outlying districts of the city stores and other public amenities are far apart, and in winter one must negotiate icy, uneven paths to get anywhere. Indoors space is cramped and crowded: many people still live in communal apartments. The sensual pleasures favored by tourists and romantic idlers—cafés and cuisine, among them—are either unavailable, or at the very least, extremely difficult to come by. What cafés there are often have no seats: after waiting their turn on a long line customers huddle round waist-high tables and intently consume whatever they are lucky enough to find. Restaurants, on the other hand, are major events for most Russians, places of ritual and restricted access (reservations must be made weeks in advance, or else you have to have connections). They are not sites of intimacy and relaxation, but of communal, drink-driven reveries of prosperity. “There are fewer and fewer materialistic bourgeois distractions here,” a writer friend of mine remarked with characteristic Russian irony. “Everything is designed to make you think of your mortal soul, of the lofty future that awaits us.”
Russians, as has often been pointed out, are remarkably patient and well acquainted with suffering. Yet more and more one hears them asking just how much they can take. The only thing in ample supply is words—there is plenty of food for thought. There are more newspapers, some excellent, with a greater diversity of opinion than ever; new journals are started every day; cooperatives are printing thousands of new books in huge editions; in bookstores works by Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky, and Trotsky lie readily available, a few shelves away from Marx and Lenin. Words from all sides—decrees, referendums, appeals, and protests—are engaged in a passionate battle for the people’s allegiance. And the people have their own language, a skeptical, potent one, with which they are trying to make sense of the past, keep their bearings in the chaotic present, and learn what they need in order to change the future. It seems they are indeed living on their ideas alone, as the poet Dmitry Prigov once wrote.
May 16, 1991