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.
Previously, the criminals controlled the country, distributing their influence according to region, ethnic group, and economic sectors; now they were faced with the complex task of coordinating all these factors and working in changed circumstances. Actually, this is precisely what Yeltsin and his “colleagues” were supposed to do, but it’s one thing to wave to a thrilled crowd from atop a tank, and another to think.
In the end, everything the politicians did turned out badly; everything the criminals did turned out just fine. True, the mafia bosses have killed off a few of their colleagues since then, but haven’t the politicians had their political deaths? (Neither Kravchuk nor Shushkevich is president any longer, and there’s hardly anyone left from Yeltsin’s entourage either.) All in all, one can’t help thinking that it might have been better if in 1991 the politicians and criminals had united forces and not wasted time fighting each other. After all, they have become indistinguishable. Our politicians are completely corrupt, and the criminals have the real power anyway…. “There is no border between the legal and the illegal,” Mikhail Leontiev, economics correspondent of the newspaper Sevodnya, told Remnick.
In a general sense, no one in Russia today is honest. The laws contradict each other, as Remnick shows, and if they didn’t contradict each other they’d be impossible to enforce. How is one supposed to pay taxes if one isn’t paid a salary? Why pay for the bus or subway to get to work if it costs $30 a month and your salary (which you don’t receive) is $60 a month? The law forbids (even now!) possession of foreign currency, but there are official exchange booths on every corner. And who makes the laws? The Parliament? We know how they vote, we’ve seen it on television: one deputy votes simultaneously for five, reaching out with hands, elbows, and nose to hit all the accessible buttons. He votes “for his comrades who asked him.” After indignant protests from the public it was stopped—no, not the practice, they just stopped showing it on television. Taxes hold at a figure of about 90 percent, but sometimes they exceed income. Everyone understands that this is ridiculous, but nothing changes. At the same time, according to the press, the tithe that racketeers collect from businessmen is about 25 to 30 percent. So who is the thief here?
Remnick is a satirist of Gogolian persuasion: he combines the grotesque with the lyrical, and this works particularly well when he describes two men for whom he apparently has a certain weakness: Solzhenitsyn and Gorbachev. These two extremely dissimilar figures do, in fact, have something in common: grandiose achievements in the past that remain unappreciated; a tendency to a global—if mistaken—view of things; a tendency to pontificate; a certain naive view of the frightful tangle of Russian problems; and an overbearing self-assurance, which has ruined both of them. Not least of all, they have both been personally lucky: by all the rules of the game, each in his own way should have perished, but neither did, and therefore they are not tragic figures (unlike Sakharov, for instance); each lives well, is successful, and is trying to express his own truth, which no one wants to hear. Both of them missed their opportunity to play a big role in the life of Russia: they waited too long, sat it out, their timing was off.
I only half agree with Remnick: of the two, I sympathize only with Gorbachev, a man whose achievements, in my view, are enormous, and whose potential as a politician has not been exhausted. As far as Solzhenitsyn is concerned, though his life and work are themselves an immense subject, I am primarily amazed and disappointed by his lack of humility and by his limitations as a writer. To spend eighteen years in the depths of Vermont to write The Red Wheel, a huge, boring novel that tries to explain the reasons for the Russian Revolution—and this is at the end of the twentieth century when the world has moved so far away from 1917! When the literature of the twentieth century (even his own Ivan Denisovich) has proved that a vivid statement of two to five pages or less can be worth an enormous, heavy tome!
Real life, as we can see from Remnick’s account, has passed this obsessive man by, and he has passed life by: to spend eighteen years in America and not even be curious about what happens outside the walls of your voluntary prison! (Although it does seem that he went to the store occasionally: somewhere he recommends getting rid of the colorful magazines set out in supermarkets near the cashier and replacing them with philosophical brochures “for workers.”) To see nothing in Western culture but “manure”! For a writer to remain hidden behinda fence! For a politician, teacher, prophet not to race to Russia during the most gripping moment of her history—in August 1991! (Here my store of exclamation marks is exhausted.) And his reward—they don’t even tell jokes about him. By Russian standards, that’s oblivion.
Gorbachev is another story. True, no one will vote for him—but I know a lot of people who said: “I won’t vote for him because I know he doesn’t have a chance, but I like him better than that vulgar drunk Boris. What can you do? Life teaches us to be realists!” I know people who, having spent their last rubles on a bottle of vodka for a holiday, will sit around a traditional Moscow kitchen, criticizing everything and everyone, complaining about their life, and then will say: “Now—let’s drink to Gorbachev!” And everyone present will drink to Gorbachev. I do too. Gorbachev—in our cynical time—has become the hero of jokes, almost a holy fool, a ridiculous clown, who despite everything, mumbles on about his own ideas, keeps on talking: you listen closely—maybe he’s speaking the truth, but the truth is too much for life, we just steal, brothers, steal! Gorbachev has become the hero of rock-folklore, his voice, phrasing, image is included in songs, because he seems nice, inoffensive, safe—valuable qualities in a harsh time of nightly murders and rampant crime. This is probably not how he would like to go down in history. But the gods laugh at people, fate hands out the wrong gifts, not always what we ask for. And yet, and yet….
One of the sad things about political games is the word play, the volleyball of concepts whose meaning seems real to the players. “Imperialism,” “nationalism,” “democracy”…. In the Russian context such words seem particularly empty, just pretty candy wrappers. In politics “death” isn’t something one talks about, one doesn’t imagine real live people. It sounds lovely: “Let us turn our backs on imperialistic thinking. Let every country settle its own ethnic problems.” Everyone immediately applauds, smiles, and hands out the flowers. And the next morning they start shooting. No one will say the truth, for instance: “We decided the following…. We’re sick and tired of you, and, as Solzhenitsyn writes, you should be cut off definitively, with no turning back. Tomorrow morning your neighbors—who are just as unpleasant as you are—will start killing you, stabbing pregnant women, throwing children out windows, setting homes on fire. And you will do the same. It’s not our affair any more. Yesterday we thought of you as ‘one of us,’ we drove you to poverty, humiliated you, exported all your goods, dried up all your lakes, and defiled your land. Today we were told that this wasn’t nice. So starting tomorrow we aren’t responsible for you.”
This is basically what has happened, and if we know from Remnick and others more than we care to about the horrors of the war in Chechnya (because it took place “in Russia”), we hear much less about the carnage in Tajikistan, where one half the population is taking care of its “ethnic” problems by systematically slaughtering the other half; we hear almost nothing of the mutual butchery of Georgians and Abkhazians, or of the complete lack of human rights in Turkmenia or Uzbekistan—it’s someone else’s head, so it doesn’t ache as much. And to me it seems the height of hypocrisy that the Russian government is condemned (rightly) for the war in Chechnya, but no one holds it accountable for the wars and blood being spilled outside Russia’s borders, on the territory of the former Soviet Union. After all, there are all kinds of ways to kill people—not only by bombing the city of Grozny.
When we are told that we should “rid ourselves of imperialistic thinking” as fast as possible, what is really being proposed is that we relieve our conscience of responsibility for the tens of thousands of deaths that have been a direct consequence of the meeting near Minsk. Not everyone can manage such an easygoing attitude. The widespread nostalgia of the Russian population is hardly surprising. Many are amazed at the number of people voting for Communists, the enduring love for symbols and signs of the past. Thus, for instance, after the popular wave of returning the old, pre-Revolutionary names to Russian cities and towns, we now witness the reverse process: recently I found out that the city of Kirov (named after the Communist leader murdered by Stalin in 1934) voted against returning to its old name “Viatka.” Ninety-eight percent of the population wanted to retain “Kirov”! Those who are surprised by this ask: “Do you really want the return of communism: prisons, torture, arrests, hunger, the Iron Curtain?” The answer is: “No, we want communism: i.e., cheap food, unrestricted passage through the country, peaceful towns, and on the streets, girls in summer dresses and not people armed with Kalashnikovs.”
The truth is that communism was both of these things, and some people saw only its dark side, while others, more simple, were content with the rosy side. When it’s dark ahead, you feel like turning back: memory obligingly illumines only the bright spots. When people nostalgically recall the peaceful, stagnant 1970s, flourishing Georgia, safe Tajikistan, when they prefer this and people tell them that they are imperialists—what should they think?… I myself, a person who hardly harbors any sympathy for communism, also enjoy recalling 1980, when I worked in a publishing house and the current president of Abkhazia, Ardzinba, published a book with us and the only person he was afraid of was an editor named Natasha—a fierce woman who made him rewrite his footnotes three times. Back then his hands were covered in ink, and now they’re covered in Georgian blood, and he is called a nationalist, and what am I, an imperialist? Does it really matter? Let’s drink to Gorbachev, but not to Solzhenitsyn.
Recently Americans have not shown much interest in what is going on in Russia. The press reflects—or perhaps initiates?—this oblivion. David Remnick, a wonderful connoisseur of Russian reality and a tireless traveler of her political labyrinths, recognizes the danger in this attitude and in his new book warns again the indifference that has gripped the American press and American society: “This is a serious mistake, for the process of creating a new country—a country that will undoubtedly reassert itself in every sense in the twenty-first century—is at least as interesting, as essential, as the process of erosion and collapse.”
Let’s hope that his appeal will be heard.
—Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell
April 24, 1997