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…

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