The Taiga Home Companion: Letters Home from Moscow, 1993

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Part 1: Arrival

February 19, 1993

Welcome to the premier broadcast of The Taiga Home Companion, a worldwide service of Motherrussia Public Radio. The Taiga Home Companion is produced in Moscow and distributed via electronic mail to various points in Europe and North America. It is rebroadcast from Washington, D.C. via United States domestic mail; in other words, if this message came in an envelope instead of through a modem, it means my mother printed it out and photocopied it for you.

It's pretty clear that I'm not going to go down in history as the next great Western observer of Russia, like the Marquis de Custine or John Reed. I'm living in a tiny world of young expatriates here. I have met a couple of Russians, but only briefly, and I have no idea how to make further contact with them. For instance, there's this young woman student I met at a party (hosted by a graduate of St. Alban's and U. Penn) who lives near me. I'd like to see her again, just to ask her basic questions about Russia, but I don't know how. I can't do what I'd normally do in the states-- ask her out for a cup of coffee--since there are no cafes in our neighborhood. I certainly can't invite her to my apartment, since I don't know any of the Russian forms of entertaining. It's so much easier to deal with my fellow young Americans. I've been here for about eight days, and so far my experience of Russia has been largely confined to the supermarkets and the subway. But as far as one can learn a country's ways through groceries and public transportation, here goes. . .

Political Conditions

The whole dispute between Yeltsin and the parliament seemed more immediate in Washington than it does here. Major political events are here what they were in D.C.: something one reads about in the newspaper. But the English-language papers here, the Times and the Tribune, are much thinner than theWashington Post and the New York Times. Moreover, I haven't really acquired the habit of picking them up everyday--they are both free, but you have to hit one of the expat nodes, like a hard currency store--to find them. One sees a couple of hand-drawn political posters on the street every now and then (mostly on the theme of inflation) but for the most part I haven't a clue about the current state of the ongoing constitutional crisis.

What I can observe from my present perch is a country halfway through its long task of replacing all of its political iconography. Yes, they tore down the statues. A bare pedestal that once supported Dherzhinsky stands in front of the Lublianka prison, and others rise where Sverdlov and Kalinin once stood. Enough streets and metro stations have been renamed to get rid of Kalinin, Gorky, etc. to invalidate half ofthe available maps--kind of confusing. But mostly the job is half done. Lenin is still everywhere. His stony profile is on almost every ruble note, except the new 5000. Every metro station bears the inscription "in the name of V. I. Lenin." There are buildings named after him, and he peers down from paintings and mosaics everywhere. Along with old Vladimir Ilyich, the red star, the hammer & sickle, and the letters "CCCP" (SSSR = USSR) still make their presence felt, on official documents (including my visa), military uniforms (of which one sees a lot), and buildings. The Kremlin flies the Russian tricolor, but each of its towers is topped by a red star. I'd love to know what the Russians make of this, especially the army officers, but I have no idea.

Social Conditions

It is hard to describe the state of the economy, but here are a few typical food prices. The last time I changed money at the street rate, I got 640 rubles to the dollar.The current minimum wage is 3000 rubles a month. A loaf of bread, white or brown: R22-24 (3.5 - 4 cents) Fresh cucumbers, from somewhere south, or yellow raisins from Uzbekistan: 1400 rubles a kilogram ($1 a lb.) Dutch cheese, from the luxury section of a state supermarket: 1200 r a kilo. ($0.86 a lb.) Dutch cheese, at one of the dollar-only supermarkets: $11 a kilo. Meat, sold at a state supermarket, or,as you sometimes see it, simply in slabs on the street: about R2200 a kilo. Lunch at a rouble restaurant, including McDonald's: R1200-2000 ($2-3) Valentine's day champagne brunch at one of the downtown hotels: $50 a person.

The poor working stiff getting 3000 rubles a month is, one hopes, pooling it with family. He can probably buy all the bread and potatoes (around 3 cents a pound) he wants, but it's hard to know how he can afford anything else. And even these prices are going up steeply--under the USSR, bread was 50 kopeks (half a ruble). Meanwhile, the Western businessman can buy almost anything he wants at a restaurant of at any of the dozen or so dollar supermarkets, which stock Cap'n Crunch, fresh ginger, and beef from the McDonald's farm. And in between the two extremes are everyone else, in a continuous spectrum. The poor expat (that's me) and the rich Russian skip from here to there. Lunch at a restaurant that is beyond the dreams of most Muscovites, then dinner of spaghetti, vegetables, and bread at a cost of about 15 cents. With prices the way they are, it's verydifficult to know what a ruble's worth. Should I try to think in dollars or rubles? The answer is that I should probably try to think in both, and learn to treat myself to a limited number of meals out and trips to the hard-currency stores each week.

Another interesting index of inflation is the money itself. Paper money goes from 1-ruble to 5000-ruble denominations. Every now and then you see coins, but the only ones anyone cares about are the prized 15-kopek pieces, which are needed to make pay phone calls. When you consider that in the U.S. the ratio of value ofthe highest bill to the lowest is 100:1, the 5000:1 ratio here is impressive. On the other hand, until the U.S. got rid of the $500 bill a couple of decades ago, we did have a 50,000:1 ratio of the highest denomination unit to the lowest, which is what the current Russian R5000 - 10k ratio is.

The Expatriates

The Moscow Guardian is a full-color glossy 36-page weekly magazine, written in English by, for, and about young expats here. Its articles run the gamut from almost understanding Russia to closed-minded Ugly Americanism, making fun of Russian ways of life. It is bulked out by reviews of ruble restaurants and bars. Anyway, here's what it said about its readership last week: "Most expats in Moscow, beyond their projections of 'witnessing history,' buying oilfields or gathering 'experience,' are profoundly clueless as to why they're here today or where they're heading next week, let alone for the rest of their lives." This is probably fair. I've met about a dozen expats here, and the only common denominator is that they're young college grads. Some have real jobs, working for Western companies doing exciting work in the new Russia. Some are studying. Some are doing whatever it takes to make ends meet--teaching, working at the radio station, writing for the Guardian or the Moscow Times. Most were Slavic Studies majors or minors in college, and speak Russian a whole lot better than I do, which isn't saying much. It's a hard language, and even a Slavic Studies minor has some trouble.

I don't know if we have the credentials to claim "Lost Generation" status, but it might be worth a try. I haven't met anyone here who really likes Moscow, but none of us really wants to go home. There's a general feeling that once we eventually return we face 50 years of rat racing in a stagnant economy. We all see grad school ahead, and we're unhappy about it. (You may suspect that when I say "we," I really mean"I." But I don't; I mean "we.") What we like about Moscow is that one can live well on not too much money, especially if we conveniently forget how much our parents paid for our airline tickets and health insurance. It's a cold, cruel world, and we're in one of the colder, crueller parts of it. So we huddle together for warmth, having dinner, going to movies, and listening to the gorgeous American accents on CNN. I hope one of us gets a novel out of it. Speaking of novels, I don't want this letter to get to novel- length, so I'll sign off here.

Next week: Zach encounters the Russian tongue.

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