The Taiga Home Companion: Letters Home from Moscow, 1993

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Part 8: Puddles of Soy Sauce

May 18, 1993

The death(?) of the Moscow Guardian

Well, it was fun while it lasted. After hearing a few rumors here and there, I learned officially at the staff meeting on April 26 that the magazine had not made payroll in a few weeks and was not going to anytime soon. Various versions of why this had happened emerged. There were three possibilities:

1. The magazine had failed to attract enough advertisers and was going bankrupt.

2. There were enough ads in the magazine to pay for everything and everybody, but new laws governing dollar transactions had delayed the payment for ads and the distribution of payroll.

3. There was plenty of money on hand, but the top management at Commersant, the Guardian's parent company, had taken a dislike to the Guardian, its staff, and its cocky editor-in-chief and had decided for personal reasons to destroy the magazine and get those snotty American kids out of the building once and for all.

Which one of these scenarios is true (and they are all plausible) is not particularly important. What mattered to me the most was that it was suddenly very unlikely that the magazine would pay me the $125 + 10,975 rubles it owed me. In fact, since I had only been paid $10 thus far and was owed more than that just in reimbursements, it seemed that I would actually come out a net loser from the whole deal. And my plans to try to get more substantive work--shooting features and writing travel articles--were dashed.

After churning out three issues based on material already written and shot, the Guardian staff stopped work this last week. The last I heard, the publisher seemed ready to pay everyone what they were owed, and I may get my money after all. This could herald the beginning of a resurrected Guardian, or it could be that he just wants to be able to fire everybody without having them complain that they were owed money.

In any case, the Guardian does not look like a place for secure employment, since I can't even be guaranteed payment for work I do, much less be sure of work in the future. So I am out of a job.

Although part of the same corporation, the Commersant English edition, where I work on the weekends, is quite solvent and paid me last week. So I'm not quite starving. But the death, or at least coma, of the Guardian hit me very hard. I lost in one blow my motivation to explore the city, my chance to practice Russian, my free film, a third of my expected income, and my sexy status as a professional photojournalist. So I'm pretty bummed out.

Ian came up with a new job for me: in-house caterer to the firm of overpaid American consultants where he works. These are a group of young people receiving huge gobs of American taxpayers' money to help run the voucher auctions which will privatize Russia's industry. The poor lambs have been eating sandwiches from the same joint-venture deli for the past three weeks, and were eager to spend some of their per diems on more varied, healthful fare. So last week, using the kitchen of an apartment in the same building as the office, I cooked them three lunches. So far the project is still embyonic, but if we can routinize a system by which I know how many people will need lunch sufficiently in advance, it may actually work.

I don't know if I like the work. The advantages are 1. I eat free, and can use the others' hard currency to buy ingredients I haven't eaten in three months: celery, water chestnuts, pineapple, bean noodles. 2. I get paid $25 per meal, plus expenses (it costs them $9.25 per person), which is good money. 3. I can now pretend I'm Henry Chung or Escoffier rather than Robert Capa or John Reed. But it's a hell of a lot of work: planning menus, cooking things in advance, and, most of all, the heavy labor of scouring the city for groceries and then hauling them over long distances, especially since the office is a 15-minute walk from the nearest metro. Unlike the photography, which brought me into closer touch with Russia, the cooking pulls me away, into the enclave of hard-currency stores and a company of Westerners. This is not what I came to Russia to do.

St. Petersburg

Josh and I spent Friday, May 7 touring St. Petersburg, a city so lovely that I cannot believe it was every given the stolid name Leningrad. I was expecting to be reminded at every turn of the events of 1917: Lenin's arrival at the Finland station, the June fighting along Nevsky Prospect, the storming of the Winter Palace. But confronted with the gorgeously elaborate facades, the sparkling canals and river, the wealth of the Hermitage, the lush parks and cheap pastry, I felt myself more in Paris than in Petrograd. God, what a gorgeous town. Or could it be that anywhere would look good after Moscow?

News from the New Russia

But then the other day I happened to notice something new at the meat counter. The raw meat was sitting out in fatty slabs on the counter as usual, to get nice and warm and fly-bitten in the sunshine. But next to the counter there was something odd: one of the refrigerated cases was actually humming, and the glass was cool! What was inside this one working refrigerator in the store? Cookies, of course.

Yours on the potato line,

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