Our Man In Moscow



Slava Glazychev



The Bear has gotten old


DATELINE: September 11, 1998 -- I am extremely satisfied that my prognostics proved false. The old bear is like Akeela the Wolf from Kipling’s Jungle Book. Yeltsin succumbed to pressure from the cautious inner circle, sacrificed brutish Chernomyrdin for an armistice with the Parliament and pushed forward a silent old-timer - Primakov, a clever man. You know that from the media, we know it from the ruble/dollar relation (the dollar lost 10% again, although the prices stand still). But the world does not know that Russia was on the very verge of severe turbulence - because the federal government does not possess either authority or strength, that one needs to risk the state of emergency. Slowly but steadily we are heading to a kind of confederation as the provincial governors strive for bigger autonomy, or rather they are pushed to it by necessity.

People in the street look relieved - in the provinces too few understand what is going on, but the number of suicides still is extremely high. Mostly these are old people who have no children who could add to their minuscule pension. In Orenburg -- where a colleague of mine has just returned from -- parents give away everything so that their 18-year-old boys can start studying at the local university. First, to take them away from the street; second - to save them from the army which is considered to be no better that prison. There are no vacancies and unemployment which is masked in part by the practice of so-called enforced vacation (without payment) is dramatically high.

Life is going on. People in the street are still neatly clad, they wear new shoes, they are greedily grasping newspapers in the morning, taking the 50% rise in prices for granted. The subway is 50% more expensive as well - happily for the emeritus they can still use the communication system of Moscow free of charge.

The magazine of ours is in a delicate position as many other small enterprises, and we are forced to stop its printed version for several months, concentrating all our efforts on the online zine http://www.russ.ru/journal/english.html. My friends the architects feel resigned - no new investments, and a lot of projects have halted as well, as anywhere around the globe this business is the first to feel recession. Pop stars and starlets have halted their yelling too - not for long, I think. In times of crisis people would always find money for relaxation. Theaters are as always - the best ones are full, and still not a single theater has closed.

There was a dramatic topic on TV this morning - in a Siberian town where every factory stands still there was a sure way to get small money and lunch in exchange for 300 cubic centimeters of blood, but the local blood bank got short of funds.

Academicians who got used to having only symbolic salaries are alive and sound, and are busy organizing symposia and discussions - in fact I've just received an invitation for such a meeting that is to be dedicated to the megapolises in the 21 Century. Galleries are feverishly opening one exposition after another. My compatriots behave as if they did not pay attention to the daily hardships of life: a lady who works at my university yesterday said with a smile that from now on she will wear jeans and home-knitted sweaters because she is not sure she could afford stockings any more - with a mild smile.

Poets are coming together again, although most of them have had to resign from Marlboros and Camels and have had to start smoking terrible native stuff. They are reading poems mostly to each other, as we’ve progressed Russia to the average global trend at last.

Some good news: watermelons are cheaper to-day.

Bad news: graphic designers have few commissions.

Just ordinary news: at the National Library, an old friend who is a deputy director told me today that he can avoid cutting down on personnel because many of the lower staff are pushed to resigning by the very fact that it is too expensive to come to work from remote environs.

People hope that pensions and salaries will grow - the majority still can not understand this simple and brutal truth, that that will mean emission and that the ruble will come down again…

The Russian Internet is hot. There is a special site for anecdotes - the Russian tradition that nearly had died out with the end of Communist times, lately produced a number of comic stories about the New Russians. Today there was a new one:

A guy asks the telephone: Is this a bank? - Is it Michael?

- Yes.

- Well, old man, how are you?

- Fine.

- Sorry, I’ve dialed a wrong number.

A group of dedicated Kamikaze asks volunteers to enter the Freedom Party - the moment they will have 1000 signatures, they will register. Another group is promoting the Russian Capitalist Party, with a transparent allusion to the historical abbreviation RCP, which meant Russian Communist Party. Both groups are desperately trying to stir up liberal mentality. I am sure they will get their 1000. Will they get more?

People are buying flowers. Not so much those roses from the Netherlands that cost no less than $5 a piece, but charming astras from the city environs. Affordable.

Publishers are not at all sure they will survive winter. But people are buying books. Good books too.


Slava Glazychev can be reached at glaz@russ.ru