Our Man in Moscow
Wheel of Fortune
DATELINE: Moscow, September 8, 1998, 11.30 PM -- Living in Russia one gets used. Especially when one is already 58 which means getting used many times everywhere, and yet in Russia that was enough to:
- grow up fatherless (there were 4 fathers for a high school class of 30)
- remember queuing for long hours at dawn with a number drawn on my tiny hand - flour was "given" 3 pounds per person
- remember Stalins funeral and Berias famous amnesty when thousands of criminals were set loose in 1953
In 1992 we got it: all the savings turned to nothing overnight - that was a tragedy for the elderly, but I was rather lighthearted, as money was just laying in a drawer - there was not much to buy. Then came nearly two years of inflation about 25% per month. This was rough indeed, so I had to take only short-term contracts, and everyone knew that only the advance payment was real. And still this was not bad. First, we had hope, and second - we were sure that money would come in time. Third, things started to be sold due to private initiative, and traveling around Russia I came to the smallest town in Russia with but 1240 inhabitants I discovered that Snickers, beer from Holland and Nescafe could be found even there. Financial pyramids were growing and collapsing, and we were losing money all the time, because nobody could tell a pyramid from a decently looking bank or a trading company (my wife paid for a big cabinet -- furniture used to be twice as expensive as it was in Europe -- to discover that the company had disappeared into thin air two weeks later). And still we had our hope, and step by step every visual symbol of progress was there: the stock-exchange and the Banks, investors and construction, Internet and cellular phones, and the "New Russians" with their cars and manners.
Just four years, and people were getting used to small pleasures of everyday life. Yes, I knew that thousands were getting poorer every day, but I knew as well that five hundred among them were not so poor after all, earning money here and there. The shadow economy grew and a lot of people could get their small bit of a huge cake. Yes, I understood well that all that was a castle built on sand, and yet this sand seemed quite solid, as gas and oil and gold seemed so solid a foundation that even immense corruption could not devour all of that.
August 17 proved that it could.
We got so used to a situation when six Rubles were really equal to a Dollar that I nearly forgot the summer of 1991 when a couple of Bucks saved me from pangs of hunger when coming to Kaluga from that smallest township I discovered that all the Rubles I had with me were nothing but paper, as the Big Exchange came as a bang.
Two weeks ago the Ruble started its decline, but first it was slow, so that people at the supermarket-bazaar were not even cursing. They were calmly recalculating. A week ago the decline turned into an avalanche, and people rushed to buy. Friday, the 4th of September, disclosed a kind of panic - speechless, concentrated, very businesslike. People were buying toilet paper and Kleenex, tooth-paste and washing powder, cigarettes and what not. And the prices tripled! The same in stores, a lot of which were closed, because with no Government and no exchange course the companies did not understand what prices to write.
On Sunday coffee was not to be seen, washing powder disappeared, and on Tuesday my poor wife could nowhere find French hair dye (quite expensive it always was). Now they started buying out flour
Dollars are even more rare - Currency Exchange kiosks, that in Moscow number several thousand, are either only buying Dollars and DM or are shut, although a new rate is written: this day it was 19.50 R. per Dollar if sold to 20,5 R. per Dollar if bought. Nobody sells.
Who could expect that people would hold enough money to clean shelves? Those very people who are paid officially 60% of their more than modest wages at the State offices, and some were nor paid at all several months and longer. The remains of shadow economy in its past glory are still given away as fast as possible.
Nobody knows when the Government is in its place - I am positive that Mr. Yeltsin will not wait any more and introduce restricted Emergency State one of these days (I add a column in Russian for those interested, that I place at the Russian Journal zine I am writing for regularly http://www.russ.ru/journal/english.html ). Nobody knows where the Ruble/Dollar rate will stop next week.
The Subway is running, my Students come to the University, bread and butter and eggs are still sold, people are still buying flowers. Not many smiles. Life goes on.
Slava Glazychev can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org