Johns Hopkins Magazine - September 1994 Issue


A Picture of Russia

Jeff Lilley, SAIS '91
Moscow correspondent, Far East Economic Review

Conversation in a Moscow restaurant. Two Russians, Viktor and Aleksandr, are sitting at a corner table, getting drunk on vodka shots. Two young Americans are eating dinner near them.

Viktor, his mind anesthetized by vodka, leers at the two clean-cut Americans, points down to his sleeve, and slowly turns up the cuff. He reaches across the table and turns up the cuff of American 1's shirtsleeve.

"Clean," he says in a clear voice, pointing to American 1's cuff. "Mine is dirty. I was born in this filth. I live in it. And I will die in it."

The tone of Viktor's words betrays no desire to change places.

When I called Aleksandra Dmitrievna, she didn't sound any better. After two weeks, bronchitis was still nagging her. So I bought a kilo of oranges and headed to her building. The elderly Russian woman, alone in the world for the past 30 years, had become a grandmother of sorts to me when I lived next door to her last year. The least I could do was to bring her some fresh fruit that she could ill afford on her ruble pension.

Foreigners living in Russia speak of the "heaviness" of the experience. Whether induced by the climate or Russia's difficult predicament, a weightiness presses against the head and sits heavily on the shoulders. Some foreigners say the weight lifts only when they leave the country. Reaching out to others also helps dissipate the weight. I think that's what I had in mind when I bought the oranges.

Over the past three years, Russia has flung its doors wide open. Foreigners who have come through her doors now bear the "weight" in noticeable ways: lawyers wrestle with changing legal codes, business people make deals, and aid workers try to channel assistance. For Russians and a good number of foreigners carving out a life in post-communist Russia, the modus vivendi is "Khochis zhits, umay vertyetsya." ("If you want to survive, you better learn to wheel and deal.")

As a freelance journalist working in Moscow since 1991, my share of "wheeling and dealing" has consisted of living in the local economy, renting an apartment in an all-Russian building, and traveling to previously closed regions. Russia has changed dramatically and is a budding journalist's cornucopia: from privatization to pornography, Mercedes-Benzs to the mafia, casinos to the callous face of poverty.

Good riddance to the Soviet Union and its mystery, hypocrisy, and stability. Hello to the orgy of freedom of expression, the chaos of decentralization run rampant, and a ruble that is worth fifty times less than its value in 1991.

During the "transition period," the people getting ahead are often the ones with contacts in the old system. Take Aleksei, a 31-year-old entrepreneur from Saratov on the Volga River. By virtue of his membership in the Communist Youth Organization in university, Aleksei, the son of factory workers, gained access to "risky" music, such as Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and bands such as KISS and UB40. As DJ in the university nightclub, among his schoolmates he enjoyed the status equivalent to the captain of a Big Ten football team. Aleksei covered his tracks by criticizingÄto the right people, of courseÄJackson's commercialism and KISS's depravity. Then he brazenly spun their records.

Aleksei knew the right steps when the new economic pulse started beating. He began by arranging rock concerts in the late 1980s and now owns successful real estate and stock brokerage companies in Saratov. In Russia's nascent, nasty capitalism, Aleksei scoffs at the idea of paying taxes to the Government. "They are too high," he says simply. Instead, he curries favor locally, where it matters most. "I make donations of gasoline to the militia and give sugar and cigarettes to the jail," he says.

Yet where Aleksei succeeds, small entrepreneurs struggle. They are buffeted by soaring inflation, bewitched by changing legislation, and bullied by local thugs demanding protection money. Too often, entrepreneurial efforts are draining and disheartening. "It's impossible to work honestly," says Lyuba Lee, who runs a bed and breakfast on Sakhalin Island in Russia's Far East.

The rocky political transformation reinforces a sense of resignation. Several hours after pro-Yeltsin forces blasted rebels out of the Russian parliament with a tank barrage, a drunk in the back streets of Moscow ridiculed Russia's situation. With the Russian Parliament Building smoldering in the background, he lurched from side to side, interspersing in his monologue a barrage of obscenities. "Why don't we just let the civilized world teach us how to live in normal society?" he suggested to passersby. "Just let them in, so we don't continue shooting each other. Our people woke up a long time ago, but we don't have a conscience."

In the dawn of the new Russia, Russians are trying to remake themselves. EnduringÄrelatively peacefullyÄcolossal upheaval, they appear as survivalists with a gritty resourcefulness, a gripping sense of fatalism, and a heavy penchant for drink.

To the outsider looking in, this vast experiment in social change is spellbinding. While the headlines herald crime and chaos, there are stories of appreciation and progress born out of the gut-wrenching change.

In uncommon ways, the world is richer with a Russia that has shaken its ideological funk and self-imposed isolation. Take Chris Brower of Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Last fall Brower became the first foreigner to play professional basketball in Russia. Fresh from the privileged existence of a scholarship athlete at Virginia Commonwealth University, Brower found himself in a St. Petersburg dormitory room with no phone, running water, or working TV. Instead of the monthly $1,500 he was promised, he received just 20,000 rubles, about $8 at the time. But the 22-year-old Brower saw opportunity in his new environment and mastered Russian quickly enough to read books on the Tsars and curse a blue stream on the basketball court. In the process, he became America's unofficial basketball ambassador to Russia. "He has no hang-ups," said his Russian basketball coach this spring. "And because he develops his language skills, he understands our life."

To try to make sense of Russia in 1994, to comprehend the weight of the transformation, I have increasingly realized the need to throw away knowledge as I learned it: to turn the page on predispositions and perceptions andÄas Brower didÄto take on the heaviness. Within the "heaviness," there is instruction and spirit.

A Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh uses the metaphor of water to talk about understanding. Knowledge is solid; it blocks understanding. Water can flow and penetrate. Or in the words of mythologist Joseph Campbell, what matters is not the search for the meaning of life, but the experience of being alive. Nowhere do these words ring truer than in Russia 1994, a place, says an American lawyer practicing in Moscow, where "the more you are exposed to people, the less sense it all makes."

I have no answers to the Russian riddle. Better to just let it be. In letting it be, answers reveal themselves.

At the door, Aleksandra Dmitrievna greeted me with a radiant smile. She ushered me into her living room, where to my surprise, a dozen or so Americans with their Russian home-stay hosts were gathered around a table laden down with food. "Jeff, you have come at just the right time," Aleksandra Dmitrievna said. "We are having a party with Americans."

The American group from Charlotte, North Carolina, was drowning in open-hearted Russian hospitality. Aleksandra Dmitrievna, a woman I expected to find bedridden by bronchitis, was floating above the whole scene, the picture of the healthy hostess.

I left the oranges in the kitchen amid bags of provisions and joined the party. Aleksandra filled my plate and took out the ceremonial bottle of vodka.

Jeff Lilley, SAIS '91, has worked in Russia as a freelance journalist for the last three years. Lilley reported on the 1988 Olympics in Seoul for NBC, and the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer for Sports Illustrated, for whom he also covered the Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg this past summer.

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