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Things falling apart (scenes from a revolution)

Leningrad, 1989

Sometime towards the middle of July,things got so bad that I really began to feel sorry for Mikhail Gorbachev. Nothing was going right. After he managed to create the first even remotely democratic legislative body in Soviet history, he had to suffer the insults of ungrateful upstart legislators who dared to criticize him for the tameness and slow pace of his reforms. People's Deputy Andrei Sakharov repaid the kindness of a regime that had rehabilitated him by publicly lecturing the nation about the shame of Afghanistan.


Meanwhile, the conservatives, the reactionaries, the Russian nationalists, and the Communist hardliners were grumbling about the inexorable descent towards western decadence -- a decadence they undoubtedly understood would exclude their future participation in leadership positions. 


In Armenia, and the Baltic states, and Georgia, and Azerbaijan, and Moldavia, and Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, comrades were berating each other; and not infrequently beating each other too. It seemed that one of the few things they all agreed upon was that no matter what the problem was, it was the Russians' fault. 


The economy was so fouled up that most of the country had run out of soap. No matter what problems of production and distribution you are facing, you've got to be pretty distracted to run out of soap. Toilet paper was a distant memory. The coal miners went out on strike. When several ships and trains were involved in disasterous accidents, it seemed that even the transportation system had conspired against Gorbachev. 


I felt sorry for Gorbachev, but I'll have to admit that it was rather entertaining. For once in my life, my timing was right on. I was visiting my brother, who had been in Leningrad for about a year, working at the US Consulate. By the time I arrived, the revolution was in full swing. 


I stayed in my brother's spacious apartment on western edge of the city, a half mile from the Gulf of Finland. As a guest of the US Consulate, I was able to move freely through the city and the country. I watched in fascination as the revolution bumped along through the summer. 


It seemed a strange sort of revolution -- happening almost in slow motion. Nobody was quite sure whether they should believe it. For the time being, everyone acted as if it were true -- that free expression was permitted, that freedom of assembly was now respected, that political opposition was tolerated. 


One by one, the old taboos had been falling. In the Baltic republics, the parties had been taken over by nationalists who want to see their countries independent. Throughout the country communities and national groups were banding themselves into "Peoples' Fronts" that act as opposition parties in the absense of legalized opposition parties. In the cities, people exchanged information and sold samizdat (self-published) publications openly without any apparent harassment. Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago was appearing in Soviet magazines. And all that took place even before all hell had broken loose in East Gemany. On the street, the young and the hip wore American flags on their jackets -- imagine what a furor there would be if American kids started wearing Soviet flags on their sleeves!



The idea of westerners freely contacting Soviet citizens, especially Russians, was still a bit frightening to most of them. Every step broke new ground -- exchanging publications, inviting westerners into their flats, receiving phone calls from Westerners who barely spoke Russian on communal telephones, eating in public restaurants with Westerners. 


On the other hand, my friend Dima, a leader in the independent opposition group Democratic Union, spun numerous tales about his continuing encounters with the KGB. Once, in the middle of the night, an agent knocked on the door of the tiny room in a student hostel which he shared with his wife. "We just want to talk to you," he said. "Get lost," Dima replied. "I don't have anything to say to you." Another time, while waiting for an early morning train to Vilnius, they detained him again, accusing him of public drunkeness to justify their action. "Just answer a few questions for us," they demanded. "We'll make sure you get to Vilnius on time." Dima refused. "Why do you belong to this group? What do you hope to accomplish?" they persisted. "That's my business," Dima replied. He ended up arriving in Vilnius a day late. 


They're always watching you," warned another friend. One night in Riga, a drunk standing in front of us in a line outside a cafe leaned over and whispered in the ear of my travel companion that the woman we were with was "Kah Geh Beh." Considering that she had been coincidentally seated across from us on our airplane, and wanted to make plans to spend another day with us, it seemed a likely tale. In Vilnius, there could be no doubt that the blond guy in the blue shirt smoking the cigarette who kept walking by us was on duty. When our eyes met, he couldn't even keep a straight face. He knew that I knew, and he knew that I knew he knew. But was their idea to let me know that they were there, or just to keep an eye on me? For that matter, was our woman friend in Riga the agent, or was it the drunk, or were they both? We realized at that point that we could never quite be sure of anything or anybody. 


One day in Leningrad, the Democratic Union (tolerated but not yet legalized) organized a demonstration in front of the Chinese consulate to protest the Tienamen Square crackdown in China. The Militia had blocked the street so that the demonstrators could not approach within 100 meters of the consulate, and had sealed off the general area. I was there with my camera, and Dima seemed petrified that they would arrest me, take my camera and film, and throw me out of the country. But I just snapped away and nobody bothered me. At one point, there was a little scuffle when the police jumped over the barricades for some reason or other and arrested a few stragglers who didn't run away fast enough. 


When things calmed down, the police explained that the Chinese would not receive the delegation or accept their letter of protest. "Fine," said the leaders of the demonstration, "We'll drop off the letter at the Foreign Ministry. They can deliver it for us." And without applying for a permit or checking with the authorities, off marched three or four hundred people, escorted by a large contingent of police, across the Neva River, past the Hermitage, through the streets of central Leningrad to a courtyard next to the Foreign Ministry, where the letter was delivered into the hands of the one poor soul at the ministry who had foolishly worked past five o'clock that evening.



There were times when I thought that Gorbachev could justifiably claim success if he could just persuade all the Russians to work so hard. It was no joke that the most common words in Leningrad were "zakrita", meaning "closed", and "remont", meaning "under repair" -- which was just another way of saying "closed". 


It was a good thing that I had already spent two years in Africa; I was prepared for the Third World. In Leningrad, where I stayed for more than two months, the veneer of 18th and 19th century splendor had worn thin, and beneath the veneer, it was obvious that the city was crumbling. Its roads virtually swallowed Ladas and Mosvitches, the boxy sixties-styled Soviet autos that bounced around town, belching noxious fumes everywhere. Behind the facades along the Nevsky Prospect and in the bowels of the city, the lobbys and stairwells of the old buildings were dark and dingy and dismal, and the flats crowded and run down (but with housing in short supply, still much sought after). Around the edges of old Leningrad, the shabby high rise apartment blocks looked remarkably and discouragingly like the "projects" of America's inner cities. Buildings hardly more than ten years old were falling apart, and the haphazard attention to landscaping around them added a kind of rural third world charm that was a little unsettling in a country known to the world as a "superpower". The only thing that seemed to function properly was the Metro, which operated with amazing efficiency. 


One of the most revealing stories I heard was the one about a Soviet colonel who was speaking to a colleague about a certain general they both knew. "That idiot," the first remarked derisively, ignorant of the fact that his colleague worked for the KGB. After a short trial, the first colonel was sentenced to twenty-five years in a Siberian labor camp -- two for insulting an officer, and twenty-three for revealing state secrets. 


Actually, the political prisoners had mostly been released and the country has opened up in ways that few dared to hope for just five years ago. 



During the election in May, the Metro stations were plastered with political posters, a hunger striker stubbornly camped by one station to protest the exclusion of a well-known iconoclastic tv journalist from the ballot, and in the evenings, Leningrad TV ran lively debates among more than thirty candidates competing for one seat. Some of the debates were run on national television, but one night just before the election -- the night after a particularly harsh attack on the status quo by one of the candidates -- Moscow television replaced the debate with an old movie. Moscow residents, they explained, weren't interested in Leningrad politics. 


But if such stunts ever worked, they don't any longer. There just aren't enough people who still believe in the old system, if any ever did. They have been lied to until they automatically assume that anything that comes from the government is a lie. The proof of their total rejection of the Party is the fact that many Party candidates who ran for the Congress of People's Deputies last spring failed to get a simple majority of the votes cast even when Party candidates ran unopposed. People simply crossed their names out -- a provision of the election law that we might consider emulating here in the United States. 


Conversely, they seem willing to accept as gospel truth some of the most dubious assertions imaginable. I knew rational people who believed that the world was going to come to an end on June 21, because of some astrologer's prediction. Magazines dealing with occult subjects such as UFOs and astrology were wildly popular on the streets of Leningrad and Moscow.



One day, not too long after I had arrived, I went to the famous "summer palace" of Petrodvorets, on the Baltic Sea about twenty miles from Leningrad. My companions were Dima, the radical; Sergei, a former political prisoner; and Tanya, a tall, talkative, dark-haired, twenty-two year old with the beauty of an over-sized china-doll. Once, her grandfather had owned a house on the Nevsky Prospect, not far from the Hermitage; now she lived at the other end of the street in a pleasant but crowded flat. She was relatively new to radical politics, and spoke with a good deal of naivete. 


Petrodvorets is famed for its fabulous fountains, but of course, on the day we went, most of the fountains were not operating. Still, the imperial elegance was impressive. It seemed ironic to me that the palace was so well groomed and finely maintained, while twenty miles away in Leningrad the houses were falling apart. 


At any rate, it was a lovely day in a lovely spot, and it gave us a kind of appreciation of the world. "You see," said Tanya, affecting a kind of charming seriousness, "really I love my country. I love Russia -- I love the Russian countryside. It's this government that I do not like. I really do love the Russian countryside very much!" 


"Yes," said Dima, with just the hint of a smirk. "But the part of Russia you love the best was stolen from Finland!" 


Indeed, it seems that the more time you spend in the Soviet Union, the more you love it, and the more you hate it. And you get the sense that this same emotional tug of war goes on in the hearts and souls and minds of millions of Russians (there is no such confusion among the many millions more Soviet citizens who are not Russian nationals, and who have little use for anything Soviet at all). There is pride in Russian history and culture (though it turns out that the best loved figures in Russian history are Peter the Great, who imported the culture of Western Europe in an attempt to remake the Russian culture and the Russian character, and Katherine the Great, who was actually a German), but shame and embarassment at the sorry record of the Soviet government and the pitiful state of their economy. 


There was a virulent strain of self-loathing, it seemed, among the Soviet people. "None of my friends are Russians," said Olga, a dark-haired beauty whose mother is half-Jewish and whose Russian father is a raging anti- Semite. "They're Armenians, Balts, Jews, and Ukranians. But the Russians are simple -- too simple. As for the future," she said with sadness, "I don't want to spend it here. I don't know anybody who is bright who does. It's like a swamp -- a prison. While I'm young, with energy and ideas, I want to be somewhere else where I can use my talents." Discouraged and without hope, she was convinced that there was virtually no chance that she, or her friends, or the country, for that matter, could escape from the pit they were all in.



Of course escape was just one way of dealign with the hardships of Soviet life. Many others chose corruption. With the economy in shambles, and such basics as soap, sugar, tea, and razor blades rationed or unavailable, the black market was often the only market in town. 


One day, under an archway around the side of Gostini Dvor, the huge state department store, I saw an excited mob. Investigating, I discovered a supply of black market razor blades. A militia man, too, was attracted by the crowd and came over to see. Satisfied that it was only a minor transgression against the laws prohibiting free enterprise (or perhaps that it was something that he had already procured through a different source), he moved away, then placed a hand over my camera -- and then walked away, with no further word of warning. 


Around the corner at the back of Gostini Dvor, almost desperate looking men and women stood in a narrow passageway, dangling shirts and shoes and underwear and other products imported from the more consumer oriented nations of Eastern Europe, or better yet, the West. A stream of passers-by shuffled by, examining the goods, passing rubles back and forth, and shuffling on their way. Occasionally, the sellers would catch sight of a militia man and scatter, only to reappear a few minutes later. 


Out in front, on the Nevsky, the young money changers were far more brazen. They had a catalog of opening lines, depending on their linguistic abilities. "Excuse me, do you speak English?" was a favorite among the more sophisticated. "Where do you come from?" was another favorite. But the reliable standby was far more common -- the facile and direct "Change money?" The money changers were invariably easy to pick out -- young men who walked with a swagger and dressed in warm-up jackets and Adidas shoes. While the banks and hotels charged the official rate of $1.60 for a ruble (the Soviet government has since acknowledged reality by drastically devaluing the ruble to sixteen cents), the money changers would give you 10 rubles to the dollar -- though of course they often offered far less to the naive tourists, or relied on a variety of other tricks to improve their earnings. Money changers were adept at all sorts of sleight of hand tricks, and one visiting American cop sheepishly confessed to an American diplomat that he had received Yugoslavian dinars (currently trading at tens of thousands per dollar) instead of rubles. 


It wasn't just rubles these hustlers sold either. From pockets and gym bags and briefcases, they eagerly produced cans and jars of caviar for $5, Soviet military watches, and a variety of souvenirs. Meanwhile, of course, caviar was unavailable in the state operated stores. 



But despite the frequent solicitationsto change money or purchase pilfered commodities, I wasn't prepared for Moscow. For if it had been difficult to spend money in Leningrad, where there wasn't all that much to buy, or in Tbilisi, where the hospitable Georgian people showered foreign visitors with food, drink, and gifts, in Moscow, the problem was of a different nature -- many people just wouldn't accept rubles.


One night, after a long and fruitless search for a restaurant, my travel companion and I reluctantly decided to settle for the Arbat Restaurant, a Moscow institution with a huge globe on its roof, and a reputation as the place where Muscovites went to be seen. Even from the outside, the place looked like it might have fit better along the Las Vegas strip than in Moscow. Against our better judgement, we headed through the door. A uniformed doorman blocked our entry, attempting to extort dollars from us rather than to accept rubles. Behind him stood three or four militia men who complacently ignored the doorman's blatently illegal efforts to secure dollars. After much back and forth, we succumbed to hunger pangs, decided to pay the cover charge in dollars, and went in.


We found ourselves in a restaurant that could easily have doubled as an indoor arena. One more pathetic Russian rock band was brutalizing American pop classics and staggering somewhat more successfully through updated Russian folk tunes. 


We had become the charges a sleazy character wearing a white polyster suit, who led us to a table in the huge balcony that encircled the downstairs restaurant and dance floor. There were two plates of zakuski (appetizers) that looked as if they had been sitting out attracting flies for the last day and a half. Our "attendant" ceremoniously opened two Pepsis for us and poured the warm contents into a couple of glasses. A few minutes later, a waiter delivered two plates of lukewarm meat and slushy potatoes and cauliflower. 


All around, men and women who looked as if they were exiles from a low budget gangster movie staggered and stumbled and hung around -- women draped over men, men draped over each other, a band of youthful, drunken student pilots from Aeroflot doing their best to instill fear into prospective Aeroflot passengeres. After a reminder, our host brought us the champagne, and then tried to extort another $5. He was beginning to make a genuine nuisance of himself, when a chubby, balding man in a tuxedo intervened. 


"My name is Boris," the other told us in awkward but competent English. "I learn my English from the Voice of America. I always listen -- I really love America. This place is so terrible. We're not even civilized here..." He went on, complaining bitterly about the state of the economy. "There's nothing to buy. Me -- I have plenty of money, but what good is it? I can't spend it. I want to leave." Boris explained that he was Jewish and had one relative in Los Angeles and another in Israel, and maybe he would visit one or the other. "Here," he indicated with a sweep of his arm, "it's only mafia. We're all mafia. He's mafia, I'm mafia, they're all mafia, the government's mafia. It's terrible," he said clucking and shaking his head. 


The band packed up, the restaurant emptied out, and we headed back to the American compound. The next evening, we ate leftover chicken caserole for dinner. 


A few nights later, it was Giselle's birthday. I had promised her and myself that we would finally get ourselves a good dinner, but I'm afraid I failed miserably. The restaurants, it seemed, could only accomodate us on the "hard currency side"; no one was willing to serve a foreigner on the "ruble side." We wandered around the center, discouraged at every turn. Finally, in frustration, we landed in the Intourist Hotel again. A young, drunken German tourist saw us standing at the door of a night club, and hustled us in. Immediately, he disappeared, but we discovered mountains of hors d'ouerves and, while the German tourists threw shot glasses at each other, we stuffed our faces like genuine gluttons. 


Shortly before midnight, we wandered over to Red Square. A crowd had gathered in front of Lenin's tomb for the changing of the guard. We stood near a young couple, and depsite the communication barriers, our faltering conversation led, within five minutes, to an invitation to join them for a drink. 


After a long cab-ride, we found ourselves in a fairly spacious four-room apartment. Though they shared the place with parents, our new-found friends appeared relatively prosperous. Their living room was filled with heavily lacquered furniture and priceless family heirlooms. Between drinks of cognac and some horrific home-brewed vodka, we got to see their heirlooms -- mostly old bibles and religious icons -- and (perhaps aided by the alcohol) managed to pass several hours in disjointed but nonetheless enjoyable conversation. Sometime around three a.m., with heads spinning, we began to edge toward the door. Suddenly Lina was pleading with us. "Change money," she implored in remarkably good English. "Please, change money." Meanwhile, Ivan had begun emptying shopping bags full of crisp, banded five ruble notes onto a table. 


This desperate dumping of rubles and hunger for dollars was a direct result of two related factors: the inferior quality of products that were available inside the state stores, where the fashions and displays generally remind you of a five a dime store in the fifties, and the fear of inflation and ruble devaluation. Only dollars could buy quality goods either imported or smuggled in from the West, and only dollars were assured of retaining their value. In one apartment in Leningrad, I saw thousands of dollars worth of electronic music equipment that had arrived via a diplomatic pouch. Where the tens of thousands of rubles came from to pay for the dollars that paid for these goods was the question I was too polite to ask.



It is one of the ironies of glasnost that the people who have benefited the most from it -- political dissidents and activists -- are usually the harshest critics of Gorbachev. 


One night, I arranged to bring together three activists from the Democratic Union for an on-tape discussion. I packed my casette recorder into my bag and headed by Metro to an old building on the Liteiny Prospect dating back to the days of Pushkin. 


The entry way was typical -- dark, dirty, and deteriorated, but inside, my friends had worked hard to create a decent living space. They'd built a sleeping loft and decorated the downstairs sitting room with an odd collection of antiques, fine western consumer items that indicated an unusual access to hard currency and western connections, all sorts of western souvenirs and cultural icons gathered during Olga's (a different Olga) recent trip to the US (she'd been one of the first political activists to travel to the US on a private trip), and an extensive collection of feminist literature. 


But when I arrived at Olga's, there were four or five people there, and Olga and Katya were busily preparing food in the kitchen. I could see that my plan had been sabotaged; I'd walked into a party. It was Katya's fortieth birthday, and friends had gathered to celebrate. Most of the guests were political radicals and colleagues in the Democratic Union. 


The liquor was flowing plentifully, and the food was tasty. The conversation, of course, turned to politics, and especially to my impressions of Leningrad. "Do you still think Gorbachev is all right?" asked Olga with a smile. 


"I think you should give him a chance," I replied. "After all, what would happen if he failed?" 


But Olga would have none of it. "There is no chance with Gorbachev. He has chosen the totalitarian path." 


It seemed curious to me that someone who had benefited so greatly from glasnost could show such disdain for glasnost and for Gorbachev.


"But he has made the changes that have made all this possible," I said 


"He's a man of his class," she replied bitterly. "He came up through this system and he will not and cannot abandon the system or his class. He can never change, and he can never allow the Communist Party to give up power. We cannot make this system better." 


"We have to build a new system," she continued. "You cannot have 'democraticization'. You either have democracy or you don't, and this system is not democratic." It was obvious that Gorbachev would only win the confidence of this group if and when he admitted that the Great October Revolution was a terrible mistake. 


"Our society is ill," added Katya sadly. The party was still the source of all power, she explained, and still enjoyed the allegiance of millions, who supported it "for reasons ranging from ignorance to cynicism." 


It seemed to me that Katya was protesting excessively. She made the whole movement sound futile. "Why do you bother at all if you really believe it is so hopeless?" I asked.


"Well," she confessed sheepishly, "I still do have a little hope." That qualified as optimism in the Soviet Union. 


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