Out of Line

Nevsky Prospect, St Petersburg, Russia

In the early ‘90s, I stood in line at a bakery in St. Petersburg, Russia. I was in the city for three weeks teaching American culture to the faculty at Baltic State University. The entire nation had just opened up after seventy-five years of communism and four hundred years of czarist rule. Things were a bit unorganized and haphazard. Yeltsin was in charge but not really; the Russian mafia was in charge. But that’s an entirely different story with a very bad ending for so many people.

But in the early ‘90s my colleague Joe and I had an apartment near the Gulf of Finland, not far from a family who we paid a great deal of money to host us for three meals a day plus tours. It was incredible to be part of all these changes with this family—him, a former Soviet Naval Captain whose job had been to search the arctic for American submarines, and her a translator and professor of English and languages at the university. We became family. More stories.

But mostly Joe and I discovered Russia on our own when not through the experiences of this family whose own changes were occurring daily. Understand, Russia never knew democracy, never knew capitalism.

So the bakery story:

I stood in line and Joe videotaped me waiting. But I waited forty minutes. Finally I arrived at the counter and pointed out a dozen or so pastries. She bagged them but put the bag behind her and handed me a piece of paper with the total price and pointed me to another line. I waited there. Ten minutes. Twenty. Finally when I was second in line, the cashier went outside to smoke, and we all waited another ten or fifteen minutes. Eventually she returned and rang up the sale, I paid, and I moved back to the first line where I waited as long to turn in my proof of payment for my bag of pastries.

Most of this is on tape somewhere.

That night at the college we talked about many things and answered many questions. That deserves a different story entirely, but not here. To the point: we had handed out US newspapers, and someone held up coupons and asked what they were. We explained, and he commented why in the world would you sell something for less than the price, that is dumb, no wonder capitalism doesn’t work. So I told them all the bakery story, and they nodded as if to say, “yeah, that sounds about right.”

And then he asked, “So how is it different in America.” I love a good setup.

I told them: In the states the cashier is fired; she sucks at her job and I’m losing business—you know why? Because Joe has a bakery across the street and his line is moving, and my customers are heading over there, and my income comes from customers, not the government, and while your income is guaranteed, it allows you commune apartments and mafia shakedowns. We offer coupons as incentive to try my pastries, and if you work hard and keep the line moving and don’t eat the pastries, you’ll get raises and promotions and eventually own your own store.

Yeah, they didn’t get it.

That is Soviet Russia; that is how Putin mistakenly sees Russia. That is how he was raised and was already part of that mafia/governmental system by the time we arrived thirty years ago. His Russia was a population paid by the government no matter what, and no where on Nevsky Prospect (Fifth Avenue) was a single billboard, a single neon sign, few restaurants, no advertising save Marlboro. You bought sour cream and milk from the back of trucks, or you went to the stores set up exactly like the bakery with long lines, and that was how it was since the Romanov’s came to power in the 1600s. Putin gained control by gaining control over an economy and country that was shredded after the coup; and when the government gave everyone across the empire three days to trade in Soviet money for Russian money, and the vast majority of people live three days from a bank—Putin and his cronies scoured the countryside buying Soviet money at twenty cents on the dollar and making millions.

But the Russia he runs now is not the Russia he so quickly gained control over by the late ‘90s. That Russia was still filled with people used to the government telling them what to do and they complied so long as their pension was secure. Today’s Russia has had thirty years of absolute freedom to come and go, make money a la capitalism, set up and own businesses, travel the world, speak relatively freely, and families live all over the world without fear of repercussions. Anyone in Russia who was even ten at the time of the coup is now in their forties, so all Russians forty or so years old and younger know nothing but the freedoms listed, the opportunities experienced by the west, and they like it—a lot. Enter McDonald’s, KFC, Starbucks, western music, movies, travel packages, tours of New York, London, and LA. Enter jobs with international corporations and BMW’s and HoHo’s.

This is NOT their father’s Russia.

So to keep them quiet and subdued, it is now illegal to indicate support of Ukraine, illegal to travel abroad, illegal to speak openly unless it is for the government.

People compare Putin to Hitler. That is not accurate.

Putin is Stalin.

But his narrative has a significant flaw which perhaps Stalin was able to avoid for some time—the population of Russia and Ukraine have a western mentality that simply didn’t exist there at all prior to the early 90’s. Sure, he keeps getting re-elected: At first simply for stability—no one liked Yeltsin or Zyuganov. Later he was re-elected because of fraud (the 2018 election found one of his two opponents dead and the other poisoned and later imprisoned). But the country he rules will quickly become unruly, much like the citizens of Czechoslovakia who knew democracy well when communism came in 48 and again in 68, and those who remembered how life was prior to communism refused to allow the suppression, hence the Velvet Revolution, led by those who remembered.

People have something now they didn’t in Stalin’s day—a basis of comparison. They’ve not had to stand in line for pastries for three decades, and they have family not just in Ukraine but throughout the world. The government, the military who act out of fear of Stalinesque punishment (like the Not One Step Backwards decrees which insured that any Soviet soldiers retreating or disobeying would be shot), cannot sustain the isolation required to continue the onslaught of other nations.

I’ve made more than two dozen trips to Russia, crossed it by train, traveled with more than 500 people including US Army generals, professors, writers, artists, lawyers, and others, and I kept journals, I wrote extensively to the tune of three books and countless editorials and essays.

There was so much more to write—about Valentine, my dear photographer friend, about a graveyard on the gulf, about the rebuilding of a church by another close friend, and the planned exodus of two other friends, artists, some years ago to avoid draft into the army to fight in Chechnya. Stories about old women in the Hermitage and a homeless man who became a companion.

And I could write an entire book about The Shack, about playing guitar with a gypsy band every night until five am, drinking outlawed Georgian wine and laughing, teaching them “American Pie,” learning their folk songs which made us all cry despite not knowing a single word.

For thirty years Russia was a fine combination of history and romance with hope and emergence, like a young child with an old soul. And I have full confidence when the dust settles, the that Russia I came to love will survive. The bell of freedom rang for those people years and years ago, the chimes of hope, the echoes of prosperity.

The old truism is indeed true: You cannot unring that bell.

Oh I have stories. Geez what a time it was. Nothing is what I was told it would be when I was young. Nothing.

I’ll go back, but I don’t see a need to write about Russia anymore. My last piece of writing besides this short blog is my book in which my son and I travel from one end of the country to the other, and we see the world together, enjoying the fragile and beautiful passing of time. How can I possibly follow that?

at the shack

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