COVER

LIFE IN THE SLOW LANE

MOST CITIZENS SUFFER DAILY FRUSTRATIONS

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 19 1990
COVER

LIFE IN THE SLOW LANE

MOST CITIZENS SUFFER DAILY FRUSTRATIONS

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 19 1990

LIFE IN THE SLOW LANE

MOST CITIZENS SUFFER DAILY FRUSTRATIONS

COVER

On Kutuzovsky Prospekt, Moscow’s main avenue to the Kremlin, the rush to get out of the way starts at 8:30 most weekday mornings. That is when the city’s grey-coated, white-belted traffic police, spaced about 150 m apart, begin frantically waving traffic to the side of the fourlane road. Minutes later, several black Zil limousines, flanked by smaller Volga cars, flash into view. They use a special outside lane reserved for them, as well as three of the four regular lanes. As they pass, the traffic police snap to attention and salute. But the occupants of the limousines, travelling at 120 km/h with curtains drawn and headlights flashing, appear unlikely to notice.

For other motorists, the speed limit is a rigorously enforced 80 km/h. But when members of the ruling Politburo and their bodyguards drive to work, says one young Moscow woman wryly, “the limit is whatever they choose it to be.”

Privilege: Despite Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s dramatic reform efforts, life in Moscow’s fast lane remains a privilege open to only a handful of the city’s nine million residents. They include members of the 12-man Politburo and the 249-member Communist party Central Committee, whose traditional perquisites have included large dachas in the country, chauffeured limousines and access to special food provisions. As well, the estimated 14,000 foreigners living in Moscow, including diplomats, journalists, business executives and their families, live and work in special, private compounds and shop in the few well-stocked stores that accept only Western currency. Despite those facts, life for the foreigners has its problems: they have to endure what veteran diplomats describe as the most Byzantine regulations and bureaucracy of any major city in the world. Among them: mandatory specially colored licence plates on all foreigners’ cars, and a requirement to give 48 hours’ notice to the foreign ministry before travelling more than 40 km from Moscow. But most of the Soviet Union’s 290 million citizens

suffer daily frustrations that make the foreigners’ lives seem idyllic in comparison.

In Moscow, where conditions are relatively better than in the rest of the country, citizens can still wait up to 10 years for their own own apartment; now, most families are forced to live in flats with as many as three other fam-

ilies—one family per room—with shared access to kitchen and bathroom. As well, the country’s production and distribution problems mean that such basic items as sugar, meat and most fresh fruit and vegetables are largely unavailable. Families rely primarily on canned goods, salted fish, bread and potatoes. The typical Soviet woman, who, according to government statistics, averages two hours each day standing in tedious storefront lines, is seldom seen without a folded cloth shopping bag in case she finds the opportunity to stock up on some hard-to-obtain item. Last month, a state-run Moscow store selling only salt closed temporarily because it ran out. In one incident last year, four people were injured, including a woman who suffered some broken ribs, when a group of frustrated shoppers began trampling each other in a lineup to buy footware. In a

series of articles on consumer shortages, the newspaper Moskovskie Novosti interviewed a 62-year-old woman who had travelled 1,500 km to Moscow from the northern Caucausus region especially to buy boots, which were unavailable at home.

For Soviets shopping in regular state-run

stores, the frustration over shortages is compounded by the poor quality of the items that are available. An unprecedented public exhibition last December at Moscow’s Park of Economic Achievement focused on defective items found in Soviet stores. The exhibits put on display included a dead mouse in a beer bottle and an egg-shaped soccer ball. At a downtown Moscow bakery recently, two Soviet women demanded refunds for bread they had bought there. One loaf contained a dead mouse, the other a metal screw.

Sausage: As well, in a highly publicized court case last year that is still unresolved, a sausage manufacturer sued the newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta after it reported that the factory’s sausages were so inferior that cats refused to eat them. The newspaper said that the sausages’ ingredients included “knots of

wool, nails, sand and glass.” It said that out of 30 stray and starving cats offered the sausages, 24 had refused them after an exploratory sniff and “five only ate out of extreme hunger.” Added the newspaper: “Only one, the two-month-old kitten Mura, you can say actually sat down to the sausage.”

Even when there is something worth buying, the purchasing process is an arduous one. Buying an item in a state-run store usually involves standing in three different lines: first to order an item, then to pay for it, and once more to collect the item. Most stores still use an abacus to add up transactions. And they close down during lunch hour—the preferred shopping time for hurried consumers.

Perhaps more galling to many Muscovites is that they are sometimes made to feel that they

are second-class citizens in their own country. Foreigners can enter any Moscow hotel or restaurant by showing their passport, but Soviets are barred from entering major hotels unless they can prove that they are registered guests. The only stores in Moscow that have plentiful food supplies are the state-run special stores called beriozkas, which accept only foreign currencies or coupons and two Westernoperated joint-venture shops. The few Soviets able to use them either work for Western employers or have blat, an all-encompassing Russian word that roughly translates as “connections.” Even then, the privileged Soviets complain that they are singled out for especially rude treatment by envious Soviet staff.

In fact, both foreigners and Soviet-born residents relish exchanging anecdotes about the

rudeness of Soviet service staff. Because staterun restaurants do not have to show a profit, many actually close during lunch or dinner on the whim of the boss. Waiters, for their own convenience, often insist on seating patrons at tables already occupied by other people even when the restaurant is less than one-quarter full. In one Moscow restaurant last year, a diner seated in such fashion noticed that 12 of the 15 tables were empty. When he asked for his own table, the headwaiter pointedly led him slowly around the room, and then back to his original seat.

Headaches: But such consumer headaches represent only some of the difficulties of living in the capital. At times, the baffling web of Soviet regulations seems deliberately designed to magnify confusion—starting upon arrival in the country. According to Soviet law, it is

forbidden to export or import rubles, the local currency. But at Moscow’s international Sheremetyevo Airport, arriving passengers, who collect their luggage before passing through customs, are told that they must pay with rubles to rent baggage carts—before they actually can buy them. As well, the restaurants in the arrival-departure area only accept rubles.

Obsession: At the same time, the Soviet government’s seeming obsession with paperwork can hugely complicate the most basic transactions. In order to live anywhere in the Soviet Union, citizens require a propusk, or residency pass. The waiting list for permission to live in Moscow now extends more than five years. As well, in order to make a deposit in a Soviet bank, it is necessary for all persons to provide a currency declaration form or letter

saying where the money came from. Otherwise, the bank will not accept the deposit. Similarly, to receive registered mail sent from another country, the post office often asks for a letter giving details of the package and its contents. But that mail often is not delivered and, if the sender does not tell the intended recipient that the package is en route, it can disappear in the system.

Facilities that people in many other countries regard as basic are either nonexistent or in short supply. There are no telephone books and few accurate maps of major Soviet cities. Because switchboards are largely unknown outside of telephone exchanges, one measure of important Soviets is how many different telephones they have on their desks. Few offices have secretaries or answering machines, and there is no tradition of taking

telephone messages. Ordering a telephone can take up to two years, and only foreigners and Soviet government officials have phones with the capability to direct-dial internationally. Such phones cost $890 annually to rent, and there is now a two-year waiting list.

Hardships: Moscow’s litany of current hardships, coupled with the grey and gloomy air of winter days with less than six hours of sunlight, sometimes gives the city a curiously dated air. That is compounded by the city’s lack of neon signs and the tradition, leftover from Second World War blackouts, of Soviets driving their cars at night with only their side parking lights on. Officials at several Western embassies in Moscow say that their diplomats, many of whom have served in demanding assignments all over the world, suffer an unusually high rate of

depression at this time of

year.

Faced with such an array of problems, many observers say that the challenges confronting Gorbachev’s reform efforts may be insurmountable. For their part, ordinary Muscovites often take solace in the rough, selfmocking humor that is one of the city’s bestdeveloped traditions. One current anecdote depicts two Soviets, an optimist and a pessimist, in earnest disagreement over the country’s precarious future. The pessimist declares, “Life here has become such hell that it could not become worse.” Responds the optimist: “Nonsense. It will, it surely will.” In their winter of continuing discontent, many Soviets hope that the punch line only reflects their present despair, and not their future destiny.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH