December 30 1991


December 30 1991



Letter from Moscow

By New Year’s Day, only Russia’s tricolor red, white and blue flag will be flying over the Kremlin. Last week, a spokesman for Russian President Boris Yeltsin announced the decision to lower the red hammer-and-sickle banner of Soviet communism—and to officially dissolve the seven-decades-old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Yeltsin also took control of the Soviet foreign and interior ministries and the secret police, leaving Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on the apparent brink of resignation by week’s end. Amid the chaotic rush of public events, 280 million former subjects of the old empire struggled to cope with the mounting hardships of daily life and the stunning pace of change. Maclean’s Moscow Bureau Chief Malcolm Gray reports:

Near the slush and mud of a busy intersection, Misha Pavlovich scans the passing traffic in search of his next customer. It is almost 3 p.m.

on a raw mid-December day, and darkness is already seeping from the grey skies over central Moscow. But with light snow falling and the temperature hovering around the freezing mark, it is a good day for 13-year-old Misha’s business—washing the grime from the cars along Tverskaya Boulevard. The nearby traffic signal turns red, and a dirty blue Zhiguli sedan slides to a stop. The driver nods curtly to Misha, who, armed with a rag and a squeeze bottle of glass cleaner, quickly begins rubbing the car’s headlights and cracked windshield. Then, he pockets the driver’s proffered three-ruble note just as the light changes. “The guy before him gave me five rubles, and I have had several ones but no valuta [hard currency] today,” says Misha, a student trying to make the best of the transition from communism to capitalism.

Like Misha, most of Moscow’s windshield washers are young and, unlike many of their

counterparts in, say, New York City, polite when their services are turned down. In fact, there is a growing army of children earning money at such jobs as selling newspapers and cheap souvenirs in the city’s drafty underground pedestrian walkways. They have emerged as small, post-Soviet heroes of labor: with inflation biting more deeply, many families have become increasingly dependent on their children’s earnings. An average take of three rubles per car is worth less than four cents Canadian, but Misha works at least three hours after school each day and the money mounts up. He said that he now brings home about 1,800 rubles (about $20) each month in crumpled bills—almost double the state wages that his father receives as a factory millwright. Added Misha: “Most of my money now goes to buy food, but I have not stopped saving for a VCR.”

Child labor on the streets of Moscow, un-

heard of under Communist rule, is a small byproduct of the dizzying changes that have struck the Soviet Union since the August coup to restore central authority led instead to the collapse of communism. Last week, authorities in Moscow and Leningrad warned that the old union’s two largest cities were dangerously low on food stocks. And jet-fuel shortages closed 92 airports—half the terminals in the country—stranding thousands of passengers in a vast land where planes are a vital form of transport. Much of that land has now declared itself the Commonwealth of Independent States, despite Gorbachev’s desperate efforts to retain some semblance of central control. Late last week, there were rumors—denied by his aides—that Gorbachev had already signed an undated letter of resignation.

Meanwhile, as U.S. Secretary of State James Baker crisscrossed the former union last week, receiving assurances that the vanishing empire’s formidable nuclear arsenal would remain under strict control, there were disquieting signs of disarray in Yeltsin’s camp. Moscow Mayor Gavriil Popov, a leading reformer and longtime Yeltsin ally, announced his resignation, complaining that Russian authorities had blocked his plans to privatize enterprises and apartments in the capital. And Russian VicePresident Alexander Rutskoi said that Yeltsin’s authoritarian style had produced only confusion and disorganization. As a result, added Rutskoi, the Russian legislature had become “a

lt; hotbed of intrigue—no one knows where we are going and what is our ultimate goal.”

Against that backdrop of political tension and spreading shortages, there are few light conversations in Russia now. Svetlana, an articulate economist, said that after spending hours finding and preparing food for a dinner party, she had warned her guests that any talk of politics would be punished by a 500-ruble fine.

She recalled: “I could have made a fortune if the ruble had value anymore and I had been willing to be a bad hostess.” Among her circle of friends, most of them university-educated offspring of the former Communist elite, the currently fashionable analogy is to compare Russia to Weimar Germany. Then, following Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the country suffered through a chaotic period of high inflation and unemployment that fostered the rise of Nazi dictatorship.

Svetlana was recently at another party at a spacious, tastefully furnished apartment in central Moscow—a sure sign of good official connections during the Communist era. The host, like many of his guests, was highly placed in the Soviet foreign ministry. But all were resigned to losing their jobs as that ministry and other central government institutions disappear. As the apparatchiks, most of them former career Communists in their 30s and 40s, circled a table laden with caviar, sturgeon and other traditional Russian appetizers, their talk was of sausages and Leonid Brezhnev. Most maintained that the so-called era of stagnation under the bushy-eyebrowed dictator, who died in 1982, was actually a golden age. Said one official: “The world may not have liked us then, they may have feared and despised us, but we were a force to reckon with—a superpower, the largest country in the world.”

Others joined in, heaping scorn on the democrats and reformers whom they accused of reducing a once-proud country to the status of an international beggar. Then, 33-year-old Svetlana delivered a contrary opinion that clearly startled them. “I think,” she said, “that advancement in our society should not have been overwhelmingly dependent on party membership.” Under the old system, Svetlana’s bloodlines are impeccable: her parents were of peasant and worker stock, and she describes her father as a self-made man who rose through the party and the foreign ministry. But Svetlana never joined the party, and when the putsch erupted last summer, she was among the 150,000 Muscovites who rushed to the defence of the Russian legislature.

Despite her support for Yeltsin, she said that she had never believed that his victory last summer would lead to democracy. “Yeltsin and most of our leaders are all former Communists, recent converts to democracy who have never learned the art of compromise,” she said. “We

only know extremes here. We established a Communist system at great human cost, and now we want to raze everything built during the past 70 years and start again from ground level. We need at least another two generations for democracy to take hold here, but there is not time.” She added: “This is Russia. Our experiment with democracy will end badly. An ideologue, a fascist, will gain power by promising everything to everyone.”

Sooner rather than later, almost all conversations with citizens of the former union settle on most people’s current preoccupation: the time-consuming hunt for food as inflation makes a mockery of the ruble’s purchasing power. In Moscow, people outside near-empty food stores gloomily note the lengthening waits—30 minutes for bread, one hour j for milk and three hours for | meat. “One of my neighbors waited three hours in line for cheap sausage,” said Olga j Petrov, an assembler at Moscow’s Ogonyok (Beacon) toy factory. “Then, she i discovered that the store clerks had cut the price because the meat had started I to spoil.”

Petrov and others in line outside a milk store said that they often wonder how much food is being hoarded on collective farms and in warehouses in anticipation j of January price increases in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Those price rises \ will double and triple the costs of consumer goods, with the exception of such basic staples of Russian life as bread, milk, salt and vodka, which will remain under price controls. For increasing numbers of Russian citizens, the first stage of economic shock therapy will likely be a diet that is already familiar to the poorest members of society: bread and tea.

Most of Moscow’s 50,000-member foreign community still lead a relatively privileged life. Now, however, access to fairly comfortable apartments and well-stocked food stores is largely based on a steady supply of hard currency. And despite competition from blackmarketeers, banks offer exchange rates that make even free-market ruble prices absurdly low to outsiders. Last week, one of Moscow’s new private variety stores was offering a doll for 350 rubles—about $4, but a month’s wages for many Soviet workers.

State-subsidized items are even cheaper: a one-way ticket to Vladivostok, 6,436 km east

of Moscow, costs.only 100 rubles, or just over $1. Of course, that means flying Aeroflot, an airline whose frequent delays and cancellations provide a constant stock of grim travel anecdotes. Experienced travellers on Aeroflot’s blue-and-white planes routinely avoid domestic trips that involve several connecting flights.

But even a direct flight to Moscow can cause

difficulties. Last October, I booked a seat on a 2 a.m. flight from the Armenian capital of Yerevan. But as the hours passed, the dimly lit airport lounge began to resemble a giant dormitory, with passengers sprawled on the floor or draped unconscious across banks of chairs. At 9 a.m., after a night filled with announcements about fuel shortages, passengers finally boarded the plane. I promptly fell asleep, only to wake an hour later to find that the plane remained on the tarmac and that a mini-rebellion was in progress: a flight attendant had announced yet another delay, inciting scores of irritated passengers to refuse her request to disembark.

I went back to sleep, and when I woke up at about 11 a.m., the cabin was nearly deserted. Most of the passengers were outside on the tarmac: smoking, debating the country’s future with the flight crew, sheltering from the sun beneath the plane’s wings and generally displaying the Soviet knack of adapting to trying circumstances. At noon, 10 hours behind

schedule—a relatively minor delay by Soviet standards—the plane took off for Moscow.

Despite such problems, daily life in the former empire is not completely chaotic. Moscow’s famed Metro system continues to work efficiently, and despite gloomy warnings about winter energy blackouts, the city’s heating and

lighting systems continue to function. Events ranging from fashion shows to erotic film festivals go on as scheduled.

Hockey games continue, as well. And for a van filled with four Canadians and three Americans, the admission price to a recent championship game between Moscow’s Spartak and Minsk Dynamo was right: two rubles, or just over 2 cents, per ticket. It was fast, exciting hockey, and the home team won 6-4 in the clean, modern arena. But getting lost in a light snowstorm on the way to the game provided the most vivid memory of that wintry afternoon. A policeman in the park surrounding the arena told us to go straight ahead, motioning towards a traffic circle where several cars were fishtailing wildly on the snow-packed roadway. When we neared the circle, we had to wait until about 10 sedans with numbers taped on their doors had careered to the far side of the rotary: the traffic cop had just made us an unwilling entry in a stock-car rally. □