Moscow Days of Lines and Literature
UNTIL the days of glasnost, most American scholars and students working or studying in the Soviet Union lived in dormitories or hotels. Edwina J. Cruise, a professor of Russian at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., is a veteran of many stays in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but only recently was legally able to live in a private home. The following are excerpts from the journal she kept during her five-week visit to Moscow this fall.Oct. 10, 1991: The rhythm of my days is shaped by the family with whom I live: Igor and Vika and their poodle. Before he retired, Igor was a magazine editor. Now he writes historical novels for adolescents. Vika is a literary scholar. Igor and Vika's lives are models of quiet heroism and uncompromising integrity when so much of Moscow has dedicated itself to money. Inflation runs 4 percent a week. The poverty level has been set at 521 rubles per person per month, while unofficially the middle-class standard of living is 10 times that figure. Not counting infrequent honoraria for their writing, Igor and Vika live on a combined monthly pension of 400 rubles. At the farmers' market yesterday, I bought veal chops; depending on how you calculate, it cost about one-sixth of their monthly pension - or about $2. The exchange rate is now 32 rubles to the dollar, but it's po intless to compare; such comparisons help only to rationalize the unprecedented volume of illegal profiteering in Moscow. Clever risk-takers can aspire to wealth in this volatile economy. The young men on the street selling Army watches to tourists represent the worst of the rising generation. Their watchwords are speculation, buy or steal and resell. Those unwilling or unable to speculate - like Igor and Vika - must contain expenses as the ruble continues its precipitous decline. I am caught between the economy of my hosts, whose lives I want to share without offending their dignity, and the extraordinary power of my dollars. Oct. 12: Near the metro on my way to the library, I caught the flash of blue and white in someone's shopping bag. Then another. A procession of blue-and-white milk cartons began to pass by. What to do: continue to the library - I am in Moscow on a research grant - or detour in pursuit of milk? I followed the trail of cartons back to the source, doubtful that any milk would be left. But there was and I bought five liters. Absurdly proud, I returned home with my purchase. Oct. 15: Our typical breakfast is curd cheese and coffee (I brought the coffee from the United States). We make the cheese from fermented milk, which is heated and cooled and then hung in cheese cloth to separate out the whey. Igor and Vika started making cheese when it disappeared from the state stores. (It wasn't long ago that I told my students about Russia's superior dairy products.) The bag of cheese draining over the kitchen sink makes me feel safe from the persistent talk of food shortages. It's c omforting, too, to see the sack of potatoes stored in the hall - and the cabbage we bought off the back of a truck. Salted, it's fermenting now in the hall. Tomorrow it will be ready to eat. Oct. 18: I live in a literary home. The walls are lined with books, no surprise to anyone who has visited Russian apartments. Journals of literature and commentary come in the mail at the rate of two or three a week. Even the bathroom has interesting reading materials - memoirs about Anna Akhmatova and an encyclopedia on ethics at the moment. Our days are filled with research and writing. Igor is struggling with a new novel, and Vika is correcting proofs of a journal article. The literary energy which fl ourishes in this home helps me in my own research and is a vital part of our shared lives. Over breakfast this morning, Igor, whose gloomy prognoses over the years too often have come true, debunked the myth of the honest and industrious Russian peasant (a la Turgenev and Tolstoy). Closer to reality, he insists, are the dark visions of the human spirit found in the writings of Gogol and Saltykov-Shchedrin. Vika hotly protested. These dichotomous portraits, she argues, are simply two sides of the same coin; the inclination toward good will is no less strong in the Russian character than the pro pensity for ignoble selfishness. The breakfast table became crowded with characters from Russian literature: Khor and Kalinych, the mowers from "Anna Karenina," and Gogol's Pliushkin, Sologub's petty demon.... Literature is our antidote to the relentless pursuit of food. It's not true that there's none in the stores - there is food, but there's no predicting when or where it will appear. One recent evening when Vika and I were returning from the library, she took me to a store to show me the empty shelves that have become so famous in the Western press. Indeed, the store was literally empty, except for the several cashiers engrossed in conversation. Oct. 22: Conversations with friends invariably turn to two topics - food and politics. Discussion of food leads to a comparison of prices (before and now). "Now" is a very dynamic concept; today's "now" all too quickly becomes "before." Meat prices at the market, for example, have almost doubled since the beginning of October. The hottest political topic is the interrogation of leaders of the August putsch. The transcript was published in Der Spiegel and only then (translated from the German!) appeared here. Aside from speculation on who sneaked the transcript out of the country, many express bitter satisfaction that the putsch leaders have been exposed as drunken buffoons. Everyone now speaks of the putsch as a sad, sick joke. The initial elation has given way to morose reflection on the pervasive sense of moral vacuum. The f ailed coup was only the symbolic end of the communist values which long ago bankrupted the country. Oct. 23: A network of friendships is essential here, especially now. I stopped at a well-stocked foreign-currency grocery (no rubles accepted) to buy bananas for a friend's child who is critically ill. His doctor has prescribed a medication that is not available. Calls to friends have extended the search throughout Moscow's pharmacies, but no success so far. At least the child will have his bananas. Oct. 25: Igor came back from the store virtually emptyhanded - one-half loaf of bread. There was no milk. Nov. 4: Yesterday I checked out the store by the metro. Since my milk victory, I've dropped in a few times, but haven't found milk again. I don't go at the right time of day or often enough, unlike some pensioners who patrol the stores, armed with folding canvas chairs to wait out the lines. Working friends speak of elderly parents with new respect: They can shop all day. But this time I was lucky. They were just putting out milk. I pushed my way to the shelves and filled my plastic bag with eight liters. The bag's handles immediately tore from the weight. I've spent my adult life dieting, but I am beginning to share the fear of hunger enveloping Moscow. I turned toward the checkout, but I couldn't find the end of a line. An agitated mass of people - most emptyhanded - snaked around the store, not in the familiar, long-suffering line, but in chaos. I caught sight of a shopping cart full of emaciated chickens, with enormous scaly feet - or was it just that their bodies were so small? A burly woman in a white smock, bulldozing her way through the crowd, was wheeling the cart to the front of the store. The pandemonium was for chickens, handed out two to a customer, at the cash register. An elegantly dressed shopper carrying a bag of milk inquired if I were standing for chickens. When I murmured "Nyet," she volunteered that there was a separate line for milk purchases only. I quickly followed in her resolute, but dignified, wake to a line at the front of the store. Chickens were not the sole cause of congestion. Only two of the store's 10 checkout stations were working. Two hundred customers and two cashiers! Worse yet, our milk line fed into the "waiting for chicken" line. Only when the supply of chickens was depleted did the cashier turn to the "milk only" line. As soon as a replenished cart of chickens appeared, the cashier stopped taking customers from our line. For more than an hour our line seemed not to move. Sweat ran down my back; my arms ached. I thought about fainting. I looked at the shoppers near me - virtually all women: one far along in her pregnancy, another with two small children, but most of them older and several pensioners. And so patient. What kept me in line - after all, I can shop in the "foreign currency" groceries or the expensive farmers' market - was perverse allegiance to my resolve to live as Russians are obliged to. "How can you stand it?" I finally asked the well-dressed woman, her maroon wool suit with gray-fox collar and cuffs a sharp contrast to the indignity of the line. "If I had to live here, I'd go nuts." Contradicting all reason, we grumbled about the endless supply of chickens. Meanwhile, the turnstiles at the entrance to the store were being guarded by employees - there wasn't any more room inside. Why, I asked, weren't more checkout stations open? Very likely, I was told, payroll records would indicate that several cashiers were assigned to that shift. The salary of these paper figures would find its way into someone's pocket. Someone added that food-store workers are not only well paid, but they also have access to food that never gets put out for the customers. "Who can blame them?" said a woman. d do the same if it meant that my family would eat well." And then, the tide of opinion having turned, the blame for shortages shifted to a nameless "they": who don't work, who don't want to work, who don't know how to work - because that's the way to beat the system. The growing volume of our irritation may have been heard. A new, "milk only, absolutely no chickens" line opened - but on the other side of the store - and so we fought our way through the crowds and regrouped. A motherly woman invited me to put my broken bag of milk in her cart, advised me to prepare my money and quickly calculated the cost of my purchases. Later I learned that the cashiers in this store have a reputation for overcharging. When I finally paid and left the store there was no joy, only fr ustration at the enormous expenditure of energy and time. That was yesterday. Today, the rumors say that the exchange rate is going up from 32 to 47 rubles to the dollar. Bread sold out by 10 a.m. My friend Yury, who lives in another part of town, said that in his store people almost came to blows in the bread line. When a cashier tried to prevent a man from buying four loaves he bit into each loaf. Nov. 6: Today I twice stood in bread lines, but there wasn't any. I think the Soviet Union has been sacrificed to an experiment in social engineering which in scale and scope of devastation is larger than any other tragedy in human history. The Stalinist labor camps may have been a more conspicuous sign of this tragedy, but more sinister, because it is not obvious, is the crippling of the human spirit. Nov. 8: I met Igor at the foreign currency grocery. We bought cheese (real cheese!), salami, coffee, olive oil, and cookies for us - and bananas for the sick boy. Igor was puzzled by the way I shopped - comparing cost per ounce - which contradicts local custom: If you see it, buy it. Lugging home delicacies unavailable in state stores or at the market, we talked about food. Rereading the last few journal entries, I'm sure that I will be accused of a food fixation. But the fact is that people are now talking openly about starvation if help doesn't come from abroad. I asked Igor what America should do to help. Send food, he he said, food and medicine. But he added, with passion, aid should not be entrusted to the government for distribution; it will get lost as each bureaucratic layer lines its pockets. Aid should go directly to local health clinics, orphanages, and old-age homes. To those most at risk, especially children in large families or single-parent households. There is anxiety that today's children will grow up physically and mentally deficient. Maybe people will not starve this winter, but they will suffer profound hardship, held captive by the vagaries of an economic infrastructure in which demand and price will increase several-fold. The threat of hunger is crushing an already exhausted and frustrated people. In the first few days of my stay that seemed like an extreme view, but not now. Nov. 9: I leave tomorrow. Today I bought 10 liters of sunflower seed oil at the dollar store. It's hard to fight the futile impulse to rescue my friends. The winter has not even begun. Vika came home with a half box of oatmeal, a gift from a friend for the dog. Never mind that we've got two unopened boxes that I bought with dollars. Vika accepted the gift, she explained, because it is important for her friend to feel that she can help. As long as there are people who are still able to think of others, maybe there is hope.