Russia in transition—2: fending for yourself in the new economy


In the fall of 1992, I returned to St. Petersburg for a month. Along with conducting interviews and research for my Vinogradov biography I was keen to compare the St. Petersburg of 1992 with the city that I’d started to get to know a couple of years before. This time, Susan came with me. It was a mild autumn that year in St. Petersburg; mists along the canals, deep russet tones to the sunsets over the Neva, soft grey light on the stones of Palace Square when it rained. Walking those streets, strolling by the canals, you couldn’t help but be exhilarated by the soul-caressing beauty of the city, by the way its style and scale affirmed the human spirit—the churches, the parks, the elegantly proportioned streets, the pastel buildings, a world history of architecture laid out for you to walk through and discover.

But equally, as you explored, you couldn’t help but be moved by the unrelenting shabbiness and decay. If anything, ordinary life was even more precarious and unpredictable than it had been when I first visited. Living there was like floating on a cloud—the unbearable lightness of being in St. Petersburg. Nothing was for certain. Even the street names were new. Again and again we were reminded of the skewed living standards between the so-called first world—the affluent West in particular—and the third world, to which Russia certainly belonged. The streets, lined with broken-down vehicles abandoned for lack of spare parts, were chronically under-repaired. You were forever skirting potholes deep enough to lose a Lada in. Traffic slowed virtually to a stop to negotiate the chaos of frost-boiled cobbles through which the tramcar lines threaded at every major intersection.

The little discrepancies were still acute. A local call from a payphone, when you could find one that worked, cost two kopeks—one-thirty-fifth of a cent. But it cost $11 a minute to phone a North American number. Dmitri bought his gas from the place where he parked his car. It cost him 50 per cent above the going rate but the price bought him protection from the Mafia for his vehicle. At the venerable Literaturnaya Cafe on Nevsky Prospekt, one of many restaurants where frowning men waited to lock you in, you paid a small fortune to listen to chamber music as you ate beneath art deco pewter trees and birds. But a couple of streets away four of you could gorge on deep-friend pitas stuffed with meat, a vigorous Hungarian goulash and a bottle of champagne for the equivalent of $4. At our hotel, when I asked one day why there was no hot water, I was told it was because “the Americans have left.”

In Gostiny Dvor, the vast, decrepit 300-store shopping arcade on Nevsky Prospekt, I paid 70 roubles and 50 kopecks (at that time, about 50 cents) for a Russian board game called Dyelovie Lyudi (Business People). It was like Monopoly, only instead of property you traded in stocks, shares and bond certificates in business enterprises. There were Chance cards (“government suspends activity at your car repair cooperative” for instance) and a set of rules explaining terms like stock exchange and anti-trust legislation. “Don’t fall behind in life,” said the sales pitch on the box. “Realize the meaning of the economic transformation that is taking place.”

It was a transformation that was taking place at headlong speed. In newly democratic Russia a desperate new entrepreneurism was aflame. Joint ventures with Western interests were springing up overnight like the big, brown mushrooms you could buy on every street corner that fall. “It’s like an out-of-control freight train loaded with consumer goods,” said my Russian writer friend. “No one can stop it. Eventually it will crash in a great confusion of TVs and stereos and cigarettes and fruit. And then there will be nothing again.”

Certainly, things had changed in a hurry. Two years previously, the only people with easy access to plentiful food and consumer goods were those with hard currency to spend. But now, at half a dozen markets across the city, you could find meat, fruit, vegetables and milk products of a quality and in a profusion far greater than in the state shops. But they were all private ventures, charging prices that still pushed the products out of reach of the average Russian. Despite spectacular inflation (estimated at 1,000 per cent by the end of the year: the rouble lost 30 per cent against the U.S. dollar in the month we were there) the average monthly wage was stubbornly stuck at around 3,000 roubles, or $15. University professors and the Maryinsky’s star dancers got 5,000, about $25. Pensioners had to exist on 1,500.

Beggars were far more prominent on the streets than I remembered: practised urchins who pleaded for “dinner money,” their trouser legs designer-tattered and their feet smeared with dirt like Dickensian mudlarks; gypsy mothers with coughing babies in their arms; muttering crones crossing themselves continuously outside every house of worship; mute men with vacant eyes and missing limbs sprawled against walls in threadbare overcoats. By one estimate, 10,000 individuals were sleeping in the parks and under the bridges of St. Petersburg every night. On Nevsky Prospekt (where, said the Berlitz guide, “it would be shockingly out of place to wear shorts”) you could drop hundreds, even thousands of dollars on icons or antique porcelain while outside the shops the homeless defecated in the payphone booths.

But personal hospitality was never less than lavish—nothing in the cupboard, everything on the table, as the Russian folk saying has it. Here, for instance, is my note of what the impoverished critic Arsen Degen and his wife laid out when they invited us for a meal:

1:  cheese and onion bake; hardboiled eggs filled with mushrooms and onion/tomato mix; egg mayonnaise; ratatouille and squash; rice/pastry/tuna 

2:  bouillon

3:  layers of onion, potatoes and steak under melted cheese and cream

4:  baked apple stuffed with berries; apple tart; cake

throughout: a big bowl of baked cabbage, plates of pyrogies, various pickles and two sorts of bread


Of course such extravagance wasn’t necessary, and of course we couldn’t do justice to it, but that wasn’t the issue. It has always been a point of Russian pride that your guests get the best you can give them. Even if it paupers you.

The deflated currency came in wads, when you could get it. Often the banks ran out and you had to change your dollars on the street. This was no longer strictly illegal, but it was still dangerous. People were routinely killed when they flashed their dollars in these side-street deals. Two years previously you could count on doing a profitable deal on the street, sometimes getting as much as twice what the banks would offer. Now the dealers offered a rate that was a within a rouble or two of the bank’s quote for the day.

Those street money-changers, who openly ran their thumbs over bulky bundles of 1,000-rouble notes as they invited your business, were part of the country’s new underground economy. Profiteering was rampant. A teenage boy hawking packets of postcards at the Peter and Paul fortress could make as much in a day as his father could make it a factory in a month. You wanted a BMW? No problem. That’s 4.5 million roubles.

And with the money, of course, came the criminals. At Petrodvorets, the serenely beautiful castle that Peter the Great built on the Gulf of Finland, I watched as the protection racketeers pulled up in a shiny car, casually made their collection from the proprietors of the souvenir stands that lined the entrance laneway and sped away without a backward glance. On the busier streets youths in groups of three or four would  surround you with a confusing clamour of offers of lapel pins, tee-shirts, army hats, trying to use the confusion to pick your pockets or unzip your purse. One imaginative scam involved apartment rentals. Russians would rent out their apartments at exorbitant rates to Western business people posted to the city, give the visitors time to settle in with their possessions, then notify the Mafia, sometimes even providing a key. The Mafia turned the place over, the apartment owner took a cut of the proceeds and everyone was happy—except the victim.

No one seemed to be in control. The city seemed like a newly dangerous place. The fear that the Party had engendered had gone but in its place was a fear of the uncontrolled criminal underbelly. People were scared to go out alone. When I arranged to meet two female friends at the ballet one night, each made careful plans to be collected at the front door afterward rather than take a tram or walk to the Metro.

There had also been a sinister change in the country’s attitudes to its Jewish population. In the first surge of nationalistic pride following the Gorbachev reforms, anti-Semitism had become endemic. In 1992 the extremist group Pamyat (Memory) was warning the “dirty Jews” to leave the country or be eliminated, and many were scurrying to get out while they could still get permission to go (Jew were the only members of Russian society who could be sure of getting permission to go abroad).

Boris Yanklevich Finkelstein, president of the St. Petersburg Jewish congregation.

But in a savagely ironic turn of events the economic collapse was making discontented Russians so envious of the Jews’ freedom to emigrate that they were lining up to change their religion in order to get the documents they needed to leave the country. When I visited rabbi Boris Yanklevich Finkelstein at the Grand Choral Synagogue in St. Petersburg he told me “many Russians ask me to make them Jews, not because they want to be Jews, but because they want to leave the country. A lot of people. They offer lots of money. They feel it is easy to buy Jewishness. Well, it obviously doesn’t work that way.”

In the bewildering new economy, artists too were suddenly unsure of where they stood. Under the Soviet regime artists were comfortably supported but tightly controlled, both in terms of subject matter and exposure. With the opening-up of Russian society they were free to create what they liked and compete for customers in the open market, but no longer received support for their work. They had to fend for themselves, and it was not always an easy transition.

In a restaurant just off Nevsky Prospekt I shared a meal with a man who spent 12 years of his life in the service of the Soviet arts but had now been shunted off by the new regime into a job that had nothing to do with the arts at all. The move had left him bewildered and demoralized. “I don’t understand them,” he said. “I have always believed that the arts should be given a clear direction by the state. Now everything is uncontrolled.” Still, there was widespread delight at the appointment of an actor, Nicolai Gubenko, as the minister of culture. His deputy minister was a music critic and screenwriter, Andre Zolatov.

In an interview at the Bolshoi Theatre I asked Zolatov how the ministry saw the role of the arts in Soviet society. He said it was important that “new tendencies that appear inside the arts here” should be allowed to emerge and flourish. “The arts give us youth and energy. The arts help us comprehend our lives I am absolutely sure that the arts, given their expressive freedom, can save the world from becoming cold.”

This arts were finding a new role in Russia, he thought. “The arts are developing so strongly that politics are likely to be subordinated to what the arts can show us, in that originality will be valued over imitation. Too many countries try to copy each other, and none of this is necessary. Each country should maintain and develop its independent identity. The arts can demonstrate how.”

Certainly the encouragement of “new tendencies” was paying off. Social protest theatre was beginning to emerge from the shadows. I saw a play in a loft theatre in a rickety building in Leningrad that took a bold approach to the disappearance of traditional values and the substitution of dear, threat and tyranny, and the resulting spiritual emptiness. It was the kind of play that was unlikely to have been presented so openly before the massive social changes of glasnost and perestroika. Would that frank challenge to the status quo be able to survive in the new system—where, as my chat with Zolatov made clear, those in power still saw art as a social and political tool, for all the apparent openness?

Meanwhile, making a living in the arts was increasingly a challenge. Valeri Jelobinsky and Anton Vetchinkin, for instance, were sculptors and potters who had just graduated from the St. Petersburg college of fine art. Their shared studio was a dark, dusty basement room in a crumbling tenement. Cats scattered among mould-encrusted milk cartons and heaps of garbage as you picked your way down worn stone stairs to their barred and padded door. Like their counterparts in the liberated west, they were finding it difficult as newly graduated artists to make anything of themselves, but counted themselves lucky. They had an arrangement with a bookshop on Nevsky Prospekt to display their work (that was where I first saw it) and they made enough, at $40 or $50 a sculpture, to pay for their studio and buy supplies. But their friends, the other artists who had graduated with them? Anton shrugged. “Nothing. It is hard to be an artist today in Russia.”

Anton Vetchinkin and his work
Alexander Ivanov in his studio












On the other hand (and there is always another hand, in Russia) one day we were invited to the home/studio of one of St. Petersburg’s more successful artists, Alexander Ivanov—an artist so successful, it seemed he could choose which of his surrealist paintings he was willing to sell. He was 42, originally trained as an interior designer, and had held his first one-man show at Leningrad’s Palace of Culture eight years previously. He had shown his work often in Russia since then, and in 1989 took it to Finland and in 1990 to Paris. By the time we met in 1992 he had taken advantage of the opening-up of international business lines to establish a steady trade with the West. Americans liked the Wyeth family influences they spotted in his Dali-like landscapes.

The works he kept for his portfolio lined the long hallway of the comfortable five-room apartment he shared with his wife Tatyana and her mother in the central, Rubinshteyna district of St. Petersburg. The apartment was lavishly equipped with Western consumer goods and gadgetry, and the bookshelves in the main room were heavy with English-language editions of works by Steinbeck, Henry Miller, Elias Canetti, J.M. Coetzee. The I Ching stood beside a copy of the Bible. Posters of Frank Zappa and the Beatles’ Back in the USSR decorated the walls of the studio where he painted.

Even he, though, seemed to be suffering from the changes. He grimaced when I asked him about the effect the new economy. The plunging value of the rouble was playing havoc, he said, with his prices. A painting that two years previously could sell for $1,200 would now only fetch $300, maybe $400. He looked troubled, then suddenly smiled. “Still,” he said, “$400. Not so bad, eh?”

I loved his typically Russian mix of pragmatism and optimism. It seemed the only workable approach to the challenges of survival in times of such massive change. He and Tanya were sensible, warm-hearted, intelligent people, and both Susan and I were moved more than we expected by their belief that, despite everything, Russia had a future. We became good friends quickly, and stayed in touch with them for several years, commiserating when their much-longed-for car was stolen the day after they finally managed to buy it, and sharing their delight in their first-born, Pavel. In our living-room today still hangs a small realist oil he did of a St. Petersburg alley—it reminds us always of the city when we first fell in love with it—and in my study is a tiny oil he did of a Russian country river scene.

Again and again I was pierced to the core by—in the face of everything—the good nature of the people I met. Not the sharp-faced crooks who wanted to pick your pockets, not the petty potentates who barred the restaurant doors, but the ordinary folk of St. Petersburg, the people without privilege, the people who lined up in the Nevsky underpasses to sell single items—a book, a pair of boots, a record—from their homes, the people who scraped to eat and often went without, the people who never forgot that things had been worse.

Because they had. The polished granite pillars of St. Isaac’s still bore the scars of the Nazi siege. Two thirds of a million Leningraders died of starvation during that 900-day blockade. Over 16,000 were killed in the shelling. Over five million square meters of housing were lost. They knew the Renaissance of St. Petersburg would not happen overnight. The knowledge made them philosophical; and that clear-eyed fortitude, that ability to ride life’s vicissitudes, which may also be part of what we call the Russian soul, is perhaps what will always set them apart from the West.



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