Short Stories by W.S. McCallum
A Letter Home
I hope everything is fine with you. As you will have worked out from the stamps on the envelope, I have made it at last.
My flight into Pulkovo-2 Airport from Frankfurt was a full one. Take-off was delayed by a group of returning Petersburgers with enormous briefcases they somehow managed to get past the Lufthansa staff at the departures terminal. After much ado in German and Russian, the cabin attendants (that’s what you have to call them these days mum, not “airline hostesses”), shoved the offending items out back somewhere.
I was seated in between two women, an old one and a young one. The old one spent the flight periodically counting fat wads of Russian roubles, holding them out of view in her handbag. I was told you aren’t allowed to take roubles in or out of Russia, but she must have known what she was doing. At one point she got up with her handbag and went off to the toilet for what seemed like a very long time. The young woman, by the window, was very nice. She spoke English and smiled at me a lot. She thought I was American and asked if I was married. A lot of young Russian women are very friendly like that mum, but don’t worry, I’m being careful.
Just before we landed, they gave us customs forms to fill in. These are really complicated things. I thought I was visiting the Russian Federation, but these forms kept talking about the Soviet Union, asking if I had any Soviet roubles, stocks and bonds, or lottery tickets. Honestly mum, where am I going to get a Soviet lottery ticket? They also wanted to know if I was carrying gold, silver, platinum or platinous metals, uncut or cut precious gems (diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, pearls, or jewellery), or fragments thereof. If that’s the sort of thing they carry around, all those stories about the Russians being so poor can’t be true after all. As well as fruit and animal products, just like in New Zealand, the form also asked if I had any printed matter, manuscripts, films, camera film, sound recordings, or stamps. I reckon they must have lots of stamp collectors in Russia as well. They also wanted to know if I was carrying any arms or ammunition! Maybe they get lots of Americans visiting too.
Just as we were landing at Saint Petersburg, a cabin attendant announced the local time and temperature: ten past two in the afternoon and negative two degrees Centigrade. They told me at the travel agent that this time of year was spring in Russia! Maybe here that is warm for spring. The young woman wanted me to carry some of her stuff through customs for her, but I was already fully laden so I had to turn her down. She wasn’t very happy, and I know it wasn’t very obliging, but I did have a bag and coat of my own to carry.
Pulkovo-2 Airport isn’t quite what I expected. Instead of being all stone grey and drab, it was brown stone and drab. It was quite a walk to customs, and various polite men in uniform made sure I didn’t lose my way, but I’m sure if I had, they would have found me with all the closed-circuit TV cameras installed everywhere.
There were three queues at passport control. I was standing behind a crowd of Russian businessmen. In Russian they call them “biznismeni”. They got through really quickly, then it was my turn.
The border control officer sat in this wood and glass booth, with this little gap thing through which my passport was taken. She looked like one of the guards out of that Aussie TV series you used to watch. Do you remember the one - Prisoner? And she had a big peroxide bouffant like Aunty Phyllis used to have back in the sixties. She looked really intently at my passport and visa, holding them in turn up to a light. Then she turned my passport round the right way up and placed it down behind the high counter, where I couldn’t see it. Her head went down below the level of the counter too.
Suddenly she popped her head back up and stared at me really hard.
It actually gave me quite a start. I was nervous enough as it was. What if they wouldn’t let me in? I was just regaining my composure when her head bobbed back down behind the counter for another look at my papers.
She was out of view such a long time that my attention wandered. I was sort of just looking around, admiring the colour of the ceiling, when up she came again. I was ready this time.
She stared at me.
I stared at her.
She stared back.
I held my gaze. Right into her blue mascara-ringed eyes.
They were cold eyes mum.
I couldn’t take it any longer. I caved in and looked away.
Then there was a loud bang behind the counter, just like Nikita Khrushchev’s shoe hitting that disarmament conference round table back in the sixties.
When she gave me my passport back, I just stood there dumbfounded.
“Иди!” she shouted, waving her hand. That’s Russian for “Shift it so I can get on to the next person!”
Now I was free to pick up my pack from the carousel and go through customs.
The customs section is like we have here. Each gate has a bloke or sheila in a uniform, and an X-ray machine which they use to check what’s inside your baggage. I joined a queue behind a group of scruffy-looking men, but as there were only four of them, with less baggage piled up on their trolleys than the people in other queues, it looked like a good bet. All four of them went up to the desk together. I thought you had to go up one at a time, but they must have known what they were doing.
Some heated discussion ensued, which my Russian from varsity didn’t enable me to decipher. After vigorous waving of certificates by the men, the upshot was that the customs officer wanted to look in their cases. Each man had one such case, very stoutly constructed with heavy duty locks. All four carefully placed their cases down on the counter, fiddled with the combination locks, and proudly displayed the contents.
The good officer’s eyes opened very widely. “Эй!” he beckoned to a colleague, engrossed in conversation with a cleaner. “Юрий Григорович! Посмотрите!”
Yuri Grigorovich, as he was called, stood transfixed for a moment, then approached, not taking his eyes off the contents of the cases all that while. Then he looked at the men, and in a deadpan voice asked them for their papers.
He looked at every document carefully, holding each one up to the light in turn. As they were in Russian, he did not have to worry about which way up to read them. Then he handed back the papers and pulled out a heavy duty pump-action shotgun from one of the open cases.
Mum, at that point, everyone in the customs area fell deadly silent. I swear every person there, customs officers, guards, passengers, even the cleaner (who dropped her mop), were all looking intently at that shotgun.
He had a go at the pump action, but couldn’t get it to work. One of the four scruffy men released a catch so Yuri Grigorovich could pretend he was locking and loading the hopefully empty weapon to his heart’s content.
By now other stray customs officers had converged on the scene, pulling out further weapons - another shotgun and hunting rifles (the latter broken down), and telescopic and infra-red sights. The group became quite animated as the four men fielded questions on rates of fire, range, accuracy, and weight. Then I think they started talking about good hunting spots and which weapon was best for which type of game.
In the end they were all quite enjoying themselves. At least no one seemed in any hurry to move on. It looked like I had picked the wrong queue. I noticed that in the queue to my right there was only one little old lady waiting with a big carry-all. So I stood behind her instead.
The man at the counter had just finished reading through her customs declaration and was waving her through when he changed his mind. She had to put her big carry-all back down on the rollers behind the X-ray machine while he unzipped it. Sitting on top inside was a three or four kilo vacuum-sealed bag full of white powder. Quite nonchalantly, the good officer poked a hole in the plastic and stuck his index finger in. Withdrawing the digit, he proceeded to suck it thoughtfully.
“Эй! Юрий Григорович!” he beckoned to Yuri Grigorovich, still engrossed in conversation with the four scruffy hunters, and pointed at the open bag. “Попробуйте!”
Yuri Grigorovich came over, ceremoniously poked his finger through the hole in the plastic bag until encrusted with powder, then cautiously licked it off.
“Hmm.” Yuri Grigorovich looked at the old lady, then looked at his colleague. They both smiled and nodded to each other.
“Все в порядке!” announced Yuri Grigorovich. And with this the woman was waved on.
By this time I was so flustered I quite forgot to declare my camera, film and Lonely Planet guide to Russia, but all the same I too was waved through. So you see mum, the Russian customs people aren’t such a bad bunch after all.
After a short stop to change my money, I had to work out how to get into town. The problem is that Pulkovo is a long way from central Petersburg and there isn’t much in the way of transport to get there.
No sooner had I shouldered my pack and stepped out of the arrivals building into the chill afternoon air and crunchy snow than a man in a big thick ski jacket and cap sidled up to me and asked in English “You need taxi? “For you is cheap - forrrty-five US dollars!”
By way of a reply, all I could manage was “What!?”
“Okay, okay, for you my friend, forrrty dollars!”
Who did he think I was - Bill Gates? “No thank-you, I’m taking the bus.”
The tout appeared not to have the word “no” as an active part of either his English or Russian vocabulary. By the time I got to the stop I had forced the price down to thirty-five US dollars, but I was still taking the bus. He trudged off dejectedly, grumbling about stingy foreigners.
The trolley bus was a long time coming. Once squeezed into it (standing room only), my main problem was that I had no idea about precisely where it was going. I managed to establish with the somewhat deaf old conductress that the bus did indeed go to the city centre, but she was none too explicit with details. In the end the question was made quite academic by the breakdown of said bus - something to do with the overhead wires. In any case, the deaf conductress and driver herded me and the other passengers off into the street while they waited for a maintenance team to arrive.
Not knowing where I was in greater Petersburg, I decided to stop for a snack and a think. It was still only about three in the afternoon. Quite conveniently there was a little corner store just along the way. My very first Russian shop!
The place was like an old-style grocery store, with everything on shelves behind the counter. In front of the shelves stood an L-shaped counter, 8 metres long in total. On the counter were three tills, one at each end and one in the middle. Each till had a woman standing at it. Behind them hovered another woman. This woman quite happily retrieved a bar of chocolate for me, but refused my change and pointed at the till at one end of the counter. At this till, let us call it till 1, I handed over my money, then realised I wouldn’t mind a can of lemonade as well. Seven Up, just like we have mum. The drinks cabinet was right behind till 1 but the woman there refused to get it ‑ that was the job of the woman hovering in the background. Nor would the woman at till 1 take any money for the drink. That was the job of the woman at the middle till, till 2. Once payment of the respective amounts had been made to till 1 and till 2, each woman successively gave me a receipt. Then, once these two receipts were passed to the hovering woman, and were torn, and only then, did I get my chocolate and drink. Meanwhile the woman at till 3 was sitting reading a magazine.
Wondering about the extent of post-glasnost economic reform in Russia, I crossed the road to a little park and sat down on a bench for a rest. Before long a little man with a beard and cap had approached me and was pulling those little wooden matryoshka dolls out of his pockets. He spoke English too: “This doll is Russian President, Boris Yeltsin! For you, my friend, is cheap - five US dollars!” I chewed on my chocolate bar and swallowed while he opened Boris up, showing the other little dolls nested inside - Gorbachev, Brezhnev, Stalin and Lenin. “Is good no?” he asked.
“Почему вы не имеете Андропов или Черненко внутри?” Where were Andropov and Chernenko, that’s what I wanted to know.
The man pulled a very sour face and trudged off, muttering something about ungrateful foreigners.
Still needing to get into the centre of town, I wandered around the slippery streets asking people where the nearest underground station was. To my surprise there was one not far away, but before I could get on I needed a token to stick in the entry gate. In the metro station I realised I had no more change to speak of, having used up the little I had on the bus ticket and snack. The rest of my money, as given to me at the bureau de change at the airport, consisted of crisp, new 100 rouble notes. I queued at the ticket counter and patiently waited my turn.
“Один жетон пожалуйста.” The token was forthcoming, but change was not. Before I could say a word, some pushy person behind me had elbowed me out of the way. Odd. So how much was a token worth? NZ$30 for a trip of the metro seemed a bit steep. On the wall beside the counter was a long list of various fares and regulations - there! What! Two roubles! There was no way anyone was going to let me back in at the head of the queue, so I patiently went to the back and waited for my turn. When it came, the face of the woman behind the counter was quite blank when I raised the matter of change: “Я дал вам сто рублей! Где моя сдача?” She made no response whatsoever and I was getting nowhere. Then I remembered the advice of Peter, the son of a Ukrainian immigrant, in my class at varsity: “If they muck you around, make a noise.” In between classes, Peter taught me some quite rude phrases. These, coupled with loud thumping on the glass, and a good measure of encouragement from the delighted Petersburgers behind me, eventually got me my ninety-eight roubles. I counted them carefully before leaving.
It’s not that I can’t count mum, it’s just the money is a bit tricky in Russia. You see, they have all these different old and new notes and coins, even Soviet money which is no longer legal tender. Peter had explained all that to me too, but I wasn’t used to recognising the coins and notes. Currently in Russia one rouble (about 30 NZ cents at the moment) comes in the form of a 1 rouble coin, minted 1997 or later, a 1 rouble note, minted 1997 or later, an identical 1,000 rouble note minted 1995 to 1996, now worth 1 rouble since they revalued their currency by chopping three zeros off , and an older, large green 1,000 rouble note. Just to confuse you, they also have old 10 rouble coins (now worth 1 kopeck (1/3rd of a cent)) from 1992 to 1994 which are the same size as the current 1 rouble coin, and old Soviet 1 rouble coins which are also the same size, but which are no longer legal tender. So what with the 1 rouble notes and all the others to check, the people behind me turned from encouraging to impatient in short order, but eventually I was on my way.
An American in the underground told me I wanted to get off at Vosstaniya to get to the hotel I was staying in. Coming out of the underground, feeling like a ewe in a stock pen, and standing out conspicuously as a foreigner with my big, heavy Western-style pack, I pushed my way past people selling newspapers, lottery tickets, beans, fish and ice cream. Yes mum, negative two and they’re selling ice cream! No, I don’t understand it either.
So this was Saint Petersburg! People everywhere, the majestic architecture of Moscow Railway Station, and the smell of exhaust fumes from all the traffic heading to and from Nevsky Prospekt under the loving gaze of the Gaishniki, or traffic cops.
The walk to the hotel was short but hazardous, due to black ice and down-pipes. Down-pipes, you ask? They have these big down-pipes, large enough for melting ice to fall down off the roofs. Problem is it comes shooting out over the gutter at high velocity. I followed the example of the locals and quickly got out of the way if I heard the rumbling sound created by ice dropping down a pipe.
The place I was staying was unobtrusive. A small sign and a closed door. They had one of those little speakers you talk in to. I had just reached to press the button when the light went out.
I came to the next day in hospital, my head wrapped in bandages. A nurse explained with the help of a sketch and a bit of acting that I had been hit on the head by a block of ice that had fallen from a roof, four storeys up. The doctors and nurses have been very nice to me here mum. But you see, the problem is someone took my passport and money while I was passed out, lying in the street, and the hospital doesn’t seem very happy about my NZ travel insurance policy, so I was wondering if you could send some money. I’ll get some money refunded eventually for my missing travellers’ cheques, but it might take a while, what with the way things work here. The NZ embassy in Moscow said they should be able to do something about my passport by the time I get out. There is still the matter of registering my visa, also stolen, but I’m sure it will all work out, so don’t worry mum.
Natasha, a nurse here, has very kindly agreed to send this letter airmail for me, as I am bed-ridden at the moment. She asked me if I’m married too. Who knows, all this may turn out for the best after all.
Love you dearly,
© Wayne Stuart McCallum, September 1998
First published in Ветер, December 1998
Komsomolskaya metro. Leningrad Station entrance. Sunshine and spring morning heat stop at the door. A plump woman in a metro worker’s uniform surveys the coming and going passengers, on the look-out for freeloaders with no tickets or tokens. Past the gates, a complex series of passageways lead to sharply-descending escalators. Down and down and down. It’s vertigo-inducing. They sheltered from Nazi bombs here in the winter of ‘41, some 60 metres underground, safe in the knowledge nothing would get through. Then the Yanks went and invented the atomic bomb. There are as many people riding up towards the surface as there are descending. Were a giant alien with a big spade to dig a hole in the ground here, the sun-dazed denizens would spill out like teeming ants in a tailspin.
At platform level, marble and chandeliers provide the décor. Trains arrive every three minutes forty seconds to service the crowds that gather inexorably on the platforms, until the doors open and they flood through - water released from the platform penstock, creating a turbulent mix as they press against those wishing to alight from the carriages.
Passenger triage takes place on board. Young men stand for elderly women. Old men rise for mothers with children. Newspapers and books are pulled out. Those unfortunates without printed matter read over others’ shoulders. An old woman chews seeds, spitting the husks on the floor.
Next stop Krasniye Vorota, announced by a recording. A paternal Soviet voice intones: “Esteemed passengers. Please do not rush, and do not forget your bags.”
This particular Saturday morning on the metro is a holiday morning, and it is clear to see. Various passengers from the older generation are all dressed up. Some are in period uniform. A Cossack officer stands down the far end of the carriage, and two naval officers are seated opposite. It’s a big day. The day they beat the fascists in ‘45.
Next stop Lubianka. Home of the Cheka, later to be the NKVD, then the KGB, and still home to Russia’s current national security force, the FSB. The awkward waltz involved in detraining and entraining repeats itself.
Third stop - Okhotny Ryad - Hunter’s Row. A few minutes’ walk from Red Square, although not today. Cordons of policeman block all exits from the platform. There is nothing stopping people from getting off a train here, but likewise there is nothing enabling them to go any further than the platform. It’s Victory Day and crowd control is the order of the day.
The cops pay no mind to questions about how to get out of the metro system, particularly from a foreigner. Taking this personally lasts only as long as seeing a doddery old couple, man and wife, each weighed down with an impressive chestful of gongs and ribbons, also being turned away by the stern young cops. The pair of veterans stand gaping, incredulous, as a charmed little fat man with a leather bag strides through the checkpoint, waving a magic red leatherette pass and chanting “plumber!” “plumber!” “plumber!” in rapid succession, uttered with all the power of a Buddhist mantra, at every one of the succession of uniforms in his path. They must have a blocked toilet in the Kremlin.
Back in the train. Next stop the Lenin Library. The platform is a madhouse. This is what it would have looked like in the Nazi air raids back in ‘41. Here there are more barriers manned by stern-faced policemen, blocking the way.
Kropotkinskaya. Same story. No one is getting out of any metro station in central Moscow today. Unless they are God, a policeman or a plumber.
Park Kulturi. Throngs of passengers coming and going, but no cops, apart from the normal patrols looking for beggars, deserters and other undesirable elements. Finally, a place to surface and breathe unrecycled air.
Outside the sun has gone and the sky is grey. Overcast conditions that may turn to rain bring to mind thoughts of a coat, except it is too muggy to wear one.
The Krimsky Most is one of Moscow’s more impressive bridges. Larger than life Meccano assembled by Soviet giants, long since departed. It is in the process of receiving a new coat of battleship grey paint, although no one is out daubing today. On the other side lies the Park Iskusstv, the site for the New Tretyakov Gallery, a metal and glass 1970s creation, and some outdoor art dealers, experiencing a quiet morning.
Behind the New Tretyakov Gallery lie various remnants of the past. Statues banned from public squares and buildings for representing the dictatorship of the proletariat, comprising images of workers, and perpetrators of the old madness - Stalin, Brezhnev, some of Lenin, even one that looks like Tito. The stone figures, some of them broken off their bases, lie scattered about what is soon to be a small public garden cum Communist theme park. Landscape markings have been staked out on the green spring turf. Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka, stands above them all, immutably cast on a sturdy base that defied destruction. They toppled him from outside the Lubianka in ‘91. It took two cranes and a mob of very angry people - but he didn’t crack under pressure, unlike so many of his victims. Multiple layers of red paint and spray-painted obscenities have been water blasted off his worn body and base. Across the way, towering above the whole neighbourhood, stands an earlier despot - Peter the Great. Either a kitsch masterpiece or monstrosity, he is perched proudly at the helm of a dwarf sailing ship. The ensemble, forming a garish monument, was erected at great expense by the municipal authorities in memory of a man who hated Moscow so much he built a new capital to escape it.
It is early afternoon now. Ostozhenka Ulitsa is quiet, as is the surrounding neighbourhood. Very few cars are moving on a street normally difficult to cross due to traffic. Peter is still visible in the gaps between the houses, standing at the helm. Outside Kropotkinskaya station, dozens of people are hanging around. Across the road from them is Peter Kropotkin, the anarchist prince. Or at least his statue, erected by a State that represented everything that is hateful in Statehood, for a man who wanted to be rid of the tyranny of Government.
Of late, Kropotkin has been witness to the construction of the Church of Christ our Saviour, Moscow’s newest and most impressive, rebuilt forty years after Stalin had the original church demolished to make way for Government offices. Seepage from the Moskva River prevented the mega administrative tower from being erected, so it was decided the site would be perfect for a new municipal swimming pool. Now the worshippers are back on their old site, under the roof of an architectural replica, with the distinction of boasting the finest public toilets in Moscow - fitted with German plumbing, no less.
A block from the Kremlin there is an impenetrable wall of riot barriers, heavily guarded by police. No one uninvited is getting into Red Square today. Nearby inner Moscow is largely lifeless. On Tverskaya Ulitsa, the main drag, there are few people. Visions of serried ranks of marchers in Red Square come and go, not to be seen today, in spite of being so close.
Lunch is a Danish hotdog (or at least what is claimed to be one), washed down with Coca-Cola, and a jam donut with pink icing and hundreds of thousands sprinkled on top. All the restaurants are shut. The portable meal is consumed on the steps of a small church in Novy Arbat. A wander down leafy side streets produces no conclusive proof of local life. Apart from tar seal and electricity, the inner city back streets seem not to have changed since the last century. Next comes a broad boulevard, one of Moscow’s ring roads, devoid of traffic. The cops have sealed off this part of the city to all public vehicles. The only movement comes from a police van racing along the carriageway. No traffic and no speed limit: a cop’s dream.
The long, meandering walk ends down a side alley, where a shabby market is tucked away, selling alcohol, takeaways, and providing a venue for card sharks and tricksters with three shells and a pea. The hot dogs and rotisserie chickens are cheaper here, but pose a public health threat. A throng of citizens stand at the egress from the market. It is Lubianka Square. The circular mound where Felix used to live is now planted with flower beds. A troop of men in uniform are marching across the square. The parade! Miraculously the clouds suddenly part, revealing bright spring sunlight once more and a rich blue sky.
A row of ageing men in naval uniforms lead the way, carrying military banners. They have walked from Red Square. Around the edges of the square, a crowd has gathered to watch. The representatives of the armed forces take pride of place in the march. In their wake, a wave of red banners is flowing into the square, the advance guard of a river stretching for a couple of miles.
Following the first wave, on come the Communists. A septuagenarian distributes tracts praising the virtues of Joe Stalin and North Korea’s role in showing the world the true path. The front line of the Communist contingent holds a red banner at waist height. The bearers have polished all their medals and carefully pinned them to their jackets, like so many others on this day. The legend of the banner is straightforward, if long-winded: “UNION OF SOVIET SOCIALIST REPUBLICS - RUSSIAN COMMUNIST PARTY - COMMUNIST PARTY OF THE SOVIET UNION”. Just in case you were unsure. Behind them marches a row of standard bearers - one for each Republic in what was the Union. And after them trail the faithful. Not one is under the age of forty. Approaching up the side, near the curb, is a resolute trio - three pensioners, one a woman, carrying paintings hoisted on poles. Their iconography comprises a triptych of Communist saints - Lenin, Stalin and… Molotov! Upon first sight of a camera they lower their icons and drop into a huddle at a pace that would put an All Black scrum to shame; a reflex born of years of living under a State where people with cameras at political rallies were often KGB officers. Now that Dialectical Materialism is no longer taught is schools, they are the dissidents. Yet these three are the mild ones. The tone of the shouting, slogans, and home-made banners is inflammatory. Calls for Yeltsin to be thrown in the clink, and other exclamations, written and verbal, in a style that model Soviet parents were never meant to teach to their children.
The following wave, just behind the last of the identifiable Communists, consists of a crowd of oldies protesting against the government, inflation, increasing prices, declining welfare assistance, frozen savings accounts, unpaid pensions, cut-throat wild-Western capitalism, and NATO imperialism. The aged concern contingent is sizeable, marching out of step, and out of kilter, unlike the Communists, yet they are just as determined to have their voices heard on this day.
A rowdy Fifth Column is the next to pass, a vision of youth in a sea of the elderly. Costumes are the order of the day - soldiers, 1920s Bolsheviks, an air force jet pilot, Third-World guerrillas, biznismeni with briefcases, a doctor in a white coat waving a stethoscope. The catch cry: “Down with Post Modernism! Death to Post Modernists!” Anarchists? Situationists? Merry pranksters? “Down with Post Modernists! Death to Post Modernism!” One particularly large placard stands out: “TAKE US BACK TO THE GOOD OLD DAYS - THE STONE AGE!”
The tail end of the procession has been placed as far away from the Soviet-era marchers as the police could get them. Russian nationalists, national socialists, black-shirted crypto-fascists flashing armbands with topsy-turvy crosses, men dressed in Tsarist officers’ uniforms, nobles dressed to the nines, and cassocked priests. A more impressive array of costumes than the young pranksters could manage, and worn in earnest. Theirs is the voice of reaction, the flotsam of Imperial White Russia. They want Yeltsin out too, and the Communists rounded up, a Tsar back on the throne, pogroms for the last few Jews who have yet to abandon the Motherland, the promotion of beard growing, religious genuflexion, prayer, incense-spraying, and perhaps some flagellation thrown in for good measure. Hierarchy, God and heredity. A society where people know their place and society knows what is best. Lest the Narod forget, Russian conservatism has tagged along as a reminder of what was and what could be once again.
Supermarket aisles provide an escape from this human wave. The series of doors serve as an airlock permitting entrance into a totally artificial world. Piped music floats over scrubbed tile floors as shoppers cruise along rows of expensive plastic-wrapped and prettily packaged imported Western foodstuffs. Spanish lettuces. Italian salami. French milk and yoghurt. Cadbury chocolate. The US edition of Playboy. Vogue in English and French. All the goods that money alone can buy, in a street where paupers beg outside. Yet there is no cause for concern. The shoppers continue their consumer carousing, secure in the knowledge that the security guards will keep the great unwashed clear of the doors.
The Boshoi that night is performing “Swan Lake” at the Kremlin congress hall, formerly the meeting place for the Supreme Soviet. Ticket holders are carefully checked at the gatehouse into the fortress, and are herded along a path leading to the performance venue. Here is where the New Russians go on Victory Day. They parade their best suits and frocks, sporting jewellery and rings and cufflinks, modern campaign medals for the new society. It is a venue where a well-dressed executive can pay for a foreign cocktail with a 500 rouble note, and be rewarded with a smile to go with his change. The dancers are enchanting, with just the occasional wobble. They say standards are slipping, but the foreigners shoot freely with their flash cameras all the same. The “No photography” signs outside the auditorium in all the major European languages, and a few of the major Asian ones too, count for nothing. Here is the Russia the tourists want to see. Flutes and violins, low blue lights and visions of loveliness.
By the time the applause has died down and the audience has been herded back out into the city streets, it is dark outside. Okhotny Ryad is still crammed with people, but the demographic has shifted since the afternoon. The oldies have largely gone home, to be replaced with youngsters, pressed almost shoulder to shoulder, out on Saturday night to watch the fireworks. Overhead there are bangs and flashes, met with “oohs” and “ahhs”, and causing heads to turn skywards in attempts to spot the airburst pyrotechnics, unfortunately obscured by surrounding tall buildings and the Kremlin’s walls.
© Wayne Stuart McCallum, October 1999
First published in Ветер, December 1999
Mama always sees me off in the morning. She helps me with my jacket, hands me my briefcase, tells me to take care, wishes me a good day, and locks the steel door behind me once I have gone. The corridor is dank and musty. It smells of piss - cat, dog and human. “Нащ народ”, mum always says - our people, in a disapproving tone. “We didn’t have all that before the changes” is an often repeated reproach.
My morning walk takes me through the market. Alongside the legitimate stall owners, unpacking crates of goods, laying out their wares for display, stand babushkas with two bags each, selling on the fly - fruit and veges, clothes, combs and brushes. At the first whiff of a policeman, they drop their wares in their bags, bend over to grab the handles, and off they go in all directions, indistinguishable from the lady shoppers doing their morning rounds. The cheekiest ones stand directly under a lamp post with a large “NO HAWKING” sign nailed to it. The market is a good place to stop and buy fruit and bread for lunch time. Prices are cheaper here than in downtown Moscow. The food goes into the briefcase. Sometimes I just stroll around here, watching the people. The shoppers, backs bent by decades of carrying heavy loads home to their families in inadequate bags. The Georgians, Abkhazis and other exotic friends from the southern republics who man most of the stalls. The local hoods who live off them. For their protection money, their victims have the privilege of watching these roughnecks in cheap leather jackets stand around all day, eyeing up their wives or daughters, boasting idly about their feats both in bed and out, and trying to look cool, flicking Ronsons, or playing with knives. Mama is at least grateful I didn’t end up like one of them.
I am glad it is May. Even at eight in the morning it is nice and warm. I don’t have to worry about seeking shelter from rain or snow. My predicament would be much harder to face in the Arctic chill of mid winter. After the market I stop at a newspaper kiosk and pick up a newspaper. Down at the metro there are usually people handing out little cards with offers, but not today. The newspaper goes in the briefcase too. It can wait till I get the chance to sit down in a quiet place.
I lost my job ten days ago. A junior management position with a Russian import agency. Once the rouble crashed, their sales of Italian bathroom fittings plummeted too. Having only joined the company last year, I was the first to go. Not that I can blame them - they even laid off leftovers from Soviet times, staff members working there since before privatisation. My shock was just as great as theirs though. I haven’t had the heart to tell mama. She is counting on me. The salary I brought home paid the bills that her meagre widow’s pension could never cover. I will have to tell her sooner or later. I am hoping later, after I find a job. Once everything is alright again.
I had to argue hard with mama when I decided I wanted to do my business degree. She didn’t want me to go to business school. “All that capitalist claptrap. How to exploit your fellow man and rake money off his back in the process. Shame! There was a time when you could be locked up for that!” There was no point telling her that those days have passed. For her reality was immutably set some time in the 1960s, and beyond that nothing counts. Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin are just so many passing phantoms. She cannot believe. Bloodsuckers and scum were the words she habitually used for people in the business sector, and here was her son, wanting to become one of them. She couldn’t see why I didn’t just stay in the army after compulsory military service - an honest trade, and one not likely to be dangerous now the Cold War was over. This was in ‘93, before the Chechens started misbehaving. Nowadays whenever she starts ticking me off about my career choice, I spit back that if she had had her way, I would probably be lying in a mass grave outside Grozny. Upon that she falls silent.
She used to laugh at the textbooks I brought home, the assignments I had to write. “So this is what we had the Revolution for!” Or whenever I tried to explain what our lecturers had been teaching us, she would start calling them kulaks and boyars, upstart gentry and the like. For all her reproaches, she was pleased when I started producing good grades, and as proud as any mother would be when I obtained a degree with distinction. She was out boasting to the neighbours, speaking glowingly about the bright future that lay ahead. Appearances, appearances. She would never admit to the coterie of inveterate gossips who inhabit our apartment building that she was inwardly ashamed of her son. In front of them, her praise of me was unstinting. There were always appearances to be maintained.
I cannot claim to stand above her in that regard. I too am worried about appearances, which is why, for the last few days, I have been dressing up in my business suit, and heading off faithfully at eight in the morning to a job I no longer have. I live in fear of one of the neighbours spotting me, obviously not at work, so I leave the neighbourhood as quickly as possible in the morning. A walk to the metro is essential, just in case one of the neighbours is out doing the morning rounds at the market and sees me. But once I get as far as the metro, I go in one entrance, down the long corridor, and out a little-used side exit.
The All-Russian Exhibition Centre is a good place to sit if you are unemployed. Formerly the showcase for Soviet economic, industrial, scientific and technological achievements, these days it is a slightly seedy mix of fairground, trade centre and market. The once modern pavilions that used to house the fruits of the Soviet economy are now venues for import firms to display the latest consumer items from South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand and the like. The countries we used to get told in school were the perpetual victims of Western imperialism, stuck under the heel of the United States. And here they are, selling all their cut-price goods on one of the largest consumer markets in the world - a modern, industrial nation that doesn’t know how to produce goods on a par with the Third World.
Economics is a dangerous subject to study, but not for the reasons mama supposed. Some knowledge of it allows you to see right through all the lies and bullshit of our leaders. They enjoy telling us that we are now experiencing the benefits of free trade. Yet the effect of that trade has been to cripple domestic production of basic items, because under the Soviets no one ever learnt how to make them properly, and to leave more and more factory workers unemployed. Who wants Russian bathroom fittings when you can buy Italian ones almost as cheaply, and they actually work? That was the logic that gave me my old job. If my employers had known anything about economics other than get rich quick schemes dependent on a good exchange rate, they might have thought about investing in producing their own bathroom fittings, incorporating the quality features of their Italian imports. But no, then they would have to sort out the puzzle of how to produce goods profitably in a country where manufacturing was always subsidised by the State, and mentalities and bureaucracy are still stuck in that old perspective.
Some manufacturing works here, if you are prepared to sidestep the bureaucracy. All the computer games, CD and video sellers operate well outside the letter of the law. Their wares are pirated and bootleg copies of product from the West. Legitimate copies are one sale for twice to three times the price in the pavilions, but few are mad enough to pay more for the real thing when you can have a copy for less. The pinnacle of this system is offered by the music traders who deal in taped music. For a rock bottom deal, you provide your own cassette, then select the album of your choice off a long list and come back in a few days time to pick up your recorded cassette. The laws against such things are not enforced with any vigour. In spite of the TV ads warning of the penalties for copyright violation, little or nothing is done. Someone must be paying somebody to lay off.
The seats are comfortable and clean here, a rare thing in public places. It is a good spot to scan for jobs in the paper without being disturbed by beggars and thieves. No one much comes here in the morning. It is a late afternoon, early evening sort of hang-out for young Muscovites. A place to buy candy floss, pick up a CD, and have a go on the dodgem cars.
I worry when I look at the paper. All the management jobs advertised seem to be for someone different from me. You have two broad categories: jobs with foreign firms and jobs with Russian firms. The former are the pick of the bunch - salary in hard currency, that perfect hedge against the vagarities of the Russian economy; various other perks like free healthcare and insurance, and most importantly, much more money than any Russian firm will pay to someone like me. But there are many reasons why I will not be given such work. The first problem is that I am a Russian with a Russian degree. Fine, I speak some English, and I can claim to know local conditions, but I have found to my cost that few if any foreign firms are interested in hiring a Russian with a Russian marketing degree. As if a Russian could have any skills to offer us, when they can’t even run their own economy. The flipside is the Russian firms - low pay, poor conditions, long hours. I will take something there if I have to, but not until I have attempted to obtain something better.
A Vostok rocket forms the pride of place on the exhibition grounds. To think that thirty plus years ago we were dreaming of reaching for the stars. Now it is a case of trying to get out of our own quagmire.
In front of the Vostok rocket is an Ilyushin jet airliner. I read the other day, sitting here as it happens, that Aeroflot has decided to buy Boeings. We are one of world’s biggest aircraft producers, and now the national airline is buying American.
We stood on our own in the 1930s and watched the Depression sail past as the USSR haphazardly industrialised. Never mind the mess that Stalin made anyway. Now our industrial efforts are coming apart under the internal strain of mismanagement and poor quality control, and the external force of foreign imports.
All this reflexion will not get me a job though. I see three possibilities in the paper. Junior sales positions. Two with Russian firms, and one for a foreign company. Time to go door-knocking.
It is a long walk down Prospekt Mira. The first opportunity lies there. I am too late. The post is taken. The history is repeated at the second office, on the south bank of the Moskva. In the third office, in the inner city, inquiring about the job with the foreign firm, I am given the bum’s rush by a snooty secretary. I tell her to stick her job.
So that’s my job hunting for another day. Unemployment is a cruel sensation. You are on the outside of an invisible, clear pane of glass, impervious to all penetration. You can pass sounds through it. You are visible through it, yet for those on the inside of it, you might as well not exist unless you show some little indiscernible glimmer of something they feel they can profit from. Then, and only then will they open a magic hatch in the pane to let you through. And once you are there, you too can ignore all the pained noises coming from the people pressed up against the glass, beating themselves against it, trying to get in.
I used to enjoy Children’s World when I was a kid. A whole department building devoted to toys of one sort or another. Even in Soviet days it offered enough to make a child very very happy. Now I am an adult, with my business degree, the same place is just another symptom of economic decay. Most of the toys are American, German, British, Japanese, Taiwanese and so on. A few pockets of resistance hold out, fighting against the current, yet few parents want to buy the shoddy Russian stuff when they can have the latest delights from abroad to keep their children happy. Upstairs, the arcades are now devoted to women’s clothing and accessories, stationary and other odds and ends. The top floor is virtually empty. I wander around it for the sake of killing time, wondering how long it will be before the floors below fall empty too. Heading down to the ground floor, floor by floor, I look at the women rather than the wares. The lady shoppers here never smile. Nor do the women behind the counters. They hate their jobs. They dream of marrying foreigners and living in America or Germany.
There is a ruckus down on the ground floor. A well-dressed lady shoplifter has been caught. She is bawling her eyes out, begging for mercy, invoking the Lord’s mercy, pleading to the saints. Complete hysteria. The lifted item is a box of Swiss chocolates. Hardly the crime of a pauper. She will receive no mercy. She is clearly thinking ahead to what the neighbours, friends and relatives will say when they read her name in the newspaper. The shame! The Lubianka is just around the corner. Do they still drag people there? No, surely not - there is a police station a couple of blocks away. It’s there she will end up.
Teatralny Prospekt seldom seems to have many people walking along it on the Kremlin side, which is why I enjoy strolling here. You can have the whole sidewalk to yourself. I am wondering what to do with the rest of my day when a man in a suit peels in from the right and starts walking in front of me. His desire for human proximity is strange on such a wide footpath. Then I notice there is a second man walking beside me. I switch my briefcase to my right hand, out of reach. A wad, apparently of US dollar bills, falls out of the pocket of the man in front of me. During its fall I can see the outer note is only worth one dollar. It may even be a photocopy. The man who dropped it then starts walking faster. This is where I am supposed to bend over and pick it up, except the man to my left silently does so instead. Are they trying to pick a fight to rob me? I need to get clear of the man on my left. I say nothing, and walk faster, pulling away from the confidence trickster beside me, close on the heels of the one in front. Their window for surprise has opened and closed. The man who was beside me stops and watches me and his partner hoofing it along the footpath. Thirty metres further on I pull up alongside the man. “You might want to get your money back mate - that bloke over there has a wad of bills that fell out of your pocket.”
He looks at me surprised. His accomplice, and it must be his accomplice, or he would have run off with the loot, is standing lamely back at the spot where the wad was dropped. The wad dropper just grunts and quickly turns around.
Amateurs. Even our crims are second rate. They would have done better just to jump me from behind and try and grab my briefcase. I can imagine their surprise if they had succeeded though - an important looking briefcase with my lunch, a pencil and a couple of pens, and a newspaper inside it. They could sell the case, although not for much - it is imitation everything.
In Revolution Square, outside the shopping plaza, the whores are arguing with their owners over fists full of dollar bills. My two friends would have done better to try jumping them. No, then they would have the pimps on their backs. They look like Georgians. A rough mob. Well-dressed shoppers walk past them, pretending they are not there. No police move them on either. Another bunch with protection from on high.
I resent the corruption, yet wonder whether this is because I am not creative enough to pull my own major scams. It is easy to have no second thoughts or hesitations over turning the system to personal profit when it is such an inefficient, inequitable system to begin with. The need for personal equalisation makes itself felt. Self-promotion at any cost.
The usual tourists are strolling in Red Square, being solicited by amateur tour guides for walks around the Kremlin. Lenin’s tomb is closed. His body is in too poor a shape for public viewing after over eighty years of being held together by the embalmers. Armed guards watch over the entrance, just in case some curious person comes snooping around.
I end up in Gorky Park, the site for a late lunch at three in the afternoon. As it is Friday afternoon, people are already starting to drift in. Office workers skiving off for some beer and vodka and a chat prior to another weekend stuck with the wife and kids. Kids absent without permission from school who have come to hang out, or play and ride on the fairground attractions in Luna Park, the corner set aside for such things. Someone dressed up in a bear suit is strolling around making witty comments untypical of real bears, in between offering mock roars and distributing samples of a new brand of chocolate. Mothers push their babies around in prams. As I tuck into my lunch, the summer sun warming my face, I wonder exactly what it is I am going to do with my life.
© Wayne Stuart McCallum, October 1999
First published in Ветер, December 1999
Going to the post office entails a twenty minute walk though central Moscow. I usually pop in on the day when I scour the local shops and markets, and wend my way through the street hawkers, looking for the cheapest food a student budget will support. But today is different, as I have a heavy load - books. Classic novels and short stories by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Blok, Zamyatin, Bulgakov, Voinovich and the like. A nice selection of hardback Russian literature, purchased for a ludicrously cheap amount. Praise be for the legacy of Soviet publishing - cheap books for the Russian masses, and the occasional foreigner who may be interested.
They are carried in two large, heavy-duty plastic Marlboro bags. The sort with carry handles. The sort no self-respecting Russian shopper would be seen without. You can buy them here for the equivalent of a couple of dollars. Although they are probably mass-manufactured in some Moscow suburb, their cachet is immense. They combine the snob value of providing free advertising for various sorts of foreign cigarettes or alcohol - Camels, Bensons, Jim Beam, whatever - with the practicality of large carrying capacity that can be folded up to fit in a coat pocket. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin would have had a fit.
My street advertising for Marlboro is quite unwilling, but is necessitated by a wish to get from point A to point B as unhindered as possible. During my first few days in Moscow I kept getting pestered by beggars, gypsies and hustlers. It took me a while to work out what was giving me away as a foreigner. All my clothes were sufficiently shabby to blend in with the crowd. My shoes were not Adidas or anything that looked foreign. No, it was my bag. A very practical, comfortable day pack with lots of pouches, zips and compartments, and a larger carrying capacity than any shopping bag. But it had to go. Only foreigners use such things here. If I kept using it, I would forever remain a walking target, spottable as non-Russian from a great distance. And if you are foreign, it is assumed here that you must be rich. A walking wallet in effect. So the day pack sits in the wardrobe in my room back at the international students’ dorm, awaiting my flight home before it can be used again.
My path takes me through leafy, residential back streets, free of traffic, and across major thoroughfares, where pedestrian crossings are ignored at your own peril, and a sudden change in the lights when you are half way across means you had better run to reach the curb before the several lanes’ worth of oncoming traffic engulfs you.
Freed of the day pack, I fit in pretty well. Away from the South Pacific sun, my Pakeha complexion has faded to that pale white so typical of Northern and Eastern Europeans. Chestnut brown hair, cut short, is pretty much the norm here. Being over six foot tall is a slight clue of foreignness - few Russian males have the diet to spur such growth in their childhood years, yet for all that tall people are not unknown in such a large country. And I speak Russian. Not as well as they do, but well enough. Well enough to get me cross-examined about my nationality by the police watching the gate to the New Zealand Embassy, and mucked around by the Russian gatekeeper employed by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs to keep undesirables out should the police fail. While shifting to speaking English finally convinced the woman on the other end of the intercom at the door into the embassy, only my passport satisfied the cop. He scrutinised my photograph carefully. There being no real grounds why a New Zealand citizen should not visit his own embassy, I was waved through. Several years after the collapse of the Soviet State, the Russians still maintain the routine of twenty-four hour surveillance on all foreign embassies. The policeman who stopped me had two comrades waiting to jump out of an unmarked car and haul me away should I prove to be an undesirable.
Youngish males get stopped regularly in Moscow. And elsewhere. The police are always on the lookout for draft dodgers and deserters from the military. I read in one magazine that there were over 17,000 Russians on the run from military service. Since the war in Chechniya, and stories of declining standards and bullying surfacing in the press, young men have been staying away in droves. This is the drawback of looking Russian enough to blend in.
My local post office has a little shop in the foyer. A wizened babushka sits there behind a minuscule counter, waiting for someone to buy her icons. She has them framed and unframed, and sells separate frames and sheets of glass to go in them too. For a negotiable fee she will tell you your fortune.
The post office proper only has a few customers. It is late in the morning, yet not so late that the lunchtime rush has started. At one counter sits a bored moustachioed man who handles PostBank-related operations. At the other counter are two women, one old and one young, fat and thin, ugly and pretty respectively, who handle operations of a postal nature.
I am in luck. My turn comes after only four minutes’ wait. I smile and offer my finest Russian.
“I would like to send these books to New Zealand.”
I place the items in question on the counter. The thin, young, pretty woman looks at the fat old ugly woman. Both are aghast. The old one speaks first.
This is a word you hear a lot in Russia. Although the dictionary definition is “impossible”, the true meaning is anything from “I can’t be bothered” through to “I might do it for a consideration”. There was a time when I would have taken such an abrupt reaction at face value, but I have been here too long to give in.
I ask why it is impossible with a slight sneer and an insistent gaze. Just like a real Russian would.
“Что это значет - “русский закон”?”
Russian law - what does that mean exactly?
This is the cue for the thin, young, pretty woman to launch into a spiel citing chapter and verse of the Postal Code of the Russian Federation. She is very good, delivering it at a blinding speed even a Russian might have trouble keeping up with. I wait until she pauses for breath, then cut in:
“Could you repeat that please? I didn’t quite catch all of it.”
She gives her senior workmate an exasperated look, adding “He speaks Russian!”
As we have been speaking Russian from the outset, I presume this to mean “He knows us well enough not to be scared off.”
Having caught her breath, she recommences in a patient yet condescending voice, speaking slowly and deliberately for the poor stupid foreigner.
“You cannot send wrapped parcels. They need to be inspected and wrapped in the post office.”
I had heard of this somewhere, but did not imagine such a silly practice would have survived the fall of the Soviet Union. So I had wrapped them anyway. Poor fool me.
“There are only books inside. I have a list if you want to see.”
I slam it down on the counter. I made an itemised list just in case anything goes missing in transit. If it did, there would be nothing I could do, but it would still be nice to know what I had lost.
“A list is no good! The parcels need to be inspected!”
Shouting merits a response in kind. I delivered my best Russian bluster:
“Well inspect them then!”
She picked half-heartedly at one package.
“How? They are all taped up!”
True, aware of the perils of sending books 18,000 kilometres via surface post, I had wrapped and sealed them meticulously. Persiste et signe, as the French say:
“Well, do what you have to do then!”
Cursing under her breath about bloody foreigners and their bloody industrial strength sellotape, she started unwrapping the first package. In all, I had eight parcels, all tightly wrapped in thick paper, with a taped-up plastic bag as the inside liner to keep out damp and rain.
It took her about ten minutes to open them all. She went through each one, checking the titles for anything objectionable. I wondered what pretext she might find to object to recent classics of pre-revolutionary and Soviet Russian literature. I had been quite careful not to buy old second-hand copies, as these could only be exported with special permission from the relevant authorities, with anything published prior to 1975 qualifying as an “antique”, or so I had been told.
I waited until she finished before commenting: “You see - exactly the same as the list!”
She said nothing, concentrating instead on rewrapping the books. The regulation Russian Post Office wrapping was a gossamer thin plastic bag, covered with waxed brown paper, the assembly being held together with a single piece of twine. I wondered how well this arrangement would hold up during the three to four months required to reach New Zealand.
By this time a queue of some dozen or so people had formed behind me. They voiced their impatience with much foot stomping and repeated clearings of perfectly healthy throats.
They were going to have to wait, as it took another ten minutes to rewrap the books to the required standard. As each package was wrapped it was shoved back across the counter for me to rewrite the sender’s address and the destination. Once this had been accomplished, out came the question I had been waiting for some twenty minutes ago:
“Air mail or surface mail?”
She had lost her fire now. After twenty minutes of my presence at her counter, she just wanted to get rid of me.
My voice was flat but firm. She proceeded to weigh each package with old style scales, requiring counterweights placed on a second balance to determine the weight of the object in question. At least they had an electronic till. In other shops you might still find them using an abacus. This however took a couple more minutes. The crowd forming behind me was becoming increasingly restless.
She mumbled the price to pay.
I always ask this, whether or not I actually heard the first time. It is common practice to mischarge ignorant foreigners. In all it came to about twenty dollars, not an unreasonable price for the amount of mail and the distance involved.
Only a foreigner who has been to Russia will truly understand the elation I felt walking past the disgruntled members of the queue that had piled up since my arrival. It had taken me nearly half an hour, a bit of confrontation and arguing, but I had actually got a Russian to let me do what I wanted to do. I paused to reflect for a moment on the nature of a country that makes the commonplace so complicated, and smiled at my fellow postal customers.
© Wayne Stuart McCallum, 1999
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