A Banana Republic in the Snow
by Robert B. Boardman
Exclusive to The Libertarian Enterprise
Here's a quick snapshot of a country in transition from a command economy to freer markets. In January of 1994, I made a business trip to Russia. The USS Are was now the USS Were. Shortly after my return to Florida, I hastily wrote down my comments; edited, I present them here for The Libertarian Enterprise.
Moscow was a winter wonderland, if you like that sort of thing. I wish my first trip could have been in summer, but the odds are against that, since they seem to have more winter than summer. Cold and snow and ice and heavy traffic and everybody in one hell of a hurry, and signs in a non-Latin alphabet (and all in black and white -- in fact, I think that I will always remember Russia as a country with no color; maybe their eyes are different from ours, since the land and the sky are all grey. I stood out like a sore thumb in blue jeans and blue hat and coat), and smog at rush hour that will turn your stomach, and everything sooty and greasy to the touch.
But Russia has people who are friendly and helpful and curious about the USA and proud of their country and suspicious of their own and everyone else's political leaders. They joke about the KGB the way we (used to) joke about the IRS. The King and Queen of America were in town the same time I was and, since the American Ambassador's residence was on the same street as our office building, we weren't allowed to drive there. And they take their economic troubles in stride, because they are really no different from the economic troubles they have had for all of the Twentieth Century, except that now they are out in the open and the American news media needs constant grist for its mill; and they really do stand in long lines. In fact, a new government decree effective just before I arrived was designed to compel Russians to use rubles only, and all employees of foreign and domestic companies are now legally required to be paid in rubles -- so there are roving exchange banks, vans actually, where people line up on payday to exchange their rubles for dollars and DMarks; and every store, hotel, and restaurant that serves the public has a person whose sole job appears to be to change those dollars back into rubles so you can make your purchases. And those exchangers might be the only ones on the premises who speak English!
What you read in the papers in early 1994 is likely to make you think the Russians are going back, retreating from the progress of the late 80's and early 90's -- but their politics make all the news in America, and are widely ignored on the streets in Moscow. Ordinary citizens are buying futures contracts in vodka, because they are backed up by something of value, in contrast to the ruble, which inflates at about 10% per month, if you can believe official figures, which are compiled by bureaucrats who get paid for working while in reality they are standing in line somewhere. Big stores are a study in schizophrenia: Clerks stand behind counters, polite as French waiters, speak only Russian, and charge high prices payable in rubles only; while three feet away in the same store, free-lance salesmen speak perfect English, sell goods from bags they carry, and undercut the counter prices while accepting whatever currency you happen to have on you. You might be accosted by several of these people at once, invariably young and well-dressed, and be able to buy from the lowest bidder. A hotel room costs $120 per night; a full dinner about $5. How's the food? Plentiful and cheap. But definitely foreign. Gasoline is 24c a gallon, when you can get it.
It took two hours in heavy traffic (imagine Rome in a snowstorm) to drive from Moscow to Star City, the locale of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, with whom we are trying to forge a strategic alliance. The Center is part of the Ministry of Defense, so it took another half-hour of waiting in a cold car outside the gate before we were allowed in. They put us up in a dormitory which was built for cosmonauts in training, and they were plush: huge rooms designed for long-term living, with TV, refrigerator, radio, telephone, living room separate from the bedroom, etc., and I mean one such suite for each person! But a half-mile walk through snowy fields (one night the temperature was five degrees Fahrenheit) to the cafeteria. When I woke up in the morning, I opened the drapes and saw half a dozen cross-country skiers from my window.
A Saturday of sightseeing brought us to the Kremlin, and a long line to buy a $10 ticket to get in. But worth it. Inside the gates, it is less imposing than the view from certain angles from the outside. But it is a surprise to see beautiful churches, with much of their original artwork intact (including painted ceilings that would have challenged Michelangelo), and castles older than America. And a gift shop -- inside the Kremlin. Compared to that, the White House, where Parliament meets, was interesting only because we had seen so much of it on television last October. Status report: building surrounded by scaffolding, many upper-floor windows still boarded up. And the world-famous Moscow subway, whose escalator from the street to the trains would have inspired Dante, but whose stations are elaborately decorated in the style of the middle communist years, and whose trains are so efficient that I have nothing memorable to report about the commute. On this Saturday we stopped for lunch at a restaurant in a hotel recommended by our interpreter, and here we had a feast that took several hours and left us all groaning with bloat because it was too good to stop eating and the food kept coming in four identifiable courses of which, because of difficult communications, I thought the first was to be the only one.
At lunch I asked a Moscow resident (who spoke perfect English) where the fresh produce came from. She said her family grew vegetables on their privately-owned farm, which was inside the Moscow city limits and had been in her family for generations. Then I asked her if the economy had really disintegrated since the USSR collapse; she said, yes, we used to get a new car every two years, and now it has to last three years. I didn't ask whether she was KGB.
Finally, the world-famous Gorky Park, where three generations of spies met to prevent wars. The spies don't meet there any more; it's too dangerous.
Leaving Russia was the scary part. Some officials barely old enough to shave examined my documents (which still said "USSR"), and chattered endlessly in Russian while they fixed me with an evil bureaucratic gaze until I was ready to bribe my way out. The airport had several hundred travelers in the waiting rooms; I counted a total of three chairs.
They're making progress. As we help these people to move toward a free-market economy, shall we do the same for America?
Robert B. Boardman is the author of sf novels Savior of Fire, published by Blue Note Books, and The Trashers, as yet unpublished. He is currently managing director of the Nepenthe Project, a startup center in Houston for making liberty-oriented movies and videos. email: RBBoardman@aol.com
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