(* This is a letter I wrote while living in Uzbekistan and Russia for about 2 1/2 years. *)
Dec. 17, 1993
With the holiday season upon me, I took it upon myself to organize a holiday letter. You may have thought that I fell off the edge of the planet and am now sailing through the ether, trying to avoid being run over by Santa and his reindeer. Not true, beg to differ. Here's the lowdown, infra, straight from the source.
Since arriving in the former Soviet Union in May of 1992 my life and fortunes have had their ups and downs, not unlike the political and economic environment here. "Ya have yer good days, and ya have yer bad days." Just ask Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Khasbulatov & Rutskoi, Zhironovsky, Western investors, the local Russian Biznesmen, Ivan and Ivana Public, and last but not least, the mafiosi.
There's a lot of pushing and shoving going on here (and not just on public transport), with many people trying to figure out how to get on the economic band wagon, as it heads for who knows where at breakneck speed. That's at the macroeconomic level. At the microeconomic level, most of the shoving is while you wait for a bureaucrat to make a decision, or a clerk to complete a sale. Old habits die hard.
I could hear the "pushing and shoving" going on at the White House on October 3rd & 4th. I took a Monday stroll in my neighborhood, and all was quiet, with people going to work, bargaining with street vendors, walking their dogs (never a mut, always a pure-bred something or other). But as one approached the area of the White House, you could hear the Kalashnikovs rattle and watch the crowds decide which way to walk or run. Needless to say, I did an about face.
More recently, the pushing and shoving has been confined to the mass media and the electioneering of the various parties. Just like the paragraph above, there are uniquely Russian rules for all aspect of pushing and shoving. Its hard for me to figure out what they are and how they are evolving. [Eg. When the first group of people came out of the White House on Monday afternoon, they just walked away, with no questions asked, not even what their name was, or what they were carrying out with them. This is in rather sharp contrast to the habit of all Russians to always carry their internal passport, in case police get nosy.]
I certainly hope that the new parliament can find consensus positions with the executive branch. I was hoping that the new parliament would be spending all its time establishing the legal and economic priorities of the evolving economic system. (I can't really call it a free market system, its more like a free-for-all at the local market when a delivery truck dumps a million oranges at the loading bay door. People are scrambling in, out, about, eating, squeezing, throwing, pocketing, purchasing, pilfering, pillaging etc.) Its not a job, its an adventure!!
The evolving economic system desperately needs laws which are generally accepted, respected, and vigorously enforced. I have been doing my part, as an American lawyer. I write contracts which do not get signed. I talk to Western investors who have little money of their own. I talk to Russians who try to sell what they do not own. I talk to Western investors who are afraid to part with what they do own, in the form of long term investments. But every cloud has a silver lining.
I've been teaching (in English) thirty local students all about American contract law. They and I have had to work at a furious pace. But as I told them, you don't know how fast you can run until an irate dog is fast on your heels. I liked the students. I'm also teaching a course in legal research and writing. The students have now accepted the necessity of writing on a computer and making many, many, many corrections, until the paper is something of which they can be proud.
Despite what you read about the mafia violence, it seems to be confined to those associated with the mafia, either voluntarily (the usual case), or involuntarily (extortion against successful businesses). I go anywhere, anytime, in all manner of dress, and don't have any problems. However I stay away from the bars, casinos, people carrying briefcases of cash, people offering to sell contraband, etc. I still manage to lead an interesting life. There is now an exhibit of impressionist art at the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum, in conjunction with an evening music series offered every year during December. The Moscow Music Conservatory has three halls which are used almost daily for concerts, both modern and classical in style. There are many fine theaters for drama and operettas.
The infrastructure is quickly becoming westernized, with phone service improving, too many cars on the roads, and office supply firms sprouting up. Street kiosks, which began when Yeltsin took over, have been evolving in both quantity and quality. Near my metro station kiosks now offer imported electronics, leather goods, briefcases, toys, and watches, as well as the staples of western cigarettes, alcohol, and more recently foodstuffs and toiletry products. I can even buy Bumble Bee brand tuna for $1.40 a can, if I have the urge.
I generally shop in the typical Russian store for eggs, milk, bread, butter, meat, cheese, macaroni, coffee, Pepsi etc. Restaurants generally are too expensive for my taste, and usual don't taste like expensive Western restaurants. I enjoy the ice cream sold on the streets for three-hundred rubles, about twenty-five cents. Usually the activity outside a store specializing in a particular type of consumer item (sports, auto parts, bicycles, kitchen supplies etc.) is more representative of Western goods. Generally Russians prefer to deal with the manufacturing representative than with independent middlemen, and they have become wary of cheap Western goods which are not much better than the old Soviet goods, although more attractively packaged and marketed.
Despite what you hear about the decline in production, I think that some of the decline is due to the underreporting of production and sales in order to avoid the cumulative high rate of taxation. People still expect all the old governmental services and guarantees. The government has been trying to wean them from a bland smorgasbord to a value system of rewards based in inputs. In the past it was a worker's paradise (nobody had to work hard) and a consumer's nightmare (lines, shortages). Russians want the government to provide as of old, and they want to be able to keep what they accumulated entirely for themselves. "What's mine is mine, and what's yours ought to be mine." The government has been able to contain social unrest by continuing to provide the basics, although many cannot afford the new products and restaurants.
The factory directory of the plant Zenit was recently highlighted by a BBC news spot for his becoming the first owner in Russia of a Rolls Royce. I am familiar with his factory because they have a very big factory outlet store nearby where they sell Zenit cameras. If I go by there when a Zenit delivery truck is bringing newly made cameras, which is often, I watch the delivery men sell the cameras by the armful right in front of the store. The purchasers immediately dump the empty boxes in the parking lot and head for their cars. You can draw your own conclusions about the leaks in the manufacturing and distribution system.
My apartment is close to a metro station, near the center, and large by Russian standards. It was built as a communal apartment, so the rooms are decent sized. It is warm, and the hallway is clean, probably due to the tenant mix and the fact that a key is needed to enter the front door. My neighbors are friendly, although I don't understand half of what they say. I've put up Christmas decorations for the second year, in my large window, in the shape of a tree, with plenty of lights and ornaments, all Russian made. Speaking of leaks in the distribution system, my hot water has leaked for months, but several attempts at replacing washers have been for naught. My landlord has promised to buy a new faucet this month and is a very nice guy. I signed a two year lease and both of us have benefited from the arrangement.
I've met some very nice people, both in Tashkent, and in Moscow. We've killed a legion of vodka bottles while eating wonderful dinners. I've been to traditional Uzbek weddings, complete with processions heralded by six-foot-long brass horns. We've done some camping near Moscow, in a large tent I designed and which my friends sewed, using local fabrics. My friend Varvara's dog is also a fast friend, due to the copious amount of chicken bones I have supplied for his dinners. I'll probably have their family over for dinner for the holidays, and will have an American business friend and his family over soon as well.
I miss my family and friends on the far side of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans of course, and would like to invite everyone over for a visit, especially my old womb mate Jerry. I hope you are all doing well, and would certainly like to hear from y'all. I am thankful to all of you who have written, sent photos, cartoons, articles from the papers etc.
Have a happy and safe holiday season, Jim
(* Prints best with left and right page margins at 2 inches. Views
best with browser screen
margins at about 5 inches apart. *)