Saturday, August 13, 2016

Interviews on Red Square in December 1991 by Svetlana Alexievich

[August 1991: A group of eight high-ranking officials led by Gorbachev's vice president, Gennady Yanayev, form the General Committee on the State Emergency, the GKChP, and stage an attempted coup of the government. It becomes known as "the putsch." The GKChP issues an emergency decree suspending all political  activity, banning most newspapers, and putting Gorbachev, who is on hold in Foros, Crimea, under house arrest.

Thousands of protestors came out to stand against putsch in front of the White House, the Russian Federation's parliament and office Boris Yeltsin, building barricades to protect their position. Yeltsin famously addresses the crowd from atop a tank. The Army forces dispatched  by the GKChP ultimately refuse to storm the barricades and side with the protestors. After three days, the putsch collapses. On August 24, Gorbachev dissolves the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and resigns as its general secretary.

January 1992: The liberalization of prices leads to massive, destabilizing inflation, from 200 percent initially to high of 2600. .  .]

I'm a construction worker.  .  .

Before August 1991, we lived in one country, and afterward, we lived in another. Before that August, my country was called the USSR.

Who am I? I am one of those idiots who defended Yeltsin. I stood in front of the White House, ready to lie down in front of a tank. People went out on the streets on the crest of a wave, on a surge. But they were out there to die for freedom, not capitalism. I consider myself a person who has been deceived. I don't need this capitalism we've been led to . . . that they slipped us. . . Not in any form, neither the American model nor the Swedish. I didn't start a revolution to get my hands on someone else's dough. We shouted "Russia!" instead of "USSR!". I'm sorry that they didn't disperse us with water cannons or roll a couple of machine guns into the square. They should have arrested two or three hundred people and the rest would have gone into hiding. Where are the people who called us out into the square today? "Down with the Kremlin mafia!" "Freedom tomorrow!" They have nothing to say to us. They ran off to the West, now they are over there badmouthing socialism. sitting around in Chicago laboratories. While we sit here. . .

Russia .  .  . they've wiped their feet with it. Anyone who wants to can smack her in the face. They turned it into a Western junkyard full of worn-out rags and expired machines. Garbage! [Obscenities.] A trough full of raw materials, a natural gas tap.  .  . The Soviet regime? It wasn't ideal, but it was better than we have today. Worthier. Overall, I was satisfied with socialism . No one was excessively rich or poor,   there were no bums or abandoned children . . . Old  people could live on their pensions, they didn't have to collect bottles and food scraps off the street. They wouldn't look at you with searching eyes, standing there with outstretched palms .  .   .   We've yet to count how many people were killed by perestroika. Our former life has been smashed to smithereens, not a single stone was left standing. Pretty soon, I won't have anything to talk about with my son. "Papa, Pavlik Morozov is a moron. Marat Kazei (Soviet heroes) is a freak," my son says to me, when he comes home from school. "But you taught me .  .  ."  I taught him the same things I had been taught, the right things. "That horrible Soviet upbringing .  .  ." That "horrible Soviet upbringing" taught me to think about people other than myself. About the weak and suffering. Nikolai Gastello (first suicide pilot) was my hero, not those magenta sports coats with their philosophy of only looking out for themselves - their own skin, their own wallets. "And please, Papa, don't start in with that spirit stuff, that humanism mumbo jumbo." Where did he pick that up? People are different now .  .  . Capitalists .  .  . You have to understand, that's what he learns from the world, he's twelve years old. I'm not an example for him anymore.

Why did I defend Yeltsin? He won a million supporters just for saying that the nomenklatura's special privileges should be revoked. I was ready to pickup a machine gun and shoot at the communists. I  was convinced.  .  . We didn't understand what they were preparing for us in its place. What they were slipping us. An enormous lie! Yeltsin spoke out against the Reds and signed up with the Whites. It was a calamity .  .  . The question: What did we want? Gentle socialism, humane socialism .  .  .And what did we get? On the streets, its blood-thirsty capitalism. Shooting. Showdowns. People figuring out who runs the kiosk and who own the factory. The gangsters have risen to the top . . . Black marketeers and money changers have taken power.  .  . Enemies and predators all around. Jackals!

I can't forget .  .  . I can't forget how we stood in front of the White House .  .  .Whose chestnuts were we pulling from the fire? [Obscenities.] My father was a real communist. A righteous man. He was a Party organizer at a big factory. Fought in the war. I said to him, "Freedom here! We're going to be a normal, civilized country.  .  ." And he replied, "Your children will be servants. Is that what you really want?" I was young and dumb .  .  . I laughed at him. We were terribly naive. I don't know why things turned out like this. I really don't. It's not what we wanted. We had something completely different in mind. Perestroika .  .  . there was something epic about it. A year later, they shut down our design bureau, and my wife and I ended up out on the street. How did we survive? First we took all our valuables to the market. The crystal, the Soviet old, and our most precious books. For weeks on end, we'd eat nothing but mashed potatoes. Then I went into "business". I started selling cigarette butts. A liter jar of butts .  .  . or a three-liter jar of butts .  .  . My wife's parents (college professors) collected them off the street, and I would sell them. And people would buy them! Smoke them. I smoked them myself. My wife cleaned offices. At a certain point, she sold pelmeni for some Tajik. We paid dearly for our naivete.  All of us .  .  . Now, my wife and I raise chickens, and she never stops weeping. If we could only turn back time .  .  . And don't give me a hard time for saying that .  .  . This isn't some nostalgia for gray salami for two rubles and twenty kopecks . . .

'The market became our university. .  .'

I went to the university . . . At that point, Chubais was lobbying for privatization vouchers, promising one voucher would buy you two Volgas when in reality, these days, it's worth about two kopecks. What an exciting time! I handed out flyers in the subway .  .  . Everyone dreamed of a new life .  .  . Dreams .  .  . People dreamt that tons of salami would appear at the stores at Soviet prices and members of the Politburo would stand in line with the rest of us. Salami is the benchmark of our existence. Our love of salami is existential.  .  .Twilight of the idols! The factories to the workers! The soil to the peasants! The rivers to the beavers! The dens to the bears! Mexican soap operas were the perfect replacement for Soviet parades and live broadcasts of the First Congress of People's Deputies. I stayed in college for two years and then dropped out. I feel sorry for my parents because they were told flat out that they were pathetic sovoks* whose lives had been wasted for less than a sniff of tobacco, that everything was their fault, beginning with Noah's Ark, and that now, no one needed them anymore. Imagine working that hard, your whole life, only to end up with nothing. All of it shook the ground from underneath them, their world was shattered; they still haven't recovered, they couldn't assimilate into the drastically new reality. My younger brother would wash cars after class, selling chewing gum and other junk in the subway, and he made more money than our father - our father who was a scientist. A PhD! The Soviet elite! When they started selling salami at the privately owned stores, all of us ran over to ogle it. And that was when we saw the prices! This was how capitalism came into our lives.

I got a job as a freight handler. Real happiness! My friend and I would unload a truck of sugar and get paid in cash plus a sack of sugar each. What was a sack of sugar in the nineties? An entire subsistence! Money! Money!. The beginning of capitalism .  .  . You could become a millionaire overnight or get a bullet to the head. When they talk about it today, they try to frighten you: There could have been a civil war, we were teetered on the edge of ruin! It didn't feel like that to me. I remember when the streets emptied out and there was nobody left on the barricades. People stopped subscribing to  or even reading the newspapers. The men hanging out in the courtyard berated Gorbachev and the Yeltsin for hiking up the vodka prices.  They'd gone after the golden calf! Wild, inexplicable avarice took hold of everyone. The smell of money filled the air. Big money. And absolute freedom - no Party, no government. Everyone wanted to make some dough, and those who didn't  know how envied those who did. Some sold, others bought .  .  . Some "covered," others "protected". When I made my first "big bucks," I took my friends out to a restaurant. We ordered Martini vermouth and Grand Piano vodka - the creme de la creme! I wanted to feel the weight of the glass in my hand, imagine that I was one of the beautiful people. We lit up Marlboros. Everything was just like we'd read about in Remarque. For a longtime, we modeled ourselves after those images. New stores, new restaurants .  .  . They were like stage sets from a different life .  .   .

.  .  . I sold fried hot dogs. Those brought in crazy money .  .  .

.  .  . I shipped vodka to Turkmenistan .  .  . I spent a whole week in a sealed freight car with my business partner.  We had our axes ready, plus a crowbar. If they found out what we were bringing into the country they would have killed us! On the way back, we carted a shipment of terrycloth towels.  .  .

I  sold toys. One time I sold off an entire lot wholesale for a truckload of carbonated beverages, traded that for a shipping container of sunflower seeds, and then, at a butter plant, traded it all in for butter, sold half of the butter, and traded the other half for frying pans and irons .  .  .

Now I have a flower business. I learned how to 'salt' roses: you put heat-treated salt at the bottom of a cardboard box - you need a layer at least a centimeter thick - and then you put half-blossomed flowers into it and pour some more salt on top of them. You put a lid on the box and put it all in a big plastic bag. Tie it up tight. Then, a month or a year later, you take them out, wash them off .  .  . Come by any day. Here's my card .  .  .

The market became our university .  .  . Maybe it's going too far to call it a university, but an elementary school for life, definitely. People  would visit like they were going to a museum. Or to the library. Boys and girl stumbled around with crazed expressions, like zombies among the stalls .  .  . A couple stops in front of some Chinese epilators, and she explains the importance of epilation : "Don't you want that? For me to be like .  .  ." I don't remember the name of the actress  .  .  . Say Marina Vlasy or Catherine Deneuve. Millions of little boxes and jars. People who bring them home as though they were sacred texts, and, after using their contents, they wouldn't throw them out, they'd display them in the a place of honor on their bookshelves, or put them in their china cabinets behind glass.  People read the first glossy magazines as though they were classics, with the reverent faith that behind the cover, directly under the packaging, you'd find the beautiful life. There were kilometer-long queues outside the first McDonald's, stories about it in the news. Educated, intelligent adults saved boxes and napkins from there and would proudly show them off to guests.

I have this good friend . . . His wife slaves away at two jobs, while he has too much pride to work: "I'm a poet. I am not about you go out and sell pots and pans. It's gross." Back in the day, he and I, like everyone else, would walk about chanting, "Democracy! Democracy!" We had no idea what all that would lead to. No one was itching to sell pots and pans. And now, there's no choice: You either feed your family or you hang on to your sovok ideals. You either/or, no other options .  .  . You can write poems, strum the guitar, and people will pat you on the shoulder: "Well, go on! Go On! But your pockets are empty. The people who left? They sell pots and pans and deliver pizza, but in other countries .  .  . Assemble boxes at cardboard factories .  .  . That kind of thing is not considered shameful like it is here.

Did you understand what I've trying to tell you? I've been talking about Igor  .  .  . About our lost generation - a communist upbringing and a capitalist life. I hate guitars! You can have mine if you want.

*sovoks: a widely used pejorative term for one who adheres to Soviet values, attitudes and behaviors. The word can refer to the Soviet Union itself. It is a pun on the word for "dustpan."

Notes From An Everywoman

What's there to remember? I live the same way as everyone else. Perestroika.  .  . Gorbachev  .  .  . The postmistress opened the gate: "Did you hear? The Communists are out." "What do you mean?" "They shut down the Party." No shots fired, nothing. These days they say we used to have a mighty fortress and then we lost it. But what have I really lost? I've always lived in the same little house without any amenities - no running water, no plumbing, no gas - and I still do today. My whole life, I've done honest work. I toiled and toiled, got used to backbreaking labor. And only earned kopecks. All I had to eat was macaroni and potatoes, and that's all I eat today. I'm still going around in my Soviet fur - and you should see the snows out here!

The best thing I can remember is getting married. We were in love. I remember walking home from the marriage  registration bureau, the lilacs in bloom. The lilacs! If you an believe it, there were nightingales singing in their branches .  .  . That's how I remember it .  .  . We lived happily for a few years, we had a daughter .  .  . Then Vadik started drinking, and the vodka ended up killing him. He died young, he was only forty-two. Ever since, I've lived alone. My daughter is all grown up, she got married and moved away.

In the winter, we always get snowed in, the whole village is blanketed in snow the houses and the cars. Sometimes, the buses won't run for weeks on end. What's going on out there in the capital?   It's a thousand kilometers from here to Moscow. We watched Moscow life unfold on TV like it's a movie. I've heard of Putin and Alla Pugacheva .  .  . The rest, I know nothing about.  Rallies, demonstrators .  .  . Out here, we live the same way we've always lived. Whether it's socialism or capitalism. Who's Red, who's White - it makes no difference. The important thing is to make it to spring. Plant potatoes .  .  . I'm sixty years old .  .  . I don't go to church, but I do need someone to talk to. To talk about other things .  .  . about how I don't feel like getting old, I have no desire to get old at all. I'll be too bad when it comes time to die. Have you seen my lilacs? I go out at night to look at them - they glow. I'll just stand there admiring them. Here, let me cut you a bouquet .  .  .

Secondhand Time; The Last of the Soviets, by Svetlana Alexievich; Random House, 2016

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