By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The day before I returned to L.A., Lena and I stood in line together for an hour and a half to get into the one store in Moscow still selling knitting yarn at the "old" prices. The image of women waiting patiently in a queue extending a quarter-mile around the basement shop, and of increasingly barren shelves across the city, recalls the days before the fall of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the Communist leader, Gennadit Zyuganov, vowed to continue blocking Yeltsin's nomination of Chernomyrdin for prime minister, though the Communists had still to come up with a candidate of their own. As Lena's father put it, "The house is on fire, and the owner scratches his head, pondering the best way to fix a pipe under the sink."
Lena works as an executive for a Moscow-based fashion-boutique chain - a Russian-American joint venture owned and administered by an American living in Europe. Her paychecks are direct-deposited into two Most-Bank accounts. In one (a checking account), the majority of her salary is automatically transferred in rubles, which she can withdraw with checks or with an ATM card in any number of machines across the city; the second account (for savings) contains the remainder of her salary, which she has converted into dollars - also available for withdrawal via the same ATM card.
After hearing reports of an impending financial debacle, she was anxious to retrieve her previous month's salary, already a week and a half overdue. We went together to the Hotel Ismailovo, her local pit stop for an ATM machine owned and operated by an institution somewhat ironically named Income-Bank.
The first sign of trouble was the machine's refusal to honor her card. "Your bank no longer authorizes access to your account at this machine," came a message in Russian through the glass. The network had been severed; each of Russia's dozens of banks was now on its own.
Which meant we had to board the Metro for a ride downtown to Most-Bank's central office on the Arbat. She stopped at Most-Bank's ATM machine, which dutifully spat out the larger proportion of her salary in rubles, but denied her access to the few thousand dollars in her savings account that she'd been building over several months as a start on the cost of her daughter's college education.
When she tried to deal with the problem inside the bank proper, the militsia was guarding the door from an anxious throng. These police did let people in, but only at a trickle, to protect the tellers from irate customers. Dollars were no longer available - anywhere in Moscow. In a Soviet-style move, Russia's Central Bank had abruptly stopped selling the U.S. currency to all of the nation's banks and had halted trading on the Moscow currency exchange, which determines exchange rates. These moves had three effects: creating a banking logjam, freezing depositors' savings accounts, and also freezing the ruble at approximately eight to the dollar, at least through the weekend. Over that same weekend, as banks crashed and merged, Lena, like hundreds of thousands of Russians, saw her savings disappear into thin air.
Russians also spoke about American/European employers who, having determined their employees' salaries in U.S. dollars (which were then converted into rubles), speculated on the crisis by suddenly determining their salary payments in rubles. This meant that, as the ruble dove that week, these employers saved 30 percent to 40 percent in salary payments. Though salaries may have remained constant in rubles, the week's hyperinflation rendered these workers (as it did Lena) up to 50 percent poorer.
I spent an evening alone with Lena's father, a former composer and jazz-band leader now paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a cot in a tiny bedroom. He spends most of his time either reading newspapers and novels or watching a portable TV, living on a pension of 480 rubles a month (the value of which is shriveling by the minute). He offered me an annotated review of Russian politics, from about 1990. His furious discourse was punctuated with the words vori and svolochi - liberally translated as "thieves" and "motherfuckers." On the day I left, he offered me a box of chocolates - "a gift," he said, "from the Russian people to the American people . . . Open it." I did, and saw just a plastic shell and empty wrappers. "You don't want it?" he joked. "All right, so go hungry."
Russia has come full cycle. Stalin shut down collective farms, trying to pull the country from an agrarian to an industrial economy. Today, apprehensive Muscovites check to see if the soil in their back yards will support vegetable gardens to see them through next year. Yeltsin has presided over the complete dismantling of Russia's industrial/commercial age. As the new century dawns on the Baltic states, Russia is as paternalistic and feudal as she was during the Middle Ages. (Moscow's mayor, Yuri M. Luzhkov, is one of the most effective and popular politicians in recent memory; still, he wants no power larger than that over his own fiefdom.) What gives most people the jitters is Russia's still-massive armaments, combined with the sense that nobody's actually in control. Two goldfish in a bowl, goes a joke making the rounds in Moscow. One fish says to the other, "There is no God." The other replies, "Then who's changing the water?" The answer to that one remains a mystery.