Saturday, January 14, 2012

What Does Freedom Mean?

I visited Moscow in the 1990's and spent time talking with Russians.

One particularly smart and well-educated woman, who I hired as a translator and guide, revealed to me her hope and wish for a return of the Communist Party.

(This was my hotel, the Cosmos. Below, the view from the main entry. Russians love their statues, and this was dedicated to,what else, the Russian Space Program.)

My hotel was built as part of the Olympic Village, intended for foreign visitors, and access to the grounds involved a simple walk to ramble through the grounds that had been the site, itself. One thing you don't want to do is attempt to cross any of the streets in this part of the world, without an assurance of traffic control. So, pedestrian sub-street crossings were built, similar to the subway where you watched Harry and his cousin attacked by a Dementor. After the fall of the Soviet Union, these became the area where new entrepreneurs were setting up shop, selling anything and everything of value. And some of it was quite pathetic. Most had next to nothing. One man had a shallow box with a neck-strap, selling parts from plumbing fixtures.  Here and there were beggars. At another spot, three men with jeans.

(Kiosks were set up on a first come, first served basis. If you were in a building, there was no permanent landlord-tenant contract. You moved in and hoped that the Mafia left you alone.)

Finally making it through, you're there. The Olympic site. Ticket sheds converted into sales outlets, offering drinks. Typically, vodka. And men, in an amazing level of cold, standing and sitting around drinking. Moving from building to building, swarms of squatters had set up shops, carving up buildings into individual kiosks, the only architectural consideration imposed was available space, and leaving enough space unused as to allow shoppers access to the stalls populated by hopeful merchants.

(When someone had something special to sell, it could draw a crowd. But, normally, when I saw groups of people standing around, they were simply drinking.)

One vendor I spoke with had family outside of the city, who manufactured the nesting dolls and chessboards that were his greatest money-makers. Another had come from a village where his cousins sculpted rocks into art; from eggs to crocodiles. One man had found a hoard of high-tensile wire, and was selling wire toys that changed shapes as you manipulated them. All of these men and women were happy and excited to see me. American. Cash. Rubles and dollars. I was lo-o-o-o-oaded-d-d-d.

(Guy snags a Korean-made T.V. Transportation meant planning, and everyone in this picture has one or more plastic bag in their pockets.)

It's important to point out, that prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, the Ruble had been pegged to the dollar. For purposes of commerce, you could purchase any item in any store with either a ruble or a dollar. By law, they were equivalent. Another economic fact, because Capitalism was the enemy of the People, there were no banks. So people kept their cash. Individuals with millions of rubles saved up, their retirement plan. And then, overnight, rubles were exposed to market pricing. All across Russia, millionaires were reduced to poverty. How rich was I? As I recall, I was able to trade $600.00 for a million rubles.

(Wearing mink isn't just a status symbol, though it is. Anyone living there would prefer mink to anything else.)

So, if you had a pension that promised you 15-hundred rubles a month, you had to learn to live on a buck a month. Sure, you still got the fifteen hundred, but these were rubles. I was tempted to purchase both a mink coat and/or mink chapka. The coats were ridiculous. I found one at GYM for $450.00 that would sell in this country for thousands. Quality mink. But the culture in Russia is quite different from our quaint culture. The utility of mink becomes apparent when one finds oneself walking through Red Square on a brilliant December day. Our anemic, polyester-wear is a joke. And while looking successful in Moscow, wearing a chapka at the beach is just too affected for the ordinary American. And I am ordinary.

(If it looked like Levi's, they were close enough. Except for the quality, of course.)
(This pic is a composite of the next two, courtesy of our friend, Inno.)

(I'd love to have these last two edited side-by-side. If you can do it, I'll repost these photos as a single photo. And, Inno did it.)

Everywhere you looked in Moscow, you saw signs of entrepreneurship. Outside GYM were street vendors, with carts or boxes with shoulder-straps.

(Taken, standing in Dzerzhinsky Square, opposite the headquarters of the former KGB. To the left, out of picture, is McDonald's and Children's World.)

Across from KGB headquarters was a McDonalds. Next door, Children's World, converted into a hodge-podge of vendors. It looked more an automobile showroom than the mythical place of the Soviet child's dreams. (By the way, that McDonald's had the best fries I've ever eaten at a McDonald's in years.) I could order a Big Mac, fries and Coke for around eight bucks. Watching Russians, they would come in and order froocktii, apple or cherry pies. Yep. Hot and tasty, just like here in the States.

So, back to my guide/interpreter. We were sitting in a restaurant across the street from the Aftobus, eating American quality salads from a salad bar that cost me about thirty dollars per person. It was a good salad bar. I pulled out a five dollar bill and a 10-thousand ruble note and asked which she would prefer?

 (On August 21, 1991, this bus formed part of the barricade that stopped infantry fighting vehicles from entering the city, in order to storm the White House, and depose Mikhail Gorbachev. By Boxing Day, the Communist Party would no longer run Russia. Boris Yeltsin would move into Gorbachev's old office.)

She said she would prefer the five dollar bill. Okay.

Then I asked, if she had both, which would she prefer to spend?

 She said she would prefer to spend the ruble note. Okay.

She was a college student, her English was superiour to my Russian, and so I asked if she had ever heard of Gresham's Law? Okay. I said, now you have.

She was young and idealistic. Living in Moscow following the demise of the former Soviet Union was frightening. She, and her family, had been driven to poverty by the collapse of the ruble. She was living in an apartment building that was owned by the state, rent-free. But the condition of the building was terrible. There was water, more of a lake, in the entryway. Condensate was dripping everywhere. Her room was a twelve by twelve foot space she shared with a room mate. They relied upon a communal bathroom. Thankfully, palettes can serve dual-duty. They can keep you from walking in wet stuff. Of course, the notion that the building should repair drains and leaks seemed to have left the consciousness of management and staff. And this was a nice building, close to a Metro station, in a nice part of town.

We continued to talk over lunch. "You and your fellow Russians are now free. You can choose to do the work you choose to take up, earn your own bread, make your own name. You weren't allowed any such freedom, just months ago. You are now free to speak your mind. Tell others the truth. You have a chance to live freely, with the freedom to speak, to choose for yourself, what you wish to do, and avoid that which you choose to avoid."

This, she told me, terrified her. Okay.

I asked her to remember some of the people we had seen and spoken with. Standing behind makeshift counters, selling bogus bluejeans or crafts and wares from their home villages. Disorganized, opportunistic and most importantly, optimistic.

Moscow at the time was a case-study in market economics and capital formation. Yes, I have several friends who invested in Russia at the time, and made some money. It was almost impossible not to. I helped a Russian friend set up the first privately-owned radio station in Vladivostok. The problem, of course, was the Mafia. Squatters rights move in both directions. If you can take it, you most hold it. And the mob bosses in Vladivostok, like all mob bosses, like bright, shiny things. After her brother was killed, friend lost interest in defending the fruit of her labours. When you have the power to take, you take.

Russia is quite different today. And the same as it was eighty or two-hundred years ago. Thuggery doesn't make for stability. Quite the contrary. Most of you are unaware of the election shenanigans that took place recently. If it isn't the Kardashians, it isn't interesting. Likewise, most Americans aren't really aware of what is taking place, right now, under our own noses. When all people are protected, when their property is protected, equally, societies like ours can grow and prosper. When the thugs move in and begin to claim rights as "stakeholders," then the little guys like you and me are up a rope.

How words are used, and what they mean, are important. Just recently it was pointed out that when The Media talks about Republicans, the words Republicans choose to utter are "claims." As in, "Republicans claim that reducing regulations will result in increase private sector investment and jobs." When reporting on Democrats, the words Democrats choose to utter are "beliefs." Such as, "Democrats believe such claims are false." Pretty neatly done, that.

Choosing liberty, economic, political and religious liberty, can be frightening to the young. It can be frightening to the old. From polling I remember, a majority of Russians over sixty would prefer a return to Communism. It's what they were accustomed to, not so much for what you lacked, but for what it provided. Not much, but that dependably.

What a horrid existence. But one many, I fear, would choose today.


innominatus said...

Sad. Reminds me of ex-cons who'd rather be in prison because they know how to function in that environment.

>>>I'd love to have these last two edited side-by-side

Check your inbox.

MAX Redline said...

I'm reminded of a guest I had a few years ago. He was from Moscow. I needed to pick up a few items for dinner, so he tagged along - and was completely blown away when we walked into Freddies. I'm a "get in, grab what I'm after, get out" kinda guy, so it took a few minutes to realize that he was totally zoned.

When I inquired as to what was going on - hey, it was just a freakin' Freddies - he replied, "We have nothing like this in Russia." He was, in a word, awestruck. He bought like 3 pairs of 501's before I could get him outta the place.

On the way home, he went on and on about the produce section (I was making a chili or a stew that night; needed some onions and garlic and stuff. He tapped his bag o' jeans, noting that if he wanted to sell them at home, he could get five times what he paid for them.

Interesting times.

I was gonna splice the photos for ya, but see Inno beat me there.