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Johnson's Russia List
22 June 2000
[Note from David Johnson:
PAY ATTENTION!!!: I am flying to Moscow on June 23 and
will be there thru July 3 staying at the Marriott Grand.
It is likely there will be no JRLs during this period.
To fill the vacuum you might want to browse thru the
JRL archive which is under construction at
People in Moscow can presumably contact me at the hotel.
The last JRL will be June 23 morning. You have been alerted.
If anyone sends me a message "where is JRL" they will be
sent to the Survivors' island.
1. Reuters: Gorbachev says Putin no dictator.
2. Moscow Times EDITORIAL: Putin Should Make Justice His Priority.
(re Norilsk Nickel)
3. Reuters: Russia may retaliate on ABM - missile chief.
5. the eXile: Matt Taibbi, Of Clowns And Men. (re the fields in the
Gorbachev says Putin no dictator
MOSCOW, June 21 (Reuters) - Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev said on
Wednesday Russian President Vladimir Putin posed no danger to democracy in
Russia and it was ``foolish'' to accuse the former KGB spy of having a
The arrest last week of media baron Vladimir Gusinsky, who owns the only
nationwide independent media group, caused uproar among liberal politicians
and commentators, some of whom accused Putin of endangering free speech.
``Vladimir Putin wants to do something for Russia. I don't think that he, as
a man of the new generation, will go down the road of dictatorship,''
Gorbachev was quoted as saying by Itar-Tass news agency.
``(Accusing Putin of dictatorial tendencies) is foolish and is expressly done
to undermine the president,'' Gorbachev said. ``I can't suspect him of having
any intention of squeezing democracy.''
Gorbachev said last week the jailing of Gusinsky, who has since been released
from custody but charged with embezzlement, was a plot by vested interest
``clans'' in the Kremlin seeking to undermine the work of a reforming
Gorbachev, 69, is feted in the West for his role in bringing about the end of
the Cold War but is viewed with more ambivalence at home where a decade of
turbulent post-Soviet reforms have left many nostalgic for past certainties.
He has signalled a return to politics by founding a Social Democratic Party
which he says will engender liberal reforming policies and ``the best of the
June 22, 2000
EDITORIAL: Putin Should Make Justice His Priority
The privatization of Norilsk Nickel -- one of the most valuable companies in
the nation f could not have been a more disgraceful affair. The government
asked an Uneximbank affiliate to organize the auctions, and Uneximbank was
the not-so-surprising winner.
Such ethically challenged affairs were common in other valuable
privatizations in the mid-1990s, including the sales of nearly all of the oil
companies. Taken together, these privatizations did more than anything f
except perhaps the war in Chechnya f to discredit the Boris Yeltsin era.
Property may no longer be regarded as theft, but these days privatization
most certainly is.
However, it is far from clear that the government is moving to systematically
undo the outrages of big oil and metals privatizations. (It is also far from
clear whether the government can undo those outrages f or should.)
One reason matters are unclear is that the president and the prosecutors are
doing little to explain them. On the contrary: President Vladimir Putin f in
a reprise of his role as confused innocent bystander to the arrest of
Media-MOST boss Vladimir Gusinsky f is again claiming not to know how or why
the prosecutor's offices opted to target Norilsk and Uneximbank. The
president insists prosecutors are "absolutely independent" f when it is
widely know that they are politicized tools, and that the courts are too weak
to check them.
We do not approve of the big rigged privatizations, and never have. But we
would argue that Russia so far lacks the most basic tools to clean up such an
enormous political mess: a competent and depoliticized justice system.
As long as we lack judges, police and prosecutors that ordinary citizens can
respect, all other reforms f from tax reform to labor law to righting the
wrongs of Norilsk's privatization f are doomed to founder.
President Putin and his entourage talk often of the need for "a strong
state." This hazily defined premise f that Russia has "a weak state" and now
needs "a strong state" f has been accepted abroad as well.
The state that President Putin has been building so far, however, looks less
strong than arbitrary. And it will be no great improvement to pursue the same
arbitrariness of recent years, but simply with more youthful vigor.
President Putin f provided he is even in charge of his own Kremlin, a fact
already in doubt f ought to make his No. 1 national priority the
establishment of a free, strong and consistent system of justice. Build such
a system first. Then, when prosecutors move against Norilsk, we will have
reason to believe this is a defense of the public interest f and not a rival
oligarch's hostile takeover bid.
Russia may retaliate on ABM - missile chief
MOSCOW, June 21 (Reuters) - The commander of Russia's strategic missile
forces said on Wednesday Russia could pull out of a Soviet-era agreement
eliminating medium-range missiles if Washington goes ahead with a planned
national missile shield.
Interfax news agency quoted Colonel-General Vladimir Yakovlev as saying such
a move could be an answer to U.S. proposals to amend the Anti-Ballistic
Missile (ABM) treaty.
``Such a step is possible as Moscow's asymmetrical answer to Washington's
exit from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty,'' Interfax quoted Yakovlev
Although Yakovlev is Russia's top military officer in the strategic arms
field, key decisions on treaties are taken in Russia by politicians and any
such move would have to be authorised by President Vladimir Putin.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former U.S. President Ronald
Reagan signed the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty eliminating
medium-range missiles at a Washington summit in 1987.
The chief merit of the treaty from the West's point of view was to get rid of
the Soviet SS-20 missile, which threatened Western Europe. Under the treaty
terms, SS-20s and other similar Soviet and U.S. missiles were scrapped.
Russia opposes U.S. plans to alter the ABM treaty -- which limits
anti-missile defences -- and build a new anti-missile system which Washington
says is aimed at fending off attacks by so-called rogue states like North
Putin and U.S. President Bill Clinton agreed at a summit earlier this month
to continue talks on the issue despite Putin's proposal of an alternative
system to knock down missiles immediately after launch.
Yakovlev was quoted as saying that Russia's military was making progress with
the proposed system, which Putin has said would be in concert with western
Europe or NATO.
``(Russia) has made sufficient scientific and technological headway in this
direction...we have a sufficient basis for conducting tests and simulating
situations,'' he said.
June 21, 2000
Voice of the People talk show
with Vladimir GUSINSKY and others
Anchored by Yevgeny Kiselyov
[excerpts in translation for personal use only]
KISELYOV: Good evening, you are watching the Voice of the People in live
broadcasting. As we promised, today our watchers, as well as journalists
from Russian and Western media present in this studio, and those watchers
who have been invited to come here will be able to address their questions
to Vladimir Gusinsky. Today's program is being broadcasted on the air by the
Ekho Moskvy Radio. Anyone watching us on NTV or listening to us on Ekho
Moskvy can place a call and ask Vladimir Gusinsky a question.
GUSINSKY: As you know, it is the first time since NTV founding that I find
myself in person in an NTV program. This is a rather unusual feeling for me,
because I did not want that much to find myself here. Instead of my
announcement, I want to say the following: when I happened to be in the
Butyrka prison, I opened a new world for myself. I will now speak about
other things than the freedom of speech or even about politics - or perhaps
this is just what politics is about. Now this is a strange world, the prison
world, which is inhabited in Russia by more than 1 million people and is
virtually cut off from what has been going on in Russia. It looks as if it
exists in the past, in the 1930s, when my grandmother was in the
concentration camp. For all those who sit in the cells and for those who
guard them, the notion of bespredel [complete lawlessness] is more clear and
present than we may think. I also want to say, there are great many people
in our prisons without court verdicts, and they are there only because the
new Processual Criminal Code was not adopted over the past several years and
the past several Dumas. Because the desire on the part of a section of law
enforcement agencies, and, first and foremost, the Prosecutor-General
Office, to go on with bespredel was an obstacle to the adoption of the
Code. All these people have in fact been denied everything that we know.
They don't grasp the meaning of glasnost, the meaning of perestroika. I am
calling upon all of you here: try to realize that. One journalist recently
told me that all of Russia speaks prison slang, because a great number of
people went through our prisons. It is now that I understand why so many
people are there. I am a little nervous now, because it's for the first time
that I find myself in this situation - I don't mean Butyrka, although this
was also for the first time, I mean being over here - but I want to pay your
attention yet again, what is going on in these prisons is a great problem
for all of us. These millions of people don't know what is going on in the
outer world, they take it as a good TV sequel. This is my first point.
Secondly, I would like to ask all of you not to talk about myself and about
my imprisonment. This is completely irrelevant, because I don't believe this
is the subject matter of our today conversation. The issue is not about me
but about what is going on in the country and what we should expect. I
wouldn't like to take up our time with my monologues, because I don't think
I have much right for that, because there are many people in the room who, I
think, understand even politics better than myself and know no less than
myself about this situation. So I would like to finish by paying your
attention yet again to this special world that exists in our prisons. I
would very much like not to see the whole country in which we live to turn
into this world. (...)
Yelena AFANASYEVA, Novaya gazeta: I'd like to repeat the question that I
formulated a year ago, about last summer, when the "information war" was at
its incipient stage. Don't you think that what is happening now with you is
some kind of retribution for your policies and concessions that you made
earlier? For [the presidential elections of] 1996, for those things that you
did to secure the fourth TV channel for yourself in late 1993 - early 1994,
and to obtain it completely in 1996? Then, you accepted compromises against
your conscience to cooperate with the authorities that you deemed to be
progressive. Don't you think that you were sitting not just in Butyrka, but
also in the Xerox paper box [in which illegal funds for Yeltsin's
presidential campaign were transported in 1996]?
GUSINSKY: First of all, I don't agree with the term "compromise". I would
say, in 1996 we made a mistake, a tragic mistake. We did not make
compromises, we sincerely believed that we were entitled to decide, with
other colleagues, with many of those present here, what was good and what
was bad for the country. This was a very big, a difficult, a grave mistake.
It was then, in 1996, that we produced this little baby monster, the regime
that has grown up by now and demonstrates to all of us that it has grown up.
Because then we taught them about the media and the opportunities to exploit
them. We said, yes, you can do it. And today the authorities are making use
of those same instruments that we gave them in 1996. I think the goal does
not justify the means. I don't know whether it would have been better if
Zyuganov, not Yeltsin, were to win the 1996 elections, but I know that,
internally, we would have been much more honest then than we are now.
Now, about the fourth channel. In 1993, we were issued the license to
broadcast. In fact, there were not that many contenders. We started
broadcasting in the ill-begotten Petersburg - today, it's ill-begotten for
me, however beautiful it is. We had the license for evening hours, and,
being an entrepreneur and worrying about my profits, I was not eager to have
NTV broadcasting in day times. When we got it, we only started to lose
money. Do you believe this was a reward for our behavior in 1996? I would
rather say we are all paying now, including myself, for the year 1996.
Vladimir PLATONOV, Chairman of the Moscow City Duma: Is it true that you
were sharing your cell with "intelligent people"?
GUSINSKY: With all my due respect, I would like this to be the last question
on my pastime in prison, because I don't think this is the subject of our
today's conversation. I was sitting with people deprived of their prospects
for life, whose rights had been violated by the state. I was sitting with a
man who spent 10 months in prison unindicted. He is a young man, and he may
or may not be guilty, I don't know that, but I know that he had no money for
a good attorney, so he was assigned an attorney, and had in fact to pay for
something that he has not yet been found guilty. This is the big problem.
I can only share my unprofessional opinion: someone in our country finds it
important for the prosecutorial authorities to be able to put behind the
bars anyone they want. We all speak about various reforms, tax reform and so
on, but we don't speak about more than a million of our citizens who are
beyond normal human life, who feel betrayed by their country. I believe this
should be a priority rather than speeding up Putin's administrative reforms
to create this or that vertical chain of command. Unfortunately, I cannot be
of help in this regard.
(...) KISELYOV: Let me remind you that we are also on the air of the Radio
Ekho Moskvy, and I want to pass the floor to my colleague Sergey Buntman.
BUNTMAN: Good evening. Let us answer a phone call.
A LISTENER: Good evening, I want to tell to Vladimir Aleksandrovich
[Gusinsky] that I was following closely what was going on with you, and I am
sure that you were freed from jail because you are a Jew, and the Jews are
capable of concerted efforts to help each other. If we Russians were so
friendly to each other, we would really be a great nation.
KISELYOV: Vladimir Aleksandrovich, would you admit that your release is the
result of the pressure from the world Jewry?
GUSINSKY: My greetings to Vladimir Volfovich [Zhirinovsky]. I even don't
know how to respond and how to comment. I would rather like to return to our
exchange with Platonov, and mention yet another important subject:
investigators, people from law enforcement agencies, who keep people behind
the bars for years - was anyone of them ever held answerable when it turned
out that a prisoner was not found guilty? No. The gravest societal illness
is that the people who take lawless, arbitrary decisions, are not
accountable for anything.
(...) KISELYOV: We will come back to Ekho Moskvy later, giving more
listeners the chance to ask their questions. We have received a lot of
questions via Internet, on a range of issues. Here is Nina Orlova from New
York - one wonders whether she makes her judgement about NTV on the basis of
newspapers - asking: Please tell, without demagoguery about independence and
the freedom of speech, when NTV will stop being anti-Russian?
GUSINSKY: I believe that NTV is completely pro-Russian, state-oriented TV
channel taking state-oriented positions. It's even difficult for me to
respond to this, as to any other strange, preposterous question. I only know
that all the journalists working on NTV, and you, Yevgenii Alekseevich, are
feeling the pain of our country no less than the people living in New York
or in Russia. (...)
KISELYOV: Another question from the Internet: Please explain, how can it be
that among the people who were engineers under the Soviet system, some
suddenly became beggars, and others millionaires. Why did the people who
were creating Russia's national wealth for 70 years end up without the means
GUSINSKY: This is a very complicated question which is difficult to answer.
Great many people living in Russia are now in the most harsh conditions.
Well, this is what we have to pay for what was going on in our country for
75 years, and, perhaps, some time after the reforms began. But I am sure
that Russia has a future, and we have to stand up for this future, we must
do it so that the people who are now poor would become better-off. For our
part, we know one thing firmly: Media-Most provides 21,000 jobs all over
Russia. I don't know what else I can answer to this question.
KISELYOV: Another question: "Do you think that the split in Jewish religious
organizations was caused by your arrest?"
GUSINSKY: First, I think there is no split. I think today the authorities
try not just to control and shape the media, but also to do the same with
everything dating 10-12 years back, including the internal structure of
communities. In Russia, there are many ethnicities, not just the Jews. I
think the authorities would now like to have a handy and controllable
behavior on the part of the Jewish community, something along the lines of
the [USSR] anti-Zionist committee.
QUESTIONS FROM THE AUDIENCE: There is a view that in Russia it is impossible
to earn honestly so much money as you have, for example. Is it possible to
become rich in Russia without breaking laws?
GUSINSKY: Yes, it is.
KISELYOV: Please tell us how.
GUSINSKY: I would tell you, Zhenya, that you probably know this better than
myself, and know it very well.
KISELYOV: We'll have time for this bilateral exchange after the show.
GUSINSKY: I'll tell you what I mean. I'll answer in a very simple way. I
started 12 years ago. I started by working very hard. There are people here
who know very well that all this time I worked 12, 18, 16 hours daily
without weekends. Perhaps, there was a little bit of luck. Perhaps, some
persistence. Perhaps, some talent. I wouldn't deny I consider myself a
talented man in my area. It just happened to be so. (...)
QUESTION: Is it true that your holding pays taxes in Israel and Gibraltar
rather than in Russia?
GUSINSKY: No, it's not true. The holding pays taxes in Russia. I personally
pay my taxes in Gibraltar, but this is another issue.
KISELYOV: How much does the holding pay in taxes?
GUSINSKY: It is in the order of $ 40 million yearly, if we count in dollars.
KISELYOV: Many people are likely to ask, why do you pay your personal taxes
GUSINSKY: if the Duma will adopt the new Tax Code, I will pay my taxes in
(...) KISELYOV: I'd like to ask people in the audience not just to ask
questions, but also to express their opinions. I would also like to hear
what you think. After all, we have not the least important political figures
in this room.
(...) Georgy BOOS, Deputy Speaker of the Duma, Fatherland-All Russia: I
probably won't be very innovative. I will say that today we face not the
Gusinsky case, with all due respect to him. We face the problem that is now
present very clearly. We either will go back into the past - and there is a
strong smell of the 1930s - or will be able to move along the democratic
path, and in this case we will eventually get to normal life. I now speak
about the country as a whole, the entire society, not just some kind of
elites. The authorities have disclosed to us a very dangerous side of
theirs, and, regrettably, they have a social base, a social support behind
these actions. Aleksandr Minkin was right to say that a large part of the
country's population views this latest action as the right one, and there is
an attitude of condemnation [with regard to Gusinsky]. This breeds an even
bigger trouble, because this creates the danger of reversal into the 1930s.
In my view, these days it is only the intelligentsia that understands the
dangers inherent in this path. In my view, the problem became even bigger
once Gusinsky was released in fact upon Putin's statement that the
prosecution agency should have taken into account the fact that Gusinsky had
a governmental award. In essence, this was a command to let him free. This
was done not on the basis of a court verdict, which should have been
pronounced the very same day, but at the command of a bureacrat of sort,
sorry to use this term. No matter whether we adopt the Tax Code or not, the
country will not become attractive for investors without normal democratic
conditions in the country, if the authorities will be able and willing to
take arbitrary decisions. (...)
Date: Wed, 21 Jun 2000
From: Matt Taibbi <email@example.com> (by way of David Johnson
Subject: eXile lead
Here's our lead from our next issue. It's about working the fields in the
Of Clowns And Men
By Matt Taibbi
The crowing of a pissed-off rooster has to be very high on the list of
sounds the human organism can least bear to hear the morning after drinking
a bottle of home-brewed hard liquor. Feline screeching isn't far behind.
This past Tuesday I had both; my hosts in the village of Diveyevo kept both
cats and chickens, with the chicken coop right next to my bathtub-sized
guest room. Without looking, I knew what was going on behind that wall. I'd
seen it the day before.
The roosters were strutting around, provoking the cats from behind the
safety of their chicken-wire. They'd walk back and forth and peck at the
air in the cats' direction. One particular rooster back there, a big,
dumb-looking son-of-a-bitch with a big vain hump of purple plumage around
his head, was better than the rest at driving the cats crazy. He had only
one joke to tell, but-- like all men-- he was more than willing to tell it
over and over again, sure each time that people would come running with
book and film deals at the sound of him: "Cock-a-doodle-do!
Cock-Doodle-do!" And then louder: "COCK-A-DOODLE-DO!"
Burying my aching sweat-covered head under my pillow, I quickly did the
hangover math. Was it possible to tolerate this for any length of time at
all, even a minute, in exchange for the privilege of not having to move?
Answer: Yes, of course it was possible. Just as long as it didn't get
worse. If it didn't get worse, I was sure I could go back to sleep...
Just then the door flew open. "Matt!" a voice said. "Wake up! Time to make
My friend Alexei Dindikin, who had brought me to this godforsaken place, is
a professional clown. We met three years ago in Moscow, at the Moscow Clown
Theater. Alexei actually looks like a clown. He's always got an
exaggeratedly-friendly smile on his face, wedged between a pair of
absolutely gigantic dimples, eerily like a made-up clown's dimples. Without
the makeup the effect is a little bit scary, something like the face of
Cesar Romero. The chin, a fun-house mirror upside-down trapezoid, is
Romero-Cesar-Alexei was waking me up, in theory at least, so that we could
be on time for the traditional first day of haymaking, or the senokos, as
it's called in Russian. On Sunday two days before, the natives here in
Diveyovo-a largish village in the Nizhni Novgorod region which is home to a
nunnery and an enormous Orthodox temple-celebrated "Troitsa", the Russian
orthodox holiday in honor of the holy trinity. For many hundreds of years,
including some 440 now in this town, Russian farmers and peasants have
begun clearing the fields two days after the Troitsa. They wait until the
day after the holiday, when it is said that the Holy Spirit descends over
the town at nightfall.
This village buzzes somewhat before nightfall on that day. Priests and nuns
in black gowns can be seen walking to and fro around the temple, busy with
something, and even if you can't see them you can hear them, because this
is the kind of place where the sound of a single person walking on a
gravelly road can be heard for a fair distance around.
Alexei and I hadn't come to Diveyevo for the senekos. In fact we'd arrived
5 days earlier, with a plan to work, for purely anthropological reasons, as
lumberjacks in a nearby forest. We'd known each other for years and thought
this might be fun, to head out to the provinces for a while and do some
hard labor, go boozing with laborers, etc.
But it didn't work out that way. Within an hour after arriving in Diveyovo
we were being poured shot glasses of 70-proof samogon, and within a few
hours after that, we were stumbling around the town like village idiots. We
tried to work the next day but were rained out, which led to our being
poured, in still another house, still more shot glasses of 70-proof home
brew. After a few more days of this we stopped bothering to even try to
head out to the forest. By then we'd realized that, just by staying in
Diveyovo, we'd already joined the staff of the city's largest work
force-the "beniki", or drunks who travel door-to-door doing odd jobs for
It was therefore only a coincidence, albeit a poetic one, that the first
bottle we were to earn was for clearing a field on the traditional first
day of the senekos. A young woman whose door we'd knocked on, a single
mother, offered us a half-liter to bring her back some animal feed. She put
us up for the night, which we spent drinking the rest of our remaining
stash back in the shed, next to the Lev-Tolstoy era scythes we were to use
the next morning.
Now, after all of this, Cesar-Alexei-Romero was trying the next morning to
talk tradition with me-and expecting me to buy it! In my agony I was
already thinking about having another drink, and he was talking about work.
Worse, so that it could be heard above the cats and the chickens, his scary
clown face was now just inches from my head.
"Come on, we've got to get up," it said. "Haymaking starts today. You know
what time people usually get up to clear the fields around here? Five a.m.,
that's when. And here we are-seven a.m. already. We're blowing it."
I groaned. "We're not blowing shit," I said. "Maybe a hundred-fifty years
ago, the peasants here got up at five a.m... This is the year 2000. No one
gets up to make hay anymore. No one does anything at all."
He hesitated. I had him.
"Anyway," I said, "why don't you go back to bed and get some sleep? We'll
get up and get our goddamn hay later."
He paused. The dimples relaxed for a moment, revealing the hidden hangover,
the bored, tired man behind the clown.
"Logical," he said, nodding.
Then, not smiling, he left the room to go back to sleep.
Nature's bounty does not grow out of the ground in places like Diveyovo
anymore. It comes in on trucks and is sold in cubical 1-kilogram packages.
It's called drozzhi-yeast.
Everybody who's spent any time in Russia at all knows at least a few of the
folk sayings about the central role alcohol plays in this society.
"Everything is done through the bottle," is something you hear a lot. About
90% of the jokes in this country are about drinking. Hit comedies in Russia
involve a bunch of guys going into the woods to get drunk on camera. For
ten years, Russia had a president who acted like he was lost at an Irish
wake... In short, everyone knows Russians drink.
But not everyone knows the other thing-which is that in the past ten years
or so, the economies of entire populations in this country have come to
revolve around alcohol. It sounds like a facile witticism to say so, but in
the provinces, absolute liquidity has literally become the bedrock rule of
finance. In Diveyovo, the bottle has actually turned into currency. They
even call half-liter bottles "dollars". No kidding: offer someone a dollar
for something in this town, and they'll think that's what you mean, a
bottle of 70-proof.
And what happens when you can't even get real money? When all the
collective farms are collapsed, the factories hold up salaries for months
at a time, and pensions come late? When the ruble might devalue at any
moment, and you can't plan ahead anyway, because you never know when you'll
be paid-- or when, in the case of a small businessman, your "investor"
might be killed or demand his money back?
You start minting your own money, that's what you do. That's what Alexei
and I found out when we came to town. The Central Bank of Diveyovo has a
branch in virtually every house. Walk into any house here, and you've got
better than a fifty-fifty chance of finding a still on the stove. Our boss,
Tamara Fedotova, is college-educated and religious-she works as a tour
guide at the monastery-but looks can be deceiving. Samogon, which she calls
"the only reliable occupation in town," is her lifeline. As proof, she
pointed to a new concrete guest house in her back yard which she'd just had
built and fitted with a giant brick oven.
"That whole house was built on samogon," she said. "I cooked that house in
my kitchen. I paid for some of the materials with money, true, but all the
labor I paid for with liquor. The whole thing didn't cost me more than a
Later on, Tamara took out a piece of paper for us, and did the math to
prove her case. To make ten liters of 60-70 proof samogon, you need to buy
a kilo of drozzha and 10 kilograms of sugar. A kilo of drozzha costs about
twelve rubles. Sugar costs about eight rubles a kilo here, so ten kilos
runs you about 80 rubles. Your overall expenses, then, roughly speaking,
are about 92 rubles, give or take a few here or there.
Ten liters of samogon translates into a full case of alcohol-twenty
half-liter bottles. A good half-liter in this town sells for twenty rubles.
You therefore can easily make 400 rubles out of 92 in this town for just a
few hours' labor on your stove-a 300% profit, resulting in a crop that is
more or less absolutely liquid, only slightly less universally useful than
Compare that to the prospect of working in the fields, or in the woods
operating dangerous heavy machinery, for eight or ten hours a day, for a
whole month, for fifty or sixty bucks which may or may not come on time, or
at all. Which would you choose?
In fact, samogon is even more valuable than money, in some cases. For
instance, while the tariff varies for different kinds of labor, the basic
going rate for help in Diviyevo is a bottle per day. It follows that a
worker's services for a whole month can be had in this town for 92 rubles,
with a few scraps from the table thrown in. So if you can come into some
wood or cement for cheap, you really can do like Tamara did and build
yourself a whole house for nothing. After all, it's not as though there
aren't out-of-work carpenters and electricians prowling around. There are.
Clowns and journalists are a different story, of course. Neither a clown
nor a journalist can build you shit. But both still need a drink every now
and then. It presented a dilemma for a couple of drifters who came to town,
looking for work.
When we first came to Diveyevo we arranged, through an old friend of
Alexei's who ran a small glass-blowing factory here, to stay with an
elderly woman named Nadezhda Ivanovna at the edge of the village. Nadezhda
Ivanovna worked at the factory and we were given to understand that she was
a quiet type who would cook our meals, wash our dirty work clothes, etc.
When we finally met her we noted the standard Russian-babushka build-the
Nebraska wishbone-formation lineman's shape, fat fists, glass-splitting
voice-but we didn't see anything that seemed out of the ordinary. Seeing
that we'd had a few beers and stayed up late the night before on the train,
Alexei even thought it fit to warn her that "we like to have a drink every
now and then", and might stay up late. Nadezhda Ivanovna said this was no
She took us home. Her house was more or less like all the other houses in
town, the kind you see in the thousands through the window if you travel by
train in this country. Warped wood, slanted roof, not a right angle in
sight, multicolored (muddy sea green, muddy sky blue) peeling paint job,
white window-panes, overgrown yard, and clotheslines and potato gardens in
back, next to the woodshed. Inside, an ancient linoleum floor,
mildew-colored wallpaper, three hundred flies in every room, jars full of
creepy things everywhere, and most importantly, no real plumbing. There was
a sink, with a functioning faucet, but the cupboard door underneath it
revealed no further plumbing under the drain, just a bucket. Wash the
dishes once, take the bucket out. Wash your hands, take it out again.
The kitchen stove was fueled by gas, but it was gas from a tank. Nadezhda
Ivanovna had to buy the tanks. Only a few areas in town had gas piped into
The rear of the house was divided between the living area and the
"functional" area. This area featured a giant shed full of chopped wood-her
house, like most others in town, was wood-heated. Next to the woodshed was
the bathroom, which was something between an outhouse and a toilet. It had
the standard hole for crouching over, but inside the hole was a
tenuously-placed bucket. Take a shit, take the bucket out to the compost
heap. Take another shit, take it out again. Everything had to be conserved.
The only thing odd about the place was the number of beds. There were beds
and mattresses literally all over the house. Even the kitchen had two
fold-out couches in it. Mysteriously, Nadezhda Ivanovna had told us she
When we sat down to have a cup of tea Alexei made the mistake of sighing.
Every gesture Alexei makes is noticeable, even from a distance. At 40, he
is a ten-year veteran of professional histrionics, having moved to Moscow
from the closed city of Sarov to join the clown theater way back in 1990.
When he hands you something, anything, he smiles and gesticulates in such
an exaggerated way that you feel like you're four years old and he's
presenting you with a balloon on a stick. When he does something wrong, he
winds up and hits his forehead with an audible "Smack!" designed to be
heard in the thirtieth row. A few years ago, he wrote a clown stage version
of Don Quixote. His youth he spent working in upper management in a secret
Alexei was sighing because of a mild hangover from the night before. Too
much beer, too little sleep, a pause in the conversation, and so-a
prolonged intake of air, a closing of the eyes, a violent arching of the
back, and then, finally, a deep, long sigh with a groan-"Yo, my-yo!"
Nadezhda Ivanovna had better seats than the thirtieth row. She rushed to
the table. "You two look a little tired," she said. "Here, let me help you."
Instantly there were two glasses on the table. Then she produced a clear
3-liter glass jar from the windowsill, and poured. The smell was
horrendous, like turpentine. Alexei read my reaction and you could almost
see the annoying faux-tears of sympathy painted over his invisible clown
makeup. If this keeps up, I thought, I'll strangle him by the end of the
weekend. We drank.
Samogon is a funny thing. It's not like vodka; you barely taste the
alcohol. But after about thirty seconds you literally begin to feel dizzy,
like you've been hit with the proverbial baseball bat. My eyes crossed.
"Damn," I said.
Alexei, for once, had no expression on his face.
After a minute, we poured another. Nadezhda Ivanovna left to go back to
work. We drank some more. We went outside and had a smoke, and passed out
briefly in the sun. Then we came back in and drank more.
But a funny thing happened. People started appearing in the house. We
caught two little boys, about eight years old apiece, running out of the
bedroom. Then a hefty track-suit clad couple in their thirties, both with
identical wind-blown Maxell commercial haircuts, appeared at the kitchen
table with shot glasses. Two old ladies came by and sat drinking on the
steps. A businesslike man with a moustache and a troubled expression drove
up in a red Zhiguli, came in for a few drinks, and left without talking.
Alexei and I left around nightfall to get some air. When we came back, the
crowd had multiplied. We had to step over the bodies to get to our beds.
People were spread out in messy piles, laid out on the floor in the violent
postures of people who had collapsed to the ground. The snoring and
smacking was beyond anything I'd ever heard before. It dawned on me: we
were in a Russian crack house.
No one was up except Nadezhda Ivanovna, who was in the kitchen, working a
still. She was spreading bits of bread around the pot, to keep the vapour
from escaping. It was too late to find a new home that night, so we gave in
and drank more of her stuff. We drank it hot, straight from the still.
Samogon gives you a painless, stuporous drunk, something like medical
anesthesia. When we finally stumbled off to sleep Nadezhda Ivanovna was
still up. She was up when we woke up the next morning. Most of the people
were gone, though.
Our lumberjacking boss, Ivan Utkin, was expecting us the next morning at
eight. Despite what had happened the day before, we arrived on time. But
the skies threatened (see insert), and after waiting an hour or so, he
canceled work for the day, sending the attendant clowns, journalists and
lumberjacks scrambling to brew another batch of samogon. As for losing the
day's income, he shrugged, saying it didn't seem worth the trouble.
Utkin is in his early forties and now in his eighth attempt in the last ten
years at building his own small business. He is hardworking, diligent,
frugal, and well-liked and respected by his ten employees. The story of how
his previous businesses failed provides a great insight into why so many
people in town prefer to brew their own money rather than earn it.
"Everything in business comes back to time," he said. "All start-up
businesses need time to develop. But nobody in this country has time.
"Take my bosses," he went on. "I've now had seven investors in the past
seven years, each time in a different kind of business. I raised pigs,
raised chickens, did construction, opened a store, and now I have a
sawmill." He leaned forward. "Guess how many of my investors are still
alive?" he asked.
Alexei and I shrugged. "All of them?" I asked.
He shook his head. "None of them," he said. "Every single last one of them
is dead. A few died of natural causes, but mostly they just shoot each
other. I had a store project that was going on schedule last year. We'd
just started to turn the corner, and then-they found my guy dead in the
front seat of his jeep."
He went on:
"But it wouldn't have mattered if these guys had lived. They'd have bled
the businesses to death anyway. Everybody who invests in this country wants
a return in ten minutes. Here's the way it works; they give you a bunch of
money and say, make this at this price, and sell it at this price. You come
back the next day and announce happily that you've sold half your stuff and
made so-and-so amount of money. They take all the money and all the stuff,
and you've got to wait until they give money again to make more. Meanwhile,
you can't pay anyone anything. The idea of allowing anyone to invest the
return back into the business-that simply isn't done here."
Utkin's current sawmill business is unfolding according to the same
storyline. It opened about three months ago with a $30,000 investment,
which he used to buy equipment for the mill. The investors are a Moscow
construction company which makes dachas and homes for mobsters. Their
interest is cheap wood. According to the terms of the deal, Utkin's
company-"Energiya"-has to deliver four truckloads of plank wood per month
to Moscow. For three of those truckloads, they receive a miserly 700 bucks
apiece. The fourth load they deliver for free, to pay off their debt.
Fair enough. But this month, just a few months into the deal, Moscow
balked. Just a week ago, Utkin's boss started to demand cash repayment of
the principal. And the last truckload of wood they sent, one Utkin was due
to be paid for, the investor took for free.
Part of the initial $30,000, incidentally, went to another business. They
earmarked $4000 to convert an abandoned school across the street into a
woodworkers' shop. With that $4000, Utkin brought in a professional
woodworker from Moscow named Kositya Pankratov to run the show.
Pankratov, who competes in motocross races in his spare time, is now
similarly fucked. He used the four grand to buy woodcutting equipment and
brought in a whole boatload of local drifters and alcoholics, and made a
deal with them. Work for me on credit, he said, and I'll give you a
percentage of anything you sell. In the meantime, I'll teach you how to cut
wood, make furniture, etc.
Most of the drifters balked, but some bought the idea on faith. While they
awaited payment-and suffered through the creation of countless unsaleable
wooden statuettes, benches and utensil sets-Pankratov paid his workers in
Diveyevo "dollars". Then, after about a month, the shop finally started to
produce a few things worth selling. They had cut down old rotting tree
stumps and made giant chair-stands out of them. Pankratov did the details
himself on one, a double-swan head that grew out of the twisted tree
branches on the back of the chair. It wasn't art, but it was pretty cool-I
saw it myself.
The investors now want the chair for free. They are also asking for the
four grand back. Pankratov's liquid staff is beginning to flag. Some are
going back into the village and doing odd jobs-chopping wood, building
sheds. Better to know when you'll get your "dollar" than not know. The
school probably isn't going to make it.
"No one can build a business in two months," Pankratov said. "But anyone
can make a case of vodka in ten days. We can't compete."
Pankratov asked us what we did for a living. We told him and explained that
we were thinking about writing a book-"Of Clowns and Men." He laughed.
"Clowns and men, that's good," he said. "The whole country is divided up
into clowns and men. There are about six men, all in Moscow. They're
turning the rest of us into clowns."
By the early afternoon, one of the lumberjacks-another man in his early
forties, also named Kostiya-had helped one of Pankratov's men, an ex-con
named Sasha, cook up a batch of samogon. We all sat outside on a table next
to the conspicuously quiet sawmill, ate shashlik, and drank heavily. Later,
everyone split up, and somehow we made it back to town.
In the evening Alexei and I went to the "disco", the only thing of its kind
in Diveyevo. It was the usual provincial setup-a converted "Palace of
Culture" with free entrance and a lone DJ. Virtually everyone under
twenty-five in the town was there. The place sucked. The same Boney-M they
played fifteen years ago, only you could at least hear it fifteen years
ago, when they first bought the equipment. A scrawny little cop about
eighteen years old came up to Alexei and me and gruffly ordered us to stop
smoking; we did. A girl there later told Alexei that that same cop had only
just a week before shot a seventeen year-old kid dead for riding a bicycle
without a helmet. Stunned, we asked: was he reprimanded?
"Of course not," she said. "He was with the chief of police. They were all
drunk. What reprimand do you want?"
We were about to go home when Utkin, the sawmill owner, showed up
unexpectedly at the disco. He whispered in Alexei's ear that he needed a
car. Alexei gave him the keys. We didn't see the car for 36 hours, later
finding it parked at a diagonal in the street in front of Nadezhda Ivanovna's.
Now carless and jobless, we started off on the walk home. On the way some
weirdo with a speech impediment and a boxing fixation-he kept erupting in
spasms of shadow-boxing-led us to the "bar", apparently the nightspot for
the local elite. We went inside and the place fairly froze at the sight of
two strangers being led inside by the village idiot. But just then we saw a
familiar face-Kostiya the lumberjack, collapsed nearly dead drunk at a
table with three cheap and not very young-looking women.
"Brrh-mmm..." he said at the sight of us, but we couldn't make out anything
else. We stayed for ten minutes and went home.
There is one sure way to instantly sober up anyone in Diveyovo: mention
Boris Nemtsov's name. Nemtsov to the locals here is something like a cross
between Count Dracula and the Grim Reaper. He is roundly blamed for having
completely destroyed the local economy.
Three of the main collective farms around here-Cherbatovsky, Diveyevsky and
the Sarovsky-have been closed since 1993, when Nemtsov first became
governor. It was Nemtsov's "Agricultural Program" which resulted in the
mass privatizations of local collective farms. All agricultural subsidies
stopped; the directors of the farms all made a fortune and left town; and
the farms themselves were left to rot.
When we were rained out for the second straight day in our attempts to work
as lumberjacks, Alexei and I decided to go native. The sawmill didn't seem
all that reliable anyway. So we went door-to-door, asking anyone if they
needed any work done.
There are armies of people like this in Diveyovo. The local term for them
is "beniki". They walk up and down the streets offering to work for
bottles. If you need something, anything done, you don't have to look
far-help comes to your door.
My accent would have made us suspicious in this endeavor, so we reverted to
a Lenny and George routine when going door-to-door. I played the big dumb
moron, while Alexei put on his dimples and charmingly begged for
employment. Exactly this sort of contrived literary act was what he'd had
planned for this trip from the start, but by the third day it was getting
kind of old and no longer seemed all that interesting.
Alexei and I didn't know each other very well. We met three years ago, when
I took a job as a clown at his theater as a subject for an eXile article.
He dressed me up in a giant Turkish clown costume for the day, and we went
around whacking each other on the head with rubber mallets for kids outside
the theater. Afterwards we went back to the costume room, drank a bottle of
pertsovkaya vodka, talked about our favorite comedies, and celebrated a new
But that was basically it. In the three years since then, we'd met just a
few times. Then, about a month ago, I came to him with this idea of
travelling around the country getting jobs as laborers. He was bored at the
theater, had the summer season off, and after a couple of beers came to
like the idea. A couple of phone calls later and we'd bought tickets to the
Nizhni oblast, where Alexei was from, and before we knew it, we were in
But now that we were here, the cracks were showing. Alexei is ten years
older than I am and has two kids, which he can barely afford to feed on his
theater salary. He has heavy things on his mind. By the third day of the
trip I could see that he was looking and me and thinking just the opposite,
that I was this jerk-off American who was just fucking around, while he and
all the other people around me had real problems. And now here we were
going door-to-door in the middle of all this mess begging for bottles...
well, he was going to ride it out, but I could see he wasn't all that
comfortable about it.
"Good evening," he said, knocking on Tamara's door. We'd been directed to
her house by a neighbor of Nadezhda Ivanovna's, who told us there was a
woman down the street who needed some yardwork done.
"Good evening," Tamara said. "What can I do for you?"
Alexei explained: we wanted to work, for whatever she could pay. "Of
course, we don't know how to do anything. But we've got a car. Lift
something from here to there, you know."
She pointed at me. "What's his problem?"
Alexei laughed. "Oh, nothing," he said. "He's just an idiot. Pay no
attention to him. A nice enough guy."
She frowned. "I heard you two talking on the street. He's no idiot. He's
got some kind of accent. What's the deal?"
"I'm an American journalist," I blurted out. "We're here on this stupid
project which we're already tired of. Give us some kind of job, please, so
we can get the hell out of here."
Everyone laughed. She demanded a full explanation and got it, agreeing that
it was funny. Then she said that, in fact, she could use some hay, if we
wanted to cut some. Negotiations ensued. Alexei offered her a day's work
for a bottle.
She paused. "Too much," she said, laughing.
"That's half the going rate," Alexei interrupted.
"That's what you're worth," she said.
We caved in, went inside, and proceeded to get drunk in her woodshed. The
next morning we grabbed our scythes and went out searching for hay.
Tamara had told us that she could remember a time, not fifteen years ago,
when even finding a hay-field for private use was a problem. "All the good
land belonged to the collective farms," she said. "If you wanted hay for
your own animals, you had to go far out of town, to God-knows-where, in the
swamps, in the woods. You'd be cutting patches of hay on slanted
riverbanks, in between trees, etc. And in order to get it carted back to
town, you had to wait until late at night, after the collective farm
workers got out, to bribe a local driver to haul it for you."
She paused. "Tomorrow, you'll find out," she said. "Now you can drive five
minutes in any direction, and you'll find fields as big as God, and they're
all yours. That land used to belong to the collective farms, but now it
just sits there. And as for hauling it, any driver in town is yours
forever, for a bottle."
Tolstoy's Levin, you recall, discovered his manhood on the senekos. He went
out into the fields with the muzhiks and spent the whole day making hay
with his scythe, trying desperately to keep up. At first he hated the work,
but then he found his working rhythm and, in the manner of intellectuals,
believed he'd discovered philosophy and truth at the same time. Life meant
getting back to the fields, working simply as men do, while also believing
in Christ simply, as those same men do.
Tolstoy now is long dead and even the replacements for those great fields
of working men he briefly lost himself in-those lines of peasants with
scythes rhythmically slicing through the tall grass-even they're gone. The
peasants were replaced in the 20th century with great mechanized threshers,
and in the 21st with-nothing. At ten in the morning on the first day of the
senekos, Alexei and I went out to the fields and found no one there,
absolutely no one. Just two clowns in a car the color of a clown's nose.
We dove into the first field we saw and hacked it to pieces. By early
afternoon, I was pissed. I'd found the rhythm with the scythe all right,
but that rhythm was killing my back. I found myself cursing Tolstoy. I'd
always loved his books, but this was too much. "Fucking writers!" I
thought, catching the scythe on a rock; there were no such rocks in Anna
We brought the hay back in loads, strapping it to the roof of Alexei's
ridiculous clown-mobile. We looked so stupid that the GAI didn't even
bother to stop us, just laughing as they waved us through into town. After
the last load we drove to the store at Tamara's request and bought a packet
of drozzhi and and ten kilos of sugar. Tamara already had some braga ready
that she would distill for us that night, but she wanted to cook up a new
10-liter batch, and needed some ingredients.
Sugar and drozzhi turned out to be hard to find. Someone had beaten us to
the punch most everywhere in town. Finally we found a store with eight
kilos of granulated sugar; the remaining two we bought in cubes. The store
cashier, a bored-looking blonde in her thirties, just laughed.
"Ten kilos of sugar, huh?" she said. "You guys need some drozzhi?"
"As a matter of fact, we do," Alexei said.
She handed us a kilo. "Say," Alexei said. "How many of these have you sold
"Drozzhi?" she said. "Today-let's see. Three cases, plus five... 35 kilos."
Alexei asked her if it was all going to make bread and cakes. You can make
enough bread to feed Sweden with 35 kilos of drozzhi. And this was just one
counter out of dozens in town.
"Yeah, that's right," she said. "Bread. And cakes."
[DJ: there may be some text missing at the end]