Thursday, December 29, 2016


This is the last part of my narrative from the Moscow coup of 1991. For background, see here. For the seventh part, see here.

As with the sixth part, this piece narrative is headed "September 7" in my notes. That implies that I wrote it up two weeks after the events, whereas all the other days' accounts were written up on the day they happened. But the level of detail suggests I was working from notes of some kind.

I think it was when we were coming home from the victory meeting at the White House, Sasha mentioned that he didn’t like hearing the word “Junta” all over the place. It was embarrassing to hear it applied to his own country, because juntas are something they have in poor, chaotic, third-world countries that are hardly countries at all and can never get their act together. The fact that the term is accurate brings home just how bad things have gotten.

The Arbat, the pedestrian mall made famous in the US by Reagan’s visit, is lined from end to end with young people, mostly men, sitting behind tables laden with matryoshkas [the classic painted nesting Russian dolls], painted wooden bowls, amber jewelry, samovars—all the baubles a tourist is expected to take home with him.

These budding young capitalists sit huddled under plastic drapes against the rain, dressed in ostentatiously western clothing. Here and there a portable radio consoles a lonely, wet merchant with intrusive music. In the way these people address you, you feel you are there to serve them.

And in a way you are.

A reasonably well painted matryoshka is a bargain for a tourist at 800 rubles, since that works out to about $27. 800 rubles is also a month’s salary for a professor, a rank less common in Russia than in America.

The pedestrian underpass at the end of the Arbat is a claustrophobic’s nightmare, crowded with people selling books, cigarettes, candies, kittens, and here and there a few beggars, each one a heap against the wall completely motionless. What’s most disturbing is that you don’t feel that the peddlers are so far from the beggars. They can still stand straight; they are not dressed in rags; they are merely frightened and ashamed, not yet hopeless. But they seem just as dependent on your generosity.

Perhaps in a couple months they will be joined by a certain pensioner who wrote a letter to the editor detailing food and housing expenses of 200 rubles/month. His pension is 150 rubles/month. He hasn’t yet taken into account clothing or transport.

It’s easy to be depressed by this. The enterprising sharpies on the Arbat are not doing anything particularly productive, while the intelligentsia feels unwanted and the everyman gets squeezed. But of course the Russians have jokes that describe both the general situation and the mood after the coup.

A man walks into a grocery store. “Could you weigh me out a kilo of food?”

“Sure. Just bring it in sometime.”

A man goes to his rabbi. “I have six children to feed, my wife is pregnant again, and we’re all crammed into a one-room cottage. What shall I do?”

“Take home this goat and keep it in the house with you.”

A week later the man comes back. “Rabbi! Rabbi! Why did you give me such terrible advice? I still have six mouths to feed, my wife is still pregnant, and now our one room stinks of goat!”

“Bring me back the goat.”

Two days after the goat is returned, the rabbi asks the man how he is doing. “Things are much better already, thank you.”

“There, you see?”

A few days after the coup, an actor was being interviewed. “After watching TV these last few days I’ve completely lost my taste for folk ensembles. And I will never again go near Swan Lake so long as I live.”

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