Empathy and Education of a Foreigner, in the Early 1990s.

William Mateo, April 2009 Moscow

The Soviet Union officially collapsed on Dec 25, 1991. In 1992 I was sent to live in Moscow and found the hotel’s lobby bar a bit worn with its threadbare carpets but with reasonably serviceable bar stools and davenports. I think the Soviets designed it as they supposed a foreign hotel lobby should appear. Pretty close, but not quite right. The Slavyanskaya Hotel was one of only a few where foreigners (and only foreigners) could stay. Russians could meet with foreigners but could not check in. A couple of working girls visited the lobby bar many evenings. Always the same pair.

The hotel was populated by freshly arrived expats and businessmen most of whom were looking for a quick buck in the new freewheeling environment of post-Soviet Moscow. Many were con men and carpet baggers much like newly arrived Northerners in the war-ravaged American post-Civil War south in 1870. They would return each evening to the lobby bar to drink and complain about everything Russian including the Russians. One man hoped that the Russians needed barbed wire and could not figure out how to make it on their own. He was a barbed wire salesman from Dallas and shortly became a failed barbed wire salesman from Moscow sitting in Dallas. Complaining was a big pastime of my hotel mates and the bitching became unbearable. I started to arrive back from a long day at work only to sit in my room – it was less depressing than spending time with the carpet baggers. Something had to be done.

Novy Arbat, 1993

On Christmas Day I woke up in an apartment in a Russian building in Moscow having moved out very much against the will of my employer, the Coca-Cola Company. This was a stupid thing to do. I did not speak Russian, and thus could not buy anything including food. I was hungry my first morning in the new (old) flat. To get around I mostly had to hitchhike but could not explain where I needed to go or even agree a price. There were few restaurants, I didn’t know where they were and if I did, I could not read a menu. Shamefully I went to the hotel for breakfast. I needed to figure out how Russians live in Moscow and try to do the same. I was curious anyway about all things Russian. How did they live every day? What did they eat? What are some key cultural traits? Why do they all love classical music and theatre? They look an awfully lot like Americans. But working in an office with only Russians reporting to me, I can tell you they are not much like Americans. This is deceptive. Not having a grasp of this can get you into trouble. Lots of it.

One of my assignments was to help build the Coca-Cola factory in Moscow. To do that we had an international construction company on the ground in Moscow. Every Thursday night I and our Coke Finance Director, the top two guys from the construction company and a couple of other expats would go out for dinner and drinks at I think the only independent bar/restaurant for foreigners in the city. Besides an effort by the CIA to recruit me one night in that bar, I saw the two girls from the hotel. Apparently, they liked to associate with foreigners.

They pulled up chairs at our table. I have never paid ladies of the night and I was not going to start now, but they spoke fluent English and we struck up a conversation. Why would a perfectly good-looking, educated young woman choose this way to make money? It seemed like a perfectly reasonable topic to explore so I asked her.

That was the beginning of an education in Russian life that I was seeking and was as wonderful as it was painful. True empathy is painful.

Before 1991 Lena’s family was well off. They had a large apartment in the centre of the city. Her mother and father lived together with Lena, her sister and brother. She and her sister were college students attending MGU – the prestigious highly regarded university in Moscow. Lena was a senior, her sister a year behind her.

Her brother had graduated two years earlier. Her father did not work in the government but made enough money to have a good lifestyle.

Department store in Moscow with few items for sale, early 1990s.

Two things the carpet baggers lacked was curiosity and empathy. And I learned from Lena that there was a lot to feel empathy towards in 1992. As with most Russians Lena’s family’s life unraveled, and fast. Hyperinflation had destroyed her family’s savings; her father had lost his job. Her mother was lucky enough to find a job the only way she could – through a friend (a method known as ‘blat’ connections). Learning to be a store clerk at the age of 50 was demeaning. Shameful really. Eventually she was caught but tried vainly to hide her working reality from friends. Her father was left to take care of the house, sometimes standing in long lines to buy something necessary but usually out of stock. Sometimes, the items sold out by the time it was his turn or the price doubled while he was in line. Lena told me that her family had to take in three older relatives who could not survive on their own. It was crowded, but it meant more group income. Any income was combined to cover necessities. Every person in her family had to make some money to literally keep from starvation.

Thus, was born the mini-mafia and individual traders… single persons trying to invent any way to earn some money, sometimes forced into things that were not always legal. I bought some shashlik skewers (шампури) from a man who was a metal worker at the huge Aviation Motors aircraft engine factory in Moscow. The skewers he said were perfect – “you can put them on a very hot grill, but the metal stays cool enough to touch, nothing sticks to them, and they are lightweight. I make these at work from titanium for jet engine fan blades”.

Although Lena’s brother had found a job in a factory designing light fixtures, he was not better off than his father simply because like millions of other Russians he was not paid. The factory had no cash flow. Eventually he would be paid with light fixtures which he would then sell on the street.

So the criminal element blossomed, corruption and extortion multiplied. The police were ingenious entrepreneurs – like Lena, they sold themselves and were bought up like warm buns on a cold morning. Anyone who drove a car helped support a traffic policeman’s family.

Scene from the film: ‘Interdevochka’, 1991

Lena answered my question. “Well, you have to realise that I have no choice. I can make $250 a night in a few hours. This is more than my father made in a whole year before, and I earn it in dollars and Euros and not our paper rubbish”. That is why I brought my sister into the business and we work at the hotel the same nights. The two of us can go to University, support our whole family and provide some dignity in their lives now. “And besides, it’s not such a bad work and can be fun. You must remember I work for myself; I have no manager or anyone who takes a cut, and thus I and I alone select who I will go upstairs to the room with.”

I cannot remember how many times I ran into Lena at that restaurant on Thursday nights dining with my colleagues, but I had time to learn a great deal. It wasn’t a one-way street. She had many questions for me – why on earth would you leave Atlanta and your horse farm to come here to this awful place? What is it like to work for a big international company? What do you see – do you think we Russians have any kind of future? What will become of us? Will the west work to destroy us? What is life like in America? Tell me about it!

All that I learned from Lena was heart wrenching and largely invisible for us isolated foreigners who by contrast lived, literally, like millionaires. We could afford anything, and for those who could, everything was available. Lena helped me to see, and as heart wrenching as it was for some reason I needed to know.

Life under Yeltsin was just anguish for many Russians and for the few foreigners who lived here who were lucky enough to see, understand and experience empathy for life around them.

Some Russians too had little empathy for others. One had the name Boris Yeltsin who stole and plundered, took an election by corruption, spend a lot of his time drunk and little of his time caring for his fellow Russians. Crime – big, violent crime- was rampant under Yeltsin. After a period of verbal and physical threats, a rocket propelled grenade was fired at Coke’s newly built office at the factory destroying much of it. There were seven large mafia gangs in Russia back then, the most violent of these being the Solntseva gang in the Moscow suburb of Solntseva where we had built our factory. President Yeltsin called a meeting with these largest mafia bosses in Russia, and his message was “you can fight, kill and plunder among and from Russians, but you must leave the foreign companies alone. It’s bad press”. Yeltsin was not terribly interested in what was happening to his fellow Russians – from crime or economic policy.

This should help people in ‘the west’ to understand Putin’s apparent high approval rating. If you live your life in Russia today (as I do) and lived through the perestroika period and early 1990 years here (as I did), you will understand. Russia is a highly imperfect place, but probably it is so much better than ever before in its history for those of us who live here.

I am sure Lena gave up her profession as soon as she could, is probably happily married in Moscow and raising a family with enough money to do so. Or maybe met a foreigner and is long gone. Sometimes I wish I knew.

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