When the overnight train from Moscow reached Saratov, Anna was standing on the platform, waiting to meet me. She was sunburned, and under the monkish fringe of dark hair her large brown eyes were brimming with energy. Her boyish face was almost beautiful. Brusque as ever, she brushed aside my greetings and dodged my embrace: “It’s terrible, this capitalism of yours. But I still prefer it to the old regime. The city’s like Palermo now.”
Then she was off, striding through the large covered station. It had changed utterly since my last visit. Before, it had always been fairly empty, orderly, and clean. Now it was milling with beggars and homeless people with bundles. The stench of poverty hung on the air. Anna seemed not to notice. She was talking intensely, volunteering information, filling me in on the highlights of the past year in Saratov, the old closed city. Gone were the defiant silences. Somewhere in the course of the last year, she seemed to have decided she could trust me.
The city’s mayor had committed suicide and two of his assistants had been arrested for taking bribes, she told me. Now, the deputy mayor had taken control of the administration, as well as the local “mafia.” “And don’t think it’s just Saratov,” Anna continued. “It’s like this all over Russia. I don’t know what we thought was going to happen after those elections. I suppose we thought things would change overnight. But it hasn’t. Fascism is on the way, but it’s creeping in quietly.”
Anna had come through a tough winter. Her newspaper, Saratov’s one liberal voice, ran out of money and she lost her job. She proved unable to adapt to the life of a freelancer. She was incapable of selling herself. The trickle of work she did have was not enough to feed her and she was too proud to ask for help. “I don’t know how I’d have managed if it hadn’t been for my father. I didn’t say anything, but he must have guessed I was in trouble—one day he turned up with a bucket of potatoes. He’d traveled all the way in by bus to give it to me.” A few months later her paper found a new backer and Anna got her job back.
Riding the tram in from the station, we bowled through the tree-lined neoclassical streets of the city center. The buildings were more decrepit than ever, the roads more rutted, but here and there the bright plastic of a new shop-front gleamed. The girls were looking prettier, better dressed. But the biggest change was the expression on people’s faces. They no longer wore that shuttered look which so oppressed me when I first arrived in the city.
Anna seemed happy and excited as I had never seen her before. Though Saratov always struck me as an oppressive city, for her it was a liberation after life in the countryside. She had been at university here, and after she was sacked by the newspaper in Marx her reputation landed her a job.
She invited me to stay with her at the hostel where she lived. While she went to collect sheets for me I took stock of her modest room. As ever, she lived like a nun. Her walls were unadorned, except for a few small Impressionist pictures cut out of a colored magazine. There was a shelf of books, a kettle, and a couple of plates and mugs. Her cupboard contained nothing but a spare pair of trousers and a winter coat. There was more to this than poverty, I realized. She had been downright rude when I showered her with presents: “Give them to someone who needs them,” she growled. “I like to earn everything I own—and I hate having anything extra.”
This was her very personal reaction to the fabulous thieving going on all around her. Stealing had always been a feature of Russian life, but never on this scale. After the Party’s failed attempt at a coup, giddy sums from Party funds were found to have disappeared into numbered Swiss bank accounts. The greed of the nation’s rulers was Homeric. Where once they stole building materials and labor for their dachas, now the new “democrats,” top officials, generals, bankers, and heads of industry were pocketing IMF loans, army pension funds, and whole factories. All those years of badly cut suits and cramped apartments had left an insatiable appetite for consumption. For people like Anna, Russia’s liberal intelligentsia, the result was tragic: “freedom” and “democracy” had become synonymous with corruption and chaos.
When Anna came back with the sheets, she was laughing. The laundry woman was outraged at the idea of my using “her” sheets: “These foreigners, they behave as if they own the place!” The woman bought some Western cakes for her daughter recently which had made her ill. At least the packet looked Western; it was probably one of the home-produced fakes which now filled every kiosk in the city.
As we picnicked in her room, Anna kept talking. Journalism was now a dangerous profession. One of her closest colleagues had just been spirited out of the country after two assassination attempts, the latest in the crowded main street, where he was hit over the head with an iron bar. He made the mistake of investigating corruption in the administration. Anna, ignoring all warnings, was picking up where he left off.
A nationwide grab for property was under way, thanks to Yeltsin’s privatization program. In Saratov, thugs were putting pressure on pensioners and single people with flats in the city center to swap them for places in high-rise blocks out of town. Those who resisted were sometimes found dead. Anna had taken up the case of an elderly man who refused to be intimidated. Some heavies tried to force him to swap his music store in the city center for one on the outskirts. He collaborated with the police, and the men were arrested. However, shortly after, he arrived at his shop to find that new locks had been put on the door: it had been taken over during the night. Anna’s investigations led back to the deputy mayor, who was consolidating his grip on the whole administration.
• • •
She was outraged when her editor spiked her carefully researched story. Only then did she find out who the paper’s mysterious new owner was: the deputy mayor himself. The editor warned her to back off. “But I’m not giving up,” she said, the battle light in her eye. Ah, so the truth teller, the pravednik, had found her cause.
Worried though I was for my friend’s safety, I was proud of her. This tradition of self-sacrifice went back to the early days of Christianity in Russia, to the example of the princely brothers Boris and Gleb, who submitted themselves to death at the hands of their brother’s hired assassins. It was present in the tradition of Russia’s holy fools, who arrogated to themselves the right to speak freely when others could not; and in the tradition of the Old Believers who committed suicide rather than submit to the power of the state.
But a few days later when I took the bus to Marx to stay with Tatiana and Misha, I was surprised to find how deeply they disapproved of Anna’s newfound sense of purpose. Tatiana’s view was gently cynical: “She’s courting danger because she’s bored—she needs to feel she’s alive.” Misha went further: “The risks Anna’s running are a waste of time! Her problem is that she’s lost her role. In the past it was different—there probably was a place for people who wanted to sacrifice themselves. But now no one needs that sacrifice! All she sees is horror and chaos. She doesn’t understand that it’s all happening under her very eyes! Of course it gets rough, but it’s fine as long as you don’t lose your head.” Misha and Tatiana may not have been right that the risks Anna was running were pointless, but the danger was real. Russia had become one of the riskiest places in the world for journalists, particularly investigative ones. Some forty-two, at a conservative estimate, would be killed in the 1990s.
For the first time a real difference in perspective had opened up between my friends. Misha, as a businessman, was confident that given time the corruption and chaos would die down and a new order would emerge. Anna, more political in her instincts, was in despair. Yeltsin’s having stolen the election might be good news for the new economy, but it had doomed Russia’s hopes for democracy.
BANGING THE TABLE
When I first arrived in Marx the place felt downright sinister, as if it had a hex on it. But now it was just an ordinary, messy, urban/rural mongrel of a place again. Little metal kiosks had sprung all along the streets, selling brightly colored “liqueurs” and other dubious goods. There were cars, too, including a surprising number of dusty Mercedes limousines which had probably been liberated from the Berlin streets.
To my surprise, Misha’s old electronics factory was still staggering on. The half of the workforce who had stayed on were only turning out toy cars, or so they said. Since there was precious little market for these toys, this did not make sense. When I pressed him, Misha just snorted and said that it was “all too complicated to explain.”
It was indeed. In fact, Yeltsin’s government had still not succeeded in breaking the power of these factory managers, who had controlled the old Soviet economy. They were still being subsidized by the Central Bank. The toys, or whatever they were really selling, might be unsalable, but they were not useless. They were part of a virtual economy, which worked like this: the factory director would slap an arbitrary price on them (the higher the better) and fob them off on his workers in lieu of wages. The workers, who stayed on because they could not sell their flats, used these as barter, to “pay” for other unsalable objects produced elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Misha’s business was starting to take off. The family were still living in their shabby little flat and driving the same old Zhiguli. But Misha was a manufacturer now. The seed processor was working night and day, producing virgin sunflower oil. It was not yet a profitable business, since inflation was still too high for production to make economic sense. But Misha’s partners were underwriting the loss through their trade in soft drinks and chewing gum.
The blue-eyed, fair-haired sportsman had thickened out. A knot of problems sat on his pale forehead, and his style had become more patriarchal. When he heard me talking in an obliging way to the woman in the ticket office at the bus station he told me off: “You just can’t go talking to people like that! It may be all right in the West, but here it’s an expression of weakness—it means you’ve surrendered. You’ve got to behave as if you owned the place. No, don’t laugh! I’m serious. We’re living in a dangerous time in Russia. You’ve got to learn how to bang the table, or they’ll eat you for breakfast.”
Misha had learned how to bang the table. But this did not entirely explain the steady progress of his business. When I first met his partner, Pasha, I was slightly puzzled. He had a bullet-shaped head and boxer’s body and at his heels trotted a fierce little Rottweiler. It was not just that he was so unlike the gentle, clever Misha that puzzled me. The relationship between them seemed so unequal. Misha appeared devoted to his friend, while Pasha was insufferably condescending to Misha. Now I realized why.
Pasha was a childhood friend of Saratov’s two most famous godfathers, the brothers Sasha and Lyosha. As boys, they spent their time hanging out in Saratov’s boxing clubs. Using these clubs as their power base, the brothers went on to build the most efficient, and violent, of the region’s early trading networks. Misha and Pasha were not directly part of their outfit, but they enjoyed its protection.
One of the brothers, the handsome, charismatic Sasha, had recently been murdered on a street in Saratov, in broad daylight. Thousands turned out to mourn him. The city was carpeted in flowers. Violent he might have been, but he was already a legend. The remaining brother Lyosha went around with no fewer than four bodyguards wherever he went.
Misha was more than ever consumed by his work. In the past, he visibly depended on Tatiana to give him the confidence to pursue his business: she was his Beatrice. Now, business and the cult of male friendship had claimed him. Home was the place he came to eat and sleep.
Tatiana had more time on her hands now that her daughter, Polina, was older, and very independent. Natasha had encouraged her to take a job, as a journalist perhaps. But without Natasha there to push her, I doubted whether Tatiana would pursue her own interest at the expense of her family.
Natasha’s departure left a gaping hole in Tatiana’s life, as it had in Anna’s. Meeting a Soviet aristocrat like Natasha in Marx was providential for them both. In the rigid, authoritarian atmosphere of the little town Natasha’s irreverence about power and her intellectual confidence cleared a space within which these bright young provincial women had started to find themselves. “I don’t know about Anna, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s probably a good thing Natasha did leave,” Tatiana admitted bravely. “I’d fallen so firmly under her spell that I’ve been having difficulty pulling myself together, learning how to live without her.”
Tatiana was more beautiful than ever, with her mane of fair hair, pale face, gray eyes, and sensuous lips. But more remarkable than her beauty was her normality. Alone among my friends, she appeared to be untouched by the craziness of the time.
She had just told me the story of her great-great-aunt, who was famously beautiful, with fair hair down to her waist. Although she was only a peasant, the local landowner married her off to his ne’er-do-well son, hoping she would be able to redeem him with her love. She did indeed fall deeply in love with her husband. But he remained indifferent and never consummated the marriage. Finally, in a bid to win his heart, the girl set off from her home in the Ural Mountains for the great monasteries of Kiev. She walked all the way across Russia and back, on foot. Her pilgrimage took two years. She failed to win her man. But when she arrived home she had acquired the gift of healing. So famous did she become as a healer that for the rest of her life patients came to consult her from all over Russia. She passed the gift on to her niece, Tatiana’s grandmother, who enjoyed a similar fame. “I used to love being with my granny,” Tatiana said. “I would sit with her while she worked at her spinning wheel. I never needed to tell her what I was thinking—she would tell me.” Her grandmother wanted to pass on her gift to Tatiana. But Tatiana was young and modern and had no time for such mumbo jumbo.
Now, as I struggled to find redeeming features in that mongrel town, Tatiana’s gentle radiance, her undamaged sanity struck me as some sort of miracle. It was almost as if the gift of healing had come down to her after all.