ON DECEMBER 31, 1999, Lyosha, his mother, his stepfather, his aunt, and her son all drove out to the countryside to celebrate New Year’s with Lyosha’s grandmother. Serafima Adamovna greeted them on the porch. She looked devastated.
“Yeltsin is leaving,” she said.
All of them stood there, stricken by this news. They had been abandoned. How was this even possible?
In the house, the television was on. Yeltsin had already announced his resignation, and now the news anchors were talking about it, showing clips of Yeltsin’s speech—he looked like he was crying—and other footage that showed that while Lyosha and his family were driving, the country had moved on.
“I have fulfilled my life’s mission,” Yeltsin had said in his address. “Russia will never go back to the past. From now on, Russia will be moving forward. I should not stand in the way. I should not spend another six months holding on to power when the country has a strong man who deserves to be president—and on whom virtually every Russian today is pinning his hopes for the future.”1
Then there were two men in a Kremlin office, one wearing a Navy uniform and the other in a gray civilian suit. Yeltsin shook both their right hands. In their left hands, each held a hard-sided briefcase and something that looked like a camera case. There was no voice-over—only the sound of the Russian national anthem playing—but it was obvious that the four objects together constituted what was known in the vernacular as the “nuclear suitcase.” The men shook Putin’s hand next. Then he stepped closer to Yeltsin. Putin was holding a red file folder under his arm. Yeltsin wiped a tear from his left eye. He looked like he had limited mobility now—he seemed bloated—and he had only three fingers on his left hand because of a childhood accident, and all that together made him look awkward and vulnerable, like a giant toddler. Putin, Lyosha thought, looked disoriented and unsure of himself. Lyosha’s grandmother was disoriented too, and scared, though in the months leading up to this day she had been quoting Putin copiously and gleefully, mostly his line about the terrorists in the outhouse. On the television, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, in his tall white hat topped with a golden cross, was watching over the transfer of power.
Then there was Yeltsin wearing an overcoat, opening a door for Putin, who was dressed only in a suit. “Here is your office,” said Yeltsin, gesturing with his three-fingered hand. The camera panned to the presidential desk, with a small decorated New Year’s tree next to it.*
And then there was Yeltsin out on the porch, in his overcoat and fur hat, with Putin next to him, still wearing only a suit, like a host who has stepped outside for a moment to say goodbye to a departing guest. Yeltsin got into a Mercedes stretch limo and drove off the premises as Putin, flanked by several other men, waved to him from the porch.2
SOMETIMES SERYOZHA THOUGHT THAT he was crazy—or everyone else was. This whole setup with the transfer of power struck him as bizarre, possibly even unreal. On New Year’s night, he asked, “Is he putting us on?” But even his grandfather, who was usually Seryozha’s political ally and guiding light in the family, said that Putin was saying some reasonable things, making points that Alexander Nikolaevich himself had long been making. He heard Putin speaking about the social responsibility of government—health care, education, culture, words that Yeltsin had never seemed to utter—and this gave him some hope. He was cautious—he said that he feared seeing Putin fall into a trap set by the resurgent bureaucracy, what he called “the nomenklatura monster,” and when he heard Putin speak of the need to strengthen the state, his concern grew. Still, he thought the new president deserved a chance.3 And Putin, to him, certainly seemed saner than the outgoing Russian president.
The way everyone seemed to be acting like this was normal, to take this gray little man, announce that he would be president, and watch him ascend to the throne three months later—the way everyone was unfazed by this, made Seryozha feel crazy. He had been feeling that way more and more often.
At Moscow State University, where Seryozha was now studying computer programming, everyone seemed to have been waiting for Putin to come along. Seryozha did not even notice when his portraits began appearing, along with patriotic paraphernalia he had not noticed before: flags, flyers for Putin’s Unity Party, posters calling on everyone to vote in the hastily scheduled presidential election. This pretend election of a barely perceptible candidate who was the preordained winner made Seryozha feel like he barely existed himself. It was probably a good thing that his field required virtually no social contact with his fellow students: he could not have grasped their reality if he had wanted to.
IN AUGUST 2000, Lyosha went to the Black Sea coast with his mother. They spent their days at the beach, which was so crowded that they had to get there early to find a place to throw down a towel on the sand, and their evenings in the kitchen of a rented apartment, eating sickly sweet local grapes and listening to the radio. The news was as slow as the southern air, until something inconceivable happened. According to the radio, a Russian nuclear submarine, the Kursk, had sunk off the coast of Murmansk. Some of the crew were still alive, but trapped at the bottom of the Barents Sea. The radio was saying that Russian rescue crews could not get to the submarine. The radio was also saying that Norway had offered to help but Russia had declined. The radio was saying that President Putin had decided not to interrupt his vacation in Sochi.
The days slowed even more. In the fog of his sleepless nights and his circular daydreams, Lyosha kept imagining the sailors, boys a few years older than he was, at the bottom of the cold sea, waiting for help that could not get to them, and the president—the little man to whom Yeltsin had handed his office—somewhere quite near here, lying on a stretch of the Black Sea beach that was pristine and uncrowded, reserved for Putin’s uninterruptible vacation.
Thinking about all this was a relief, because Lyosha’s thoughts before the submarine disaster had been even worse. Something had happened to Lyosha his first day at the beach. When he saw other boys, teenagers like himself or young men, dressed, like he was, in only a pair of small black bathing trunks, he felt heat shoot excruciatingly through his body and a thrilling invisible shiver set in. It happened every day after that first time. The thoughts it brought were unthinkable. I am a pervert, he thought. I am sick. I am the only person in the world who feels this way. Now these awful phrases floating in his mind mixed with images of the sailors dying at the bottom of the sea.
Rationally, Lyosha knew that there were homosexuals in the world. In seventh grade his class had made a weekly visit to a family-planning center where a psychologist talked to them about things their parents did not. The program was funded by American billionaire George Soros, the school had a contract with the center, and parents of the seventh-graders had to sign consent forms to allow their children to attend. The psychologist happened to be the mother of Lyosha’s friend, a girl with whom he shared a desk in every one of his classes. She was as unpopular as he was, not just with other children but also with teachers, who seemed to suspect her of being smarter than they were. Lyosha, for his part, had somehow earned the nickname “faggot” among fellow students. One day at the center, the psychologist said that in addition to “heterosexual” families there were also “homosexual” ones. The idea was sudden, exciting, and as foreign as Soros, the American billionaire.
The following year—eighth grade—an older girl stormed into their class one day and asked loudly, “Did you know you had a prostitute in your grade?” She explained that thirteen boys had locked the girl in question in a cellar and had taken turns having intercourse with her. “She couldn’t get out,” said this accuser, “and she liked it.” Over the course of the next few days, the story was recounted many times, as the male participants boasted of their roles in it. Their victim stayed out of school for a few weeks, and when she returned, she and Lyosha became friends. They were now a group of three: the Faggot, the Prostitute, and the Snob.
As they got older, some of their classmates seemed to develop respect for their intelligence and their ability to learn, explain, and argue about things. In tenth grade—the penultimate year of high school—Lyosha studied harder than ever before, because this seemed the only way to chase away the thoughts that had begun tormenting him in August on the Black Sea. Toward the end of the school year, he was elected class president: whatever some of his classmates thought of him, whatever led them to call Lyosha “faggot,” they agreed that he was the best person to represent their interests before the school administration.
In May 2001, toward the end of tenth grade, Lyosha and his two friends were hanging out at the playground behind his building. They were too old for playgrounds, of course, but in the absence of other public spaces all young people in Solikamsk hung out in playgrounds, especially when the weather was good. A girl strolled by—she was one of the kids who used to sleep in Lyosha’s stairway, except she was not a kid anymore. She called out to someone else who happened to be walking by, a man of about thirty. He sauntered over. She pointed at Lyosha.
“Faggot,” she said.
The man took a short running start and kicked Lyosha in the lower back. Then again. His eyes were crazy, empty and furious at the same time, and Lyosha knew that he was about to be beaten to death.
Lyosha’s stepfather happened to come out on the balcony just then. This gave him a clear view of the playground.
“Get out of here,” barked the girl.
At the emergency room he was told that there was bleeding and that he now had a condition called a “floating kidney”—literally, one of his kidneys was no longer securely attached by surrounding tissue. The pain was excruciating, and to relieve it—and to avoid surgery—he would have to stay in bed for two weeks. Lyosha’s mother wanted to go to the police, but Lyosha was terrified that the reason for the beating would then be revealed. Because if he had to explain what had happened to him, he would have to say, “I am gay.”
“I am gay,” he said to himself. He had learned the word from films on the cable channel. The beating convinced him that the word applied to him.
There was a new counselor at school, a recent college graduate who had made it clear that she wanted to be Lyosha’s friend. He dialed her number now, from his sickbed, while his mother and stepfather slept in the next room. Lyosha’s courage ran out once she picked up the phone, though. They stayed on the line for five hours, alternating between filler chatter and awful silences.
“Is this about something illegal?” she asked.
“Drugs?” she asked.
“Are you trying to tell me that you are gay?” she asked.
“I am gay.”
She was fine with it—more than fine. Lyosha was suddenly spilling his thoughts and feelings, and she sighed and laughed in all the right places. He was even able to talk to her about sex, or what he imagined sex to be. After that, he told his cousin, who was now a military-school cadet. The cousin said that he could not accept the homosexual lifestyle but he still loved Lyosha.
Lyosha decided not to tell his two school friends, but even so, things did not look nearly so desperate as they had a year ago, on the Black Sea. He had stopped being afraid of his stepfather since the time Sergei got drunk and nasty and Lyosha hit him over the head with a kitchen stool. He had only one year of high school left. After that, he would leave Solikamsk for good and go to university. He studied harder than he ever had before, entering every conceivable student competition to maximize his chances of university admission.
By May 2002, it was clear that Lyosha would be graduating with a silver medal, a scholastic distinction that would entitle him to skip general-knowledge university entrance exams: he had to sit only for the exam in whatever subject he chose to study. On the eve of graduation, Lyosha bleached one half of his bangs. At the breakfast table, his stepfather, wearing his perennial wife-beater undershirt, took a break from making his disgusting eating noises to ask:
“Are you a faggot or something?”
“None of your business,” said Lyosha.
AFTER GRADUATION, one of the boys in the class threw a party at his parents’ dacha, and about fifteen people went. They danced and drank. By five in the morning, a couple of the guests had passed out in an alcoholic stupor. The rest gathered in the kitchen to eat ice cream. Lyosha stood up and said, “I am gay.”
“Why?” asked one of the girls. She seemed upset.
“I knew it,” said someone else.
Then the conversation moved on. Lyosha had his high school diploma. In five days’ time he would go to the mayor’s office to pick up his silver medal. He would be out of there.
Then it dawned on him that there was no turning back. Soon enough, the news of his coming out would spread through town. His life now depended on getting into university.
MASHA WANTED A CAREER in the military. There were a few problems with this, of which Tatiana’s shock and horror at the idea was perhaps the least. Masha wanted to be an officer in an army that was not the Russian army but a glorious army of some strong and proud country. She sometimes thought of herself as a sort of extraterritorial patriot: given a country, she would be proud, and given a uniform, she would serve. Instead, she was given Russia, which filled her heart with despair and her mind with the idea that life was not worth living.
With an empty mind like that, Masha would never get into university, said Tatiana. By “university” she meant Moscow State, where everyone in the family had gone. Everything else was not really higher education. And everything that was not the sciences was not really knowledge. Meanwhile, Masha was barely passing chemistry. She started cramming, and discovered that she actually liked chemistry. She declared her intention to apply to the chemistry department of Moscow State. This would be a lot better than a military academy, said Tatiana, if only Masha had a prayer of getting in.
Masha graduated from high school in May 2000, a month after her sixteenth birthday. She took the Moscow State entrance exams and fell just one point short of full admission to chemistry. In the post-Soviet setup, state universities now had two tracks: tuition-free admission for the top students and paid for those who scored slightly lower. Tatiana could afford to pay for Masha to attend, but she refused, citing a central rule of her own life: “Never put yourself in a situation where you will be the smartest person in the room.” Masha would have to push papers at the Military Insurance Company for a year and then try for admission to the tuition-free track again.
In June 2001, she was accepted. This was the beginning of real life, and Masha was starting out with success. Tatiana was now talking about buying an apartment where they would live for the next five or six years, before Masha went off to graduate school abroad. They went to look at some of the more promising apartment towers going up in the neighborhood. Masha said she wanted a bedroom with a view of the Moscow River. They would start apartment-shopping in earnest in the fall, after Masha got some well-deserved rest on the Black Sea. She was going with her aunt; Tatiana was staying in Moscow, at work, where she was now a senior executive in charge of rates.
Masha and her aunt returned on August 25, a week before classes would start. Masha was seventeen, tall and tan, and her hair was the whitest shade of blond it had ever been. That evening Tatiana told her that she had breast cancer, stage IV.
In the months that followed, Masha went to class and Tatiana went to work and to get chemo. Sometimes she went into the hospital. At the end of May 2002, the hospital told her to go home: there would be no more chemo. She lost weight. Then she gained weight, because her liver grew and grew. In mid-June she stopped going to work.
At the apartment, women kept ringing the doorbell, saying they were faith healers sent by Masha’s aunt. Masha’s grandmother pushed an inexhaustible supply of books with titles like Cancer Can Be Cured. Everyone was insisting that Tatiana be baptized. It was a hot summer in Moscow. It got dark late, and cooled down even later. Only at night did Masha get to be alone with her mother, in a sort of peace.
On June 30, Tatiana asked Masha to pick up a morphine prescription at the neighborhood polyclinic, which still, eleven years after the end of the USSR, had a monopoly on prescribing controlled substances, which could be dispensed only to citizens officially residing in the clinic’s catchment area.
“It’s not time yet,” said the doctor.
“Well, when it is time, why don’t you just let me know,” said Masha.
“Since when are you allowed to speak to me like that?” asked the doctor.
“Since my mother is dying,” said Masha.
The doctor called the chief of the polyclinic, who had Masha removed from the premises.
THAT NIGHT, Tatiana fell asleep in the armchair. When it finally got dark, Masha lifted her mother out of the chair and laid her on the couch. She was about to get some sleep herself, on a cot set up in the same room, when a flock of pigeons landed on the windowsill outside. Tatiana said something. Masha got up and turned on the light. Tatiana was staring out the window. Masha picked up and held her mother’s body in her arms.
She called her aunt, told her, and put down the phone. She wanted to sit there for a bit and maybe learn to understand what had happened. But her aunt must have gotten on the phone, because an ambulance came, a policeman, then someone from the morgue. They said that Masha had to wake up the neighbors because someone had to witness the removal of the body. It was three in the morning, and Masha felt bad about waking people up, but she was worried that soon it would get hot again and things would start happening to the body. While she was trying to decide what to do, the morgue’s driver left. The policeman remained and was now demanding money, a bribe, though Masha could not quite understand what for. She called her aunt again. She came, and so did Masha’s grandparents. The body was now cold and the skin had started changing color. It will be hot soon, Masha said.
Her grandfather shouted at her, something about how the smell was the only thing she was worried about, and why was she not crying?
Why was she not crying? Because she needed to be alone to cry, and she also needed a cigarette, she wanted to smoke more than anything in the world right now, but she had only recently turned eighteen and she still did not feel that she could smoke in front of her grandparents.
Someone from the Military Insurance Company came, took a look at the family, and said that Masha would need help. The company’s logistics director was dispatched to deal with the arrangements. Together with Masha’s grandparents and aunt, he organized a memorial service at a church. Masha tried to tell them that this was a bad idea, but she did not know how to explain it. They asked her if she believed in God, and she said that she did but she also loved and respected her mother, who had been an atheist, and they should respect her too. They said Tatiana was with God now.
Somewhere along the way Masha learned that some hours after Tatiana died, a Russian passenger plane had collided with a cargo plane over southern Germany, killing seventy-one people, including more than fifty children.4 From that point on, she would tell people that her mother died on the day of the Überlingen catastrophe. That way the day meant something to other people too.
LYOSHA APPLIED to the history department at Perm State University. With his silver medal, all he had to do was get a top score on an oral history exam. He pulled what they call a “ticket”—a card with a topic printed on it:
The Battle on Ice and Soviet Culture of the 1920s and 1930s
Lyosha talked. He knew his subject, but he sensed that he did not do as well as he should have. His score was five/four when what he needed was five/five.
So much for the history department. The political science department was examining applicants the next day. He called his mother, and she said that he would find political science boring. But he could not go back to Solikamsk. He carried his application over to political science and went to the library to study for another oral exam.
He went about studying in the most stubborn and counterproductive way possible, and he knew it. He wanted to figure out what he had been missing during the exam he had just taken. He pulled out Mikhail Pokrovsky’s Russian History Beginning in Ancient Times, a classic tome, and started reading. He knew this was the book he should have referenced, just as he knew it was too late to fix the omission.
The examiners were the same two professors as the day before. Lyosha pulled his ticket, turned it over, and read:
The Battle on Ice and Soviet Culture of the 1920s and 1930s
“Do you have anything to add?” asked one of the examiners.
Lyosha did. He got a five/five. He would be studying political science.
Political science turned out to have its own language, which made Lyosha understand things differently—both the events he was now witnessing and ones he had largely ignored when his body and mind were overwhelmed with other concerns two years earlier, on the Black Sea. In that time, as he now read in an article by Moscow political scientist Olga Kryshtanovskaya, Putin had reshaped the government and now a quarter of all top posts were held by military officers. Kryshtanovskaya wrote that this was called a militocracy.5 Back in the dorm, talking to young women who were his new friends, Lyosha said, “Putin reminds me of some sort of miniature military dictator.” The women agreed.
When he said “miniature,” Lyosha did not really mean Putin’s size—more the general sense that whatever frightening words his new books offered, the phenomena they were describing did not feel quite real. Lyosha, for one, did not have the sense of living in a military dictatorship, or a military anything, or any kind of dictatorship. He was a student at a very politically liberal department, where instructors ridiculed Putin mercilessly, as though engaged in some sort of competition for the wittiest put-down. The facts were there—in just two years, Putin had greatly weakened the power of elected officials by creating federal oversight over governors and giving the federal center the right to fire elected governors; reversed judicial reform; and monopolized national broadcast television in the hands of the Kremlin. So while his regime could not yet be called authoritarian, that seemed to be the direction in which it was headed. This transitional state, Lyosha learned, was called an “authoritarian situation”—meaning, authoritarianism could happen here.
In October of Lyosha’s first year at university, a group of armed men and women who said they were Chechen seized a theater in Moscow during the performance of a musical, taking more than nine hundred hostages. The standoff lasted three days, and then federal troops stormed the theater, killing the terrorists and freeing the hostages. Lyosha was on his way to Solikamsk for the weekend when the storm began, and when he got to his mother’s apartment all that the television would show him was footage of the theater hall, empty but for the bodies of the terrorists slumped over some of the seats. The chairs were a plush red, the terrorists were all dressed in black, and the scene reminded Lyosha somehow of a game of checkers. He learned from the radio that 129 hostages had died in the storming of the theater, which sounded like it had been botched—the sleeping gas that had been pumped into the space to disable the terrorists had ended up killing many of the hostages, although there were no pictures of those other bodies. So this is what an authoritarian situation looks like, thought Lyosha. A checkerboard.
SOME DISASTERS COME SUDDENLY and proceed in tedious slow motion. Gudkov was not a member of the executive board of his center, so he was not privy to some of the early discussions, but once he knew, it seemed obvious: they were in big, inexorable trouble. There was a rumor that Putin had seen Levada make an inappropriate face at some official function and had taken offense. The new president was getting a reputation for being thin-skinned and vengeful, and the old sociologist, for all his Soviet experience, had never had much of a poker face. The rumor may or may not have been true, and it was ultimately unnecessary for explaining what was happening to the center.
They had begun as the All-Soviet Center for Public Opinion Research, under the auspices of the trade union authority and the Soviet labor ministry. It was the Soviet Union, and every institution was an institution of the state, and this seemed no more absurd in the case of the public opinion research center than it did in the case of the trade unions. Then the Soviet Union collapsed and the center became the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research, under the auspices of the Russian Labor Ministry and the state property authority. This conformed entirely to the logic by which institutions passed from the old empire to the new Russian state. Like many other state institutions, the center received no direct government funding but was able to rent office space from the government at a fixed rate that seemed laughably low as Moscow real estate prices grew. The nominal founders of the center—the ministry and the property authority—had the power to appoint the director, but had no other way to exert control over the center’s work or staffing; they lacked even the power to fire the director before his five-year term was up. If anyone who worked at the center were to claim that this seemed like sufficient protection from government interference, that would be a lie: in fact, no one at the center was at all concerned with protecting it from government interference.
But it was the sociologists’ job to observe shifts in the logic and culture of institutions, and they saw it clearly soon after Putin took office. He moved to reassert executive-branch control not only over the media but also over the judiciary and, broadly, the economy. He instituted tax reform that was widely praised by liberal economists for the introduction of a flat income tax but whose other provisions served to push smaller businesses into the shadow; at the same time, Putin started placing his own people at the helm of large corporations that were owned by the state—and some that were not. His relationship with the oligarchs seemed to follow the logic of Nemtsov’s idea of “nationalizing the Kremlin”: he directed the very rich to forfeit their political power—and sometimes the assets that ensured this power. Two of the oligarchs who owned national television companies, Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, were forced into exile, but not before giving up control of their media outlets. And it was clear that in Putin’s Russia ownership would mean active control: the tenor and content of the television broadcasts were changing rapidly. The first thing to go was any programming that poked fun at the Kremlin.
The All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research did not ridicule the Kremlin or its new inhabitant. For the most part, the news it produced was flattering to Putin: people liked their new president and their life with him. When Levada wrote his traditional year-end summary for 2000, he noted that it had felt to Russians like the easiest year in a long time. They had hope. They had little or no concern for the issues that disproportionately worried the liberal intellectuals, like the state takeover of broadcast media or the fact that Russia had now restored the old Soviet national anthem as its own, with the lyrics changed slightly, to omit references to Lenin and the glorious communist future. Still, the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster ranked as the most important event of the year by far, and support for the second war in Chechnya, now a year and a half old, was clearly waning.6
Two years later, after the theater siege in Moscow, the center reported that 81 percent of Russians believed they were not being told the whole truth of what had happened, and 75 percent thought the leadership of Russian security ministries had to be held responsible for letting the hostage-taking occur in the first place.7
Then an election year began. It would not be the entire parliament—Putin had reinterpreted a vaguely worded provision in the 1993 Constitution to turn the upper house into an appointed body—but the 450 seats in the lower house would come up for a vote in December 2003 (and Putin himself would face reelection in March 2004). The ruling party was now called United Russia, and at the start of the election year the center’s polls showed its ratings dropping precipitously.8
Levada was summoned to the ministry. His contract would not be up for another two years, but he now faced a small group of bureaucrats, one of whom said to him, “You are not a young man.” They said that he needed a successor and they had someone for him. In fact, this proposed successor was there, in the next room, waiting to be introduced to Levada. He entered presently. He was all of twenty-nine, and his experience was limited largely to working for one of the groups that had created Putin’s political persona for the presidential election. Levada was instructed to appoint this youth as his deputy for about six months and then retire. Without waiting for a response, Levada’s interlocutors told him what would happen if he failed to comply: he would face criminal charges. Surely a tax or other financial irregularity could be found, given a careful-enough examination of the center’s records.
Levada refused, and the center’s death watch commenced. Gudkov dreaded seeing Levada charged with a crime or dragged into the media. Levada, meanwhile, tried to petition the state to allow the staff to buy out the center and transform it into a joint-stock company. The petition was rejected. Everyone on staff who had ever been friendly with or done a survey for a highly placed official in the government now appealed for help. These people promised to try but then invariably confessed that they had failed.
In the end, Levada was fired. It was against the law, but this no longer mattered. If he sued, he would lose. Every single person on the center’s staff—more than a hundred people—tendered a resignation. One of them, an older woman from accounting, decided to retire. The rest set about creating a new company. It was no longer the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research—that name now belonged to other people. This one would be called simply the Levada Center. Compared with the times Levada had been forced out of jobs back in the Soviet Union, this experience was an improvement: the team could stay together now. All they had to do was start from scratch.
A month after Levada was forced out of the center he had built, the richest man in Russia, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was arrested. He had failed to observe the new rules of the game. He was not staying out of politics—he was giving money to political parties and civil-society organizations—and at a meeting at the Kremlin, called to give the wealthy an opportunity to pledge allegiance to Putin, he had spoken about growing corruption. Soon after, the state takeover of his business ensued, playing out just like the earlier purges of the oligarchs Gusinsky and Berezovsky—or like the purge of Levada, except that there was a lot more money involved. Khodorkovsky got his warnings and failed to heed them. Now he was arrested and charged with tax evasion. In short order his company—the world’s largest oil producer—would be expropriated by the Putin clan. Gudkov observed with bitter satisfaction that although the Khodorkovsky arrest was different from the others only in the scale of his business, at least it had gotten some of his acquaintances finally to start expressing reservations about Putin.
In December 2003, United Russia won the election with 37 percent of the vote,9 which would give it an absolute majority in parliament. For the first time since the end of the Soviet Union there would be no party in parliament that positioned itself as liberal, pro-reform, and generally post-Soviet: the other three parties that won enough votes to be seated were the Communists, the misnamed Liberal Democratic Party, which had been running on radical nationalist rhetoric for more than a decade, and a new Kremlin-backed party, Rodina (“Motherland”). Nemtsov spent election night getting drunk with his friends and allies and trying to enumerate the reasons for the disastrous showing of the Union of Right Forces. He thought they had run bad campaign ads, advanced the wrong candidates, and failed to form a coalition with another right-liberal party.10 But if he had read Gudkov’s analysis three years earlier, he might have noticed that the reason for the party’s failure was different, and simpler: this time it was not the one positioned by the Kremlin as the “other” party of power. He also might have noticed that something basic had changed in the way the two-party game was played. In 1996 and 2000, the foil to the ruling party was more liberal and advocated for greater economic and social reform. Motherland, the party that played the role of foil this year, staked out a more nationalist, more socially conservative position than the official political mainstream. The differences continued to be ever more subtle—gray against black—but the country had reversed political direction.
FOR THE FIRST SIX MONTHS after Tatiana’s death, Masha slept with the lights on. Everything that had ever happened in the apartment now came back to her as a frightening memory, even if she had been too young or had felt too safe to be scared when it first happened. The time the local authorities sent them new flatmates, an ethnic Russian couple who had fled Chechnya. The time after the couple moved out and Tatiana was waging her battle to keep the apartment for herself and Masha, when the residential authorities broke down the door; Tatiana replaced it with an unbreakable steel one. The two times, in 1995 and 1997, when Masha’s former classmate, now a heroin addict, climbed in through the window to steal something he could sell. In the harsh electrical light at night the apartment looked worse than ever: peeling wallpaper, cracked plaster, every color a faded copy of itself. It occurred to Masha that Tatiana’s perennial idea that life was elsewhere really meant that she had expected life to happen later. Now she was dead at forty-three.
Tatiana had saved some money for that apartment she was going to buy—it was in her debit-card account, but when she was dying, she could not remember her PIN. She left no will. Convoluted Russian law granted priority inheritance rights to veterans of the Great Patriotic War—and anyway, it was not like eighteen-year-old Masha was going to fight her relatives. The money was gone. Masha’s aunt claimed the dacha. Masha got the apartment. There went Masha’s relationship with her aunt, too. The Military Insurance Company never abandoned Masha—she got a small monthly payment from it—and that amount, combined with her university stipend, added up to about two hundred dollars a month. After she paid all the apartment bills, Masha had enough left to buy buckwheat and butter to last her a month. After the 1990s, she felt she had a clear idea of what poverty looked like, and now she was staring it in the face. She had a boyfriend who came from a well-to-do family, and his relatives made comments about Masha’s cheap clothes.
In March 2003, after one semester of this existence, Masha took a leave of absence from the university. She got a job as a “consultant,” which really meant salesperson, at a shop called Digital Foto. Now she spent her days with people her age who lived with their parents and for whom Moscow State University was as foreign a phenomenon as, say, England.
Masha realized that the only way she would ever rid herself of her fear of the dark was to just plunge in. One night she flipped the switch.
By summer, Masha had saved enough money to hire a crew to make her apartment “pretty.” That was the word she used, and the workers understood what she wanted. Money was beginning to flow in Moscow and everyone was beautifying their apartments: putting in new double-pane windows in plastic housing, painting the kitchens yellow, and buying fuzzy rugs for the bathroom at the newly opened IKEA just outside the city (it ran a free shuttle from the Metro). Masha got a cat.
She needed to return to her world. She went back to university. She posted her résumé on a new site called job.ru and got calls from two companies. She took a job with the one that imported chemicals for the cosmetics industry, which was taking off because everything was taking off. Thanks to the skyrocketing price of oil, Russia was having a consumer boom on a scale the reformers of the 1990s could not have imagined. Large shiny well-lit shopping malls were opening all over Moscow, stalling traffic, and all of them had one or two makeup department stores stocked with products both real and counterfeit, and vast quantities of chemicals were required to produce them. These chemicals had to be imported, and it was Masha’s job to organize the process. She negotiated—she learned to use her English on the phone—and she arranged, and she cleared customs: she learned to give bribes. She also looked stunning at meetings with suppliers, and once she had a drink in her, she could tell jokes in English.
The chemistry department had an unofficial online home called chemport.ru. Among other things, it hosted anonymous reviews of department faculty. This meant a captive audience: undergraduates, graduate students, and professors. This, as far as Masha was concerned, meant that the site should be making money. Anyone who was not making money these days was an idiot. She found the guy who had started the site. His name was Sergei Baronov. He was a graduate student, recently divorced, and therefore living in the dorms. She told him about her scheme: they had to create a subscription service for sales managers for chemical companies. All they had to do was think of a service these people would get in exchange—they were just looking for a way to spend their companies’ money. Sergei asked if she knew why countries had given up the gold standard in favor of gold-and-currency reserves. Why? Masha asked—she had a slightly hostile way of asking that she never could quite modulate—and he started explaining. He was not an idiot at all. She liked someone who could tell her something she did not know. As it turned out, he had started his dissertation at a university in Florida and was teaching radiochemistry. They became a couple, and chemport.ru started making money.
Sergei said they should have children. It sounded reasonable. Masha was not exactly in love with him, but they did have a business together. Money was raining down on them, and there was no reason to think it would stop. Other things, though, might be short-lived. By “things,” Masha meant people. She was twenty, he was twenty-five, and they might as well have children now. He moved into her pretty apartment. They started trying to conceive, but it did not work. They tried assisted insemination, and that did not work. They gave up, got drunk, and it worked.
When Masha was eight weeks pregnant, the doctor said that the fetus had no heartbeat and handed her a referral for a D&C. She went home, cried her eyes out, and then googled “fetal heartbeat.” She went back to the doctor and told her that the heartbeat can show up later than eight weeks.
“What are you, the smartest one here?” asked the doctor.
“Yeah,” said Masha.