Those first couple of weeks were disorienting but we all seemed to find our own way to deal with it. A loner, I wandered around the neighborhood, attempting to divine who sold what where. You just never knew where you would find a cozy little room in the basement of an apartment building that sold cookies and/or batteries. All under glass. Behind the counter. Even canned groceries were guarded like Rolexes.
Within a year of our arrival, inflation levels in the post-Soviet economy reached
2,520%. Valued at 40 rubles per dollar in 1991, its value by late 1997 was pegged at 5,000 rubles per dollar. We were comparatively rich as our stipends were calculated in dollars. Rubles began to feel like monopoly money and no one really knew the value of a U.S. dollar; but the mere sight of a George Washington evoked respect.
One of my favorite people, Carol, was from some frozen burg in Northern Michigan, I think. She was an activist for the Democratic Party there and I immediately recognized her political fervor and leadership abilities. She showed up at my door one morning and invited me on a three mile walk down to the state sponsored market and the surrounding kiosks of the more entrepreneurial.
Even in December, the sun gleamed off the snow-dusted ice on the sidewalks. We minced our way down to the valley below. When we reached the market, we darted into the confines of a ‘department store’ to thaw out. We were met with rows of items that beggared the imagination. Hundreds of hard plastic toys, reminiscent of the 1940’s, sat on shelves, symbols of a Soviet system that churned out products no one, including children, wanted. It was pure junk – destined for an ignoble end in yet another graveyard of ill-conceived, poorly manufactured, ill-conceived products which no one wanted.
It was eerily similar to visiting a museum of forgotten icons, a haunted department store that had been dead for years. Row upon row of dusty, unsalable merchandise, sitting patiently for years to be sold, had finally been abandoned altogether by Russian consumers. Outside of a few Babushka’s warming themselves before re-embarking on their journeys, Carol and I were the only shoppers.
The building consumed at least 100,000 square feet of warm, well-lighted, shiny footage. Numerous clerks scuttled about or bunched up in gossip klatches. Here was a ‘retail’ establishment which consumed millions of dollars of resources every year without any visible source of revenue. The two-dimensional store fronts that saved the citizenry in ‘Blazing Saddles’ could not compete with this ersatz interpretation of commerce.
We moved on to the kiosks, rambling tin structures on either side of an icy alley so packed by foot traffic that I fell down twice. It bustled with Russians looking for foreign products – American candy bars competed with Turkish leather boots and Chinese beer.
I packed two kinds of boots for my first year in Russia, one of the moon-walking arctic variety purchased at an outdoor recreational outlet and the other a pair of beautiful saddle leather dress boots. Within two days of our arrival in Vladivostok, I parted ways with the former. They were heavy, and minutes after donning them, I developed a Frankensteinian gait that invited incredulous stares. Furthermore, I was jumping on and off buses, tramways, and trains, all of which claimed lives on a routine basis.
The dress boots, on the other hand, were useless against the cold. So I was in the market, quite literally, for a pair of warm boots. My first encounter with a middle-aged woman hawking a pair of boots presaged a doomed mission.
She, of course, immediately recognized us as Americans and rightly concluded we could probably afford what she was selling. Nothing wrong with that – we were there, after all, to teach ‘capitalism’. When she handed me the boots, I could see that they were too big. They had an EU size stamped on the sole and I attempted to quickly convert to U.S. sizes, more out of courtesy than any contribution to decision making.
She would not take ‘nyet’ for an answer and began ‘negotiating’ with me. Since I only knew the Russian numbers from 1 to 10, it took a nasty turn and was totally beside the point – I did not want them at any price. When I finally put one of her boots down next to my foot and pantomimed ‘too big’, she plucked it from me and started furiously stuffing toilet paper in the toe. I had to give it to her – her social skills might be lacking, but she was a closer. . .