Monday, June 13, 2016

Red Ticket: Moscow Remont

Flaming Penguins, Compromised Condoms, and Other Broken Promises

There are a variety of ways cities tell people that something is broken. An “out of service” sign, for example, or “closed for repair.” Depending on where you live, the sign might even apologize for the bad news that something you need doesn’t work. “Sorry for the inconvenience,” it might bleat. “Please pardon our dust!”

But not in Moscow in 1993. In Moscow there was only one sign: "remont." And as the collapse of the government, industry, and economy deepened, that terse little word could be found on everything. A million doors, lifts, metro cars, pay telephones, streetlights, sidewalks, water mains and sewers; all of them bore signs alerting residents that the things around them that they once took for granted could no longer be counted on at all.

As winter turned slowly to spring and the melting snow revealed the extent of the city's problems, I saw that sign everywhere. It got to where I expected Yeltsin to be wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the word when he appeared on television, and I was certain that if I opened my atlas I'd see it stamped in crude black letters across the whole country.

Remont was so ubiquitous that I started to think of it as kind of a civic motto. Just as Floridians have to put up with "The Sunshine State" being plastered on everything, I anticipated that soon some kind of tourism campaign would be launched to capitalize on the one thing my adopted city was becoming famous for. "Moscow: It's Broken!"

Worse, I was starting to take the sign personally. I started to be offended by it every time I saw it (which was all the time), started wanting to argue with it, or tell it to knock that nonsense off. If remont had meant "out of order," it wouldn't have caused me such existential angst every time I saw it. But it didn't. Remont meant "repair." As in "under (or in the process of) repair."

It’s bad enough that the whole city is broken, I thought. Does it have to also go around making promises it knows it’s never going to keep? "That gas main? Oh, yeah, we're working on it!" "That listing water tower? No problem! Repairs are occurring as we speak!"

Liar, liar, pants on fire. That gaping pothole you are claiming is "in the process of repair" has been there so long that the bones of tiny dinosaurs litter the bottom of it. And look, your civic works committee is so non-existent that the remont signs themselves are broken! It was immediately obvious that no repairs of any kind were occurring, and that none would ever, ever, be forthcoming. Repair? By whom? With what? What for?

I was not the only one who was bothered by the situation. The other Americans at the Moscow Guardian were tired of seeing the broken, fading signs attached to nearly every immobile object in the city. And so, with typical American can-do naiveté, they resolved to fix things themselves.

At our next weekly staff meeting Jason announced the birth of a new section of the magazine. "MG Remont" would be our effort to pitch in and assist the city we both loved and hated. Each week, we’d locate something under remont, and would remont it ourselves. We'd change the light bulbs in the underground subway crossing, unstick the door to the public library, patch up the sidewalk in front of the Kremlin. We'd publish before and after pictures of our work, and exact directions to it, so that readers could go view the repairs and pretend, just for a moment, that they lived in a city that was not falling totally and utterly apart.

This sounded like a fine idea to me, and I was moved by the fact that, under all the snark, Jason had hopes that the column would inspire others to take the care of the place they called home into their own hands. But I knew this plan would never work, for about a million reasons.

First, consider the cookie vendor. I'd stood in line number one at the grocery store and gotten a ticket from the assistant to the woman weighing up the cookies. The ticket said that I’d asked for something (it didn’t specify what), and I took it to line number two, where I stood for a while, repeating “a half-kilo of cookies” to myself over and over so I wouldn’t forget what to say to the cashier when I finally reached her. Twenty minutes later, I got back at the end of line number one, this time holding another ticket certifying that I had paid for my cookies.

After some time, I came to the front of the line again and held my ticket out to the assistant. I was nervous. What if all the cookies had been purchased in between my first visit to this line and my current one? What if the assistant or the cookie-weigher decided to go on their state-mandated “pererive” (break) right then? If either one of them did, we’d all be left standing there, helpless, for 30 minutes, because neither one of them would do the other’s job.

But all seemed well. The assistant took my ticket and said “half kilo” to the woman weighing the cookies. She put a scoop on the scale and stepped back to view the weight. The needle sat at .48th of a kilo. The weigher picked up a new ginger snap from the barrel and broke it in half. She put one half on the scale, and threw the other half away. When the half she'd put on the scale tipped the weight over to .51, she removed the half-cookie from the scale and threw it away, too. She picked up another cookie from the barrel and broke it in half. Threw one half away, and put the other half on the scale. Point 49. No good. Into the trash with the cookie half.

There were so many things, as she threw the ninth cookie away and the line stretched out endlessly, patiently, behind me, that I longed to say to this woman. But I knew that even if I could have figured out how to say "break that half a cookie in half and see what happens," it would have been pointless. Russian culture is not a culture that values efficiency, or an individual's time, or the conservation of ginger snaps.

In the end, body vibrating with impatience and eyes brimming with tears, I begged the lady, please, please, it's all right. Just give me my cookies. Please. But it was not to be. I had paid for .50, it said so right there on the ticket, and so .50 I would get.

And then there’s the young man I’d stood in line behind at a metro kiosk. These kiosks were little aluminum houses that had started to spring up everywhere in Moscow. They sold useful items like electric toothbrushes, soft-core porn videos, mohair-trimmed boots, cigarettes, and condoms. This is what the boy wanted, he told the Tadzhik woman behind the plexiglas window, “That one right there.” He pointed at one of the several different brands of condoms that were pinned, unwrapped, to a piece of cardboard in the window.

The woman removed the cardboard from the window, unpinned the specific condom the boy had asked for, and handed it -- still unwrapped -- to him. The boy handed the lady back some rubles and went away, satisfied that all appropriate precautions had been taken.

It took me a minute to process what I’d just seen. I had thought the display of condoms in the window was just that: a display, so that discerning customers could really get a good look at what kind of condom they were about to buy. But no. This was where the actual condoms for sale were kept. They were pinned, with a tack, you see, to the cardboard. And this was not one of those high-tech “smaller even than sperm” thumbtacks they’re making these days. Nope, it was just a regular old tack with a big old rusty “come-on-in-boys” hole-poker at the end of it.

Do you see where I am going with this? Do I have to tell you the problem with this scenario? Or do you, like this boy and the kiosk woman, think that there is no problem here at all? Perhaps you think that attempts to prevent unwanted anythings – births, deaths, dictators, floor shows in restaurants involving Queen songs and full-frontal nudity – are pointless. Perhaps you believe that every gesture is really merely a symbolic one meant to appease (if you’re lucky) forces you can’t control. And maybe you are right that our fates are already written, and so I, with my insistence on intact prophylactics and accurate signage, am the one with the problem.

And let’s not forget the gum. As the ruble continued to plummet and hard currency became more and more valuable, dollar stores (establishments that only allowed people to pay with Western money), began to give change for purchases not in coins, but in chewing gum.

I remember the first time this happened. I was buying my Old El Paso taco kit at the Irish House Bar and Supermarket, and instead of the 63 cents in change I was owed, the cashier handed me several sticks of Wriggley's spearmint gum.

"What's this?" I asked her, confused.

"No more change in money," she said. "Exact change only, or you get gum."

It seems that these dollar stores had wisely decided to hoard every bit of hard currency they collected, and thus had instituted the "gum only" change policy. This made a certain amount of sense, if you thought about it. For practical, survival-oriented reasons, these businesses weren't going to relinquish their hard currency, but they still had to give their customers change. There was no way they could give change in rubles, though. With one dollar now fetching 5000 rubles, the building was not large enough to store the amount of rubles they'd need to give out change to a day's worth of purchasers.

In a place where most money was worthless, where mint-green and taffy-pink rubles came to not just resemble but actually behave like play money, substituting candy for currency was utterly fitting. No one responded to the collapse of the monetary system by standing up on the counter and saying “Listen, people, we’re getting our change in gum now don’t you think that’s a sign of bad things to come?” Instead, they just shrugged, and adapted.

Things had changed before, and now they were changing again. What were you going to do about it? And, said my ever-practical Russian friends, at least gum is easy to carry, and tasty, and can be traded for other things. And unlike rubles, gum is popular, and can be used to fix things. Things could be worse. We could be getting no change at all, or change in beets. Quit complaining.

And finally, there’s the flaming Penguin. I’d seen it the week before, when Julia, the Guardian's translator, and I were walking on a downtown boulevard. We passed an ornate, 12-storey building, the top two floors of which were completely engulfed in flames. The residents on the lower floors stood on their balconies frantically hurling their possessions over the railings to the busy street below, where a crowd of onlookers had gathered. Julia and I stopped across the street and watched.

"Another one," said Julia, sadly. "What a shame."

"What are you talking about?" I asked her. Was this something that happened on a regular basis?

Julia explained that it was common, with desirable locations like this one, for the mafia to decide to buy and renovate the building as an investment. They'd approach the residents of the apartments in the building and make an offer. The residents would decline, aware that inflation and a housing shortage would make it difficult for them to find other places to live. The mafia would nod and go away, and then a week or so later would return and set the top floors of the building on fire, forcing the residents to flee. "Why the top floors?" I asked Julia.

"Well, they don't want to burn the whole building down," said Julia. "They simply want the residents to leave. They're going to refurbish the building anyway, and sell the apartments to foreigners. It's enough to just burn the top floors."

"OK, but, where's the fire department?" I asked.

Julia laughed. "This is a mafia fire, Robin. There will be no fire department."

Then, suddenly, Julia brightened. "Oh, look!" she said, grabbing my hand and pulling on it, "A Penguin!"

Julia was pointing across the street at the burning building, which had on its ground floor a "Penguin," a Western-owned ice-cream chain that was very popular in Moscow. Indeed, a steady stream of customers entered and exited the store, licking at cones of green pistachio while they dodged the blankets and clothing raining down on them from above.

"Julia," I said, shaking off her hand, "I'm not going in there! That building's on fire!"

"Yes it is!" called Julia over her shoulder as she abandoned me on the sidewalk and flitted across the street, "But the Penguin's still open!"

“Hey,” she seemed to say as she pulled open the door and disappeared inside, “No one can protect us from anything. That’s just a foolish notion harbored by people lucky or wealthy enough to insulate themselves from the way things really are. But we know that for us, there is no assurance we’ll be here tomorrow. Which makes ice cream today all the more important!”

So you can see why, as I watched the Guardian’s American writers prepare for their first foray out to remont something, all I could do was shake my head. Moscow was not going to be fixed – if indeed it was even really broken – with something as simple as a hammer and a nail. Maybe it was better to just hang up a sign and wait for things to right themselves somehow. And maybe that sign was not really a lie. Maybe it was actually an affirmation of hope in a future where everything made perfect sense, and nothing was irreparably broken.


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Moving Day
The Sadistic Couplets
Moscow Remont
Lenin's Brain
Searching for Dmitri Orlov
Faith No More
A Simple Outing Goes Terribly Awry
Cat and Mouse

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