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FIRST PERSON A Trip to Kostroma

An SMU professor tastes a life of hardships in one Russian city.

ON JAN. 2, 1992, I WAS IN

Kostroma, an ancient Russian city on the upper Volga. As a professor at Southern Methodist University, I was making my fourth trip in the last two years, but this one would be unlike the others. It would be my first to post-communist Russia and, from this day on, the country’s history would be divided into two periods: before and after price liberalization.

I had come to see what had changed since my last visit. I was skeptical about Western reports suggesting Russia was on the brink of anarchy, chaos and social breakdown. I knew that often such reports are inaccurate, reflecting the views of a few intellectuals who make themselves accessible to the Western press in Moscow. To understand Russia, it is necessary to venture into the provinces, to talk to ordinary people and to live as they do. So I was returning to Kostroma, a closed city until two years ago, when I was the first American to visit. To me it represents the heart and sou! of Russia.

DESPITE THE WHIRLWIND CHANGES IN MOSCOW, LIFE IN KOSTROMA, 250 miles northeast of the capital, proceeds as before. People go to work, the buses run more or less regularly (some drivers were on strike), newspapers are published and taxis are still hard to get. In a word, life continues to be difficult; the simplest amenities are lacking.

Lack of amenities means no water at night (night is defined as any time after 8, at which time it becomes impossible to flush the toilet and showers must be planned carefully). Two years ago, I was surprised to find that lack of amenities usually meant no napkins at homes or in cafeterias. Families save their napkins for special events and guests. Ordinarily a sleeve or a piece of bread suffices. Nor are there the labor-saving machines we take for granted. Clothes are washed by hand and hung to dry either on lines in the bathtub or outside on (he balcony (which every apartment has). There are no vacuum cleaners, so you take off your shoes upon entry and are offered a pair of slippers by the host.

Despite my previous experiences in Russia, I am continually amazed at the degree to which the simplest things are treasured as gifts. Common plastic bags, the kind we use for our fruits and vegetables, are highly appreciated, since Russians often need to bring their own containers when they buy food. My friend washes the plastic bags and reuses them. And although I thought I was beyond being surprised, typical everyday shortages brought out the most unexpected behavior. For example, I brought a large suitcase of American food I thought my friends would enjoy: ketchup, instant soup, hot chocolate, noodles, dried fruit, various nuts, Italian salad dressing, summer sausages, chili mix and instant oatmeal. The most appreciated present was a can of black pepper from Kroger.

The biggest headache of Russian daily life is the search for food. Svetlana, the mother of a friend in whose apartment I was staying, went shopping one morning. She was gone about three hours and came back with two liters of milk and some bread. Sour cream was the only other item available that day, but Svetlana could not afford it as it cost 65 rubles or 65 cents-almost 10 percent of her monthly salary. She had to stand in line for each product. (A long line is usually defined as one that takes more than an hour. A wait under 45 minutes is considered short.)

Despite the difficulty of finding food, people are not starving. I saw no food riots or violence connected with food shortages, and my circle of friends, who as professors are near the bottom of the salary scale because of a longstanding communist bias against intellectuals, had as much to eat as they had during my previous visits.

One of the great paradoxes of Russian life is the contrast between the empty food stores and the amount of food that is offered to guests. As soon as the guest arrives, vodka is poured. They believe it warms you. Next comes sausage, cheese, pickled mushrooms, bread and butter, salo (similar to bacon fat), pickled peppers, a type of herring salad called “fish in a coat,” maybe some pickled tomatoes, an egg, sausage and pickle salad, and a coleslaw-type salad. This segment of the meal is the longest, often extending an hour or more. Then the main course is served, often nothing more than a small piece of poultry, fish or meat, whichever is available. This course is served with potatoes and eaten with the leftover appetizers. Tea and cookies are served after dinner, and jam is used to sweeten the tea. Sugar is sometimes available, but, as a friend told me, “it’s from Cuba so it’s not sweet.”

While salaries have increased by a factor of two or three in the last few months, price liberalization has meant most product prices have increased even more. On a previous trip I took my friends out to dinner at the nicest restaurant in Kostroma: The cost for 11 people was 150 rubles (at that time $30). This year, for nine people the cost was 1,500 rubles, or $15. Only foreigners with hard currency can afford new restaurant prices.

The price of food is the dominant topic of conversation among the young, old, those with children, those without, the skilled, and the unskilled. Everywhere people are talking about prices and wondering how they will survive.

New, inflated prices have turned people from buyers into lookers. As I stood in line for butter one day, many people approached and asked me the price. When 1 told them 100 rubles a kilogram ($1), for a fleeting moment their eyes showed despair, and then they bowed their heads and walked away. Previously, the price had been 8 rubles a kilogram. Two days later it would be 110 rubles. Producers are dumping unsold food that spoils rather than lowering their prices.

For most people this situation means that their total salary will go to food. When a friend invited me and a few others over to celebrate the Russian Christmas, she spent 400 rubles, or one-half of her new monthly salary. During January 1992, food prices increased 350 percent, and the government hopes to stabilize monthly increases at 10 percent.

THE HIGH COST AND SHORTAGE OF GAS-oline affects what Russians can and cannot do on a daily basis. Certain places outside of town that my friends wanted me to visit had to be bypassed because they could find no gas to buy. Trips to farms for my research had to be coordinated around the availability of gas. My friends wanted to drive me back to Moscow, sparing me the adventures of a train ride. But Kostroma had no gas. None. So my friends, gambling with what they had in their tank, drove 60 miles to Yaroslavl because they heard there might be some gas. There was.

The lack of gas also affected taxis. Before price liberalization, taxis were hard to get because drivers didn’t want to work. The rates were extremely low, so their incentive was minimal and usually you were treated as a nuisance. More often man not the driver answered “nyet,” so it was necessary to hitchhike. After Jan. 2, prices rose sevenfold, but there was no gas to sell. So taxis sat idle. Taxi drivers did seem heavily involved, though, in the black market sale of beer. Anytime we wanted some we would visit the fleet of taxis behind the bus station.

But the most significant change from my earlier visit was the number of “commercial shops.” Often these stores are nothing more than dimly lit basement cubbyholes. They do not sell their own goods, since production is still a state monopoly. Instead, people bring in unwanted or unneeded items. The store displays the items and earns a commission on each sale. Clothes, shoes and boots predominate, but I also saw earrings, Bic disposable razors, perfumes, toys and assorted personal items. The shops provide goods that are not regularly available, and at considerably higher prices. Nonetheless, every such store I visited had customers-mostly looking-as opposed to the state stores that usually are empty of both people and goods. In Russia these shops represent the first steps in the privatization of commercial trade.

My Russian friends say they are used to the hardships. In feet, women bragged to me about their “special talent” for finding food. To them, friendship is the most important thing in life, and once a bond is formed a Russian friend will do anything for you. Despite the feet a trip to Moscow (250 miles each way) would take a substantial portion of his monthly salary, my friend Slava told me, “You are my friend, and therefore I want to drive you. I don’t care about the money.” It is this closeness that allows Russians to survive the otherwise unimaginable struggle of daily life. Each citizen knows he faces life not as an individual, but as part of a support group. It is this collective will that sustains the Russian spirit.