–By Helen Holter ©1992, ©2011 (first published in Seattle Times, 11/05/1992)
( My note, autumn 2011: I wrote this opinion piece at a time when there was scarce information about the real workings of Russia, post-1991 coup. I was criticized in print and in private by some who believed my candid observations were cynical, and wrong. Yet even today they hold true — a piece of history.)
Moscow/Seattle 1992 — WHEN I FLEW BACK HOME from Moscow recently, I was surprised that my friends were so amazed when I told them what’s really going on in Russia.
In Moscow, it’s not peace and friendship. There’s no euphoria over what supposedly passes for a market economy. It seems 2,000-percent yearly inflation has eaten up not only paychecks and pensions but hope and optimism as well.
What’s left is crime, high crime. What’s pervasive is corruption, more than ever. What’s frightening is gang warfare – competing mafias battling it out – and in some cases foreigners are their targets. We have the highly valued hard currency and hard goods, right? Not that long ago foreigners in Moscow were immune from financial extortions and physical attacks. Invisible bubbles of Western awe surrounded us as we went about our business in relative safety.
SCARIEST OF ALL are the ominous grumblings over what has happened to the country, and a longing for the old days and old leaders – namely, Communism and Stalin. The speed at which all this has happened caught a lot of us by surprise, we the adventurous Westerners who chose to live and work in Moscow. Yes, it’s a tough place, but that’s the challenge of speaking a language and living in a culture so different from my own. But this time was different.
The crime wave hit last spring. Among my small circle of Western friends and acquaintances, six found their apartments stripped bare – down to the underwear – even though most were in supposedly secure buildings. It’s disturbing enough to read about Russians getting assaulted, raped or murdered, but now Westerners are fair game, too. Don’t go out alone, my Russian friends warned, insisting I stay overnight with them if it was past 7 p.m., although it was light close to midnight. They were afraid to escort me home. I wore simple clothes – T-shirt, skirt and tennies – so thieves wouldn’t be tempted. I barely touched my 70 pounds of silk business dresses, jackets and jewelry that I used to wear when I worked in the former Soviet Union.
Don’t speak English because you might be attacked, more friends advised. Despite the precautions and speaking Russian almost exclusively, I had two frightening encounters – the first time in 12 years of travel to that country. All this may seem routine advice for big-city living in the West. But such warnings were unheard of and unnecessary in Russia just a short time ago.
CAREFUL WHAT YOU EAT, my Russian friends warned, afraid I’d get sick or get botulism if I bought food from “private” mafia-controlled kiosks, rancid meat at the market, or homemade brew sold on the streets. (I once bought some food that was five years out of date.) Some of our humanitarian food aid ends up on the streets, sold by thieves-turned-entrepreneurs for a guaranteed profit. Even the frozen chicken drumsticks – donated food – are referred to in Russian as “Bush legs,” after the U.S. president.