Capitalism, Corona, and Moscow in the 1990s

But let’s return to the 1990s in Moscow, a period in time that reminds me of the situation we are all in now: the unprecedented external circumstances that will affect us all, but we just don’t know how exactly. Today we have a virus that is hanging above our heads as a threat to our every existence, while back in Moscow from 1989 onward, we had a change in ideology, when instead of socialism, we were presented with capitalism.

Unlike the situation now that has a precise threat, such as a virus, the developments back in Russia were happening in a cunning way, leaving most people deceived and totally unprepared. First, it started with the opening of the MacDonald’s in the center of Moscow as its main restaurant, with queues stretching for more than a kilometer to get inside. It was more than a restaurant, it became a symbol of a better life, attracting the inhabitants of Moscow with the lure of life under capitalism. The small corner shops started to sell coca-cola and twix chocolate, and because of the novelty, it seemed indeed like a promise of a life never experienced before, such as the availability of burger and chips. It was, of course, a moment of absolute novelty, hidden behind the dangers of fast unhealthy food, but Moscovites, without knowing better, thought for a short while, that it would lead to something better, because it was just simply exciting. Burgers and chips do provide the moment of instant gratification, but after a while they loose their appeal and are extremely unhealthy.

It was at the moment of MacDonald’s madness, right when people believed that life could ever be something better, something better than the security of a job for life, good medical services, children all going to school and never being hungry that the future rulers of Russian capitalism, the oligarchs and the greedy ones,  set up their oil and gas voucher scheme where they robbed an entire nation. People wanted quick money, and sold their vouchers back to the capitalists for a penny, thinking of a relief of some useless groceries and a trip to MacDonald’s. It was only later, watching the oligarchs from their offshore villas that they realized that they were robbed, and so was the entire Russian nation.

The current situation around the Corona virus reminds me of the 1990s years in Russia for a number of reasons. I can feel the same despair from people around that I felt in my native country then. And it isn’t just the fear of the virus, and the illness affecting so many people, it is more about the anxiety of all of us, those who don’t possess millions about what tomorrow might bring. It is the rising unemployment, people applying for universal credit, lack of adequate medical services in otherwise ‘prosperous’ countries, the insecurity of zero-hour contracts, and the possibility of so many small businesses not surviving this crisis. I can feel the anxiety of our world that simply woke up to the reality in which we have been living already for a long while. The society woke up to the face of the capitalism, and the virus showed us the precocity of life. Such as that it isn’t shopping, holidays, or a new car that matter, but having a good and secure job, seeing children going to school and playing with each on the streets, sharing a simple meal among friends, and enjoying the parks and the nature.

The virus of today is a wake-up call for our world, but will we respond to the alarm once it’s all over?

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Born in Russia, born into a privileged family

Before I re-launch myself into the 1990s in Russia, quite remarkable time by all standards, I should probably tell more about myself.

I was born in the 1970s (more towards the 1980), to an interesting family. My mum, originally from Saint-Petersburg, had met my dad when they both studied at the University of Friendship of People, very famous place, where lots of international students came to study. From my mum’s side, it was always a family of teachers and academics. My grandma, her mum, was a daughter of a headmistress of a gymnasium, while my granddad, her dad, was a professor of geology at the same university. At home talks around the dinner table were always around philosophy, books, theater pieces to visit, music to discover, students to help. My granddad was so popular among students that some of them would show up on occasions for tea, just to have a chat with him around matters that mattered. There was also a secret within a family, which became less dangerous under Gorbachev, such as that my great granddad on the side of my grandma was a baron who had left his relatives in Russia all his fortune, by the letter with notification was well-hidden and never shown to the authorities, to avoid being sent to Gulag.

On the side of my dad, it was the Cossack’s gene. His parents run a beautiful farm in the south of Russia, where I would spend most of my summers. It was a truly amazing place, built from scratch by the hands of my granddad. He had met my grandma in a remote village in Ural, where he was sent because he had come as a prisoner from Germany after the second world war, and under Stalin, back in the Soviet Union, all prisoners were sent to such ‘installments’, remote places in the middle of nowhere, to build entire towns from scratch for the benefit of the country. My grandma’s family was also sent to such a place due to some black spots in the biography of the family, with their fault being that her dad, my great-granddad, was the head of the Baptiste Christian church in whole Caucasus area of Russia. But I will come back to that story in due term, for now, I want to just say that my granddad, once he and my grandma returned to his land, the Cossack village, destroyed and taken away by the Soviets, built two houses, and created an amazing farm, where even grapes could grow, and we had our own wine, and fresh fruits each summer.

They had three sons, with my dad being the middle one. He wanted to study in Moscow, and he achieved that. By the time I was born, both he and my mum worked at the University of Friendship as lecturers, and we lived in the best area of Moscow, known as ‘Yogo-Zapandii’ area, now popular among the Russian celebrities.

Our apartment had only two rooms, and was on the sixteen floor. There was something wrong with that place, but till today, I am not sure exactly what, apart from a weird dream I had once, that I was reborn there following a very difficult, terrifying life. I also saw the devil there for the first time, staring at me outside the window when I was sleeping in my cot, at the age of 2 or three. My parents reassured me that it was just a bad dream, and I tried to believe them for a while, but of course, I know now, and probably always did, that what I see and hear, is indeed real, as scary as it sometimes can be. I have to add here that the first appearance of the devil in my life was how he is often portrayed in references to the Bible, even if I wasn’t really afraid, just curious and amazed. Parents and adults would always say that all that wasn’t real, but I kind of, made to myself a note, at the age of 2 or three, that they could be wrong sometimes, and magic is real, and one didn’t even need to try, to see its manifestations on a daily basis.

Some strange problems with our apartment apart, I was born into a privileged family by that times standards. Everyone was an academic, I would go to one of the best schools in Moscow, and we always had nice food, and holidays in either Latvia or Crimea. I spent my summers in the Cossack village, helping on the farm (you can read about my summers in here), and was blessed with great friends, and lots of opportunities to express myself, such as learning French, practicing piano, ice-skating, and many other beautiful and really not mundane things.

But then, everything changed in the 1990s when Yeltsin came to power, and Soviet Union collapsed, becoming a monster in the eyes of all those who weren’t born here, and that image influenced also those who were born there, like I was.

And that’s why I probably talk about the 1990s so much. It was the time that something really bad happened to my native country, and when I go back there, I still see the manifestations of what went wrong then. The wild capitalism became an ideology as if it’s a must, a prominent way for people to live their lives. But it isn’t the best ideology, far from it. When I was growing up, under the socialism, everyone had food on the table, and children run happy outside, because there were no worries and everyone was more or less equal, even when one was born into a privileged family.

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Let’s define the normality: the most boring tale

We are making yet another break in chronology about the events in Russia back in the 1990s to look at an important issue, which has been bothering me for a while.

Let’s look at ‘normality’, let’s have a good look. Let’s even try to define it, because it has become relatively easy – the whole society is based in normality, it is difficult to miss. The definition is literally staring at our faces, reflections and minds.

Normality is when first of all, one acts ‘normal’. One is supposed to follow a certain life pattern nowadays, and dare you to do otherwise, – you will be proclaimed as insane if you don’t follow the rules. You need to finish school, continue studying, get a job, then a mortgage, meet your second half, have children, two holidays per year that one would prefer to spend at the sea or skiing, work more, retire, wait for visits from the grand-children. In between all this, one has to read the news brainwashing our brains, shop for Christmas and on Black Friday, celebrate the Valentine’s day, buy a new car every couple of years, save for a new TV, etc, etc. Just writing all this, I want to evaporate all that boring bullshit with a nice inhale from my vape. Or and I forgot the gym! One also has to be a member of the gym, being a member is enough, as you probably know, you don’t even have to go there, a gym card will do.

Normality is boring. It is so boring that you can stare at it, each day, and the picture remains the same, it is static. It is the desolate faces of people who greet you every morning on a train to work, it is the same tired faces when you return home from your work, the same reality TV which greets you back home when you watch your TV, the same shops that entice you to spend even if you can’t afford it or, more sadly, don’t need their merchandise. It is gossiping about your ex-best friend because she did something better with her life, or is depressed, and you think that it’s a good topic for gossip. It is wishing to marry a rich man, forgetting that there is also love and care, and that being marrying to a rich man without being in love, is a total nightmare. Or when you stay in a marriage because you are afraid to leave and have no job or qualifications because you put all your faith in a rich husband. The syndrome of normality is also when everything simply has to be normal, without extraordinary thinking, without challenges and even reflection. Even universities are affected by the syndrome, boasting of their ableism, as if being normal equals being perfect, while in reality, no one is ever perfect, and we all can get unwell, depressed, sad or anxious. It is a normal reaction when one relies on zero contract, when there is no stability and no security. One’s mental health is directly affected by the social circumstances in which we find ourselves.

I don’t like the normality, you see. I find it extremely boring. If I had to lead my life by the normality’s astonishingly boring to death rules, I wouldn’t be here. There would be no joy for me, no aspiration, no challenge and no magic. I learned from an early age that I can always rely on myself, and thus, I am not defined by any rich husband or aspirations about how to get a mortgage and save for the next TV. I don’t watch any TV (very rarely), and I always can find a job to sustain myself. It also happens that I love my job, and work, and not labor, is an essential part for a person to feel happy and fulfilled. Without it, we feel useless, even if there is a thick bank account at one’s disposal. One can feel good only when one does something meaningful with one’s life.

Our boring society is running itself to its boring death, with laughter being replaced by the capitalism which sees no respite in its own making. Where love is replaced by the Instagram culture, Tinder culture, and the reassurance from the authorities that status and money do matter, instead of finding a job one really likes, even if it isn’t the best paying job. Where care is replaced by the ever-consumption, with animals being tortured still in civilized countries, to make sure your cream of more than hundred pounds is good for your skin.

Remove the normality, and only when you will see, and you will start caring. You will see when what Greta is on about, with fires in Australia, dying forests, and lands. You will see that you should stop eating animals, because you will notice that they have a soul. You will stop planning the Christmas a year ahead, and just chill in the moment, perhaps making presents by your own hands, or realizing that a good tasty meal is maybe enough, when some people are dying from hunger on the same Christmas day where you are inundated with presents.

Get away with normality, and you will start questioning things. You will start thinking about deeper and more meaningful values. You will notice that there are more and more homeless people on the streets in your ‘civilized’, ‘democratic’ country, and you will ask: why? You will realize that one in third has a mental health problem, and you will question, why? You will finally notice that even in your ‘rich’ country, children have nothing to eat, and you will hopefully cry, because it isn’t fair, and it wasn’t our God’s plan.

Have a glance beyond the normality, and you will encounter angels, you will communicate with God, you will meet the fairies, and you will know: it is humans and only humans who are the biggest problem on this earth, with their distorted normality, greediness and death of moral values.

F…the normality, I prefer to be ‘insane’, which in our days, means being saner than the rest of our miserable population.

A little wicked.

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When shops stood empty in Moscow

We are still in Moscow in the 1990s right when the whole country and its neighbours experienced traumatic changes, that would never be reversed, and I wouldn’t claim that they led to anything better. Some people will disagree with me, of course, on this matter, saying that capitalism is better than socialism, that before the regime was too corrupted, people had less chances, and no one was able to travel outside of the Soviet Union.

I agree that it’s always better when one has more choices and more freedom, and while I was able to execute it in practice more than perhaps the majority of the world’s population (I lived in 4 different countries, and managed to live in two countries twice, so in total I moved 5 times in between countries), I am not that sure that people outside of Moscow and Saint Petersburg have that many choices, and the only choice that seems to be presented to young people of today, is to know how to make money. The success of today is measured by one’s bank account, which is a good thing to have, but if it becomes the main goal, it denies one of some other important aspects of meaningful human existence, such as value of friendship, enjoying nature for the sake of enjoying it, meditating on the meaning of life, and being able to appreciate the purity of unexpectedness of life, when one isn’t looking to get richer and better off.

My own approach to money, and well, shopping, was shaped during the 1990s, and stayed with me till today. I lived in between two families (my dad’s and my grandma), and I experienced the deprivation periods on different levels, as a result. In 1991 my sister was born, the year when instead of products and cash money, we were presented with ‘coupons’ by our unfortunate government. It was a constant struggle for my step-mum, as we were five of us, and to feed the lot, with a small baby in tow, needed lots of imagination and sometimes, pure luck.

I remember the day when my step-mum asked me to go and explore whether our local product delivery center had any sugar and floor. Yes, even these products were rare, and one needed coupons to get them. These were also quite good products, as one could then make some pies, which could last for a week, and easily feed the whole family.

I started my walk with the coupons in my pockets on a freezing February afternoon, without hoping to return with anything back (floor and sugar were absent for a month already), but was delighted to see a big crowd waiting outside of the product center when I approached it. People outside meant that there was something, and sometimes it didn’t even matter what it was. Washing powder, outdated yogurts, tea, or even bread, everything was good when shops stood empty.

But oh, my delight when it appeared that the center was giving both sugar and the floor, as long as one had coupons, one could take as many as one could carry. I was so excited by the prospect, that I managed to stand in the queue for more than an hour, in an absolutely debilitating cold. I remember that when I finally presented my coupons, I had problems to hold them in my fingers because they lost any sensation due to the cold.

But then the march back home began. On the peak of my enthusiasm for sugar and floor, I got indeed as much as I could possibly carry, and ended up with twenty kilos of weight as a result. I was a teenager then, still very young and fragile, and the burden turned out to be way too big. It took me an hour to drag it all with me, as I had to stop every couple of minutes to take a breath. I was crying by the end but I went on.  Step by step, one meter after another. I couldn’t wait to see the happy smile on my step-mum’s face, because my weight carried really good news. We would have both floor and sugar for good three months, at least.

The face of my step-mum wasn’t a happy one when I arrived, but full of worry, as I was absent for three hours, it was already dark, and it was clear that I was an emergency situation by the time I finally showed up. I turned into a purple colour.

“You should have just left it, and run home,” my step-mum was telling me, “it isn’t worth it if you end up with pneumonia.” But when I was in my hot bath, I could already smell the preparation of the pies, and this was perhaps a reason as to why I didn’t end up ill after all. The motivation for something is sometimes stronger than the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the wish.

In another apartment, but in the same bloc, my grandma lived. Her circumstances were different and perhaps even more challenging, as she had less of coupons. When I was in her household, I had to learn the basic survival techniques. Like what to do when you run out of bread, there is nothing else to eat, and shops don’t sell any bread? We struggled without anything for quite some time (living on the dry milk, which I was receiving as ‘American’ aid parcel at school), until someone finally tipped me with a solution. One had to put the bread in the freezer! Buy as much as you can, when it is available, and freeze it! Ah, the feeling of happiness when I learned the trick, my sense of pride that I was some sort of ‘provider’ at the age when I was supposed to have no worries but only fun.

But so, to come back to the beginning of my post, capitalism is presented to us as a given, as a regime which survived and flourished much better than all other ideologies. We have many of its manifestations nowadays: financial capitalism with the power of the banks, informational capitalism with the power of Silicon Valley, medical capitalism with the power of Big Pharma, and so on.

But I was there when it arrived to my native country, and I saw what it did to it. Yes, we started to have a variety of products at some point, too many of them in fact. But I cherish the memory of the days when there were only two types of sausages in the shop, one type of bread, and two types of cheese. These were the days when people cooked at home among friends, read books in the park, trusted strangers, and spent so much less time on shopping.

Because shopping, while providing instant gratification, has absolutely no value in a longer term of meaningful life, takes precious time away from more rewarding activities (such as reading a book), and brainwashes the brain into believing that it is something nice to do.

But then capitalism is based in shopping and buying more and more stuff, and we are told that it’s the best way for us to conduct our existence.

Is it? Is it really?

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(I could reflect on all these things while enjoying a nice stroll in Leeuwarden, where I currently live, and there people don’t really shop that much, which is a welcoming sign of a town that preserved something deeper than constant consumption)

Moscow and the arrival of capitalism

I was a teenager when the Soviet Union collapsed and suddenly I found myself in a new country and in a new regime.

As things go in life, when you have to live through the unbelievable, you adjust pretty quickly, especially when you are young.

Still, the changes that my country was undergoing right before the collapse, and after, were remarkable.

It started with the emergence of ‘lareks’, the small ugly compact boxes decorating almost every street in Moscow, selling stuff. These were the first visible signs of capitalism, offering everything from coca-cola, mars chocolate, and spirits to tampons and cigarettes.

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(example of Larek)

No one was even thinking of checking for age, and together with my best-friend, Masha, we took advantage of this new development at once. We would stroll to one of such shops after school, buy coca-cola and cigarettes, and then stroll to the McDonald restaurant in the centre of the city for more ‘delights’. It was the first real fast-food event in our city, and therefore, very noticeable. The queue to the place would stretch for a kilometer, with people eager for the Big Mac and apple pies. Masha and I were still at school, we had plenty of time, and so, spending an hour at least in a queue, was really a minor matter, considering the joy of discovering McDonald when you are fourteen/thirteen, the age which is so easily corrupted by the allure of fast, unhealthy food. We would go for the big mac meal, together with milkshakes, and apple pies, barely able to walk after each feast at the ‘restaurant’. Smoking our cigarettes bought at the ‘larek’ as a complimentary measure following the escapade to McDonald, we would make plans for our new discoveries, ‘things to follow, to try’.

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The world suddenly turned upside down, and for Masha and me, it represented new undiscovered adventures. Everything seemed possible, everything was allowed. There was no one to explain that cigarettes were bad, or that fast-food was unhealthy. We could do anything we wanted, and when you are at that daring age of fourteen, you, obviously, dare to pursue the temptations.

I remember the day when we first entered the casino in the centre of Moscow, situated at the prestigious hotel in the centre. Our aim was really unclear, we didn’t plan any playing or betting, but we wanted to have a look. Having established that anything, absolutely anything was possible in our new brand world, called the ‘capitalism’, we started to push the boundaries to a tricky and often, dangerous extent.

We wanted to be clever, we wanted to be smart. We were too young for the grown up world in its whole glory, but the truth was clear to our eyes: in the new regime, under the new ideology, the crown belonged to those who overcame the rules, bent them, and went for what they wanted. At that time we wanted to be among the grown-ups, and thus, we went to where the adults had fun. The adults who seemed to rule the new world, based on money and status. That first entrance to the casino was our first appearance among the cool ones, and since it had worked (we got the entry), we tried all other, prestigious and luxurious places.

Masha and I would dress in what we judged to be smart clothes, while in reality, it was what most of Moscow was wearing at that time. Clothes were still rare, at least, interesting, clothes, but I was luckier than others because my mum worked in Italy then and would bring me good stuff, while Masha had extremely resourceful mum.  Masha, would simply borrow her sophisticated, beautiful dresses.

We would turn up at the entrance to the casino or the most prestigious club for foreigners, and play a game of getting in. Bouncers were strict, because these places were reserved strictly for the nouveu-riches or wealthy foreigners, and thus, we would start speaking French with Masha hundreds metres before approaching the bouncers. We attended a French school in Moscow, you see.

“Hello,” I would say to the bouncer, smiling in a conspiratory matter, as if I was about to unveil a bombshell. “This is the famous singer, Margerite Condounois, coming directly from Paris. I am her translator,” I would point towards Masha, leaning towards us as if she couldn’t understand a word, and then switch to a whispering mode to continue with my tale, “Miss Condonois is incognito here, to look at how the locals live, to relax little bit, so, please, make sure, it stays private,” I would then slip a note of some roubles into the hand of a bouncer, and proceed to the entrance. The money was very little (less than a pittance for a tip), because we didn’t have any, but it worked each and every time. Wherever we went, we were let in.

Now in retrospect, I think it worked because of the obvious lie. We looked too young to be international stars or translators, and on top of it, Masha looked way too Russian (distinctive Russian cheeks and blue eyes) , while it was me who could pass for a French, with some difficulties. And because of such a visible ‘oversight’ in our story, we were allowed to proceed, since the bouncers and security always believed in what we were saying. The opposite could pass for a truth, in case we were lying, that was their assumption.

As a result, Masha and I, attended the best casinos, restaurants, clubs, theatre performances, managed to get into the ‘White House’ twice, and into a private party of an oligarch in the making. Masha even went on stage to perform some songs in French (she could indeed sing), and we ended up being paid on several occasions.

We exited the narrative of the life of the glory and the rich, when we both realized that we were after different things. We wanted to study, to be independent, to discover the world, to read books, and to remain young, care-free girls for longer, instead of turning into ‘gold-diggers’.

As a result, despite the absolute madness of that times, I am also grateful that I discovered the inside of it, the inside of what it means when one lives one’s life based on money, power, and more money. Each time Masha and I succeeded to enter the world of the powerful and wealthy, it led to a terrible disappointment. There was nothing of real interest there, no real discussions, no interesting talks, no spontaneity. No philosophy, no deepness, no soul, and no real laughter. We looked, we observed, and we made our minds. We wanted to remain in that old world, in that space in between the ideologies, where feelings, people, and soul discovery mattered more than one’s bank account.

Ironically, we remained true to our convictions, where life is interesting on a daily basis, when you look for something deeper than money and status.

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(The view of Moscow with my best-friend Masha, five years ago)