Born in the Soviet Union. A phone prank

When I was growing up, during the times of Gorbachev and Perestroika, which as you probably know, resulted in total change of the regime, as well as, of the whole country, things used to be different. Around the age of sixteen or seventeen I was contemplating the end of the Soviet Union and the way Russia was trying to adjust herself to the requirements of capitalism, in a slightly mad mode. We had new churches being opened on a daily basis, together with Tarot and palm readers offering their services in the proximity of the same churches, as well as all kinds of other esoteric stuff. It was total and absolute madness, but it gave me a hint that all kinds of belief systems can be turned into a profit, which is a sad fact of our world which still claims some sanity.
However, while capitalism was there (in new Russia), what wasn’t common as yet, was the usage of mobile phones, and therefore, the community and friendships remained intact, for the time being, as well as some Russian sense of humour, which helped me to survive until I decided to move to Brussels to study in French.
Back in Russia, my best friend and I were doing all sorts of pranks. Sergei, my friend, like me, was observing the dramatic and traumatic changes around us with total bewilderment, resulting in both of us, trying to laugh it off (not very successfully). And there were many things which were indeed funny, besides numerous new churches and witches co-existing in a weird peace. Like, imagine ten women wearing the same coat (we had shortage of choices in food, clothes and everything else) while entering an underground station in the morning! Or tanks next to the white house in Moscow, and Sergei and me drinking coca-cola right next to one (as it turned out, we left five minutes before the coup d’Etat started and were lucky to stay alive). But the funniest thing was our own invention, called the radio joke.
I am not sure who came up with the idea of radio prank (probably both of us) but it was hilarious.
I would sit next to my home phone and make calls. Occasionally, we would call total strangers, but usually we called our friends (no number recognition was available back then).
“Hello, this is radio ‘Love’ calling you live! I am Svetlana Rudnikova, the presenter of ‘hot hour’!” I would, obviously, change my voice, with Sergei standing next to me, playing real radio, to appear as genuine as possible.
“Oh my God!!!!” a hysteric answer would usually follow on my introduction. “Radio ‘Love’! Really?!!!!”
“Yes! And you are our lucky winner of today to choose a song!”
We would do then a small chit-chat and then conclude with a line: “Tune in now to listen to your song!” Before hanging up.
The radio itself (the ‘Love’ radio), the real one, was, on almost all occasions, playing something completely different from the ‘lucky’ choices of my friends, and Sergei and I, would patiently wait before re-dialling the number ten minutes later. Sergei was the one talking, during our ‘repeat’ call.

“Hello Nastenka, this is radio ‘Love’ again on the phone!” He would listen to the reply (mostly complaints about not hearing the song which had been ordered) before proceeding to our ‘reveal the prank’ line.

“It isn’t radio ‘Love’! It is me, Sergei and Ekaterina, having a blast! We are at Ekaterina’s flat now, join us for some fried potatoes and vodka!” We would both laugh hysterically, hang up and wait for our friend to join the party. One week I was hosting, as a result, the entire faculty of acting from a famous university of film-making of Moscow. They all came to a party after our prank call, with Sergei studying at that time at the same faculty. He was a born actor, you see.

But the best bit was when radio ‘Love’ did play a song, ordered by my friend, Nastenka. It was something by The Queen. She had no doubts, whatsoever about the authenticity of the call. And even if she did laugh when we called her back and revealed the prank, I could hear disappointment in her voice, and till today, regret that call (the ‘reveal the prank’ one).
We shouldn’t have done it, but it helped us to live on.

(image found online)

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.

moscownationalgeographic

Madness as manifestation of the world around. Moscow in 1990s

Having looked at Moscow in 1989 in my previous post, we are going to stay there for the time being, but move a couple of years forward.

We are staying there, because I want to start demonstrating that madness is not just a state that affects individuals at some point or another, but can also be a manifestation of the society as such. And while it is also very much present in the Western hemisphere (where we will move together in 1995, when I went to Brussels to do a Bachelor degree in French), Russia and my native town, Moscow, were a typical, very outspoken examples of that particular case, when madness strikes the society, deeply and profoundly, without that individuals affected realise it, or if they realise it, they either keep it for themselves (like I did), or they reanalyse it in retrospect. That moment when you look at some past, and say, loud and clear, yes, that was totally insane.

As Nietzsche once said:

“Madness is rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, nations, and ages, it is the rule.”

So, Moscow in 1990 to 1992 and beyond, represented quite an interesting sight.

Moscow at that time (from my archive)

You can watch the depiction of these times in a brilliant movie, called ‘Taxi-Blues’ by Pavel Lungin (trailer), which starts with showing us the glimpse of Kashpirovsky, hypnotising the entire nation from state TV in 1989, and then proceeds in telling us the story of how ordinary people managed (or not) to survive that period. As we all know, Gorbachev, came up with his ideas of ‘democracy’, ‘glasnost’, and ‘freedom of speech’, that he tried to incorporate into real life by demonstrating an absolute act of insanity, such as banning alcohol at some point. My dad worked at a local communist council by that time and used to receive ‘special’ packages once a month. Before the arrival of Gorbachev, packages contained some interesting variety of cheese, one type of sausage, some biscuits, and a bottle of vodka. Once Gorbatchev introduced his ban on alcohol, the bottle of vodka was replaced by lemonade.

My dad used to joke about the new measures, saying that: “One Russian is a drunk, two Russians are a drunken party, and three Russians are a local communist party.” It was all done in good spirit, because alcohol was still, obviously, available, made by desperate Russians in the safety of their homes. The name was ‘Samogon’, and local psychiatric hospitals were struggling with the new intake of patients, who were either intoxicated by the homemade spirit, or feeling very unwell after the séances of Kashpirovsky on the TV.

Being a teenager at that time, I was taking it all in as a really curious observer. In all honesty, I was totally bewildered by what was becoming with my native town, my country, and my surroundings. Having lots of free time for myself, I would often take a notebook and write in it, while walking around the streets of Moscow. The view was indeed, how to say it, (amazing is probably a wrong word to describe the peculiarity of madness) stupefying. Kashpirovsky’s appearance on the TV seemed to have led to a particular phenomenon outside of the state TV, such as resurgence of all things ‘psychic’ literally on every corner. Wherever you looked, you could either see a palm reader, or a nice old kind lady, offering a Tarot spread, right next to a Russian Orthodox Church. Churches were reopening their doors next to newly established businesses, specialising in all kinds of magic. You could order a love spell, or ask to get rid of your enemy, and the problem was, that it all worked in reality. People disappeared every day, the unwanted elements were get rid by the widespread mafia, and at some point my entire family had to hide in a remote apartment, because my dad had refused to accept payment for his business in yet another huge stock of ‘Triumph’ lingerie, instead of much needed cash.

My own problem was a particular one. I had a ‘psychic’ intuition myself. I could see the fakes, the greedy ones, and the evil. I could also feel that something totally wrong was taking place in my country, at the level way above my head, such as rubbing an entire nation of its resources and money in a matter of one year (maybe two, but I remember it more as a participant, rather than as a historian with concrete facts). The state companies offered ‘vouchers’ to the laypeople, and it was done right when the whole Russia was having a starvation problem. Shops were empty, and the lucky ones would get an ‘American aid’ at schools. As other children, I was entitled to one and would often carry the cartoon box (containing the aid) to my grandma, who, as other old people, had nothing at all. We would open the box, hoping for something better than last time, but it was always the same: uneatable dry ‘sausage’ (it was called a sausage, but it didn’t taste anything like that), and bottles of dry milk.

Since there was nothing else in the fridge, we would eat that.

The same companies which had given vouchers to the laypeople, started to buy them off the deprived, desperate people for a penny back. It was all done right when shops suddenly started to get some spare products in. My grandma was among those who sold her voucher, as she just wanted little bit of cash, to buy some bread, to buy some nicer food, to buy some boots in order to be able to walk in harsh winter.

We all know now, that it was a moment when oligarchs were made, but not that many people know, of course, that it all happened when Moscow city and the whole Russia was under the curse of evil magic, orchestrated under Yeltsin and his entourage.

So, yes, madness as such, to conclude my argument for this post, is nothing more than an outburst of grotesque and incomprehensible at any given time. It is not madness as such which is a problem, and definitely, not an innocent weird eccentric who points you to its manifestations. The problem is when it is all taken into the hands by evil, greedy people, who want nothing more but power, money, and even more money.