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)

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)

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.