I remember the era very well, the hopeful arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev to the General Secretary’s job, making him the leader of the Communist Party, the government, of essentially everything in the Soviet Union.
He seems to have been a good hearted man, with great respect for his wife, a philosopher, and with great determination to reverse the course of a country built on blood, repression, corruption and an almost ridiculous connection to an ideology that never really worked for anyone.
It was not actually in full force, but in a way already in full decline, during the years my family and I spent in Moscow in the waning days of Leonid Brezhnev’s term. Actually, all his days were waning because the place had slipped into such a deep pit of self interest, corruption and dishonesty.
It was genuinely a socialist state, which gave both socialism and the idea of state very bad reputations. But any time you got into an argument with a Soviet citizen (and there were lots) what you heard is that true communism, with its promise of giving to meet needs, was somewhere down the road.
It was a great example of the power of propaganda in the lives of people who lived in a contained, almost sealed, space. You could not argue about it as an outsider because you simply were not standing on the same ground. When you debated with a 50 year old Soviet citizen, you were debating the perfect product of a system made to create unquestioning fealty, no matter the condition, to the state.
Except it didn’t.
It seemed to work in Soviet media, in Pravda and Izvestia where the message was underlined at every opportunity. But where it didn’t work was with the Soviet people, who I always viewed as soulful, long-suffering Russians who knew exactly how to play the game.
They were the best bribers I have ever seen.
Anything of value could be swapped for any kind of need. When my Zhiguli car blew up the first day I owned it, it took three cartons of Marlboro cigarettes, and couple of bottles of better than average vodka and some great European chocolate to open the door to the repair people.
They fixed it well and had it back to me within a week. No one said a word about the bribes, the “gifts” the encouragements we presented to get our business done. It was that way in just about every way you could think of. Your needs could get met as long as you knew the Soviet currency wasn’t what really paid for things.
It would be nearly impossible to buy an airline ticket without a nightmare of bureaucratic hooha, except you and a friend could take a nice box of candy from Finland, or better, Germany, to the woman at the counter and doors would open.
I was way into this.
I suppose you could call me a criminal if you were a Soviet prosecutor. Here is how I viewed it. The official rate for the ruble at that point was $1.73. In Europe, the actual rate for the ruble was about .03 cents. That was closest to the black market exchange rate. The Soviet system was robbing us every time we went to the bank to play the game above board.
That, I couldn’t live with.
Here’s how we (many Westerners of every stripe) made deals. You would go the official Beriozka shops that took dollars and American Express cards, whatever. You would buy the next nicest Sony products you could find, recorders, tape players, whatever was popular in the West.
That might cost you a couple of hundred dollars.
Then you would take whatever you bought to that special place where real world businessmen, sometimes Arabs, sometimes Russians, sometimes you couldn’t tell, worked their trades. They would take a look at the equipment and come up with a price. You might have paid $300 for the product. On the black market, it might draw $5,000 rubles.
It wasn’t like you were exchanging dollars for rubles. You were just selling stuff, at an immense profit, just like any capitalist!
They were literally “dirty” rubles, money that had been in circulation a lot, and not easily traced. The rubles we got legally from the bank were brand new and had sequential serial numbers. An investigator could always tell where you were spending your crisp new money.
But no one knew where you were spending your old dirty black market rubles.
I leaned toward folk art, rugs, clocks the Russians had stolen from the Germans during the war, unusual items you couldn’t find in the wretched stores the Soviet economy presented for appearances.
If you had 5,000 rubles in your possession, you could go for months without spending a real penny on anything.
Was this dangerous?
Yes it was, although I was too stupid to realize it at the time. Spending bundles of dirty rubles on everything from cabbage to big felt winter boots meant I was not spending fresh, crisp money from the bank. Anyone who wanted to get me could have me on a pike very quickly by looking at some numbers.
But I had talked to a friend who was a spook (an actual spy) about this and she/he told me this, “Look, do what you want to do. If they want to get you for something they will make it up. If they don’t, no one cares. I didn’t tell you this.”
That’s a pretty corrupt place and that was the place Mikhail Gorbachev was to reform, to run, to manage to change. It didn’t take long for the reforms to lead to the collapse of a system that was on very weak legs well before Gorbachev showed up. To his credit, I am certain he knew all of that.
A very smart man, he came up through the system that created him. Of course he knew how bad it was. I suspect he also knew there were too many people raking in cash under the old system to make any kind of reform stick for very long.
I wanted to say something about Vladimir Putin and his murderous campaign in Ukraine here, but all I can think of saying is that Gorbachev would not have handled it this way.
Of that I am certain. I know that because he didn’t.
The fact that Putin can is evidence that the corruption continues to run deep in the “new” Russia.