You may have noticed that Trips And Tales has been slowly heading east from its origins – in a previous life, back in July 2010. Well, the end of the Siberian section is in sight bar a few loose ends and the final major attraction: Lake Baikal. Then it’s on to Mongolia.
But wait, there’s unfinished business: one mini-series that (almost) got away. It takes us a step back in time to a fragmented Russia still making sense of its recent Soviet collapse, before the stunned components, minus Communist backbone coalesced into something that once again worked – in some form. In fact it’s about that very process from the perspective of someone from outside who lived-it and helped it along, inadvertently changing the direction of his life, completely, in the process. It starts with one of my favourite articles (I have notes for more) based upon one of my favourite interviews, featuring M, ex of Ekaterinberg. So, it’s a tale whose time is finally “now”, having got the green-light after much deliberation, and also as stark a contrast to the recent Shamanic outings as orange is to green. Enjoy!
It could be worse, probably. Stepping off the plane in 1995, M found himself in a blizzard raging through Ekaterinburg at -25 Celcius… At least it wasn’t summer; hanging with yellow ochre haze and the back-throat after-taste of rank air hating your lungs. A hanging cloud of portent, this olfactory time slip to the pounding Stalinist past of relocated cold war industry, powered by fossil fuels and paranoia.
And as the blind-eye-permitted pollution reached another mid-summer crescendo; someone may say: “Well, at least it isn’t winter!” With enough murderous cold reaching in to silence a city, and patrols of waving authorities pointing stragglers home until “outside” could sustain life again.
But it is winter. Here in a place long-forbidden to non-Russians, barred throughout the Soviet decades of might-at-all-costs, whilst military factories sucked mineral treasures of the Urals greedily in, converting them to bombs, guns, components, tanks, funds… All stockpiled for a war that mercifully never came, but came close.
M arrives to find the flesh of the old system gone, but the bones stubbornly remain. The residents live amongst them, whether in the brutal Stalinist edifices in concrete or the learnt, intangible mindset of looking after one-self and one’s own.
They peer out at this interloper with polite reserve and distance at best, suspicion and distrust at worst. Well, old habits do linger… And, even in the most recent of memories there was good reason to be wary of strangers, even acquaintances, occasionally friends… The knock on the door in the middle of the night, the denunciations, the gulags, the Terror… all of it too close to just simply let someone, anyone… “in”.
M arrives too late for the Soviet-demise after-party. What a short night that was. The hangover has long since settled in to stay and he is here to help find part of the cure at least. The country has seen the mad gold-rush of the unchained Wild East, and the booming Russian Mafia as the ultimate expression of free-Capitalism. And once again, power tossed as a beach-ball over the reaching hands of the populace… from one set of the inequitably privileged to the next. Only the names have changed (to protect the guilty). And now, in the pragmatic gloom something needs to be done about the missing organs of State that provided museums here, hospitals there, housing elsewhere.
This is M‘s forte. He is here in the role of consultant for housing-sector reform, a daunting task in a working environment of bribery and card-playing “workers” paid in vodka and bicycles, or focused on “side-projects” to top up their “salaries-for-nothing”. After proving his abilities in a similar post in the Ukraine, M had the chance to take on a similar role in Russia itself. A challenge, then.
The Soviet State resources had fallen apart leaving a vacuum-landscape littered with poorly maintained atrocities in concrete and cement that, as M puts it: “…they should probably go to jail for…” There was a top-down approach, he says, a hangover from the recent past in a culture both maintained and constrained by fear. “The Big Guy made the decisions, there was no delegation… and everyone was afraid to take responsibility.” The advent of computers in administration added another complication; well, there is something “final” about a key-press after all: “Many transactions were deferred until the boss hit the Enter key!”
A manifestation of paranoid Big Brother buck-passing taken to extremes, and still another hurdle to progress. Mind you, who would want to take responsibility for potential failure in a system where consequences could be so extreme…? It’s easy to be blasé. (Just watch me…)
Next time: Unknown Territories, part 2 Memories of early post-Soviet era changes
[Photo by Thomas Depenbusch]