Unknown Territories, part 4
My chat with M turns to Yeltsin. Inevitable, really, since M found himself in the fallout of perestroika‘s ultimate legacy. A text-book illustration perhaps of “be careful what you wish for”. Well, nobody said it would be easy.
It’s hard to reconcile the two distinct figures, both undeniably, puzzlingly Boris. On the one hand: the stand-in right-hand of Gorbachev’s embattled reforms talking-down a hard-line coup from the roof of a tank. On the other: the impromptu orchestra conductor, gleefully seizing the moment in front of the media to give-it-a-go after a little too much pop, whilst the starched uniforms and suits of office froze in forced composure, glaring through their gritted teeth: “This is about to be broadcast across the entire world.” I can feel the weight of that single collective thought even now.
It’s worth remembering that those were real guns he stood in front of back in 1991 and that he may have survived to become the life-of-the-party, and to ultimately decline only because he convinced the forces of revolt not to fire, against a direct order from their superiors. It could have all ended so, so differently. Brutal history may just cut you free to drift after you have played-out your role and purpose.
Anyway, it’s 1995 and M stands knee-deep in the detritus of the outgoing old and the incoming new. Both have ugly jagged edges to circumvent. Most pressing (arguably) are the excesses of “wild capitalism” as M puts it, because he has to field those realities here and now. Yes: the Wild East, another lesson about the consequences of power-vacuums.
Sometimes upon hearing yet another insane story from the East and from that period, I am forced to the conclusion again that they seem (or seemed) often more capitalist than us. More capitalist than capitalists. That’s certainly going some. And blatant too, without even token attempts to hide the kind of dealings that have our politicians quibbling semantics, being “unavailable” and issuing denials via press-officers. Yep, these folks are on parade, wearing the T-Shirts for all to see.
M relates a tale of what happens when big, big, business wanted to buy someone’s telephone company, but not at market price. Out of the Soviet implosion grew business barons; oligarchs, shrewd opportunists rising stratospheric, on accumulated pillars of wealth. (We have them too of course.) As outlined in “Business In the City of Extremes”, powerful (aka: rich) people have copious phone-books full of numbers from all sources to fit all possible occasions.
They could even have them coded purest white to deepest black, if you get my drift. Lets just say that not all of their contacts come straight out of the Yellow Pages, and if they do they may have been “insentivised'” into representing their powerful contacts’ interests on the front line.
And so the harassment started. Suddenly (relatively) simple things became complicated; essential, imported telecommunications equipment was held up in customs for instance, delays occurred, beyond reason. Meanwhile the cash flow outwards was still ongoing and the company slowly started to shrivel until the management threw it all in and sold the business to those waiting eagerly on the periphery, for a third of it’s market value. What’s the betting that the hold-ups suddenly vanished as the name-plates on the doors were changed?
M goes on to tell me that this practice was subsequently repeated in Ukraine and Kazakhstan. I’m guessing: further out too? Greed doesn’t respect boundaries, right? It certainly didn’t in our colonial history. The thing about the grotesque is that it always strives to outdo itself. Just when you think you’ve found the true nadir, along comes something else. You weren’t even close.
M reports on a legacy that extends even now. It’s a simple logic. Money buys: so by extension, enough money buys everything and, ultimately, careers, advantage, education, health and even existence have their respective prices. A disturbing shift in a mindset, again: did circumstances create or just reveal it?
He tells me of the extortion of students who have had to covertly hand over cash for their degrees in recent times, and of grades improved when money changes hands, or as a result of “other transactions”. Hey, you know that feeling when you really need to take a shower? There it is.
Next time: Unknown Territories, part 5 Quarantine
[Photo by lil’latvian]