Unknown Territories, part 8
The Russian Mafia were acting-up again in the early hours. Cheerfully popping off pistol shots into the night air outside their restaurant-bar hangout across the street. Happy days. A little drink-fuelled exuberance no doubt, mirroring Hollywood’s representation of the Wild West, as opposed to the mundane historical version whose progressive gun control laws helped facilitate rates of fire-arms deaths that still put modern America to shame. That’s lower rates, incidentally.
That Hollywood thing is significant, a kind of “hyper” cartoon-West that even some westerners have bought into and that, well, travels.
This is the Wild East. It’s mid-90s Russia; high on the fresh taste of unchecked capitalist possibilities, low on its vivid realities and a boom time for all kinds of random free-enterprise madness now that the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Now, those liberated expectations fuelled by snippets and tales from across the wall, and amplified by distance into a cartoon of a cartoon could finally be met. Not too surprising I suppose, from a nation locked down like a coiled spring for decades, and whose catch had recently, well and truly sprung. As someone once told me from the “ground” concerning the ex-Soviet nouveau riche (not the majority) : “They live lifestyles that nobody lives, except characters in Dallas.”
Meanwhile, it’s another night of broken sleep for M in Ekaterinburg (in the end he moved). Well, it’s not like he could just wander over and ask them to “keep it down, guys,” right? That would be a risky strategy indeed, considering that organised crime had essentially “moved in” to occupy the space left by local government (not only nature abhors a vacuum). Hence, no mention (above) of police sirens. The bar was “just around the corner from city hall,” M tells me, a statement that says plenty in itself. These interlopers no doubt had their own form of “shares” invested in local law enforcement, in a truly pioneering form of Eastern “Wild Capitalism” as M puts it.
M needs the rest; he’s part-way through what would be a four and a half year stint of verbal coaxing, massaging, reassuring, lobbying, trying to get the mindset of entrenched decades shifted towards that new, sustainable housing model. The program had converts of course, widening the circle, but only as far as the next wall of cynics. It never ends.
Yes, there were failures; it’s always a risk when you take off the stabilizers and let your progeny roll off into the distance. Once provided-for Soviet cogs, now thrusting capitalist entrepreneurs? It was bound to end badly for some. M reports that the most inquisitive, ambitious risk-takers were not necessarily the most successful. Perhaps buoyed up by starry-eyed prospects of wealth (in spite of cautions, tips, hints) they ultimately over stretched themselves?
Some of the smaller, cannier ventures proved to be “sleeper” successes, trundling reliably onwards, though. Maintenance tenders for blocks of say, 10 housing units were the prevailing tortoise over greed’s showy, flamboyant hare. That’s once the land was sold and the developers bit of course. Interestingly, M relates that the: “we own the land, we won’t sell” mentality is still the issue to this kind of progress today. How times haven’t changed?
Of course, the best-placed, inside-track running “entrepreneurs” were those “local government” types, whom M estimates as approximately 3 out 5 of the real financial beneficiaries in the endeavour. In an episode of blatant ticker-tape-parade-wear-the-T-Shirt insider trading, they had basically parked their trailers on the kerb outside and walked in with shovels ready to fill ’em.
Though in fairness it’s worth pointing out that these kind of shenanigans had only been declared illegal – that is: “don’t be stupid enough to get caught” – here in the UK in 1986, a mere decade or so earlier, when even some of their own could no longer stomach the grotesqueries of Thatcherite-sanctioned self-indulgence. So, we’d better not point (too many) fingers.
[Photo by Copper Kettle]