It is typical summer weather in Moscow. The cool gray haze of the morning opens up for a couple lazy afternoon hours into a northern, cobalt sky with big, low hanging clouds. They swing, brooding, scissored by the slants of barely warm sunshine. Occasionally, they empty themselves onto the none-too-startled Muscovites jostling around below. “I was walking to the metro and it just started raining out of nowhere,” complains Anya, puffing on a cigarette in my friend Olga’s already smoky kitchen. She paws at her now damp, mousy bob as if to provide us with the evidence. A bleached blonde – another of Olga’s college friends whose name I don’t remember – slips her stocking-ed foot in and out of her edgy silver pumps and commiserates out of the side of her mouth.
The doorbell rings and Olga goes to answer the door while I struggle to make awkward conversation with these two rather cliquey girls. Russian girls tend to be that way, I’ve noticed: closed, cold, condescending. Unlike the bland, dilute expressions of Russian men, their faces are always forbidding. In the metro, on the street, in simple interactions with a stranger, they radiate a mute insolence from their peephole eyes: deliberately blank but viciously scrutinizing. A diffuse defiance streams from their tightly pursed mouths and the sneering lift of their jaws. But these girls try a little before slipping back into esoteric gossip. I am an old friend of an insider, after all, and we are all here for her birthday party. Grudgingly, the claws retract.
Soon the apartment fills and the many tables Olga has linked together under an endless tablecloth across the length of her parents’ living room make sense. The huge table, flanked on one side by a brown couch, is surrounded by every chair in the apartment, its surface set for twenty guests with matching little green plates, a smorgasbord of silverware, countless salads, pickled and fresh vegetables, beer, wine, and, of course, vodka. A roast sends fragrant tentacles around the apartment as it bakes sleepily in the kitchen. This is a Russian birthday party. There is no awkward American social hovering and circling, no unadorned, hungry drinking in a packed, breathless room, no screaming to be heard in conversation under a thick blanket of music. Here, strangers are quickly introduced and the awkwardness of not knowing everyone melts away as one communal conversation takes shape over the food and drinks that fall down the gullet easily and uncountably. The guests sit around the table and toast the birthday girl with shots of vodka, eating down the warm trickle with pickled tomato or mayonnaise-slathered salad, and tell anekdoty, or jokes.
It is a culture of joke telling, and every conversation inevitably bleeds into a deft joke-putting match. How one performs in this game is a gauge of social adroitness, a way to earn social capital. The expert will catch the energy and attention of the room with ease and deliver the anecdote crisply to the point; its finely spun details, improvised but measured and vivid, will echo and amplify the ribs of the pun. Unlike in the U.S., anecdotes in the literal sense of true story telling – “This one time, a friend of mine got so drunk that…” – have little place in this culture. In Russia, everyone is a unique, rarely overlapping encyclopedia volume, constantly updated and replenished, full of the types of jokes that, in America, circulate in office e-mails but rarely in real conversation: “A man stumbles home drunk at three in the morning, reeking of Roquefort…”
There are, of course, the “bearded” jokes: those old, lame chairs that clutter a conversation. There are the simple jokes inherited from childhood and spiced with adolescence, with their staple characters: talking, drinking, farting bears, or stupid little Vovochka, a delinquent second-grader whose bluntly told tales of his dysfunctional family and sexual innuendo shock his teacher into verbal paralysis. But Russian jokes at their best are witty, dark, and telling. They are replete with the old ethnic tensions of the Soviet Union: Georgians squabble with the Armenians, and Russians rag on everyone else (the Ukrainians, the Byelorussians, the Finns). The older generation tells jokes rich with historical and literary allusions that are slowly losing meaning for the young as the standard Soviet curriculum rots off the bones of the crumbling education system.
By the time the roast is served, the table is littered with half empty wine glasses and tall cans of Baltika, the Russian Budweiser. It comes only in half-liter cans and most people at the table have tossed back at least one and a half by this point, shuttling between gulps of the sweetish beer, boxed wine, and Flagman, the Beast of the vodkas. In an attempt to prevent the unnecessary loss of precious vodka when a merry, gesticulating arm might knock it over, the engineers at Flagman devised a special type of bottleneck. It is a typically Russian invention: when you want to actually pour yourself a shot, the vodka breaks against the bottle’s plastic mouth and sloshes angrily back. “We wanted to make it better, but it turned out as it always does,” Yeltsin’s Prime Minister Chernomyrdin once said, and I can’t help but remember this now infamous quote as I watch Vlad, Olga’s boyfriend, work up a liquid tornado in the bottle before quickly tipping it over into his glass.
I had forgotten how Russians drink. I hadn’t been to Russia in quite a while and, since moving here in 1990, my family has become tamer, more American. Fresh from Prospect Street where I had drank more than my fair share of cheap booze and seen many a well-bred Princetonian drink himself half-blind and knock-kneed, I came with an open mind: it’s just a bloated old stereotype, I thought. But it’s true. Russians drink more and they do it better. After a few days in Moscow, I got quite used to the alcohol kiosks at every step and to the bleary eyed men in the metro, nursing brown bottles as they swayed to the train’s sleepy rhythm. But these are the alkashy, the alcoholics. More normal Muscovites prefer to drink indoors or in the parks and then only when it is nice outside or if there is an occasion: a date, friends gathering, some hard knots to think straight.
Young Muscovites, however, do it with panache. A week after the birthday party, Olga, Vlad, Natasha and I met in an American restaurant called Foodville in the MegaMall on the outskirts of Moscow. Aptly named, the huge shopping complex, complete with one of Moscow’s three wildly popular Ikeas (which Russians believe has yet to reach us), puts American malls to shame. If Stalin could have built a mall, he would have built Mega. In Foodville, they’ve run out of pretty much everything, including beer. Vlad, a Russian version of a Southern California surfer with his long, greasy blonde hair and shirts that never fail to reveal the full glory of his tanned, muscular arms, cannot settle for Coke. He runs to a neighboring pub and brings back three half-liter glasses of beer. “Why three?” Olga asks. She and Natasha are both driving and the law is stricter in this respect than in the States. Absolutely no alcohol if you’re behind the wheel. And, strangely enough considering all the stereotypical drinking that young Russians do, there is always a designated driver on hand, sipping a virgin daiquiri as the bottle of Flagman makes its rounds. Without pausing to think, Vlad calls over the waiter and orders a shot of the cheapest vodka. (Most restaurants have vodka lists as long as the wine lists.) When it arrives, Vlad drops the sweating glass into the tall, pale beer and engulfs the entire mess in a few hearty gulps. “Problem solved,” he grins, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
At the party, Pasha sits with his back to a window curtained with standard white Russian lace. It strains in just the liquid metal light of the fading afternoon, and his figure, cut into negative, looks like a living woodcut, his swinging arms caught in the huge arcs and asymptotes of his story. He has just returned from a windsurfing trip to Egypt with Vlad, his best friend. It is a popular destination for Moscow’s growing sub-culture of young ekstremaly, or extreme sports enthusiasts. Unlike windsurfing in Russia’s frigid lakes, Egypt is always sunny and warm, and best of all, cheap. Vlad and Pasha, already well into their twenties and working steady, white collar jobs during the day, sink huge parts of their salaries into windsurfing trips to Egypt. Each time, they bring back loads of equipment – all the boards, cables, sails, and wetsuits that cost triple in Moscow – that sells in a flash for a very comfortable profit. This time, Vlad returned just in time for Olga’s birthday with the perfect gift for a rookie windsurfer: a huge, garish green windsurfing board, which Olga instantly dubbed “The Joker” for the cackling face that laughs off the hard foam. She is addicted now, too. I called her once to make plans and caught her when, in the glorious afterglow of a day of windsurfing at Istra, she had pulled her car over at the side of a country road and sat listening to Bob Marley “in remix.” “Just ‘super,’” she croons, with Marley’s voice in the background, weaving through the thudding, gulping techno layered under it.
Olga is my age and still has a year-and-a-half left at a prestigious Moscow university. “That’s my institute,” she says pointing to an old Soviet building, squat and brown, gliding past us on the gray stretch of highway. “I haven’t been there in months,” she laughs. Getting a good job that will feed not only her windsurfing addiction but her resume is much more important. “If you apply for a job straight out of college and don’t have anything on your resume but school,” she explains, “people think you’re some kind of retard.” She interviewed for several jobs while I was in Moscow and was hired by Manpower, an American headhunting firm. Despite her schooling in computer science, she happily signed on to do secretarial work and some small translating jobs. It is a common route: no matter what college has trained you for, get a job, any job – “even if it’s sitting at a desk by a bathroom, answering phones,” Olga smirks – and try to get noticed, try to get them to move you up.
Sipping the Baltika left over from Olga’s party over some delivery pizza, Oleg, Olga’s best friend, beams with this promise of upward mobility. “Man,” he says tipping back in his chair and jamming his fingers into his platinum hair, “man, they love me now. The whole office knows me, and they’re so cool with me and I’ve only been there a month! And today, one of the older guys came to me for computer advice!” We toast his success. Both he and Olga are working hard on their temporary summer contracts to attract attention and ultimately to stay. “But what about school in the fall?” I ask. “What about it?” Oleg answers. They both plan to keep working full-time and squeezing school into the off-hours. And if it doesn’t fit? “I have no problems going part-time,” Olga responds decisively. She means, of course, going part-time to school.
This new generation of Russians, who matured as the old Soviet attitude of “we pretend to work and you pretend to pay us” was just beginning to tear at the edges, are beginning to learn the Western business tactics they believe will give them the edge in a rapidly expanding, volatile economy. They dress sharply for work, they are on call for tech support in their off hours, and, unlike their elders, they actually take the time to respond. And though customer service still has quite a ways to go in Russia, the younger generation, especially those in the booming high tech sector, is slowly learning to deal patiently with their frustrating clients. Natasha, a recent graduate of the Moscow Oil and Gas Institute, has designed a program to smooth the business wrinkles of a gas station chain. Everyday, a station worker calls to complain of mysterious problems that show his ineptitude with computers rather than her program’s flaws. “Everyday, they call me and say, ‘it’s broken,’” Natasha groans. “So I ask them, ‘How is it broken? What happened? What does the screen say?’ And you know what they tell me? ‘I don’t know. It’s just broken.’ What the fuck are they doing with these machines? Beating them with hammers?” The next day, after we stayed up late drinking vermouth in her kitchen, she gets up early to drive out to the distant gas station and see the problem for herself, only to discover that the problem doesn’t exist.
But a job, no matter how frustrating, promises not only security but the spoils of the Western consumer lifestyle that Russians have lusted for since the Khrushchev thaw. On a bench in the ten o’clock twilight of Pushkin Square, Oleg expounds his Russian version of the American dream. “One day, man, I’m going to make it so big,” he gushes, sweeping the curve of his future’s size with a bottle of Tequiza, “Like my boss. Bigger! I swear, he must make like twenty thousand Euros a month. And then! Oh man, I’m going to wear these really slick suits from Mexx, like, bam! And just strut, you know? And I’m going to have the sweetest car-” I interrupt him, “What kind? A Benz?” He screws up his boyish face, “No! Everyone here has a Mercedes. I want an Alpha Romeo.” He pushes his palms along the machine’s imagined plane, “Red.” Why? “Because it’s more than just transportation, you know? It’s a status symbol, it’s, like, who you are. Like, when people see me driving it, they’ll all be like, ‘Damn, that guy is the shit,’ you know?” Oleg is the personification of the electricity rattling around in Moscow’s smog: things feel like they are getting better, like Russia is getting better, that it’s back on its way to the top.
If one stays just in the center of Moscow, that certainly seems to be the case. Venture past the various “ring” highways that gird the city, however, and the electricity quickly evaporates. In Krasnogorsk, an hour outside of Moscow, little has changed from Soviet times except the new contrast with the nearby capital’s mushrooming wealth. The roads are punctuated with massive craters full of stagnant gray water. There are no sidewalks, only old boards strung intermittently along the muddy, pockmarked shoulders of the road. The restless sense of dirt, grit, and poverty is pervasive. Unlike their chic counterparts strutting around Moscow’s streets, Krasnogorsk residents still dress according to the Soviet norm: wear whatever odds and ends you can find. Here, one is reminded of the skewed, federalist metropole-periphery politics that have several Far Eastern provinces bucking against the center’s drain on their natural resources without any return investment in their dilapidated local infrastructures.
In Moscow, however, no one thinks twice about these dynamics, though they help power the city into a promising new prosperity. At four in the morning, the northern June sky is already stretched thin, bulging with morning light. Olga, Oleg, and I tramp out of a club and down the still or already humming Tverskoy Boulevard looking for a taxi. We turn a curve to face the walls of the Kremlin looming ahead. Its bricks, the color of dried blood, swim in the cool light of massive projectors. My feet have been dancing all night in tight stilettos and the White Russians I drank are loosening their warm grip, so I flip the Kremlin my middle finger. Wounded, Oleg instantly protests. “What was that for?” Shocked further into sobriety, I respond, “Well, there’s a reason we left.” Olga quickly intervenes. “Don’t get him started on the Soviet Union,” she sneers. “He thinks it was a fabulous time for everybody because his dad was some kind of Party scientist. And at least there was order, right?” she says mockingly to Oleg. “There was!” he shoots back, his feet still bouncing from the dance floor. “And it’ll happen again. We’re gonna show everyone who’s boss!” My instinct is to roll my eyes and wave a dismissive hand at him, but my gut shivers at the threat implicit in this promise. A car stops by the curb. Oleg negotiates the distance and the price and we get in, Oleg riding shotgun. Lulled by the driver’s silence and the thinning night, I ask Olga if a lot of Russians our age feel this way. “I guess,” she says, keeping her voice low, protecting Oleg, “but they’re all retards.”
On one of my last nights in Moscow, I find myself in Kirim’s jangling car with Olga and Natasha, happily digesting a meaty Uzbek meal. The sun is setting, spraying color through the smog onto the white sea of Soviet era apartment blocks. Elvis croons over the din of the old car and Olga’s laughter. “Love me tenderrrr, love me sweeeeettt,” Kirim howls along from the driver’s seat. “Never. Let. Me gooooo.” Now a successful young programmer who has luckily managed to slip the closing noose of the draft, he had followed the old Soviet ant route from Central Asia to the golden dreams of the capital, moving from Bukhara in the mid-nineties to get a Moscow education. Now he lives with Natasha, whom he met in college, in a one-bedroom they rent from a man who has moved to St. Petersburg. Things have changed. As much as Natasha’s father protests against this cultural mixing and trouncing of Russian sexual taboo, Kirim and Natasha live happily on their very comfortable, Russian yuppie salaries, disregarding his protests and those of Kirim’s traditional Muslim Tatar family. They entertain with daiquiris and vermouth in their tiny kitchen, the presumed wedding hovering somewhere in a dateless future.
They are the new Muscovites, living on the city’s upswing fed by the resources of a sprawling, almost starving country, and this infects them with the optimism of participating in sweeping economic change. Between Oleg’s pining for Soviet order, Natasha’s frantic arguments for the rights of Georgian and Armenian immigrants (the hated “black-asses”), and Olga’s absolute apathy, the politics are hard to pin. But the trend in this rather new slice of Russia’s socio-economic pie is clear: life is still tough, but it’s getting better, and the comforts of the good Western life are finally within their reach. There was a time when Russian girls would marry anyone just to escape life in the Soviet Union. America was the ultimate destination, but many settled for less when the bastion of capitalism proved unreachable. Uganda, for example, was still infinitely preferable to years of waiting for a government apartment or car. Now, there are very few, especially in Moscow, who want to leave. Though the dark Soviet sarcasm they’ve inherited keeps their feet on the ground, Moscow’s young middle class is eerily reminiscent of our own driven young elite, rigorously planning their careers and weaving through the setting cement of Russia’s Wild, Wild West economy.