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Chronicles of a Soviet Capitalist (Part 1 of 2)

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November 1, 2009

Twenty years later, a Georgian writer recalls the pursuit of money in the years immediately after the Iron Curtain came down.

When he was growing up, my father-in-law was known as one of the best football players in his neighborhood, if not in all of Tbilisi. He was a skinny kid with curly black hair like a ram’s and big soulful eyes, and everyone was sure he would play for the legendary Dinamo club in a few years. Then the Red Army took him and made him a paratrooper, all but ending his football career, since jumping out of Soviet airplanes is murder on the knees and ankles. Nevertheless, all the attention he received in the football days soaked into him, and for the rest of his life, he retained the broad-smiling, backslapping charm of the well-loved athlete.

His father was dead and his family was poor, so he began looking for ways to make money as soon as he left the army. Eventually, he would make incredible amounts of it. What was an incredible amount of money in the Soviet Union? A good paycheck in those days, the Soviet nineteen seventies, was about two hundred rubles per month. This was the province of the privileged few—usually generals and professors, two professions that remained dear to the Communists throughout their seven decades in power. Two hundred a month put meat on the table three times a week, bought a dress or two a year for your wife, took your family on a Black Sea cruise in September, and even gave you enough left over to make a small deposit in Sberbank, the country’s one and only savings bank. It was a magical number, more than most citizens could aspire to, yet enough within the realm of possibility for anyone to imagine what spending that money would feel like.

My father-in-law didn’t make two hundred rubles a month. In a good month, he pulled in about two thousand rubles. In a really good month, three times that amount. He owned a car at a time when there were so few cars in Tbilisi, people would identify him as “Misha—you know, the one with the car.” His wife, a few years after they were married, developed the habit of standing shoeless and dumping all of the gold he had given her around her bare feet to see if it would cover them, and it usually did. He wore fedoras from Turkey and sheepskin coats bought in the Baltics, bell bottoms and shiny boots with big heels. His little girls wore sundresses from China and shoes from Yugoslavia—home to the best shoe manufacturers behind the Iron Curtain—and each girl had a full set of magic markers from Italy. At home, there were always guests, and so much food that nobody except his mother-in-law, who set the table, remembered what color the tablecloth was.

And that was all you could spend your money on in the Soviet Union: food, whatever clothes the smugglers brought in, and a single car. Only one, because otherwise somebody might take an interest in where a man who is registered as a—let’s see here, comrade—a factory worker, with nary a general or academician in the family, was getting it all. And then nothing would help you—not your cousin in the Party, not your gangster friends or the cops you paid off on a monthly basis.

As a result, there was often the very un-Soviet problem of having too much money. But there was a solution. At weddings, my father-in-law and his friends—who, in a Soviet court, would be reviled as smugglers, speculators, and currency traders, and in the West would simply have been called capitalists—would show up with their suit pockets stuffed with rubles. They danced with the bride and sent showers of bills cascading over her head. They tossed handfuls at the band and the band played like madmen. And deep in the night, when half of the guests had already passed out, they sat around a table and, with smiles of pure enjoyment on their faces, set fistfuls of money on fire.

The bad times came with the deceptively lazy speed that is the hallmark of destructive storms: one minute you’re watching some funny clouds inching closer, not really thinking about what they could mean, and the next the sky is a sickly yellow, the electric smell of ozone is thick in the air, and fat drops of rain are spattering on the pavement.

The Soviet Union began to shiver and howl like some great poisoned beast, then went off to its noisy, drawn-out death. In 1991, for the first time in seventy years, Georgia held presidential elections, bringing a man named Zviad Gamsakhurdia to power. It must have seemed a logical choice: during the Soviet years, Gamsakhurdia had been a dissident, Georgia’s first member of Amnesty International, a sculptor and poet who had spent his entire life upholding Georgian culture and traditions. Within months of taking office, however, he became, by all accounts, a rabid nationalist and dictator whose slogan was “Georgia for the Georgians.”

ruble500.jpg100 Rubles. Photo by “Michael Mandiberg”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/theredproject/3482619910/.

Some claim that it was this nationalism that caused Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where significant portions of the population were non-Georgian, to break away. Others say that the bad blood had been around for years, a consequence of Stalin’s habit of redrawing borders and relocating populations. In any event, one thing was clear: in less than half a year, Georgia had gone from crown jewel of the USSR to international basket case. Armed men roamed the streets of Tbilisi, commandeering vehicles and breaking into houses. Anybody suspected of having money was kidnapped and ransomed to family members, then kidnapped again and again until they went broke, got themselves killed, or left the country. Overnight, millions of rubles in Soviet currency lying under mattresses became worthless; those who spent their entire lives outfoxing the Soviet system in order to enjoy a comfortable retirement found themselves penniless.

Moscow in 1993 was not the glittery Babylon it is today. It was still the monolithic, gray Moscow of the Soviets, but the order that the Soviets had once kept was now replaced by a barely controlled chaos. Freedom had hit Russia like a great slap, and people were still reeling from the shock.

Misha, himself suddenly bereft of one hundred thousand rubles, decided that this was no place for a businessman to be. He left his family enough money to survive on for the next six months and set off for Moscow, where he had heard big things were happening.

There was a man in Moscow that he knew, a Georgian Jew named Roland who used to drive a trolley in Tbilisi and now, if rumor was to be believed, was making millions selling shoes.

Moscow in 1993 was not the glittery Babylon it is today. It was still the monolithic, gray Moscow of the Soviets, but the order that the Soviets had once kept was now replaced by a barely controlled chaos. Freedom had hit Russia like a great slap, and people were still reeling from the shock. Almost every day, somebody took to the streets—Communists, ultra-nationalists, unhappy miners, cavorting paratroopers. Pyramid schemes, faith healers, and nationalist movements, each stranger than the next, sprang up on a daily basis. Gangsters were everywhere, partying or dying like flies. Still, there was electricity and heat, the garbage was picked up regularly, and you usually didn’t get shot unless you deserved it. After what Misha had seen for the last six months in Georgia, the place must have seemed like Switzerland.

Everyone liked Misha, and Roland was no exception. When times were good, Misha had set Roland up with work, introduced him to people, spoken for him. Now Roland wanted to return the favor. A car—a Mercedes—came to pick Misha up at his hotel, and an hour later, he was walking through a dank warehouse that smelled of rubber, shoe leather, and decades of cigarettes. Behind a desk in a shabby little office was Roland, looking exactly like he had in Tbilisi—bald, thin, and sporting a bushy moustache—and not at all like a man who had been busy making millions. He came out with his hand outstretched, kissed Misha, and called him genatsvale, that untranslatable Georgian term of endearment. They drank a glass of cognac, asked about each other’s families, then sat down to talk business.

People here have money, Roland explained. Nobody has a lot, but many have a little, and everybody is trying to make just a little more. And when they make their money, they spend it on things they couldn’t buy during Soviet times. Little things, mostly. And shoes were the one little thing that everyone needed.

Misha took a pair of mid-length ladies’ boots out of a shoebox and examined them, bending them in his hand, peeling open the zipper to read the labels with a dubious eye. Imitation leather, made in China. And right at that moment, a pair of massive Russians dressed in black berets and Special Forces camouflage came into the room, deposited what looked like a mail sack on Roland’s desk, and left without a word.

Roland picked up the sack and turned it over, and Misha could smell the magical odor of dollars even before the first stack came tumbling out.

“There’s half a million in there,” Roland said.

He held up a brick-sized bundle of hundreds.

“You have to understand, my friend, that we’re living in special times. Very special times.”

While Misha toiled in Moscow, trying to establish a beachhead for his family, things in Georgia went from bad to surrealistically bad, the kind of hard times that people once imagined happening only in Third World countries. Gamsakhurdia, surrounded on all sides by enemies, imprisoned his right-hand man, a gangster and bank robber named Jaba Ioseliani, who proved that he was precisely the wrong man to imprison. He broke out and, with the help of a sizable paramilitary force, chased the president out of his own country, replacing him with former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Gamsakhurdia would form a government-in-exile in Chechnya, then mount a final, ultimately unsuccessful offensive before dying, perhaps by his own hand, in a desolate village on the Russian border. The long-simmering ethnic conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia erupted into full-fledged wars; Russia stood behind the breakaway republics, sending mercenaries and equipment, and Georgia lost ground with each passing day. Abkhazia’s quarter of a million Georgians were driven out of their homes. Only a small percentage were airlifted to safety; the rest had to walk through mountain passes, where they froze, starved, and were robbed by brigands. In Tbilisi, the fighting had been causing electricity shortages for months; now, with winter coming, there was no heat either. People began taking their furniture out into the street, chopping it up for firewood, and congregating around the fire, the way they once gathered in their living rooms.

Misha finally moved the family to Moscow. When they got home, he showed his wife the money he’d been making; he’d been storing it in shoeboxes, and the shoeboxes now filled an entire closet.

Misha’s two daughters went to school haphazardly, if at all. Every morning, the family flipped on the television and listened to news of battles around the city as they had once listened to the weather report. If the fighting was particularly heavy, the girls stayed home.

My wife remembers her fifteenth birthday. Amazingly, every one of the dozen friends she invited braved the city streets and came. Since there was nothing to buy, the presents were a potpourri of things that had been salvaged from the depths of closets and armoires. One girl brought a set of pillowcases and a wool blanket, another a small picture of Old Tbilisi that had been hanging in their kitchen for years. Somebody brought a pair of brand-new ballet slippers, which everyone oohed over for a few minutes even though my wife had never taken a single ballet class. They ate beans and khachapuri and cheered when dessert—a bottle of Coca-Cola that had been obtained for the occasion a week in advance—was brought out. Everyone agreed it was one of the best birthdays they had been to in a long time.

As the war dragged on, food became even scarcer, until the entire city was eating nothing but beans. The boys my wife went to school with all became gangsters or drug addicts, or went up north to fight the war. Before long, breadlines sprang up, and traditional Georgian values—chivalry, respect for the elderly—went right out the window. If you were too weak to get to the front of the line, that was too bad for you.

Misha finally moved the family to Moscow. On the way home from the airport, he pointed out the warehouse that he was renting and told them he had five more like it all around the city. When they got home, he showed his wife the money he’d been making; he’d been storing it in shoeboxes, and the shoeboxes now filled an entire closet.

His wife nodded, took his arm, and pulled him aside.

“That store downstairs,” she whispered. “Did you know they have bread?”

There’s a story that Nino, my mother-in-law, tells about their first year in Moscow. She’s riding the metro with her youngest daughter when they notice a skinhead looking at them from the other end of the train car. He doesn’t look happy.

Moscow does not welcome foreigners with open arms. There is no Statue of Liberty offering shelter to the storm-tossed, no respected archetype of the industrious immigrant trying to build a better life. At best, you are told that you’re a guest, and that you’d better not forget it. At worst…

“Goddamn blackasses,” the skinhead says, getting up.

For Nino, it’s like looking up at a block of stone that’s about to fall on top of her. There it is, getting bigger and bigger, yet she’s frozen. Then she remembers that her daughter is with her and all at once, everything unlocks. She stands, pulling her daughter up by the arm just as the skinhead approaches—and walks right past them.

He comes to a stop in front of a man sitting a few seats away, a birdlike little Azerbaijani with white hair and mahogany skin. He’s oblivious to it all, reading a newspaper with the help of a pair of owlish eyeglasses. The skinhead looms over him.

“You dirty blackass fuck,” he says. “Why did you come here?”

The old man looks up, blinking. He doesn’t get it.

“What did you come here for, you old goat?”

“But,” the old man says with genuine surprise, “you just came here.”

Somebody, some idiot watching all of this, actually titters. The skinhead turns a deep red. He snatches the paper away. The glasses fall from the old man’s head and are smashed by a booted foot.

“They think they can come over here and run the fucking place,” says the skin. “Well, I’ll show them.”

He rolls up the paper and brings it down with a thwock on the old man’s head. The old man covers up, says something, pleads for help, but no one is helping, not a single one of the two dozen people watching it all. The newspaper comes down again, then a third time, and then Nino yells:

“Is it possible that there’s not one real man in this goddamn train car?”

A short, serious-looking Russian kid, dressed in a red sweat suit, gets up.

“He looked tough,” said Nino, who saw her brothers fight nearly every day growing up. “One of those tough small guys.”

While a good part of the country was living in stupefied poverty, his relatives strutted around in designer clothes and bragged about their cousin Misha in Moscow. “That’s probably where things started going wrong,” Misha later recounted. “People talk too much, and you start attracting the wrong kind of attention.”

The kid in the sweat suit walks over to the skinhead, grabs him by the collar, and pulls him down to his level. He whispers something in his ear. And the skinhead turns pale.

“The doors were opening, and he just turned around and left. He started cursing and yelling again, but only when he was out of the train and the doors were about to close.”

This is the story Nino has at the ready when she wants to make a point about Russian xenophobia.

“The Russians are like anyone else,” she says. “You have your idiots, but you have your good people, too.”

For three years, Misha worked fifteen-hour days, leaving the house at five in the morning to do a circuit of his warehouses, then manning a counter along with his ten-dollar-a-day salesgirls to hawk shoes till dark. Most of the money he made went back into his business, and month by month, the business grew. And then he decided that the family had lived modestly long enough, and he threw open the floodgates to reap the fruits of his labor.

Right after New Year’s, the family left their apartment on the edge of Moscow, in a building that reeked of cat piss and ground-out cigarettes, and moved to the city center. The new place had four bedrooms and ten-foot-high ceilings, and soon the quaint Soviet-era wallpaper was stripped and the rotting floors ripped out, to be replaced by parquet and marble and a chrome Siemens refrigerator and pretty white doors ordered specially from Vienna. Downstairs, there was a BMW, parked in a private garage several blocks away. That year, the family vacationed in Greece; the oldest daughter was sent to study in Barcelona. Misha sent tens of thousands of dollars to Georgia, where a hundred dollars could feed a large family for a month. While a good part of the country was living in stupefied poverty, his relatives strutted around in designer clothes and bragged about their cousin Misha in Moscow.

“That’s probably where things started going wrong,” Misha later recounted. “People talk too much, and you start attracting the wrong kind of attention.”

Then again, he’s not sure. So many things went wrong so quickly, it was hard to pin down a single cause. But he does know that 1997, when the family moved into their new apartment, marked the last of the good years. After that, there would be an almost uninterrupted black streak of loss and treachery and theft. But ’97, six years after he first came to Moscow, would always be his year, the one where everything went right.

“Chronicles of a Soviet Capitalist” is presented in this magazine in two parts. Part 2 can be found “here”:https://www.guernicamag.com/features/chronicles_of_a_soviet_capital/.

G

Irakli Iosebashvili was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, grew up in New York City, and now lives in Moscow, where he is an editor at the Moscow Times.

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5 comments for Chronicles of a Soviet Capitalist (Part 1 of 2)

  1. Comment by mersenne on November 8, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    amazing stories & powerful writing, waiting for the sequel to this ;)

  2. Comment by Cory on November 16, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    Agreed, very well written and can’t wait for the second half. Submitting this to Digg now!

  3. Comment by Johnna Beese on March 16, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    This is my first time to visit your blog and I would say you share nice information. You definitely do research and write very well. Keep it up!

  4. Comment by Mutuelle on August 10, 2010 at 1:29 am

    I define soviet-style capitalism as economic behavior driven by unbounded greed, devoid of ethical consideration, purely selfish in nature, with concern only for short-term profits, and with no thought to the long-term interests of clients, minority shareholders, or society in general.

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