PerestroikaWith the start of perestroika in Russia in 1990, people were suddenly allowed to start their own private businesses.
For the peoples of the Soviet Union, where entrepreneurship had been considered a crime punishable by law, up to and including imprisonment, this decision was revolutionary.
Approximately a third of the population, especially in the capital and major cities, was inspired to dream of a self-defined future that resembled the happy and luxurious life of Western millionaires.
Novosibirsk, where I was living at that time, was three thousand kilometers from the Soviet Union's capital, Moscow, but even its inhabitants did their best to keep up with those in the capital in setting up businesses of their own.
The businesses of Siberia's first entrepreneurs were primarily small. They offered consumer services, engaged in small retail trade, and opened small cafés and shops. Those able to obtain used but good equipment, install it in some half-basement, and start producing the plastic jewelry fashionable at the time were practically considered industrialists.
I was lucky. I was able to charter the three largest passenger ships of the western Siberian river shipping line. I used one of these—a triple-decker with a restaurant, bar, and conference room—for pleasure cruises and held conferences on it for Siberian entrepreneurs.
By that time I had been elected president of Siberian Cooperator, an interregional association of entrepreneurs.
I considered myself a successful and fortunate entrepreneur. However, there were also major problems. Some in society did not like the new businessmen.
At the beginning of perestroika, Russian society split into two seemingly irreconcilable parts. Some wanted to engage in private business, and seeing nothing bad in the capitalist system, wanted to live in a society on the Western model.
Then there were the veterans of war and labor who categorically rejected the innovations in the country. They were not hard to understand, either.
Before perestroika began, an elderly man, often a veteran of the front or a hero of socialist labor, would put on his medals on holidays and walk in a parade. He would speak to young people in schools. He considered his life worthy of respect and properly lived, to the good of socialist society. Now suddenly, everything had changed drastically, and it turned out they had been building the wrong society. They should have been building a capitalist, not a socialist one. They had been wrong to overthrow the Russian tsar in 1917 and execute his entire family. This old man's decorations now attested not to his valor but to the fact that he had stood on the front lines to construct what society did not need. How could such a man look his children and grandchildren in the eye now? People like this attended rallies at the beginning of perestroika.
One day I happened to be part of just such a rally.
During negotiations with businessmen from Turkey, my secretary told me that a spontaneous rally was assembling near the offices of the Novosibirsk Regional Committee of the Communist Party and they were shouting slogans against entrepreneurs. I apologized to the Turkish delegation and decided to take a group of my colleagues to the rally. We were afraid that after the rally the crowd would start smashing private shashlyk stands and little shops.
"You should change clothes," one of my colleagues advised me. "If the crowd sees us in our business suits, they'll be even more bitter."
"I should, but there's no time."
So we drove to the rally in two cars, an imported Mercedes and a Russian UAZ SUV. We got out of our cars wearing our elegant suits, white shirts, and ties, and I looked basically like a London dandy in my elegant white suit. We stood there watching the ralliers and not knowing what to do.
There were fifteen hundred or two thousand of them. Red flags waved over the crowd. The slogans: "We won't allow capitalism." "Entrepreneurs are sucking the people's blood." "Hold traitors to the party's cause responsible." An elderly man with medals on his chest was speaking with rage and anguish on an improvised stage.
"Our generation has been betrayed! Our entire generation! Our generation! We shed blood in the trenches. We kept the fascist scum from seizing our homeland. We went hungry and lived in tents, but we built plants and factories. We built cities. We built socialism and dreamed of communism."
Every once in a while an invalid on crutches would add his assent: "We did not spare ourselves."
Two old women chorused, "Pension! Pension!"
It was obvious the shouts from the crowd were getting the speaker worked up.
"We will stop the bloodsuckers and the bourgeois. You can't even buy meat in the market because it's all been bought up for their shashlyk stands. Let's smash their kiosks like hydra nests," he challenged.
The crowd chorused, "Smash them! Smash them! Smash them!"
"We built our lives for our children, not them"—and he gestured toward our group.
All the ralliers turned in our direction. Silence fell. The crowd seemed poised to pounce in our direction.
Then I grabbed the megaphone and climbed onto the SUV's roof, not yet knowing what I was going to say. So I began without preface.
"You say you worked for your children, and here we are—your children. We decided to become entrepreneurs. And build a life no worse than in America. The law now allows us to engage in private business. Thank you for your efforts, but what you built doesn't really suit us, and we want to build something of our own. But if you start smashing things, you won't get any pension at all because we're the ones contributing the money for your pension. Entrepreneurs are not bloodsuckers. Entrepreneurs are people who are trying to do something sensible for the country, and for themselves, naturally."
The man speaking on stage did not have his megaphone, so to interrupt me he had to shout.
"There he is! Look! The marshal of those who are sucking the people's blood! They're the ones who swept all the food off our shelves. They're the ones buying up our meat and then selling shashlyk for triple. In three days we were out of meat."
In response I said calmly through the megaphone, "You're something else, muzhik. You mean to say you worked and worked all your life, and you only got enough meat for three days?"
The shouts from the crowd stopped. People were listening to our dialog, their heads swiveling to face whoever was speaking. The man on stage did not try to respond to my argument. Instead of an answer he shouted, "Drag him down from the car, that bloodsucker of the people. Look at how the bastard's all dressed up."
All kinds of things started flying in my direction from the crowd. Two pickled tomatoes and an egg hit my white suit. And a pickled tomato hit me in the head. The police present at the rally formed a rank between the crowd and the car whose roof I was standing on. The police commander yelled to me, "Climb down from the car, fella, and run away. We won't be able to hold the crowd back."
But I didn't want to retreat, and I shouted into the megaphone, "Do you want your children to go around in tatters like you? You mean that's what you were fighting for?"
A few people broke from the crowd and through the line of police, ran toward the car, and started rocking it. And right then—I don't even know how this happened myself—I started reciting Mayakovsky's poem about Lenin:
I begin my tale of Lenin.
Not that there's no greater grief,
But because anguish now
Is a clear and conscious pain.
Lenin's slogans in the whirlwind.
Shall we weep a pool of tears?
Lenin lives more now than everyone alive.
Our banner is our strength and weapon.
The crowd froze in surprise. The people rocking the vehicle froze and raised their heads. At that moment a vodka truck was moving slowly down the side, straight across the grass, and my colleagues and I decided to chip in and treat the crowd to vodka. As the vehicle drove toward me, I continued to recite:
People are boats.
But on dry land.
Live your life for today,
Dirty shells will
Cling to your sides.
But later, you will break through,
Calm the storm
And be close to the sun,
Scrub your beard green with driftweed
And crimson with jellyfish slime.
Like Lenin I scrub myself!
To sail on into revolution.
The vodka truck drove right up to my vehicle, and I leapt to the back of the truck, where I said, "Only you see we have bad luck, muzhiks. Different revolutions suit different folks."
The speaker started shouting again.
"Can't you see? He's mocking us. He recited the poem about Lenin so everyone would stop thinking clearly. And you did, right away."
"I worked hard to memorize poems in school. I worked hard at reciting them, too, to show that our generation knows about our fathers' aspirations, too. But you have to try to understand our aspirations as well."
"In one fell swoop he's gulled everyone with his poem, that exploiter hydra, that bloodsucker of the people. Why are you standing there silent? Crush, destroy the hydra. He hid behind Lenin and poetry."
Some of the crowd let up a roar and once again started trying to break through the police shield.
"I recited poetry so we could start a normal conversation. Come up, have a drink, and let's talk normally, Russian style."
I opened the side of the truck, sat down on a box, and opened a bottle of vodka, then a second, and poured vodka into little plastic cups. I picked up one cup and took a swig. I turned to those who had broken through the cordon and rocked the SUV. They were already standing by the open truck.
"Go on, take it, muzhiks. Let's have a drop, or else we won't have a proper conversation."
The men started snapping up the cups.
"Really, why have tempers gone so high? We can talk normally," a short bearded man remarked, and his comrade added, "Why not have a talk if the company's right?" Turning toward the policemen holding back the crowd, one of the men who'd had a drink said, "You muzhiks hang on a little bit, or they'll break through and won't let us talk normally."
"No, they won't. What kind of conversation can you have with a crowd? It's just a lot of noise, that's all," people supported him.
"We repeat now and then we'll help you."
"You should be helping the soldiers. Pour another," they suggested.
I poured more vodka.
"So, what other poems do you know?" a very tall bald man asked me in a bass voice.
"By heart? Just from the school curriculum," I replied.
"Well, recite one from the school curriculum, and I'll sing along into the microphone. Whenever I drink I always feel like singing."
"A sail of white, alone, in the sea's blue fog," I recited, and the bald man began to sing in a powerful bass amplified by the megaphone.
A sail of white, alone,
In the sea's blue fog.
Seeking what in a distant land?
Losing what in his father's home?
The crowd broke the police cordon. A large group consisting mainly of men ran toward the truck.
The sturdy bald man stopped singing and shouted in a threatening bass, "Get in line! This is a normal conversation, not just a lot of noise."
Those who had run up started getting in line.
The speaker on the stage opposite started talking again, addressing the people remaining in front of him. "Look, people, he's getting the people drunk. Women! He's getting your men drunk."
A rumble of dissatisfied voices rose from the crowd, which consisted mainly of elderly women.
Once again I picked up the megaphone and addressed the women.
"Forgive me, women, I clean forgot. On the other side of the square is a vehicle with imported chicken legs, a present for you from the union of entrepreneurs. This is not a bribe, it's a fee so we can have a breather and you don't stop the discussion. Of course, one truck's worth isn't enough for everyone—there you're right—but some of you will get something for free."
A large group of women, some walking quickly, some running, headed for the truck with the chicken legs. In this way the ralliers were divided into two groups: one by the vodka truck, the other by the chicken leg truck. I realized people had calmed down. My colleagues and I got in our cars and drove to my ship.
As I was walking away from the vodka drinkers I heard, "Not a bad muzhik, and we nearly crippled him."
When the ship was moored at the river station, its restaurant was used as a club for entrepreneurs. Older and younger people often met there, discussed business, and shared their experience. Nearly everyone felt as if an unusually beautiful life was in the offing. Sometimes one of the skeptics would try to throw cold water on these glorious dreams.
One day the man who had spoken at the rally came to the ship. The guard wouldn't let him on, and he began demanding to speak with me. So I went out to see him, and we introduced ourselves. His name was Pyotr Ivanovich, and he asked permission to visit our club.
"But why come to our club, Pyotr Ivanovich, if you're opposed to entrepreneurship and private property?"
He replied, "I'm opposed to what is absurd in life. I want to express my opinion to you, today's avant-garde. Or are you afraid to listen to an alternative opinion?"
One of my colleagues suggested, "Oh, let him come and speak his mind. That'll be better than calling rallies and getting people all worked up."
Pyotr Ivanovich began coming every week. We agreed he would speak no more than five minutes. He turned out to be a former history and philosophy teacher. His speeches at the entrepreneurs' club on the ship were of little interest to anyone, but sometimes they made me give long hard thought to the meaning of life.
One day, as usual, he went up to the microphone and said to the entrepreneurs sitting at the restaurant tables, "Why do you think you're making yourselves into future happy men? Over in America, people have been doing business for a long time, and they have more entrepreneurs than we do in Russia. Maybe we'll reach the American standard of living in twenty years or so, but in those twenty years they'll pull out even farther ahead of us. There'll be more entrepreneurs in Russia, but that doesn't mean there will be more happy people."
At that time, at the beginning of perestroika, our first-wave entrepreneurs couldn't have cared less about the meaning of life. We just wanted to live well.
Книга: Volume I: Anastasia: «I Exist For Those I Exist For»