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Excerpt From "The Russians" By Gregory Feifer.

Excerpt From "The Russians" By Gregory Feifer.

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Published by OnPointRadio
From the book "RUSSIANS: The People Behind the Power." Copyright (c) 2014 by Gregory Feifer. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
From the book "RUSSIANS: The People Behind the Power." Copyright (c) 2014 by Gregory Feifer. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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02/25/2014

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Excerpt from
RUSSIANS The People Behind the Power
 by
Gregory Feifer Drinking
The passion for drinking is innate in Russia.
 — 
 Nikolai Leskov (1831
 – 
95)
I don’t like drunkards, but I don’t trust those who don’t drink.
 
 — 
 Maxim Gorky (1868
 – 
1936) However
much vodka you buy, you’ll still have to run back for more.
 
 — 
 Russian saying
In 1961, my father, George, spent an academic year as a graduate exchange student at Moscow State University. Founded in the late eighteenth century by the renowned physicist Mikhail Lomonosov
 — 
a legendary polymath who discovered an atmosphere on Venus and helped shape the modern Russian language
 — 
MGU, as it was known, had recently moved to the largest of
Stalin’s seven iconic neo
-Gothic skyscrapers that loomed over the city from Sparrow Hills, then called Lenin Hills.
Much had changed since Stalin’s death eight years earlier. Nikita
 
Khrushchev’s thaw had
loosened restrictions on life and work, although it would be only three years until a group of old-guard conspirators would rem
ove him from power. Their coup d’etat would end his campaign of 
 de-Stalinization and replace him with Leonid Brezhnev, who was backed by countless cadres of
Soviet officials who’d been threatened by Khrushchev’s
 boat-rocking reforms. Meanwhile, the year 1961, when the Soviets sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit around the earth to make him the first man in space, was still deep in the Cold War era. When I was a teenager, my dad confidently assured me that sickness from drinking to excess is so unpleasant that
I’d never want to do it more
 
than a few times in my life. Although I’m still
struggling with that lesson, my father apparently learned it for good from his experiences in Moscow. At work on a Columbia University dissertation about the Soviet legal system, he spent some of his days visiting courtrooms. He bunked with a humorless roommate in a single room of a dormitory that formed one of
the sprawling university building’s wings. It went without saying
that the roommate had been selected for his political loyalty, but other students my father  befriended in the dormitory were far livelier and more interesting. Nevertheless, he made certain
 
to be out on the evening of the day they got their monthly stipends, and took pains to remain away at late as possible. That was to avoid being given a water glass full of vodka to drink, an inevitability if he arrived before his friends finished their evening in the usual way, passed out on their beds or the floor, often stacked like cordwood and stinking of vomit. Although the stipends were small, just over a ruble a day, the de rigueur party that followed featured sausage and cheese in addition to bottles of vodka. The revelry set the students back nearly half their stipends, forcing them to exist largely on free bread from the cafeteria for the last ten days
of the month. They washed their meals down with ―white nights‖ tea— 
hot water 
 — 
 part of a diet so grim that when they got their next stipends, there was no question they would need to celebrate again by drinking themselves into oblivion. So it went, in the traditional Russian pattern that had startled Western visitors to Russia in the sixteenth century: famine  broken by loud, drunken feasts. *** Despite the widespread public drunkenness, it was all but impossible to buy vodka in Moscow
shops when I first visited in 1991, more than three years after Gorbachev’s antialcoholism campaign had ended. The scarcity reflected the economy’s mortally crippled condition. Except
for the little Beriozki stores that sold selected products to foreigners and privileged Soviets for foreign currency, which was illegal for most to possess, many shelves remained almost completely empty of everything that summer. (Outdoor markets, called
rynki
, were different. Part of a loosely regulated gray market run with the help of criminal groups, they sold fresh  produce for higher prices.) The few shops that did stock at least some products were so foul-smelling from (I presumed) mold and rot that I barely managed the arduous task of actually  buying something when I tried. It required jostling through weary crowds crammed around display cases to glimpse what happened to be on sale. Next you determined how much you wanted and multiplied the number or weight by the price shown. God forbid you would have to ask an invariably dour salesperson, who would shake her head before reluctantly scribbling the figure on a scrap of paper. Then you stood in line elsewhere in the store for a cashier using an ancient register to ring up a receipt that you would bring back to the original display. After more  pushing and more waiting, a salesperson would eventually reluctantly cut the very inferior
cheese or sausage you’d chosen.
 
Gorbachev’s relaxation of the administrative coercion that had kept the Soviet economic system
running, however wastefully, for seven decades was based on hope that freedom from the quotas and orders imposed by the state planning agency Gosplan
 — 
which left not even the production of toothpicks up to supply and demand
 — 
would encourage factory managers and other lower-ranking officials who oversaw production lines to run their own industries more efficiently. After all, the logic went, they knew what needed to be done better than their superiors. But reducing central control actually helped bring the system down. The government set artificially low prices; when available, products were very cheap. The result was that enterprises had little incentive to  produce goods and stores had little more to sell them. However, there was huge incentive to steal
 — 
that is, to steal from the state.
 
Much of Muscovites’ time went into trying to guess where to get what they wanted or needed.
For vodka, it was often restaurants because they still received supplies. I did best at the Rossiya Hotel, a huge, ghastly 1970s cube n
eighboring the Kremlin. Approaching the kitchen’s back
entrance, which faced the Moscow River and where one or more waiters were invariably
loitering, dragging on cigarettes, you’d ask how much they would be willing to sell, then haggle
over the price. A bottle cost roughly the equivalent of a dollar in rubles, several times more expensive than the official price.
 Pshenichnaia
, or wheat vodka, was among the smoothest to be
had, and you could often get several bottles. If a restaurant failed, you’d try another or a store’s
 back entrance. Foreigners had the option of frequenting one of a handful of seedy hard-currency bars, most of which were in hotels from which ordinary Soviets were barred. Burly KGB bouncers stood at the doors, stopping any locals bold enough to attempt to enter. Russians told me they could
differentiate by looking at people’s eyes: those of foreigners weren’t dulled by weariness and
resignation. Among the most popular haunts was the smoky bar in the basement of the 1970s Intourist Hotel near the Kremlin, now the site of the Ritz-Carlton. There, Western would-be entrepreneurs seeking business deals mingled with shady criminal types, prostitutes and foreign
students. It wasn’t a place where you’d want to spend much time, but you could b
uy as many big cans of Lowenbrau beer as you wanted if you could pay for them in dollars. And some foreign embassies gave weekly parties. One of the most popular was held at the German embassy, where most foreign passports got you in and beers cost two dollars. Arriving in Moscow had transformed me from an impoverished college student into royalty. In addition to the relative wealth my few dollars conferred on me, stories of my life in the land of freedom and plenty made me interesting to Russians no matter how boring I actually was. Utterly cynical about their government and society and no longer afraid of punishment by the authorities, the young people I met were keen to snap up any bit of knowledge I could offer about the West. The collapse of the Soviet
system’s mores and strictures, which took place far
more quickly than most people realized at the time, gave them a great sense of personal liberty. Free time was spent foraging for food and drink to serve at parties, which were usually held in the apartments of parents summering at their dachas. Their crumbling world made life a great adventure. Outside Moscow, alcohol was even harder to come by. Visiting nearby Zagorsk, the site of one
of Russia’s four most important monasteries, I spent a day exploring
 the beautiful town before spotting a state restaurant that was miraculously open. I was with my friend Kolya
 — 
the young
television correspondent with whom I’d soon travel to Vilnius— 
who persuaded a dark-haired waitress to seat us, which she did grudgingly, although we were the only patrons. Then she disappeared, leaving us to pore over a menu filled with a long list of the usual dishes: beef entrecote,
 pilmeni
(dumplings),
bliny
,
borsch
. Having made our choices, we waited ravenously for the waitress
 — 
in vain. After some time, it emerged that she and the rest of the staff were busy carting crates of beer from the kitchen to a van outside. Finally persuaded to approach our table, she patiently listened to our orders before sternly informing us that all the men
u’s dishes were
unavailable. What about starters? we asked hopefully. Those too. Okay, what about two beers?  Now irritation blazed from her eyes. There was no beer.

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