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Kim Malone

c copyright c by Kim Malone, 1999



The Measurement Problem is dedicated to the Internet Bubble, which

paid for its writing. Immeasurable thanks goes to my family and my
friends for their emotional support.

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
Albert Einstein

“And still they come, new from those nations to which the study of that which can be weighed and
measured is a consuming love.”
W.H. Auden

“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Oscar Wilde
“…we are in the paradoxical situation that novelty is more obvious in domains that are often relatively
trivial but easy to measure; whereas in domains that are more essential novelty is very difficult to
determine. There can be agreement on whether a new computer game, rock song, or economic formula is
actually novel, and therefore creative, less easy to agree on the novelty of an act of compassion or of an
insight into human nature”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

"Is it better to be a coal-heaver or a nursemaid; is the charwoman who has brought up eight children of less
value to the world than the barrister who has made ahundred thousand pounds? It is useless to ask such
questions; for nobody can answer them. Not only do the comparative values of charwomen and lawyers
rise and fall from decade to decade, but we have no rods with which to measure them even as they are at
the moment"
Virgina Woolf

“For too long we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community value in the mere
accumulation of material things. Our gross national product now is over 800 billion dollars a year, but that
gross national product, if we judge the United States of America by that, that gross national product counts
air pollution, and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special
locks for our doors and the jails for people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwoods and
the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic squall. It counts Napalm, and it counts nuclear warheads, and
armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our city. It counts Whitman's rifles and Speck's Knifes and
the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet, the gross national
product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play;
it does not include the beauty of our poetry, the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public
debate, or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our
wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything
in short except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why
we are proud that we are Americans.
Robert Kennedy




Moscow: September, 1990

Catching my first glimpse of Mother Russia was like losing my virginity.

Breathless with expectation I looked down from the airplane window, eager for a life-

changing revelation. Instead, I saw partially planted fields and ramshackle sheds strewn

randomly beneath me, as if scattered by a slovenly God. That was it?

The aesthetics of the airport didn’t do much to dispel the anxiety I was trying not

to feel. Squashed, kerchiefed old ladies, babushki, were spreading grit around on the

floor using poles with filthy rags instead of mops. Fluorescent tubes gave off a harsh,

bluish light and made an ominous noise. Zzzzp. Zzzzp. Like human-sized mosquito


Two recent photos from the New York Times fed my worries. First, a bread line

eight blocks long. I would rather starve than wait in a line that long. Then, there was the

picture of the man with a toilet paper necklace. He hadn’t been able to buy TP in six

months, so when he finally found some he strung as many rolls as he could on a rope,

hung it around his neck, and waddled home, Michelin-Man style. Shortages at both ends

of the digestive tract. Ugh. My fear of discomfort did battle with my disdain for


Actually, it wasn’t even the discomfort of these shortages that was at the heart of

my angst. The real problem was that all the ideas I was most invested in kept getting

tossed onto the trash heap of history. I was here to rewrite my college thesis, ‘The

Measurement Problem: A Critique of Capitalism,’ so I could submit it to the American

Journal of Economics and Sociology. The Berlin wall had fallen just as I’d put the

finishing touches on the first half, crushing my chances of getting it published.


Questioning the market was hard enough with the Eastern block intact. Now, dust from

the crumbled Wall kept threatening to choke my brilliant theories. Or so I liked to fancy.

My quest for the heroic, or at least the big, big being metaphoric not measurable,

compelled me forward through customs. Somebody named Boris was supposed to meet

me. I scanned the crowd for a person holding a sign with my name. No luck. A full

bladder prevented panic from setting in. I found a bathroom, but no toilet paper. I left

with moist underwear, a recipe for yeast infection.

Shit! I had forgotten to bring yeast beast medicine. Even I had the common

sense to know I didn’t want to go to the doctor here...Where There Is No Doctor. Where

There Is No Doctor. Why was that phrase running through my mind? Oh, yes. It was the

title of a book somebody had given George, whom I intended to marry, before he had left

on a humanitarian mission to Honduras two weeks ago. Just before his departure, after

an entire year of frustrated longing, I had finally kissed him for the first time—and left it

at that.

“Excuse me. Excuse me? Are you Emma?”

I whirled around. “Yes. You must be Boris.” I couldn’t believe my eyes. He was

embarrassingly big and handsome—six and a half feet tall with thick curly sandy hair and

hands like the paws of a golden retriever puppy. An Alpha Man, a big swinging dick, a

thick-necked, big-jawed man. Just the kind of traditionally handsome type I never

trusted. A body like that was a walking advertisement for infidelity. Though, on my

check list of things to do before I got married was to sleep with that kind of a chiseled-lip

man—just one and just once, to see what all the fuss was about. Make sure I wasn’t

missing anything.


Boris handed me some yellow roses and I promptly forgot all my Russian.

“These uuuh flowers are uuuh red—no, I mean, uuuh beautiful. Sorry, my Russian, that is

not so good.”

A big grin answered me. “You can speak English. I need practice.”

“But so do I!” Another goal of my year in Moscow was to become fluent. We

compromised. He’d speak Russian and I’d speak English. That way we’d both talk

fluently, even if we’d understand each other imperfectly.

“You have come at a special moment in our history. In time for bad weather and

no bread,” Boris announced cheerfully, unwittingly treading on my fear of starvation as

we headed into Moscow in his little cracker-box car. The gas fumes were making me


“No bread?” I tried to sound calm. The long line for bread pictured in the Times

was bad enough. But no bread? Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the

wording in the e-mail offering me the research position at the Institute of Steel and

Alloys. It had concluded, “You will be paid a stipend of 180 roubles per month. This

may not seem like much, but don’t worry—there’s nothing to buy in our country

anyway.” 180 roubles came to just under $6. $6 a month!!! And there wasn’t $6 per

month of food to buy? When I thought about it, a panic set in. Luckily, I was a WASP,

well-trained in repression, so mostly I succeeded in not thinking about it. Now, though,

the question tickled the back of my mind like an irrepressible sneeze. What was I doing

here? The answer wasn’t exactly comforting: the Institute of Steel and Alloys was the

only place in the world willing to support my project. Why was the Institute of Steel and


Alloys interested in The Measurement Problem? The only explanation I could get was

that things were a little random in the Soviet Union.

“No bread. First no vodka, then no cigarettes, now no bread. Can you imagine

this?” The smile faded from Boris’s face. “When cigarettes and vodka disappear, it’s one

thing. But when bread disappears. People won’t stand for it, they can’t stand for it.” In

the States, I’d been able to dismiss my worries by telling myself I was being irrational.

Now, it was beginning to appear that my fears were justified. I was going to have to

develop a new anxiety-repressing technique. I tried to think of something reassuring to

say, but came up empty. Boris looked out the window, as if searching for an answer to

the problem of hunger. His eyes lit up. I followed his gaze to a metro stop, around which

was heaped a four-foot mound of watermelons. “Thank God there’s a good crop this


Why did he care so much about a harvest? Surely Moscow wasn’t dependent on

the weather like some sort of Bangladeshi village. I had imagined the city would be

ultra-urban, tough and masculine. This was the heart of the Evil Empire, impregnable

behind its arsenal of nuclear weapons, right? Yet the bumper crop of melons around the

subway entrance gave the city a mysteriously rural feeling, a feminine vulnerability to


“How do you like my jiggily?” Boris interrupted my thoughts.

I wished I’d studied harder in Russian class. Jiggily? Jiggolo? Was he referring

to his—oh. The brand of the car, written on the dashboard, explained. A Zhigouli. “I

think it’s—” Before I could finish my sentence, we hit a pothole, sending both our heads


crashing into the top of the car. “Ouch!” I rubbed my head. “Really nice,” I finished

giving my impression of his car. He laughed through one side of his mouth.

We fell silent as Boris’s “jiggily” bounced along to the Southwest region of

Moscow. Embarrassed to find that I’d fallen asleep, I was jolted awake as the car stopped

in front of a fifteen story building with layers alternating between gray cement and

graying tiles, windows with bags of groceries tied to the outside, in a mud field,

surrounded by other such buildings in similar mud fields.

“You see you’ve awakened to a miracle, here in the land of miracles.” Boris’s

voice filled the sudden silence as he turned off his car.


“The dorm was condemned a few years ago, but they reopened it when there was

no other place to put people.” Why was he laughing? What was so funny about living in

a hell hole? Then again, he lived there too. If he could deal with it so could I.

At the entrance Boris gestured toward some cubbyholes. “This is where the mail


I tried to keep my voice calm. “Oh, good. Let me check. I expect I have a letter

already.” I should have waited rather than make Boris stand there with all my bags. But

I couldn’t. George had written me a letter. I was pretty sure he’d mailed it two weeks

ago, right after our kiss. I figured the letter would start with something like, ‘After our

embrace I knew I had to break up with Cecilia because you, Emma, are the love of my

life.’ I had been so impatient to receive this letter that I hadn’t really minded saying

good-bye to George himself.

“You must think our mail system is very efficient.” Boris laughed.


“Well, a friend mailed me a letter about two weeks ago.” At least, I assumed he’d

sent it before he left for Honduras. There was some chance he’d get transferred from

there to Moscow next February. Be still, my beating heart!

“A letter from the US takes four weeks, usually.”

Two more weeks!!! I couldn’t imagine waiting that long. I’d go insane.

“But sometimes it only takes two weeks, right?”

“Well.” Boris seemed reluctant to disappoint me. “Sometimes.”

Boris lugged my bags up five flights because the elevators were broken. My

room was twelve by twelve feet with a narrow iron bed. I looked out my window and

noticed the drizzle darkening the structural cracks running through the building across the

street. Would my dormitory collapse on top of me? I had a vision of my mother sobbing

at my funeral and scolded myself for being such a drama queen.

“Well, maybe you want to wash your hands?” This was the euphemism Russian

men used when asking a woman if she had to pee. I found the formality vaguely

romantic. “I’ll come back in 30 minutes and we’ll have something to eat. My friends

Alyosha and Svyeta have prepared a welcome for you tonight, OK?”

“Oh, that’s so nice.” Holy shit! I had forgotten to bring any gifts for my hosts.

No wine, no chocolate, not even a t-shirt or a baseball cap. Not even a crappy IheartNY

pen. Nuthin. Nada. Nechevo. Lame, lame, lame!!!

“But I don’t have anything to bring to a party.”

“Nyet problem!” Boris waved his arms as if brushing away all the world’s



I tore through my bags looking for something to bring to whatever meal I was

about to be fed. Feeling virtuous, I had packed only the barest essentials. I’d been so

determined to live on a “real” Soviet salary, and had felt so ennobled by my

determination, that it had never occurred to me that my asceticism could be selfish.

I looked around my new home, indulging in a paroxysm of guilt and self-loathing.

I opened the door to what I had assumed was a closet and found I had my own bathroom.

My own bathroom?? I had come to Russia to suffer, damn it! But here I was with my

own bathroom, on my way to a dinner party. Like most Americans, I’d been exhorted by

my mother to “think of the starving children in Africa” and finish everything on my plate.

Every bite I ate contributed to an anxiety that I had been given so much more than I

deserved, I was so unworthy, it was all so unfair, I could never make it right, blah, blah. I

sat down to pee, but when I reached for the toilet paper I found—old newspaper. Oof.

Aah, the rush of a little mild suffering to alleviate the guilt.

Let Them Eat Cake

Unlike Boris, Alyosha was exactly what I’d expected a Russian man to look like

—Jesus painted on an old icon. He was tall, with a golden brown curly beard. His

default expression was a beatific smile that gave him an otherworldly aura. Svyeta, on

the other hand, seemed grounded in her femininity—the irresistible, maternal kind of

femininity. The curves of her body were set off by straight, brown hair.

We drank a glass of Soviet Champagne to our meeting, and three other ritual

toasts, but finally the dreaded question came: “Well and what, Emma, tell us the subject

of your project.”


“It’s a critique of capitalism.” I hated explaining my project. I felt like I had an

ugly baby, whom I adored, and whom everybody else laughed at.

“Akh, capital—eezm!” Boris said it tentatively, like an adolescent saying “fuck”

for the first time in front of his parents.

“And what is the problem with capital—eezm? We hope it will be our salvation.”

Alyosha smiled, his gentle, amused eyes making it clear he was not really looking for


“The problem is that capitalism rewards only what it can measure, not what it

values. Unfortunately, things that can be easily measured aren’t usually so valuable.”

“For example?” Boris smiled through one side of his mouth. Cocky twerp.

“Oh, education. But it’s really hard to measure the value that teachers bring to

society and also hard to measure if they’re doing a good job or not. So they get paid

nothing, and our educational system is going down the tubes, even though most people

agree that education is really important.

“And what is not valuable?” Boris’s knee bounced up and down. I wondered if I

was irritating him that much or if he were just excessively energetic.

“Bond trading. But bond traders get rich because it’s easy to measure their

performance—the size of the deals they do—and pay them—a percentage.”

“You think communism solves this problem?” Alyosha asked, incredulous.

“Well, capitalism certainly doesn’t. Capitalism just makes it worse by paying

people huge amounts of money to obsess on spreads of bonds issued to companies that

make widgets nobody wants and then market the unwanted widgets down the throat of


everybody. We’re like so many geese, being force-fed.” I shut my mouth, hearing my

voice creep into rant range.

“There is an economics term for this problem, no?” asked Svyeta.

“Oh, economists make it all sound so complicated. They talk about talk about

externalities and generational issues and merit goods. The thing is, economists figure if

they can define it, it gets its fair shake in the economy. I don’t think that’s true. If

something isn’t very easy to measure it doesn’t usually get rewarded financially and


“This may be a bigger problem than economics,” said Alyosha.

“Why?” I asked.

“The problem may just be that we have not developed good enough statistics.”

“Well, why do we have to count every damn thing?” The question came a little

harsher than I intended. I took a breath and continued more calmly. “Seems to me it’s

just a way of avoiding the obvious. We don’t need math to know that some things are

important—like, for example, equality.”

“And what is the solution you propose?” asked Boris.

“It is to come up with government policies that shift the emphasis away from the

measurable to the valuable. Sort of like here—the government ensures a certain level of


Boris looked up, serious now. “In your country you have an expression—to keep

up with the Joneses. Let me explain to you about equality here in Russia. In my country

we blow up the Joneses. And so we are all equally poor. This is not better, I assure you.

This is the real world.”


Boris’s words hit an old nerve. How many times had I been told that I knew

nothing about the “real” world? It was an accusation I was vulnerable to, part of what

had driven me here. Still, part of me rebelled at the idea that my world wasn’t real. I felt

a flash of anger at Boris for making me feel like an ignorant spoiled little rich girl.

Especially since I wasn’t even rich. Just sort of middle class, from the middle of

America. I’d grown up in a two-storey house with a two-car garage and two siblings in

St. Louis. My parents were happily married. There was no real reason to try to do better

than they had. As Jack Nicolson said in Chinatown, how much better can you eat? Not

much. Still, there had to be something more. I’d seized upon economic justice as that


Alyosha noticed my discomfiture and barked, mock Soviet army style,

“Comrades!” That certainly changed the subject. I could have kissed him. “We have a

problem. A very serious problem.” Alyosha paused for dramatic effect. “My mother has

sent me a half kilo of fresh caviar, but we have no bread.” He waited for silence

appropriate to the seriousness of the problem to fall before continuing. “What is to be

done?” He quoted Lenin as if to hold him personally responsible for the bread shortage.

“We could have it with cake,” suggested Svyeta.

“Caviar with cake? No, never! It would be a sin. But I have a solution!” Alyosha

grabbed four spoons from a drawer and another bottle of champagne from the bag

hanging out the window.

“You can buy cake and champagne but not bread?” What the hell was going on

here? I felt like Alice in Wonderland: none of the usual relationships held.


Boris explained: “This is not the French Revolution—this is Perestroika. When

nothing gets measured it is reasonable to say, ‘Let them eat cake!’”


Boris walked me to my door around midnight. I half considered inviting him in.

Now is your big chance to sleep with an Alpha man, Emma. But, when it came right

down to it, I wasn’t quite ready to check that one off the list. I was too focused on my

letter from George.

I crawled into bed wishing I had a phone to call George on. I tried to sleep, but

my stomach protested. Dinner had been five glasses of sickly sweet Soviet champagne

with so much sugar added it had given me a hangover before it had even gotten me

drunk, twelve big spoonfuls of caviar, and four pieces of watermelon. I heard my

mother’s voice telling me to think of the starving children in Africa.

I rolled over and turned on the light, knowing a good read was the only way to

stave off an insomniac wave of self-pity. In addition to a few economics texts, I’d

brought some fiction, my guilty pleasure. Sophomore year in college I’d decided not to

major in English because I decided that creativity should be about coming up with new

solutions, not describing old problems. George had once joked that I was writing The

Measurement Problem to rationalize my novel habit. I’d become so enraged that he’d

promised never to even say the word novel in my presence.

I looked for the right book to make me feel better about the shortage of food and

phones. Moby Dick, Middlemarch, The Great Gatsby, or The Metamorphosis? I needed

something short. I pulled out my Ovid and flipped to Erisichthon’s metamorphosis.


A measure of how close I could get to people was how long it took me to give

them my Erysichthon theory, and how they reacted. Generally my theory didn’t go over

well. People my age thought I was a nerd and older people thought I was intellectually

immature. But I thought I was on to something, and a person who couldn’t grasp it

couldn’t grasp me.

The first time I’d met George about a year ago, I’d sensed it would be OK to read

him the Erysichthon myth right away.

Without a qualm he cut down every tree

In the sacred grove of Ceres—
An ancient wood that had never, before that day,
Jumped to the axe’s stroke.

“The rainforests,” George had interrupted my reading.

“Exactly.” I had hardly been able to continue reading for my smile.

“Erysichthon ignores all this as

He assesses the volume of its timber,
Then orders his men to fell it.”

“Ceres condemned him

To Hunger—
But infinite, insatiable Hunger,
The agony of Hunger as a frenzy.

“And you think what the gods did to him is happening to us now?” He’d asked.

The recognition had tingled up the nape of my neck.

He calls for food. Everything edible

Out of the sea and earth. When it comes
Dearth is all he sees where tables bend
Under the spilling plenty. Emptying

Bowls of heaped food, all he craves for

Is bigger bowls heaped higher.


“It’s consumerism gone amuck, isn’t it?” George’d interrupted again. I looked up

at him. That was falling in love—little flickers of recognition, understanding. It had

been Erysichthon that made me fall in love with George, and Erysichthon that had driven

me to Moscow.

Another Measurement Problem

So there I was lying alone in bed in Moscow. Solitude, at least, was familiar. I’d

been failing for over a year to lure George into my bed. I consoled myself with the old

argument that a partner was only a distraction. Masturbating, I could achieve seven or

eight orgasms. No man had ever gotten me past one.

I rolled over on my stomach, put my lumpy pillow between my legs, and my

hands down my pajama bottoms. Of course, the first one is always best, I admitted to

myself as I relaxed after it, waiting for the energy to dive into number two. It was all

about getting the blood into that little cord of nerves going to the clit. I wriggled back

and forth lazily, then up and down intently, back muscles straining, until—well,

sometimes the second does outdo the first. I was sweating now, heart thumping wildly,

mind detached, thinking how funny it was that that fleeting, fluttering pleasure was the

stuff of opera, tragedy, the great romances. What we won’t do for it. The mind wasn’t

cooling the body. I started again, and number three came flashing in after a few warning

sparks, like one of those anti-red eye flashes on new cameras. After number three, they

came more easily, but less intensely.


After hitting eight I drifted off to sleep, feeling, as I always did in these

circumstances, something of the betrayal I’d felt the first time I masturbated. I had been

so excited to find I could do this for myself, and in greater quantity than any man could

do for me. But I still woke up lonely. One with a man, or sometimes even none with a

man, was better than eight alone. Go figure. Yet another measurement problem.

The First Bribe

True to form, I woke up lonelier than ever for George. Reprimanding myself for

being a selfish American, I decided to go to the grocery and buy something to share in the

dorm that night. In the store there was—nothing. The salesladies laughed at me for

being so naïve as to think buying food was as simple as going to the store.

Svyeta invited me for lunch. Once again I was accepting humanitarian aid from

the Russians. She dished some buckwheat for me. I was just hungry enough to

overcome the wet-dog smell and take that first bite. It tasted like the side of an old

wooden Russian house scraped into a bowl. I ate it all.

“Where’d you buy this?” I asked, still shaken by my fruitless trip to the foodless

grocery. Svyeta didn’t just feed me, she told me where to shop.

The next morning, absolutely starving, I went to the buckwheat store Svyeta had

described. What little food there was looked foul and inedible, so when I saw a pile of

potatoes I immediately got into line. Let me repeat: I got into line.

This may not sound like much of a feat, but for me it was an act of almost

superhuman triumph over my impatience. Some people are claustrophobic. I am

waitaphobic. George had a theory that I’d used up my lifetime’s supply of patience when


I was six and Dad had dropped me off at school on a day when there was no school. I

had sat on the front porch and watched the yardman mowing the enormous lawn,

baaaaaaaack and fooooooorth, baaaaaaaack and fooooooorth, all the while debating

whether I could break the rule about not talking to strangers and go ask the man to call

my father. For four hours I had been racked with indecision: sit and wait or break the

rules? Sit and wait more or break the rules? Marlene, Dad’s secretary, had eventually

come to the rescue, but not before the last of my patience had been mown away, joked

George. What he didn’t know was that he was the one who’d used up the rest of my


For ten minutes I tried to use the time productively by thinking of my project.

Subversive thoughts kept intruding. Why on earth did I ever think communism could

hold any answers to the measurement problem? Capitalism only rewarded superficial,

measurable things, but communism rewarded nothing with nothing. Was that any better?

I forced my mind back on my project. There may not be much food, but at least it was

cheap. Maybe that guy ahead of me, the one with the big stomach and the Jesus beard,

was a great philosopher; thanks to communism’s cheap food, he didn’t have to work all

the time to afford to feed himself. Then again, he probably didn’t have time for his

philosophy because he had to spend all damn day in line. A woman with a toddler

bundled up like a little mummy sneezed miserably. Was equality worth this absolute

poverty? I gave up trying to think about my project. Too many distractions.

The next ten minutes I tried to learn something from the people in line, rather than

viewing them as irritating distractions. Also impossible. What was there of interest in a

bunch of gray people in a damp, chilly line for dirty, gray products?


The ten minutes after that I tried to recite Russian poetry in my head. I couldn’t

remember any. Prayers? Give us this day our daily bread. Ugh! Songs? Anticipaaa-

aaa-aaa-tion, it’s makin’ me wait. Now I couldn’t get the Heinz katsup version of the

Carly Simon song out of my head.

The last twenty minutes, I simply tried to contain my irritation.

Finally, I reached the head of the line

“I’d like a sack of potatoes, please.”

“Dyevochka, what did you say?” Dyevushka, meaning girl, often shortened to

dyevochka, little girl, jarred my feminist sensibilities.

I pointed, angrily.

The woman handed me a piece of paper.

“What’s this?”

“Your check. Now you have to pay.” She gestured towards an impossibly long

payment queue.


“Dyevochka, go, go, there’s a line here.”

Here a line, there a line, everywhere a line, line, Old Commies ran a country, E-I,

E-I, O. With a nothing here and a pain and the ass there, E-I, E-I, O. It’s an experience,

I told myself. Just calm down. This is part of what I’d come here for. To see what it was

really like. I stared at the people in line. If they could endure it, so could I. I looked at

the woman ahead of me for clues about coping. She was imperturbable in her patterned

Russian shawl. Wasn’t she bothered by this colossal waste of time? I shook my head and

looked at the man in front of her, a solid man with a solid, chunky coat, and a scarf folded


in an X on his chest. Also imperturbable. In front of him an old, squashed lady. Eighty

some-odd years of imperturbability. In front of her a young mother with toddler. Even

the baby was imperturbable. What the hell was wrong with all these people? How could

they endure it all so calmly?

I, for one, was not imperturbable. Especially not when it came to wasting time,

the most valuable of all commodities.

I turned around, breathing deeply. I decided to play a different game—try to

catch the eye of somebody. Two points for getting somebody to look me in the eye, ten

points for getting somebody to return a smile. I started with the man with the folded

scarf. He stared at the floor. I coughed to attract his eye, and I smiled at him as he

glanced up. His stare passed quickly over my chin and returned instantly to the floor. I

tried the woman with the scarf, the squashed old lady, the woman with the child. Even

with the child I failed. Was smiling in public forbidden? Why were people afraid even

to look at each other? So much for equality, for brotherhood of man…So much for ideals

ahead of money.

Five, ten, fifteen, twenty…My mother had taught me about counting to ten to get

control of my emotions, but counting by one’s was too damn slow. So I’d started

counting by two’s, then five’s, then ten’s. The numbers got too big too fast by ten’s, so

I’d reverted to five’s and stuck with them ever since. I’d made it almost to 37,540 when I

finally got to the head of the line.

“Purchase pass?”


“Dyevushka, purchase pass.”


“What’s that?”

“Proof that you live in this region of Moscow. Gives you the right to buy.”


“Move along.”

I could not endure this kind of futility. “Why the hell didn’t anybody tell me this

before I spent all day in line?”

The lady behind me was growing agitated. “Dyevushka, dyevushka, there are

others in line.”


for not having learned the Russian word for ‘fucking.’

“You must not make a scandal,” the cashier was frightened by public shouting—

even more dangerous than public smiling, evidently.

“I’ll pay double, but I won’t leave without my potatoes.”

“OK, OK. One rouble.” She slipped her hand under the table with a look of

infinite longing. All of this over one and a half cents? My God! Talk about a

measurement problem…

I slipped her the cash and got—the same piece of paper back, torn this time.

“What now?”

“Back over there to pick up your purchase.” The lady in line behind me pointed

to—another line. The same line I’d waited in to ask for the potatoes in the first place.

I told myself to stay calm and do what the nice lady said. I marched mechanically

back over to the original counter and—got—back—in—line.


Arms trembling, I climbed the stairs out of the Sevastopol Metro stop. I wondered

if I could endure the fifteen-minute walk back to the dorm with the ten kilos of potatoes

I’d bought. Well, five kilos of potatoes and five of mud.

“Emma!” Boris appeared from behind. “Here, let me help you.” He tossed the

bag onto his shoulder.

“Thank you so much.” I was too grateful to object.

“Storing up for the winter?” Boris smiled teasingly at my potatoes. “Becoming a

real Russian already. Although most of us dig our own potatoes that we grow on plots in

the country.”

“I bought them at the Gastranom near Akademicheskaya.”

“How? I didn’t give you a purchase pass yet.”

“Oh, I just paid double.”

Boris stopped. “Clever girl! Only one day in Russia, and already you’re bribing

all the right people.”

“I didn’t bribe anybody. I just paid double.”

“And what’s the difference?”

I had no idea. Had I come here to study economic justice and wound up greasing

palms? Had I in fact just paid my first bribe, popped my corruption cherry?

The Market

Silenced by such a shocking revelation, I walked to the dorm without a word.

Boris deposited the potatoes (and mud) in my room and looked around. “You need

something besides just potatoes to eat. I will take you to the market.”


“The market!?” Wasn’t I in a socialist country? Weren’t markets illegal here?

My ideology disapproved, but my heart, or at least my taste buds, rejoiced.

The market after the state grocery store upheld Russia’s reputation as the land of

contrasts, the land of miracles. A network of outdoor stalls surrounding an enormous

warehouse type of structure were all filled to overflowing with food—heaps of glistening

apples, washed cucumbers, sparkling herbs, carrots, beets. Mountains of dried apricots,

dates, nuts. Pickles, pickled garlic, pickled onions, pickled watermelon. A meaty smell

advertised the section with great slabs of pork. A few pig heads prominently displayed to

prove authenticity. A pleasant cheesy smell advertised the dairy section—enormous

blocks of homemade cheese, old-fashioned milk bottles, yogurt. Best of all, no lines. In

the state grocery store the clerks glowered at the customers. In the market, the

entrepreneurs sang to the customers:

“Taste my apples, the best apples, sweet, sweet, sweet.” They weren’t much to

look at, those scrawny apples, but I tasted them, and gasped. They were both tarter and

sweeter than any apples I’d ever tasted. I was tasting my first real apple. Everything else

I’d ever had was just big, mealy imitation fruit. I felt like the hero in 1984 (or was it

Brave New World?) who tasted real chocolate for the first time. Only it was communism,

not capitalism, that had preserved real fruit. Ah ha! The measurement problem!!!

Capitalism grows apples for size, not taste, because taste is harder to measure, though

much more valuable than size. The apples were better in a communist country! So, there!

“There really is food at the market!” I looked at Boris in amazement. It felt as

though he personally had organized this miracle just for me. “And you know what? It’s

even better than food in American groceries.”


Boris shrugged. “They say 80% of the food is grown on the 5% of the land that is

given to people for private use.” He sighed. “Akh—capital—eeezm.”

“What are the prices like?” There had to be a catch. Maybe the market was more

efficient, but it wasn’t magic, surely.

“On my stipend of 90 roubles a month, I can’t shop here every day, but when I

really want to, I can. It’s comforting to know it’s here.”

“90 roubles!” I was getting twice that! I could run, but I couldn’t hide from

unfair privilege. “Why do I get 180?”

“They decided to give you 180 because you are an American.”

“But, that’s not fair! I won’t buy anything here either, then.”

A hint of yesterday’s annoyance shadowed Boris’s face. He looked at me intently,

his eyes dilated, and then a smile broke through. “You are a funny girl.” I liked the way

he said it, I even liked being called “girl.” His tone implied, if not respectful

understanding, affectionate acceptance. He shrugged and continued. “You see, it’s easier

for us to live here. We’re used to it.” The ability to endure suffering seemed to be a

matter of pride for Russians. “Besides, salary isn’t so important when they practically

give the food away in the state stores.”

“I admire your government for providing cheap food.”

“I don’t—not when the result is that there’s nothing in the store.”

“There’s usually something isn’t there?”

“Another ten years of communism and there won’t be.”

I got off my high horse and bought some nuts and dried apricots to share with



Beauty Counts

Boris stuck his curly head in y door the next morning, Sunday. “Do you want to

see the sites in Moscow?”

Damn, he was handsome!

We piled into his car and headed through the drizzle. He wanted me to see a

Russian Orthodox service at a little church in a park near the dorm. As we arrived at the

park an incredibly comforting idea struck me.

“Do the leaves turn orange and yellow in the fall here?” I had thought I was

above all the cold war rhetoric. Now I realized that my subconscious, informed by the

very propaganda my conscious mind had been rejecting so vigorously, had assumed they

only had revolutions, but not fall foliage, in the so-called Evil Empire.

Boris looked at me with laughing, surprised eyes. “Do you Americans believe the

Soviet Union is so powerful it can defy even laws of nature?”

I laughed. “Something like that.” The familiar certainty of the change in seasons

filled me suddenly with an irrational happiness.

We made our way through the drizzle to the church. From the outside the

crumbling white-fading-to-gray structure with a tired gray cupola stripped of its gold did

not promise to hold much of interest or beauty. Stepping through the doorway, I gasped

at the wonders wrought by the land of contrasts.

The wet chill of a Moscow September was melted by a thousand candles reflected

in the gilt of hundreds of icons and frescoes. Incense mingled with the smell of melting

wax, creating a profound sense of peace. The cumulative and collective stress that came


from days demanding constant waits in long lines and payments of bribes was eased into

a steady, comforting rhythm by the chanting choir. The powerful voice of the priest rose

above the others for a moment. “Watch,” Boris whispered, and the priest magically

disappeared into a cloud of incense and through the gold and silver altar screen.

“What do you think of the True Faith?” Boris asked. The word for the Russian

Orthodox faith, when translated literally, means the True Faith. Hard to argue with that.

And hard to argue with the powerful atmosphere of mystery the Church had created.

“It’s beautiful,” I whispered. There was something intimate about whispering in

church, about being guided by a handsome man through an ancient and beautiful ritual

for the first time.

“Watch out for the babushka.” Boris tapped my shoulder in warning.

Before I could react, a five-foot woman so squashed and wrinkled she must’ve

been 110 years old was yanking at my arm and scolding me. She spewed so much

venomous saliva I couldn’t quite grasp what she was saying. “Pull your hands out of

your pocket,” Boris whispered. I did. The babushka stepped back, still glaring at me.

I tried not to get angry, reminding myself how much the babushki, Russia’s

grannies, had suffered under Hitler and Stalin. They had survived hunger, terror, and war.

Their sons and husbands had not. They appeared to have been literally squashed by

hardship; none of them were more than five feet tall.

“Never cross a babushka,” Boris warned. Keeping my hands well away from any

pockets, I watched them pray. The babushki weren’t following any set pattern of worship

that I could discern. They didn’t pay much attention to the priest as he appeared and


disappeared. Each one was having a private relationship with her chosen icon, bowing

and kissing the painted wood with a sensuality verging on the profane.

Once we were back in the car Boris said, “It makes me angry that the silver and

gold go to the icons and not to these women.”

“Do you really think it would better for the church to give the babushki money

than keep up those icons for them? Their religion seems to give them more comfort than

any material thing could.” I only believed in God when I was really stressed, but I

respected other people’s faith. I was a huge fan of idealism in all its manifestations.

“Emma, you come from a rich country so you can afford to be idealistic. The

poor have to be materialistic.”

“Boris, just because I—”

“Now, close your eyes,” he interrupted.

“What? Why?”


Trusting him, I didn’t even peek.

“Open your eyes—now!” Boris timed my first view of the Kremlin so I’d see it

from the most dramatic vantage point. Just as we passed the British Embassy, I looked

across the river and saw the majestic red walls capped by dark green tiles. The gold

cupolas of the Kremlin churches floated like a flight of fancy above the solid walls.

Around the corner, St. Basil’s loomed into view, candy-like, an architectural triumph of

fantasy over rationality.

I was momentarily speechless. A year later I still shivered with awe every time I

drove by it, even if I were stuck in traffic. Especially if I were stuck in traffic. No matter


how many times I saw it, the Kremlin never lost its power to give me a new charge.

“God, it’s miraculous.”

“It’s our national pride.”

“See? Beauty counts for something.” I smiled, pleased to have the last word.

Sergei of Mournful Slavic Eyes

The next day, Monday, was my first day at work. I arrived at the Institute

promptly at 8:00 am and found—no one. At noon I had finally managed to obtain a

building pass and find where I was supposed to sit. In room 351 I met my office mate,

whom I dubbed ‘Sergei of Mournful Slavic Eyes.’

“There are four of us in here?” The room was about twelve by ten feet with four

desks crammed into it.

“We’re almost never all here. I, for example, can’t be here so often because I

have two other jobs.”

“Two! How do you manage?”

“Oh, it’s easier than the week-ends. Now, that’s work. Trying to buy things. Oi!

It is impossible.”

“But don’t you wind up working 24 hours a day with three jobs?”

“Oh, no. I only have to show up at each job one or two days a week.” Sergei

shrugged, bored with his own despair.

“Don’t they get mad?”

“No, not at all. Why should they? As long as I come once in a while. It is

impossible to ask for more.” Sergei saw impossibility at every turn. No wonder his eyes


were mournful. I wondered what it would take to give him a can-do attitude. Perhaps if

his mother had read him The Little Engine Who Could when he was a child. I think I

can, I think I can…

“Why do you have three jobs? If you had just two, you could spend time buying

things during the week and relax on the week-end.”

“Ach! With one less zakazi per month, I’d never survive. It’s not the salary I

work for—it’s the zakazi.”

“What’s a zakazi?”

“Zakazi? You don’t know about the zakazi?”


“Oh, you have to sign up before tomorrow, or you’ll miss this month.”

“But what is it?”

“A list of food you can order, and it gets delivered at work.”

“What kind of food?”

“Flour, potatoes, sausage when you’re very lucky, once in a while, eggs. We used

to get cheese, but we haven’t seen cheese in a year.” Big sigh. “And toilet paper,


“Toilet paper?!” My heart soared. I was suffering from a bladder infection,

caused by my reluctance to go to the bathroom. Each trip to the bathroom resulted in an

unpleasant choice—to wipe, or not to wipe. Wiping meant wiping with Pravda (the

newspaper). Wiping with Pravda meant exacerbating the nasty little blister the newsprint

was rubbing in a delicate area. Not wiping meant risking a yeast infection—donde no hay


doctor. At least no doctors that I wanted to see. “That’s so nice. Why do offices do


“Well, people were spending over half the working day just trying to buy the basic

necessities of life, and no work was getting done. To live that way—it is impossible. If

one person buys things for all employees, the rest of the people can stay at work. It’s

more efficient.”

“But it doesn’t seem to be working; it just motivates people to get second and

third jobs, which also prevents people from being at the office.”

“But when the salary is so low and life is so hard it’s not possible to ask too much

of people.” He gave a long, depressed sigh. “Why have you come here, when you could

stay in Amerika?” He looked searchingly at me for a moment. “But you must have hard

currency, so it’s not so bad for you.”

“No, I’m living on my rouble salary.”

“Well, still, it’s different psychologically. You can get on an airplane and go at

any time.” Another long sigh and a sinking of the shoulders as if they bore the weight of

the world. “But we—we are trapped here. Especially when things get bad, we are

trapped here.”

I wanted things to be better for him, for his country. “Well, with the political

changes, it’s getting easier to travel, isn’t it?”

“To travel you need more than free speech. You need money. And not our

money. Real money. Hard currency.” SPLAT went my cheery American optimism.

“Did you ever travel abroad?” I asked


“No, never. It is impossible. The only travelling I can do is to the dacha to plant

potatoes so I won’t starve.”

“Do you like growing things?”

“I like to have potatoes so I know that, whatever happens, I will have something

at least to eat during the winter. I’m going this week-end to harvest them.”

“Oh. I see. Uh—how do I sign up for the zakazi?”

“Worried about starving this winter?” Wry smile, hooded eyes.

“Oh, no!” I said, too fast. He did not respond. “Uh. So, what about the zakazi?”

“Well, you have to fill out some forms and give them to the zakazi woman.”

“So, where do I get the forms, and where do I find the zakazi woman?” Why was

he so vague?

“You Americans are so action-oriented; always wanting to do things right away.”

“But you said that if I didn’t sign up before tomorrow I’d miss it.” I struggled to

keep the hard edge out of my voice.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry. You’ll get signed up. Eventually.”

I tried to be philosophical, to fight the urge to shake him. Sergei’s unwillingness

to act was classic. Conrad had written about it, explaining that Russia is a country of

heroes. Doing things like getting a train to run on time was beneath the attention of a

hero. Evidently, so was getting me signed up for zakazi. In fact, it was this class that had

prompted me to be an economics and not a literature major. I had gotten so annoyed by

Conrad’s hopeless explanation, by Gogol’s books describing life going around and

around and around in pointless circles. All these writers just described problems—they

never solved them, even fictionally. Economists at least looked for solutions. In fact, if


creativity were about creating new things, not just describing old ones, it was the

economists and scientists, not the artists and writers, who were truly creative…

I let the zakazi drop and turned to my list. Some faceless person at the institute

had put together a list of twenty-five factory managers I could call to ask for interviews to

discuss how the life of the average Soviet worker might be better, albeit in immeasurable

ways, than the life of the average American worker. I tried the first number. I got a busy

signal. And again. And again—five times in a row. Sergei scribbled in his notebook for

a few minutes. I tried the second number. Busy. Sergei stood up.

“Do you want a cup of tea?”

“No, thank you.”

“U nas it is important to drink tea. Don’t you drink tea in America?”

A two-hour discussion on life in America ensued. I got no work done. Not even

five minutes worth. Part of me felt angry with Sergei. Lazy turd ball from hell!!! I tried

to be more generous, to remind myself that he wasn’t lazy, that he simply suffered from a

lack of accountability. Accountability. Surely this must have something to do with the

measurement problem. No measurement, no accountability. But, that would make

measurement the solution, not the problem. Shit! I needed to think this one through. Not

that I would find time to, at this rate.

I decided I’d just work on my project after after Sergei left. At 5:00, however, he

explained that I had to leave, they were locking the building up. “U nas, you’re not

allowed to work late.” I packed up my bags and made my way to the trolley stop. I

couldn’t quell the angst over the fact I had accomplished absolutely nothing. But then I

thought back over my conversation with my academic advisor and Sergei. The pit of


nervousness in my stomach was melted by the realization that it didn’t matter—like him,

I wasn’t accountable to anybody for anything, no deliverables were demanded. Nobody

was counting how many phone calls I made, pages I wrote, how many books I read, what

time I got to work. My nervousness was replaced with sensations alternating between

liberation and panic. I felt like a space walker who’d broken free of her tether—not an

altogether desirable sort of freedom. How to structure the day? Why get out of bed in

the morning? Why stay sober at work?

Evidently the guy next to me on the trolleybus had a tough time answering this

last question too—he was dead drunk. He passed out, his head falling heavily on my

shoulder. The trolley was so packed that there was nowhere to move, no way to shove

him off of me. A skinny man whose hip bone was poking into my belly smiled in

sympathetic amusement at the drunk. A babushka whose ample bosom engulfed my

elbow looked on in anger at the man, and the situation that had created him. I could only

hope we’d reach the next stop before the man came to and barfed all over me.

E Chocolatus Unuum

I went upstairs when I got back to the dorm and found Alyosha, Svyeta, and Boris

huddled around the radio listening to a report on unification in East Germany on a new

Glasnost-era radio station, Evropa Plus.

“I wish we had somebody to unify with,” Svyeta sighed as the report ended.

I felt a stab of guilt. My country was the only possible candidate for Svyeta’s

longed-for merger, and George Bush was hardly signing up for the job. And I hadn’t

even managed to bring so much as a morsel of chocolate to tea. The U.S. was failing


Russia, and I was failing my friends. What the hell are Americans good for if they can’t

even provide treats?

“Well, in 500 days we will have our own market economy,” joked Alyosha. She

was referring to a plan laid out by Shatalin and Yavlinsky to transform the centrally-

planned Soviet economy to a free market in a year and a half. Before I’d gotten here, I’d

thought that seemed awfully optimistic. Now I just thought, what the fuck? Why even

say absurd things like that?

Boris laughed. “You know what our great economist Gaidar says? You can make

an omelet out of eggs very quickly. But making eggs from an omelet—that takes time.”

“Well, at least glasnost doesn’t have to take time.” The two underpinnings of

reform were perestroika, or economic ‘rebuilding,’ and glasnost, meaning ‘openness’ and

signifying political and civil change.

“I’d choose chocolate over free speech even,” sighed Svyeta.

I started to object, but I found to my chagrin that I didn’t really disagree. I should

never have denuded myself of the almighty dollar…To my father’s great consternation, I

had refused to bring more than $20 cash or any credit cards with me. I was going to live

on my rouble stipend, I had announced with pride.

“I can’t believe I’ve raised a goddamn communist!” My father’s face had gone

all red. I hadn’t tried to explain that I was not a communist, but that I just believed that

humanity could do better than selling out to the highest bidder. These nuances were

impossible to explain to a man whose outlook on life was that capitalism = Republicans =

wealth = morality, and all of that was opposed to communism = Democrats = poverty =



He was such a dumb ass. He couldn’t understand that the way it really worked

was business = Republicans = rampant consumerism = bad, and all this was opposed to

idealism = Democrats = economic justice = good.

I turned to my mother, who at first reassured me that it was “just wonderful,” how

committed I was. Then, my father had described Soviet hospitals and various nightmare

scenarios in which money turned out to be vital. She had decided my decision wasn’t so

wonderful after all. I had been forced to summon defiance enough to overcome a united

parental will.

I had succeeded. So here I was, scrounging around for potatoes, and dreaming

impotently of chocolate.

Sable Underpants

“Emma, would you like to go to the Bolshoi?” Boris asked one evening while we

were waiting for Alyosha and Svyeta to get home. “I can get tickets.”

“Really?” He had no idea how much I would like to go to the Bolshoi. I was

badly in need of seeing something beautiful. “I thought getting tickets was almost


“No, my friend Arkady is in the Bolshoi ticket mafia.”

“The Bolshoi ticket mafia?” What was going on here?

Boris laughed. “Well, it’s not a mafia, not exactly. He simply buys tickets from

the Bolshoi and re-sells them at a higher price.”

“Oh. A scalper.”

“A what?” Boris looked shocked.


“A guy who resells tickets at a profit.”

Relief battled with confusion on Boris’s face. Relief won. “If you say so. I am

going to pick up the tickets this afternoon. Do you want to come with me? He lives in

the New Region, which you haven’t seen yet. We will have some tea.”


“Arkady is a homosexual,” Boris announced, a propos of nothing, as we came out

of the subway stop. I got the impression he’d been thinking about how to tell me since

we’d gotten on the train and had just blurted it out.

“Oh. OK.”

“It doesn’t bother you?” He was visibly relieved.

“Of course not. Why should it?”

“It’s just that—well, it’s not so common u nas. In fact, it’s illegal.”

“Illegal?! Really illegal, or just on the books illegal?”

“Really illegal. Go-to-jail illegal.”

“Poor Arkady.”

“Yes.” Boris shook his head.

As we exited the metro I looked around the “New Region.” The scale of its

ugliness was completely overpowering. Cookie-cutter sky scrapers in a vast field of

muddy concrete. Fifteen story building after fifteen story building, identical and horrible,

stretched as far as the eye could see, unremitting, a vision of man’s vicious defeat over

himself. Generally I think of humanity as a noble species on a heroic quest for

perfection; from this vantage point humanity looked more like so many cock-roaches


reproducing in their own shit. I hoped the Bolshoi Theater was less nihilistic than this

Bolshoi Suburb.

We were walking from the subway towards Artryom’s apartment. How Boris

could distinguish one building from another to figure out where to go I’ll never guess.

We felt the sky once again lowering in on us as we made our way across a space between

four buildings. A rusting crane loomed over one building. It was totally unclear whether

the building was being assembled, destroyed, or repaired. “It’s been there for ten years.”

Boris ran his eye disapprovingly up and down the crane.

A dirty drizzle recommenced as we were about halfway through the badly

cemented space—and “space” was the best word I could think of to describe it. It

certainly wasn’t a courtyard; too large and empty. Not a plaza—too barren and muddy.

Not a park—it was cemented, albeit haphazardly. It was just a space that happened to

exist between buildings that happened to have been thrown up to house people that

happened to have been born. The Soviet Union’s crimes against architecture were

nothing compared to the Gulag, but still pretty atrocious. Then again, a US strip mall

was just about as soul-crushing.

A woman passed by pushing a limping baby carriage, and I froze in my tracks.

Boris stopped with me, and stared at me. He smiled through one side of his mouth. “I am

trying to imagine this from your eyes. You are used to Central Park. It must seem so

awful to you!”

Even the most optimistic, can-do Yankee couldn’t put a happy spin on this. I

burst into a punchy kind of laughter. “It’s sooooo ugly!!!”

“Let’s go.” Boris forced a smile.


Arkady welcomed us to his apartment with an excessively cut champagne flute of

very, very sweet champagne and a toast to Boris. His apartment shouted of a wild

craving for color. In the US I would have bemoaned his bad taste; here I admired his

rebellion against the Soviet drabness. Arkady had taken radical steps to fight the view of

the New Region out the window: a large-screen TV, a white and gold painted bed, a

bright pink and blue shag rug, and etched colored shot glasses everywhere.

We sat down on the bed, which doubled as couch. “Boris Borisovich saved my

life, you know. We were in the army together, and the others—they would have killed

me. But, enough of these sad stories. Welcome, welcome.” We drained our etched

glasses. “So, Emma, tell us what it is like to be an American in Moscow.”

“Oh, it’s great. Yesterday I went to get my shoes re-soled. For everyone else

repairs took three weeks. But for me, the American—same–day service!”

“Russians seem to believe that all Americans are angels,” said Arkadi.

“All that propaganda for all those years—it affects people in strange ways.” Boris

leaned back on the couch. “When glasnost came along, people just started believing the

opposite of what they’d been told all those years. American devils have become

American angels.”

That didn’t bode well. Russia was a land of contrasts, a land of thesis and

antithesis, but never a land of synthesis. Come to think of it, that was probably why

communism didn’t work out so well here. And if this pattern held, people would quickly

revert to viewing Americans as devils. “Do we ever get to be just human?”

“I think it will take years to get the propaganda out of people’s thinking. I see it

in business, too.” Boris continued. “For years, the authorities wrote about how


capitalists did nothing but cheat people, steal from people. Now the authorities are

saying we should become capitalists. People believe this means they have to cheat and

steal now. It is a problem.”

“That’s why I don’t have a business. I just have a group of friends,” Arkady said.

“The leader of this group—he is a great man. Sasha.”

“Sort of like a gay lobby?” I asked.

Boris rolled his eyes, but Arkady nodded excitedly. “Yes, yes, exactly.”

“Are you working on getting the anti-homosexual laws changed?”

“They spend more time importing sweet liqueurs,” Boris muttered.

I wondered why Arkady didn’t see this as a business. “And what do you export,

Arkady?” I asked

He leaned in conspiratorially and gave me a big wink. “Sable underpants.”

On that note we left for the Bolshoi. We ran to the subway, leaped on the train,

and made it to our seats just as the curtain was coming up. Somehow the adventure of

getting the tickets from a Mafioso who lived in one of the ugliest neighborhoods on Earth

made it seem impossible that we were going to the ballet, really. I don’t know what I

expected—thugs on the stage. But as Bayaderka started, I couldn’t even believe I was in

the same city, or the same era, or the same planet as the New Region. After swamping

me with ugliness, Moscow overwhelmed me with the Bolshoi’s beauty.

Maybe that was why I was there. I was hoping that this land of contrasts would

illuminate some things that usually got hidden in the shadows of the middle ground that

dominated my country.



A few days later there was a knock at my door. Boris was standing there, the

proud bearer of a small refrigerator. I had concluded from the bags of food hanging from

the windows that refrigerators were unavailable. But Boris assured me that in special

circumstances they were. I, being a weak American unused to suffering, was a special

circumstance—I merited a refrigerator. (Never mind that I still didn’t have any food

other than potatoes. For reasons I chose not to examine I hadn’t gone back to the


“Oh, Boris! Is that for me? You really shouldn’t—”

“Nyet problem!” Boris’s biggest involuntary grin spread throughout the room,

melting away my reluctance to accept his gift.

“But where on Earth did you find it?”

“The colleague of a friend of mine had two and he didn’t really need them both.

So he loaned me one. He owed me a favor.”

“But, Boris, are you sure? He just gave it to you?” I was still perplexed by the

complicated web of personal connections and favors that governed life here. Then again,

when that web had Boris at its center, it seemed the most charming way one could

possibly acquire a refrigerator.

“No, not exactly. He loaned it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, about two months ago his girlfriend needed to get an abortion. The doctor

needed a carburetor. I didn’t need my car for a month, but she needed the operation


immediately.” A carburetor for an abortion? It brought tears to my eyes. Boris

continued, evidently inured to the poignancy. “So, I gave him my carburetor, and bought

another one a few weeks later. So, he owes me a favor. His father works at the

Refrigerator University in Siberia. So, he has access to experimental refrigerators from

time to time.” Refrigerator University? A university dedicated entirely to refrigeration???

In Siberia? Talk about coals to Newcastle! “You see, u nas, there are no simple


“Why not?”

“Because we have no money.”

“What do you mean? You have rubles.”

“It is not real, not hard currency you can trust will always have value. Our rubles

are mere paper.”

“What is so great about money, anyway?”

“Money is simple, straightforward, and democratic.”

“No, money is the root of all evil.”

“Look what happens u nas. We have to get things through complicated,

convoluted, and corrupt machinations. Instead of transactions, we have relationships.”

“What’s wrong with relationships?”

“Nothing, until they take the place of money.”

“I believe relationships are the best thing in life.”

“You don’t understand what it’s like to have to have a relationship with your

butcher in order to get meat.”

“I’d love to replace money with relationships.”


“You’d turn the whole world into a whorehouse.”

“Well, you seem to be a decent human being, and I don’t believe you got me this

refrigerator through any nefarious means.”

Boris wasn’t going to let my flattery derail him. “Look, you hate the constraints

of time, too. You’d like to eliminate it so you could work more on your project, right?”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“But would society be better off if we eliminated all the clocks?” Feeling he

couldn’t find a better last word, he turned on his heel and left.


Things went on this way for another few weeks: I went to the Institute and

accomplished nothing. I made phone calls to everybody on the list, but never got through

to any of them. I spent hours shopping for things I needed and got very few of them. I

ignored the fact that I wasn’t getting any letters and couldn’t make any phone calls,

focusing instead on sending subtle messages to Boris that I was open to a one-on-one

nocturnal chat. Boris responded just enough to keep the frisson high, but not enough to

risk a no.

The easy, flowing currents of conversations over tea in the evening redeemed

each day—until Boris went out of town for a week on some mysterious business.

“Metali,” was all the explanation I could get out of him.

Without Boris there I felt like a third wheel with Svyeta and Alyosha. And there

was no frisson with Boris to distract me from the fact that I still hadn’t gotten any letters

from George and I had no way of calling him. I spent more evenings alone in my room,

writing letters. And the more I wrote, the less it was possible to have anything


resembling perspective. I was more and more aware of the fact that George still had not

written. I’d been there for twelve weeks now. For a week or two, I could believe in a

combination of inefficient postage and people not writing back immediately. But twelve

weeks! What was his problem? Had I ruined our friendship by kissing him?

No letters, no phone. No letters, no phone. No letters, no phone. No letters, no

phone…Finally, I couldn’t take it any more. One night at 10:30 p.m., I marched up to

Alyosha and Svyeta’s room and demanded. “Why haven’t I gotten any letters?”

“Please, come in.”

“Oh, sorry.”

“Did you speak to the Kommadant?” Alyosha asked.

“The who?” Kommandant? A scary concept that should belong to the past, or

even to fiction; should be a character in Brave New World, not an actual living breathing

human being in my dormitory, right?

“She gets the mail and delivers it. You should give her something nice, some

sweets or perfume or something, and she’ll get the mail to you.”

“What? I have to bribe her to do her job?” I’d be goddamned if I was going to

bribe some old-bag Kommadant so she wouldn’t hold my precious letters hostage.

“Emma, nobody here gets paid really. You have to bribe everybody to get them to

do their jobs. They have no real salary other than bribes.” Alyosha pricked my swift-

puffing indignation.

“Oh. Will cigarettes do?”

“Sweets work better with old women. I can buy some for you if you like.”

Svyeta offered.


“No, no, I can get them. But where?”

“There’s a Gastronom on Kalinin Street, near the Arbat. Sometimes you can buy

sweets there.” Alyosha suggested.

Kiss of the Kommandant

The next day I didn’t go to the Institute at all. I went to the Gastranom on

Kalinin, and had a repeat performance of potato shopping, only worse. After seven

hours, I arrived back at the dorm and was knocking at the Kommandant’s door, sweets in


The opened door revealed a witch who’d seen better days. She was utterly

disheveled, wild hair sticking out in every direction, week-old make up smeared across

her face. Dragon nostrils blew vodka fumes in my direction. For a moment I was

speechless. What could I say to such a person?

“Hi, I’m Emma, the new student from the United States.” I felt like a perky pony-

tailed cheerleader dope in a red-white-and-blue pleated mini skirt as soon as the words

were out of my mouth.

“Health to you.” The woman drew out the Russian word for “hello” sarcastically

into all its component syllables.

“Um, I brought you this box of sweets.”

“American?” She brightened.

“No, I bought them at the Gastronom on Kalinina.”

“Oh.” The Kommandant was not impressed. Yet, she must’ve known what I’d

had to go through to get them. If it’s the thought that counts, and the energy put into


implementing the thought, Soviet sweets should’ve been much sweeter than American.

Unfortunately, they tasted like crap. And for the Kommandant it was the chocolate that

counted, to hell with the thought.

“I was wondering if I had received any letters?”

“From where?”

“From the USA?” Where else, you dumb bitch???

“USA? No. No letters from abroad.”

Though I was generally a trusting soul, I did not believe her. “Maybe you don’t

know what the stamps look like?” My inability to say, ‘I think you’re lying to me,’ was

going to make interactions with the Kommandants of the world complicated.

“Have you ever been to Paris?”


“Paris. Have you ever been there?”


“Will you go again?”

“Well, yes, probably.”

The Kommandant’s eyes glowed feverishly. She grasped the collar of my

raincoat, and pulled me close. “Will you bring me a robe?”

“Yes, if you could just make sure I get my letters.” What had I just promised?

Been asked to promise? So this is what the web of personal connections was made up of.

Gone was the charm of it, as I had seen it up till now, with Boris at the center. Now my

letters from George had gotten tangled in this black widow woman’s web.


“Oh, Emma, my beauty, my sweet. Won’t you join me?” She took a swig of

vodka and bit a hunk of bread off her gnawed-on loaf, spewing crumbs on the floor. “A

little vodka?”

I knew I had to drink with this woman if I was to have a prayer of getting my

letters. I tried to see the humor in the situation, but mostly I just saw Boris’s point about

relationships. “Sure, I’d love to have a drink.” Ugh.

She took another swig herself, bit off more bread than she could chew, handed me

the bottle, and gestured for me to sit. I could tell I was going to be there for another hour

at least. “Paris. Is it as beautiful as they say?” Her question sprayed me with moistened

bread crumbs. I resisted the urge to wipe my face.

I took a gulp from the bottle. What the hell? “Yes. Beautiful.” I handed her the


She gulped. “And will you really bring me a robe?” She took another bite from

her hung of bread and popped one of the sweets into her mouth.


“Oh, my little beauty, my little sweet!” Before I knew it, she was kissing me,

covering my cheek in now-sugary dough. It took every bit of self-control I could muster

not to wipe the wet germy goo off my cheek. Her paste began to harden and crack on my

cheek. Horrors were running up and down my spine.

I tried to reassure myself that one day these will all be hilarious stories, that I’d

never run out of things to say at a cocktail party again. Just as I thought I was going to

wind up in a straight jacket instead of a little black cocktail party dress, I noticed some


cheerful red and white stripes in the upper right hand edge of one of the many envelopes

stacked on her desk.

“I think I see a letter, there!” I exclaimed, leaping for it before the Kommandant

could make a move. I plucked out the envelope, and was rewarded with the sight of

George’s hand-writing. My pause at the familiar curves made by George’s hand gave the

Kommandant a chance to snatch the letter back.

“You can’t have it until I distribute them.”

“You have no right to withhold my mail.”

“You have no rights. I am the Kommandant here.” I had read economic theories

about systems in which rules have no power, and Russia was always cited of a good

example. Russia has always been about personality—from Peter the Great to Stalin. But

that was history; it wasn’t supposed to have anything to do with my letters from George.

I couldn’t have been more stunned if Catherine the Great had come back from the dead

and snatched my letters with her own hand.

“Do you want your robe?” I spat the words and wiped my cheek. Fuck it!

“Well, yes, of course.” Her eyes glittered again.

“Then let me help you sort these envelopes.”

“Well, as it’s convenient for you.” The Kommandant plopped on her bed and lit a

cigarette. I returned to my room with a stack of letters and a new appreciation for what it

meant to self-actualize.


The Ingrate

“Naïve ingrate!!! Understands nothing. Last time I stand in line for four hours to

buy sweets to bribe the Kommandant to give me his letters—letter.” I shouted at the

walls, wadding up George’s letter and throwing it into the corner. I pulled out a piece of

paper, wrote some things I immediately regretted, crumpled it, threw it against into the

corner, and glared at the two ruined letters together on the floor…

Suffice it to say that George’s letter did not make a single mention of our kiss, or

of his break-up with Cecilia. And not a peep about whether he was going to come to

Russia for work. Not only that, but he had the nerve to tease me about how much time I

seemed to be spending shopping and how little work I seemed to be doing on my project.

I stood in the center of my room, strangely calm, staring at the big, beautiful

balloon of George expectations I’d been so patiently blowing up for the past months.

Funny, how the only thing I had patience for was this, this—illusion. I looked at his letter

crumpled on my floor.

BAM! The bubble burst. I could just quit waiting for a letter that would never

come, quit wasting time feeling weepy and homesick and lovesick, and just be in

Moscow. To hell with George.

Liberating, in a way.

Toilet Paper

The next morning I stared into the toilet bowl. As usual, my crotch, blackened

with Pravda’s half truths, left the water a tad gray. Only today there was something new.

A trace of blood swirled in the gray water. My bladder infection had gotten much worse.


I knew the cure—I needed to drink gallons of water and pee about a hundred times a day.

But I couldn’t face the Pravda part of this regime. Buying toilet paper became my

number one priority. Even if it meant taking a week off at the Institute.

Off I went, shopping. After an entire day of NYET, I returned to the dorm, my

nerves shattered from all the lines, and beginning to develop a fever from the infection.

At the mailboxes my spirits lifted a little at the sight of Boris sorting his letters. I

wondered what he was giving the Kommandant to get his mail so reliably and then

pushed the thought out of my mind.

“Boris, there’s no toilet paper at any stores.”

“I can get you some—I am doing a business deal with a toilet paper factory.”

“Really? That’s great! Can I help?”

“I didn’t know you were so enthusiastic about business. I thought you were only

interested in ideas.”

“Well, when it comes to the toilet paper business…”

“Very sexy business, I know.” Boris’s sarcasm betrayed a little shame.

“I never appreciated how important it is to have toilet paper before I had to start

using Pravda. Now I understand the contribution that toilet paper producers make to the


“Even more important than philosophers?”

“Well…Let’s just say that it’s very important to me to get some toilet paper. I

would even sacrifice a few days working on my project.”

“Want to come with me to the factory?”



Fifteen minutes later Boris and I were slipping and sliding along to the TPK

(toilet paper kombinat). It had snowed but the roads hadn’t been cleared because

Gosplan didn’t plan for snow until October 15 and it was only October 10. “So, there’s

plenty of toilet paper at the factory, right?”

“Well, no.” Boris sighed. “There are people with money who want to buy; and

there are factories that can make what people want to buy. But the factories have no

money for supplies. And the people have no way of getting it to them. So the factories

are idle and the people have no toilet paper.”

“Oh, no!” My heart sank.

“Do not worry. I have a solution to this problem. That is my business.”

“Oh, Boris, you’re a genius. How does it work?” How could I ever have thought

“business genius” an oxymoronic term? If business intelligence brings toilet paper, bread

and chocolate—well, it is the very enabler of all genius! I felt the thrill of embracing the


“It’s like the zakazi, only people pay in six months in advance.”

“What?” I turned towards him in my seat.

He shrugged. “They don’t mind since there’s nothing to buy with money anyway.

I collect money, and then deliver the toilet paper. I have happy customers.”

“Like a toilet paper club! That’s a great idea.”

“Problem is, it’s illegal.” Boris met my eyes in the mirror, oddly more intimate

than looking in my actual eyes.



“Because Gosplan believes that it can calculate the right amount of toilet paper

our factories should make more efficiently than the market.” Boris shrugged.

“Don’t they have eyes to see they’re wrong?”

“Sometimes our government is like you, Emma. It’s so convinced by what’s in its

head that it doesn’t bother to check with reality. Too impatient.”

“But somebody must state the obvious here?” I heard my voice go shrill.

“In fact, it’s illegal to tell the truth. So much for glasnost. And I just heard that

Gorbachev has rejected the 500 Days plan. So much for perestroika.” Boris shifted gears

angrily, and the car lurched.

“Well, you can’t transition to a market economy in just 500 days anyway,” I said

“At least it was a plan, a commitment. Now we just have increased fear that

things will go back to the old ways, and then no toilet paper club, no toilet paper, no

bread.” Boris turned to face me, winking “Just equality.”

The Cutting Machine

Boris and I pulled up in the muddy parking lot of the toilet paper kombinat and

entered the factory-campus. Five buildings in various states of dilapidation were

connected by muddy paths strewn with discarded equipment.

“Privyet, Boris!” A man in a muddy padded blue “proletariat” jacket and a walk

that let you know how big his balls were smiled broadly, and came to pump Boris’s hand.

“Who’s the beautiful dyevushka? Your new girlfriend?” The man’s deafening machine-

gun laughter matched his big-balls walk.

“No, Anatoly, a capitalist come to see how we make toilet paper.”


“A real, live capitalist?” The man examined me for a moment. “Here I’ve

thought all my life they were devils, and they’re just dyevushki?” The machine-gun

laughter covered up a moisture about his eyes. Sentimental slobs, those Russians.

“Yes, beautiful dyevushki.” Boris suppressed a smile as he caught my eye. “Talk

to you soon, Anatoly.” I stared at my feet, uncomfortable at being called “beautiful” and

at being called dyevushka and at being talked about as if I weren’t even there.

“Excuse me, Boris?” Anatoly asked.


“Do you think she could fix the machine?” He was suddenly very serious.

“No, Anatoly, I’m afraid not. She’s a capitalist, not a magician.”

“And a dyevushka, after all. Too bad. But very pretty.” He winked at Boris, as if

I weren’t there.

“Yes.” Boris took my arm. “Until soon, Anatoly.”

“Poka.” The man jogged off, legs spread, towards the furthest building. “I’m

very late.” He called over his shoulder.

“We’ll follow Anatoly to the cutting shop.” Boris explained, leading me towards

the furthest of the five buildings made of rough concrete blocks held together with

crumbling, oozing cement. I realized with a start that I hadn’t seen properly laid bricks

since I had left New York. It occurred to me that nothing would change in this country

until Russians learned to lay bricks neatly.

Two more muddy workers in blue “proletariat” jackets walked by and called

Boris’s name, waving. They told us everybody except the cutting-shop workers was on

break. We walked past the next buildings and arrived at the door of the farthest.


“How come they love you so much here? Not that you’re not lovable, but—” I

patted Boris’s back.

“I like—” Boris’s sentence was cut off by an inhuman scream from inside the

building we were about to enter, freezing us in our tracks. The shriek was repeated twice,

the door flew open. Anatoly, holding his right hand up in the air with his left, splattered

blood on Boris and then me as he ran zigzagging out the door. A finger dangled and

danced crazily with each step.

“Anatoly, Anatoly! Stop, sit down.” Boris took him by the shoulders and led him

to a bench. He took a handkerchief and wrapped it around his finger.

I leaped out of the way as two men flung the doors open again. “Anatoly, we

couldn’t find the finger,” one of them said, exasperated. As if he were saying, Anatoly,

we’ve lost the keys again.

“It’s OK, it’s right here,” Boris indicated the now blood-soaked handkerchief.

“We’ll take him to the hospital,” offered one of the two.

“OK. We will follow. I know some people at the hospital.” Boris was already

running towards his car.

Money Matters

The first thing I saw in the hospital was a cat licking the bandaged face of an

unconscious man. A doctor wearing a bloody coat and no gloves walked by but didn’t

bother shooing the cat away. Worst of all was the smell. Rotting meat. Rotting human



After slipping her a couple hundred roubles, Boris finally got the attention of a

nurse. A couple hundred more roubles bought the promise of a shot to alleviate the pain.

“Stay here with Anatoly,” Boris whispered in English. “Make sure she gives him the

medicine and doesn’t put water in the shot.”


“Anatoly looks like he might faint. If the patient passes out the nurses sometimes

slip the medicine into their pockets and fill the syringes with water.”

My mouth opened and shut a couple of times. My mind kept trying to reject the

scene as absurd, impossible, unreal. My churning stomach reminded me that this was

real. All too. “OK. I’ll watch.”

“I’m going to find the doctor I know.” Boris ran down the hall.

The nurse pulled a syringe with an obviously-used needle attached to it out of the

drawer. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. “Wait! You’re going to use a used


Both Anatoly and the nurse looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. “You think we

use each needle only once? Dyevochka, this is not America. We’re lucky to have needles

at all u nas.” The nurse brushed me aside. “Now let me do my work.”

I pulled out a five dollar bill that I always kept with me in case of emergencies.

“Would this help buy a new needle?”

The nurse raised her eyebrows, impressed. “Da-aaah.” My little green wand

turned her into a professional. She walked over to a sink and actually washed her filthy

hands. And put on some new rubber gloves. Another drawer revealed a supply of fresh

needles and some rubbing alcohol. As Anatoly watched on, his eyes brimming with


gratitude, she showed me the medicine, let me watch as she filled the syringe, and poked

it into Anatoly’s finger, just below the wound.

Five lousy dollars…

I had come here to escape the tyranny of cash, but Communism’s great irony was

that it made money matter more, not less.

The Consultant

I stayed in my room for a few days waiting for my stomach to quit churning. My

mind toggled between the vision of Anatoly’s finger flapping, the cat licking the bloody

face of a comatose patient, and the nurse transformed by the five-dollar bill.

It was Boris who pulled me out of my funk. “I’ve met somebody who will fix the

machine.” That was why he could smile all the time—he always believed he could fix all

the problems.


“Yes. Do you want to meet him?”

“Sure, if you want me to. What’s his deal?”

“His deal?”

“What’s he do?”

“He’s is a specialist in workplace safety. Did you know that your government has

a whole agency called Occupational Safety and Health Administration that makes sure

that factories and offices are safe. Akh, capital—ezm!”


“So, what’ll he do for the toilet paper kombinat?” I’d never heard of OSHA

before. It did sound pretty good, I had to admit. Maybe capitalism wasn’t so bankrupt

after all, even with its measurement problems.

“I hope that he will have some ideas about the cutting machine.”

“It’s more likely he’ll behave like a self-righteous prick in a fancy suit,” I said,

speaking more out of habit than conviction. It felt good to dislike consultants. But I

found my stomach was settling down at the prospect of a specialist in workplace safety.

“What is this, a self-righteous prick?”

“Well, self-righteous means that you think you’re morally superior to everybody


“And prick?”

“Oh—a jerk.” I felt my cheeks growing hot. Was he playing dumb, teasing me?

No, he wouldn’t tease me that way—too much old-fashioned respect for feminine purity.

“I’d love to meet the consultant. When is the meeting?”

“Next Thursday at 8:30 am. Meantime, I have to go to Siberia on more metali

business.” Damned metali business! I felt abandoned, like I had when Dad had left me

at school on the day when there was no school.

My Russian Hero

The next Thursday 8:35 am found us in the office of Dmitri Stepanovich, the

toilet paper kombinat’s general director. Dmitri Stepanovich, a tired, overweight man of

about 55 sat chain-smoking at the head of a little conference table under a picture of

Mikhail Gorbachev—one of the later pictures where his birthmark had not been


airbrushed out, indicating a commitment to Glasnost. Dmitri was surrounded on either

side by two deputies, and facing a twenty-five year-old consultant wearing a nametag,

Ned Silverpen.

Ned crossed and re-crossed his legs daintily to the side of the table, brushing

invisible dust from his delicate, expensive looking loafers/slippers. Who the hell bought

shoes like that, anyway? Wimp shoes, like little-shit dogs. I looked up and saw Boris

staring at the shoes as well. We smiled in silent acknowledgement of the fact we both

looked forward to the walk through slushy snow and mud to the cutting machine. That

would take care of those flimsy little shoes.

“You get what you measure—that is why you have to institute the new ABC

accounting methods.” I stifled a laugh at the thought of this twerp trying to put ultra-

precise accounting methods in place here. The la-la land currency, the constant shortages

of everything, the implacable work ethic of the labor force—they would do to his ABC

accounting methods what the weather was about to do to his shoes.

The General Director looked as if he were fighting sleep. Boris jumped into the

conversation, steering it to more productive ground. “Ned, I understand that you are an

expert in workplace safety.”

Ned perked up. “Well, yes.”

“We have a problem with a cutting machine. If you are able to help us fix it, you

would improve efficiency as well as the lives of our workers.”

“OK. I’ll need to take a look at the machine, and talk to the people who work on



“You Americans. You’re always wanting to talk to the workers. I thought

capitalists were interested in exploiting the proletariat, not just chatting them up?” Dmitri

burst out.

“Dmitri Stepanovich, this is not about Emma’s project, this is about fixing the

cutting machine, saving the men’s fingers.” Boris interjected. I felt a jolt of surprise and

gratitude, realizing Boris had been trying to get permission for me to talk to the workers

about my project. That was nice of him. He hadn’t even mentioned it to me.

“Why do you need to talk to my workers? They’re busy working. You’ll

interrupt them, and it’s the end of the month. I have to fulfill the plan. They will have to

work Saturday as it is.” Despite his angry words, Dmitri Stepanovich’s face was

returning to its usual hue—an unnatural gray. “Can’t you just fix the machine?”

Ned folded his hands on the table. His long, soft fingers with perfect nails,

cuticles pushed back revealing ten big half moons answered the question before his

words did. “I am a consultant, not a mechanic. My job is to work with management to

empower workers to solve problems like that. They are the ones with the hands-on


“Hands on, fingers off,” whispered one of Dmitri Sergeevich’s assistants to me. I

stifled my laughter.

Ned ignored us and continued: “If you empower the workers, that is, push

information and decision-making down to them, then they solve most of the problems.

It’s all about giving the workers ownership.” The irony of an American lecturing a

communist plant manager on giving his workers ownership was clearly lost on Ned,

though it got a smirk from Dmitri Stepanovich’s deputies.


“I am the general director here. If I can’t figure it out, you think that the guys on

the floor can?” Dmitri Stepanovich was turning red again.

“You are the general director, a very busy man. You don’t have time to solve

every little problem. But you have hired a consultant from America who’s going to try

American methods.” Boris stared Dmitri Stepanovich in the eye, and then looked at Ned.

Ned caught on to the respect that Boris showed to Dmitri Stepanovich, and tried

to imitate it. “Exactly so, Dmitri Stepanovich. But in order to try these methods I need

your permission to look at the machine and talk to the workers.”

“OK, OK. Boris, take him down to the cutting shop. I am waiting for a report by

the end of the day.”

“Thank you very much.” Ned looked relieved.

“A big thank you.” Boris stood up and motioned for Ned and me to follow him

before Dmitri Stepanovich could change his mind.

As we reached the door of the director’s building Ned paused to put on galoshes

that reached mid-calf. Boris and I exchanged disappointed glances. He wasn’t going to

muck up his little-shit shoes after all.

“Ned, I want to give you some background. I think that you are not going to like

what you will see. I doubt that such situations exist in your country.” Boris said on the

way to the cutting shop.

“Like what?”

“One in ten workers, I think, is missing one or more fingers.”

Ned stopped in his tracks, a little pool of slush and dirt forming around his

galoshes. “One in ten?”


“Yes. And the problem is with one machine which they have been unable to

replace or repair in the past four years.”

“Oh, God! What is wrong with the management of this place?”

Boris prodded Ned to keep walking. “You can’t change the management. I

propose that you examine the problems you can solve. There is sense in the method that

you proposed to Dmitri Stepanovich—you may be able to get some ideas from the

workers about how to fix the machine. Our guys are good. But it’s very hard to get

Dmitri Stepanovich to listen. He is a big boss.”

We reached the door of the cutting shop, and Boris introduced Ned to Andrei,

Sergei, Vladimir, and Victor. Boris and I watched in amazement as Ned took off his suit

jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and dropped the suspenders from his shoulders, letting them

hang down his legs. He asked pointed questions about who did what with the machine,

and where the problems were from each man’s perspective. It was evident that he had

only the vaguest understanding of the answers he was getting, but by 3:30 he had the

workers sketch out the source of the problem and how to fix it. Ned walked over to

Boris. “Are we allowed to actually fix it?”

Boris paused. I held my breath. Dmitri Stepanovich had asked for a report, not a

fait accompli. It was Dmitri Stepanovich who had to sign off on all repairs. And Boris

had no real authority at the factory—indeed, doubtful whether his connection there was

even legal. Dmitri Stepanovich had taken a risk to let Boris into the factory without

hiring him through the official channels. It was his little contribution to mankind’s stock

of courage. But he could be arrested for damaging state machinery. Would Boris be

putting Dmitri at risk if he said to fix the machine? Or maybe Boris would be putting


himself at risk. Dmitri could have Boris arrested for damaging state machinery to protect

himself if something went wrong. Boris scratched his head. Just then Anatoly walked

by, with his dirty bandage. “Boris, kak dela?” Kak dela is generally translated ‘how are

you,’ but literally translated, it’s ‘how’s business.’

Boris jumped, suddenly decisive. “Business has never been better. We’re going

to fix this damned machine.” In another context these would not have been the words of

a hero. But what would be considered normal at home was in fact superhuman here.

Brecht was right. “Unhappy is the nation that needs a hero.”

Anatoly looked impressed. Then he held up his bandage with an ironic chortle.

“About a week too late. Too bad.” He paused. “But it’s a good thing you’re doing.

Maybe my son will keep all his digits.”

“I hope so.” Boris waved as Anatoly walked on

The men turned and began talking amongst themselves. Ned interjected, “If there

is anything the three of us can do to help, let us know.”

“No, no it’s our beast, we know it, only we can fix it. Go have some tea. We’ll be

finished in a couple of hours.” Andrei said with some pride. Ned beamed. “Excellent.”

Two hours later everyone was despondent. A part was needed, but it would take

at least six months to get it. The next morning a measure of determination, if not

optimism, returned. One of the workers had a friend who worked in the machine shop at

a military factory. Ned brought a bottle of scotch and the part got made. Ten more deals

and three days later, Andrei, followed by his three colleagues, came triumphantly into the

room where Ned, Boris and I were drinking tea. “We’ve done it! We’ve fixed that old



“Our old bastard.”

“Let’s go have a drink!”

Victor turned to Ned and said, “Our first drink will be to you. Thank you.”

Andrei, Sergei, Vladimir, and Victor shook Ned’s hand in a solemn silence, each one

staring him in the eye, then blinking hard, and bowing. Ned’s adam’s apple bobbed.

Switching Teams

Boris and I went to see Gone with the Wind the next afternoon. Returning to the

dorm we spied some familiar galoshes walking our way. “Ned!” I waved.

“Oh good, I’ve found you. I was afraid I’d missed you. I just left a note for both

of you at the dorm. You need a telephone. I can’t get in touch with you without spending

two hours to come and leave a note for you. I feel like I'm back in the 19th century.

Everything takes four times longer than it should, and I’m operating at 25% capacity.”

“Welcome to the Moscow,” I said.

“Come and have some tea,” Boris suggested. Tea—the universal solace for


As we were heating up the electric samovar Ned made a proposal. “Payne has

decided to open up a small office in Moscow. I’m the advance man, and am authorized to

hire two analysts for $50,000 a year each. Are either of you interested?”

“Yes, absolutely,” Startled by my own words, I spilled the tea all over the table.

“No, thanks,” Boris replied. Just like that.

There followed an awkward silence. I felt shocked at my own acceptance, and

irrationally betrayed at Boris’s refusal. Ned scratched his head. “Gee, I expected a no


from Emma and a yes from Boris…But, Emma, delighted to have been surprised by you.

Perhaps you can persuade Boris to join us.” Another awkward silence was broken by

Ned’s hand outstretched to shake mine. “Welcome to the Payne Moscow team.”

“Thanks. Thanks very much, Ned.” I shook his hand warmly.

“Can you start in two weeks?”


Boris’s sulks drove Ned from the dorm rather sooner than was entirely


“Why didn’t you take the job?” I asked him as Ned’s footsteps faded down the


“Because I am working on a business that will make me two million dollars next

year, not $50,000.”

“What?! You’d have to sell an awful lot of toilet paper.”

“No, this is the metali business. I am exporting aluminum from Siberia.”

“Isn’t that illegal?” The words popped out before I could stop them. When I saw

his expression I understood why he hadn’t wanted to discuss his new business with me

before. He was afraid I would judge him. And he was right to be afraid, judgmental bitch

that I was.

His jaw worked in a rare display of hurt anger. All I wanted to do now was to hug

it away. I struggled for something to say, but came up empty. After what seemed like

hours, he took a deep breath. “So is homosexuality. And a Russian’s opportunity to

make money may not last as long as yours, so I need to do it all at once, while I have the

chance. The situation u nas could change any moment.”


“Oh, I’m sorry, Boris. I didn’t mean to offend you. I still don’t understand things

here.” There was something intimate about having hurt him that made me want to stay

close to him, to protect him.


“When are you going back to Siberia?” Was he going to disappear again?


“Tomorrow!” I tried to think of a reason why he shouldn’t go. “Where?”

“I’m visiting a factory in Tomsk.”


“Tomsk, yes. It’s a closed city.”

“A closed city?”

“Yes, they have lots of military factories there, so it’s very restricted. But I have

secured permission for you to talk to the workers.”


“Do you want to come or not?”




“I have to leave in a couple of minutes—I am going to buy the tickets. Do you

want to come with me?”

I had visions of myself as Lara chugging in a train across Siberia to meet Dr.

Zhivago. “Sure. Why not?” What the hell?



I whistled cheerfully on the way back to my room. I didn’t usually whistle—

couldn’t carry a tune. But this one seemed so jolly I couldn’t resist. “M m mm, mmmmm

mm.” What was that tune? Some song from college…

“I want money, lots and lots of money.” Suddenly the words poured into the tune,

and I was overwhelmed with a self-awareness of the most painful sort. My subconscious

had erupted in the tune, like a gigantic zit.

Back in my room I struggled to come to peace with what the song implied about

why I had accepted the consulting job. At some point over the past year, I had abandoned

my journal and started processing new ideas and big decisions through George. Even if

my George illusions had burst, he was still my friend. So it was only natural that I would

try coming to terms with my decision by writing to him, right? Well. Sort of.

Two hours later I crumpled up my very long letter and threw it against the wall. I

took out a clean sheet of paper and stared at it for half an hour, wishing that it were as

absorbent at toilet paper. That would make it useful, at least. Unable to think of what

else to write, I picked up the crumpled missive, smoothed it, and re-read it.

First, I’d written, “The State’s capacity to do harm far outweighs its capacity to do

good. It turns out that private business is likely to have better answers to social problems

than a government.” But George was a bureaucrat delivering humanitarian aid. He

wasn’t likely to agree. I wasn’t sure I agreed. I crossed my words out.

The second paragraph described how I admired Ned for saving the fingers of the

toilet paper workers. I had taken the job because I hoped to save the fingers of Russian

workers everywhere. I winced and put a big X through that nonsense.


“In the choice between chocolate and free speech, eggs and externalities, it is the

food that should win out every time.” I wasn’t quite willing to commit to paper my

betrayal of these ideals so I slashed through that sentence as well.

Next I claimed that being a consultant would contribute more to my project than

library research. Even I thought that sounded like transparent bullshit. I crossed this line

of reasoning out too. Then I explained how I wanted to produce more than just words on

the page. But that was how Boris felt, not me. The truth was, no matter how reality

changed my notions of how the world should work, I would always love intangible ideas

more than anything else. I would rather come up with a new economic theory than build

a building and I’d rather read a book than make a dinner. George knew that as well as I

did. I scratched through my lie.

“I never had had any luck talking to workers. I think I’ll have more access to the

Soviet proletariat as a businessperson than as a researcher.” I groaned as I read my words

and scratched out that BS.

“Plus, the job comes with an international line. I’ll be able to call you any time.”

Then again, why was I so eager for a phone, anyway? It wasn’t like George had broken

up with Cecilia and we had tons of things to discuss…Come to think of it, the phone was

more of a con than a pro. I scribbled through those words till they were a big black box.

And so on, until the only sentence left was one that read, “I will be earning

approximately 700 times my current salary.”

Well, what of it? I knew that money wasn’t the only reason I was taking the

Payne job. I had my good reasons. I just wasn’t able to articulate them. I threw the letter

back on the floor and stomped around for a few minutes.


I returned to the clean sheet of paper and wrote:

Nov 3, 1990
Dear George,
I took consulting job. Fuck you if you don’t approve.


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