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THE MEASUREMENT PROBLEM

By Kim Malone

c copyright c by Kim Malone, 1999 646-872-9285 kimmalone@mindspring.com

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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

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PART 1: CAPITALISM DENOUNCED

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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 lifechanging 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 zappers. 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 amenities. 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.

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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.

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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 dizzy. “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

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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 year.” 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 fertility. “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

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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. “What?” “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 comes.” 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.

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“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 problems.

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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.”

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“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 salvation. “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

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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 starves.” “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 equality.” 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.”

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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 something. 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.

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Boris explained: “This is not the French Revolution—this is Perestroika. When nothing gets measured it is reasonable to say, ‘Let them eat cake!’”

Erysichthon 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.

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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.

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“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.

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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

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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 patience. 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?

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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? Anticipaaaaaa-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. “What?!” “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

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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?” “What?” “Dyevushka, purchase pass.”

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“What’s that?” “Proof that you live in this region of Moscow. Gives you the right to buy.” “What?!” “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.” “I AM NOT BUDGING UNTIL I GET MY—MY POTATOES.” I cursed myself 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.

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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.”

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“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.”

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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 everybody.

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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

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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

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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?” “Close!” 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

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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

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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?” “No.” “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, sometimes.” “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

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

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“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

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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

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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

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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 centrallyplanned 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 = immorality.

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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 impossible.” “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.

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“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.” “Sure.”

“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

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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.

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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

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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.

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Refrigerator 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 market.) “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

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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 transactions.” “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.”

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“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.

Letters 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
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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 swiftpuffing indignation. “Oh. Will cigarettes do?” “Sweets work better with old women. I can buy some for you if you like.” Svyeta offered.

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“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 hand. 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 ponytailed 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

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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?” “Pardon?” “Paris. Have you ever been there?” “Yes.” “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.

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“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 bottle. 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. “Yes.” “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

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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.

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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.

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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 world.” “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?” “Sure.”

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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 enemy. “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. “Why?”

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“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 machinegun laughter matched his big-balls walk. “No, Anatoly, a capitalist come to see how we make toilet paper.”

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“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. “Yes?” “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.

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“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 meat.

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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.” “What?” “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 needle?” 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

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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. “Really?” “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!”

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“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 else.” “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

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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 ultraprecise 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 it.”

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“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 knowledge.” “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.

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“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?”

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“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

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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 bastard.”

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“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 inefficiency. 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

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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?” “Sure.” Boris’s sulks drove Ned from the dorm rather sooner than was entirely comfortable. “Why didn’t you take the job?” I asked him as Ned’s footsteps faded down the hall. “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.”

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“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. “Yes.” “When are you going back to Siberia?” Was he going to disappear again? “Tomorrow.” “Tomorrow!” I tried to think of a reason why he shouldn’t go. “Where?” “I’m visiting a factory in Tomsk.” “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.” “What?” “Do you want to come or not?” “Well—when?” “Tomorrow.” “Tomorrow?” “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?

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Explanations 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.

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Final

“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.

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Final

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. Love, Emma

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