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Biznes in the Wild East
by Olga Stein

It's a small world, so it came as no surprise that relations of mine had known Jennifer Gould, the author of Vodka, Tears, & Lenin's Angel, as an adolescent about eighteen years ago. They describe her as a super-precocious teen, sporting sophisticated two-inch pumps when other girls her age were just beginning to outgrow braids and pigtails. At a community fashion show, she is remembered to have strutted down the runway with the poise and confidence of a mature young woman. She was striking in her "attitude" as well as her appearance.
This is not astonishing. Reading Gould's book, a journalistic account of her life and travels in the "Former Soviet Union" from 1992 to 1996, anyone could gather that the author, who was only twenty-five years old in 1992, must be an unusual individual-smart, determined, and very ambitious; after all, not many North American women would choose to live in Russia, taking up residence in post-Gorbachev Moscow-as chaotic and dangerous as any Third World city-alone and without a word of Russian, no matter how it might benefit their careers. From what can be intuited about the adult Gould, it is not improbable that the very same qualities-self-assurance and determination-were already conspicuous when she was a mere adolescent.

From 1992 to 1996, Jennifer Gould is living in Moscow, initially reporting for the Moscow Times, an English-language newspaper, then freelancing for a number of major North American newspapers. With admirable energy and resolve, she sets out to document the effects on Soviet life brought about by economic and political liberalization. She is interested in both the winners and losers in this "new" society.
The winners, she discovers, are the biznesmeni. Some of these are ex-Communists who managed state-owned factories under the old regime; with Perestroika, they are transforming themselves into capitalists, becoming private or part owners of the factories they had managed. Other entrepreneurs, Russian and non-Russian, are making fortunes through import-export; some are legitimately capitalizing on the needs of an enormous market, a population that has been starved for almost every kind of consumer good; others engage in illegal and semi-legal smuggling of art objects, arms, oil, and other resources that continue to be state-owned, but are mismanaged or have come under the control of corrupt officials and bureaucrats, who are eager to benefit personally from kickbacks or a percentage of the sales profits.
These biznesmeni or YILGs (Young Ivy League Gangsters), as she playfully calls them, are young, impeccably dressed, and unabashedly interested in money. They pursue Gould as energetically as she does them. She gets to know them over lunch or dinner. Such sessions are up-close and personal. Consequently, her interviews with them are detailed, effectively conveyed, and often fascinating. This type of intelligent journalism characterizes Gould's book as a whole. Even brief portrayals of the men and women she encounters are vivid and never seem out of context.
The biznesmeni live like princes, even by Western standards. They reside in posh, fully renovated apartments, employ housekeepers, private cooks, and bodyguards. Their girlfriends and wives dress in Versace from head to toe, and vacation in Paris, London, and New York several times a year. As Gould remarks, "They live lives they may not have had the imagination to dream of." And there are plenty of them. In the year after her arrival, Jennifer Gould describes how Moscow's transforms itself-in order to meet the needs of this new jet set-from a vast capital with "only a handful of decent restaurants and night clubs", to a city replete with exclusive restaurants and one-hundred-dollar-entrance-fee clubs.
The losers are almost everyone else-ordinary Russians, those who do not successfully engage in entrepreneurism, are not living but subsisting. Savings are wiped out by hyper-inflation. "Inflation will be twenty-five to thirty percent a month by the end of 1992," writes Gould. She adds, "An average monthly pension can't buy butter and sausage for a week: Basic food prices shoot up as much as 500 percent when state controls are lifted in January 1992." Inflation is so severe that families that have flown to Moscow to visit friends and family get stranded in airports because they can't afford the flights back home. To make matters worse, unemployment becomes a reality for the first time since the Russian Revolution, and workers who are still employed by the cash-starved government in sectors like industry, construction, transportation, agriculture, mining, military, and education do not receive their wages for months.
In January 1993, Gould flies to Vorkuta, a coal-mining town a hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. Under Communism, workers were enticed to Vorkuta by salaries which by Russian standards were spectacularly high. Working conditions were harsh, but in fifteen years a miner and his family could save enough to "fulfill a Soviet dream, retire in the south, and buy a home, even a car." With Perestroika and the subsequent inflation, families on the verge of leaving Vorkuta watch their life savings become worthless. About forty thousand people are stranded because they can no longer afford to relocate. The cost of relocation, according to Gould, is about 350,000 rubles ($350), while monthly salaries are only 50,000 rubles ($50).
Back in Moscow, Gould visits state-run orphanages or "internats". Conditions are appalling. Many children are abused by staff and older children. The slightest misdemeanour can cost a child a stay at a psychiatric institution, where he or she is placed in restraints and drugged or tranquillized until left in a stupor for days at a time. She interviews the homeless as well, describing how entire families live in underground subway stations because the government does not provide shelters; there is nowhere else for them to go. All of this is difficult to imagine. No-one has starved in Russia since the Revolution (unless it was expedient for the government to let them starve); food and other staples, subsidized by government, have always been cheap. Subsidized housing, even if this meant communal apartments, guaranteed every citizen a roof over their head. Fifteen years ago, one would not have encountered homeless children, as Gould does, living on Moscow streets and prostituting themselves. The old system along with its social safety nets is breaking down, and there is nothing as yet to replace it. These unfortunates are, as Gould reasons, "democracy's disenfranchised. Freedoms gained also include the new `right' to be homeless, hungry, sick, unemployed-and no longer the moral or practical responsibility of the Benevolent State."
In the four years that Gould lives in Russia, she travels to every distant corner of the vast FSU (often at considerable risk to herself). Her goal is to produce timely documentation of what has transpired in ex-Soviet Republics since they have achieved independence. On a trip to Central Asia, she notes the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, intensified Turkish and Iranian interest in the region, due to their hope of economic gains (the area is rich in oil and natural gas) as well as political ones, and the emergence of cult-like figures, mini-dictators like Turkmenistan's President Saparmurad Niyazov, formerly a supporter of Gorbachev. More telling are the observations she makes on a second visit to Central Asia in December, 1992:
"Some Central Asian countries, like Uzbekistan, are already in their second phase of `independence'. Flirting with democracy is over, if it ever began.. The suppression of human rights, thought to have relaxed with the collapse of Communism, increases. Political opponents, activists, Islamic leaders independent of the state, and journalists are beaten and jailed."
In January 1993, Jennifer Gould visits Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. She witnesses the drilling of oil on the Caspian Sea. Five months later, Russia stages a coup that completely disposes of the governing National Front of Azerbaijan, a nationalist-democratic party, headed by Abulfaz Elchibey, which was just about to "sign a contract with British Petroleum, negotiate with some American oil companies, finalize a new pipeline from the Caspian Sea to Turkey, establish an Azeri currency, and leave the ruble economic zone." Such steps towards economic and political independence from Russia are, it appears, unacceptable. Elchibey is replaced by Gaidar Aliyev, who had been the first secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan until 1988. According to Gould, "Career Communists like Aliyev are replacing Soviet dissidents turned into democratic nationalist presidents in ex-Soviet republics as Yeltsin begins to implement his Greater Russia policy, classifying ex-Soviet republics as the `Near Abroad'."
Particularly compelling and well-crafted are the sections on Georgia and Chechnya. This is partly due to the fact that both regions are at war. People Gould encounters have suffered or are traumatized by what they have experienced at close range. Gould's writing in these chapters is only occasionally marred by hyperbole or exaggerated metaphors. For the most part, it is appropriately sympathetic but unsentimental, clearly conveying the drama, tragedy, and the irony inherent in the circumstances she depicts.
In August 1993, Gould is in Georgia. The largely Eastern Orthodox Georgians are fighting an ethnic war with the Abkhazians, a Muslim people. Georgia is also in the midst of a civil war. On one side is Eduard Shevardnadze, the country's head of state, allied with the Mkhedrioni, or Horsemen, a paramilitary organization established to fight for Georgian independence. On the other side is Georgia's former leader, Gamsakhurdia, a Soviet-era dissident, Georgian nationalist, and a democratically elected president violently overthrown in January 1992. Gamsakhurdia's supporters join with the Abkhazians, who are being unofficially aided by the Russians. The Russians are doing this in order to undermine Georgia, which has refused to join the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and the ruble economic zone. Georgia, Russia fears, is moving too close to the West. As Gould puts it, "Independent Georgia was one thing, but an independent Georgia with its own currency, foreign policy-and control of Black Sea ports, especially now that Ukraine controlled the Crimea-was quite another." A weakened, less economically stable Georgia may be more inclined to accept economic and political ties with Russia.
To make matters more confusing, the CIA is also involved. Fred Woodruff, officially listed as a regional affairs officer with the American embassy in Tbilisi-actually a CIA agent-is murdered execution-style, though the identity and purpose of the perpetrators are a mystery. The CIA, it turns out, has been training Shevardnadze's security troops in the U.S. and Georgia. This represents the first act of direct intervention in FSU affairs since the Cold War. Who, Gould attempts to find out, is responsible for Woodruff's murder? Was it a random act of violence, as is claimed by both the Georgian and American governments? Or is the U.S. being warned by Russia not to play in its back yard? The question is never answered.
By late 1994, Georgia is losing the wars with Abkhazia and Gamsakhurdia's troops. Shevardnadze capitulates to Russian pressure and Georgia joins the CIS. Suddenly Georgia gains the upper hand in the war with Abkhazia, and Gamsakhurdia dies under mysterious circumstances. But Georgia's internal politics remain complex. It is not clear who is actually running Georgia. Gould informs us that "Shevardnadze was the democratic front for a group of political thugs led by a feared demagogue, Jaba Ioseliani" (a democrat always comes handy when there's a need for Western political and economic support). Ioseliani, sixty-seven years old and a known criminal, had run a powerful organized crime gang for seventeen years from a prison cell. It is he who is actually in charge of the Mkhedrioni. This suggests that he may be the man who runs Georgia.
In September 1994, Gould is able to interview Ioseliani. She asks outright whether he is one the who really rules Georgia. His answer: "There's no doubt about it. Frankly, I am the one who brought Shevardnadze to power. He would not be president without me." She confronts him about the out-of-control criminal activities of the Mkhedrioni; these soldiers terrorize Tbilisi's inhabitants, engaging in theft, extortion, and the torture and murder of individuals not willing or able to hand over property or money demanded of them. (One traumatized Westerner claims that "the violence, the savage barbarism" is worse than anything he has ever witness anywhere in the world.)
"But there was war," explains Ioseliani. "There were no laws.. There was economic hardship." He concedes, furthermore, that he would "never punish soldiers for minor offenses because we need the soldiers." This response is a doozy-pure Machiavelli (a fact that is not lost on Gould, since she quotes him elsewhere in her book). If a choice must be made between satisfying the people or the soldiers, then by all means, argued Machiavelli, let it be the soldiers. A successful statesman must avoid disaffection in the group that is most crucial to the maintenance of his political authority or power, even if this perpetuates the soldiers' brutality towards the people.
Despite this strategy Ioseliani lands in jail by the end of 1995. He is put there by Shevardnadze, who has won the November presidential election with a campaign that promises to "put an end to the era of legalized gangsterism," and is eager to punish Ioseliani for a car bomb explosion, which Shevardnadze is convinced was an attempt by the sixty-seven-year-old demagogue to assassinate him. Either Machiavelli's tactics have no place in a state with any element of democracy, or Ioseliani has failed to follow Machiavelli's rules of statecraft assiduously enough.
In April 1995, Gould makes her way into Chechnya. In Samashky, a small farming village twenty miles west of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, at least two hundred people have been murdered by Russian troops in what is tantamount to a massacre. Survivors from Samashky tell Gould of small children hung by Russian soldiers from nooses in the centre of town. Some have witnessed civilians being run over by tanks, or doused with gasoline and set on fire. Many of these refugees speak of soldiers with "glazed eyes and slurred voices, injecting themselves with mysterious substances." Russia's Interior Ministry later concedes that the soldiers' emergency kits contain Promodol, a narcotic, and Dimetrol, an anti-shock tranquillizer. Mix painkillers with alcohol, and you get a recipe for "extremely aggressive" anti-social behaviour.
Grozny, attacked in December 1994, does not fare better. More than 40,000 troops invaded Grozny. An article written for the New York Review of Books makes a comparison with Sarajevo's experience: "There were thirty-five hundred detonations a day during the height of the shelling in Sarajevo; in Grozny, there were four thousand detonations an hour." In her effort to relate the scope and scale of the destruction, Gould does some of her best, most eloquent writing:
"Nothing, though, prepares me for the city center, which looks like a late-twentieth-century version of Dante's Inferno after a nuclear attack. Buildings are blasted beyond recognition, reduced to rubble. Others look like skeletons, Swiss cheese, so bullet-blasted they resemble intricate lacework patterns sewn by Russian babushkas.. Striking in its defeat, like the city itself, is the charred corpse of the once-grand presidential palace, where men used to dance religiously each week; where Dudayev [the Chechen president] displayed the bloody heads of the three men who, backed by Moscow, tried to topple his government in the summer of 1994.. Each person we meet, each phrase uttered in passing, becomes a clue to understanding the incomprehensible: the old man coming to find the body of his son; the young man searching for his brother, who may be prisoner of men he once fought beside...."
What could have provoked such an onslaught? What did Chechnya do to merit such a massive retaliation? True, Chechnya's self-declared independence was never recognized by Russia. True, there has been a certain amount of-even a great deal of-organized crime, and contraband trade of arms and narcotics with Central Asia, Turkey, and the Middle East. It is also true that Chechnya has oil and was a "strategic centre for oil refining. A valuable oil pipeline ran through Chechnya, from Azerbaijan's Caspian Sea and Kazakhstan's Tenghis field to Novorossisk." Obviously, there are a number of possible explanations for Russia's invasion of Chechnya. (Let's not forget, too, that the Chechens are Muslim and that ethnic Russians, like many other East European nations, are ethnocentric; distrust of other nationalities-even racism-is culturally ingrained.) It is as if Russia, tiring of Chechnya's unruliness, has decided to clamp down on people it regards as miscreants and finish them off once and for all. But the majority of Chechens are not criminals; they are women and children, poor villagers and professionals, and some are ethnic Russians who have settled there many years ago. The scale and severity of Russia's reprisal-not to mention the barbaric treatment of civilians-is far off the mark. It is politically crude, but this wouldn't be the first time.
There is more that boggles the mind about what takes place in Chechnya. There is the selling and buying of weapons; the Russian army sells and the Chechen fighters buy. The weapons, Gould writes, "are bought directly from the Russians. The sales involve such large quantities of weapons, it is difficult to believe the corruption does not reach up to the highest echelons of the Russian army." One Chechen fighter boasts, "We can make any deal we want with the Russians and OMON [Interior Ministry] troops, as long as we have the cash.. Sometimes, they even come to us." This is theatre of the absurd, a tragicomedy reminiscent of Joseph Heller's satirical novel Catch 22. One of the characters in the novel, Milo Minderbinder, an American and a master deal-maker is completely devoid of a moral sensibility; he sees nothing wrong in literally selling the enemy the bombing of his own airbase. By 1995, 30,000 people are dead because of the war in Chechnya. Meanwhile there are those-generals, bureaucrats, biznesmeni-who are a great deal richer than they were before the start of the war.
One of the chapters on Chechnya is structured around the search for an American, Frederick Cuny. President of the Dallas-based Intertect Relief and Reconstruction Corporation, Cuny was on assignment for the Open Society Institute (OSI), a private foundation funded by George Soros, a Hungarian-born American billionaire dedicated to bolstering nascent democracies and financing the "infrastructure and institutions necessary for open societies." Cuny, a humanitarian with backgrounds in engineering and urban planning, is a specialist in crisis prevention and management, and an expert on refugee problems. He disappears in early April 1995. His disappearance, unlike Fred Woodruff, stirs up a real commotion. According to Gould, by May 1995, "everyone-including Yeltsin, Clinton, and Dudayev-will have vowed to help find Cuny."
The efforts to find him and the speculation about what has happened to him expose a great number of ties to Washington. Ultimately, the mystery proves insoluble, because it is not known, or never made publicly known, what Cuny was actually doing in Chechnya. He could have been murdered by Russian soldiers, by Chechens fighters in league with Dudayev, or by a breakaway band of Chechens opposed to Dudayev.
Workers in the Soros medical program tell Gould that Cuny had "his own agenda which was separate from the medical program." In New York, however, members of the Soros Foundation maintain Cuny had been merely dispensing medical aid in Chechnya. Thomas Pickering, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, is quoted in the New York Times Magazine as saying, "Governments have found that non-governmental institutions can be useful.." Meanwhile, an official from neighbouring Ingushetia tells Gould that Cuny gave "military advice" as well as humanitarian assistance to the Chechen rebels. Cuny himself had earlier written an article for the New York Review of Books in which he "highlighted military techniques of Chechen fighters with uncanny-and unusually specific-detail."
As Gould concludes, the mystery of Cuny's disappearance may, in the final analysis, come down to the question of what the American government and the Soros Foundation are trying to do in the Caucasus. But this, too, is difficult to determine.
The U.S. operates on many levels and attempts to integrate varied and often conflicting objectives. Officially, it is interested in helping Russia maintain stability in the Caucasus because that will stabilize Russia's new democratic government. "And yet," Gould observes shrewdly, "while Washington claims to want a stable, peaceful Russia, maybe a weak Russia, consumed by war, is also in America's interests."
The politics of post-Cold War, post-Soviet U.S.-Russian relations are bizarre. Ideological conflicts largely overcome, there may well be a race to exploit regional economic opportunities. Chechnya has oil. One Chechen, previously part of Dudayev's foreign ministry, reveals that before the war American diplomats were advising American oil companies already doing business in Chechnya, as well as advising Dudayev as to which companies he should deal with
Not surprisingly, Russia, too, says one thing, but does another. Officially, it is neutral towards American humanitarian aid and relief agencies (although it forbids humanitarian assistance to Chechen fighters). Unofficially, it attempts to counteract what it suspects are unofficial U.S. objectives (in Russia, Gould informs us, a parliamentary commission accuses the Soros Foundation of being a front for the CIA). Yeltsin promises Clinton that Russia will assist in the search for Cuny, but as American search parties continue to look for him, Russia frequently fails to ensure the safety of American search parties at Russian checkpoints. Some members of the search parties are actually fired upon, and one car is blown up.

The Russian social and political landscape has always given rise to oddities both in institutions and individuals. It continues to do so despite its very dramatic transformation in the last ten years. One such institution is curious and titillating; it is the KGB-run school of sexpionage which Gould uncovers on an assignment. The school turns out "swallows" or "honeypots", women who use sex to turn Westerners into informants. Surprisingly, despite the passing of the Cold War, Russian spying is alive and well. Westerners are still targets if not for what they know about military technology, then for they can reveal about the activities of industrial competitors. Sexpionage is serious work. Swallow supervisors must take a two-year training course to study, among other things, the psychology of sexual entrapment and seduction techniques.
Another oddity is the leader of the so-called Liberal Democratic Party, the presidential candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Regarded by many as a madman for his undignified public conduct and his neo-fascist political ideas, he is nonetheless a sophisticated political organizer and campaigner. For the sake of conducting a series of interviews with him, Gould joins Zhirinovsky on a campaign cruise down the Volga river. The interviews make evident that his thinking on politics and political power, love and women, are intellectually next to worthless. Zhirinovsky also shows himself to be depraved; transparently manipulative, he uses absurd, simple-minded arguments to try and persuade Gould and her young translator to engage in group sex with his bodyguards. But as Gould observes, he sure knows how to win over a crowd; he's got the razzle-dazzle of political showmanship down pat, especially as concerns backward, politically untutored Russians-those made even poorer by the new capitalism.
In the December, 1995 parliamentary election Zhirinovsky's party succeeds in having elected the second largest parliamentary bloc. Ironically, Gorbachev, the man who achieved the impossible, altering the politics of the Soviet colossus, wins less than one percent of the vote (his campaign effort is itself a sad, extremely low-budget affair, which elicits almost no public acknowledgement). "The Russians hate him," Gould writes. This is understandable; having lived a good part of their lives under communism, many are experiencing separation anxiety. Russians are used to hardship but not uncertainty. For many of these regimented souls, unaccustomed to the wild vicissitudes of the free market, Russia's new political economy is too different, and, for now, too burdensome to be welcome.

Olga Stein emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1975. She is the production editor of Books in Canada.


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