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  • Print publication year: 1999
  • Online publication date: September 2009



Arkhangel'sk, January 1992:

The man was so drunk he could hardly stand. After three tries he hauled himself slowly into the bus, dragging a huge dried fish behind him. An overpowering smell of fish, vodka, bad tobacco, and sweat filled the air. “Those bliadi (whores) haven't paid us in six months,” he railed. “What the hell do they expect us to do? Starve to death?” He kicked the dirty snow from his boots.

“He's one of the oil geologists from Narian-Mar, up on the Arctic Sea coast,” my host whispered to me. The drunk went on, his voice mounting, every third word unprintable. “I've got a wife and children down in Zhitomir. My savings are all gone. And there are sixty thousand of us up there, all like me. What do we do now?” The other passengers stared out the window, hardly paying attention. They had obviously heard the same story from many others. The drunk exhaled and closed his eyes.

Moscow, December 1996:

The young bank president had agreed to meet me for dinner on the corner of Kamergerskaia ulitsa. I was suddenly surrounded by bodyguards as the bank president emerged from a parked car across the street. Without a word he led me into an unmarked doorway and down a dark shabby hallway. There were more guards everywhere, and nobody was leaving us out of sight. Down a flight of stairs, we emerged into a palatial dining room. Waiters bustled about, wearing smart uniforms with gold filigree monograms on their jacket pockets. The maitre d'hotel ushered us to our seats with practiced deference. “This is Klub Sergei,” the bank president explained as he unfolded a linen napkin. “It's where politicians and bankers go when they want a quiet place to discuss a deal.” He smiled smoothly. “I've bought many a deputy here.”