Saturday, October 23, 2004


A Novel
Kim Malone

(Sorry about the formatting. If you email me your address I'll snail mail you a paper copy.)

c copyright c by Kim Malone, 1999

The Measurement Problem is dedicated to the Internet Bubble, which paid for its writing. Immeasurable thanks goes to my family and my friends for their emotional support.

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

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

“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
Oscar Wilde
“…we are in the paradoxical situation that novelty is more obvious in domains that are often relatively trivial but easy to measure; whereas in domains that are more essential novelty is very difficult to determine. There can be agreement on whether a new computer game, rock song, or economic formula is actually novel, and therefore creative, less easy to agree on the novelty of an act of compassion or of an insight into human nature”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

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


Moscow: September, 1990

Catching my first glimpse of Mother Russia was like losing my virginity. Breathless with expectation I looked down from the airplane window, eager for a life-changing revelation. Instead, I saw partially planted fields and ramshackle sheds strewn randomly beneath me, as if scattered by a slovenly God. That was it?

The aesthetics of the airport didn’t do much to dispel the anxiety I was trying not to feel. Squashed, kerchiefed old ladies, babushki, were spreading grit around on the floor using poles with filthy rags instead of mops. Fluorescent tubes gave off a harsh, bluish light and made an ominous noise. Zzzzp. Zzzzp. Like human-sized mosquito 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. Questioning the market was hard enough with the Eastern block intact. Now, dust from the crumbled Wall kept threatening to choke my brilliant theories. Or so I liked to fancy.

My quest for the heroic, or at least the big, big being metaphoric not measurable, compelled me forward through customs. Somebody named Boris was supposed to meet me. I scanned the crowd for a person holding a sign with my name. No luck. A full bladder prevented panic from setting in. I found a bathroom, but no toilet paper. I left with moist underwear, a recipe for yeast infection.

Shit! I had forgotten to bring yeast beast medicine. Even I had the common sense to know I didn’t want to go to the doctor here...Where There Is No Doctor. Where There Is No Doctor. Why was that phrase running through my mind? Oh, yes. It was the title of a book somebody had given George, whom I intended to marry, before he had left on a humanitarian mission to Honduras two weeks ago. Just before his departure, after an entire year of frustrated longing, I had finally kissed him for the first time—and left it at that.

“Excuse me. Excuse me? Are you Emma?”

I whirled around. “Yes. You must be Boris.” I couldn’t believe my eyes. He was embarrassingly big and handsome—six and a half feet tall with thick curly sandy hair and hands like the paws of a golden retriever puppy. An Alpha Man, a big swinging dick, a thick-necked, big-jawed man. Just the kind of traditionally handsome type I never trusted. A body like that was a walking advertisement for infidelity. Though, on my check list of things to do before I got married was to sleep with that kind of a chiseled-lip man—just one and just once, to see what all the fuss was about. Make sure I wasn’t missing anything.

Boris handed me some yellow roses and I promptly forgot all my Russian. “These uuuh flowers are uuuh red—no, I mean, uuuh beautiful. Sorry, my Russian, that is not so good.”

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

“But so do I!” Another goal of my year in Moscow was to become fluent. We compromised. He’d speak Russian and I’d speak English. That way we’d both talk fluently, even if we’d understand each other imperfectly.

“You have come at a special moment in our history. In time for bad weather and no bread,” Boris announced cheerfully, unwittingly treading on my fear of starvation as we headed into Moscow in his little cracker-box car. The gas fumes were making me 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 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 crashing into the top of the car. “Ouch!” I rubbed my head. “Really nice,” I finished giving my impression of his car. He laughed through one side of his mouth.

We fell silent as Boris’s “jiggily” bounced along to the Southwest region of Moscow. Embarrassed to find that I’d fallen asleep, I was jolted awake as the car stopped in front of a fifteen story building with layers alternating between gray cement and graying tiles, windows with bags of groceries tied to the outside, in a mud field, surrounded by other such buildings in similar mud fields.

“You see you’ve awakened to a miracle, here in the land of miracles.” Boris’s voice filled the sudden silence as he turned off his car.


“The dorm was condemned a few years ago, but they reopened it when there was no other place to put people.” Why was he laughing? What was so funny about living in a hell hole? Then again, he lived there too. If he could deal with it so could I.

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

“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 and left the room.

I tore through my bags looking for something to bring to whatever meal I was about to be fed. Feeling virtuous, I had packed only the barest essentials. I’d been so determined to live on a “real” Soviet salary, and had felt so ennobled by my determination, that it had never occurred to me that my asceticism could be selfish.

I looked around my new home, indulging in a paroxysm of guilt and self-loathing. I opened the door to what I had assumed was a closet and found I had my own bathroom. My own bathroom?? I had come to Russia to suffer, damn it! But here I was with my own bathroom, on my way to a dinner party. Like most Americans, I’d been exhorted by my mother to “think of the starving children in Africa” and finish everything on my plate. Every bite I ate contributed to an anxiety that I had been given so much more than I deserved, I was so unworthy, it was all so unfair, I could never make it right, blah, blah. I sat down to pee, but when I reached for the toilet paper I found—old newspaper. Oof. Aah, the rush of a little mild suffering to alleviate the guilt.

Let Them Eat Cake

Unlike Boris, Alyosha was exactly what I’d expected a Russian man to look like—Jesus painted on an old icon. He was tall, with a golden brown curly beard. His default expression was a beatific smile that gave him an otherworldly aura. Svyeta, on the other hand, seemed grounded in her femininity—the irresistible, maternal kind of femininity. The curves of her body were set off by straight, brown hair.
We drank a glass of Soviet Champagne to our meeting, and three other ritual toasts, but finally the dreaded question came: “Well and what, Emma, tell us the subject of your project.”
“It’s a critique of capitalism.” I hated explaining my project. I felt like I had an ugly baby, whom I adored, and whom everybody else laughed at.
“Akh, capital—eezm!” Boris said it tentatively, like an adolescent saying “fuck” for the first time in front of his parents.
“And what is the problem with capital—eezm? We hope it will be our salvation.” Alyosha smiled, his gentle, amused eyes making it clear he was not really looking for 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 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.”
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.
Boris explained: “This is not the French Revolution—this is Perestroika. When nothing gets measured it is reasonable to say, ‘Let them eat cake!’”

Boris walked me to my door around midnight. I half considered inviting him in. Now is your big chance to sleep with an Alpha man, Emma. But, when it came right down to it, I wasn’t quite ready to check that one off the list. I was too focused on my letter from George.
I crawled into bed wishing I had a phone to call George on. I tried to sleep, but my stomach protested. Dinner had been five glasses of sickly sweet Soviet champagne with so much sugar added it had given me a hangover before it had even gotten me drunk, twelve big spoonfuls of caviar, and four pieces of watermelon. I heard my mother’s voice telling me to think of the starving children in Africa.
I rolled over and turned on the light, knowing a good read was the only way to stave off an insomniac wave of self-pity. In addition to a few economics texts, I’d brought some fiction, my guilty pleasure. Sophomore year in college I’d decided not to major in English because I decided that creativity should be about coming up with new solutions, not describing old problems. George had once joked that I was writing The Measurement Problem to rationalize my novel habit. I’d become so enraged that he’d promised never to even say the word novel in my presence.
I looked for the right book to make me feel better about the shortage of food and phones. Moby Dick, Middlemarch, The Great Gatsby, or The Metamorphosis? I needed something short. I pulled out my Ovid and flipped to Erisichthon’s metamorphosis.

A measure of how close I could get to people was how long it took me to give them my Erysichthon theory, and how they reacted. Generally my theory didn’t go over well. People my age thought I was a nerd and older people thought I was intellectually immature. But I thought I was on to something, and a person who couldn’t grasp it couldn’t grasp me.
The first time I’d met George about a year ago, I’d sensed it would be OK to read him the Erysichthon myth right away.
Without a qualm he cut down every tree
In the sacred grove of Ceres—
An ancient wood that had never, before that day,
Jumped to the axe’s stroke.

“The rainforests,” George had interrupted my reading.
“Exactly.” I had hardly been able to continue reading for my smile.
“Erysichthon ignores all this as
He assesses the volume of its timber,
Then orders his men to fell it.”

“Ceres condemned him
To Hunger—
But infinite, insatiable Hunger,
The agony of Hunger as a frenzy.

“And you think what the gods did to him is happening to us now?” He’d asked. The recognition had tingled up the nape of my neck.

He calls for food. Everything edible
Out of the sea and earth. When it comes
Dearth is all he sees where tables bend
Under the spilling plenty. Emptying

Bowls of heaped food, all he craves for
Is bigger bowls heaped higher.

“It’s consumerism gone amuck, isn’t it?” George’d interrupted again. I looked up at him. That was falling in love—little flickers of recognition, understanding. It had been Erysichthon that made me fall in love with George, and Erysichthon that had driven me to Moscow.

The First Bribe
True to form, I woke up lonelier than ever for George. Reprimanding myself for being a selfish American, I decided to go to the grocery and buy something to share in the dorm that night. In the store there was—nothing. The salesladies laughed at me for being so naïve as to think buying food was as simple as going to the store.
Svyeta invited me for lunch. Once again I was accepting humanitarian aid from the Russians. She dished some buckwheat for me. I was just hungry enough to overcome the wet-dog smell and take that first bite. It tasted like the side of an old wooden Russian house scraped into a bowl. I ate it all.
“Where’d you buy this?” I asked, still shaken by my fruitless trip to the foodless grocery. Svyeta didn’t just feed me, she told me where to shop.
The next morning, absolutely starving, I went to the buckwheat store Svyeta had described. What little food there was looked foul and inedible, so when I saw a pile of potatoes I immediately got into line. Let me repeat: I got into line.
This may not sound like much of a feat, but for me it was an act of almost superhuman triumph over my impatience. Some people are claustrophobic. I am waitaphobic. George had a theory that I’d used up my lifetime’s supply of patience when I was six and Dad had dropped me off at school on a day when there was no school. I had sat on the front porch and watched the yardman mowing the enormous lawn, baaaaaaaack and fooooooorth, baaaaaaaack and fooooooorth, all the while debating whether I could break the rule about not talking to strangers and go ask the man to call my father. For four hours I had been racked with indecision: sit and wait or break the rules? Sit and wait more or break the rules? Marlene, Dad’s secretary, had eventually come to the rescue, but not before the last of my patience had been mown away, joked George. What he didn’t know was that he was the one who’d used up the rest of my 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?
The ten minutes after that I tried to recite Russian poetry in my head. I couldn’t remember any. Prayers? Give us this day our daily bread. Ugh! Songs? Anticipaaa-aaa-aaa-tion, it’s makin’ me wait. Now I couldn’t get the Heinz katsup version of the Carly Simon song out of my head.
The last twenty minutes, I simply tried to contain my irritation.
Finally, I reached the head of the line
“I’d like a sack of potatoes, please.”
“Dyevochka, what did you say?” Dyevushka, meaning girl, often shortened to dyevochka, little girl, jarred my feminist sensibilities.
I pointed, angrily.
The woman handed me a piece of paper.
“What’s this?”
“Your check. Now you have to pay.” She gestured towards an impossibly long payment queue.
“Dyevochka, go, go, there’s a line here.”
Here a line, there a line, everywhere a line, line, Old Commies ran a country, E-I, E-I, O. With a nothing here and a pain and the ass there, E-I, E-I, O. It’s an experience, I told myself. Just calm down. This is part of what I’d come here for. To see what it was really like. I stared at the people in line. If they could endure it, so could I. I looked at the woman ahead of me for clues about coping. She was imperturbable in her patterned Russian shawl. Wasn’t she bothered by this colossal waste of time? I shook my head and looked at the man in front of her, a solid man with a solid, chunky coat, and a scarf folded in an X on his chest. Also imperturbable. In front of him an old, squashed lady. Eighty some-odd years of imperturbability. In front of her a young mother with toddler. Even the baby was imperturbable. What the hell was wrong with all these people? How could they endure it all so calmly?
I, for one, was not imperturbable. Especially not when it came to wasting time, the most valuable of all commodities.
I turned around, breathing deeply. I decided to play a different game—try to catch the eye of somebody. Two points for getting somebody to look me in the eye, ten points for getting somebody to return a smile. I started with the man with the folded scarf. He stared at the floor. I coughed to attract his eye, and I smiled at him as he glanced up. His stare passed quickly over my chin and returned instantly to the floor. I tried the woman with the scarf, the squashed old lady, the woman with the child. Even with the child I failed. Was smiling in public forbidden? Why were people afraid even to look at each other? So much for equality, for brotherhood of man…So much for ideals ahead of money.
Five, ten, fifteen, twenty…My mother had taught me about counting to ten to get control of my emotions, but counting by one’s was too damn slow. So I’d started counting by two’s, then five’s, then ten’s. The numbers got too big too fast by ten’s, so I’d reverted to five’s and stuck with them ever since. I’d made it almost to 37,540 when I finally got to the head of the line.
“Purchase pass?”
“Dyevushka, purchase pass.”
“What’s that?”
“Proof that you live in this region of Moscow. Gives you the right to buy.”
“Move along.”
I could not endure this kind of futility. “Why the hell didn’t anybody tell me this before I spent all day in line?”
The lady behind me was growing agitated. “Dyevushka, dyevushka, there are others in line.”
“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.
Arms trembling, I climbed the stairs out of the Sevastopol Metro stop. I wondered if I could endure the fifteen-minute walk back to the dorm with the ten kilos of potatoes I’d bought. Well, five kilos of potatoes and five of mud.
“Emma!” Boris appeared from behind. “Here, let me help you.” He tossed the bag onto his shoulder.
“Thank you so much.” I was too grateful to object.
“Storing up for the winter?” Boris smiled teasingly at my potatoes. “Becoming a real Russian already. Although most of us dig our own potatoes that we grow on plots in the country.”
“I bought them at the Gastranom near Akademicheskaya.”
“How? I didn’t give you a purchase pass yet.”
“Oh, I just paid double.”
Boris stopped. “Clever girl! Only one day in Russia, and already you’re bribing all the right people.”
“I didn’t bribe anybody. I just paid double.”
“And what’s the difference?”
I had no idea. Had I come here to study economic justice and wound up greasing palms? Had I in fact just paid my first bribe, popped my corruption cherry?

The Market
Silenced by such a shocking revelation, I walked to the dorm without a word. Boris deposited the potatoes (and mud) in my room and looked around. “You need something besides just potatoes to eat. I will take you to the market.”
“The market!?” Wasn’t I in a socialist country? Weren’t markets illegal here? My ideology disapproved, but my heart, or at least my taste buds, rejoiced.
The market after the state grocery store upheld Russia’s reputation as the land of contrasts, the land of miracles. A network of outdoor stalls surrounding an enormous warehouse type of structure were all filled to overflowing with food—heaps of glistening apples, washed cucumbers, sparkling herbs, carrots, beets. Mountains of dried apricots, dates, nuts. Pickles, pickled garlic, pickled onions, pickled watermelon. A meaty smell advertised the section with great slabs of pork. A few pig heads prominently displayed to prove authenticity. A pleasant cheesy smell advertised the dairy section—enormous blocks of homemade cheese, old-fashioned milk bottles, yogurt. Best of all, no lines. In the state grocery store the clerks glowered at the customers. In the market, the entrepreneurs sang to the customers:
“Taste my apples, the best apples, sweet, sweet, sweet.” They weren’t much to look at, those scrawny apples, but I tasted them, and gasped. They were both tarter and sweeter than any apples I’d ever tasted. I was tasting my first real apple. Everything else I’d ever had was just big, mealy imitation fruit. I felt like the hero in 1984 (or was it Brave New World?) who tasted real chocolate for the first time. Only it was communism, not capitalism, that had preserved real fruit. Ah ha! The measurement problem!!! Capitalism grows apples for size, not taste, because taste is harder to measure, though much more valuable than size. The apples were better in a communist country! So, there!
“There really is food at the market!” I looked at Boris in amazement. It felt as though he personally had organized this miracle just for me. “And you know what? It’s even better than food in American groceries.”
Boris shrugged. “They say 80% of the food is grown on the 5% of the land that is given to people for private use.” He sighed. “Akh—capital—eeezm.”
“What are the prices like?” There had to be a catch. Maybe the market was more efficient, but it wasn’t magic, surely.
“On my stipend of 90 roubles a month, I can’t shop here every day, but when I really want to, I can. It’s comforting to know it’s here.”
“90 roubles!” I was getting twice that! I could run, but I couldn’t hide from unfair privilege. “Why do I get 180?”
“They decided to give you 180 because you are an American.”
“But, that’s not fair! I won’t buy anything here either, then.”
A hint of yesterday’s annoyance shadowed Boris’s face. He looked at me intently, his eyes dilated, and then a smile broke through. “You are a funny girl.” I liked the way he said it, I even liked being called “girl.” His tone implied, if not respectful understanding, affectionate acceptance. He shrugged and continued. “You see, it’s easier for us to live here. We’re used to it.” The ability to endure suffering seemed to be a matter of pride for Russians. “Besides, salary isn’t so important when they practically give the food away in the state stores.”
“I admire your government for providing cheap food.”
“I don’t—not when the result is that there’s nothing in the store.”
“There’s usually something isn’t there?”
“Another ten years of communism and there won’t be.”
I got off my high horse and bought some nuts and dried apricots to share with everybody.

Beauty Counts
Boris stuck his curly head in y door the next morning, Sunday. “Do you want to see the sites in Moscow?”
Damn, he was handsome!
We piled into his car and headed through the drizzle. He wanted me to see a Russian Orthodox service at a little church in a park near the dorm. As we arrived at the park an incredibly comforting idea struck me.
“Do the leaves turn orange and yellow in the fall here?” I had thought I was above all the cold war rhetoric. Now I realized that my subconscious, informed by the very propaganda my conscious mind had been rejecting so vigorously, had assumed they only had revolutions, but not fall foliage, in the so-called Evil Empire.
Boris looked at me with laughing, surprised eyes. “Do you Americans believe the Soviet Union is so powerful it can defy even laws of nature?”
I laughed. “Something like that.” The familiar certainty of the change in seasons filled me suddenly with an irrational happiness.
We made our way through the drizzle to the church. From the outside the crumbling white-fading-to-gray structure with a tired gray cupola stripped of its gold did not promise to hold much of interest or beauty. Stepping through the doorway, I gasped at the wonders wrought by the land of contrasts.
The wet chill of a Moscow September was melted by a thousand candles reflected in the gilt of hundreds of icons and frescoes. Incense mingled with the smell of melting wax, creating a profound sense of peace. The cumulative and collective stress that came from days demanding constant waits in long lines and payments of bribes was eased into a steady, comforting rhythm by the chanting choir. The powerful voice of the priest rose above the others for a moment. “Watch,” Boris whispered, and the priest magically disappeared into a cloud of incense and through the gold and silver altar screen.
“What do you think of the True Faith?” Boris asked. The word for the Russian Orthodox faith, when translated literally, means the True Faith. Hard to argue with that. And hard to argue with the powerful atmosphere of mystery the Church had created.
“It’s beautiful,” I whispered. There was something intimate about whispering in church, about being guided by a handsome man through an ancient and beautiful ritual for the first time.
“Watch out for the babushka.” Boris tapped my shoulder in warning.
Before I could react, a five-foot woman so squashed and wrinkled she must’ve been 110 years old was yanking at my arm and scolding me. She spewed so much venomous saliva I couldn’t quite grasp what she was saying. “Pull your hands out of your pocket,” Boris whispered. I did. The babushka stepped back, still glaring at me.
I tried not to get angry, reminding myself how much the babushki, Russia’s grannies, had suffered under Hitler and Stalin. They had survived hunger, terror, and war. Their sons and husbands had not. They appeared to have been literally squashed by hardship; none of them were more than five feet tall.
“Never cross a babushka,” Boris warned. Keeping my hands well away from any pockets, I watched them pray. The babushki weren’t following any set pattern of worship that I could discern. They didn’t pay much attention to the priest as he appeared and disappeared. Each one was having a private relationship with her chosen icon, bowing and kissing the painted wood with a sensuality verging on the profane.
Once we were back in the car Boris said, “It makes me angry that the silver and gold go to the icons and not to these women.”
“Do you really think it would better for the church to give the babushki money than keep up those icons for them? Their religion seems to give them more comfort than any material thing could.” I only believed in God when I was really stressed, but I respected other people’s faith. I was a huge fan of idealism in all its manifestations.
“Emma, you come from a rich country so you can afford to be idealistic. The poor have to be materialistic.”
“Boris, just because I—”
“Now, close your eyes,” he interrupted.
“What? Why?”
Trusting him, I didn’t even peek.
“Open your eyes—now!” Boris timed my first view of the Kremlin so I’d see it from the most dramatic vantage point. Just as we passed the British Embassy, I looked across the river and saw the majestic red walls capped by dark green tiles. The gold cupolas of the Kremlin churches floated like a flight of fancy above the solid walls. Around the corner, St. Basil’s loomed into view, candy-like, an architectural triumph of fantasy over rationality.
I was momentarily speechless. A year later I still shivered with awe every time I drove by it, even if I were stuck in traffic. Especially if I were stuck in traffic. No matter how many times I saw it, the Kremlin never lost its power to give me a new charge. “God, it’s miraculous.”
“It’s our national pride.”
“See? Beauty counts for something.” I smiled, pleased to have the last word.

Sergei of Mournful Slavic Eyes
The next day, Monday, was my first day at work. I arrived at the Institute promptly at 8:00 am and found—no one. At noon I had finally managed to obtain a building pass and find where I was supposed to sit. In room 351 I met my office mate, whom I dubbed ‘Sergei of Mournful Slavic Eyes.’
“There are four of us in here?” The room was about twelve by ten feet with four desks crammed into it.
“We’re almost never all here. I, for example, can’t be here so often because I have two other jobs.”
“Two! How do you manage?”
“Oh, it’s easier than the week-ends. Now, that’s work. Trying to buy things. Oi! It is impossible.”
“But don’t you wind up working 24 hours a day with three jobs?”
“Oh, no. I only have to show up at each job one or two days a week.” Sergei shrugged, bored with his own despair.
“Don’t they get mad?”
“No, not at all. Why should they? As long as I come once in a while. It is impossible to ask for more.” Sergei saw impossibility at every turn. No wonder his eyes were mournful. I wondered what it would take to give him a can-do attitude. Perhaps if his mother had read him The Little Engine Who Could when he was a child. I think I can, I think I can…
“Why do you have three jobs? If you had just two, you could spend time buying things during the week and relax on the week-end.”
“Ach! With one less zakazi per month, I’d never survive. It’s not the salary I work for—it’s the zakazi.”
“What’s a zakazi?”
“Zakazi? You don’t know about the zakazi?”
“Oh, you have to sign up before tomorrow, or you’ll miss this month.”
“But what is it?”
“A list of food you can order, and it gets delivered at work.”
“What kind of food?”
“Flour, potatoes, sausage when you’re very lucky, once in a while, eggs. We used to get cheese, but we haven’t seen cheese in a year.” Big sigh. “And toilet paper, 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 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
“No, never. It is impossible. The only travelling I can do is to the dacha to plant potatoes so I won’t starve.”
“Do you like growing things?”
“I like to have potatoes so I know that, whatever happens, I will have something at least to eat during the winter. I’m going this week-end to harvest them.”
“Oh. I see. Uh—how do I sign up for the zakazi?”
“Worried about starving this winter?” Wry smile, hooded eyes.
“Oh, no!” I said, too fast. He did not respond. “Uh. So, what about the zakazi?”
“Well, you have to fill out some forms and give them to the zakazi woman.”
“So, where do I get the forms, and where do I find the zakazi woman?” Why was he so vague?
“You Americans are so action-oriented; always wanting to do things right away.”
“But you said that if I didn’t sign up before tomorrow I’d miss it.” I struggled to keep the hard edge out of my voice.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry. You’ll get signed up. Eventually.”
I tried to be philosophical, to fight the urge to shake him. Sergei’s unwillingness to act was classic. Conrad had written about it, explaining that Russia is a country of heroes. Doing things like getting a train to run on time was beneath the attention of a hero. Evidently, so was getting me signed up for zakazi. In fact, it was this class that had prompted me to be an economics and not a literature major. I had gotten so annoyed by Conrad’s hopeless explanation, by Gogol’s books describing life going around and around and around in pointless circles. All these writers just described problems—they never solved them, even fictionally. Economists at least looked for solutions. In fact, if creativity were about creating new things, not just describing old ones, it was the economists and scientists, not the artists and writers, who were truly creative…
I let the zakazi drop and turned to my list. Some faceless person at the institute had put together a list of twenty-five factory managers I could call to ask for interviews to discuss how the life of the average Soviet worker might be better, albeit in immeasurable ways, than the life of the average American worker. I tried the first number. I got a busy signal. And again. And again—five times in a row. Sergei scribbled in his notebook for a few minutes. I tried the second number. Busy. Sergei stood up.
“Do you want a cup of tea?”
“No, thank you.”
“U nas it is important to drink tea. Don’t you drink tea in America?”
A two-hour discussion on life in America ensued. I got no work done. Not even five minutes worth. Part of me felt angry with Sergei. Lazy turd ball from hell!!! I tried to be more generous, to remind myself that he wasn’t lazy, that he simply suffered from a lack of accountability. Accountability. Surely this must have something to do with the measurement problem. No measurement, no accountability. But, that would make measurement the solution, not the problem. Shit! I needed to think this one through. Not that I would find time to, at this rate.
I decided I’d just work on my project after after Sergei left. At 5:00, however, he explained that I had to leave, they were locking the building up. “U nas, you’re not allowed to work late.” I packed up my bags and made my way to the trolley stop. I couldn’t quell the angst over the fact I had accomplished absolutely nothing. But then I thought back over my conversation with my academic advisor and Sergei. The pit of nervousness in my stomach was melted by the realization that it didn’t matter—like him, I wasn’t accountable to anybody for anything, no deliverables were demanded. Nobody was counting how many phone calls I made, pages I wrote, how many books I read, what time I got to work. My nervousness was replaced with sensations alternating between liberation and panic. I felt like a space walker who’d broken free of her tether—not an altogether desirable sort of freedom. How to structure the day? Why get out of bed in the morning? Why stay sober at work?
Evidently the guy next to me on the trolleybus had a tough time answering this last question too—he was dead drunk. He passed out, his head falling heavily on my shoulder. The trolley was so packed that there was nowhere to move, no way to shove him off of me. A skinny man whose hip bone was poking into my belly smiled in sympathetic amusement at the drunk. A babushka whose ample bosom engulfed my elbow looked on in anger at the man, and the situation that had created him. I could only hope we’d reach the next stop before the man came to and barfed all over me.

E Chocolatus Unuum
I went upstairs when I got back to the dorm and found Alyosha, Svyeta, and Boris huddled around the radio listening to a report on unification in East Germany on a new Glasnost-era radio station, Evropa Plus.
“I wish we had somebody to unify with,” Svyeta sighed as the report ended.
I felt a stab of guilt. My country was the only possible candidate for Svyeta’s longed-for merger, and George Bush was hardly signing up for the job. And I hadn’t even managed to bring so much as a morsel of chocolate to tea. The U.S. was failing Russia, and I was failing my friends. What the hell are Americans good for if they can’t even provide treats?
“Well, in 500 days we will have our own market economy,” joked Alyosha. She was referring to a plan laid out by Shatalin and Yavlinsky to transform the centrally-planned Soviet economy to a free market in a year and a half. Before I’d gotten here, I’d thought that seemed awfully optimistic. Now I just thought, what the fuck? Why even say absurd things like that?
Boris laughed. “You know what our great economist Gaidar says? You can make an omelet out of eggs very quickly. But making eggs from an omelet—that takes time.”
“Well, at least glasnost doesn’t have to take time.” The two underpinnings of reform were perestroika, or economic ‘rebuilding,’ and glasnost, meaning ‘openness’ and signifying political and civil change.
“I’d choose chocolate over free speech even,” sighed Svyeta.
I started to object, but I found to my chagrin that I didn’t really disagree. I should never have denuded myself of the almighty dollar…To my father’s great consternation, I had refused to bring more than $20 cash or any credit cards with me. I was going to live on my rouble stipend, I had announced with pride.
“I can’t believe I’ve raised a goddamn communist!” My father’s face had gone all red. I hadn’t tried to explain that I was not a communist, but that I just believed that humanity could do better than selling out to the highest bidder. These nuances were impossible to explain to a man whose outlook on life was that capitalism = Republicans = wealth = morality, and all of that was opposed to communism = Democrats = poverty = immorality.
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.
“A guy who resells tickets at a profit.”
Relief battled with confusion on Boris’s face. Relief won. “If you say so. I am going to pick up the tickets this afternoon. Do you want to come with me? He lives in the New Region, which you haven’t seen yet. We will have some tea.”

“Arkady is a homosexual,” Boris announced, a propos of nothing, as we came out of the subway stop. I got the impression he’d been thinking about how to tell me since we’d gotten on the train and had just blurted it out.
“Oh. OK.”
“It doesn’t bother you?” He was visibly relieved.
“Of course not. Why should it?”
“It’s just that—well, it’s not so common u nas. In fact, it’s illegal.”
“Illegal?! Really illegal, or just on the books illegal?”
“Really illegal. Go-to-jail illegal.”
“Poor Arkady.”
“Yes.” Boris shook his head.
As we exited the metro I looked around the “New Region.” The scale of its ugliness was completely overpowering. Cookie-cutter sky scrapers in a vast field of muddy concrete. Fifteen story building after fifteen story building, identical and horrible, stretched as far as the eye could see, unremitting, a vision of man’s vicious defeat over himself. Generally I think of humanity as a noble species on a heroic quest for perfection; from this vantage point humanity looked more like so many cock-roaches reproducing in their own shit. I hoped the Bolshoi Theater was less nihilistic than this Bolshoi Suburb.
We were walking from the subway towards Artryom’s apartment. How Boris could distinguish one building from another to figure out where to go I’ll never guess. We felt the sky once again lowering in on us as we made our way across a space between four buildings. A rusting crane loomed over one building. It was totally unclear whether the building was being assembled, destroyed, or repaired. “It’s been there for ten years.” Boris ran his eye disapprovingly up and down the crane.
A dirty drizzle recommenced as we were about halfway through the badly cemented space—and “space” was the best word I could think of to describe it. It certainly wasn’t a courtyard; too large and empty. Not a plaza—too barren and muddy. Not a park—it was cemented, albeit haphazardly. It was just a space that happened to exist between buildings that happened to have been thrown up to house people that happened to have been born. The Soviet Union’s crimes against architecture were nothing compared to the Gulag, but still pretty atrocious. Then again, a US strip mall was just about as soul-crushing.
A woman passed by pushing a limping baby carriage, and I froze in my tracks. Boris stopped with me, and stared at me. He smiled through one side of his mouth. “I am trying to imagine this from your eyes. You are used to Central Park. It must seem so awful to you!”
Even the most optimistic, can-do Yankee couldn’t put a happy spin on this. I burst into a punchy kind of laughter. “It’s sooooo ugly!!!”
“Let’s go.” Boris forced a smile.
Arkady welcomed us to his apartment with an excessively cut champagne flute of very, very sweet champagne and a toast to Boris. His apartment shouted of a wild craving for color. In the US I would have bemoaned his bad taste; here I admired his rebellion against the Soviet drabness. Arkady had taken radical steps to fight the view of the New Region out the window: a large-screen TV, a white and gold painted bed, a bright pink and blue shag rug, and etched colored shot glasses everywhere.
We sat down on the bed, which doubled as couch. “Boris Borisovich saved my life, you know. We were in the army together, and the others—they would have killed me. But, enough of these sad stories. Welcome, welcome.” We drained our etched glasses. “So, Emma, tell us what it is like to be an American in Moscow.”
“Oh, it’s great. Yesterday I went to get my shoes re-soled. For everyone else repairs took three weeks. But for me, the American—same–day service!”
“Russians seem to believe that all Americans are angels,” said Arkadi.
“All that propaganda for all those years—it affects people in strange ways.” Boris leaned back on the couch. “When glasnost came along, people just started believing the opposite of what they’d been told all those years. American devils have become American angels.”
That didn’t bode well. Russia was a land of contrasts, a land of thesis and antithesis, but never a land of synthesis. Come to think of it, that was probably why communism didn’t work out so well here. And if this pattern held, people would quickly revert to viewing Americans as devils. “Do we ever get to be just human?”
“I think it will take years to get the propaganda out of people’s thinking. I see it in business, too.” Boris continued. “For years, the authorities wrote about how capitalists did nothing but cheat people, steal from people. Now the authorities are saying we should become capitalists. People believe this means they have to cheat and steal now. It is a problem.”
“That’s why I don’t have a business. I just have a group of friends,” Arkady said. “The leader of this group—he is a great man. Sasha.”
“Sort of like a gay lobby?” I asked.
Boris rolled his eyes, but Arkady nodded excitedly. “Yes, yes, exactly.”
“Are you working on getting the anti-homosexual laws changed?”
“They spend more time importing sweet liqueurs,” Boris muttered.
I wondered why Arkady didn’t see this as a business. “And what do you export, Arkady?” I asked
He leaned in conspiratorially and gave me a big wink. “Sable underpants.”

On that note we left for the Bolshoi. We ran to the subway, leaped on the train, and made it to our seats just as the curtain was coming up. Somehow the adventure of getting the tickets from a Mafioso who lived in one of the ugliest neighborhoods on Earth made it seem impossible that we were going to the ballet, really. I don’t know what I expected—thugs on the stage. But as Bayaderka started, I couldn’t even believe I was in the same city, or the same era, or the same planet as the New Region. After swamping me with ugliness, Moscow overwhelmed me with the Bolshoi’s beauty.
Maybe that was why I was there. I was hoping that this land of contrasts would illuminate some things that usually got hidden in the shadows of the middle ground that dominated my country.

A few days later there was a knock at my door. Boris was standing there, the proud bearer of a small refrigerator. I had concluded from the bags of food hanging from the windows that refrigerators were unavailable. But Boris assured me that in special circumstances they were. I, being a weak American unused to suffering, was a special circumstance—I merited a refrigerator. (Never mind that I still didn’t have any food other than potatoes. For reasons I chose not to examine I hadn’t gone back to the 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 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.”
“You’d turn the whole world into a whorehouse.”
“Well, you seem to be a decent human being, and I don’t believe you got me this refrigerator through any nefarious means.”
Boris wasn’t going to let my flattery derail him. “Look, you hate the constraints of time, too. You’d like to eliminate it so you could work more on your project, right?”
“Yes, absolutely.”
“But would society be better off if we eliminated all the clocks?” Feeling he couldn’t find a better last word, he turned on his heel and left.

Things went on this way for another few weeks: I went to the Institute and accomplished nothing. I made phone calls to everybody on the list, but never got through to any of them. I spent hours shopping for things I needed and got very few of them. I ignored the fact that I wasn’t getting any letters and couldn’t make any phone calls, focusing instead on sending subtle messages to Boris that I was open to a one-on-one nocturnal chat. Boris responded just enough to keep the frisson high, but not enough to risk a no.
The easy, flowing currents of conversations over tea in the evening redeemed each day—until Boris went out of town for a week on some mysterious business. “Metali,” was all the explanation I could get out of him.
Without Boris there I felt like a third wheel with Svyeta and Alyosha. And there was no frisson with Boris to distract me from the fact that I still hadn’t gotten any letters from George and I had no way of calling him. I spent more evenings alone in my room, writing letters. And the more I wrote, the less it was possible to have anything resembling perspective. I was more and more aware of the fact that George still had not written. I’d been there for twelve weeks now. For a week or two, I could believe in a combination of inefficient postage and people not writing back immediately. But twelve weeks! What was his problem? Had I ruined our friendship by kissing him?
No letters, no phone. No letters, no phone. No letters, no phone. No letters, no phone…Finally, I couldn’t take it any more. One night at 10:30 p.m., I marched up to Alyosha and Svyeta’s room and demanded. “Why haven’t I gotten any letters?”
“Please, come in.”
“Oh, sorry.”
“Did you speak to the Kommadant?” Alyosha asked.
“The who?” Kommandant? A scary concept that should belong to the past, or even to fiction; should be a character in Brave New World, not an actual living breathing human being in my dormitory, right?
“She gets the mail and delivers it. You should give her something nice, some sweets or perfume or something, and she’ll get the mail to you.”
“What? I have to bribe her to do her job?” I’d be goddamned if I was going to bribe some old-bag Kommadant so she wouldn’t hold my precious letters hostage.
“Emma, nobody here gets paid really. You have to bribe everybody to get them to do their jobs. They have no real salary other than bribes.” Alyosha pricked my swift-puffing indignation.
“Oh. Will cigarettes do?”
“Sweets work better with old women. I can buy some for you if you like.” Svyeta offered.
“No, no, I can get them. But where?”
“There’s a Gastronom on Kalinin Street, near the Arbat. Sometimes you can buy sweets there.” Alyosha suggested.

Kiss of the Kommandant
The next day I didn’t go to the Institute at all. I went to the Gastranom on Kalinin, and had a repeat performance of potato shopping, only worse. After seven hours, I arrived back at the dorm and was knocking at the Kommandant’s door, sweets in 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 pony-tailed cheerleader dope in a red-white-and-blue pleated mini skirt as soon as the words were out of my mouth.
“Health to you.” The woman drew out the Russian word for “hello” sarcastically into all its component syllables.
“Um, I brought you this box of sweets.”
“American?” She brightened.
“No, I bought them at the Gastronom on Kalinina.”
“Oh.” The Kommandant was not impressed. Yet, she must’ve known what I’d had to go through to get them. If it’s the thought that counts, and the energy put into implementing the thought, Soviet sweets should’ve been much sweeter than American. Unfortunately, they tasted like crap. And for the Kommandant it was the chocolate that counted, to hell with the thought.
“I was wondering if I had received any letters?”
“From where?”
“From the USA?” Where else, you dumb bitch???
“USA? No. No letters from abroad.”
Though I was generally a trusting soul, I did not believe her. “Maybe you don’t know what the stamps look like?” My inability to say, ‘I think you’re lying to me,’ was going to make interactions with the Kommandants of the world complicated.
“Have you ever been to Paris?”
“Paris. Have you ever been there?”
“Will you go again?”
“Well, yes, probably.”
The Kommandant’s eyes glowed feverishly. She grasped the collar of my raincoat, and pulled me close. “Will you bring me a robe?”
“Yes, if you could just make sure I get my letters.” What had I just promised? Been asked to promise? So this is what the web of personal connections was made up of. Gone was the charm of it, as I had seen it up till now, with Boris at the center. Now my letters from George had gotten tangled in this black widow woman’s web.
“Oh, Emma, my beauty, my sweet. Won’t you join me?” She took a swig of vodka and bit a hunk of bread off her gnawed-on loaf, spewing crumbs on the floor. “A little vodka?”
I knew I had to drink with this woman if I was to have a prayer of getting my letters. I tried to see the humor in the situation, but mostly I just saw Boris’s point about relationships. “Sure, I’d love to have a drink.” Ugh.
She took another swig herself, bit off more bread than she could chew, handed me the bottle, and gestured for me to sit. I could tell I was going to be there for another hour at least. “Paris. Is it as beautiful as they say?” Her question sprayed me with moistened bread crumbs. I resisted the urge to wipe my face.
I took a gulp from the bottle. What the hell? “Yes. Beautiful.” I handed her the 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.
“Oh, my little beauty, my little sweet!” Before I knew it, she was kissing me, covering my cheek in now-sugary dough. It took every bit of self-control I could muster not to wipe the wet germy goo off my cheek. Her paste began to harden and crack on my cheek. Horrors were running up and down my spine.
I tried to reassure myself that one day these will all be hilarious stories, that I’d never run out of things to say at a cocktail party again. Just as I thought I was going to wind up in a straight jacket instead of a little black cocktail party dress, I noticed some cheerful red and white stripes in the upper right hand edge of one of the many envelopes stacked on her desk.
“I think I see a letter, there!” I exclaimed, leaping for it before the Kommandant could make a move. I plucked out the envelope, and was rewarded with the sight of George’s hand-writing. My pause at the familiar curves made by George’s hand gave the Kommandant a chance to snatch the letter back.
“You can’t have it until I distribute them.”
“You have no right to withhold my mail.”
“You have no rights. I am the Kommandant here.” I had read economic theories about systems in which rules have no power, and Russia was always cited of a good example. Russia has always been about personality—from Peter the Great to Stalin. But that was history; it wasn’t supposed to have anything to do with my letters from George. I couldn’t have been more stunned if Catherine the Great had come back from the dead and snatched my letters with her own hand.
“Do you want your robe?” I spat the words and wiped my cheek. Fuck it!
“Well, yes, of course.” Her eyes glittered again.
“Then let me help you sort these envelopes.”
“Well, as it’s convenient for you.” The Kommandant plopped on her bed and lit a cigarette. I returned to my room with a stack of letters and a new appreciation for what it meant to self-actualize.

The Ingrate
“Naïve ingrate!!! Understands nothing. Last time I stand in line for four hours to buy sweets to bribe the Kommandant to give me his letters—letter.” I shouted at the walls, wadding up George’s letter and throwing it into the corner. I pulled out a piece of paper, wrote some things I immediately regretted, crumpled it, threw it against into the corner, and glared at the two ruined letters together on the floor…
Suffice it to say that George’s letter did not make a single mention of our kiss, or of his break-up with Cecilia. And not a peep about whether he was going to come to Russia for work. Not only that, but he had the nerve to tease me about how much time I seemed to be spending shopping and how little work I seemed to be doing on my project.
I stood in the center of my room, strangely calm, staring at the big, beautiful balloon of George expectations I’d been so patiently blowing up for the past months. Funny, how the only thing I had patience for was this, this—illusion. I looked at his letter crumpled on my floor.
BAM! The bubble burst. I could just quit waiting for a letter that would never come, quit wasting time feeling weepy and homesick and lovesick, and just be in Moscow. To hell with George.
Liberating, in a way.

Toilet Paper
The next morning I stared into the toilet bowl. As usual, my crotch, blackened with Pravda’s half truths, left the water a tad gray. Only today there was something new. A trace of blood swirled in the gray water. My bladder infection had gotten much worse. I knew the cure—I needed to drink gallons of water and pee about a hundred times a day. But I couldn’t face the Pravda part of this regime. Buying toilet paper became my number one priority. Even if it meant taking a week off at the Institute.
Off I went, shopping. After an entire day of NYET, I returned to the dorm, my nerves shattered from all the lines, and beginning to develop a fever from the infection. At the mailboxes my spirits lifted a little at the sight of Boris sorting his letters. I wondered what he was giving the Kommandant to get his mail so reliably and then pushed the thought out of my mind.
“Boris, there’s no toilet paper at any stores.”
“I can get you some—I am doing a business deal with a toilet paper factory.”
“Really? That’s great! Can I help?”
“I didn’t know you were so enthusiastic about business. I thought you were only interested in ideas.”
“Well, when it comes to the toilet paper business…”
“Very sexy business, I know.” Boris’s sarcasm betrayed a little shame.
“I never appreciated how important it is to have toilet paper before I had to start using Pravda. Now I understand the contribution that toilet paper producers make to the 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?”

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.
“Because Gosplan believes that it can calculate the right amount of toilet paper our factories should make more efficiently than the market.” Boris shrugged.
“Don’t they have eyes to see they’re wrong?”
“Sometimes our government is like you, Emma. It’s so convinced by what’s in its head that it doesn’t bother to check with reality. Too impatient.”
“But somebody must state the obvious here?” I heard my voice go shrill.
“In fact, it’s illegal to tell the truth. So much for glasnost. And I just heard that Gorbachev has rejected the 500 Days plan. So much for perestroika.” Boris shifted gears angrily, and the car lurched.
“Well, you can’t transition to a market economy in just 500 days anyway,” I said
“At least it was a plan, a commitment. Now we just have increased fear that things will go back to the old ways, and then no toilet paper club, no toilet paper, no bread.” Boris turned to face me, winking “Just equality.”

The Cutting Machine
Boris and I pulled up in the muddy parking lot of the toilet paper kombinat and entered the factory-campus. Five buildings in various states of dilapidation were connected by muddy paths strewn with discarded equipment.
“Privyet, Boris!” A man in a muddy padded blue “proletariat” jacket and a walk that let you know how big his balls were smiled broadly, and came to pump Boris’s hand. “Who’s the beautiful dyevushka? Your new girlfriend?” The man’s deafening machine-gun laughter matched his big-balls walk.
“No, Anatoly, a capitalist come to see how we make toilet paper.”
“A real, live capitalist?” The man examined me for a moment. “Here I’ve thought all my life they were devils, and they’re just dyevushki?” The machine-gun laughter covered up a moisture about his eyes. Sentimental slobs, those Russians.
“Yes, beautiful dyevushki.” Boris suppressed a smile as he caught my eye. “Talk to you soon, Anatoly.” I stared at my feet, uncomfortable at being called “beautiful” and at being called dyevushka and at being talked about as if I weren’t even there.
“Excuse me, Boris?” Anatoly asked.
“Do you think she could fix the machine?” He was suddenly very serious.
“No, Anatoly, I’m afraid not. She’s a capitalist, not a magician.”
“And a dyevushka, after all. Too bad. But very pretty.” He winked at Boris, as if I weren’t there.
“Yes.” Boris took my arm. “Until soon, Anatoly.”
“Poka.” The man jogged off, legs spread, towards the furthest building. “I’m very late.” He called over his shoulder.
“We’ll follow Anatoly to the cutting shop.” Boris explained, leading me towards the furthest of the five buildings made of rough concrete blocks held together with crumbling, oozing cement. I realized with a start that I hadn’t seen properly laid bricks since I had left New York. It occurred to me that nothing would change in this country until Russians learned to lay bricks neatly.
Two more muddy workers in blue “proletariat” jackets walked by and called Boris’s name, waving. They told us everybody except the cutting-shop workers was on break. We walked past the next buildings and arrived at the door of the farthest.
“How come they love you so much here? Not that you’re not lovable, but—” I patted Boris’s back.
“I like—” Boris’s sentence was cut off by an inhuman scream from inside the building we were about to enter, freezing us in our tracks. The shriek was repeated twice, the door flew open. Anatoly, holding his right hand up in the air with his left, splattered blood on Boris and then me as he ran zigzagging out the door. A finger dangled and danced crazily with each step.
“Anatoly, Anatoly! Stop, sit down.” Boris took him by the shoulders and led him to a bench. He took a handkerchief and wrapped it around his finger.
I leaped out of the way as two men flung the doors open again. “Anatoly, we couldn’t find the finger,” one of them said, exasperated. As if he were saying, Anatoly, we’ve lost the keys again.
“It’s OK, it’s right here,” Boris indicated the now blood-soaked handkerchief.
“We’ll take him to the hospital,” offered one of the two.
“OK. We will follow. I know some people at the hospital.” Boris was already running towards his car.

Money Matters
The first thing I saw in the hospital was a cat licking the bandaged face of an unconscious man. A doctor wearing a bloody coat and no gloves walked by but didn’t bother shooing the cat away. Worst of all was the smell. Rotting meat. Rotting human meat.
After slipping her a couple hundred roubles, Boris finally got the attention of a nurse. A couple hundred more roubles bought the promise of a shot to alleviate the pain. “Stay here with Anatoly,” Boris whispered in English. “Make sure she gives him the medicine and doesn’t put water in the shot.”
“Anatoly looks like he might faint. If the patient passes out the nurses sometimes slip the medicine into their pockets and fill the syringes with water.”
My mouth opened and shut a couple of times. My mind kept trying to reject the scene as absurd, impossible, unreal. My churning stomach reminded me that this was real. All too. “OK. I’ll watch.”
“I’m going to find the doctor I know.” Boris ran down the hall.
The nurse pulled a syringe with an obviously-used needle attached to it out of the drawer. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. “Wait! You’re going to use a used 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 gratitude, she showed me the medicine, let me watch as she filled the syringe, and poked it into Anatoly’s finger, just below the wound.
Five lousy dollars…
I had come here to escape the tyranny of cash, but Communism’s great irony was that it made money matter more, not less.

The Consultant
I stayed in my room for a few days waiting for my stomach to quit churning. My mind toggled between the vision of Anatoly’s finger flapping, the cat licking the bloody face of a comatose patient, and the nurse transformed by the five-dollar bill.
It was Boris who pulled me out of my funk. “I’ve met somebody who will fix the machine.” That was why he could smile all the time—he always believed he could fix all the problems.
“Yes. Do you want to meet him?”
“Sure, if you want me to. What’s his deal?”
“His deal?”
“What’s he do?”
“He’s is a specialist in workplace safety. Did you know that your government has a whole agency called Occupational Safety and Health Administration that makes sure that factories and offices are safe. Akh, capital—ezm!”
“So, what’ll he do for the toilet paper kombinat?” I’d never heard of OSHA before. It did sound pretty good, I had to admit. Maybe capitalism wasn’t so bankrupt after all, even with its measurement problems.
“I hope that he will have some ideas about the cutting machine.”
“It’s more likely he’ll behave like a self-righteous prick in a fancy suit,” I said, speaking more out of habit than conviction. It felt good to dislike consultants. But I found my stomach was settling down at the prospect of a specialist in workplace safety.
“What is this, a self-righteous prick?”
“Well, self-righteous means that you think you’re morally superior to everybody 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 airbrushed out, indicating a commitment to Glasnost. Dmitri was surrounded on either side by two deputies, and facing a twenty-five year-old consultant wearing a nametag, Ned Silverpen.
Ned crossed and re-crossed his legs daintily to the side of the table, brushing invisible dust from his delicate, expensive looking loafers/slippers. Who the hell bought shoes like that, anyway? Wimp shoes, like little-shit dogs. I looked up and saw Boris staring at the shoes as well. We smiled in silent acknowledgement of the fact we both looked forward to the walk through slushy snow and mud to the cutting machine. That would take care of those flimsy little shoes.
“You get what you measure—that is why you have to institute the new ABC accounting methods.” I stifled a laugh at the thought of this twerp trying to put ultra-precise accounting methods in place here. The la-la land currency, the constant shortages of everything, the implacable work ethic of the labor force—they would do to his ABC accounting methods what the weather was about to do to his shoes.
The General Director looked as if he were fighting sleep. Boris jumped into the conversation, steering it to more productive ground. “Ned, I understand that you are an expert in workplace safety.”
Ned perked up. “Well, yes.”
“We have a problem with a cutting machine. If you are able to help us fix it, you would improve efficiency as well as the lives of our workers.”
“OK. I’ll need to take a look at the machine, and talk to the people who work on it.”
“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.
“I am the general director here. If I can’t figure it out, you think that the guys on the floor can?” Dmitri Stepanovich was turning red again.
“You are the general director, a very busy man. You don’t have time to solve every little problem. But you have hired a consultant from America who’s going to try American methods.” Boris stared Dmitri Stepanovich in the eye, and then looked at Ned.
Ned caught on to the respect that Boris showed to Dmitri Stepanovich, and tried to imitate it. “Exactly so, Dmitri Stepanovich. But in order to try these methods I need your permission to look at the machine and talk to the workers.”
“OK, OK. Boris, take him down to the cutting shop. I am waiting for a report by the end of the day.”
“Thank you very much.” Ned looked relieved.
“A big thank you.” Boris stood up and motioned for Ned and me to follow him before Dmitri Stepanovich could change his mind.
As we reached the door of the director’s building Ned paused to put on galoshes that reached mid-calf. Boris and I exchanged disappointed glances. He wasn’t going to muck up his little-shit shoes after all.
“Ned, I want to give you some background. I think that you are not going to like what you will see. I doubt that such situations exist in your country.” Boris said on the way to the cutting shop.
“Like what?”
“One in ten workers, I think, is missing one or more fingers.”
Ned stopped in his tracks, a little pool of slush and dirt forming around his galoshes. “One in ten?”
“Yes. And the problem is with one machine which they have been unable to replace or repair in the past four years.”
“Oh, God! What is wrong with the management of this place?”
Boris prodded Ned to keep walking. “You can’t change the management. I propose that you examine the problems you can solve. There is sense in the method that you proposed to Dmitri Stepanovich—you may be able to get some ideas from the workers about how to fix the machine. Our guys are good. But it’s very hard to get Dmitri Stepanovich to listen. He is a big boss.”
We reached the door of the cutting shop, and Boris introduced Ned to Andrei, Sergei, Vladimir, and Victor. Boris and I watched in amazement as Ned took off his suit jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and dropped the suspenders from his shoulders, letting them hang down his legs. He asked pointed questions about who did what with the machine, and where the problems were from each man’s perspective. It was evident that he had only the vaguest understanding of the answers he was getting, but by 3:30 he had the workers sketch out the source of the problem and how to fix it. Ned walked over to Boris. “Are we allowed to actually fix it?”
Boris paused. I held my breath. Dmitri Stepanovich had asked for a report, not a fait accompli. It was Dmitri Stepanovich who had to sign off on all repairs. And Boris had no real authority at the factory—indeed, doubtful whether his connection there was even legal. Dmitri Stepanovich had taken a risk to let Boris into the factory without hiring him through the official channels. It was his little contribution to mankind’s stock of courage. But he could be arrested for damaging state machinery. Would Boris be putting Dmitri at risk if he said to fix the machine? Or maybe Boris would be putting himself at risk. Dmitri could have Boris arrested for damaging state machinery to protect himself if something went wrong. Boris scratched his head. Just then Anatoly walked by, with his dirty bandage. “Boris, kak dela?” Kak dela is generally translated ‘how are you,’ but literally translated, it’s ‘how’s business.’
Boris jumped, suddenly decisive. “Business has never been better. We’re going to fix this damned machine.” In another context these would not have been the words of a hero. But what would be considered normal at home was in fact superhuman here. Brecht was right. “Unhappy is the nation that needs a hero.”
Anatoly looked impressed. Then he held up his bandage with an ironic chortle. “About a week too late. Too bad.” He paused. “But it’s a good thing you’re doing. Maybe my son will keep all his digits.”
“I hope so.” Boris waved as Anatoly walked on
The men turned and began talking amongst themselves. Ned interjected, “If there is anything the three of us can do to help, let us know.”
“No, no it’s our beast, we know it, only we can fix it. Go have some tea. We’ll be finished in a couple of hours.” Andrei said with some pride. Ned beamed. “Excellent.”
Two hours later everyone was despondent. A part was needed, but it would take at least six months to get it. The next morning a measure of determination, if not optimism, returned. One of the workers had a friend who worked in the machine shop at a military factory. Ned brought a bottle of scotch and the part got made. Ten more deals and three days later, Andrei, followed by his three colleagues, came triumphantly into the room where Ned, Boris and I were drinking tea. “We’ve done it! We’ve fixed that old bastard.”
“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 from Emma and a yes from Boris…But, Emma, delighted to have been surprised by you. Perhaps you can persuade Boris to join us.” Another awkward silence was broken by Ned’s hand outstretched to shake mine. “Welcome to the Payne Moscow team.”
“Thanks. Thanks very much, Ned.” I shook his hand warmly.
“Can you start in two weeks?”
Boris’s sulks drove Ned from the dorm rather sooner than was entirely 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.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Boris. I didn’t mean to offend you. I still don’t understand things here.” There was something intimate about having hurt him that made me want to stay close to him, to protect him.
“When are you going back to Siberia?” Was he going to disappear again? “Tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow!” I tried to think of a reason why he shouldn’t go. “Where?”
“I’m visiting a factory in Tomsk.”
“Tomsk, yes. It’s a closed city.”
“A closed city?”
“Yes, they have lots of military factories there, so it’s very restricted. But I have secured permission for you to talk to the workers.”
“Do you want to come or not?”
“I have to leave in a couple of minutes—I am going to buy the tickets. Do you want to come with me?”
I had visions of myself as Lara chugging in a train across Siberia to meet Dr. Zhivago. “Sure. Why not?” What the hell?

I whistled cheerfully on the way back to my room. I didn’t usually whistle—couldn’t carry a tune. But this one seemed so jolly I couldn’t resist. “M m mm, mmmmm mm.” What was that tune? Some song from college…
“I want money, lots and lots of money.” Suddenly the words poured into the tune, and I was overwhelmed with a self-awareness of the most painful sort. My subconscious had erupted in the tune, like a gigantic zit.
Back in my room I struggled to come to peace with what the song implied about why I had accepted the consulting job. At some point over the past year, I had abandoned my journal and started processing new ideas and big decisions through George. Even if my George illusions had burst, he was still my friend. So it was only natural that I would try coming to terms with my decision by writing to him, right? Well. Sort of.
Two hours later I crumpled up my very long letter and threw it against the wall. I took out a clean sheet of paper and stared at it for half an hour, wishing that it were as absorbent at toilet paper. That would make it useful, at least. Unable to think of what else to write, I picked up the crumpled missive, smoothed it, and re-read it.
First, I’d written, “The State’s capacity to do harm far outweighs its capacity to do good. It turns out that private business is likely to have better answers to social problems than a government.” But George was a bureaucrat delivering humanitarian aid. He wasn’t likely to agree. I wasn’t sure I agreed. I crossed my words out.
The second paragraph described how I admired Ned for saving the fingers of the toilet paper workers. I had taken the job because I hoped to save the fingers of Russian workers everywhere. I winced and put a big X through that nonsense.
“In the choice between chocolate and free speech, eggs and externalities, it is the food that should win out every time.” I wasn’t quite willing to commit to paper my betrayal of these ideals so I slashed through that sentence as well.
Next I claimed that being a consultant would contribute more to my project than library research. Even I thought that sounded like transparent bullshit. I crossed this line of reasoning out too. Then I explained how I wanted to produce more than just words on the page. But that was how Boris felt, not me. The truth was, no matter how reality changed my notions of how the world should work, I would always love intangible ideas more than anything else. I would rather come up with a new economic theory than build a building and I’d rather read a book than make a dinner. George knew that as well as I did. I scratched through my lie.
“I never had had any luck talking to workers. I think I’ll have more access to the Soviet proletariat as a businessperson than as a researcher.” I groaned as I read my words and scratched out that BS.
“Plus, the job comes with an international line. I’ll be able to call you any time.” Then again, why was I so eager for a phone, anyway? It wasn’t like George had broken up with Cecilia and we had tons of things to discuss…Come to think of it, the phone was more of a con than a pro. I scribbled through those words till they were a big black box.
And so on, until the only sentence left was one that read, “I will be earning approximately 700 times my current salary.”
Well, what of it? I knew that money wasn’t the only reason I was taking the Payne job. I had my good reasons. I just wasn’t able to articulate them. I threw the letter back on the floor and stomped around for a few minutes.
I returned to the clean sheet of paper and wrote:
Nov 3, 1990
Dear George,
I took consulting job. Fuck you if you don’t approve.


Not A Service Economy

The next day I found myself at Domodyedovo Airport watching Boris bribing for boarding passes. It wasn’t my romantic image of Lara chugging across Siberia on the train, but what the hell. A bottle of perfume and a box of chocolates later, my hero returned with two boarding passes. We raced to the gate just in time to be pushed down the stairs to the tarmac and onto an impossibly crowded bus.
The bus lurched toward our airplane. At least I hoped it was ours. Boris had told me it wasn’t uncommon for whole plane-loads of people to fly to the wrong city as a result of bus driver error. Given such stories, I was momentarily reassured by the confidence with which people pouring out of the bus charged up the stairs to the airplane.
I wanted to ask Boris how everyone was so sure they were getting on the right plane. But I didn’t want him to think I was a wimpy, spoiled American, expecting all kinds of unreasonable predictability from life—like flights that go to the right city.
I bit my tongue and watched. A stewardess appeared at the top of the stairs and forced the people back down into the snow. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut any longer. “They drove us to the wrong damn plane, didn’t they?” I asked Boris.
“It’s not clear. Just wait a little.”
WAIT??? I was always waiting in this God-forsaken country! How could he seem so totally unconcerned? We were about to be flown eleven time zones in the wrong direction and it didn’t seem to bother him or anyone else one little bit. What was wrong with everybody? What these people needed was a market to come and kick them in the ass.
Then again, what was I getting so worked up about. What difference did it make whether I flew to Tomsk or Minsk or Pinsk or Chelyabinsk? The point was to have an adventure. And surely going to the wrong city was more adventurous than going to the right city?
Still, standing around waiting in the snow didn’t really feel so adventurous. I looked around for some object worthy of my meditations. My gaze fell on the stewardess who’d forbidden us to board. She wasn’t just any stewardess. This was a dominatrix-stewardess.
She stood at the top of the stairs, her shoes looming large. Extremely high, thick heels made their way to long legs in thick tan stockings. The blue Aeroflot skirt came just below the knee, exposing a powerful calf. 1950’s schoolmarm with an unsettling sexy twist. Her wildly curled hair had been bleached by God knows what product. The effect was exacerbated by excessive amounts of powerful red lipstick and hot pink stripes of rouge. But the most noticeable thing was her “birthmark,” which appeared to have been made with an indelible marker. She was a control-freak with the kind of inflexible will that ordinarily would have made me want to spite her, flick a spoonful of mustard in her face. But in this case I didn’t have my usual knee-jerk impulse to mess up her hair. She wasn’t choosing to spend all day getting made over at Elizabeth Arden or having conical boobs implanted. Her circumstances were legitimately out of control. I sympathized with her need to assert her own special sense of order into this crazy situation.
“Nobody will be allowed onto the airplane until they have finished cleaning the toilets!!!” she yelled. The snow falling on us did not faze this woman.
“Dyevushka, dyevushka, it is snowing. Please!” One man without an umbrella dared to stand out from the crowd.
“Nyet!” So firm was her ‘no’ that the crowd collectively decided to endure the drizzle rather than face such a ‘nyet’ for a second time.
This went on for some fifteen minutes until a thoroughly cowed man with a bucket and a brush slunk down the stairs. Only when he reached the bottom of the stairs did the dominatrix-stewardess make a gesture indicating that we could board the plane. Such was the crush of humanity struggling for seats that Boris and I were forced to sit right by the newly-cleaned toilet.
“Smells like he cleaned it with pee,” I observed, leaning back and wincing with pain as I discovered only a thin layer of material between my spine and the crooked metal frame of the seat. I decided I had crossed that fine line between adventure and travel hell.
“Probably did.” Boris shrugged and settled into his seat as if to show me this was all perfectly normal and I should just chill.
I wasn’t sure if I would be able to stand the smell for the duration of the four-hour flight to Tomsk. Thirty minutes later, however, I could no longer smell it. The plane had hit turbulence and began pitching and rolling with such force that every third passenger had begun to retch. The stench of regurgitated beets, barley, onions, sour cream and vodka was making my stomach churn, bringing buckets of saliva into my mouth. The dominatrix-stewardess got it all cleaned up and disposed of with impressive efficiency, but the smell—well, even the dominatrix couldn’t open airplane windows. I was getting that tell-tale tugging under my chin. I was sure to barf. I focused on breathing without smelling, on counting by five’s.
An hour and a half brought no relief. The wings of the airplane were beginning to flap. The passengers were beginning to flip. I had counted to ten thousand by five’s three times. Just as I started counting by prime numbers one of the pilots came out of the cockpit to calm everyone down. He slurred and staggered, clearly rip roaring drunk. The plane took a lurch, he banged his head, and staggered back to the controls. Several passengers screamed, others began to weep.
This couldn’t really be happening. This was the sort of thing that happened in movies, in stupid movies I wouldn’t even bother to see. The plane lurched, and the window banged my head. This really was happening.
I made a deal with God. If She would just let the plane land I promised I would never, ever, ever fly Aeroflot again. I would take the train back to Moscow. Please, please, please just let it land. Please, please, please. I promise—
Silence interrupted my prayer. A hush more terrifying than any gasps or shrieks or sobs was emanating from the front of the airplane. The dominatrix-stewardess was bringing quiet down the front of the airplane by bending over each passenger. What was she doing to everybody? Last rites? No, no, this was an atheist state. What was going on?
“Last name?” The dominatrix-stewardess had arrived at our row, doomed silence in her wake.
“Kuznetsov,” Boris replied. The dominatrix-stewardess wrote ‘Kuznetsov’ across his forehead. Before I had a chance to register my surprise, the dominatrix-stewardess turned to me.
“Last name?”
“Pardon?” I still couldn’t believe she had written on Boris’s face.
“TELL ME YOUR LAST NAME.” The dominatrix-stewardess brandished an indelible marker, evidently the same one she used to make her beauty mark.
“For easy identification in case of a crash.”
The dominatrix-stewardess wasn’t going to spare any more time for unnecessary explanations. Before I could object, she had a big X written on my forehead.

The Wondrous Depths
“So what do you think of our airline?” Boris asked. We had landed safely, and were in the car on the way to the airport.
“Do they always write your name on your forehead during turbulence?” I spat on my fingers and began wiping Boris’s forehead.
“No, that was the first time. Even for me.” Boris burst out laughing and gave the X on my forehead a little kiss.
My forehead burned and I struggled to appear calm. “I’ll tell you what I think. I think this is not a service economy.”
“There’ll be no turbulence after market reforms?” Boris’s eyes crinkled.
“Hey! I thought you were Mr. Capitalism?”
“I think that you are getting just as romantic about the free market as you were about communism.” Boris played with a strap of my purse.
“No, I just think that a stewardess would know somehow she’d get fired for writing on the customers’ faces.”
“Like I said, very romantic.” Boris settled my head back into his shoulder. I only had two seconds to relax there before my mind started its thing. Was I going to kiss him? Would I have sex with him? I had almost died. Why the hell was I now worrying about whether I was going to have sex?
Sex!? Were Russians circumcised? What, exactly, did an uncircumcised penis look like? Would it feel different?
But, what about George? Then again, what about George? He was still with Cecilia, that’s what.
I nestled a little closer to Boris at the thought of Cecilia. Was I really going to do this? Did I want to do this?
I silenced all these unanswerable questions in my head by staring out the window. Siberia. I was in Siberia. Siberia! How odd. What in the name of God was I doing there? The most amazing thing about it was that it didn’t look so different from the outskirts of Moscow. Snow, pine, and birch trees—white, green and silver, occasionally cleared to make way for messy pre-fab concrete buildings like a brutal scar on a beautiful face. Then, more snow, pine, birch trees, and the occasional scar of humanity. As far as the eye could see. I imagined thousands and thousands of miles filled with snow, pine, and birch trees. Such vastness was somehow oppressive.
“Pip’s ringed horizon began to expand around him miserably.” The line from Moby Dick about the little sailor who fell overboard in the middle of the ocean had always struck me.
“What’s that?” Boris looked worried about me again. He had a little-boy sweet kind of innocent concern.
“It’s a line from Moby Dick. It’s how Pip felt when he fell overboard,” I had memorized the whole passage. “The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps—”
“Do you feel like you’ve fallen overboard?” Boris interrupted my quote. Well, maybe I shouldn’t sleep with him after all. I could never fall in love with a man who would skip right over those “wondrous depths.” But, then again, who said I had to fall in love with him? Nothing wrong with a little fling. Nothing at all. A little sex with a big-dicked Alpha Man might be just the thing to calm my nerves. Love and Death, a la Woody Allen. Or at least sex and near-death. Nope, no reason at all not to take this opportunity to see my first unedited penis. “Be calm.” He rubbed my arm, skooching me closer to him.
I relaxed into his shoulder again, and we arrived at the Presidential hotel, where Boris had somehow managed to secure two rooms for us. Two rooms? Well, it would have been presumptuous of him to do otherwise. But what if I was the one doing the presuming now? What if he left me alone in my room? As I closed the door, my room began to expand around me miserably.
Just as I was reaching a frenzied pitch of panic a knock on the door revealed Boris with a bottle of vodka and two little shot glasses.

Capitalism Embraced

My mind was in over-drive.
What would it be like to kiss such a handsome, muscle-bound man? I’d always wondered why so many women wanted these kinds of men, when everything about them screamed out, ‘I’m a selfish son of a bitch and won’t treat you well and will cheat on you at the first possible moment, which will probably arrive very shortly because I’m so studly that women throw themselves at me every five minutes or so.’ I willed Boris to pour—soon.
Looking at Boris’s jaw line and enormous feet I wondered if I hadn’t been missing out after all. Sleeping with an Alpha man was going to be a kick. Why hadn’t I done it long ago? I should’ve been out there with the rest of them, throwing myself in the way of some stud every five minutes or so.
Perhaps I was just like everybody else after all. That was why I took the job as a consultant. That was why I was about to sleep with an alpha man. Maybe I should just become a bond trader as long as I was at it. To hell with the teachers and all the hard-to-measure things. Size mattered!
But Boris was different from the average Alpha Man, wasn’t he? He was a Russian Alpha Man. And, he was a friend. Would sex hurt the friendship? Would uncircumcised sex hurt? Was I really going to have sex with him? Should I wait? Probably, but the question is can you wait? Probably not. Not once we got started. Would he have a condom? I didn’t. Thank God I was on the pill. It occurred to me that it was weird that I was willing to risk disease and death but not pregnancy. Was Thanatos conquering Eros here? But there wasn’t much HIV in Russia. Was there?
All these thoughts assailed me in the time it took us to sit down on the couch.
“Boris, are you going to pour me a drink, or what?” I needed a drink. Badly. A little booze to focus the mind, tame all its little tangents, let a girl focus on a man’s jaw line without being distracted by all these inappropriate questions. Boris’s front two teeth overlapped just so—the little imperfection that made it possible to look at his handsome face. I wished he would just give me a couple of drinks and kiss me. It was time to get this show on the road. What if he did what George did? Kissed me and bolted? I reached for the vodka bottle.
“Emma!” Boris grabbed the bottle from my hand. “Women don’t pour.”
“They do when their men are falling down on the job.”
He took my hand, and stared at me with mock-serious intensity. “Russian men do not—how do you say?—fall down on the job. Never.” He filled the two little glasses. “To our meeting.” He clinked my glass and drained his. I drained mine, and resisted the urge to demand more immediately. As the freezing vodka hit my stomach, I warmed to the little hairs on his wrist.
“Emma, I think you’re more frightened than you realize after the flight.”
“And you?”
Boris smiled confessionally. “Let’s have another. For our nerves.” We drained our glasses, and Boris stood up. “Do you mind if I take my jacket off?”
The question charmed me with its old-fashioned formality. “No, of course not.” He bulged under his shirt, big peck muscles, startling in their definition. He looked so strong, yet so reliable. Like a well-trained Rotweiler. “You could take your tie off, too, if you want.”
“Daaa?” He laughed, and pulled it off, unbuttoning the first two buttons of his shirt, and throwing his head around in a little celebration of his neck’s liberation, like a puppy off a leash. A little curly chest hair sprung out from the top of his shirt. I wanted to grab at those pecks; I’d never touched a body like that.
Oh, God! What if he smelled? What if he had that beefy boy sweaty sneaker smell that would make it impossible to kiss him, let alone get a glimpse of his unedited member? It would ruin everything. And Russians generally didn’t wear deodorant. Did Boris? I’d never noticed he stank, but I’d never been that close to him. Except in the car today, but he’d had a bulky coat on. Was I about to sleep with a golden Adonis or a stinky, dirty, uncircumcised brute twice my size? Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.
“Again?” Boris held the vodka bottle above my shot glass.
“Yes, please.” The thought of Boris’s potential B.O. had undone the work of the previous two vodkas. I wanted a couple more.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, please.”
“Positive? I want you to feel comfortable u nas, but not sick.”
“I can hold my liquor.”
Boris stood up for his toast. “I drink to you—strong American dyevushka.”
“And I drink to you—strong Sov—“
“Ah—” He objected to the term ‘Soviet’ being applied to him.
“Sorry, strong Russian mal’chik.” Mal’chik meaning ‘little boy.’
I drained the glass, felt the cold burning down to my stomach, and looked up at Boris. I was still sitting on the couch, and he was still standing. His crotch was level with my eyes, and I fancied I saw a bulge forming. He sat down quickly, and touched my cheek with the back of his finger. I looked him in the eye, and finally my thoughts settled into place. We sat like that for a moment, looking at each other in silent acknowledgement that we were about to kiss. I was on the verge of reaching out to grab his dramatic Slavic head, with its curls and hooded eyes, but he slowed me down, reaching out to touch my face with the back of his finger again. “Beautiful Emma.” I had never been comfortable with a man commenting on my looks—I had always wanted to make sure they appreciated my intelligence so much more. But now I liked hearing the words, coming as they did from Boris, in another language, another world.
He leaned forward to kiss me, and then pulled back at the last moment to look at me again, leaving my heart racing, feeling panicky for the kiss. He brushed my cheek with his finger again, and I turned towards his finger, brushing it with my lips. I wanted my lips touched, not my cheek. I moved towards him, but he stopped my advance with his words. “Beautiful, beautiful Emma.” He pushed me gently back on the couch and kissed my cheek, my forehead, my eyelids, and finally, finally my lips. His chest crushed into mine, and I kissed him back, frantically. Thank God. Thank God he was finally kissing me, and thank God he smelled—like soap.
His kisses came faster and faster, harder and harder. I hugged him as tightly as I could, rubbing his back, feeling the rippling muscles as he kissed down my neck, my ear. I pushed one leg between his, to feel the size of him. Oh. Oh, oh. I couldn’t believe what I was feeling. Telephone handle. I’d never look at a telephone receiver with equanimity again.
I moved my leg back and forth, and he began to push it gently into me. It poked my rib cage, and I reached down, grabbed his butt and pulled him tight against me. He moved down my body, tearing at buttons now. I couldn’t wait one more second. I unzipped his pants, and he tugged at his belt with one hand, and mine with the other. He stood up, and I pulled his pants and underwear off, and, oh my God, I couldn’t go through with it. The sheer enormity of the thing so startled me that my interest in its uncircumcision was dwarfed. I wasn’t sure I could take it. Which made me want it all the more. Now.
I stood up and pushed him towards the bed.

The Third Measurement
Yuri Antonovich, a squat box of a man, wanted to show us around Tomsk before taking us to the lidar plant where he was General Director. Lidars measured visibility for safer airplane landings. No more relying on the subjective judgments of drunken pilots. Not that I would fly again. Not that I was noticing a damn thing on the tour. I was too distracted by each breath I took to notice much on the tour. Each time I inhaled the membranes in my nose froze. As I exhaled, they thawed with a distracting little crack.
“What’s the temperature?” I asked. Yuri Antonovich gestured to the digital clock dominating the square. 9:53 am, it read. Then it flashed –40o. Minus forty degrees centigrade! As I tried to figure out how cold that was in Fahrenheit, some third number loomed over us. What was that third number? In the US it could have been the Dow, or some election returns. But here there were no market numbers, and elections here were predetermined and therefore not interesting enough to flash in the town square. What could they be counting? Sports scores? Number of times Boris and I had sex last night? The memory ran up and down the back of my legs.
“What is that third number after the time and the temperature?”
“Oh, don’t worry, it’s plenty low today. No need for concern at all.”
“But what does it measure?”
“The radiation level.” He shrugged as if that were just a normal fact of life to be flashed in town square.
“Oh.” Holy shit!!!
“It’s only recently that we have the third number,” Yuri Antonovich explained proudly. “Before, the factory was forbidden to warn people of accidents, and we had to live in constant fear. Now we only have to be afraid when there really is a problem.”
“A big improvement,” Boris’s admiration was genuine.
The factory had accidents so often that everybody wanted to know the radiation count all the time. And I had thought capitalism did a bad job on the environment! My decision to become a consultant was feeling more like an ethical conversion than a sell-out every day. Measurement solution, here I come!

The Urban Assault Vehicle
Lunch at the lidar factory was an affair of dumplings with sour cream and pickles, rendered festive by vodka shots. Shot after shot, punctuated by increasingly sentimental toasts to friendship between the US and the USSR, the end of the cold war, and so on, I was still no clearer on what a lidar did; it measured something—but what? No clue… The fifth shot, to universal human connections, made a scene from last night flash in my stomach, leaving me weak and speechless. Yuri Antonovich began whispering with his colleagues but I paid little attention, absorbed as I was in my own thoughts. They got very excited and started nodding furiously. Standing, he made one final toast to trust, more specifically, to trust in women, more specifically still, to trust in me, and, finally getting to the heart of the toasting, to a certainty that I wasn’t from the CIA. Draining the last drop lovingly, Yuri Antonovich winked at me. “You want to know what weapons we make?”
“No, no, not at all, not if it is a secret.”
“I want to show you.” Yuri Antonovich was beginning to sway in little circles. “But unfortunately, it’s a secret—a state secret—a military state secret.”
The Talking Heads started up in my mind. “Well—How did I get here?” How indeed? How had I stumbled into a weapons factory in the heart of the Evil Empire? I raised my glass, proposed a toast to military state secrets, and drained it to the bottom. Thank God for cold vodka. It transformed “scary” into “high hilarium.” Fighting the giggles, I said, “I really don’t need to see any secret weapons.”
“But we want to show you. To prove that we trust you. To prove that, for the dyevushka-kapitaleest we will do anything. Let’s go!” Yuri Antonovich made a sweeping gesture with his arm, and everyone at the table stood up. We battled the freezing cold to a far corner of the factory complex. “Well, here we are,” he announced solemnly as we reached an enormous windowless structure.
What sort of killing machine was I about to see? I happened to know a lot about weapons. I was a big fan of spending on externalities, as long as that meant education and the environment. However, I believed defense spending was no longer a legitimate externality. It was nothing more than an excuse to enrich the military-industrial elite. I’d taken a whole class on cold war weaponry to try to find some proof for this belief. So I knew enough to hope that if I were to see a rocket, it would be MIRV’ed. Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs) allowed one rocket to carry up to ten warheads. Such a rocket could take out ten American cities. Come to think of it, this was the kind of horror that would never get built without a government. Why oh why did I ever think the government was the solution? Now I knew, it was the whole damn problem!
Nodding to the guard, and signing various papers, Yuri Antonovich led us through an extraordinarily thick steel door, locking it solidly behind, plunging us into a profound darkness. What if we got locked in? I held my breath while Yuri Antonovich fumbled for the light switch. Would he tell me what cities the MIRV’d ballistic missile was aimed at? New York, DC, Philadelphia, Boston—
Click. I had to close my eyes against the lights. I blinked, my eyes adjusted, and revealed to me—another building identical to the one we had entered, only smaller. Yuri Antonovich led us through another steel door, closed it, and again we were plunged into darkness. Maybe we’d see an ABM. Antiballistic missiles were one of the cold war’s most menacing weapons. They defended people against nuclear attack, thus obliterating mutually assured destruction…
This time, he fumbled rather longer than the last time for the switch, and I felt Boris’s presence close to me. He grabbed my hand, and his warmth added to the vodka, turning my fear into amusement. What was this anyway? A terrifying weapons factory, or a gigantic matrioshka doll like the ones they sold to tourists on the Arbat? Yuri Antonovich finally found the light and revealed—another smaller, but identical building. I caught Boris’s eye; Boris matched his shrug with raised eyebrows. I bit the inside of my cheeks like I used to do to stop the giggles in church.
Yuri Antonovich turned to us with a flourish. “This is the last door. You are about to see our proudest achievement.” He paused, and held a finger to his lips. “No questions, no answers.” I caught my breath as he opened one more door to reveal—the urban assault vehicle from the movie Stripes.
Surely they hadn’t shown Stripes in Tomsk…But, here it was. I would have sworn they’d stolen it from the set junkyard in Hollywood. “The ultimate measurement machine,” said Yuri Antonovich, waiting for admiration. I didn’t know quite what to say.
“Well?” Yuri Antonovich prompted, still waiting for some response from me.
If he thought this was self-explanatory…“I do not know what it does, Yuri Antonovich. I don’t think we have these in America.”
“It measures habitability of the land after a nuclear attack.” This thing was to be used after my country tried to blow his to kingdom come.
“Oh.” If those kinds of measurements ever became necessary, well…what was the point? Much better to measure profits, after all. Especially if Ned was right and you get what you measure!

The Capitalist Tool

I wasn’t about to get on another airplane, so Boris got us tickets on the train—a two-day plus journey with a little private cabin all to ourselves and nothing much to do. Suffice it to say that I was walking like a cowboy by the time we pulled into Moscow. “You look like a Cossak in the city, fresh from the steppes,” Boris teased as I waddled towards the subway. I felt proud. In 60 hours I had obliterated his Russian romantic formality and replaced it with an American bawdy, open and cheerful.
I grabbed hold of Boris’s coat and made him pull me over the ice to the metro. The train was packed, so we clung to the same pole, his arm protecting me from a drunken passenger, his finger touching my neck with a soft reassurance that left me weak. I was sorry when we arrived at our station.
Back in the dorm, Boris proposed vodka, but I countered with tea, as the next day was my first day at Payne. Boris began to sulk. “Boris, why are you so upset about my taking this job?”
“I wanted you to work for me.”
“Work for the man I’m sleeping with? Fuck that noise!”
Boris’s jaw worked, he clenched his fists and fixed his flashing eyes on me in silent fury. He reminded me of Billy Budd. I should say something fast before his unspeakable rage made him punch me in the face.
“Boris, I’m sorry.”
He sat down hard and rubbed his jaws. “And why won’t you work for me?”
I stepped back. “Would you work for me?”
There was a long pause. “Oh. I see…The famous American independent woman. Do you want me to prepare dinner for you also?”
“No, not as long as you don’t expect me to cook dinner for you.”
I had him and he knew it, but he wasn’t ready to give up his anger yet. “It’s because I’m Russian isn’t it?”
“You won’t work for a Russian. There’s the problem. You have no respect for my country.”
“Boris, that’s totally unfair. I would gladly have worked for you a week ago. But quite a few things have changed since then.”
“Like what?” Why do men ask questions like that? Are they really so dense?
“Well, we’ve slept together for one thing. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?” Tears sprang to my eyes.
“Yes, and here is why I want to be with you all the time.” He felt bad for hurting me, and was hugging me now. The argument had become a conversation. “This is why I don’t understand why you wouldn’t work for me.”
“Look, Boris, I believe that a, uh…” I was about to say the r-word. This gave me pause. Were we already in a relationship? If so, I needed to write a note to George. Why, Emma? Whatever. The relationship question was a whole other conversation. “A relationship has got to be rooted in equality. And if I work for you it’ll ruin all that.”
“In that case, work with me.”
“You can’t change reality by changing one preposition. You will be the master of whatever you do, and you should be. So either work would mess up our relationship or our relationship would mess up work. I don’t want either one to happen.”
“I am not in agreement.”
“Besides, you haven’t asked me about the most surprising thing.”
“That I am going to be a consultant. A capitalist tool. A cog in the machinery.”
“Why is this so surprising?”
Just because this man could touch my neck on the subway just so didn’t mean that he understood me, that the two of us were close—or ever could be. Then again, I was only a week into this. “Because I am an academic, not a consultant. I am an idea person, not a business person like you.” And not a government person like George, I didn’t add.
“Bakh. Reading and writing. What good is it?”
I took a step back from his embrace. “Those are my two favorite activities. Besides talking.”
“Reading, writing, and talking. I think you have forgotten one, you,” Boris shifted to English, “nasty girl.” He kissed my neck, appealing, if not to the core of me, to a very pleasant place indeed.


I stared at my hand hovering above the door knob of the Payne Moscow office, praying nobody was watching. Sea-changes are supposed to be observed looking backwards, preferably over many years. But I was experiencing this one looking forwards. I was fully aware that my life was about to change, dramatically. I felt as if I were seeing my life from a distance of several years, or reading it in a book, or watching it in a movie. But I wasn’t sure if it were a horror movie, and I, the audience to my own life, was yelling, don’t go in there! or if it were a football game and I was urging myself to go, go, go. I just knew that when I opened that door I’d be taking a fork in the road. Was it the right way to go? Was I betraying everything I’d ever believed in? Or being open-minded? No clue.
Well, what the hell? I opened the door, expecting nothing less than a real, live pathetic fallacy—something wild and frantic going on in there, something reflecting my inner turmoil. But the office was utterly lifeless, devoid of even a hint of warmth—and of people. A large room with linoleum floors had about eight offices around the perimeter and nothing in the center. Some sea-change. I looked around for a phone that I might be able to make international calls from.
“Hi, Emma, thanks for being so prompt. What do you think of Payne’s Moscow headquarters?” Ned appeared from one of the doored offices.
“Oh, it’s awesome.” Awesome like a black hole of personality, I didn’t add.
“Not posh like the offices in the States, but my bosses insisted on not having a fancy infrastructure in Moscow. They thought it would be inappropriate.”
“I see. But it’s possible to get work done here. You have things like, say, international phone lines?”
“Oh, yes of course.” He gestured to the receptionist’s desk, where there were about eight phones. I willed Ned to tell me which one I could use for international calls, but got no hint. “Now, step inside and I will tell you more about Payne and how we work.” Ned opened the door to his office, which he had managed to fill with an antique desk, a deep maroon oriental rug, and various expensive-looking tchotchki. He sat down behind his desk and motioned me to a chair with his long manicured fingers.
“The first thing I should tell you is Payne’s mission here in Moscow. Most of our clients are going to be large Soviet enterprises that various US government agencies have decided to provide some technical assistance to.”
“So the US government pays us?”
“Yes. The goal is to teach Soviet industrial managers to begin measuring profitability. As part of this we’ll be introducing some cost accounting methods, as I mentioned at the toilet paper kombinat.” I was silent before the irony of my sea-change. Accounting! Accounting was to economics as arithmetic was to philosophy. I had never balanced my checkbook. A boring pain in the ass. The bounced check fees were a small price to pay for avoiding such an onerous task. Had that been the real source of my idealism all along—just a grand rationalization for avoiding boring and unpleasant work? Had my father been right all along? Was it now time for me to grow up and deal with these kinds of things? I had once met a man who’d been a song-writer when he was young. He’d written Crimson and Clover and I’ve Got a Peaceful, Easy Feeling. Then he’d gotten married, decided he needed a stable income, got his CPA, and never wrote another song. Dear God, I respect and honor Your ironic sense of humor, but please don’t make me be an accountant! Please?
“By the way, I know Thanksgiving is coming up, but we won’t be taking the day off. Too muchy to do. You OK with that?” Ned put his thumbs in his suspenders. He was so 1980’s.
“Christmas, too.” Ned raised one eyebrow above his horn-rims.
“No problem. I don’t mind working hard.”
Ned stared back at me, challenging.
“So, do we get to talk to workers?” I wanted to break the silence. Besides, I was still interested in alleviating human suffering, in economic justice. I was just taking a more practical route to the same end, right? Yeah, right…
“Yes, unfortunately, that is going to be a big part of the job. It’s tough going.”
“No, I think that’s fascinating. That’s just exactly what I’ve been doing, or trying to do, in my research.” Who would guess that a consulting firm would help me so much with my academic research—and pay me so well to do it? Who knew that accounting had anything to do with saving the world? Life seemed almost eerily serendipitous. Maybe my sea-change wasn’t so banal after all.
“Well, good. You’ll be a great asset. I should also tell you about the formal interview process you’ll have to go through after a couple months in Moscow. It’s just a formality, really. But we should still prepare you.”
“Yes, it’s a very specific process at Payne. Let me give you an example.”
Ned leaned forward conspiratorially. “Imagine we’re on British Airways, first class, to London.”
I thought the first class bit was gratuitous, but went along. “OK.”
“It’s fifteen minutes till we land, and I turn to you, and say, ‘What are the market numbers for golf balls?’ What would you do?”
What in the name of God was he talking about? Market numbers? What numbers? And whatever they were, who cared about golf balls anyway? Elitist, boring sport for people with small minds. I looked at Ned. He was on the edge of his seat, leaning across the desk with his hands folded, clasping them so tightly that his knuckles were white. He appeared to be holding his breath. Surely all this nervous energy couldn’t be about the market numbers for golf balls? Was he having some sort of seizure?
I reached over and put my hand over his white knuckles. “Are you OK?”
He looked totally puzzled for a moment, and then devastatingly disappointed. “You don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, do you?”
“Ummmm—the market for golf balls?”
Ned looked palpably relieved. “Yes.” Who did Ned remind me of? Oh yes, Oscar Goldman, a character on my favorite childhood show, the Six Million Dollar Man. “So, what’s the number?” He prompted me.
My grandmother had once needlepointed me a little pillow that said, ‘say something—you can always take it back.’ I cleared my throat. “Well, I think it’s about six million dollars.”
“U.S. or worldwide?”
“Oh, definitely just the U.S.” I didn’t like accounting, but I could bullshit with the best of them.
“And how’d you get there? Walk me through it.”
Shit! I could hardly tell him about Oscar Goldman and the Six Million Dollar Man. “Well, I think that golf is an elitist game.” Ned nodded eagerly, taking this as a complement not an insult. “So I think only about half a million people play it regularly.” My mind raced. What times 500,000 gives you six million? Five goes into sixty how many times? Shit, shit!!! Oh, yes. Twelve. “And I think those people probably spend $12 a year on golf balls.” I was feeling like a champ.
“And why $12?”
“Uh—that’s about two balls a month at fifty cents a ball.”
“Well, I can see you don’t play golf but we’ll fix that, heh heh heh.” Ned had a self-satisfied laugh that matched his little shit shoes.
Heh heh heh my ass, I thought. I may have taken the job, but I would be damned if I took up golf. I wasn’t going to change that much.
“As for your methodology—you’re a natural.” Ned smiled as if he’d just coronated me.
Bizarre. This whole consulting thing was as absurd as anything the Soviet Union had produced. But at least it kept the scoring easy—billable hours would shrink my horizon and keep me from going insane. I’d seen a picture once of Shackelton’s South Pole crew, stranded on an ice flow, floating who knew where, playing football. It had always puzzled me—till now. Why play football in such dire straits? To carve out a comforting, scoreable game. Easy scoring preserved sanity. That was why I always counted in my head when something upset me. Well, consulting was my football game, and I was ready to start playing. A cash advance from Ned didn’t do anything to dim my enthusiasm.

Food, Glorious Food
I took my cash advance and hurried to the hard currency store. That evening I returned to the dorm triumphant, carrying chocolate, eggs, cheese, bread, champagne and strawberries in big red and white hard currency store bags.
“Treats!” I called out, holding the bags over my head.
“You’ve been to the hard currency store! Did you discover gold in the Lenin Library?” Boris teased.
“No, I got paid an advance today.” I started pulling the things out of the bag.
“What’s it like in the hard currency store?” Svyeta wanted to know. My feeling of celebration hiccuped at the injustice that lay under her question. She’d never been into a hard currency store—wasn’t allowed in the door. I’d had to show my American passport to enter.
“It’s pretty amazing.”
“It must be—look, a miracle! Stawberries in December!” Alyosha waved them around the room, allowing the celebration to breathe again. He bit into one. “Though they don’t taste as good as the ones in season.”
“Oooooh!” Svyeta pulled out a Toblerone and popped a triangle into her mouth. “Mmmm.”
“And cheese! I haven’t seen cheese in months. Swiss cheese! And, and—what’s this?” Boris was pulling cheeses out of the bag with delight.
“Goat cheese with cracked pepper.”
“And this?”
“Real French brie? I’ve read about it, but never tasted it,” Svyeta’s eyes shone in anticipation.
“And all these different breads in their different packages. Why are there so many different kinds of bread?” Alyosha held up a package of walnut raisin bread.
“It’s competition, marketing, capitalism, that sort of crap,” I explained. “I really like the fact that in Russia it’s just khleb. All the same pale blue trucks with khleb stenciled in white. None of the Wonder Bread nonsense that we have in the States—money spent on advertising food while some people go hungry.”
Boris bristled. “Bread nonsense is when there is no bread in the capital of a superpower.”
“Why can’t our factories make enough bread for us?” Svyeta asked.
“Because the factories in Moscow are ordered to sell their bread for less than it costs them to make it. It’s so cheap that farmers feed it to pigs—it’s cheaper than slop. So we have to compete with the pigs for it.”
“Daaa…Pigs eating our bread, and still we get no sausage.” Alyosha’s laughter was genuine. For him, the irony almost made up for the inconvenience.
Boris stood up. “Well, I have to go. Metali business.”
“At 11:30 pm?”
“Business never sleeps.”

The Boss’s Boss’s Boss’s Boss
A week later I arrived at the office to find Ned looking pale, with a green dewy forehead. Like a golf course at dawn.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Do I look that bad?” Ned’s eyes were feverish.
“No, no, not at all. You just look…distracted, that’s all.”
“The head of Payne is coming to Moscow—tomorrow!”
“Oh, that’s fantastic!” I figured that Ned was changing the subject because he didn’t want to talk about whatever it was that was turning him green.
“Fantastic? No, you don’t understand. This is Hank Greenburg. This is my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss.”
“So, it’s a great opportunity for you to get to know him, right?”
“Oh, please! Don’t be so naive!”
“What does he want to do here?”
“He says he just wants to do some sight-seeing. He was in Helsinki for a conference, and he’s coming to Moscow for a long week-end with his wife.”
“He called?” Which phone? I watched Ned’s eyes for a sign. Not a flicker. Shit!
“OK. So we take him to see the sights, get some reservations in restaurants. That’s it, right?” What was I missing here?
Ned leaped from his chair, knocking it over. He bumbled picking it up, and then glared at me as if his clumsiness were all my fault. “You think I went to Harvard Business School to become a concierge?”
I wondered what they did to people at the Harvard Business School to make them so prickly. “No, no, not at all. I’ll make the reservations and things.”
Ned’s expression was like the Moscow sky when the weather was changing—highly and rapidly variable. Gratitude, guilt, and suspicion vied for dominion. “Well, thank you. But I don’t want to ask you to do the work of the support staff; you’re professional staff.” I could see this distinction made a great deal of difference to him but I couldn’t quite grasp its significance. “And, furthermore, I should be the one to get the ‘face time’ with Hank, since I started the office, after all, not you.”
“Why don’t I come up with a recommended itinerary, you can approve it, and your driver can go around getting the tickets and things?” When Ned had fixed the cutting machine I had thought that I could become reconciled to his little-shit shoes. Now I wasn’t so sure.

The Stimulant
When Hank swept into the office the next morning, Ned trotting behind, he announced a change to his itinerary. Hank wanted to skip one of the old monasteries and go shopping in “ordinary Soviet stores.”
I wondered exactly what Hank’s interest was in ‘ordinary Soviet stores.’ It seemed a good sign, though. Indeed, everything about Hank seemed a good sign. He was a boyish fifty five with gray hair and an athletic frame, constantly in motion, eyes flitting and then focusing intensely, always seeing things with a kind of childish wonder that took the edge off his manly purpose. He filled the room so completely that I felt flattered he’d restrained himself and left some room over for me.
“We could go to the stores near the dormitory where I live,” I proposed. “I’ve got a purchase pass for that region.”
Ned glowered at me. I wondered what I could possibly have done wrong. Then I remembered about “face time.” Ooops.
Before Ned could protest, Hank had swept me into the car and we were zooming down Leninsky Prospekt. “So, why do you live in a dormitory?”
“I was doing some academic research—a critique of capitalism.”
“Oh, we’ve hired a Communist, have we? Very appropriate for our Moscow office.” Hank’s laughing eyes teased.
“All academics aren’t Marxists. And I’m certainly not a communist—just a critic of capitalism at this point, I suppose.”
“Aren’t we all?” Hank gave me a serious, intense look, his brown eyes all sincere curiosity. “At least anyone with half a brain and any sensitivity. Problem is, it’s the best system around. Don’t you think?”
“I’m not ready to concede that yet.” As soon as they were out of my mouth I realized the words were just habit now. My conviction had gone. Poof! Just like that. But it hadn’t exactly been replaced by conviction about what I was doing now. Was this disillusionment? It didn’t feel like it. It felt more like a giddy joke. My ideals had been weighty. Hank’s worl was light-hearted, easy to measure, not so damn serious.
“We’ll convince you.” He already had. The choice between Soviet shortages and Hank’s charm, at least, was not a difficult one.
We arrived at the grocery store. The ladies who’d laughed at me the first time I’d walked in looked on in awe as this tall man in a long black cashmere coat made his entrance. One of the shop ladies whispered to another, “Now there’s a real kapitalist!”
“Daa,” The other drew the word out in admiration. Hank was like a walking advertisement for capitalism.
The shelves contained bread, some cabbage soup, some barley, some “kasha” mix, and flour. Things had improved markedly since my first trip to the grocery. “Wow! There’s so much stuff.”
“This is all there is?” Hank asked simultaneously.
We laughed across our different perspectives. “It’s much better than it was before. The first time I came here there was nothing. Not a single thing to buy. Now at least there’s something—you don’t have the impression you’ll starve,” I explained.
“But there’s no fruits and vegetables at all,” he said.
“Oh—there’s a fruit and vegetable store next door. Want to see?”
“OK.” Hank followed after me. This store had some carrots still encased in mud, some bite-sized apples, and dirt balls that presumably had potatoes at their core. “Can I buy some carrots?” Hank wanted to know.
“No, you don’t have a pass. But I do. I’ll buy you some.” I selected four carrots at random, had them weighed, and paid.
“You just paid for the mud!” Moral indignation rang in his voice.
“I know. It’s annoying. But they yell at you if you try to knock it off.”
“This is a sellers’ market if ever I saw one.”
“Not really. Guess how much I paid?”
“A nickel?”
“About a third of a penny. I lived on $6 the first month I was here.”
Hank groaned. “This is going to be a tougher transition than I thought. The whole economy is out of whack.” He was like Boris. He could absorb a thousand seemingly inconsequential details and then explain the big picture with a simplicity that somehow refreshed.
“Yeah.” I agreed. “Tough psychologically too.”
“What about clothes?” He asked. I felt a little disappointed, like I had when Boris skipped right over those ‘wondrous depths.’ How could he not be interested in the psychological wrenching involved in the move from communism to capitalism? Why was he asking about clothes? Maybe he was just focusing on the things he could understand, do something about. This was his little football game on the ice floe. Keep the scoring simple. But that was the proble I had with capitalism in the first place—this false simplicity gives easy, incorrect answers. Wasn’t that the essence of the measurement problem?
Oh, fuck it! Come to think of it, I wanted to go to the clothing store, too. It was bound to be more cheerful than all these unanswerable questions.
If I was looking for cheer, a Russian clothing spot was a poor choice. There were stacks and stacks of shoes, all identical, and all seriously dusty, as if they’d been there for a year or more. They seemed to be out of everything else.
“I guess nobody wants these?” He held up a pair of brown high-heeled shoes.
“Guess not.” I looked more closely. They were huge, and all in the same size. I dropped one pair by my feet; the shoes were at least twice the size of my own. “Guess there’s not so many women who wear this size.”
Hank burst out laughing. “Wonder how the production of useless goods fits into Gosplan’s productivity numbers? Poor shmucks probably think the economy is twice as productive as it actually is.”
“Never thought about it that way.” I also wondered which was worse, big unwearable shoes or big tasteless fruit. I had to admit it was the shoes. At least the tasteless fruit was edible and looked good.
“Well, that’s how you’ll be trained to think at Payne.” Hank motioned towards the car, ready to go. In the car, he asked, “So, even if you paid people more, it wouldn’t really motivate them, would it? There’s nothing to buy.”
“Right.” I agreed.
“I’m no fan of rampant consumerism, but it certainly has its place, doesn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
Hank let his head flop on the seat back. “As a stimulant. People want such stupid things. Glass beads, fake flowers, rubber alligators, gold and ivory travelling chess sets, Hermes scarves, blue leather jackets—”
“Tender is the Night.” I interrupted. He was quoting, more or less accurately, Fitzgerald. He read novels! Maybe he didn’t skip over those ‘wondrous depths’ after all. Maybe I would find my new job more interesting than Ned’s case studies implied.

Den of the Thief
Hank added another little something to his schedule—dinner with a Rocket Man. Ned and I were to join Hank and his wife for a pre-dinner drink in their hotel. It all felt very adult, being invited drinks before dinner, and nobody even asking me if I were twenty-one yet. I was 22 now, and still hadn’t gotten used to being able to drink legally.
“Afraid all we have is scotch. I brought it with me. Always do. Will you have some?” I immediately liked Hank’s wife, Hermione, as much as I liked Hank. Like the single malt she gave me, Hermione had a warm glow about her, a mature mellowness that balanced her husband’s boyish energy. He was having a Diet Coke.
“Now, let me brief you on Andrei Dmitrovich.” Hank finished his Diet Coke and reached for another.
“You’re too young to remember Khruschev saying that the Soviet Union was pumping out missiles like sausages. But you’ve no doubt heard this quoted?” Hermione was good at bringing her husband’s conversation to life.
“Well, it is Andrei Dmitrovich’s factory that was pumping out those missiles.”
“Wow. That should be really interesting.”
“We’ve had his wife and him to our home in New York twice,” Hank explained. “I met him at a conference about three years ago. I can hardly wait to see his home—I imagine it will be like the joke about the African and the Chinese dictators. Have you heard it?”
“Well, a Chinese dictator invites an African dictator to his palace. The palace is unbelievably sumptuous, 200 rooms, beautiful antiques and tapestries, on a hillside. The Chinese dictator pulls the curtains aside and says, ‘You see that road?’ The African nods. The Chinese sweeps his arm around the room, pounds his chest, and says, ‘Ten percent.’”
“Bribes, you see,” interjected Hermione.
“So, the African invites the Chinese to his palace. It’s even bigger and grander. Trained lions guard the doors, and so on. He takes the Chinese to his window, pulls aside the curtain, and gestures to a beautiful, pristine landscape. ‘You see that road?’ he asks his guest. ‘There’s no road there,’ responds the Chinese. The African pounds on his chest. ‘One hundred percent.’” Hank roared with his best imitation of an African dictator’s wicked laughter.
There it was again, the government as the problem, not the solution. Damn!
“It’s really a horrible story, darling. Think of all the suffering for the sake of those palaces.” Hermione remonstrated.
“I agree; still, I must confess, I am eager to see the spoils of Soviet corruption. And you are too, you can’t deny it.”
“Actually, I have a feeling you’re in for a disappointment. I am pretty sure it will be shoddy and depressing just like everything else here,” I said.
“Oh, Emma, you just haven’t been to the home of the top brass yet!” He thought I was naïve. I was pretty sure I was right. I felt a little pang of pride in my superior understanding of the situation. For once, I kept my mouth shut. He’d see, soon enough.
A knock on the door revealed Ned, who looked at his watch when he saw me there already. “Am I late?”
“No, right on time.” Hank said. “Meet my wife, Hermione.”
“Nice to meet you,” Ned stuck out his hand to her, shook it perfunctorily, and then turned to me. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh, I just got here a little early. Subway is unpredictable.” Oops. The ‘face time’ thing again. God, Ned was awful—the very personification of all my anti-capitalist fervor from college. A boring person consumed by petty concerns. Hank, on the other hand, was a walking justification for my recent conversion. Well, I was just going to have to tune Ned out. Starting now. Otherwise I’d have to quit tomorrow.
Hermione arched one eyebrow behind Ned’s back and smiled sympathetically at me. “Let’s go down, shall we? Andrei Dmitrovich said his car would arrive to pick us up at 6:30 sharp. So kind of him to send it.”
“I think it’s more out of paranoia than kindness, love. He didn’t want to give an unknown driver directions to his house.” Hank patted his wife’s back.
“To have to live under such conditions. Such a shame.” She shook her head.

Where’s the Beef?
The driver whisked us to a wooded part of the city I had not seen before, and stopped before a ten-story brick building set among the trees.
“Wow! Look at that brickwork!” It had never occurred to me that brickwork could be moving, but I was moved. It seemed the most beautiful, soothing thing I had ever seen.
“Yeeees?” Hank, Hermione, and Ned were looking at me with tolerant amusement.
“All the bricks are even, laid at regular intervals—”
“Not exactly,” Hank pointed out.
“Well, mostly, and they’re parallel to one another, and, best of all, there’s no cement oozing out.”
“And?” The amusement was taking a turn towards concern. They thought I’d lost my mind. I looked at the building again. The building was the worst that modern architecture has to offer—unimaginatively designed and cheaply constructed. A beige brick rectangle with smallish windows. And yet it seemed impressive enough to make me catch my breath. A monument to my altered perspective.
“Haven’t you noticed? Most brickwork in Moscow looks like it was done by a child with attention deficit syndrome. I always thought that once Russians could lay bricks properly, it would be a sign that things were getting better here. So the tidy brickwork in this building is making me optimistic about the possibility of reform in the Soviet Union.”
Hank burst out laughing. “See, Emma, I told you you’d be impressed by the top brass.”
“Impressed!” Hermione exclaimed. “So much for the dictator’s villa you were expecting, dear. This building that you’re all so impressed with would be condemned if it were a housing project at home.”
“Just wait till we get inside, love.” Hank patted her shoulder. “The top Communists are bount to have better toys than even Bill Gates. What is the point of being a totalitarian otherwise?”
I hoped for interior squalor. I wanted to live in a world where dictators who did bad lived badly.

Andrei Dmitrovich was waiting to greet us on the landing. His wife, Nina Alexandrovna, peered out from behind him. He looked like a missile—albeit an over-weight missile, MIRV’d, perhaps. Towering closer to seven than six feet, crowned with a mass of silver hair, he carried his impressive girth well. “Welcome, welcome.”
As we stepped through the doorway, I watched Hank’s eagerness to view the spoils in the thief’s den. His face froze in a rigid smile, a mask for his disappointment. A profound sense of déjà vu hit me as I took the apartment in. What was it? Oh, yes. One summer a French exchange student, an Elvis freak, lived with us. We took him to Memphis to see Graceland. He had expected Elvis Presley’s home to be something grand, an American Versailles. Instead, there was a perfectly ordinary-sized house with green shag rug on the ceiling. But it was even worse for Hank in the Evil Empire than it had been for Pierre at Graceland. Soviet Chic is far more depressing than American Tacky. At least Elvis’s monumental bad taste was fun.
The living room was dominated by a “unit,” shelving made of faux wood with glass doors covering shelves. No books were on the shelves—just tchotchki, little tokens of exclusivity in the dictatorship of the proletariat. These included, an enormous faceted glass key; a little cluster of poisonous-looking red glass berries; some chunks of polished malachite; some machine tools; several model rockets; little etched blue, yellow and red crystal vodka glasses; excessively and badly ornamented plates; and so on. The effect was like a fake Rolex. Wearing a real one was bad enough. Wearing a fake one was just pitiful, like an announcement: not only do I lust after stupid things, I don’t even have the wherewithal to get them.
The meal was like the living room—all tchotchki, no substance. The variety of dishes gave the illusion of plenty, but when I started eating, I found there wasn’t a meal there. Just pickles, pickled garlic cloves, jellied tongue, and a four-level dish piled high with grapes and nuts.
Ms. Rocket Man put a big slice of raw pig fat on my plate. Think of the starving children in Africa, Emma. I proposed a toast to our meeting, had a shot of vodka, held my breath, and swallowed.
“Oh, tongue!” Hermione exclaimed as she cut through some taste buds. “How lovely”
“One of the great mysteries u nas,” boomed Andrei Dmitrovich, “Is that there is plenty of tongue but no beef. What are they doing with the rest of the cows?” He, his wife and I roared with delight at this Russian irony as the others smiled in polite bewilderment. You have to live there for a while to understand why the Russians find such fun in their hardships.

“Those are the spoils of corruption in the Evil Empire?” Hank exploded when we were back in the hotel. “That’s the best they can do? Poor bastards.” Hank shook his head. “No wonder the top brass have bought into this Perestroika thing. They must’ve realized that even a mediocre honest capitalist lives better than a top corrupt Soviet. Mystery is, why they fought to keep their shoddy Soviet privileges for seventy years.”
I couldn’t have said it better.

And The Rat Ran Away With The Condom
As his heart rate came down from its wild thrashing I rolled off of Boris. Boris turned on his side to share the mattress, and I dropped the condom on the floor. In his room he’d have insisted on getting up and throwing it away properly. In my room he conceded to my preference for snuggling over sanitation.
I curled up to Boris, eager to drift off to sleep. I was glad to be back in the dorm, not at work, not in the thief’s tawdry den, but here where the motivations were ancient and clear. That little throbbing of nerves. Come to think of it, it was his nerves doing all the throbbing. I still hadn’t come. Not that I wasn’t enjoying it. There was that something else, harder to put my finger on. So to speak. So, the motivations weren’t so clear after all. Ancient, but muddled and mysterious.
Damn it! I was wide awake. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just have sex without all these random thoughts? I tried counting. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty—what was that noise? Rustle, rustle, rustle. I tried to ignore it, tried to match my breathing to Boris’s, when it occurred to me what that little rustle, rustle, might be. I could only hope that the noise wasn’t what I suspected. Maybe if I just kept my eyes shut this wouldn’t be true, I could wake up in the morning and believe it was just a scrap of paper in an ambient draft. I held my breath and didn’t hear any more rustle, rustle. Maybe my breath was blowing a piece of paper around? I let out the air I’d been holding in. Rustle, rustle. I opened my eyes to find the piece of paper that was so easily disturbed by my breath and saw—a rat, scuttling away from the bed, used condom in tow.
He sat bolt upright. “What? What? What, what?”
“The condom.”
He reached over me to pick up the condom, too pleased that I’d finally come around to his view on post-coital sanitation to complain about being awakened. His hand patted the floor, searching, confused. I was too busy making sure the covers were up on the bed, not hanging down like a rat ladder, to stop his futile search.
“Where is the condom?”
“Who cares where the condom is? Go kill the rat!”
“What rat?”
“A rat ran away with the condom.”
Boris smacked at something with his shoe. The rat gave an agonized death squeal. My desire to live like an ordinary Soviet died without a murmer. What had I been thinking, anyway? There was nothing idealistic about living with rats! Idealism should be about getting away from the rats, not going to them.
It was time for me to rent an apartment. I was getting paid more than $6 a month now, after all.

The Tragedy of the Commons
Two weeks later, I was able to sneak away from the office to look for apartments. It was a December afternoon so cold that any moisture in the air froze to the ground and swirled there, a cloud at knee height, shimmering in the brilliant sunlight. Boris drove me excitedly over the frozen mist patches on the street to a prestigious building in the heart of Moscow.
“First, we will look at apartments in two of Stalin’s teeth.” He rubbed the steering wheel in anticipation. His use of the pronoun “we” was even scarier than the thought of living in one of “Stalin’s teeth.” He didn’t think we were moving in together did he? Then again, what kind of bitch was I that I didn’t want to help get him out of that godforsaken dorm, especially after all he’d done for me. So much for solidarity, equality… But I wasn’t ready to live with him yet. Yet? Would I ever want to live with him? Why not? What was my problem? I knew well enough what my problem was. I was still hung up on George. Oh, God!
“Why are they called that, anyway? Stalin’s teeth?” I had a powerful Woody Allenesque image of a sky-scraper sized rotting fang, people (myself included) living in the brown, stinking cavities.
“Stalin participated in the design of them himself. He became interested in architecture just before his foray into linguistics. And there you see the results.” Boris gestured towards a Totalitarian Gothic building in the distance, dirty gray against a steely sky. Built to be ominous. The thirty-story central tower was topped with a red star; gargantuan socialist realist statuary loomed over the two flanks of the building. The real thing was even more Hollywood than my tooth image.
“You mean I am going to rent an apartment in the Death Star?!”
“What is this, the Death Star?”
“Headquarters of the Evil Empire in Star Wars.”
“And what is this, Star Wars?”
“Oh, nothing. A movie.” I stared in disbelief at the building.
Boris pulled the zhigouli up to the left wing, and guided me towards entryway number 11. We entered the pitch black doorway, where we were assailed by such a stench I wasn’t sure I could keep going.
“Ugh, what a smell!” I said as the door closed behind us.
“Don’t worry, it won’t smell in the apartment.” If he thought I could walk into this smell every day…But I hated to be such a spoiled American. It was just a smell. I willed myself to just keep going, and not to barf. Five, ten, fifteen… “Bluh!” My foot came down on something soft and slimy. Before I could ask Boris what it might be, a deafening clatter came roaring closer and closer, like an alpine slide roaring towards the entryway. A crescendo, and—SMACK. I was slimed. My eyes, adjusting to the dim light, were staring at a garbage chute, stuck open. In front of it were four inches of cabbage, potatoes, carrots, vodka bottles and Pravda, rotting on the floor of the entryway. Boris and I were both covered in much of the same. I reached forward to pull a beet peel from Boris’s cheek.
“Why doesn’t somebody fix it?”
He brushed a potato peel from my hair as we backed out of the entryway. “There is no landlord, only a drunk keeper; this is communal property.”
The tragedy of the commons—it wasn’t just a concept any more.

Steel Doors & Paper Parasols
I became so obsessed with finding an apartment that I barely noticed when I worked on Christmas and new Year’se Eve. Nine days into 1991, after five weeks of searching, I walked into the thirty-fourth apartment and knew it was The One. Each of its three rooms had unobstructed views of the unpredictable Russian sky. The weather churned by, now cataclysmic, now joyful, stirring my full range of emotions in the course of fifteen minutes. With a spectacle like that I wouldn’t need to go to the theater for catharsis. The solid antique furniture, a comfy couch, and, best of all, a double bed, were all further affirmations of what the sky had already told me.
Boris and I had a little vodka in his room to celebrate the signing of my apartment agreement. “I can hardly wait to move in!”
This was an understatement. I wanted to move in so bad it was embarrassing. I felt like a dog on the other side of a pet store counter from a dried pig’s ear—I was salivating and going berserk, totally uncontrollable. The kind of desire I’d been taught was expected in beasts, tolerated in men in extremis, but never, under any circumstances, acceptable for young ladies such as myself.
“You have to wait for a week at least.”
I had dreamed of nothing but rats since we’d started looking. “No way, I’m not waiting a whole week.”
“I don’t want you there without a steel door.” I could not bear to spend one more night at the dorm. But I didn’t exactly feel comfortable saying that to him, especially as I wasn’t inviting him to move in with me. I was making him stay in a place that I myself couldn’t stand. I couldn’t justify it. But I didn’t want to live with him either.
Like most normal people, I prefer charming ambiguity to painful self-awareness, so I tried to think of something witty to say to Boris, but what came out was all smart-ass: “Why do I need a steel door? Statistics show there’s no crime in the Soviet Union.”
“Emma, this is serious. Crime is starting to be a big problem u nas, and a single American woman should have a steel door.”
“I thought that you didn’t consider Americans to be women.”
Boris grabbed me by the waist. “Yes, you are a woman. My woman. And that’s why you’re getting a big steel door. To protect you.”
If Boris thought that making me stay in a rat-infested building for another week was a good way to protect me…Well, as they say, don’t bet on the prince. “Oh, Boris—”
“I know, I know, you’re an independent dyevushka and don’t need protecting.”
“No, it’s not that. It’s just—well, I’m am going to move in tomorrow.”
“Well—OK. You could skip the trip to Paris if it’s really so important to move in tomorrow.”
“What?” Now he had my attention.
“I have organized a surprise. We are going to Paris for a few days.”
“Paris? When?”
“How?” I still didn’t want to fly. I’d made that promise to God and all.
“On the train.”
“With what money?”
“It costs only $75 round trip, for both of us.”
“But—” $75 was impossibly cheap by American standards, and impossibly expensive by Russian. I didn’t want to insult him and ask him where he’d gotten $75. But I was curious. “What about the hotel?”
“My Swiss metals partners have arranged it all. And Ned agreed to give you a surprise vacation. You’ve been working so hard. It’s all set.”
“Oh, Boris!” A trip to Paris…The thought sank in. I was going to get out of this freezing cold, gray, bleak hell hole and go to Paris. I was going to quit eating potatoes and start eating bouillabaisse. I was leaving the gut-rotting vodka behind, and going to drink some Pomerol.
As I hugged him, that little voice inside my head whispered, that I’d gone and become something I had once detested: a fancy-pants vacationer. I had loved George for his vacation plans in college. While most of my friends had gone scuba diving in the Bahamas, or hiking in North Carolina, or skiing in Vail, George had chosen to go to a monastery to contemplate the ‘wondrous depths.’
That was why I loved George—he’d said basta to the beach and gone to a monastery for spring break. The choice was simple, really: little paper umbrellas in sweet drinks that make you feel sick and ultimately are depressants, no matter how cheerful and pink they look at the time, or a week spent exploring the great mysteries of the universe.
And now I’d become a little paper parasol in Paris. Was this where your sea-change had washed me up?
Oh, what the hell? I could hardly wait to go. I was not going to overthink it for once in my life. Besides, hadn’t I learned that life was more complicated than money = bad and idealism = good?

Econ 101
The next morning we boarded the green train to Paris. Boris had bought all three berths in the compartment so we’d have privacy. I settled down in the bottom bunk, and opened up a book George had given me before he’d left: Latin America And The World Economy Since 1800. I had that luxurious feeling of hours of free time ahead of me, time to return to thoughts of economic justice. Of course, the whole economic justice thing was bullshit and I knew it. This book was about George in Honduras not economic justice!
The train pulled out of the station. Boris pored over his Siberian aluminum stats. I read the first page. Looked out the window. Re-read the first page. Looked out the window again. Re-read it again. It was as if I’d never seen the words before. I looked out the window again.
What was so fascinating out there? Nothing. Crappy buildings. But maybe if I looked, really looked, some truth would be revealed. The Soviet Union and the World Economy in 1990. Right there, revealed to me out the window. I put my book down. Crappy buildings yielded to messy fields. I watched the same unremitting poverty and the same implacable gray drizzle unfolding all across the Soviet Union. For the first seven hundred fifty miles I didn’t see a single well-constructed building or fence. And I was looking. I even sneaked a peek out the window while Boris made love to me.
The scale of the disaster that was the Soviet economy was somehow hypnotic. Before I knew it, we were at the border. In Brest, Byelorussia, the train cars were lifted up, and the wheels rolled out from under them. New wheels were rolled in.
“What’s going on?” Boris asked the tea-lady on the train. (Every car had its own tea-lady or tea-man, ostensibly to deliver hot tea to passengers, but really to report their behavior back to the KGB. Anybody who wanted to travel, especially abroad, was automatically suspect.)
“We have a different size of tracks than the rest of Europe—to prevent an invasion of the better standard of living.” The tea-lady cackled with delight at her interpretation of history.
After about five hours the business of changing the wheels on the train for the European train tracks was finally finished, and we creaked over a stream—the boarder between the USSR and Poland. The little babbling brook mimicked the very concepts of nation-state, of east and west. So, the Soviet Army had strewn lots of metal and barbed wire around to make it seem big and serious. Big signs reading “DANGER FOR LIFE, DO NOT CROSS,” were enforced by guards with military uniforms and Kalashnakov rifles.
“It’s scary, isn’t it Boris?”
He looked up from his aluminum charts. “Five years ago, yes. Now, no. Perhaps never again. God grant it.”
He was right. Somehow it wasn’t exactly scary, but I could tell it had been scary in the past. It felt like coming across a witch mask that had terrified me as a child. Now that I was an adult, it should no longer have any power to terrify me, but the childhood memory still sent a shiver down my spine. Then again, those were real bullets in those men’s guns. All it would take were a few shots into human flesh to breathe terror back into those signs and barbed wire.
As the train pulled away from the border, Boris bent back over his list of aluminum plants in Siberia. I continued staring out the window.
The difference between 70 and 40 years of communism was told by the fences. Upon crossing the border the fences became markedly neater. Tidy little gardens sprang up. Snow was cleared. Paths appeared to have some direction. When the train got to what had until recently been East Germany, the situation once again improved dramatically. Not only were the houses beginning to look positively cozy, there were signs for beer and chocolate. There was no barbed wire any longer between East and West Germany, but it was clear where the border had been. As we entered the West, the leap forward in standard of living was remarkable, not only outside the window but inside the train. Any number of old green Soviet cars were left behind, and new sleek silver German ones were added. A dining car was added. I went to gawk at the chocolate bars, and found that Soviet bo-bo suits had been replaced by jackets with sporty little German collars made of such materials it was all I could do not to reach out and touch them.
“I think I’ll buy some new clothes in Paris.” Boris mumbled.
Just about then we rolled out of German and into France. Plodding German prosperity gave way to French joie de vivre. All reservations that the dullness of my job had given me about capitalism evaporated. Our system just worked much better than theirs, by God!
The tea lady opened the door to my compartment with an irrepressible smile. “Akh, capital—eezm.” She was right. They were all of them right, these Russians who pined after capital—eezm.
“Boris, how could communism have lasted so long when it was so obvious it didn’t work?”
He looked up from his aluminum stats. “What?”
“Communism. How could your leaders have chosen a system that so blindingly obviously didn’t work? All they had to do was take this train ride to see what a mess they were making of their country.”
“But you were deceived. And you should have known better, even more than our leaders—you had all the benefits, every day.”
“But I never took this train ride.”
“Why do you think Soviets weren’t allowed to travel?”
“But your leaders traveled. And other people as well. This train goes every day.”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know.” I thought about it as we traveled West. Maybe it was like alcoholism. George’s father had explained the path of an alcoholic to him. George showed me the drawings he’d made to help explain. Most people draw an alcoholic’s path through life like this:
good life
drinking sober up

bad life

But of course it doesn’t work that way. If it did, nobody would wind up an alcoholic. No, the reality had lots of confusing short-term ups and downs. It was more like:

good life
drinking sober up

bad life

The drinks, like communism, provide little boosts up on the way down. And getting sober, like economic reform, causes little downward spirals on the way up. Economic reform was going to be like getting sober—humiliating, confusing, and hard…

Reverse Course
When we rolled into France—well, life became a giddy thing. Outside the window, I watched French joie de vivre erupt out of plodding German prosperity. What was wrong with little paper parasols in Paris again? Weren’t they better than what I’d left behind?
“What time do we get in?” I asked Boris.
“They couldn’t say.”
“Probably there was a schedule, but the woman selling tickets was too lazy to look it up.” He answered, shrugging. “Too lazy, or too practical. After all, what’s the point, when it won’t be on time anyway?”
“Only Russians would have the nerve to admit they run a train service with no predictable schedule,” I joked. Boris didn’t look amused. “Don’t take it personally!” His scowl suggested I just let the matter drop.
Stepping off the train, we were met with amused, scornful looks. What was wrong? I checked my fly, it was zipped. I looked over my shoulder to see if there was something strange behind us. Indeed there was—the tired old train car from which we’d just emerged. It was like the Sesame Street game, one of these things just doesn’t belong. For by the time our “train” had reached Paris, it consisted of fifteen sleek silver German cars and one greenish, filthy-beyond-description Soviet car. It was more gray than green now, and self-contained, with its own atmosphere of dust and flies. Like a beggar who managed to slip into Bergdorf’s in July. A little boy pointed and laughed. I felt the dust and flies following us from the car, and stepped more quickly away. I looked at Boris, hoping he hadn’t noticed. His working jaw showed he had. No wonder the Russians had a national inferiority complex/xenophobia problem: this was how they felt when they traveled abroad. I touched my pocket to make sure I had my little blue passport, simultaneously grateful for it, clutching it, and guilty that Boris didn’t have one.
We walked by a newsstand and I scanned a headline in the Herald Tribune. What it said made me drop my passport. The words caught my eye, and then my stomach.
“Boris! Look.”
He picked up my passport, handed it to me, and then looked at the paper. “Oh, God!” The blood drained from his face.
I handed him a paper and took one for myself. While we were on the train the Soviets had sent troops into Lithuania, killing fourteen civilians, shooting some and crushing others under tank treads. The soldiers at the Polish border flashed in my mind’s eye. A few bullets into human flesh was all it would take to breath life into the old terror, to reawaken the nightmare, I’d thought at the border crossing. Well, the bullets had been fired.
I looked at Boris, as if across a chasm. This was his misfortune, and I, being an American, no matter how empathetic, was somehow excluded his pain. I wanted to say something comforting, but I knew that any words would just highlight the difference in our perspectives. Would he let me into his grief? “Oh, Boris.”
His face was grim. “Reforms are over, now, Emma. Arkady will be in trouble. He has been too open. And my business will be finished.”
“Will you—be safe?” I didn’t want even to say ‘go to jail.’
“Yes. I’ve been careful about records. But Arkady. Maybe we should try to get him out of the country.” Boris began pacing back and forth, clutching his hair.
“Should we try to call?”
“It would only put him in more danger.”
I looked up at the train schedule. “There’s a train leaving in an hour. Should I get on it, see if I can get Arkady out? You can wait for me here.” I asked, feeling glad not to be a pink parasol in Paris after all. I was going back to the Soviet Union to help rescue Boris’s friend. I was going to fight against tyranny. I was going to make up for having been an apologist for the Soviet government. There was nothing I wouldn’t do to help kill off the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and make sure it never came back to life. Penance for my cruel idealism. What had I been thinking?
Boris stopped his pacing looked intently out the station window. If he went back now and there were the kind of a clamp-down that the events in Lithuania promised he might not be able to travel again for years. This might be his only glimpse of Paris. “No. We’ll both go,” he said.
“Wouldn’t you be safer if you stayed out of the country?”
Boris took a step away from me as if I were poisonous. “It’s my motherland, Emma. I can’t just abandon her when times get bad.”

Back in the USSR
Arkady had a full report for us when we knocked on his door. While we were on the return train, a demonstration had started in Manezh Square. A man had raced past the police and planted a cross at the entrance to the Communist Party headquarters. He was not arrested. The Moscow News broke openly with the Communist Party. The paper wasn’t shut down. A few TV stations even showed Soviet soldiers beating Lithuanian civilians. On the other hand, the host of a new glasnost-era show went on the KGB payroll and filmed Russian soldiers in heroic poses as they defended the Motherland against “dangerous” Lithuanian professors. Das Rheingold played in the background. What a sad irony that the first TV entrepreneur created by the new freedoms was also the first to tow the hard line. Democracy’s messy march indeed resembled the alcoholic’s.
We needn’t have raced back from Paris, but I was glad we had. Paris would always be there, but Moscow was changing every day. I didn’t want to miss another moment of it. And, now that I knew everything had turned out all right, I could admit how much more romantic it was to race back behind the iron curtain to fight evil than it was to escape it for a luxurious week-end at Le Bristol.
I felt a renewed enthusiasm for my job. The faster we privatized the Soviet economy the better. Maybe we could also privatize the government while we were at it.

Protecting Private Property
“Do you have my keys?” I asked Boris as soon as we returned to the dorm. I knew I should’ve waited. But I couldn’t.
“Grigory the steel door guy left your keys in my drawer.” Boris handed me what looked like the keys from Central Casting for a 19th century jail. A four-inch solid steel tube with a rough hewn steel shape at the end that presumably would fit into a very crude lock. I stared at them in dismay. Where would I carry them?
I opened my mouth to object, but then noticed something smoldering in Boris’s eyes. What had I done wrong? Oh, God, he probably thought I was an ungrateful wretch.
“Oh, Boris, thank you so much! I really appreciate your help with this.”
“It is nothing.” He didn’t look at me. He was pissed. Why? What had I done? Who was I kidding? I knew exactly what I’d done—or not done, in this case. I hadn’t even asked him to make a key for himself. It wasn’t that I didn’t want him to have a key. It was just that I’d been afraid of getting into the “moving in together” discussion.
“I hope you made one for yourself, too, Boris.” I hated the false sincerity in my voice.
“No, there’s only one. It is impossible to make another.”
“Only one?!” I wasn’t worried about his being pissed any more. I was worried about getting locked out now. “But what if I lose them?”
“Then we have to hire a blow torch to get in the apartment. You must not lose these keys.”
“Boris, I lose my keys once a week.”
“You must not.”
“I can’t believe this.”
“I’ll put a hook by the door for you to hang them on.”
“Boris, you don’t understand. I—I lose keys.”
“Simply don’t lose them.”
There are no words to explain to a non-key-loser how impossible it is for a key-loser to keep track of small metal objects—even now that I no longer believed that property is theft. I made a mental note to get the name and number of a blow torch operator.

Guess Who’s Coming To Town?
I was in the middle of changing pie charts to bar charts and back again when Ned interrupted, telling me I had an international call.
“Emma—guess who?”
I held the telephone from my ear. One hundred, two hundred, three hundred, four hundred, five hundred, six hundred, seven hundred, eight hundred, nine hundred, one thousand. Calm. Stay calm.
“Emma? Are you there?”
“George?” The sound of his voice caught me in the stomach. I reminded myself that I was dating somebody else now. That big handsome guy. Boris. Remember him?? “George! How—”
“I got your number from your mother.”
“I guess you didn’t want to give it to me because you were afraid I wouldn’t approve of your new job.” His voice was full of gentle laughter. I blushed at the memory of my letter. “Don’t worry. I approve, I approve.”
“Of course. I approve of anything you do. You’re the one who’s hard on you, not me.”
“I’m not so hard on myself.”
“Emma, it’s so good to hear your voice.”
“And yours.” Too good. Too damn good. Tears filled my eyes.
“I’ve missed you. And the letters aren’t such a good way to keep in touch. I don’t think the post works so well. Got your letters all in a jumbled order, clearly some missing.” George’s voice tingled through the line.
My heart stopped altogether, hoping he was going to tell me about a letter I hadn’t received. Please, please, please. Let him have written it, and the Soviet postal service have lost it. I shook my head to clear it.
“You know?” George prompted. I didn’t know, but silently pleaded for him to please, please, please tell me what I want to hear.
“What?!” I shook my head and tried to think of Boris. The tears receded. My heart had stopped for so long I was starting to see spots. Then, it was racing to catch up.
“I haven’t gotten a letter from you since the one about your new job.” He didn’t offer anything about my evidently not having received his letter about his break-up with Cecilia. Should I ask him? No, you should just quit caring so much!
“Oh.” The tears spilled over now. I fought to keep my breathing steady. Goddamn it all to hell! Why do you let him raise your expectations and then dash them, over and over?
“Well, I’m calling with some big news, actually.”
“Oh?” My heart stopped again. “What?” I pressed the receiver as close as I could to my ear. I silently pleaded with him to please, please, please tell me he’d broken up with her. The tears stopped. Please!
“I’ve finally been transferred to Moscow.”
“Oh.” Goddamn him! Goddamn me for being such a fool. A flood of tears now. Snot starting. He would hear it. Shit!
“You don’t sound very excited.”
“No, I am. That’s great news. I’m really psyched you’ll be coming.” My voice at least was steady. I didn’t think the tears and snot were audible. I could be grateful for that at least. “When?” I tried to sound chipper, but I knew what would happen. He’d arrive, I’d have to confront on a daily basis that I was in love with him, not Boris, would break up with Boris, and George would go back home to Cecilia.
“Next week.”
“Great!” I grimly promised myself that I would not let you do it to me again. He wanted to be just friends? He’d get it. I would keep Boris.

Thackery’s Mirror
Next week. Wow. I hung up the phone and tried to let this fact sink in. Oh, wow! It was really going to happen. In spite of myself, my heart soared. George was really coming to Moscow! Just as friends, I reminded myself. Just as friends. But I’d had a wonderful friendship with him, and now I had Boris, so I could just be happy about the friendship and everything would be OK, right? Boris! Oh, shit! How was I going to tell Boris about this? He was going to be less than pleased. But, he’d have to understand. George was just a friend. But what if—just what if—George hadn’t gotten the letter I’d written him mentioning Boris and what if—be still, my beating heart—he were expecting something more? And he’d come and find me dating Boris?
I told myself that George was still dating Cecilia. Cecilia. Cecilia. I tried to drum it into my head but I just got stuck on the song. Oh, Cecilia, you’re breakin’ my heart, you’re shakin’ my confidence daily—aaagh!
But, wait! He’d said the last letter he’d received from me was about my new job. I’d written the Boris letter after that one. But he’d also said all my letters came in a jumbled order. I should tell him about Boris.
I knew the only thing I really had to worry about should be telling Boris about my friend George who is moving to Moscow. But that was one conversation I was not impatient to have. I geared myself up: People react to news however you tell them to react. Say you think something is good, nine times out of ten they’ll believe it’s good. Hopefully it would all work out like Thackery said: “the world is a mirror—smile into it, and it’ll smile back.”

I put on my biggest smile. “Boris, Boris, guess what?”
“What?” He rolled out of spooning position to face me in the big bed at my apartment. I couldn’t bear to spend another night at the dorm. Nor could I quite bring myself to ask Boris to move in. I kept reminding myself how silly it was to feel guilty about this. I didn’t owe it to Boris to live together.
“My good friend George is coming to Moscow. Isn’t that just great?”
Boris was up on his elbow. “Who is this—this Dzhordzh? The way he said George’s name made it sound very wicked indeed.
“He’s one of my closest friends.”
“Your American boyfriend?”
“No, no, Boris, just a friend…”
“I do not understand these American differences.”
He used to say “American” with a tone of voice that made the word synonymous with “heaven-sent.” Now it was “suspicious.”
So much for Thackery’s stupid mirror!

“George?” I called him from the office at 6:30 am, just before Ned would get in and frown at my making a personal phone call.
“Emma, hi! It’s so nice to just call each other. What’s up?”
“I just wanted to talk a little before you got here—I think you didn’t get lots of letters.” I had decided I should tell him about Boris—just in case. Not that I’d gotten my hopes up overnight. Not that I slept either. I counted to about a million.
“Yeah, I know—you didn’t get lots of mine too, it was clear.” He said.
“Really? What’d they say? Any big news?” I could see my heart thumping through my shirt. Please tell me you broke up with Cecilia. Please, please, please. I tried to think about Boris that big stud I was dating?
“Not so much to report, really. What about you?” His voice sounded easy—not like the voice of a man about to tell me he’d broken up with his girlfriend and was coming to Moscow to make me his own. Goddamn it!
“Well—I’m dating a Russian guy.”
“What!? Really? Gosh. That’s a surprise.
“A good surprise, I mean. I am really happy for you. That’s just great, Emma.”
Goddamned cheerful George. So chipper he made me want to poke his eyes out.

Humanitarian Aid
I got to Boris’s room in the dorm as soon as possible after picking up George. Ned had frowned at my taking two hours off (on a Sunday!) to go to the airport for George. I’d only gotten out of there by promising to come right back to the office. But I knew I had to spend a little time with Boris. Then again, I sort of hoped they would fire me. What the hell did I care?
“Boris!” I held my arms wide for a hug.
“Where were you?” He sat plugged into his chair, glowering up at me. Amazing how jealousy could turn such a charming man into a big toad. “Why are you late? George landed,” he looked at his watch, “three hours ago.”
“I dropped him off at his hotel.”
“You were in his hotel room?!” I tensed as Boris’s temper flared.
“I just dropped him off, Boris. He’s only a friend, OK?” Why couldn’t he get that simple fact through his thick Slavic skull? But I could hardly blame Boris if I couldn’t get it through my head either.
“I do not like this friendship.” God, how Russians could snarl words with their irony. “I must meet this man.”
“OK. Why don’t we have a party at my new apartment? With Svyeta and Alyosha, too.”
“Svyeta and Alyosha already planned one here.”
“Oh! Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You didn’t give me a chance.”
This was not going to be easy.

I had three choices. I could take the subway to pick up George and bring him back here without telling Boris where I was going. Or I could take the subway and tell Boris where I was going. Or I could ask Boris to drive me to pick up George. Which was least likely to piss him off? I had no idea. I sat in Boris’s room, utterly paralyzed by this momentous decision.
“We should leave now to pick up your—friend. Come.” Boris stood up from behind his papers suddenly, car keys in hand.
By the time we arrived at the hotel I could hardly uncurl my fingers from the door handle, so tightly had I been clutching it. But like most dreaded dramas, Boris and George’s meeting was totally anticlimactic. I called up to George’s room from the front desk, explained why we were there, and he came right down.
“You must be Boris,” said George, sticking out his hand. I was surprised at how small he looked next to Boris.
“Welcome to Moscow, George. We are going to take you to a, a—how do you call it?” It was strange to hear Boris speaking English. I’d never heard even a hint of uncertainty from him before.
“A party,” I supplied. I tried to find it interestingly that there is no such word for a non-political party in Russian, but it wasn’t interesting enough to calm the butterflies in my stomach.
“I speak Russian,” George said, in Russian.
Boris shrugged as if to say he was certain he could speak English better than George could speak Russian. He continued in English. “Yes, a party at our dormitory. OK?”
“Sure,” said George, conceding to Boris’s insistence on speaking English.
As we got into the car George pulled a monster flashlight—one of those silver metal Ever Ready flashlights with a twelve inch handle and a big, fat light out of his bag. “Here, I brought this for the dorm.”
Boris jumped out of the car. “A gun?”
“Boris! It’s a flashlight.” Where did that gun assumption come from?
“Emma told me how the lights keep going out in the dormitory, so I thought I’d bring one for you.” George handed the thing to Boris.
Boris took the flashlight, turning it off and on. “Lights like this are not made in our country.” I had seen a crappy little Russian flashlight only once. Though crappy, they were still hard to come by. George had only wanted to be considerate, but he’d offended Boris with his superior flashlight, which looked like a grossly graphic reminder of how much better things are in America.
“Thanks,” Boris said.
“You’re welcome.” George’s voice was upset by the bitterness in Boris’s. My stomach heaved.
Boris put the flashlight beside me and started the car. As we drove towards the dorm the flashlight pointed at me as if to remind me he was still living in a tiny room which often didn’t have electricity while I, his American girlfriend, was living in a luxury apartment rented on the cheap from an old Russian lady who’d fallen on hard times. Not to mention the fact that George, his American non-rival was living in a hotel that cost forty times his monthly stipend each night. I struggled for something to say, but we arrived in silence.

Boris handled the introductions. “George, this is Alyosha and Svyeta. Guys—this is George. He has come to deliver humanitarian aid to us.” Humanitarian aid couldn’t have been said with more bitterness. That expressive Russian intonation. If he’d been speaking English, Boris would have had to say, “Take your humanitarian aid and shove it up your ass” before he could’ve gotten the same message across.
“Welcome to Moscow.” Svyeta’s smile was warm enough to counteract Boris’s hostility.
“Ah, you are bringing us Bush Legs? I’ve not had chicken in some time, and am very happy to hear it. Very pleasant to meet you,” Alyosha said. His brown eyes were amused by it all. At least somebody was having fun.
“I am glad to meet all of you,” said George. Shaking of hands all around. Alyosha poured vodka in little shot glasses. “Uh—what are Bush Legs?”
“Humanitarian aid—chicken sent to us by your government. But they send only the legs, dark meat which they cannot sell in America. We call them Bush Legs.” (It sounded funnier in Russian—Nogi Booshi, conjuring up an image of millions of Russians crunching into the scrawny rotisseried legs of so many mini-me President Bushes. Neither George nor I wanted to spoil the humor by explaining that, actually, drumsticks are quite popular in the US.)
Before we could drink to our meeting, George, unaccustomed to Russian toasting rituals, took a sip, and asked, “So, Boris, do you think that it is a mistake for my government to send the humanitarian aid?”
“I am sure our pensioners appreciate your aid.” Alyosha tugged his beard and smiled tolerantly.
“My opinion is that giving things away just doesn’t work. The communists tried it for 70 years, and you see the results. And now that even our leaders can no longer claim that it works, the Americans are trying it. Nobody ever learns.” Boris shrugged, clearly annoyed at the futility of George’s work.
“But letting people starve doesn’t work either.” George took another tiny little sip of vodka.
I tensed at his cultural gaff. Like a toothpick at the end of a fine meal, or white shoes after Labor Day, sipping vodka before a toast was, well, just not done. You’re supposed to wait till after the words and then chug heartily, not sip daintily before. “George, in Russia, you drink only to a toast, and then all at once,” I whispered.
Boris added a few drops to replace the ones George had so unceremoniously taken, and we all drained our glasses to the meeting. I willed the evening to end—soon.

Searching for Keys under the Streetlight
“Emma! Did you forget something?” As we approached his car, Boris dangled the keys to my steel door on the end of his first finger, rocking them back and forth. He was also swinging the little overnight bag he’d packed ostentatiously on his shoulder. His little press release to George that he was spending the night with me.
“Oops. Thank you.” I took the absurd six-inch keys from his finger and put them in my pocket, wincing as they jabbed my abdomen with every step.
“Those are the biggest keys I ever saw. What’re they for?” George was trying not to look at Boris’s overnight bag. Or so I liked to fancy. Probably he didn’t give a flying fuck. So to speak.
“I organized a steel door for her new apartment.” Just a little too much stress on the word “her.” Pang of guilt. Really, I should have just asked him to move in with me.
“You know her very well—she always loses her keys, but she can’t possibly lose those keys. They’re so big.” George was trying his best with Boris.
“Yes.” Boris swung his bag jauntily, “Very well, I know her.”
“Ouch!” The keys gave me a violent jab as I sat down in the Zhigouli. Boris dropped his overnight bag in the back seat next to George, giving him a not-so-nice smile. I winced doubly as I pulled the keys out of my pocket and looked for somewhere safe to put them. I dropped them in the bag with the leftovers.
“Did I hear another Coke in that bag?” George asked. “Mind if I drink it? My stomach is a little upset.”
“Sure.” I handed the bag back to him, trying not to let my heart soar at what might be upsetting his stomach. I wondered if I’d ever give up my hopes for a romance with George. Would I be married with kids ten years down the road and still feel this way? We drove in silence down the “highway” that led from the dorm to the center of town. Every couple hundred feet a streetlight partially illuminated a field of muddy, muddy snow. The sky was low and black-gray.
“Damn! This thing is leaking all over me.” Suddenly the Zhigouli was roaring with cold air as George lowered the window and threw the bag out. As he rolled the window back up calm returned—for a moment.
“The bag! My keys were in the bag!” I called out. Boris slammed his foot on the brakes.
“I’m sorry, I thought it was just trash. Really, I did.” George looked embarrassed by this clearly Freudian slip. Or did I just like to fancy that?
We pulled to the side of the road, and leaped out of the car. Boris walked to the nearest streetlight, and started looking in the snow under it.
“Boris, it’s not there. I saw the bag go into the field.” George walked out into the darkest part of the field where he thought he saw the keys land and started patting blindly around.
“George, you’ll never find it there, it’s dark,” Boris yelled at him. “We may as well start looking where we can see.” Typical capitalist.
“Boris, you’ll never find it under the light because it is not there.” George would look in the dark where he thought the keys actually were, even if he could not see to find them. That was why Dad called him a misguided do-gooder. He wasn’t misguided, actually. Just searching in the dark.
I walked toward George with the flashlight and found the key. It occurred to me that I’d been looking for a metaphorical kind of economics flashlight when I was writing The Measurement Problem. Some sort of device that would let us go more effectively into those “dark,” unmeasured places in the economy.

Tort Law
I woke up with Boris sprawled on his side of the bed, his right hand reaching out, grasping my left breast. I felt the usual annoyance. He never hugged me all night—he just clutched one of my boobs as if it was his and not mine. I lay there, jealous of my own chest.
I stretched and yawned, glancing at the clock. It was 9:30. I was supposed to be somewhere at 10:00. Where was it? Damn! Last night’s struggles flooded my mind. George had invited Boris and me to the hotel for brunch at 10:00.
I wasn’t sure I could face the same duo all over again. I thought about skipping it, but the thought of an unnecessarily Georgeless day yawning before me made me sit up. “Boris, wake up. We’re due at brunch in thirty minutes.”
“I am not going.” Boris rolled over.
“Come on, of course you are.” I was sorely tempted just to say, OK, see ya later, but I knew that would cause me more problems in the long run.
“No, I’m not going. You go and see your American boyfriend.”
“Oh, Boris, he’s just a friend.”
“I still do not understand this American difference.” Again, that implication that ‘American’ was synonymous with suspicious, immoral, perverted, even. “I’ll go back to the dorm so that you can bring your American friend back here to your new apartment.”
“Boris, whether you go to brunch or not, my house is your house.” Mea casa es tua casa is one thing. Our casa was another thing altogether—and I wasn’t quite ready for it. Boris’s angry expression showed he felt the difference—and blamed George.
“Why don’t you move in with me?” There! I’d said it!!! I tried not to regret it.
“I am going to make my first export of aluminum soon. Then I will get my own apartment. And you can visit me.” It was hard to say which was more tedious, his male ego or my feminine guilt. But, in any case, I knew better than to argue with that pride in his voice.

Boris wolfed down his eggs in fifteen minutes flat. “George, thank you for breakfast. Emma and I have to go work on some things in her apartment.”
“Oh. A little nesting?” George forced a smile. He stood up. “Okey dokey,” Okey dokey? He never said that. “I’ll go out with you. I think I’d like to take a walk along the river.” George always walked when he was upset. But why was he upset? Or maybe he wasn’t upset at all, maybe I just wished he were. Oh, this was so tedious!
“Just up the street there’s an entrance to a park that runs along the opposite side of the river from Gorky Park. It’s a beautiful walk.” I said. I would have given anything to take that walk with him, but Boris’s stares were making the scene I would have to endure afterwards abundantly clear. Call me a wimpy woman, a disloyal friend, whatever. I couldn’t face the fight with Boris it would cause.
“OK.” George started to run across the street, when Boris grabbed the scruff of his jacket, yanking him back to the sidewalk, just as a car going about 100 miles an hour blurred past. My stomach hit my heels and my legs tingled and my heart went out to Boris in sheer gratitude and admiration. I truly loved him in that moment.
“Your life is worth nothing u nas.” Boris let go of George’s jacket suddenly, leaving him momentarily unsteady on his feet.
George looked at Boris for a long moment, confusion battling with anger.
“Our drivers do not hesitate to run over you. The fine is 300 roubles—the human life is worth ten dollars in our country,” Boris explained. “So you must be careful crossing the street.”
“Thank you, Boris.” George still looked unconvinced. He looked both ways and, coast clear, started across the street.
“Have a nice walk.” Boris waved after him.
I watched him walk along the river, shoulders more hunched than I had ever seen. God, how I wished I had the nerve to walk away from Boris and join him!

Capitalism Tomorrow
A couple of days later Boris announced we’d be having dinner with Arkady. I didn’t particularly feel like it, but between the Boris/George tension and the insanely long and dull hours I was working, I was too demoralized to resist.
I ordered a dinner I didn’t have any appetite for. The waiter glared at me.
“What’s his problem?” I whispered to Boris.
Though he hadn’t been able to hear our increasingly loud requests to him for bread, water, this that, he heard my whispered question, and whirled around on his heel.
“You’re an Amerikanka, aren’t you?” he asked in Russian.
“And do you know that capitalism happened to us today?”
“He means the exchange rate. The official ruble-dollar exchange rate went from 6:1 to 27.5:1 today.” Boris smiled at the man’s definition of capitalism.
“Yes, thanks to you—Amerikantsi.” The waiter’s anger created a suspended moment, which he used to spit on my empty plate, the mucus making a thud, dead center, the china resonating with a ping.
My thoughts sped up and time slowed down. I knew that plenty of people were anti-American, and in some ways I sympathized—I wasn’t such a big fan of McDonald’s or Ronald Reagan either. But I couldn’t quite believe that anybody would actually spit on my plate just because I was an American and market reforms were tough. It would be like somebody short of time punching a Swiss in the face because of his country’s success in the watch industry. Or the church killing Galileo. Somewhere in the back of my mind I marveled at how my attitude had changed, but the waiter stood before me, bristling, demanding a response, and not an abstract, philosophical observation on economic theory.
I tried, American-style, to make light of the situation. “Nice shot!”
The waiter made a gesture so menacing I thought I was going to get hit. I saw stars in anticipation of the blow. But Boris leaped up and the waiter turned on his heel and left the three of us staring past one another, unsure how to react. The waiter’s anger somehow cracked open a view into a world of nastiness that I had read about but never expect to actually see.
Boris was first to react. He started after the waiter, but Arkady stopped him.
“Boris, don’t touch shit—it stinks. He’s just a provocatuer.” Arkady found his tongue, and pulled Boris back into his chair. Then he reached over to pull a curl of my hair straight with the kind of tenderness only a gay man possesses.

Work got busy and time flew by, interrupted only by a demonstration to protest Gorbachev’s ban against demonstrations. The police were everywhere, donning evil-looking riot gear. Boris forbade me to go to the protest, warning that it could get violent. I said I had to work late anyway, but when George called and asked me to go with him I couldn’t resist. In spite of the driving March snowstorm, there was a jolly who’s-afraid-of-the-big-bad-wolf feel to the whole thing.
“How could I ever have thought the Soviet government had any answers to the measurement problem?” I was sick of asking myself this question, so I asked George.
“I guess it’s natural to look to another system in another country when you see problems in your own.” George was leading me through the crowd so we could get closer to the speakers.
“Ugh. I feel so stupid.” I hit my forehead. “Not just the Soviet government, any government. They should all just shrink, go away if possible, and let private companies take care of everything.”
“Hey!” George touched my arm. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Remember what Boris said about life being worth nothing here because there’s no laws, no courts, no government protection. You read The Leviathan. Without a government life is nasty, brutish, and short.”
“Oh, you’re just defensive because you work for U.S. Aid.” I kicked him playfully in the butt.
“Well, humanitarian aid’s important. The government still has a role, don’t you think?”
“The smaller the better,” I moved forward in the crowd.
“Oh, Emma, I—ooh. Hey!” George waved suddenly, and I looked in the direction of his arm. Boris was there in the crowd, looking thunderous.
“I thought I told you not to come here.” Boris glared at me and didn’t even acknowledge George’s presence.
“Boris, you can’t tell me where to go and where not to go.”
“You said you were working late, and here you are with him.” Boris gestured toward George with his thumb but still wouldn’t look at him. “You lied to me.”
“Well, I finished work early and wanted to check things out. I didn’t know I had to call you every time my plans changed.”
George, looking very uncomfortable, said he had to get back to the hotel. I decided to keep my friend and my lover segregated for a while.

Palace of Weddings
My segregation policy failed, as segregation policies usually do. As March ice turned to April slush, the three of us found ourselves in the uncomfortably close quarters of Boris’s zhigouli. Alyosha and Svyeta were getting married. Alyosha had been accepted to the graduate program at U.C. Berkeley and to take Svyeta he had to marry her. Sad as I was to hear they were leaving, I was happy for them and touched they’d included George as a wedding guest. The only downside was that the three of us were together again, heading to a place called the Palace of Weddings. Actually, when we got there I found the full name of the place was ZAGS—Registration of Acts of Civil Status. So it was more like the Palace of Birth, Weddings, Divorce and Death—all life’s momentous occasions that governments feel compelled to register.
George and I locked eyes in horror as we arrived in the Wedding section of the “palace.” This was no palace; it was a factory—an inefficient and unclean one at that. We were motioned to a long hallway leading to a door. Nine benches led up to the door; Svyeta and Alyosha were sitting at the furthest bench. A graying hallway led past eight other couples waiting to enter into, holy, or, more precisely, state-sanctioned, matrimony.
Behind the door we heard a tinny-sounding tape playing an absurd Las Vegas style version of ‘Here Comes the Bride;’ it ended abrubtly, and some words were heard; then the tinny tape piped in an exaggerated Western-sounding version of Ragtime Girl, and the newly married couple exited conveyor-belt style out an adjacent door. There was a click, a rewind, and ‘Here Comes the Bride’ started again. The door opened, and the next couple was ushered in.
An art history teacher once explained to me that a modern artist doesn’t try to paint a chair, he tries to capture the essence of chairness. Well, these wedding dresses captured the essence of frufiness—an absurd barbie-doll notion of brideness. Never has such a collection of puffy polyester lace, of nylon veils, and of pushed-up bosoms been gathered all in one place. And the grooms! At an average age of 19, they were the essence of sheer, pimply terror. Arkady leaned over to me and whispered, “Here you see the reason for my choices.” I bit the inside of my cheeks hard to keep a straight face.
The doors opened, the wedding tape started over, and the next couple entered, doors closing behind them. We moved up to the next bench. And so on, until it was our turn to enter.
I thought of that first church service I’d seen. Boris had been wrong to criticize the gilt. Marriage needed religion. Funerals, too. Love and death, the ultimate unquantifiables, the ultimate measurement problems…The babushki were right to spend money on their churches. A little gold leafing may be tough to justify in a spreadsheet, but if this were the alternative—well, bring on the gilt!

My American Hero
Where God had been banished, and where the State had failed so miserably to fill His shoes, the family stepped in. A second ceremony was held in Svyeta’s parents’ tiny apartment, warm and personal as the other was cold and institutional. As the couple entered, they were positioned in the center of a circle; everyone shouted, “Gorko” (bitter) until they kissed long and passionately. Then somebody laid a glass at Alyosha’s feet, and, after he stepped on it, handed Svyeta a broom and dust bin.
“It is customary u nas to test the bride’s housecleaning skills,” Alyosha’s father explained to George and me. I had to laugh. The mood to was too joyful to spoil it with feminist principles or speculations on the perversion of Jewish customs.

Eventually, George and I were driven out of the celebration by the smoke of the “White Canal” cigarettes everybody was puffing on. Our weak American lungs couldn’t stand the intensity of the pollution. I told Boris we’d wait for him by the car, and headed out into the unseasonably warm April air.
“It’s a nice night,” I said. As if on cue, a black Mercedes spoiled it, racing by at over 100 miles an hour. There’s something wicked about that kind of speed. People don’t move that fast to do something good. I promised myself to try to learn to be more patient.
“He’s going to kill somebody! Why don’t the police stop him?” George looked around, wanting to do something, to stop them with his own hands.
“The police drive Zhigoulis. They’d never catch—” Another black Mercedes drowned out the end of my sentence as it hurtled down the street, honking at a Zhigouli ahead of it to get out of the way. Like thunder and lightening in a bad storm, there was only a split second between sound and light. The Zhigouli didn’t have time to get out of the way before the Mercedes had clipped it, sending it twirling in the street. Half way through its second 360 degrees the little car exploded like the cracker box it was.
George ran towards the car, but flames and secondary explosions kept him from getting anywhere near the door handle. Afraid he’d hurl himself into the fire trying to get the people out, I pulled him back. A couple of cars driving by screeched to a halt, and pulled out little fire extinguishers from their trunks, trying in vain to fight the inferno. All the extinguishers and shouting and yelling saved us from really comprehending that we were watching four people burn to death—until it was too late. The little group around the burning car gave up at the same instant. We stood avoiding each other’s eyes as the flames blazed around charred bodies.
I turned and stared at the Mercedes, which, having skidded into a lamp post, was trying to back up to make its get away.
A little Zhigouli police car broke the spell as it came screeching to the scene. Two policemen with ice cream cones and Kalashnikovs leaped out, ready for action, and then froze. They stared at what had just happened, motionless, except for their tongues, which continued licking the ice cream. The gesture haunts me still. It teetered on a fine line between cruel indifference to another’s fate and the despair that comes from an infuriating inability to help.
When the little balls of vanilla were half gone the first Mercedes returned. The driver of the second got out of his car, waving frantically. George ran over to the policemen, and shouted, “You must arrest that driver before he gets away!”
Reminded of their duty, the policemen sprang to action—to my astonishment. Tossing their ice cream cones aside, they grasped Kalashnikov rifles with both hands, and ran towards the crashed Mercedes. The driver of the crashed Mercedes started to make a dash for the first Mercedes, and the policemen looked reluctant to go after him. It was the driver of the first car, not the police, who persuaded the guilty driver to go peacefully. “Don’t worry. We’ll get you out. It isn’t expensive.” The guilty driver shrugged, walked towards the police Zhigouli, opened the door, and got in. The police watched, equally as powerless to arrest as not to arrest.
“Wait!” George exploded in frustration as the two policemen started to follow the criminal into their car. “Aren’t you going to ask for witnesses?” The crowd on the street had tripled in size, watching the smoldering Zhigouli.
“Witnesses?” The policemen looked at George as if he had suggested there were little green men on the street.
“Yeah, witnesses. There were lots of people who saw.”
The policeman glanced towards the zhigouli where the charred bodies smoldered. To him, George’s words sounded superfluous at best, insensitive at worst. Evidently decided it was easier to let George observe the self-evident futility of this suggestion than explain. He simply turned to the crowd with a darkly mocking glance in George’s direction. “Did anybody see the accident?” Silence reigned on the street. Still the bodies smoldered.
George fished in his pocket for a card. “I saw the accident,” he said, handing the policeman his card. The leather-jacketed men from the first Mercedes collectively took a step forward.
“Thank you.” The policeman nodded at George. “Any other witnesses?” Most of the people had already evaporated, and the few who remained stared at their feet.
As the policemen drove off, one of the leather jackets stepped forward, and gestured at George’s pocket. “Can I have one of those?”
“Don’t give him one. Not in any circumstance. Go back to the apartment. I’ll wait there.” It was Boris whispering in my ear, and then gone. Boris’s voice pulled me back into the real world. I wasn’t just watching this. I was part of it now.
George was fishing in his pocket. “George, don’t. Come with me. Now.” I said.
George shrugged. “I don’t have any more anyway.”
“You tell your friend that was the biggest mistake he ever made!” Spat the leather jacket. I felt a new kind of vulnerability enter my world.

Boris had arranged for a friend of his to come and pick us up two blocks away. He’d located the back entrance, and led us in silent fury through some alleyways to the spot where his friend was to meet us. When we arrived at the Radisson, George finally blew up at Boris. “What is wrong with everybody here? People on the sidewalk watched four innocent people get killed, and then refused to say a word. And you have us sneaking around like we’re the criminals?”
“You are not in America. You understand nothing u nas.”
“I watched those guys kill four people with their crazy, arrogant driving. If you think I am so afraid of what the guys driving that Mercedes might do to me for speaking up, you understand nothing.”
“You can do what you want with your own life. But you put Emma’s life in danger.” This got George’s attention. Boris took my hand. It was all I could do not to snatch it back. George looked away as Boris continued. “You didn’t give the police your card did you?”
“Yes, of course I did.”
“That was the biggest mistake you could have made.”
“That’s what the thug from the first Mercedes said.” George glared at Boris. “Is he some kind of friend of yours?”
The two veins forming a “Y” down the center of Boris’s forehead began to throb.
I caught George’s eye and shook my head. His eyes sparked, then widened, and his face softened back into its usual kind lines. “I am sorry, Boris.” I didn’t mean that—I know you have nothing to do with such people. I’m just upset, I guess.” Boris stared back, the Y still pounding. “Will you accept my apology?” George put his hand out.
Boris stared at it, making no move towards it.
“Look, Boris—I retract that. I know that guy’s no friend of yours. I didn’t mean that. I’m just upset by what we saw. And angry.”
“Why angry?”
“Why did nobody care about bringing those men to justice?”
“Fool! Do you think you helped bring those men to justice? Nyet! All you did was increase the bribe they will have to pay to the police. The money will not go to the families of those dead men. It will go to the police chief’s dacha. Or his Mercedes.”
“At least the criminals will have to pay more, even if they pay the wrong people.”
“Nyet! You will pay. You. They will pay another bribe—about $5—to the police chief’s secretary, they will get your address, and they will make you pay for this bribe. And their trouble besides. And if you refuse they will hurt somebody close to you. That’s Emma. And if you still refuse they will kill you. That’s all. That’s the kind of hero you Americans turn out to be u nas.”

The Measurement Solution
George couldn’t quit thinking about various parties who bore some responsibility for what had happened. His mind wandered from time to time in absurd directions. “What about the Zhigouli? That car shouldn’t have blown up like that. Can’t the manufacturer be held liable?”
“Oh, George, get real.” I groaned.
George smiled. “You know, in the U.S. the city also would be sued.”
“Because the lamp post that the Mercedes hit was put in the ground too solidly,” he explained.
“At home they’re built to fall over?” How weird!
“Yep. Posts on the road should fall over upon a certain impact to reduce fatalities.” George was imitating cars crashing into light posts with his hands.
“I guess they value a light post over a human life here.” I said. “How depressing!”
“It’s because there’s no tort system to make somebody calculate the cost of being sued if somebody dies unnecessarily,” he replied. “The opposite of your measurement problem. Nobody bothers to measure anything here.”
“That’s why I took the job as a consultant. I finally understood it’s the measurement solution, not the measurement problem.”
“Don’t forget you need a referee—a government—if you’re going to make the measures count.”
“You’re such a good little bureaucrat,” I teased.
“I’m not so sure you’re such a good little business woman,” he fired back. “You don’t seem to like the job much.”
“Well, there’s that.”
“But at least it pays.” George held his arms up as if to fend off an attack. “I approve, I approve.”
“And there’s also that.” I laughed and went to the fridge for a third beer.

Currency Reform
“Boris, wake up.” I shook his shoulder with one hand, newspaper in my other hand.
“What?” He was groggy. He hadn’t come over till after 2:00 am, and it was only 6:45 now. But I was in a panic. Ever since I’d learned to read I would occasionally have an anxiety attack that one day I would suddenly be unable to process the letters on the page. It seemed such a miracle that I could get so much pleasure out of various combinations and permutations of 26 letters. What if I ceased to be able to make sense of them one day? Now, it seemed, the fear was coming true—at least in Russian. I couldn’t understand what the permutation and combinations of the 32 letters in the Cyrillic alphabet were trying to tell me. The newspaper was saying such absurd, fantastical things that I couldn’t believe I was reading it correctly.
“I can’t figure out what this article is saying. I’ve forgotten how to read Russian!”
“What, what?” He sat up groggily, muscles rippling.
“It looks like it says that they’ve nullified 50 and 100 rouble notes. But that can’t be right.”
Boris, bolt awake now, grabbed the paper from me. “My God! Not currency reform!!!” He scanned the article. “I have to get in touch with Mama.” Shirts, pants, shoes, on in a flash.
“What is going on?”
“They’ve decided to take the 50’s and 100’s out of circulation.”
“You mean they’re no good any more?” So I had read the article correctly after all.
“Yes.” He tied his left shoe.
“The government can’t just do that.” I tried to imagine Alan Greenspan waking up one morning and announcing he’d invalidated all fifty and hundred dollar bills. Markets would crash, people would riot, and the President would be impeached. New York City would spontaneously combust. And here it would be worse. The Soviets kept their savings literally under the mattress because they couldn’t trust the banks. And since there was nothing to buy, everybody had to resort to 50’s and 100’s to cut down on bulkiness. I realized that I had always had a lot of faith in the sanctity of money, for all my ranting against it.
Boris looked at me as if I were daft. “And why not? U nas the government can pull twenty million people from their beds and shoot them. Taking people’s money is nothing.”
“Emma!” Boris buckled his belt. “You were free to read Solzhenitsyn in school. What does it take to teach you that governments can to terrible things?”

Mafia Boogey Man
The government could, and the government did. And there wasn’t even any mayhem. A few long lines at banks, but nothing dramatic, at least not in public. But in private, around samovars and vodka bottles everywhere, people expressed private sorrows and private recriminations. I heard some that night at dinner with Arkady and Boris.
“It’s good Alyosha and Svyeta left in time,” Boris mused. “Just think what would have happened if this had happened before they bought their tickets—they could never have left.”
“Yes, thank God,” Arkady nodded seriously.
“Did you lose much?” I asked Arkady.
“Oh, Sasha knew. He traded in all his bills yesterday.” Arkady gave a gleeful little giggle at his clever new boyfriend who had outsmarted the system. “And mine, too.”
“Goddamn it, Arkady—” The Y on Boris’s forehead was throbbing.
“Oh, Boris, I’m sorry, I should have let you know.”
“No, not it’s not that. It’s this Sasha—I don’t like the way he does business.”
“What’s he do?” I asked. Arkady shot me a tsk-tsk look. Evidently I wasn’t supposed to ask.
“I am sure that you don’t blame Sasha for the corrupt government.”
“That’s not the point, Arkady—”
“They say the currency reform was aimed at the mafia, not the ordinary people, but we both know the government is the mafia.” Arkady interrupted Boris.
“The KGB is the old mafia, Sasha is the new.”
“Well, and what of it? Sasha is not the KGB, at least.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t make Sasha any less dangerous. The KGB was worse than the tsars, and now the new mafia is worse than the KGB. None of this justifies the tsars, the KGB, or the new mafia.”
Arkady turned bright red. “Sasha is no more mafia than your partners, Boris.” He stood up and walked out of the room. I noticed his butt was sagging now, having stretched out his black Levis. He’d been so proud of them, tried hard to keep them new and tight. My heart went out to him.
“Boris, you shouldn’t criticize Sasha. I think Arkady’s really in love with him.”
“Emma—that’s all the more reason to warn him. This Sasha—he is a bad man.” Boris had such conviction. But who were his partners?
“Still, I think you should talk to Arkady.”
“When I get back.”
“Where are you going?”
“To see my mother, give her some money.”
“What money?”
He glared at me for doubting that he had money. “The aluminum deals are starting to pay, Emma. In fact, I’ve been looking at apartments—”
“Oh, Boris, why don’t you just move in with me?”
“I have already bought my own.” I was a little shocked. With what money? Arkady’s words about his partners being mafia rang in my head. Then I felt bad for being such a pig-headed American, thinking you had to have a little blue passport to get rich.
“Oh, Boris—”
“And now Mama needs her own.” He interrupted me.
“Is she OK, your mom?” I was glad to change the subject.
“She lost her whole savings today, Emma. When he died, her father left her money that was supposed to protect her for the rest of her life, was supposed to bury her. He thought he could die easy, knowing she was provided for. And today—poof. All gone.” A rare bitterness hid the vulnerability in his voice. Now was not the time to ask him about his business.

Fighting for Diplomacy
George, meanwhile, was still dealing with a diplomatic crisis. When he told the story of what had happened and how he’d given his card to the police, the U.S. Embassy people rebuked him for spending so much time with “the Sovs,” as they called them. They had a strict rule that no embassy employee was allowed to meet the same Soviet citizen more than three times. George went berserk when he heard this. He called me at work sputtering mad. “And they call this diplomacy?”
I agreed with him. But while all I did was stew in silent disgust at big, insensitive bureaucracies, George demanded justice. It was like a walk we’d once taken on a beach. A lady’s dogs had charged into the water and were obviously going to drown. She stood there crying helplessly. George charged into the water and got one dog out. While he was hauling the first to the beach the second disappeared. He shouted at the waves to ‘give it back.’ Who ever heard of a person who makes demands of the ocean? But just then we caught a glimpse of the dog. George went charging in, and brought the dog out, alive and kicking.
So George started writing letters to the editors of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, saying that either the rule should be changed or the embassy should be shut down as a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars. None of the letters got published, but he did persuade a mid-level bureaucrat to float a proposal to lift the non-fraternization rule. This might sound far short of total victory, but in the world of bureaucracy it was a coup. I suspected it was also his little atonement for having insinuated Boris was connected to the Mercedes thugs.
Once he’d won this battle, a new outrage erupted. The US government announced a big food aid shipment. When it arrived, however, it turned out to be surplus from the Gulf War—suntan lotion. Suntan lotion in Moscow in April is insult to injury. In every other major capital in the world the first blooms of spring are out. In Moscow the weather is alternating between snow and thaw, turning the streets into rivers of thick, gray slush. Kasha (porridge) it’s called.
“Sending suntan lotion into this kind of weather is just obnoxious,” George said, looking at his snow-ruined Doc Martins.
“Horseshit would be preferable,” I had to agree.
George started another letter-writing campaign. I doubt if anybody heard his letters any more than the ocean heard his demands, but the US government announced it was sending a multi-million dollar shipment of wheat. And George was there to catch that wheat, just as he’d been there to get that dog.

The Promotion
Meanwhile, I was mostly making pie charts. Why? Payne won a big privatization contract. For me, privatization meant writing bullet points, making pie charts to illustrate the bullets, and trying to make the Xerox machine copy my handiwork. For seventeen hours a day, from 8:30 am one morning until 1:30 am the next. For three weeks, I didn’t even see George, and saw Boris just for the ten minutes it took us to have sex before falling asleep.
When I questioned this kind of work and its exhausting schedule, Ned explained with perverse pride that’s just how consultants live. Most people he knew worked 18 hours a day their whole lives, he said. The rest were spoiled. I was vulnerable to being called spoiled, so this explanation cowed me for about a week. But then I changed my tune. Damn straight, I’m spoiled. I burst into Ned’s office and shouted, “What’s the point of being smarter and better educated than everybody else if the net result is that I work like a slave?”
He suggested I take two hours off for lunch that day—a Sunday. Gee, thanks, ass hole. Like a good slave, I took what I could get. Since Boris was in Siberia dealing with another aluminum shipment, I called George. I met him at the make-shift soup kitchen, where he was handing out food to pensioners. Arriving a few minutes early, I watched him work. A crowd of pensioners had gathered around him. There was a generational divide, a language gap, and an iron curtain between him and them, but he was communicating freely and openly. A touch on the shoulder, a hand grasped, eye contact and a smile. I felt envious of him. In months of living there I had not once made eye contact with a stranger. Here he was, grateful eye after grateful eye meeting his. Boris might resent the aid, but these people did not.
“Emma!” George beamed when he saw me.
An ancient man bowed by the number of military awards pinned to his old, baggy suit smiled at a babushka and muttered something about “Young American lovers.”
Oh, how I wished the old man were right! Even more, I wished I didn’t wish it.
George kissed me on one cheek. “Good news!”
“What?” I envied George the cheerful enjoyment of his work. My job was feeling more and more like a smoldering, resentful compulsion. Moscow had overturned my thesis. And so I had taken the kind of job I would have disdained just a year ago. And guess what? Even though I’d changed my mind about capitalism, I still didn’t like my job. It was pure drudgery. Why did I do it? What else would I do? No way in hell could I cope with government bureaucracy like George. I’d go insane in about one day. Which begged the question, why did I move to the Soviet Union if I hated bureaucracy so much? Oh, who the hell knew? Who the hell cared? I had a good job, couldn’t I just do it without second guessing myself all the damn time?
“I got a promotion. I’m in charge of distributing the grain that the U.S. is sending to Siberia,” George said.
Just then, his boss Bob came up. “They haven’t hired anybody as young as George for local logistics of this scale since the Marshall program. But your friend is one of the most capable young people we’ve had in our office in years.”
“Emma, the real reason I got the job is that Bob has to go back to the States because his wife is having a baby and they couldn’t convince anybody more senior to come live in Moscow.”
“You’re good, but you’re not so good you can afford to go running yourself down that way.” Bob turned back towards the line. “Real nice to see ya, Emma.” He waved as he went back over to distribute the parcels of food.
“How the hell do you know how to distribute grain in Siberia?” I asked, watching Bob over my shoulder. No eye contact for him. It wasn’t the hand-outs. It was George warming those people up. Did Cecilia notice and appreciate all these things about him? Did she even know that he had a perfect little Levi’s butt? Did she reach out ten times a day to touch it? Would I ever get over him and start giving Boris the attention he deserved?
“I’ll figure it out, I guess.”
“Perhaps Boris can help you.”
“I doubt he’d be willing. He’s made it perfectly clear how he feels about giving things away.”
“Look, I think Boris could really help you. And if you two were getting along, it would make my life much easier. We could see each other more often.”
“I thought you said you were working the past few weeks. I didn’t know that Boris had prevented you from seeing me.”
“You know what I mean. I reached out to Cecilia about a million times. Now it’s payback time.” It was the first time I’d uttered her name since he’d arrived. I held my breath and started counting by ten’s fast, waiting for his reaction.
George started to say something and then shut his mouth. He sighed, and asked, “How can Boris help?”
“Look, Boris is always travelling around Siberia. He’s exporting Soviet aluminum. I guess if he can get aluminum out he can get grain in. Just give him a try.”
“Only for you.”

The View
Boris, meanwhile, had evidently done great things with his Siberian aluminum. For he came back to Moscow, was really busy for about two days, and then informed me that we would be staying at his new apartment from now on. He’d trumped me, I had to admit. His new apartment was enormous, with direct views of the Kremlin from every window, bathrooms included. So there.
He didn’t need Ned’s lousy $50,000 a year. He’d just made his $2 million. As planned. I tried and tried to get him to explain how he’d done that, but either he was dodging or the details were just too dull for me to listen quite to the end. The whole thing sounded like the loaves and the fishes to me. A couple of aluminum shipments made millions for everybody. Boris kept bragging about how profits were higher than revenues, but that didn’t make any sense.
“You just aren’t good at math, Emma,” Boris teased. “That’s your measurement problem.”
Whatever. I quit asking questions and enjoyed the view.

George was right. Boris did not like the idea of helping to give things away one little bit. “Give it away and it will be wasted or stolen. Fed to the pigs, like our bread, or enriching the mafia, like our oil.”
“But there will always be externalities—and then you need the government.”
“Externalities?” Boris raised one eyebrow. His skepticism masked his ignorance.
“Things that everybody benefits from, but nobody can pay for individually.” George put his hands in his pockets.
“Such as?” Boris’s knee was bobbing up and down.
“Emergency assistance. Public education. Defense.”
“Bakh, defense! Thanks to our government over 50% of our GDP goes down the toilet to defense. Thank you, no!” Boris walked toward the door. I thought about the urban assault vehicle and couldn’t really blame him.
It didn’t look like my little scheme was going work. Then two days later there was a letter from Boris’s mother about the pensioners in her region; the situation was getting serious for them. The bread factories were running out of wheat. There would be no bread soon if there weren’t some help from the outside.
“This is an emergency situation; there are emergency situations when aid is necessary,” he announced. He agreed to help, even saying that George was a good man.
The peace between them was almost destroyed when George revealed his paltry distribution budget. To Boris the figure spoke volumes about the problem of trying to give things away. “Look, if you were selling the wheat, you’d budget ten times that money for security, proper transport, all the rest.”
“Boris, look—we’re not out to make a profit here.” George knit his brows in self-righteous frustration.
“I thought you believed that helping people was more important than making a profit.” Boris stood a little taller.
“I do.” George took a step back.
“Then why won’t you spend as much money giving the wheat away as a business person making a profit would to distribute it? Do you expect that because you are trying to do the right thing all obstacles will disappear for free?”
“Every cent that gets spent on administration is wheat that doesn’t go to hungry people,” George replied.
“Every cent you withhold from administration makes it more likely you give the whole shipment to thieves.”
“Boris—be practical.”
“I am being practical. It’s you who are unrealistic.” Boris pointed an index finger at George’s chest.
“Look—I am not in charge of determining my budget. I’ve got what I’ve got. If I start raising fears of theft, nothing will get sent. If some gets lost along the way—so be it. Now,” George paused and looked steadily at Boris. “Will you help me or not?”
Boris extended his hand to George.

Moscow in May
The next thing I knew, George and Boris were arguing day and night about boats, ports, trains, trucks, gasoline, and anything else needed to send American wheat into the heart of The Evil Empire. The disagreements about these practical matters were much briefer than those about philosophical matters. The issues were more resolvable. This was their football game on the ice floe floating God knows where on a sea of ignorance.
Their interpersonal thaw was reflected in the weather. One May morning I left my apartment and felt like the heroine in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. It was a Wednesday, and I stepped through a perfectly ordinary thing—the same doorway I stepped through every morning—into a magical world I never knew existed, but which must have been there all along.
I walked down the street smiling like a fool; people were smiling back at me like fools, and, more surprising, actually making eye contact. It was too beautiful for the office. I went to Lenin Hills. The entire city had made the same decision that morning—the whole population, it seemed, was sunbathing on the banks of the Moscow river. The Dynamo Stadium was playing patriotic music, children were scampering and splashing, winter-white bodies were turning pink, and life was as it should be.
Spring in any city makes flowers bloom. Spring in Moscow makes people bloom.

Things seemed to be going along swimmingly for a time. Then one June morning I woke up and my heart sank. It had snowed! I pulled up the window and a warm breeze blew in. No, couldn’t be snow. What the hell was going on?
The pookh had come, a secretary in the office explained. Pookh is the fluffy white stuff like dandelions that disseminates the seeds of poplar trees. In June it piles up an inch thick in Moscow’s streets. With pookh comes allergies, and the end of the May euphoria.
The wind brought worse than pookh that day. George came banging into my office around 3:00 in the afternoon, startling Ned out of his skin. “Emma, where in the hell is Boris?”
“I have no idea. What’s wrong?”
“Two million dollars of grain has just disappeared—poof—like that. And Boris along with it.”
“What?” My head spun. Pookh. Poof.
“Do you have any idea how big two million dollars worth of grain is? It’s enough to fill a an apartment building. How in the name of God can it just disappear? Where the hell is Boris?”
“Where’s he supposed to be? Where’s the grain supposed to be?”
“Boris is supposed to be at the U.S. embassy. The grain is supposed to be in Chelyabinsk, and it’s NOT THERE.”
“You don’t think Boris—”
The outer door to the office banged opened again. “Emma?”
“Boris! Where the hell have you been?”
“I was fighting with your marines,” Boris shouted.
“Why?” George asked.
“They would not allow me into your embassy. They say no Russians allowed in the Embassy.” The Y on Boris’s forehead was throbbing.
“Goddamned rude bastards!” George banged my desk, making my computer jump, transferring all his anger at Boris to the embassy marines.
Boris took a step back, surprised. “Well, they weren’t that bad.”
George took a deep breath. “Look, Boris, I’ve been looking all over the place for you. I need your help. I had dozens of trucks meet the train at Chelyabinsk, the train arrived, and there was not one grain of wheat on it. And I have another fifty trucks ready to meet the train when it gets to Omsk, and at Novosibirsk, and at Irkutsk. And there’s NO GRAIN.” Panic crept into George’s voice.
“How can this be? We saw them load it in Moscow ourselves.”
“I don’t know how this can be. I was hoping you could help me figure that out.”

I can’t bear to describe everything they went through trying to figure out what the hell happened to the wheat. The whole two week period was simultaneously the most stressful and the most boring I’ve ever experienced. Reports, bureaucracy, train schedules…Suffice it to say they never figured out what happened to the grain.
The U.S. government blamed the Soviet government, the press blamed the burgeoning “mafia” and the kind of pure, lawless capitalism that was emerging in the Soviet Union, and Boris blamed the idea of giving something away. “How many times do I have to tell you—we have tried this for years in our country. It doesn’t work. If something is free it gets stolen, lost, or wasted. Every time.”
Me, I didn’t know what to think. Was the press right—was unbridled capitalism to blame? If so, should I go back to an investigation of The Measurement Problem? I had to admit, the idea was appealing. I was hardly happy as a consultant. Or was Boris right, that the kind of idealism I was advocating in The Measurement Problem just plain didn’t work?
I asked George what he thought. George blamed himself. He decided that he couldn’t handle the responsibility he’d been given, and he scoured U.S. AID for a demotion. A low-level position was open in Africa, and he took it. One evening at 6:00 pm he called me to say he’d be leaving the very next day…

“Oh, George, I wish you wouldn’t go.” Knowing how he felt, I didn’t blame him for wanting to get the hell out of Dodge. And I’d been half wishing he would leave anyway. It wasn’t exactly easy on me or Boris having him here. Still, I could hardly stand the thought of his actually leaving. I had been struggling not to beg him to stay since he’d called. But once we got on the highway to the airport I couldn’t contain myself any longer.
“I never saw you anyway,” he mumbled.
“I think things will calm down; maybe I’ll quit.”
“Even if you quit, Boris wouldn’t like it if we got together so often.”
“Cecilia could come and visit. Then he wouldn’t be so jealous.”
“Cecilia and I broke up.”
I struggled for something coherent to think, let alone say, watching the streetlights whir by, conscious that with every one, we were a little closer to the airport. I had so much to say, to ask, and so little time. Where to begin? “When?”
“Just after you and I kissed.” Did he have any idea what he was doing to me?
The missed opportunity yawned before me. Here I’d been sleeping with Boris to compensate for a Cecilia who no longer existed, at least not as a girlfriend. But, no, surely that wasn’t the only reason I was sleeping with Boris. It was Boris for Boris’s sake, right? Yeah, right. I was so full of shit. But I wasn’t the kind of person who would be so unfair to Boris. Was I? I was, and Boris deserved better. He was nobody’s booby-prize. “You didn’t tell me. Why?”
“I wrote you, but when I realized you’d never gotten the letter you’d already told me about Boris. And I was jealous, and mad at you, but it wasn’t fair, I don’t own you, I didn’t want to feel like I was trying to come between you and Boris. So I just—uh, didn’t tell you.”
My father’s voice boomed in my head: misguided do-gooder! All semblance of calm left my voice. “You arrogant little twerp! You don’t think I have the right to make up my own mind about who I’m going to date? You think you’re so damn mesmerizing that if you tell me you’ve broken up with Cecilia, I couldn’t help dropping Boris like a hot potato? And you tell me now, fifteen minutes from the airport? Coward!”
He stared at me, eyes wide. More streetlights whizzed by. “You’re right. I am sorry.” It was his turn to whisper.
Five, ten, fifteen, twenty…I breathed. OK. So I hadn’t been so delusional after all. Well, now was my big chance. I didn’t want to blow it. “We could turn back, I could get some money, I could buy a ticket, and I could go to Africa with you.” George was kind enough not to point out that evidently I would drop Boris like a hot potato. He stared silently at his fingers, and began picking invisible dirt out from under his nails. “No, I’m serious. Why not?” I prodded.
“Actually, Cecilia is meeting me there. She wants to try getting back together. She left from New York about six hours ago.”
He may as well have punched me in the stomach. I just hoped this was the final blow.
“Emma, I—”
“I don’t really want to know any more.”

Of Shoe Banging and Bean Counting
I went home and reveled in Boris’s straightforward possessiveness. He could clutch my breasts all night long and make a big thing of the locks on my door all he wanted. He wasn’t ashamed of being jealous of other men. He was natural and George was a goddamned freak of nature. Boris and I had sex four times that afternoon.
We were lying in a pool of post-coital sweat when the phone rang. It was Ned, telling me to meet him in the airport in two hours, we were flying to Saratov. Good. The more flying around I did the easier it was to forget that drive to the airport.

The next morning, we were seated in the office of a plant manager, Sergei Borisovich, explaining to him how to put together income, balance sheet, and cash flow statements. I found the columns of numbers impossible to focus on. George’s words kept interrupting the sums. “Just after you and I kissed. Just after you and I kissed. Just after you and I kissed.” I’d been right all along! Not delusional. Not delusional. Fat lot of good that did me. Now he was in Africa with her. I tried to forget about it, let it go.
“What?” I was vaguely aware that somebody had said my name.
“He said, would you like some tea?” Ned was clearly miffed. Was it so obvious I was paying no attention whatsoever?
“You look a little pale. Are you well?” Sergei Borisovich looked at me with fatherly concern.
Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, I knew that if I let myself be touched by his concern for me I’d start to cry. thirty-five, forty, forty-five, fifty. At the same time that I counted I tried to convince myself that the other side of his concern was just sexism. “No, thank you very much. I’m fine.”
Ned cleared his throat and continued enthusiastically his usual patronizing monolog about measuring a company’s performance. Sergei Borisovich was not a receptive pupil.
“Revenues!” Sergei Borisovich exploded. “These are too depressing to contemplate. We never really get paid. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.” I tried to borrow some mirth from his laughter, but found only irritation. He had that obnoxiously loud machine-gun laughter that Soviet managers share with bond traders. Why do they find such unfunny things so amusing? One of life’s little mysteries.
Sales, General & Administrative costs? “The sales part is easy—it’s always 0. General and administrative, though—best not to look at those. You see, we have to pay for all the housing and all the education of all the children of all our employees.”
“Fascinating! You’ve privatized social security.” Ned dripped with sarcasm. “Well, let’s move on to EBIT—earnings before interest and taxes.”
“U nas, it’s much easier to know after taxes—you can be sure it’s always 0.” Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.
I could practically see Ned’s thoughts in little cartoon circles over his head. ‘Goddamned lazy man! Get up off your butt and run your company!!!’ He was getting up on his high horse now. ‘You Soviet “managers” were guilty of criminal irresponsibility. You can’t run a business and refuse to run the numbers.’
Plant, property and equipment? “We bought all this when the rouble was worth two dollars; now the rouble is worth three cents. It’s not fair to calculate at the new rate. You’d get it all too cheap.” His machine gun laughter failed him, as if he’d run out of bullets. “Capital—eezm is hopeless u nas. It is too late for us.” The mood in the room shifted sharply to become profoundly sad. He held his head in his hands. “But still you have to help me.”
“I’m trying to help you write a business plan.” Ned didn’t look too moved.
“You have to help me not because of some numbers, but because my children will starve if you don’t.” Sergei Borisovich banged his fist on the table in a burst of Slavic emotion. Tears stood in his eyes. Tears!?
Ned replied with cold logic. “Look, I think most of your assets are really liabilities anyway. Most of your plant and equipment will have to be torn down and thrown away. That costs money. It’s not worth money. It’s negative money.” Ouch! Ned was right, but still…I felt Sergei Borisovich’s pain. Sergei Borisovich, on the other hand, sat up straight, energized now by anger towards the arrogant young American across the table.
Ned, oblivious, started in on the Liabilities section. Sergei Borisovich, sensing my sympathy, leaned in my direction, and said loudly enough for Ned to hear, “Do you know how we are used to getting money from the ministry?”
Ned looked up, peeved at the inattention.
Serge Borisovich leaned down, pulled off his shoe, and banged it on the table, and yelled, “Money! Now!” ‘
Ned almost fell of his chair.
Sergei Borisovich roared with laughter, real laughter this time, jerking the mood into manic mode. “Our socialist system had its benefits. No need to count every damn kopek.” ABBA played in my head. Money, money, money—must be funny! In a rich man’s world!
Ned was sputtering mad. I bit the inside of my cheeks till I tasted blood to keep from laughing. “Unfortunately, Sergei Borisovich, if your factory is to have an ice cube’s chance in hell of surviving, you have to count every damn thing.” Ned pushed his glasses up his nose
“Unfortunately, young man, your country has to give money to mine. Do you know why?”
“Because if you don’t—pkheeewwww!” He did his best imitation of a nuclear explosion.

The Semi-Professional
The conversation with Sergei Borisovich kept coming back to me, as I was falling asleep, on the john, in the shower, and especially as I was making pie charts with bullet points. At least once a day I, like Sergei Borisovich, had the temptation to pound my shoe on the table and shout: just give them the money—anything other than more pie charts! I, too, felt like just blowing something up would be preferable to dividing numbers into numbers all day long. I hated this violent impulse. It made me wonder if my father’s mental monopoly wasn’t right after all. Communism = poverty = immorality. I thought about what Boris said about blowing up the Joneses.
I kept trying to put an ideological spin on things, to tell myself that my conversion to capitalism was incomplete. But the simple fact of the matter was, I hated my job. I hated those goddamned spread sheets and pie charts and bullet points—even if I did acknowledge their value. Somebody should do them. Just not me. No matter how much money I got paid. I was bored to tears. Literally, sometimes. But I couldn’t quit if I didn’t want to be part of the Communism = poverty = immorality scenario.
Meanwhile, I was stuck in the following routine: I’d wake up at 4:00 am in a cold sweat, trying not to think about George or Boris or Arkady or wheat or even shredded wheat, cream of wheat, or any other wheat product. Unable to fall back to sleep, I’d get up at 6:00 am (I hate this hour), to work at 7:00 am, produce spread sheets/bullet points/pie charts till 10:00 pm, home by 10:30 pm, and drunk by 11:00 pm. Once a week there was a letter from George, which I tossed unread into the garbage. I spent the self control I mustered to accomplish this feat in fast and furious sex with Boris. Still no orgasm. Size does matter. It’s just one big distraction. So to speak.
After a couple weeks of crying myself to sleep Boris noticed my unhappiness. “Emma, the man’s work you do exhausts you. You must not work so hard. It makes you unhappy. Let’s go dancing.”

“I know what I want and I want it now…” The DJ loved Culture Beat. Mr. Vain’s volume was no more subtle than the message. I had another gulp of scotch. I had to get pretty drunk to numb myself to the loud music and thick smoke, but after four or five drinks, it was bearable.
“Livin in a happy nation, happy nation.” Arkady raced to the dance floor. He loved that song. I felt sad for his unhappy nation trying so desperately to buy its way into a state of euphoria. Wild. And getting wilder. (Seven years later I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that the cover charge to night clubs in Moscow included not a free drink but a free viagra pill so the men could swaggered around with hard-ons.)
I ordered another drink. And another. By 2:00 a.m. I couldn’t stand it any more—I had to go to the bathroom. I entered the women’s room in a state of near desperation, and made a bee-line for the stall. My path was suddenly blocked by a pelvis fighting for liberation from its tight black leather miniskirt. Fishnet hose. A halter top that barely covered a perky bosom.
“I don’t want to see you semi-professionals in here again!” Slowly, sensuously, she pulled a switchblade from behind her back. “You drive the prices down.” She snapped the blade back into its case and strolled out of the bathroom, long legs wagging a tight butt.
Wow. In this new world of unfettered capitalism dating a man made me guilty of price dumping. And Boris had complained about how Communism turned the world into a whorehouse by making relationships the primary means of acquisition. But now, it was all transaction all the time. I felt the tug of my old business = bad mental monopoly.
Akh, capital—eeezm!

Coup d’Etat
So the summer went. By mid-August there was already a hint of autumn in the air that made sleeping late especially tempting. On August 19th I woke up late, lulled by the sound of the drizzle against the windows and a low rumble in the street. I rolled over to ask Boris what was making that rumble. Gone. In Siberia. Not due back for a week. Oh, well. What was that noise? My hangover? No, too external. Thunder? No, too incessant. I got up, rubbing my eyes, and raised the shades. TANKS!!!
A column of tanks was moving deliberately down Kutuzovsky Prospekt. People at the tram stop were scratching their heads trying to figure out if the trams would be running in spite of the tanks, and if not, how to get to work, or whether the situation was serious enough to justify returning to bed.
I turned on the TV. The State Committee on the Emergency Situation (in Russian the GKChP, pronounced Geh Keh Cheh Peh, an evil mixture of sounds) was explaining that Gorbachev was under house arrest in the Crimea.
I stared out the window at the tanks puffing exhaust into the August drizzle. I called the office. Nobody there. I called Ned’s apartment. “Stay inside, for God’s sake! I am trying to get tickets out for this afternoon. I suggest you do the same.” Leave now? No fucking way!
I walked out into the street and started to wander. Tanks were blocking off streets, and people were afraid not only to make eye contact, but even to look at anything other than the pavement. Everyone seemed resigned to slip into the old nightmare like a pair of worn out old slippers. Except for the babushki. These squashed old ladies with tall memories were shaking their fists at the frightened young tank drivers, and warning them not to fire upon their neighbors. A small crowd of people, encouraged by one babushka, gathered around a single tank. Some cameramen saw, and started filming. Suddenly, a familiar figure was clambering up onto the tank, fist in the air. Yeltsin!
If Fitzgerald was right, and life is a series of gestures, Yeltsin lived better than anybody that day. The power of his gesture turned the tide. After Yeltsin was broadcast on TV standing on the tank, the atmosphere of the city became strangely carnival-like. Parents dressed up their daughters in their frilly frocks and lacy socks and handed them up to the tank drivers for a view. People set up little tents around the “White House,” the Russian Parliament building, and Pizza Hut sent free pizza. The implacable drizzle didn’t let up, but one courageous DJ kept playing, “Sunshine.” I still get weepy every time I hear that song.
Sunshine go away today, I don’t feel much like dancin.’ Some man’s gone, he’s tried to run my life. He don’t know what he’s askin’.

When he tells me I’d better get in line, I can’t hear what he’s sayin’. When I grow up I’m gonna make it mine, these ain’t dues I been payin’.

How much does it cost? I’ll buy it! The time is all we’ve lost. I’ll try it! And he can’t even run his own life, I’ll be damned if he’ll run mine.

Sunshine! Sunshine go away today, I don’t feel much like dancin’. Some man’s gone he’s tried to run my life. He don’t know what he’s askin’.

Workin’ makes me start to wonder where the fruits of what I do are goin.’ He says in love and war all is fair. He’s got cards he ain’t showin’.

How much does it cost? I’ll buy it! The time is all we’ve lost, I’ll try it! And, he can’t even run his own life, I’ll be damned if he’ll run mine!

Sunshine! Sunshine come on back another day, I promise you I’ll be singin’. This old world, she’s gonna turn around, brand new bells’ll be ringin’.

I doubt that the church was in cahoots with the DJ, but they did start ringing bells. I stayed up all night around the White House, sharing bottles of vodka, and watching the discussions with the tank drivers. A few came over to the side of the defenders of the White House. Grinning triumphantly at this turn of events, I turned to a man in a gray scarf next to me. “How many do we have now?”
He stared at me for a somber Slavic moment. “This is not a soccer match. It’s not the right thing to count how many they’ve got, how many we’ve got. The point is, we don’t want any tanks to start shooting. This Geh Keh Cheh Peh, they are crazy—very visibly crazy. Did you see Yanaev shaking on TV?” The mad held his hand out, imitating the DT’s. “No need to recruit tanks or to start shooting. If we simply wait, give them time, they will hang themselves.”

That night it looked like the man in the gray scarf would be proven wrong. Tanks killed three protestors and the carnival atmosphere turned grim. The drizzle became a cold, driving rain. Still, more and more people poured around the White House.
I hunkered down with a bunch of strangers, all of us eagerly prepared for whatever sacrifices lay ahead. We were the White Army, the French resistance, the samizdat press, the Underground Railroad, Nelson Mandela, Sakharov. Suddenly all my idealism could be brought to bear to defend my embrace of the practical, the measurable. Capitalism, with all its flaws, was much better than a return to communism. Now idealism = good and business = good. Thanks to the common enemy, it was all good.
Then, suddenly, it was all over. One coup leader appeared on TV dead drunk, and Yanaev’s hands continued to tremble uncontrollably. As the man in the gray scarf had predicted, they lost all credibility, and a couple of them committed suicide. Gorbachev returned from the Crimea.
I wandered around the White House. Mobs of people, myself included, who had decided that they were prepared to make noble sacrifices were suddenly deprived of an enemy. We wandered around scratching our heads and kicking the little tin cans in which we’d been cooking scraps of food we’d had to resort to between Pizza Hut deliveries. I knew I should feel happy, but I felt cheated. I’d signed up for heroism and wound up clean-up crew.
“This is Russia. All summed up,” I overheard a man say to his wife. “History u nas begins as a tragedy and ends as a farce.”

But it wasn’t all farce. That Saturday a funeral was held for the three who died. I joined the throngs lining the street arm in arm to honor the three dead men. To my left was a soldier in a crew cut and fatigues. Holding his arm was a long-haired radical. Holding his arm was a young businessman in black Italian loafers and a baggy suit. To my right was a priest, long black robe flapping in the wind. Then a housewife.
A huge, filthy, clattering old Soviet-sized truck overflowing with fresh flowers delivered its generous, colorful load to the spot where the three had died. Next came a Russian flag three blocks long. People were silently throwing more flowers into it, honoring the dead.
“It’s not just for the three. It’s for the twenty million who died under Stalin,” a babushka beside me observed with reverence.
“And for the twenty million who won’t die next time because it’ll never happen again.” I agreed.
“God grant it.” Her wary face and hunched body made it clear the horrors she’d known, but her pinched blue eyes looked like they dared to be hopeful, if only for a day.

The Caboose
“The caboose is off the train! Now things will change, and fast!” Arkady exulted over brunch a week after the coup. Boris was finally back from Siberia, and the three of us were eager to share observations of the past week’s events.
“I am not sure this kind of speed is a good thing.” I was thinking of the murderous Mercedes and of the man with the scarf who counseled patience during the coup. “Brakes help a car go faster as well as slower.”
“Emma! I thought we agreed on this at least—the communist party was the world’s most dangerous criminal organization.” Arkady was passionate. “We should thank God, it has been crushed now.”
“Emma is still a little in love with the government,” Boris muttered.
“Oh, come on. I agree with Arkady, except for one problem—the roof didn’t crush everything under it—it just disappeared and left everything under it alive. It’s like a gigantic stone has just been lifted, a stone that hid millions of roaches.” I imitated a roof disappearing with my hands.
“And?” Boris raised his skeptical left eyebrow.
“And they will scatter all over the country.” I imitated frantic roaches scuttling everywhere with my fingers. “No government to stop them.”

Staccato Life
Arkady was right. After the coup, life did start going faster and faster. The coup put my job woes in perspective. It might be boring, all those spreadsheets, but anything was better than those tanks. I wasn’t alone. All of Moscow agreed. The city was now officially open for business. In December Yeltsin disbanded the Soviet Union with the stroke of a pen, Fto get rid of his rival Gorbachev. Remarkable that a man will eliminate an entire empire to change his job title from the president of a republic to the president of a country. But nobody seemed too bothered by it. Au contraire, goods, services, foreigners, and money flooded into Moscow. Shops filled up, new ones opened up. And I’m not just talking about cheese and chocolate. Mercedes and BMW’s clogged Moscow’s streets. More Rolls Royces were sold in Moscow than in London. Money makes the world go round, the cash inundated Moscow, and it whirled.
I whirled with it. I was getting more and more frenzied, working too much, drinking too much, staying out too late, having too much sex too quickly, all to throbbing disco music. I know what I want and I want it now. Our projects at Payne were catching the attention of the press. We’d made the front page of the Wall Street Journal business section, complete with a little sketch of Hank. Boris, meanwhile, had made another few million dollars on questionable aluminum trades. He filled his fancy apartment with fancy furniture. Like the end of the coup, it seemed almost a let-down. It should take a life-time to build a home. He did it in a few months. Not that it felt very homey.
The attention my business was getting and the cash Boris was making whipped us into froth of activity. Boris raced around to smoky rooms and polluted Siberian cities while I pie charted till midnight every night. When Boris was in town, I’d meet him at the disco that had opened in what had been an Olympic stadium. Enormous cages with naked dancing women lined the walls. Fifteen dollar drinks, and still everyone was drunk. And three times a night I KNOW WHAT I WANT AND I WANT IT NOW caused a surge onto the already packed dance floor. Around three Boris and I would return home and have frantic sex. To sleep at three fifteen, up at six fifteen, and it would all happen all over.
Staccato life. Whatever I was doing, I immediately wanted to be doing the next thing. The faster the pace of each day, the more eager I was to move on to tomorrow. I ceased to speak in complete sentences.
The wild impatience of those days was heady. I was exhausted enough to believe that I was living life to the fullest, productive in every sphere of life. Never mind that the work I was doing was boring, the ‘fun’ I was having was unpleasant, and the sex I was having was not orgasmic. Thus passed six months.

Going a hundred miles an hour, I slammed into a brick wall. At 10:43 am on a frozen February morning in 1992 I was sitting in the office changing pie charts to bar charts and back again. The phone rang. I picked it up.
“Em—” There was a choking sound.
“Hello? Boris? Are you OK?”
“Arkady is dead.”
That morning, Sasha had had a box delivered to his office. When he opened it, he’d found Arkady’s decapitated head inside, warning him to change his line of business.
What kind of era had I stumbled into? People weren’t supposed to behead their competitors in 1992. What was happening in Moscow was beyond immoral—it was nasty, brutish and short.

We took a bus out to a quiet cemetery on the outskirts of Moscow. Arkady’s family and friends, minus Sasha, piled into a low cement-block building. The service consisted of the body, scarf around the neck, laid out under a bare light bulb swinging by an exposed wire from the ceiling. People lay flowers at the foot of the coffin and stood around silently watching Arkady’s mother lay her head on his chest and hold his bluish hand. His father tried gently to pull her away. Boris was outside bribing the grave diggers to finish their work.
I stepped outside into the cold incongruous sunshine. Arkady’s uncle and cousin were trying to make sense of what had happened.
“Maybe Perestroika is too dangerous u nas,” said Arkady’s cousin.
“I don’t know. My father was taken away in the middle of the night. He never returned. My mother did not even get to bury him. She never recovered,” replied Arkady’s uncle.
“Things were worse before?” His son looked at him with sad eyes. I was holding my breath, hoping they wouldn’t notice me listening. Somehow I felt sure this man would say some comforting thing to his son. Surely he had some wisdom that would fill the empty pit that had developed in my mind and allow me to breathe deeply again without fearing I’d shatter.
“Yes. In the thirties, yes, it was much worse. Ten years ago—I don’t know. But in both cases there was only one mafia—the government. It was impossible to protect yourself against it.”
“Is it better to have many mafias than one?” Asked his son.
“I don’t know.” The father sighed. “Just because the Communist party was evil doesn’t mean we don’t need a government. Totalitarianism was horrible, but chaos may be worse.”
“What is our protection against crime?”
“In civilized countries it’s the government. Unfortunately, we went too far and privatized our government. We’ll have to create a new one.” The older man put a hand on his son’s shoulder.
“How does a country get a good government?
“Good government comes from a society’s values.” The man took his hand off his son’s shoulder and gestured towards the sky.
“Where do the values come from?” The son folded his arms skeptically.
“From the books people read, the religion the practice, the plays they watch, the conversations they have, the families they raise,” answered the father.
“Not from market reforms?”
“These values come from a thousand intangible things that no market can measure. But without them, no market can function.” This middle-aged Russian who grew up under Communism was speaking George’s language. Weird.
“We do not have these values u nas.” The son let his arms drop hopelessly.
“We do, son!” The older man took a step towards the younger. “But we need to strengthen them. My hope is that you can protect yourself against these many, disorganized criminals better than my father did against the large, organized state criminal. And perhaps your children will be free enough to become the thinkers and writers who help us to become a cultured nation.” The man touched his son’s shoulder again and gestured toward the gravesite.
I sat down hard. The disaster that was unbridled communism had converted me to my father’s way of thinking. Now, the disaster that was unbridled capitalism left me with nothing to convert to. First I felt empty, then free.
I realized that my father hadn’t been the only one with a mental monopoly. My absolutist “government = good” structure had been every bit as rigid as his “business = good” faith. How had I not realized this before? It was so blindingly obvious. Both of us had entrenched ourselves away from the truth just like a monopoly avoids competition.
Now, Arkady’s uncle set me free of the false dichotomies that had been the foundation of my mental monopoly. Now I didn’t have to choose either/or. I could have both/and. Not to mention neither/nor. I didn’t have to choose between being a miserable consultant and an ineffective academic. My critique of capitalism had merit after all. I could quit bouncing between my father’s thesis and my antithesis. I could try to find some new synthesis driven by logic instead of ideology. I stared into the distance and saw Boris slip the grave diggers some more cash so they’d finish.
Guilt rushed in. What was I doing worrying about intellectual synthesis while Arkady was being buried by bribed grave diggers? No amount of brilliant thinking would bring him back.
I started to cry. For Arkady. For this Arkady’s uncle who had such low hopes for his son’s future. For his country. And also for my country. And for me. And for all the good people and good things that get trampled along the way.

The Commodity Trader
Boris took me to the Savoy bar for a drink and a meal after the funeral. I stared around the room at the gilt and the various beefy men in shiny suits wearing lots of gold gnawing on steaks.
“So, now what do you think of your fellow capitalists?” I knew I was being grossly unfair. Arkady was much more Boris’s friend than mine. He was bound to be more hurt by this than I was, so my insinuation that the capitalism Boris had been championing had caused the death of his friend was cruel. But I didn’t really care. What had happened was so awful that none of the normal rules of human decency or intellectual honesty seemed relevant.
Boris looked around the room, as if seeing it for the first time. “These people are common criminals, not capitalists.”
Boris’s eyes rested in the corner, with a group of tall, thin men in tailored suits and Hermes ties. “Why do you keep staring over in that corner at those Americans? Who are they?” I asked.
“They’re not American. They’re Swiss. Commodity traders.” Boris stood up. “We are going.” Just like that.
“Boris, what’s your problem? I’d like a drink!” Like wasn’t the word. I felt I might go insane if I didn’t get a drink soon. A couple. Five, actually.
One of the guys from the corner stood up and waved across the room at Boris, who was hell-bent for the exit. What was going on? What was Boris running away from? Irritated, I trotted along behind a swiftly striding Boris. The commodities trader accosted us at the door.
“Boris, how’s business? Got any more wheat shipments for us?”

How much could I take? This was some kind of joke, right? Some hazing exercise? What was going on with my face? I was smiling. Uncontrollably, nastily smiling. We walked to the car in a frightened silence. I was struggling for some interpretation other than the obvious one—that Boris had stolen George’s humanitarian aid, and sold it to Swiss commodities traders. That was how he had bought and furnished his apartment. I couldn’t quite get away from the facts, so I sought at least some justification. He hadn’t cut anybody’s head off, after all.
I saw my own thought as if from a distance and gasped. I did not really believe that forbearance from decapitation was any kind of moral standard. Boris stole the wheat. Therefore, Boris was a criminal. A thief. Period. End of story. I needed to acknowledge that and move on.
But, no. Not Boris. Not the man I’d been sleeping with. I should consider the context. When normal business and homosexuality were illegal, it must be much harder to distinguish right from wrong. Boris, and indeed all the Russians I knew, believed that theft from the state wasn’t really theft. Given that his state had murdered 20 million of its own people not so very long ago, I could understand where he might be coming from. Still, the grain was from my state not his state. From me. From George. This was personal. But, maybe that was the explanation. Maybe it was his jealousy that made him behave so badly. I had enjoyed his possessiveness lately. Wasn’t this just the other side of that coin? You don’t get the good without the bad, right?
WRONG! Stealing was wrong. Period. It was just that simple. And not only was stealing wrong. Business = bad. Why bother to look at the specific evidence when it was so painful? It was so much more comfortable to be entrenched away from the truth by pointing to a few abstract notions of good and evil.
“Boris, drop me off at my place. You can have my things in your apartment delivered to the office tomorrow.”
“Take me home.” I started to open the door of his moving car, to jump out and just run away. He reached over, grabbed the door handle, and held it, still driving. Confronted with his superior strength, I panicked. I clawed at his face, scrambled for the window.
“Emma—OK. Shh, calm down, I’ll do what you ask. Just don’t jump out into the night. You’ll get hurt.”
I didn’t think I could hurt more than I already did. I focused on keeping my breathing a binary in-out, in-out till I got into my apartment.

The next morning the pit in my stomach woke me. I didn’t immediately remember what had happened the previous day, but the hollowness in my stomach warned me it was bad. I opened my eyes. Yesterday’s memories flooded in. I rolled over and groaned. The one-two punch of Arkady’s murder and Boris’s betrayal—it was too much. What kind of society was emerging? What kind of immoral dog had I been sleeping with? It wasn’t so much Boris’s betrayal that hurt. My own judgment had betrayed me. How could I have been so wrong about Boris? The foundation of my self-assurance was kicked out from under me. I retreated into my safe business=bad prejudice. Government was also bad, as it turned out. It was all bad.
The phone rang. Probably Boris. I didn’t answer it. I saw his car pull up and went to make sure the door was locked. I sat in the middle of my bed, knees up to my chin, scotch in my fist. He rang the bell and hurled himself against the door—to no avail. Plugging my ears to his shouts and the bangs on my steel door, I found yesterday’s nasty smile invading my face.
I had a driver deliver Boris’s things to his apartment, instructed the guard at the door to Payne’s office not to admit Boris, asked the receptionist not to put his calls through, and turned off my answering machine at home. It took fifteen minutes to pull our lives apart. And I had believed we were so intertwined…
For a couple of weeks I got a letter or two every day from Boris. I threw them away unopened. Business = bad. The weekly letters from George had slowed down to an occasional trickle. I also threw them away, unread. Government = bad. It was all bad. I had no patience left for either my misguided do-gooder or my Mafioso boyfriend.

Why Are You Crying?

“Emma!” I was startled to hear my mother’s voice, calling me in the office.
“Hi, Mom.”
“How are you, dear?”
I didn’t know quite what to say. How was I going to explain all this to her? Oh, a friend of mine was decapitated and then I found out my boyfriend was stealing humanitarian aid from the US government. Other than that, things are going pretty well. I associated my mother with the innocence of childhood. I didn’t want to bring this mess there, not even verbally. “What is it, sweetie?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is it work? You’re still not enjoying it, are you?”
“Well,” I felt myself beginning to tear up. “That’s one thing.”
“You’re not enjoying it?”
I paused. With so much going on, whether I liked my job or not seemed irrelevant. But, come to think of it, NO. I didn’t like my job. “Oh, Mom! I hate my job.” I started crying in earnest now. What a relief to be upset about something as normal as hating my job!
“Why don’t you take a sick day?”
A sick day...I could just stay right here in bed, reading and sleeping and writing in my journal. Only one day? Maybe I could drum up a flu and make it a week. A week? A week wasn’t nearly long enough. I needed about a month. Or a year. Maybe two. Maybe the rest of my life. I had a lot of things to process. People burning up in cars. The George fiasco. A Coup d’Etat. A friend getting beheaded. A boyfriend turning out to be a thief. I could list all these things. But not process them. Any more than I could process all the alcohol I had drunk to keep going, to avoid confronting the pain and confusion of all these events. Suddenly it had all caught up with me. I was puffy and depressed with accumulated booze and overwhelmed by the un-thought-out events of my life.
“That’s a great idea. I will.”
I didn’t tell her I was going to quit altogether. But it was time. Time to look for a synthesis…


The Synthesis
“Emma, I hear that you’re leaving us.” Hank’s voice, cracly over the bad international line, did sound genuinely disappointed. I was puzzled. Surely he had better bullet pointers?
“There’s a case here in New York I thought might tempt you.”
“Oh?” New York? Me move to New York? Leave Moscow? Come to think of it, why not? Maybe I could better plumb the wondrous depths in a city where they’d already mastered the simple (if dull) market measures. A radical thought!
“Yes, well, I know how you feel about toilet paper. Charmin’s thinking of a whole new product—toilet paper with aloe. They want us to do a cost benefit analysis for them. I know how you love cost-benefit analyses.”
Was he kidding? Probably. But what if he weren’t? I couldn’t take the chance on misunderstanding. “Oh, Hank, thank you for thinking of me, but—”
He roared with laughter. “I’m just teasing you Emma. You know that. But, seriously, more and more young people these days are just like you—idealistic, and we’re having a hard time retaining them. Money is just not enough any more.” He sounded wistful for the good old days of honest, uncomplicated greed.
“Well, you know—how much better can you eat?”
“Akh, kids these days.” He laughed. “Well, I tell you what, Emma. Let’s keep in touch. I’m interested to see what you do next. Any ideas?”
“No. Not really.” I didn’t think he’d approve of my plan to lie in bed and search for a synthesis on all my Measurement Problem ideas.
“Well, I’ve got somebody I’d like you to talk to next time you’re in the States.”
“Oh? Who?”
“His name is Carl Smith, and he has a foundation that funds what he calls social entrepreneurs. He thinks that as rich people create more foundations, private solutions to public problems will emerge. He hopes the competition will end a government monopoly in the public sector and create efficiencies. Like what Fed Ex did to the post office, only this’ll be for schools and welfare, not packages.”
“That sounds interesting,” I lied. I wanted to be interested. It sure sounded like this sort of thing might have something to do with my synthesis. I tried to drum up some enthusiasm. “Are there any examples of this actually happening?”
“Oh, sure. Central Park. When the city managed it, the whole place was knee-deep in garbage.” Hank chuckled. “When they turned management over to the Central Park Conservancy, WHAM, it was like the Garden of Eden in two or three years.”
“Well, sure, I’d love to talk to him!” I was just being polite. I had no real intention of talking to this Smith. It sounded too much like business, and business = bad. “And, Hank—thank you very much. For everything.”
“Thank you, Emma. Hang in there, and keep in touch.”
Tears stung my eyes as I put the receiver down. Why did I always get weepy when somebody was nice to me? Business = bad, I reminded myself.

A Harsh Miracle
How did I feel the next morning when I woke up and did not have to go to work? Hungry. And I had no food in the apartment. I went downstairs to buy some. A new Irish supermarket had recently opened in the ground floor of the building, but I had not had time to go there.
Walking towards it, I couldn’t quite believe that things had changed so quickly. I had gotten to know Moscow when buying food had been a real challenge. The bread shortage, and then the bread lines winding around miles of city blocks. Three hours in line for a Big Mac. Now, all that was over. Zzzzp. Just like that, everything had changed. Overnight. Well, not overnight, but in eighteen months—pretty fast. Now, anybody who had money could shop in one of ten or fifteen grocery stores that had sprung up. Tomorrow it would be twenty or thirty. Soon hundreds. Who knew, even the state stores on every block might soon be well-stocked with food. The plenty seemed miraculous.
As I was about to enter I saw two babushki staring in the window, looking in amazement at all the produce inside.
“Do you suppose we can go in?”
“The sign says ‘welcome’—in Russian.”
They were reluctant to believe in these new stores. “Of course you can go in,” I said to them, feeling a little proud of this miracle capitalism had wrought—and quickly.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course. Come on.” I opened the door for them.
“You can buy for roubles?” One babushka asked me.
“Well, no, but you can change your roubles over there.”
“Dyevushka, the prices!” The old woman gestured at the prices. My stomach sank for them. They couldn’t buy much of anything after all. Not on their pension. Now I felt embarrassed by capitalism’s harsh miracle, but also vindicated for having quit. Business = bad.
The first babushka seemed almost relieved, though, and broke into a three-toothed grin. “Now I understand how good our old state stores were.”
The other babushka was skeptical. “Is it better to be able to see food in the city and not afford it, or simply to see no food?”
“The devil only knows.”
I thought about pointing out to them that at least they could complain now—even in front of me, a stranger and a foreigner. Being an idea person, free speech was of tantamount importance to me, and so I believed it was vital to Russia’s cultural evolution. But I was pretty sure those women would take cheap eggs over free speech, just as I had traded chocolate.
A wave of depression slammed into me. I’d been thinking about going home and getting my PhD, hiding out in a world of abstractions. But what the hell did ideas matter when there were eggs and chocolate to consider?
An image of Arkady’s uncle flashed before me. I realized I was bundling ideas that didn’t necessarily have to be joined and setting up false dichotomies again. Those women didn’t have to choose between eggs and free speech. I didn’t have to reject all business and all government in order to justify getting my PhD. A country needed ideas as surely as it needed food, money, and laws. Arkady didn’t have to come back to life for me to outgrow my stifling old habits of thought. It was time for me to bust up my mental monopoly.

Cement Sales & Marketing 101
Having reached this momentous decision I—poured myself a bowl of ill-gotten cereal. I pondered the day ahead of me. I knew what my long term plan was—bust up my mental monopoly, or, specifically, return to the States and go to grad school in economics. But what should I do today?
Well, there were still a few sites I wanted to see.
I threw on my coat and hailed a cab to take me to a monastery on the outskirts of Moscow I’d been meaning to see for the past year and a half. As we pulled up to a stoplight not far from the church a drunk man staggered up to the car and began to bellow, “Dyevushka, dyevushka, do you need some cement? I have twenty tons of cement to sell.”
The taxi driver roared with delight and shooed him on. “He noticed your coat—American. Clearly you have money. So you see—marketing has come to the motherland!” I tried to laugh along with the driver, but just felt sad. And guilty. As if I’d somehow failed this man in my unwillingness to buy his cement. Then again, what the hell was I going to do with twenty tons of cement? Just because I was an American with a nice coat didn’t mean I should be burdened with twenty tons of cement. But I should, perhaps, be explaining certain fundamentals of marketing. Then again, why? I hardly had any better idea of how best to sell cement in the suburbs of Moscow than the drunk man did, truth be told. He could figure it out as well as I could, once he sobered up.
What was I doing here? I wanted to help. I wanted to make things better. But when it came right down to it I didn’t have much to offer. I was interested in abstract ideas about macroeconomics, but the Russians needed cement-selling advice. It was time to go home.

What Shall I Do?

I wandered around the monastery feeling more and more superfluous. I got home, drank the larger part of a bottle of scotch, and went to sleep around 9:30, pulling the shades down, determined not to wake up for at least fourteen hours.
When the phone started ringing after less than ten hours I was pissed. Pissed at whomever was calling, and pissed at myself for forgetting to unplug the phone.
Ring. Ring.
Probably it was Boris. It was March 8, International Women’s day, the Soviet substitute for Valentine’s Day. But maybe it was Mom. I’d not called her in a while—ring. Ring—since I’d quit, in fact. Ring. Ring. I really should’ve called her.
Ring. Ring. Oh, OK. I rolled over and picked up the phone.
“Emma!” George’s voice was flooded with relief. I thought about hanging up on him, but decided not to. What the hell? I had time to deal with him today. And tomorrow. And the next day…What was that song? Countin’ flowers on the wall. That don’t bother me at all…
“I tried you at the office, and they said you didn’t work at Payne any more, and wouldn’t even tell me if you were still in Moscow.”
“I’m still here,” I said.
“Are you OK? You sound awful.”
“I’m fine.” Countin’ flowers on the wall. That don’t bother me at all. Not that I had floral wall paper.
“When’d you quit?”
“Coupla days ago.”
“Oh. I couldn’t take wearing pantyhose any more.”
“I’m just not a consultant, that’s all.”
“And fuck me if I don’t approve?” He asked. I burst out laughing for the first time in weeks.
“Something like that.”
“I am glad you quit. In fact I was calling partly because I read a poem the other day and it made me think of you. I figured you weren’t opening my letters or reading my cards, so I thought I’d try calling.”
“Do you want me to read the poem to you? I think you’ll like it. It’s by Marina Tsvetaeva.”
I couldn’t help myself. “Sure.”
“Here goes:
What shall I do, by nature and trade
A singing creature (like a wire—sunburn! Siberia!)
As I go over the bridge of my enchanted
Visions, that cannot be weighed, in a
World that deals only in weights and measures?
What shall I do, singer and first-born, in a
World where the deepest black is grey
And inspiration is kept in a thermos?
With all this, I-
In a measured world?”

Three. Five. Seven. Eleven. Thirteen. Seventeen. Nineteen. Twenty-three. Twenty-seven. Twenty-nine. Thirty-one. Thirty-seven. Come to think of it, I should quit this counting nonsense and just feel what I was feeling. How did I feel? Sad about George. Horrified about Boris. Confused about my career. Bewildered and scared by Arkady’s death, what was happening in Moscow. I gave up counting, once and for all, and let the tears well up and overflow.
“So…Did you like it?”
“So…What’s up, really? You sound a little—shaky. Is everything OK?”
“Oh…Arkady was decapitated. And…” I couldn’t go any further. I started crying all the tears I’d been holding back.
“Emma…Emma—are you OK?”
“No. Not really.” I was beyond lying.
“Stay right there. I’ll take the flight this afternoon. I’ll be there tomorrow morning.”
“Wha—where are you?”
“In DC. I’ll hop on the shuttle, and cab it to JFK. No problem.”
“When did you get back from Africa?”
“A few weeks ago. But that—that doesn’t matter. I’m coming there, you’ll be OK.”
“You don’t have to do that. I’ll be OK.” I didn’t like this white knight voice. I didn’t need to be saved. I was upset, but I could still take care of myself, after all.
“No, no, just stay put. I’ll be there tomorrow morning.”
Once upon a time I would have rejoiced at these words. For the sake of that former me, I tried to feel happy now. I knew, though, that he was coming here to play the role dictated by his mental monopoly: The Knight in Shining Armor. The Damsel in Distress was just a necessary prop for his vision of himself. Not that I was one to talk. I was in love with George just to reinforce my simplistic government = good construct. But maybe, just maybe now that I was more self-aware, things could work out with George…

Sunk Emotions

I took a long walk all over Moscow, slept twelve hours, and woke up to a bright, cold morning. George’s plane would land in an hour. Should I go meet it? What if I missed him, and he came to my apartment and I wasn’t there? What if he called, and I didn’t answer? No. Better just to wait.
I went to the shower. Should I shave my legs? They were hairy as hell, and needed it. But, why should I shave my legs for George? It wasn’t like I’d be taking my jeans off. But maybe, maybe this time would be different. The pit in my stomach warned me I was going back down the path of the same old boring obsession. Only now that I’d realized that I needed to love the real George, not the imaginary George inside my head, surely now something real would happen. Or was I just dreaming on, endlessly?
I stepped out of the shower, steaming, combed out my hair, and rubbed myself dry. I took a bottle of lotion and sat down on the bed. My legs had that silkiness they only get after shaving a three-week plus growth. I sat naked on the bed and started rubbing lotion into my legs, trying not to think about why I was really doing it and the almost certain, or, more likely, totally certain disappointment that would follow. I tried just to enjoy the sensation.
Bzzzzz. Bzzzzz. I nearly fell off the bed. The buzzer? George here already? I was stark naked. I grabbed my thin cotton bathrobe, tossed the lotion under the un-made bed, and ran towards the door, the air tingling my legs that were covered in barely rubbed-in lotion.
“Coming,” I called as I tied the robe around me, feeling exposed. It was an old oxford cloth robe, worn thin and soft from the years. Was it George? How could he be this early? I arrived at the door and took a deep breath. “Who is it?”
“Me, George. My plane was early.” His voice came tinny and muffled through the steel door.
I held my breath to slow my heart but for some reason it only beat faster as I opened the door. “Emma!” He stepped in and dropped his bags, holding his arms wide for a hug and kicking the door shut behind him. He grabbed me and kissed me. Only it wasn’t really much like a kiss. It was horrifying. Now I knew what an apple felt like when George decided to take a bite out of it. The other time we’d embraced, I had done all the kissing. George had simply frozen in surprise. I wished he’d freeze now instead of gnawing, gnawing.
But I should at least try to be attracted to him. After all those months of longing for him, now that he was finally really kissing me, I should at least give it a try. I kissed him back, trying to drum up some heat. Nothing. It was all teeth and random swipes of the tongue. Did he have no lips??? I ground into him. Nothing. Not even the hint of an erection. What was wrong with me that I had chosen a man with no lips and no dick as the object of my sexual fantasies for over a year????
It was like looking at a clock during the white nights. It stays light till 3:00 am. At two in the morning, you feel as energetic as if it were only 6:30—unless you happen to see a clock. 2:07 am. Confronted with the irrefutable reality of the hour, you feel instantly very, very sleepy.
I took a step back. George did the same. His expression mirrored perfectly how I felt. Disappointment had slapped him across the face. I guess my face looked the same, for suddenly we were smiling at each other, relieved we both felt the same way.
“Well. We had to try,” I said.
“Yes. Yes, we did. Want some breakfast?”
I headed to the kitchen, in a daze. Where had all those feelings of the past two years gone? Had all those feelings been merely the product of my own internal obsessive imagination? Could they all evaporate the moment they met with reality?
Should I give it another chance, for the sake of all those obsessive evenings?
No. Better not to waste any more time. Sunk emotions were like sunk costs. No need to throw good money after bad, no need to throw good emotional energy after bad. When it came right down to it, my emotional world worked sort of like the economy. Bankrupt feelings, like bankrupt companies, should be allowed to go under. That was why mental monopolies were so dangerous. The liberation I’d glimpsed at Arkady’s funeral returned. I was free to see things as they really were, not as I wanted them to be or, worse, as I thought they “should” be.

Boris Exonerated
I poured George a bowl of frosted flakes.
“So. Emma?” He looked up at me, his eyes full of questions.
“Mm hmmm?”
He swallowed. “First, I am sorry about the way I handled the Cecilia thing. I was going to come here to talk to you even before I heard your voice on the phone yesterday.”
“Yes. I wanted to explain—”
I started to say that the point was rather moot, but, he’d flown all this way. I should at least listen. “What happened when Cecilia met you in Africa?”
“It was a total disaster. She was gone by the end of the week. I was so wrong to have let her to come. I never should have done it. It’s no excuse, but I didn’t like feeling so jealous of Boris—ah, where is Boris, by the way?”
My stomach sank. I hadn’t told George about the theft. I had repressed the whole thing so efficiently. Now it was time to dredge it back up. “You don’t know about the wheat!”
“What do you mean? Of course I do. I wrote to you about it in a letter.” George poured himself another bowl of Frosted Flakes.
“You did?”
“Didn’t you get it?” He looked up at me, a drop of milk falling from the bottom of his spoon.
“Well—I didn’t read them.”
“None of them?”
“I should’ve figured. So, how’d you find out about the wheat?” He crammed more Frosted Flakes into his mouth chewing as if this whole thing were no big deal.
I felt like smacking him. How could he be so nonchalant? “What do you think happened?”
“A directive from Yeltsin.”
“Yeltsin!” I leaned forward. What the hell was he talking about?
“Yeah, he had all the wheat redirected to Yekaterinburg. I guess he wanted to help the people in his hometown.” He slurped up the milk in the bottom of the bowl.
“But—oh, God. Are you sure?” My stomach clenched. Had I been to quick to judge Boris?
“Absolutely. What’s wrong?” He put the bowl in the sink.
“I was sure Boris sold it to Swiss commodities traders, and haven’t talked to him since.”
“Where’d you get that idea?” George moved away from me slightly. “Boris wouldn’t do a thing like that.”
“How do you know?”
“You really think he would?” George’s eyebrows came together.
“After what happened to Arkady, anything seemed possible.”
“What exactly happened to Arkady? Was he in some kind of accident?” George sat down next to me.
“Oh, my God, you don’t know, do you?”
“What happened? You said he was decapitated.”
“Not decapitated. Beheaded. Sasha’s rival mafia cut his head off and sent it to him at work in a box.”
“Oh, Emma!” George gave me an awkward pat on the arm, and I began to cry, really cry about it, and everything else. “I didn’t think things like that actually happened.”
“Neither did I.” I agreed.
“I guess you owe Boris an apology.” George said.
“I guess so.”

Patience with the Truth
I held my hand over the telephone, a thousand conflicting thoughts and impulses assailing me. May as well get it over with. George had gone for a run, partly for the exercise, but mostly to give me privacy for this call. This call that I didn’t want to make. Go ahead, Emma. I put my hand on the receiver, which still made me think of Boris’s penis. Probably always would. Maybe I didn’t have to call him. Maybe I should just leave. No, you owe it to him. I had been unfair, leaping to judgements, too impatient to be bothered by the truth and all its complexity, retreating to the “safety” of my mental monopoly. Business = bad.
Well, for once I wasn’t impatient. In fact, I was in no hurry at all to make this phone call. I knew I should just suck it up and get it over with.
Maybe I should just go to his apartment? See him in person? But then he’d try to kiss me, and then I’d have to deal with the fact that even though he hadn’t stolen the wheat, I wasn’t going back to him. God, he’d be pissed. Or maybe he had a new girlfriend? Maybe I’d walk in on them having sex? No, better to call. Now.
I dialed.
Long pause. “Emma? This is you?”
“Emma? Emma, I hope that you will give me a chance to explain, now.”
“Boris, I owe you an apology, I—”
“You made an assumption, because you believe your press more than you believe what is before your eyes. You believe that all Russians are corrupt.”
“No, I—”
“You are prejudiced. You know me, you should have known I wouldn’t do a thing like that. But you believed generalizations instead.”
“Boris, I—”
“And you never even gave me a chance to explain. You weren’t even willing to listen, or to read my letters. Why did you give me no opportunity to speak?”
“Boris, I’m giving you an opportunity now. And I hope you’ll give me the opportunity to apologize.”
“I am coming over now, OK?”
“Oh, Boris, you don’t need—”
“Emma, I want to see you.”
I took a deep breath. “Boris, it was George who told me about the humanitarian aid. He’s in town.”
There was a silence. “And is George your boyfriend now?”
“No, he’s not.” I was tempted to say yes. It would be simpler to tell Boris there was another man than to admit that I’d just never really loved him. Why? Just because he didn’t get the Melville quote about the wondrous depths?
“Good. I am coming over.”
I was tempted to say no. But it was time for me to quit blocking out the truth, to be patient with life’s complications.

Boris strode into my living room. I saw him with a shock. Two shocks. One, I’d forgotten how handsome he was. Two, I’d never truly admitted to myself until that moment that I was aesthetically, not sexually, attracted to him. “Boris, it’s nice to see you again. I’m so sorry, I—”
“Why, Emma? Why?”
“Oh, Boris, I am so sorry. I was impatient, and I was upset about Arkady, and—”
“Arkady was my friend, Emma. Don’t you think I was upset about him too?”
“Yes, yes, of course, but—” This was not going well.
“But what?”
“No buts. No excuses. I was really wrong. I’m really sorry. I just want you to know that I respect you, and—”
“But you don’t respect Russians. You’re prejudiced.”
“Boris, I love Russia, I love the literature, I love the churches, I love the humor, I love the vodka, I love—” Shit. I should never have started down the list of things I loved. I did care about him, but I was not in love with him. And he was going to make it impossible for me to gloss over that fact. I had to just tell him. But how?
“Then why were you so quick to believe so badly of us—of me?”
“I was just wigged out. OK? I am sorry. I apologize. I was wrong.”
He sat down on the couch. “Oh, Emma. Those commodities traders—wheat was our code name for aluminum. It wasn’t strictly—well, there were some problems getting the aluminum out, you see, and all our lines were tapped, so we had to be creative.” The question of why we both thought that smuggling Russian aluminum was so much more acceptable than stealing American wheat fluttered through my mind, but now was not the time to focus on that imponderable.
“Boris—I am really, really sorry. I should have given you a chance to explain.”
“It is OK.” He edged towards me on the couch. “I have a new business idea.” I got the feeling this was some kind of offering to me. The pit in my stomach deepened.
“Oh?” I tried to drum up some interest, some enthusiasm.
“I am going to put air filters in some dirty factories, free of charge. This will make the air near the factory is cleaner. In exchange for this, I get to collect the nickel that the filters capture. And sell it.”
“That’s interesting.”
“You see? The best way to do good is to make profits.”
He scooted closer to me on the couch. I did see. This was his way of competing with George. Oh, Boris… “What about taxes? Won’t that leave your business unprofitable?” I wasn’t really interested in his answer, but I wanted to keep him talking. He kept edging closer and I had the idea that the longer I kept him talking the longer I would forestall the kiss that I knew was coming. I was sort of like Sheherezade, only without such good stories to tell.
Boris let out a long Slavic sigh. “You know, Emma, if taxes were reasonable—say 30% or even 50%, I would pay them. But, when they’re 90%, or 100%, or sometimes even 120%--well, what do you expect me to do, Emma?” Why were we talking about taxes, for God’s sake? Who cared? Just keep talking, Sheherezade!
“I know. You can’t pay. So, it’s the nickel business now, hunh?” I was at the furthest edge of the couch.
“No, it’s just the first step. I want to build factories that can compete in world markets. I want to show that this is possible in Russia. I don’t just want to buy and sell. I want to make things.” He was genuinely excited by this. Once, I would have thought him an immoral capitalist. For a brief time, just after I’d taken the Payne job, I would’ve decided he had stumbled upon the solution to the measurement problem. Now, I was just glad there were people like Boris in the world who focused on getting toilet paper and aluminum where it needed to go so I didn’t have to.
“So, you will begin to build your factories with the nickel money?” I didn’t want to discuss his business, but I knew he’d kiss me the moment either one of us quit talking. I squished a little closer to the arm of the couch.
“No, first I must create a bank to solve the problem of bridge finance.”
I don’t know what it was about bridge finance that moved him, but he moved to kiss me. I jumped away. “Boris!”

Letting Go
“Do you still believe I took that wheat?”
“No. It’s just that—I am going back to the States. Tomorrow.” The words surprised me as much as him. Tomorrow!? But I was ready, now. I had learned what I came to Russia to learn, and it was time to go home now.
“With George? He is your boyfriend now?”
“No, he is just a friend.” I was going to choose both measurement and values in my professional life, and neither Boris nor George in my personal life. There was a whole sea of other fish, and I intended to go swimming.
“Why are you going back?”
“I—well, I quit. I hate being a consultant. And my paper was getting me nowhere. I am going to apply to grad school.”
“But—what of our relations?”
“Boris, I hope that we will always be friends—”
“I do not understand this American friendship.” He stood up to his full height. “I must go now.” He walked out the door.
I started to chase him, to beg for forgiveness, for friendship. But, the only thing I could do by interfering was hurt him further. He had an economy to build—he had no time for my nonsense. I had a sudden vision of where Boris was headed. He would build something, not what he had in mind just now, but something grand nevertheless. He would fail to pay his taxes along the way, but he would have to, to get it done. Truth be told, he probably would do lots of things even more questionable than tax evasion. But in the end, he would do far more good than bad. And he would be somebody’s hero. Not mine, but somebody’s. Good for him. Good for all of us. You go, Boris! I wished him well.
I ached. Again, I had the urge to run after him. I admired him. What he lacked in depth he made up for in adventure. But I knew I didn’t get to share his life if I couldn’t share my whole heart. The best I could do to help him was just to get the hell out of his way. Few things are more painful than being “almost” in love. I ached.

Cultural Incentives

I woke up early the next morning, butterflies in my stomach. George was already up, eating the rest of the Frosted Flakes.
“I can’t believe I am really going to do it today.” I poured the rest of the cereal into a bowl and wondered if the pit in my stomach would let me eat.
“Do what?” George asked.
“Go home.” That was why the butterflies were in my stomach. Maybe I should wait a little? But what would I be waiting for? I could dither for another week, or I could just—get on a plane today. Just like that. And hurtle my body to America. If I thought Boris was soulless, how was I going to feel about my own countrymen? “Today?!”
“You think America will get a soul if you wait a week to go back?” George winked at me. He did always know what I was thinking, I’d have to give him that.
“It’s just all so sudden, leaving like this.” I put my spoon back in the bowl, unable to eat.
“You’re too impatient to leave any other way.” He got up from the table and began packing my bags for me before I changed my mind. At ten he called the Delta office to reconfirm our tickets, and by noon we were in a taxi on our way to the airport.
“I still can’t believe I’m going.”
“How does it feel?”
“I can’t believe I’m allowed. It feels like somebody should be stopping me.”
“Do you feel guilty for abandoning Mother Russia in her time of need?”
It was a manipulative question, highlighting the arrogance of my guilt. But, just because he was manipulative didn’t mean he wasn’t right. I laughed. “As the saying goes, ‘Russia was, and is, and always will be.’ With or without me.”
“I suppose it will.” George stared out the window.
When we got to the airport George went to deal with the tickets, and I went to buy a newspaper. There was quite a line at the newsstand. I got in it, assuring myself that I could hack it, this one last time. The queue wasn’t just slow-moving, it wasn’t moving at all. I shifted my weight three times in rapid succession. Eight people were standing there, and the lady behind the counter was sitting on her ass smoking and staring over our heads. The stack of papers sat there, the pink Financial Times especially tantalizing, as a line of people waited to buy them. I fought with myself. I knew that yelling at the woman would only make things go slower. What was her problem?
“What’s going on?” I asked the person ahead of me.
“It’s her break,” the man whispered back, full of respect for the word “break.”
Break? Goddamned sacred breaks, breaks to smoke and drive the life expectancy down, breaks to just sit there and watch the economy go to hell. What was wrong with these people? I couldn’t contain myself any longer. “Hey! You can’t just sit there—there’s a line here.”
The lady behind the counter brought her eyes down to my level with the special Russian brand of aggressive laziness. “I can do what I want now…We’re privatized.”
This was the “culture” that the man at Arkady’s funeral was talking about. This was what those who hoped to improve life in Russia were up against. But the issue of culture was not hopeless. It could be changed. That’s what idea people like me were here for. Reminded of my responsibilities as an idea person, I opened my mouth to scream at her. Then I shut it. Russian culture wasn’t my job. My job was the oxymoron of American culture.
I took a deep breath. “I’ll just buy one when I land in New York.” I was ready to go home.

The American Imperative

“Did you get a paper?” I’d found George in line at the Delta ‘counter.’ It wasn’t really a counter, or even a line. It was really the Delta Mob, not separated from the Aeroflot Mob by much.
“No—the phone lady was on a break.”
“Well, you can call from the plane.” He shifted his bag to the other shoulder, and gestured towards the Aeroflot mob. “What’s going on there?”
A woman was arguing with an Aeroflot representative. She was getting red and loud. The Aeroflot woman remained gray and implacable. “Registration is closed.”
“But it’s still thirty minutes before the plane takes off.”
“Registration is closed.”
“The bus to the airport broke down, and when another came traffic was impossible, it’s not my fault I’m late, I left home three hours ago. Please.” The woman was verging on hysteria.
“But this is not fair. If you use that stamp, and stamp my ticket, then I can get on the plane, there’s still time. I’m not asking you to do something so difficult.”
The woman slammed shut the lid of the ink pad without responding.
“Please. Oh, please be kind.”
“Registration is closed.” Ms Aeroflot dropped her ink pad and stamp into the drawer and shrugged as if this were the only choice she had. The would-be traveler yelped in sheer frustration. The hysteria was catching. I wanted to slap Ms. Aeroflot myself.
“But I saved money for two years to go to Italy, and if I can’t get on the plane, I’ll lose it all. Two years of work Please. Be a human being.” Tears welled up in the traveler’s eyes.
“Registration is closed.”
“Please, please, I’ll do anything.”
Ms. Aeroflot put on her sweater with the same air of inevitability.
“When they open the camps back up you’ll be the first to drink blood!” The woman spat her words, vicious suddenly. I thought back to what Boris had said about blowing up the Joneses. He was right.
I stepped over to the Aeroflot mob. “Excuse me. Could you stamp her ticket, please?” I pulled out two fifty dollar bills, ignored George’s shocked expression, took the woman’s ticket from her trembling hand, and gave it to Ms. Aeroflot. Drawer opened, ink flipped opened, stamp, stamp. I was rewarded with tears and kisses from the woman with Italian aspirations.

And so I left Russia. Perhaps shouldn’t have paid off that Aeroflot bitch. Perhaps my morals had been corrupted—George’s expression certainly implied that they had. Perhaps my money couldn’t prevent the camps from opening back up—only the Russians could do that.
Still, it sure did feel better leaving distributing fifties than it did arriving empty-handed. Maybe bribery was bad, but it simply was not in my nature to stand by and let that lady start talking of mass murder when $100 would fix the problem. It would have been un-American.
I had run away to Russia to escape the tension between American capitalism and idealism. Instead, Russia had given me such a dose of skepticism that it damn near beating the idealism out of me. Now I knew now how hard it was to tell whether an idealist was a bullshitter, a misguided do-gooder, a mental monopolist, a lying monster, or a saint. Figuring out the difference was, ultimately, my measurement problem.

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