News – or no news – from Moscow

Food is the main concern and the main subject of conversation in Moscow: people just can’t speak about anything else. Getting food has become a question of survival.

It was one of my first impressions: a crowd of people in front of the subway entrance. The subway is closed, nobody knows why. The next day I read in the newspaper: a man waiting for a train had dropped a package with a salami in it onto the track. Without a moment’s hesitation he jumped down after it—right under the wheels of a coming train. Food has became more precious than life itself.

Not that there is a famine— not yet. There is still enough bread, and bread means life. But the fear of starvation is overwhelming. The panic itself is an important reason for the food shortage. To prepare themselves for the day when they really have absolutely nothing, people buy much more food than they need at the moment. This extra food occupies every spare inch in their homes and looks at you from the corners of the rooms, from the TV-sets, from bookshelves. “Let the famine begin, already. I have no room for any more food,” is a joke one hears, expressing more than a little of the truth.

lonescu and Kafka had to invent their stories. But in Moscow life itself has become a theater of the absurd. And what an astounding fantasy! You enter the meat store—only to find it sells women’s panties. You enter the fish store and instead of fish they sell soccer balls. Good Lord, why soccer balls?! Who needs them now in this destroyed, decayed, dying society?

Life is especially hard for old or weak people, who cannot fight with stronger and more energetic ones in the lines. My friend the artist Mikhail Turovsky said, “A line resembles a scorpion; a long tail full of poison.” But sometimes humanity and kindness win out. One of my former colleagues, while standing in line two hours for half a litre of sunflower oil suddenly felt a bad pain in her chest. The people in line turned out to be very kind to her. Instead of kicking her out of the line they laid her down on the floor near the cashier, and for two more hours she was not standing, but literally “lying in line,” while her neighbors kept her place for her.

It is a nasty, cold, dark, and rainy winter day. I decide to go to the Central Market in Moscow to buy food for my father. He turned 93 the day of my arrival to Moscow; his wife is 78. The Central Market happened to be closed. The people who sold food there were on strike, protesting against the sale of the Central Market’s facilities to a private company. In the street outside the Market, under the rain and in total darkness, some people were selling their goods, and I bought two and a half pounds of butter (for 200 rubles) and a chicken (for 70 rubles). My father’s monthly pension is 320 rubles.

I returned home, put the chicken in water and started cooking it. Suddenly I realized that there was a big tumor on its belly. Never before had I seen anything like that. I called my sister, who is a doctor: “Please, come and diagnose this tumor”, I said. Very likely it was cancerous, though it could have been just a cyst. But one thing was absolutely sure: this chicken had died its own death, without any external interference. Maybe it had been brought to Moscow from somewhere near Chernobyl. It went into the garbage together with the soup prepared from it. For a long time after that, I could not even think about eating non-vegetarian food.

A couple of days later I heard an amazing program on the radio. An epidemiologist was explaining that some pig disease was not contagious or dangerous for human beings. He claimed that sausages made from the pigs that had recently died in an epidemic were perfectly OK for people’s dinners. But of all, the most heartbreaking were the long, silent lines in front of closed stores. Nobody in the line knows what, if anything, they will find in the shop when it opens, if it opens at all. And they stand for hours and hours before the locked doors, hoping….

These people are in distress and need help. And the help is coming! My sister’s eight-year-old granddaughter told me proudly: “It is me who supports the whole family!” And that is true. Twice a month trucks with canned food come from Germany to a school yard. They give food directly into the hands of the children. This is the only way to give help to those who need it. Everything that comes to the country through the central distribution network is stolen and ends up on the black market, where only the wealthiest can afford to shop.

These desperate, hungry, exhausted and aggressive people are looking for somebody to blame for their disaster. It is the Russian way to look for a scapegoat. The traditional scapegoat in Russia is, of course, Russian Jews. But the face of anti-Semitism has drastically changed during the past years. It is no longer governmental anti-Semitism: it does not trickle down from above. Anti-Semitism today is a grassroots phenomenon, the anti-Semitism of the masses.

This year some Russian Jews celebrated Hanukkah in a most extraordinary way, openly, not somewhere in a small synagogue or an apartment but in the very heart of Russia, in the Palace of Congresses in the Kremlin! The Palace was converted to a synagogue, as it were, by erecting a mehitza to create men’s and women’s sections. I did not reserve a ticket for this celebration, but went to the Kremlin anyway, hoping to buy one on the spot. I did not get one, but I didn’t regret going there. I had a most extraordinary experience.

We were met near the Kremlin by the people of “Pamyat” (Memory): a bunch of hysterical women and men with faces wrapped in handkerchiefs. They carried slogans and were shouting:

“Zhids! [Jews!] You stink! Go and wash your asses!”

“Zhids! Into the gas chambers! Your place is there!”

I photographed them and their slogans. Two especially loud women ran up to me. One of them tried to push me, while shouting “To the gas chamber! Your place is in the gas chamber!”

The other one shouted, menacingly: “Where is my nail-headed club?”

She stopped her shouting suddenly and said in surprise, “Oh! Hello, Natasha!” She was a former colleague of mine from the Institute of Chemical Physics of the Soviet Academy of Sciences!

That was an encounter! She was confused for a moment, then recovered and said maliciously, “Aha! At least you did not manage to get a ticket to our Holy Place!”

I did not respond, and turned away. I had seen enough.