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Geniuses and Schmucks in Incurable Russia


They say that the Soviet regime had many drawbacks. One of them was psychiatric prisons for dissidents and over politically unreliable citizens. The democrats, when they took power, released all these people. That, I think, was the wrong think to do. This criminal sentiment visits me every time I listen to the best-known, known as the best-of-the-best Russian prisoners of conscience – Ms. Novodvorskaya and Mr. Kovalev. But these two are not the weirdest ones around; it seems to me that the democrats have released all mental cases from all hospitals; apparently there were very many.

This feeling became very intense when I returned from Canada in 1997. Wherever I went, whichever event I attended, whomever I talked to, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the society is in a state of mass schizophrenia.

Here are some of my observations.

 Geniuses of Russia

 Two days after my arrival in Moscow, a friend of mine dragged me to a conference dedicated to extraterrestrial civilizations. Some sort of Doctors and Academicians of all sorts of esoteric sciences made inspired speeches about someone flying up there, observing us Terrestrials and controlling us. I was compelled to speak, too, and I said something along the lines that though I don’t believe in all these marvels, I recognize that in the initial stage of humankind’s development faith in gods and miracles was important to savages as a condition of their survival. After that I talked about the concept of the Big Bang as formulated by Stephen Hawking, which clearly didn’t fit with the general mood of the speakers. Nonetheless, the activists marked me for future “development”. In order to make me recognize my follies, they attempted to enlighten me and present me with hefty books (one of them had 960 pages) dedicated to proof of the aliens’ existence. Since I had at one time wasted a lot of time on reading all this nonsense, I declined all the books, except for one 40-page brochure that proved to be worth hundreds of volumes. It was titled Beyond the Horizon of the Known. A new picture of the world: a unity of micro- and macro-cosmos, reason, field and substance! (The Universe is the true God!) (Moscow, 1996). The author dedicates his work “not only to physicists, chemists, astronomers, physiologists of man, speech scientists, language experts, phonologists, philosophers, developers and producers of systems of machine analyzers-synthesizers-translators “speech-to-text/text-to-speech”, but also to the Leaders of Mankind, as well as students, and every sound-minded Citizen of Mankind, living in any country (capitals by the author). One paragraph is preceded by a poem (the translation does no justice to the awkwardness of the original):

I strive with mind and feelings

To comprehend the Universe to the full.

I nourish on scientific truth:

I have seen that the Universe has no limit!

Bottomless, limitless, unemcompassable,

Uncounted, unmeasured is the Universe!

And the unchangeable quant-elements

Will explain the entire structure of the Universe!

 (A.K. Makeev, 2:00 a.m., 6 April 1996)

 The author is a Full member of the International Academy of Megascience, of the “Future” laboratory. Frankly, my knowledge proved insufficient to penetrate the depths of his thoughts in this brilliant brochure.

After that conference, I participated in scores of conferences and seminars on different topics. Almost every one of them featured no less than three or five geniuses. One time I said something about ecology, and a woman named Natalia Aleksandrovna decided that I am acceptable to their movement called The Ethical Movement “MOTHER EARTH”. She persuaded me to attend that Movement’s conference. The speakers were apparently normal people with all kinds of scientific degrees and titles. But the things they said… I cannot render to you. Let their Program speak for itself:

The Movement’s goals: Harmony of the natural and the social worlds. Implementation of the ideals of humanism. The Movement’s mision: Changing the conscience to make the transition into an alternative civilization. Values: Mother–Earth. Life. The Moral Law. The Movement’s member: Resident of the Earth, compatriot, brother. Strategy: Evolutionism. Tactics: From minuses to pluses. Establishment of the subject. Profilactics of problems. The motto: Shine to the world! Expected result: Happy people on a flourishing Earth.

Naturally, I broke off contact with this “movement”, but Natalia Aleksandrovna kept phoning me, inviting me to subsequent events. When I finally told her that I read her Program aloud to my friends at parties to make them laugh, she was sincerely surprised and told me that I am hopelessly spoiled by the West.

My last stop in Moscow was an international conference, funded by Germans, on the subject of: Problems of global and regional security. This conference took place at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral. Even though I’m a non-believer, it seemed to me a sacrilege that servants of God would lease His temple. The main speakers were entitled to a fee of US$120 from the German sponsors. Having collected the dough, the Russian scholars proceeded to condemn the West, or rather the USA, for their evil policies on the world stage, the absence of spirituality in their society, and to promise that Russia will eventually “teach them all a lesson”. One general proclaimed that the West should erect a monument to President Milosevic for declining to order the destruction of a nuclear power station in France and the Bundestag in Berlin. Another speaker with a very lengthy title announced that the topic of the conference is too small, since in 2002 the Earth will be attacked from outer space. I was seated beside a German who tried to find out from me whether it was indeed scholars that were gathered here.

The Russian organizers of the event appeared to be embarrassed by the Russian speakers’ vitriolic pronouncements. At the banquet, funded by the same Germans, they asked the guests not to take those speeches too seriously, and to drink to friendship between the German and Russian peoples.

During that same conference some individual approached me and told me that I alone can understand his opus, which he proceeded to give me. One glance on page one was enough to satisfy me that I was dealing with yet another genius. The title was: Manifesto – Program declaration “On the creation of the social-political movement International-patriotic Union “Salvation”. One of the movement’s goals is to create a Great European-Asian Power, which must first change the WORLD ORDER and then the WHOLE CREATION. One of the phrases in the text: “It is extremely urgent to decrease and eventually to eliminate the role of money as the main regulator of relations in the World”.

He phoned me a week later and asked if I was prepared to take part in the proposed project. Upon hearing my refusal, he told me that I would be very sorry when I fail to find a place for myself in the world upon the project’s implementation.

Encountering such characters very frequently, I was long at a loss to understand whether they were sincere, or whether it was some game played that I could not perceive. Eventually I saw the answer, after meeting some people with money and power. The latter are indeed playing a certain game, or, as one Kremlin official put it, making money while the opportunity is there (carpe diem). Those who have no power and no money – patriots, nationalists, left-wingers, believers, humanists – really do believe in the silly theories they invent. They sincerely believe that they will save Mankind.


 I love travelling by train since it gives me the opportunity to socialize with ordinary people – the folk, so to say. This time my trip is to the city of Astrakhan. I’m sharing a cabin with a father, daughter and a military cadet. Barely had the train started moving when the father offered to drink to our acquaintance. I refused and tried to convince him by explaining that I had somehow lost the habit of drinking after living for a long time in the West. My travelling companion looked startled: “How do you mean? We won’t drink much anyway, a bottle each at most”. - “A bottle each of what?” - “Vodka.” - “Where are we going to get that much? I have none, you know.” - “But I have several,” – and he produced three bottles of vodka with suspicious-looking labels. The cadet and I went round-eyed. But what were we to do? The trip was 32 hours long; we had to start drinking sooner or later, and so we started. Oh, the Russian soul!    

After two glasses, the father became agitated and started cursing the West, calling it shit. The USA was shit to him as well, as for Canada – he knew nothing about it. I asked him why he disliked the West. “Why, they ruined our country”. - “How?” - “My, are you ever ignorant: through Jewish Freemasons, that’s how”. I told him that I thought they had ruined themselves, primarily through those moronic leaders they had voted into power: Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Chernomyrdin. “But they are all Jewish Freemasons themselves. Yeltsin is not really Yeltsin, but Elsohn, while Popov is Neuman, not Popov. Haven’t you known? Potanin, too. They are all bought and paid for”. - “That’s ridiculous”. - “Not at all, a guy came from Moscow and told us all about it; he knows them all”. - “But well, you voted for them yourselves”. - “The heck we did. We were told that if we wouldn’t vote for them, we would lose our jobs at the plant”. - “And where do you work?” - “At the hospital at a plant owned by Potanin”. - “In what position?” - “Re-animator”. I was dumbfounded: such nonsense spouted by a supposedly educated man.

Afterwards he started telling me how he tricked everyone in town to obtain an apartment. “Tell me, could any American possibly devise a combination that would turn a dorm room into a two-bedroom apartment?” – he demanded proudly. I told him that no, no American could do that, since any employed American can afford to buy a house or a large apartment. “No matter, everyone says Americans are half-wits,” – concluded the father.

As for the cadet from St. Petersburg, he turned out to be a very nice guy and told me that cadets often get paid late and have their free lunches withheld from them.

The train arrived in Saratov and stopped there for a whole hour, on account of the railroad’s bosses living in that city. I went to the train station to buy some newspapers and have some exercise. There were no Moscow newspapers for sale, and the local ones had been sold out already. Suddenly I saw a sign in English: Toilet for gentlemen. Looks like decent service has arrived here, I thought, paid 2 rubles, entered and beheld… a hole in the floor. A shocking sight on the eve of the Third millennium.

Finally I arrived in Astrakhan, my native town where I had last been eight years before. The heat was oppressive (40 C), in no time at all there was dust on my teeth. The wagons (the Astrakhan word for trams) use single tracks and stop frequently to let oncoming wagons by. I suddenly felt myself transported to the times of Nikolai Gogol and his characters. Then in the very first night my perceived time frame shifted, and I started feeling as a soldier in the front lines in time of war: I was bitten all over by mosquitoes from the basement of the house, freight trains thundered by, trams screeched as they stopped by the house. I asked the tenants: “Aren’t you disturbed by the noise?” - “What noise?” - “Well, the trams, the trains…” - “Oh, we don’t hear them”. I became saddened somewhat after this; we in the West are probably really spoiled by civilization. On the other hand, the third millennium is at hand; people are supposed to have some comfort in their homes. Yet these folks in Astrakhan are somehow immune to mosquitoes, to 50-degree heat in the sun, oblivious to sand on their teeth. I even thought that should a nuke go off in this city, no one would notice. Perhaps they are mutants, I thought. But then I heard the phrase that explained matters, the phrase I used for the title: “What can be done, this is the kind of rastyki (schmucks) we are”. “These people are doomed,” I told myself. “You have just returned from Europe, discussed an important problem in the Internet, read a series of articles by Arthur Young, attended a meeting in Moscow of insane dreamers – saviours of mankind, and here I am now among mosquitoes, single track tram lines, heat, sand, holes in the floor and rastyki”. The sensation was surreal.

I then decided to visit Plesheyev Street where I used to live once. I was wondering whether the house was still there; it was supposed to have been demolished on account of dilapidation back in the early 1960-s. The street turned out to be overgrown with two-meter tall weeds, with a tram line and lots of swamp. The house was still standing, and the most startling thing was that the 18 square meter flat where our family of four used to live was now home to a family of six. The latrine in the backyard was also still there, but, like the house, just barely. There were infants and toddlers crawling in the dirt, dipping in the frog-infested swamp. The desolation was complete, worse than anything I had seen even in the darkest Harlem. Surprisingly, I was recognized by the mother of a school buddy of mine, the one who used to steal steam engines. “How are you doing?” I inquired. “Okay,” she said, “except that my Vovka is in jail again. But thanks be to God, he’s doing time here in Astrakhan, they haven’t taken him to another city”. And once again a phrase shot through my mind as if in Dante’s Inferno, a phrase said by a friend of mine in Moscow, a graduate of the Oriental Studies Department of the Leningrad State University, who also has a son in jail: “Thanks be to God, my son is in prison. He gets three meals a day”.

Stunned by all the things I have seen, I went to see my cousins who live nearby. The street had changed: there were offices with glass walls, Mercedes and BMW cars everywhere. Both brothers now owned fine houses, one of which had 2 ½ stories. I felt happy for my cousins. “How’s life?” I asked one of them. “Great, I’m awash in cash”. - “Well then, why don’t you travel abroad? Say, to France?” - “What for? What does it matter where to get drunk?” Fair enough. I told him that capitalism had obviously benefited him, enabling him and many others to get rich. “What capitalism? I don’t understand this capitalism-socialism shit”. - “Then how do you make money?” - “The same way as always: by cheating Russians. Except that they used to call me a profiteer, and now they call me a businessman”. I asked him why were there office buildings in the street. “Those are private houses, not offices. That five-storey house belongs to Fardin, and the four-storey one – to his brother Shamil. They have a competition as to who builds the taller house. Both live on the first floor, the other floors are not even furnished”. - “So why do they keep building more floors?” - “I just told you, they compete in showing off their riches”.

I noted that my cousin had no mailbox in his house. “Whatever for?”  - “For newspapers, letters. Haven’t you read my articles in your town newspaper Volga?” - “You’re kidding. I’m still reading the book you gave me in Grade 7 – The Three Musketeers”. I was stunned; I had given him that book back in 1960. “Don’t you read anything?” - “Those who read don’t drive Mercedes. Your Russian friends read a lot, and they are all paupers who can’t even afford a Lada. Yourself, do you have a Mercedes?” - “No”. - “There you are. Even though you must read a lot”. Logical reasoning, indeed. We parted then. My cousins never inquired where I was living and what I was doing.

I also socialised with the Astrakhan intelligentsia, with journalists from the newspaper Volga where I used to publish articles from time to time, sending them from Canada. Bosses and leading staff writers came to the gathering. I started by giving them a small lecture on the economic situation of Russia. When I touched on the topic of the country’s decreasing population, one woman journalist started to object indignantly: “You’re talking nonsense. Take my friends: Ira is pregnant again, so is Lenka. Does that look like falling fertility?” I told her that it’s statistics talking, not me. She retorted: “You’re talking about numbers, while I’m talking about live people. Don’t you believe any statistics, they are lies”. I could have told her about my own friends – about three female classmates of mine who died before the age of 50, and a much greater number of guys who succumbed likewise (due mostly to heavy drinking). But it was useless to argue, since these “intellectuals” I was facing comprehended nothing beyond their own empirical experiences. My friends in Astrakhan, to whom I used to send my books, never opened them even out of curiosity, it turned out.

My sister’s husband, once an artist, now works in an accidentally surviving factory. He walks to work – an hour one way – to save money on the wagon. I asked him why wouldn’t he do such and such things, and he replied: “It just doesn’t work out somehow, that’s the kind of rastyki we are”. There it is, that refrain again.

Full with impressions from talking to the city’s residents, I decided to take a look at the city itself. The Kremlin appeared to be well cared for, same as the Brothers Park (a memorial for fallen soldiers). But just a little way from downtown the city looks perfectly rural: log cabins sunk deep into the ground, wells in the streets, outdoor outhouses. But the more important thing is this: the mental processes of the population are mediaeval. No one even tries to consider why they live like they do, and what kind of country they live in. “We pin all our hopes on Governor A. Guzhvin”, a band of old ladies told me proudly and deferentially. I asked them whom they had voted for in the latest election. “For Putin”. - “Why not for Zyuganov? You used to live better under Communist rule than you do now”. - “Well, he’s kind of scary looking, with that wart of his. Why bother to change rulers anyway, habit makes even hell feel okay”. I fell silent, having never heard anything like this before. Without even me asking, one muzhik told me, striking a pose, without a trace of sadness: “Our lives are like this: eating the last, drinking the last, wearing the last, breathing the last”. You’re welcome, I thought, but it amazes me that this is how a city of 700,000 enters the Third millennium.

Upon my return to Moscow I discovered the familiar old picture, well-known to me since 1950-s. Russian business of the capitalist era is exactly like profiteering of the socialist era: dried fish and tomatoes are loaded into passenger trains in Astrakhan, part of the products are then traded for watermelons in Baskunchak, traded for other stuff in Saratov, Tambov, Michurinsk, etc. Some part of the shipment eventually reaches Moscow, where it is bartered for commodities that are then taken back to Astrakhan. Nothing has changed in half a century, except that the trains have become ancient, almost falling apart. “So how are you doing?” - “Excellent! We’re pinning our hopes on Putin now”. You’re welcome.

I visited the city of Penza once with an American woman journalist. From there we travelled to a nearby collective farm. The first cow-pen we entered was ankle-deep in manure, the cows were complaining loudly of hunger. Several soused workers were present, sitting down, smoking cheap Russian-grown stuff. The American asked them why don’t they bring the farm in order. The muzhiki replied: “The boss gave no orders”. - “Why didn’t he?” - “He’s in the city on electoral business”. - “Can’t you do it without his orders?” insisted the American. “??? … who in the world would work without an order?” I could see the American’s mind going after that reply.

Vremechko (a night-time entertainment program) featured once a family that came to Moscow from a village. The father of the family started breeding crickets in the city apartment – to remind him of the village. Some of the crickets he fries and eats with his children. “Very tasty,” he says, munching on an insect. Another story was about a man who built an airplane from lumber and plywood. No one believed it would fly, but it did. Another story had a night watchman demonstrating his unique skill on-camera: eating poisonous mushrooms and chasing them down with vodka. I also recall some news stories: in Moscow, the authorities apprehended a bunch of disabled homeless people, took them to one of the city dumps and dumped them there. In Primorsky Region, hundreds of buildings have an air temperature of 8-10 degrees, while schools, kindergartens and hospitals are even colder. Many houses have no electric power at all. People are freezing to death. Governor Nazdratenko announces that “everything is under control”.

In the meanwhile, the radio station Echo of Moscow broadcasts cheerful discussions about the advantages of democracy and a market economy, since “theatrical acshenty” have become more frequent, though, of course, “social autism” also happens. At the same time, there are many new medicines for “increasing the resistentnost’ (resistance) organisms”, although Yeltsin proved to be inkurabelny (incurable). The Avtoradio station offers a constant flow of draivovy sing… So many twisted English words in place of Russian ones.

I asked my next-door neighbour: what’s happening to Russia? “Nothing extraordinary, the usual stuff,” he replied. “It’s just that we are priskorbny umom (deficient in the head)”. Priskorbny, priskorbny, priskorbny… the word rang in my head and hung in the air.

So I started pondering the question: “How to prevent the further zakhirevaniye (sickening) of our motherland?” (Question posed by the Literaturnaya Gazeta).

August 2000

Alex Battler

 Published in Russian Vancouver, no. 58-59 (2001), also In Oleg Arin and Valentina Arina. Between Titi and Kaka. The Impressions of a Tourist…but not only (Moscow: Alliance, 2001).