Saturday, August 24, 1991

Today was the funeral for the three people who died Tuesday night, one Russian, one Lithuanian, one Jew. Although it feels sick to say it, it may be for the best that a Jew was among the martyrs. Despite the Communists' bouts of deadly anti-Semitism, there are those among the people who blame the Jews for all the ills Communism has wrought here. Three years ago, a man who has since emigrated told me, "I have friends who are working for perestroika, which is very noble, but I think they're stupid. Because it will end the same as all the other reforms in this country, only people will be worse off, and when they look for a scapegoat, who will it be? The Jews! 'Look!' they'll cry, 'all the early Bolsheviks were Jews!' [not all, of course, but a lot were]. 'Look what they did to Russia. They'll pay!' And I don't plan to be here when that happens."

And it has started. Moscow is still littered with monuments to the heroes of Soviet Communisms (although they've already started taking them away), and these serve as targets for the people's anger at their impoverished condition. Yesterday at Sverdlov's statue there was a poster that said, "Hangman of the Russian People," and the words were accompanied by a cartoon of a curly-haired man with glasses and a Star of David for a mouth. So to an extent my friend was right.

 

But this morning there was a memorial service for all three victims together on Manezh Square. A sea of subdued people, so many of us that looking across the tops of heads you saw a heat mirage rising from the crowd. And flapping over their heads, so many flags! The amplified voices of the eulogists echoed across the vast open space, a heartbeat passing between each word and its echo. A choir sang the mournful chants of the Russian Church, but also-a rabbi sang Kadish! In Hebrew! For all Moscow to hear. The religious services were conducted in the afternoon, one Jewish, one Russian Orthodox, but in the same neighborhood, and when both services were done, all three men were buried next to each other, and all three were inducted into the pantheon of Russian heroes. Over their graves they played the Russian national anthem. Maybe if anti-Semitism starts to spread, enough people will remember this day, and they will say to their bigoted countrymen, "Enough already!" We'll see.

I think it was when we were coming home from the victory meeting at the White House, Sasha mentioned that he didn't like hearing the word "Junta" all over the place. It was embarrassing to hear it applied to his own country, because juntas are something they have in poor, chaotic, third-world countries that are hardly countries at all and can never get their act together. The fact that the term is accurate brings home just how bad things have gotten.

The Arbat, the pedestrian mall made famous in the US by Reagan's visit, is lined from end to end with young people, mostly men, sitting behind tables laden with matryoshkas [the classic painted nesting Russian dolls], painted wooden bowls, amber jewelry, samovars-all the baubles a tourist is expected to take home with him. These budding young capitalists sit huddled under plastic drapes against the rain, dressed in ostentatiously western clothing. Here and there a portable radio consoles a lonely, wet merchant with intrusive music. In the way these people address you, you feel you are there to serve them.

And in a way you are. A reasonably well painted matryoshka is a bargain for a tourist at 800 rubles, since that works out to about $27. 800 rubles is also a month's salary for a professor, a rank less common in Russia than in America. The pedestrian underpass at the end of the Arbat is a claustrophobic's nightmare, crowded with people selling books, cigarettes, candies, kittens, and here and there a few beggars, each one a heap against the wall completely motionless. What's most disturbing is that you don't feel that the peddlers are so far from the beggars. They can still stand straight; they are not dressed in rags; they are merely frightened and ashamed, not yet hopeless. But they seem just as dependent on your generosity. Perhaps in a couple months they will be joined by a certain pensioner who wrote a letter to the editor detailing food and housing expenses of 200 rubles/month. His pension is 150 rubles/month. He hasn't yet taken into account clothing or transport.

It's easy to be depressed by this. The enterprising sharpies on the Arbat are not doing anything particularly productive, while the intelligentsia feels unwanted and the everyman gets squeezed. But of course the Russians have jokes that describe both the general situation and the mood after the coup.

A man walks into a grocery store. "Could you weigh me out a kilo of food?"

"Sure. Just bring it in sometime."

A man goes to his rabbi. "I have six children to feed, my wife is pregnant again, and we're all crammed into a one-room cottage. What shall I do?"

"Take home this goat and keep it in the house with you."

A week later the man comes back. "Rabbi! Rabbi! Why did you give me such terrible advice? I still have six mouths to feed, my wife is still pregnant, and now our one room stinks of goat!"

"Bring me back the goat."

Two days after the goat is returned, the rabbi asks the man how he is doing. "Things are much better already, thank you."

"There, you see?"

A few days after the coup, an actor was being interviewed. "After watching TV these last few days I've completely lost my taste for folk ensembles. And I will never again go near Swan Lake so long as I live."