Magazine article Russian Life

A Farewell to Shock Therapy. (Post Script)

Magazine article Russian Life

A Farewell to Shock Therapy. (Post Script)

Article excerpt

I will never forget the first two days of 1992. Boy, was it an adventurous time! By late in the previous December, I had realized that the fly-by-night private Russian news agency I had joined a year previous would not lead me and my family to prosperity: the agency's management and strategic concept was wrong from the get-go, and hanging on would only take my journalistic career to where the leaders of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine had led the USSR that same month--down the drain. My savings had been wiped out in early 1991 by the first financial "reform" overseen by Valentin Pavlov (who later in 1991 allied himself with the August Coup plotters), and the promised price hikes of January 2, 1992 loomed darkly.

So I went fishing for something else. Some of my former TASS colleagues had joined the Associated Press or other respected news agencies, so the order of the day was to link up with a foreign media outlet.

Since I write in French better than in English, I distributed my resume "to whom it may concern" at various French media outlets. Just before New Year's, a French correspondent for Le Sud-Quest called me from Moscow's Sofitel hotel, asking if I might like to come by to discuss the "services" I offered on my resume. The Frenchman looked lost in frosty, post-Soviet Moscow; he was clearly happy to have found someone who spoke his native language and who could help him come up with sensational reportage about the first weeks of independent Russia. We hit it off right away, yet we still had to agree on the daily fee his paper would pay me. Greenbacks were already circulating freely in Mother Russia, and given hyperinflation and the looming "shock therapy," I was not going to settle for any rubles.

The journalist said he wanted to hire me for a week, then shyly asked "Quels sont vos tarrifs?" ("What are your fees?") Never much of a haggler, I didn't know the answer to this question myself. But I did know I had a wife and two kids waiting at home, so I took a deep breath and intimated that, to the best of my knowledge (bluff), whenever CNN hires freelancers here, they pay them $150 a day. A bit offended by the fact that I had mentioned the "Ricains" (perjorative French slang for "Americans"), he said "OK, OK, I know that CNN is big, but we are not CNN, so all I can pay you is $100 a day."

I almost fell out of my chair. That was more per day than my entire ruble monthly salary. But the show had to go on, so I continued to pose as a savvy haggler, agreeing halfheartedly to this "otherwise negligent sum, if only because it comes from a Frenchman, who I sympathize with."

Recounting our next five days together would take at least 20 pages. All I can say in this space is that this particular French journalist got his money's worth, including an interview with Gorbachev spokesman Andrei Grachev in his home, where he told how his former boss was unceremoniously ousted from the Kremlin.

Still, there are two episodes I have to relate. First, on January 1, 1992, I promised to show my new friend something special, so he could get a feeling of how Russians celebrate New Year's and its aftermath. I suggested a journey into the countryside where, without any invitation, we knocked on the door of our molochnitsa (milkwoman) Zoya's izba, near my family's dacha. Everyone in Zoya's household was still sleeping (hardly a surprise at 10 AM on January 1), yet, unperturbed by our arrogance, they staged a red carpet reception. The foreign journalist had somehow expected to find starving Russians in the countryside, yet he was treated to the contents of Zoya's cavernous pogreb (cellar), from homegrown marinated tomatoes and pickles to fresh veal, goose pate, cottage cheese and, of course, homemade cranberry nalivka. I earned kudos from the Frenchman and saw my first $100 note (yes, he did pay me in the dreaded Ricains' currency).

The next day was what the French journalist called "la flambee des prix"--"the price hike. …

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