Monday, January 27, 1992

Survival Strategies for the New Year 1/27/1992


GETTING ALONG—shopping for the basics in an open market, Cherkassy, the Ukraine.


The Allegorical Model

by Maureen Hurley

Returning from Russia to the fast-paced English-speaking world of 10-second sound bites and blaring headliner, only to face a belt-tightening recession back home, I was shocked to find that the USSR had officially dissolved. Gorbachev was ousted, and the Byelo-Rus capital of Minsk, the new Soviet Commonwealth capital. In Russia, nothing as clearly defined—even in the minds of political leaders; the pluralistic model was in full operation.

I found myself thinking of Russia in allegorical terms: three blind men variously describing an elephant as a snake, a wall, and a tree trunk. They were all partially correct or they had limited perceptions, dependingon which model you used to define elephants.

The Soviet media weren't being deliberately mis-infrormational, but so much was in turmoil, it wasn't clear what the outcome would be. But if was clear that when Bush acknowledged our recession after the fact, that Soviet survival strategies might apply here as well.

I'd compare Russia to the scientific model of chaos where many ordered and predictable patterns make up the whole—like the constellations in the infinite cosmos. But the apparent order is based on illusion.

It is a logical habit to draw conclusions: we in the West differ from our Soviet neighbors; we gather subjective analysis, call it statistics, claiming to understand the bigger picture. But it's hard to see the picture. let alone the overview while blindly groping to comprehend a culture in the midst of major political and sociological upheval.

The Russian poet Yevgeni Yevteshenko wrote of Perestroika: "One of the few joys of life is being an eyewitness to history in the making." Well, we are witnessing multiple histories in the making.

In Marshall McLuhan's global village context, I muse at how much the West influences, and shapes the outcome of world events. In their quest to nail down a decisive historical moment demarking the end of Communism, the media keeps on replaying the same old symbols and touchstones until we've all become weary of the Velvet Revolution before it's over—or even begun—in this case.

Yes, it's true about the long lines in which the average Sovilet spends an estimated one-quarter of his life. I did some serious time in those lines. Paradoxically, Soviet store shelves are empty, but people's cupboards are full.

Every place I lived, food was stashed in nooks and cranies. Onions rolloed out of the storage closets. By my sleeping cot, hot tub-sized jar vats held whole tomatoes and eggplants gurgling in brine. There were so many bars of soap stashed under the the iron claw bathtub, I couldn't see its legs. In articipartion of a long siege, newspapers were stacked to the ceiling of the watercloset for our more literate heines.

At the State-run Universe Supermarket on Prospekt Chodozhnikov (Artist's Prospect), in Leningrad—I mean St. Petersburg—I had ample time to admire the symmetry of the rows and rows of apple-juice jars artfully to arranged fill the otherwise empty shelves, a la Warhol. The problem of shopping for food a exacerbated by the ration-coupons (talloni) needed to buy produktii (staples): sugar, flour, kasha, oil, butter, kielbasa, vodka, cigarettes, eggs. and meat.

Toilet paper, matches, soap, etc., are always in high demand, but is there a shortage because people chronically hoard the items or because them isn't enough to go around? Many items are in scarce supply because of their excellent barter value. If someone needs soap or toothpaste, they don't go to the store, they ask friends. Friends are everything in Russia.

Most Soviet workers earn less than 20 rubles a day; the average monthly salary runs from 300 to 1000 rubles. With 100 rubles to the dollar, one can live on U.S. pennies a day, but there's very little to buy in the stores. For those who harve plenty of rubles (or hard currency dollars), there's always food to be had. Valuta, or hard currency will buy imported food at the tourist stores.

But Russians, who are not allowed in the hard currency stores, boycott the bazaars and cooperatives, where staples can be bought for a steep price. Usually four an 100 times higher than in the artificially priced state-run goverment stores. Enterprising merchants, anticipating shortages, keep the prices so high that the food literally rots on the shelf before anyone can afford to buy it.

I've been to the USSR three times; it could easily be three separate countries, my experiences are so varied. Russia has to be visited again and again to be understood, and even then, she is elusive. A friend, poet Marina Ajaja, and I who were in the same cities at the same time, had stories so vastly different, it was hard to believe we were talking about the same place.

Travel allows us to don the persona of another existence, don another political-cultural system. Nothing, not even experience, prepares one for the culture shock upon returning home—it's always a rough transition, no matter how much I appreciate gourmet lettuce, designer cookies, chardonnay, toilet paper, or my own bed (not necessarily in that order). While I was in Russia, certainly the proverbial fat got trimmed from my diet, but I always ate everything in front of me, not knowing what my next meal would bring.

Seeing my own country through transplanted Soviet eyes, two things struck me: how naive and blundering Americans are, and the overabundance here—the excess. I literally screamed when I entered Safeway my first week back. Why was it all so screamingly red and yellow? An avalanche of food overwhelmed me, and the ambient noise split my skull right down the middle.

Having lost some Christmas gifts at the St. Petersbueg airport (posters coveted by a Finnair worker), I went to the Santa Rosa Mall on Christmas Eve to find my brother a warm shirt. Contrary to what the media reported, hardly a soul was doing last-minute shopping. I couldn't bring myself an buy anything. I was on a Soviet value system—a bargain $19 shirt was equivalent to a half-year's Russian wages.

Closing time at Macy's found me wandering aimlessly through the store touching things. Senesory, deprivarion does funny things to the psyche. All those months of seeing empty shelves, and a lack of the constant bombardment from the advertising world, left me temporarily immune to our biggest social disease, blatant consunerism. What I noticed was the amount of stress we willingly subjugate ourselves to on a daily basis in the from of advertising. Nothing is new, natural, or improved. Get over it.

I came home to a recession, the media informed me. This is news? I thought that was why we went to war in the Gulf, to boost the economy. I read that GM is to lay off 74,000 workers in the next four years: IBM to lay off 20,000, with another 20, 000 to fall beneath the axe next year. Retail jobs vanishing.

Something about President Bush buying his socks at K-Mart, the significance of which, escapes me. There's a mini baby boom. Desert Stork, a cranberry shortage in the Bay Area, and Sunnyvale city officials were offering Monopoly Money or Hell Bank Notes to the gods at the winter solstice bonfire. The country I left was pretty crazy, but we Americans were facing some pretty tough questions of mammoth proportions (mammoth is a Siberian word), like "Is there life after Communism?"

In the new Russian Commonwealth, when Yeltsin officially takes over on Jan 2, prices are expected to quadruple. The prices (and wages) have been held at an artificially low price for 40 years. If wages don't rise, many Soviets I know won't be able to eat. Since there are so few luxuries to be had, they can't trim their budgets there.

How are people here in America are cutting corners to survive these bad times? Some say they're getting by—by refinancing their homes, and buying only the bare necessities. Many North Coast residents who moved to the land 20 years ago are less hard hit by the current recession, but others, whose children have come of college age, find themselves commuting to Santa Rosa and beyond to bring home the bacon. For folks used to cutting corners, what's left to trim after rice and beans?

Others are mobilizing by organizing a series of self-help groups and public lectures to strategize and combat the recession. One group is offering women free seminars on financial planning strategies for the '90s.

Financial consultant Zara Altair of IDS/American Express, Santa Rosa, said the planning sessions have been well attended. "People overlook daily expenses, few know how much they spend on food, gas, lunches, movies, cafe mochas or the cleaning bill." She advocates prioritizing, systematically trimming daily expenditures (lunch at $4.50 a day adds up to $90 a month), and putting money aside for the future. Women typically control about $500,000 in their lifetimes.

Altair said economists work with allegorical models, using the best of possible worlds. There's a dichotomy of information when they say we're in a slow recovery pattern, for in reality we don't feel the impact—it's like blind men looking at the elephant. While U.S. rates have been dropping, European Community rates are rising. Either we've already hit bottom, or it's going to get worse.

"Financial planning is like winnowing the spending stream," explained Altair. "if you look at thinning out the schools of minnows, it's the opposite of the elephant allegory. Look at all these things that nibble away at your financial strength. You begin in take toward by examining everything you do, and that prepares you to make intelligent choices."

I thought the idea of financial planning was great, but wondered what advice would help the many West County folks, including myself who already live with the metaphorical belt tightened in the last notch?

But in the end, there's little comparison between American consumers coping with the recession, and our Soviet neighbors; materially we are much better off. They've been in an economic, downspin for many years—like 75 years. And we don't have to wait in ration lines at the state-run stores every night because we can't afford food at bazaars where a week's groceries cost more than a month's salary.

A neighbor, Pat Bond, commented that the recession in the United States serves to heighten people's insecurities—especially those of people already on the fringe. She said, "Letters to the editor read like a permanent full moon. The government isn't telling the truth; it encourages corruption." She said the Forestville Methodist church had swelled from 250 to 600 converts since the Gulf War. A retired scientist, she's one of the converts. "l want to believe that the world is friendly," she added.

Soviets, too, are flooding to the churches en masse; I've never seen so many baptism and marriages. But in spite of AA, that number of Soviets who find faith in the bottle also seem to have risen to an all-time high, judging "growing number of blind-drunks in the metros. Cologne and raw ethanol provide temporary respite from a living hell when there are no more vodka ration coupons to be had.

Unfotunately, we, like the Soviets, have fallen victim to the idea of inherant helplessness. One of their biggest failings is that of not knowing how, or when to take the initiative. They haven't discovered that democracy requires constant vigilance and hard work.

We in the West could set a better example, instead of mumbling about how we need to carpool, to recycle, to cut back on heating and the electric bill, the goodies and all the toys.

The kings of Siam once gave white elepharts to troublesome courtiers who in turn, suffered financial ruin trying to to support their royal beasts of burden.

Only five percent of the global population, we Americans consume the vast majority of the world's natural resources, and the upkeep of elephants (or SUVs) is depressingly expensive these days. Soviets routinely recycle waste, use car pools and public transportation.

Are we the role model for emerging nations like India and China who want to blindly emulate our worst habits, that of blatant disregard for the earth's limited natural resources? Maybe now's the time to put our lack of money where our mouth is, and perhaps the world will be a better place for elephants.

© 1992 Maureen Hurley
Page 4, The West Sonoma County Paper, January 27- February 5, 1992.