a letter from Russia, 1996



This is a letter I wrote to my parents, via fax, in 1996.  I thought it might be interesting to see what life was like mid-90s as an American expatriate in Russia….

First of all, let me apologize if the quality of this fax isn’t very good…the fax machine we’re using is pretty old (like most of the stuff we have over here) and doesn’t work that well.

Most of the machinery here is OK stuff, it’s just all 10 years old and heavily used.  So I hope you get this and that it’s legible and all.

The trip over was uneventful.  The KLM flight was great, and I didn’t really sleep the whole way over.  It was too crowded, and I just listened to my CD player.  We all split up in Amsterdam, and the only trouble I had was when I got to Frankfurt and the Russian customs people took a disliking to my computer.  But after a short interrogation by the guards in a little room (they X-rayed the computer, much to my disliking), I got out OK.  Customs in Moscow was a breeze, the driver got me, and took me to the Aerostar Hotel, which was like the Peabody (a famous Memphis hotel) sortof.  It had real small rooms but the lobby was great…nice restaurants, etc.  It was $250 a night, and the firm paid for it all.  But the TV had NBC, CNN, and even Country Music Television.  So that was a boring couple of days.  I slept about 16 hours the first day, and after that I just played on the computer and watched TV.  A burger and fries from room service cost $30.  So I ate sparingly, and on Saturday and Sunday I went for some long walks to the big plaza full of street vendors while the snow poured down.  It was interesting, but I got bored. Ed note:  I can’t tell you how proud I am that most of my commentary to this point related to how much television was available.  Sigh.

Like I said, I have my apartment now.  It’s a very nice one by Russian standards…it costs about $2500 a month.  It’s 3 rooms:  kitchen, living room, bedroom.  I have 2 bathrooms, one with a toilet and one with a sink and shower.  I’ve got a stove, fridge, etc.  It was prefurnished and a maid cleans up once a week, so I can’t complain.  It’s in a big building that’s about half Russians and half Americans.  It’s also only about a quarter mile from the nearest subway station (Metro Kurskaya) so that’s convenient, since they only let you use the company drivers for the first week, until you get used to the city.  I have a TV but it’s a piece of junk…old Soviet one, that only shows 6 channels (and guess what…CNN is channel 7).  It just has 6 buttons, 1 through 6, and so despite the fact that the firm is paying for the full 15 or so cable channels I don’t get CNN or MTV or NBC, which are all on Moscow cable.  Irritating, but not a big deal.  I don’t have much time to watch TV.  When I’m not working, I’m sleeping.  The constant cold seems to make me constantly sleepy.  Fortunately the bed is plenty comfortable and I brought my own pillow, so it’s fine.  The place stays warm (gas heat) and the water is hot in the shower, so I’m not complaining in the least bit.  I send my clothes (all of them) to California Cleaners which costs about $10 for a full load, which is well worth it, in my opinion.  Ed note:  Again with the TV.  And yes, being frozen all day makes you sleepy. Hence my move to Florida…

The city is pretty boring, actually.  It was horribly cold at first, almost unbearably.  For about the first 2 weeks it snowed every day, but the last week we’ve had sunshine and temperatures of 30-40 degrees, so it’s gotten a lot better.  It stinks, too.  It’s not really a bad smell, but it’s just really, really strong.  The American expatriates (expats) all call this scale.  We’ve actually had sunshine a few days, and unless the wind is blowing horribly it’s not that bad, once you get used to it.  I have to walk about a quarter mile to the subway, then I ride it for about 15 minutes, change trains, and then another 5 minutes; then it’s about a half mile to the office.  the firm has 2 offices in Moscow:  Mokovaya Ulitse, and Vtoroi Samotechny, which is where the Oil & Gas and the Banking Departments are.  Our offices are temporary, because there was a fire in our old offices; so the quarters are very primitive.  We have the third floor of this ratty old building, but once you get inside it’s not too bad.  I have carved out a corner in one of the  Russian rooms  with my own desk.  I share a pretty big room with 7 other people, mostly Russians.   The Russians are all OK.  They’re all pretty young and most of them speak great English.  I try to talk Russian when I can but it’s frustrating to try a lot of the time because they, of course, speak English better than I speak Russian.  Still, most of the time now at stores I can order stuff without looking like a total idiot.  I just couldn’t carry on a conversation with someone about accounting (but hopefully I’ll get there). Ed note:  I did get there 🙂

We eat at McDonalds on Prospekt Mir about every other day.  It’s a popular place for expats, since it’s relatively cheap (Quarter Pounder, large fries, and a coke is about 27,000 rubles, or about $6.  My other frequent haunts are Pizza Hut on Pushkin Park (across from the first McDonalds…it does $200 million in sales a year) and the American Diner, which is unique in that the food is not only decent, it’s actually really good.  It’s sortof a 50s style roadside diner…like Arnold’s in Happy Days (the TV show, y’know).  They just serve burgers and all but it’s all really good and you pay for 100% American style atmosphere…60s and 70s music…just imagine the stereotypical 50s diner and you’ve got it.  I love it…frequently here you want to escape from the absolutely unrelenting alien environment and feel like you’re at home.  Food here is incredibly expensive.  A Red Baron pizza from the supermarket is $15, for example.  A bottle of coke is $2.50.  So I usually just eat a cheese sandwich or something for dinner and load up at lunch.  Between the walking and the sparse eating (I’ve actually gone a day without eating anything just because everything here tastes  scale ) I’ve started losing some weight.  I already have to wear a belt with one suit or the pants won’t stay up.  So that’s my suggestion for a weight loss program.  Visit Russia.  Ed Note:  I’m appallled in retrospect by how much I idolized American fast food… oh well.  That was the boy coming from Memphis, I guess.

Safety is still a big concern of mine.  Instead of taking a real taxi, you just throw a hand out and cars will take you wherever.  I try not to do this when it’s avoidable.  It seems to me like that’s just begging for trouble.  I only do that if I’m just dead tired, if I’m carrying a heavy load (like dry cleaning) or it’s after 1am (that’s when they quit running, until 5 or 6, I think).   The metros are very safe, heavily policied, very clean, and very well lit.  If you don’t mind the walk, it’s not really a big deal to take them.  A token costs 1,500 rubles, or about 31 cents.  The only thing about the subways is just the horrible stinking crush you get in the morning.  That’s why I seldom get in before 9 or 10, because to leave earlier than 8:30 you end up with the massive commuter crush.  And let me tell you, it gets unbearable.  It’s bad enough when it’s just full, let alone when people are pushing and shoving for every last inch.  I even missed my stop once because I couldn’t force my way off the metro.  Here’s my route, just to let you hear the weird names:  I get on at Kurskaya Metro (next to Kurskaya Vokzal, a train station) and ride through Komsomolskaya, Prospekt Mir, and get off at Mendelevskaya.  Then I switch to the blue line on Novoslobodskaya and ride it to Tsvetnoi Boulevard, where I get off and walk about 1/2 mile to the office.  It’s about 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the volume of traffic, which can get horrible.

My apartment’s on a really heavy traffic street (called  the garden ring …it’s sortof a big ring road surrounding  Old Moscow ; it’s about 10 lanes) and I have yet to walk home, no matter how late, when there weren’t still a number of people walking around.  Plus it’s a pretty nice neighborhood, in general…it has a French supermarket, a Samsung store, a Daewoo stereo store, a couple of coffee bar places, and so on.  Most importantly, right across the street is where the rich expats live….lots of Mercedes and BMWs.  So that seems a more logical crime target if there was any.  I have yet to encounter even a whiff of crime here, yet, though.  It seems a lot safer than everything sounded.  The difference in Moscow appears to be that the closer you get to the center of the city, the safer it gets (police presence is arbitrary; they don’t patrol, they just go crusing for drunk drivers so they can beat them senseless…no joke).  So I’m one metro stop from the Kremlin (the center of the city) and my neighborhood appears to be very safe.

Work here is the same as the US.  I work 10 to 12 hours a day, which isn’t so bad.  They’re a lot less wound up here, and we joke around a lot more.  Still everyone is tense and on edge.  The Russians are all mad because the firm recently quit paying them in US dollars and started paying them in rubles, which devalue almost the second you get them.  The expats are mad because they have big lapses in expense reimbursements, so they end up carrying hotel bills for months before they’re paid.  Most of the expats here are sortof bitter.  They have a great deal (no taxes, higher pay, housing paid for up to about 6 months).   However, the work is unrelenting, and I say that even by the way it seems tough in Memphis.  The level of disorganization is incredibly high.  The Russians don’t have much of a work ethic.  They get in at 9 or 10 and leave at 5 or 6 after a one hour lunch break.  And I’ve only seen 1 Russian in here on a weekend.  Then again, most of them start at about $4000 a year, and work up to maybe $30,000.  So with 50% taxes and a cost of living 2 or 3 times that of Memphis….you decide.  It’s still a lot better than most of Russia, though.

I’ve been working on 2 banks.  The first, Big Bank 1, is just a front bank for Megabank, one of the largest in the country.  The other is Big Bank 2 in Tbilisi, Georgia.  I’m preparing the Russian and World Bank financial statements for them, which is dull work.  But it’s a change of pace, and it gives me a lot more responsibility than I had in Memphis.   I was supposed to go to Siberia to work on Big Bank 3.  We had a small office in that city in Siberia (about 20 Russians, 1 American) which got closed about a week ago, but most of them will be around still, I guess, to help with the last audit.  I’m going to go there an American guy and about four Muscovites.  We’re going to stay there about 4 weeks, then come back to Moscow and finish the audit, and my manager said I could leave then although I have discovered I have an open ended offer to stay here (up to 2 years), with a promotion to senior and good pay (keep in mind, no taxes).  I don’t think there’s much danger of that happening, although the opportunity is interesting.  I also had a good chat with a partner from Dublin who was visiting about maybe going there as borrowed labor next year.  Nonetheless, I’m going to be glad to get out of this town.  I really enjoy the new culture and I’m actually having a really good time now.  I just don’t like cities this big, and this place is huge.   This place is just waiting to explode, though.  There’s a very real and constant dread of the Chechnyans starting to attack…we had a fire at Kurskaya Metro that the Russians thought might be Chechnyans (it wasn’t).  Plus, if the Communists appear to be heading for a win, I think a great many of the the firmers here will be quitting and scatting.  They voted yesterday to reestablish the USSR in the Duma (their Congress).   Fortunately, the presidential elections aren’t until long after I leave.  Ed note:  Obviously there was a bit of paranoia at work here…and I did come back to live here for a few years after the 1996 elections, so it didn’t work out that badly.

Well, anyway, that’s the short of it for now.  I’ve settled into a routine, and I shuttle back and forth to work easily.  I like the people here, even if they’re all a little on edge, and so I’m doing OK.  The amazing thing is that despite all of the pollution and everything, my constant dry hacking cough is gone and in general I feel pretty darn good.  I thought I would be getting sick, but *knock on wood* I haven’t yet, despite temperatures below 0 Celsius daily and walking up to a mile a day out in the cold.

The trip to Siberia is temporarily off, at least until the middle of next week.  Most of the banks are required to pay up front for the hotels and plane fares because the firm, like most businesses in this country, has a cash flow problem.  The bank refused to cough it up on Friday, so I sure wasn’t going to go without any cash or anything.  I don’t want to be paying for everything like some of the expats here.  I’m not into eating expenses.  Ed note:  I did end up going to Siberia; it was a crazy experience and I’ll post some emails from my time there in the future.

So at any rate, that’s my news for now.  I will try to stay in touch and someday maybe I’ll get my email.  I may try the Microsoft Network next…they have much wider access available.  Who knows.  It’s frustrating, I’d really like to have it.

Ed note:  It’s amazing to think, today, in the world of Twitter/Facebook/email/etc. etc. that there was a time when people couldn’t keep in touch electronically, but it was a real struggle in the mid-90s in Russia to stay in touch.  My firm had semi-reliable email, and at home I had “sometime” email.  When traveling in Siberia I was able to send 140 word emails via dialup – basically Twitter by dialup to communicate.  Fun times.  But cell phones weren’t prevalent, email was spotty and therefore I had to do silly stuff like sending my parents a fax like this post …  such was life.

Ed note 2:  Take this letter for what it was worth – a young guy making his first serious foray into the outside world.  I know I sound goofy at points, but that was the way my mind worked at the time.  I’m more enlightened since then (I hope).

6 Replies to “a letter from Russia, 1996”

  1. that was fascinating! Great little snapshot of a place/time I will never see. Even your semi-obsession with tv & fast food is entertaining. Thanks for taking the time to retype the whole thing.

    1. Thanks, bethh! Yeah, I was embarrassed to re-read all of that, but then again hopefully it shows a little personal growth over the last 15 years 🙂

  2. Hi Steve,
    As a matter of fact I was in Moscow that year too (1993-98) working for an English company ( I was doing regional sales). I was not an expat or something yet much of a stranger to Moscow (I come from Ukraine).
    You know I was desparately fighting to adopt to the whole thing: speedy life-pace, people on edge, stinking motor-ways, etc. But I was rewarded for good measure with that sence of victory and financial success that the year of 1996 was marked for me.. Plus, the genuine attitudes of most of the local people and extremely beautiful women. Big time.
    Thanx for the notes, you made my day.

    1. Victor: That was an interesting time to be in Russia, for sure. I do think I’ll have to do a followup by putting together some of my emails and journals from 1998 to show how my attitudes about living in Russia changed over three years, but you’re right about the genuine attitudes of most of the people there (I say most, because there were of course still some unpleasant types). Russians (and Ukrainians, for that matter) can be some of the nicest people on earth once you get to know them.

  3. I enjoyed reading it. Interesting how your writing style was so different. I see why you would talk about fast-food and American TV so much, it was a little link to your homeland. I was there in January 1996 emigrating to the US and obviously your view is SO different from mine. For obvious reasons. Loved it! (your post, not the Moscow’s freezing winter)

    1. As you and I have talked about, Bubelah, it’s funny to think that we practically crossed paths – you left Russia in January to emigrate to the US and I left the US in February to emigrate (temporarily) to Russia. 🙂 And yes, my comments about not getting sick from the cold were definitely famous last words.

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