From Marx to Mafia: Research in the New Russia

Joe Camel aids capitalism in new Russia. (photo Kate Transchel)
As I waited to go through customs and passport control at Moscow's Sheremyetevo Airport, my stomach churned and my mind raced. It had been over three years since I was last in Russia, and I knew that I was about to encounter some profound changes. At first glance from this side of customs, however, things seemed pretty much as usual: the stench of urine and paparosi cigarettes emanating from the public toilets; the other-worldly twilight sensation caused by flickering electricity and burnt-out light bulbs inside the airport's long sterile corridor; surly matrons in drab militia uniforms and spike high heels glaring at us from behind plexiglass partitions. I was keenly aware that once I passed through that partition, I would enter a world vastly different from my own and that I would not emerge from it for a little over two months.

I had been fortunate to receive both a Chico Summer Scholars Award and a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend allowing me to return to Moscow to complete the necessary research to turn my dissertation into a book. During 1992-94, I had lived in Moscow researching my dissertation, a social and cultural history of drinking and temperance among working-class Russians during 1900-1932. In the earlier project I had focused on the drinking camaraderie that bonded male workers in heavy industry as well as on the state's attempts to create a sober-disciplined industrial workforce by controlling these behaviors. During this trip I would examine how and where women workers drank and how drinking functioned to structure representations of male and female. In other words, I would explore what it meant to "be a man" or "act like a lady" in Russian revolutionary conditions—I hoped.

After renting an apartment and finding out where one can find fresh food, I set about the business of getting my propuski (permits) to work in the libraries and archives. Happily, I brought letters of introduction from the dean of my college and from the director of the State Archives of the Russian Federation, without which I would be denied access even to the public libraries.

Propuski in hand, I encountered my first obstacle: limited operating times of the archives and libraries. In the new Russia, as I discovered, nearly everything is accessible, but since the state is in financial crisis, the archives operate only a few hours a day, a couple of days a week. Moreover, since the archives are horribly understaffed, I could request the documents I needed one day (but only six files at a time because the elevators are broken and the archivists cannot carry more than that up the several flights of stairs from the stacks to the reading room) and return in four to five days to receive them. I soon learned how to "work" several archives at once so that each day I could receive documents from different repositories around town.

This system worked as long as there were no glitches—but in Russia there are always glitches. Since none of the archivists and librarians had received more than half their salaries (approximately $170 a month) for the last six months, on any given day many would not show up for work. Moreover, four weeks into my trip, the former Party archives closed for an undetermined length of time, sending all the visiting researchers into a panic. It seems the state had not been able to pay the electricity bill so the newly privatized electric company shut off the power.
Joe Camel aids capitalism in new Russia.
(photo Kate Transchel)

The problems I encountered in the archives are a microcosm of the problems plaguing Russia as it lurches toward its version of a capitalist democracy. In the old days, under the command economy of Soviet Russia, the soda pop tasted like soap, the soap lathered like toilet paper, the toilet paper could sand furniture, and the furniture was as cozy as a pile of canned goods, but at least all were attainable if you had the patience to wait in line. Now, organized crime has a stranglehold on the economy, and Russia's version of coercive capitalism has brought an endless array of foreign goods at artificially inflated prices, earning Moscow the dubious distinction of being the most expensive city in Europe and third most expensive in the world. As the Russian state buckles under the weight of a collapsing infrastructure, a recalcitrant bureaucracy, a disintegrating industrial sector, and a failing economy, mafia types sporting sharkskin suits, driving BMWs, and carrying cell phones rush in to fill the void. The result for average Russians is an increasingly more difficult life, fewer affordable goods and services, and glaring social and economic inequalities. They are tired and they are hungry for a normal life—if they only knew what that was.

Despite the obstacles, hardships, and the endlessly tangled web of bureaucratic incompetence, in the end I was able to complete the research I had set out to do. Managing to get my hands on records from various factories, state agencies, and treatment facilities, as well as examining memoir materials, popular literature and songs, belletristic writings, and state propaganda, I was able to discern gendered social behaviors and discovered female drinking cultures distinctly different from their male counterparts. I also found much evidence that in the Soviet "classless society" workers organized and segregated themselves according to "class" divisions they created—in this instance by skill level and social category.

Each time I was ready to quit in despair, inevitably an archivist would stumble across some obscure documents that would end up being exactly what I needed. And even the Party archives eventually reopened. This, too, works as an analogy for the country, and this is where my hope for Russia's future comes from. The resourcefulness and tenacity of the Russian people have for centuries allowed them to survive and even thrive in impossible conditions. They will emerge from the ashes of socialism—not as we expect them to, not as doomsayers predict, but as something uniquely Russian.

Kate Transchel, History

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