It’s early January and I’m flying back from a week in the States. As our plane descends, the steward says, “Welcome to Moscow, the world’s most expensive city.”
The passengers, mostly Russians, laugh.
He adds: “Home to more millionaires and billionaires than anywhere else on the globe.”
The woman sitting next to me asks how I like Moscow. I mumble that it’s OK, but you have to work a lot. “It’s like that for everyone,” she says.
While I was away, as a New Year’s gift to the people, the Central Bank widened the trading limits on the ruble, which quickly devalued it to 35 to the dollar, followed by further “adjustments.” Less than a month later, the rate is 36.5 to the dollar, a 30 percent drop since last fall. Apparently, the government wanted to let people down gradually. The ruble is about where it should be, they say.
At our first lesson after New Year’s, Polina tells me, “We used the holidays to forget about the ruble. But all my debt is in dollars.”
Like many Russians, Polina and her husband have borrowed dollars because the interest rates are lower than for ruble loans. “I don’t know how we’ll make it through the month,” she says.
Polina can’t drop English, because she and her husband hope to emigrate to Australia. At least she still has her job, unlike the 300,000 people who lost theirs in January. So, if you add the unemployment to the drop in the ruble to the 20 percent inflation, you’d have to say that the crisis has finally hit Moscow.
It’s strange. On the street, everything looks more or less the same. Then February passes with 26 total hours of sunlight and faces grow more preoccupied. More homeless men appear on the metro. People start to warn me of muggings. Yulia says, “Have you noticed that the metro ads have been replaced by public-service announcements? All lies!”
“But the government is putting together bailout packages,” says Dmitry, an economics student.
“Oh, like the small-business program?” I ask. The government has available 60,000-ruble loans for qualified unemployed persons to start their own businesses.
“I mean, what will that buy you? A card table to set out on the street?” I say.
“Well, maybe by 2011, by the time I graduate, I’ll be able to find a job,” he says.
I may have to leave mine. Soon. I’ve become obsessive, daily recalculating my loss in income, and I do as the Russians do: sell rubles for dollars in anticipation of the next drop. To give you an idea, a year ago my rent was equivalent to $1,040 but now is $715. Obsessive, right?
“Oh, this devaluation is nothing to be worried about,” says Ivan, another student. “We’re used to it. People will just go out to their dachas and grow kitchen gardens.”
Fifteen million people are going to eat off their gardens? Ivan is the only person I know with a dacha.
Through it all, Elena S., my former-Olympic-rower now–Chief Financial Officer student, remains chipper. “The crisis is an opportunity,” she says.
She’s just about finished redecorating her new corner office. There are her crystal bowls of organic almonds, her water-filtering machine, and some crazy boudoirlike curtains for her wraparound windows. Satiny puffs cover all but the lowest panes. I believe the style is called “balloon.”
Still, Elena has become my go-to person. I ask for her thoughts on the ruble meltdown.
Russia is draining its reserves; the oligarchs have stolen public money to invest in foreign companies; there’s no diversity in the economy, she says.
“People will have to re-evaluate their goals and lives,” she tells me. “For example, I have a friend from business college who used to own an oil company. Her company went bankrupt, and then she went to the hospital for three weeks. But she’ll be OK.”
I wonder what this has to do with ordinary people.
Then, for some reason, she asks if I’ve heard of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the founder of the giant oil company Yukos and at one time the wealthiest man in Russia—until the Kremlin forced Yukos into bankruptcy.
“So why exactly is Khodorkovsky in jail?” I ask.
“The government accused him of the usual thing—nonpayment of taxes.”
Why bring up Khodorkovsky? I don’t where Elena is going with this.
“I think our premier is a sick man,” she says. “He could have found an unofficial way of working out his problems with Khodorkovsky, but he didn’t.”
“Maybe he tried, but Khodorkovsky refused,” I say.
Elena’s expression makes me feel foolish. “Khodorkovsky is a young man, he has two children, and he will spend his life in jail,” she says. "If I were him, I would have tried to get out of the country.
“You know, during the Cold War years, people in the U.S. and Russia both thought their own countries had the best way of life.” She grins. "Actually, people in Europe can have better lives, but can’t make so much money.
“That’s why I want to emigrate,” she says.
I don’t have to ask to where.
Then she tells me that her board of directors has voted in a new CEO who wants to use his own team. She asks for my card, says that she would like to continue lessons. “When I find a new job.”
Through the lowest pane, I can see the long dawn lifting; the clock tower across the river reads 10 o’clock, the end of our lesson.
“I guess it’s time,” she says.
I thank her for “many interesting hours of conversation.” It’s only later that I think of her new curtains.
Elena’s building is between two metro stops. I used to walk along a fume-laden street from Park Kultury, until I discovered the pedestrian bridge over the river to Kievskaya Station. That long bright-yellow footbridge is where I head now. I wonder if the people on the bridge like it as much as I do. The river below looks black against the chunks of ice along the shore.
I want to remember the water black like this and the snow flecking the dark coats of the people, bundled against the cold. Because in the spring, long after I’ve left, the banks will be green and they’ll still be walking over that bridge.