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AROUND THE BLOC
My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana

Stephanie Elizondo Griest
A non-review by J. Stefan-Cole

Stephanie Elizondo Griest took a turn around the bloc, the red bloc that is, or what remains red in Moscow, Beijing and Havana. It turns out things are more pink, diluted in some ways, just as oppressive in others. The Cold Warriors are no longer staring each other down for ideological domination, but democracy is having a tough go of it. Russia's de-Sovietized state has become a free for all grab at capitalism with democracy in a shaky second place. AROUND THE BLOC; Villard Books, fills in the day to day on the bloc with humor and journalistic smarts. Starting in Moscow in the late nineties, where the writer spent a year, she found a less restrictive government and a rising marketplace bursting with sudden tycoons and a blooming mafia.

Elizondo Greist studied Russian while observing post-glasnost culture. She found many older Russians longed for a return to the days of guaranteed jobs, health benefits and retirement pensions, with shops stocking good old Russian sausage instead of foreign junk food. Freedom of movement in Russia is still restricted, special papers are required to legally relocate to a major city and that involves securing a job first with an employer big enough to finesse the fussy paper work. And a person can't simply walk into an apartment building and sign a lease, not even the drab, ubiquitous Soviet chunk-of-cement high-rises where elevators and stairwell lights often do not work. There is a serious housing and cash crunch, but if an enterprising citizen does manage to cut through and start to realize a profit, the Russian mob will soon come calling for their 40% cut, or else. Democratic improvements have come at a price and a recent poll indicated that many Russian citizens are not opposed to a return to greater government authority. Witness the handy re-election of "Czar" Putin.

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Elizondo Griest arrived in Moscow an idealist. Fed up with the apathy of her native Corpus Christi, Texas, she approached a visiting CNN correspondent after a lecture to ask how she could break into covering places like Russia. She was told to learn Russian. Four years later as a Russian University student she expected to find a city full of idealists, the memory of Stalin's murderous oppression seared on brains deeply valuing hard won freedoms. She had romantic ideas about people taking to the streets over the smallest infringement, but soon understood that life in Russia is hard, that only the vodka readily flows freely (or close to) and what people really want is American movies and MacDonald's. They'd had it with ideology. Students in particular were bored with political rallies, and the last thing on most struggling Muscovites minds was freedom of expression. "My friends seemed too busy deciding between a life of honest labor or fast rubles to contemplate social change." When she tried to get them worked up, to rally against the war in Chechnya, her friend Nadezhda told her, "'You need to understand something, Stesha. The Revolution is dead.'"

The book is billed as a memoir, and we are generously let in on the writer's de-flowering. Andrei, a disillusioned out of work Russian who lives with his mother performs the deed, and the rite of passage is more the result of a night of heavy vodka consumption than love. It is noteworthy that the writing improves with the sex; with the idealistic gloss a bit tarnished. I guess naiveté works best when it's over.

Two years later as a Luce Foundation Scholar, it's off to Beijing. Savvier upon her arrival in Asia, Elizondo Griest is just as determined to catch the breath of democracy at inception in The Peoples Republic of China. What she discovers first though is the cuisine. Apparently the Chinese will sauté, boil, deep fry or broil just about anything that has four legs, fur, two wings or fins, not to leave out snakes and snake's blood. Vegetarian values are a quick casualty of life in Beijing. The author's conversations with herself as she learns to compromise are both funny and poignant; it is not that she gives up on ideals so much as the rub up against hard reality that pinches.

Too inexperienced to pick up a reporter or editor's post, she takes a job editing propaganda for the China Daily where the paper's director, Lao Ye, is also its built-in censor. When a reporter asks about an article on Noble Prize winners and it comes up that the Dalai Lama was a past Peace Prize winner it is decided to leave that year blank. Asked about an AP piece on protests against President Jiang Zemin in Washington, the answer is a resounding no. And an article on North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il? "'No!' he [LoaYe] snapped." Too sensitive. To her amazement, Elizondo Griest can't get anyone, not even in secret, to discuss the 1989 shooting of students and laborers protesting in Tiananmen Square, which is euphemistically referred to as the "June 4 Incident". Writing freely about AIDS or pornography or global warming? Too sensitive. She is told by colleagues to think of propaganda as advertising: "Our government owns the media, so of course we have to say nice things about it. It's the same in your country. ABC can't say bad things about Disney. Can it?" Hmm.

The Chinese, like their Russian counterparts, are consumed with making a living in a burgeoning economy where housing is scarce and official paperwork can stifle. Jobs for so huge a population as China's are often fabricated by the government. Going to a museum, for example, the writer pays one woman, who hands the ticket to another woman to stamp, who in turn hands it to a third woman who hands it back to the writer; one job divided into three. I liked these glimpses of daily life behind the drawn back iron curtain. The contrast is stark between the little things we take for granted that are giant hurdles in China and Russia. The trick is to get around the forbidden and the bureaucratically impossible. With the Chinese, nothing happens without guanxi or connections, which sounds a lot like American capitalism to me. With journalists, guanxi translates into taking bribes, especially at press events for companies looking to break into new Chinese markets. But also money to bribe the driver's ed. guy to secure a driver's license, to being wined and dined, taxi fares included. Her friends at the China Daily tell her without bribes they can't function, and insist that Chinese journalists know the truth better than their US counterparts because they can call the police and politicians directly to find out what's going on. They just can't print any of it. And they tell the frequently astonished Elizondo Griest that they are first and foremost a pragmatic people. Having seen the havoc wreaked on Russia by too sudden an embracing of capitalist democracy (which they see largely as one man getting ahead at the expense of another), they don't mind going slowly. You can do anything you want in China, an artist tells her, just don't make waves and openly criticize the government. Practical, yes. But, free?

After a particularly strident outburst, one of her reporter friends tells Elizondo Griest, "'But what would be the point of a revolution if there was no one to benefit from it? Democracy is not within our tradition, and our education is very undeveloped here. We should have to go through a very turbulent period to have such a transition, and we just can't afford that right now. Given the choice between democracy and a thriving economy, Chinese will always take the economy because that is what affects us most.'" Wisdom that comes from cultural 'purges'? Americans may be free to call our president a jerk in public, protest a war, and move to Cincinnati anytime we choose, but are we, fundamentally, all that different? Isn't the almighty dollar the real bottom line in a capitalist democracy? Elizondo Griest has to think hard when asked: Don't Americans believe what their government tells them? To her awkward silence, her friend tells her, "Chinese do." Finally, Elizondo Griest has to admit it takes a train to make the average American disagree with their government sufficiently to get up and out on the streets, and, hello, just slightly over half in the land of the free bother to vote.

Another element common to Moscow, Beijing and Havana are the more desirable aspects of socialism that do, or did, work. Muscovites have lost many basic life supports and more beggars and homeless fill subways there, with old people selling anything from buttons to teapots so they can eat. University education in Beijing may be rigid and repetitious, but the state pays. Havana probably has the most intact socialism of the bloc nations Elsizondo Griest visited, due to the least infiltration of a market economy. Health care is good in Cuba and advances in medicine have been profound since Fidel took over in 1959. Greater equality is now enjoyed in a nation that once had two classes; the powerful few and everyone else in voiceless poverty. The voice may not be there yet, but Cubans seemed the happiest of the bloc citizens. The economy has been in shambles since glasnost pulled the plug on Russian support, and Castro has not been able to fill the void except by allowing in dollars, tourism and some free industry. Yet, despite poverty and that ever present censor, the people are expressive, have a rich, hot cultural life and a fairly sophisticated view of their dictator.

The Muscovites seemed the most miserable overall, good at playing victim especially with a little vodka on hand. The Chinese seemed wise and wily in maneuvering around the ever watchful eye of the Party. As for the Cubans, believe it or not, not everyone wants to jump a rickety raft bound for Key West in shark infested waters just to live in Miami. There is a lot of pride in Cuba, and Fidel brought that pride to the poor his revolution was meant to uplift. A musician told Elizondo Griest, "'Every Cuban left on this island wants to believe in the Revolution. Badly.'"

I was most taken with the journalistic point of view of the book, but Elizondo Griest said people have also responded to it as a travel experience, or as a fun memoir. I spoke with her and asked if she knew while in Russia that she'd be writing the book. She said no, but she's an obsessive note-taker and her notes later fed the book. You will have to read AROUND THE BLOC for the personal journey. It's the suggestion of democracy as something almost forced that intrigued me. I'm thinking Iraq, where I doubt there has ever been so much as a dream of the sorts of freedoms we tend to assume everyone wants, and which we are now 'bestowing' upon them. I asked Stephanie which of the three bloc nations she'd live in, and she said none; she'd choose America, "but as a white-appearing, educated, privileged woman. If I was black or another minority I might be better off in Vieja Havana." Stephanie Elzionodo Geist is half Chicana and her next book, she said, will deal with her Mexican side.

©May 2004 J. Stefan-Cole

 

 


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