News about political upheavals, signs of impending economic disaster or projected natural catastrophes tend to generate strong “fight or flight” emotional reactions in readers. We want to sell all we own, run for the hills and barricade ourselves in a fully stocked compound -- preferably one with a bomb and meteorite shelter attached to it.
Major changes to our lifestyle are inevitable; yet the time frame and the exact way the changes will occur are uncertain, which only adds to our stress. To put some further food for thought out there, I would like to share what I remember from growing up in Russia during the collapse of the Soviet Union and the accompanying economic upheaval, i.e., during the time of high uncertainty. This will by no means be an exhaustive account. I was 10 when the Perestroika started in 1985. The economic situation got progressively worse, with the very worst hitting in the early 90-s. I admit I don’t remember things as well as I should have. Psychologically and physically, I was sheltered by my age and its petty egotistical concerns, by my parents’ effort to provide for the family, and by living in a close-knit community that had a lot of strength, spirit and intellectual resources. Now that I think about it though, memories and conclusions are coming up that I never thought about. Some of them are unexpected and counterintuitive to the prevailing survivalist mentality; but they may be relevant to the coming changes and end up being useful to someone.
The crisis in Russia was as much ideological as it was economical. People had to let go of everything they believed in, in an unconsciously religious sense. The history of the last 70 years and beyond was completely re-written in my school books, with good guys and bad guys switched around, by the time I was graduating from high-school. People have found themselves in the midst of a national identity crisis, with their cultural background being modified or erased, and together with it, their self-respect based on their country’s achievement. While neither the “democracy” nor the "free market” constitute a truly robust ideology for the masses, people in the US have a sense of entitlement and believe in the superiority in their way of living. Therefore, one might expect some confusion and disorientation when their illusion of the USA being the “beacon of light” for the world collapses in shambles.
The federal government used to plan and control every aspect of one’s life in Russia. While inefficient, it did provide a sense of security and self-righteous comfort. Now this way of life has disappeared in a flash, giving way to a very uncertain future. USA has long-lasting traditions of local control and the entrepreneurial spirit, but people in Russia had to learn those from scratch or rediscover within themselves. However, there was also an upside of the centralized government-run economy. First, there was no major housing crisis. Housing in the USSR was government-owned, and eventually was privatized by residents; quite a few fortunes made and lost, and individual tragedies happened, but the majority of people kept a roof over their heads. Second, not as many people were actually laid off from their jobs. The government institutions and services were hit very hard, the industry was at standstill, and some plants did close. Most, however, simply didn’t pay their workers money for months and there was very little work to do. But things were still moving, public transportation was working, and people still had access to basic medical care and services. In the US, the organizations and enterprises would function more efficiently, but if they don’t, people would simply be thrown out on the street.
The immediate bodily memory from that time that comes to mind is the sensation of cold. Cold winters, faltering heat, cold homes, cold classrooms in college; wearing coats in lecture halls and hallways, pen ink freezing. Warm clothes and small space heaters are a must-have :) Also, vitamins and supplements are great items to have on hand. I remember a large bottle of multivitamins from some western charity’s “humanitarian aid”, and how much better we felt after taking them.
By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in December of 1991, the retail stores were routinely empty. In the winter of 91-92, the starvation on a national scale was narrowly averted. In 1992, “The First Default” hit and the currency took a plunge, obliterating everyone’s savings. I went to college later that year, and my stipend, which long time ago was supposed to cover one's basic living expenses in a free student housing, was just enough to buy a chocolate bar.
To survive, people went to subsistance farming. Everybody had a "dacha" -- a small plot of land, sometimes with a summer house, sometimes not; whoever didn’t have one rushed to get it. A plot of land just over an acre, planted compactly with all kinds of things, plus a smaller plot of potatoes, fed the family of four through the year. Tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage etc were pickled and canned; berries and apples were made into jams and "compot" -- a kind of boiled sweet drink; potatoes and root vegetables were stored in a root cellar.
Those who, before the default, had put their money into tangible media, were able to do better financially. Foreign currency which retained its value was a popular choice. Also, it had proved useful to have at hand some valuable everyday items, such as alcohol, cigarettes, chocolate, followed by soaps, cosmetics, etc. These weren't used as much for bartering as a currency of its own for services rendered.
As I was thinking about this topic, I was struck by the following realization, counterintuitive but supported by evidence. The limiting factor in the survival, on both the level of the individual and the community, was NOT the ability to produce your own products and NOT even the available resources or lack of them. It was transport and infrastructure – the ability to trade, deliver your surplus elsewhere and from there get other things you need.
This is why the countryside and the small town in Russia took a very hard hit in the 90-s, and may never fully recover, as some say. One would think it should be exactly the opposite – people would have gone into the remote villages and lives off the land and the woods. However, even in the most self-sufficient household, one cannot produce or make everything he or she needs. And being in a remote location precludes one from delivering their surplus to other in a timely manner for trading or exchange, especially with the roads being as atrocious as they are (a problem endemic to Russia, but can be an important factor elsewhere as well). Plus, as the government budgets dry up, the collective farm go bust, the village school is closed, the general store (already empty) is closed; there is no library, no cars and no gas for them, no TV reception – in short, absolutely nothing to do other than to drink yourself into oblivion, making bad home-made vodka of your decaying surplus grain – and the sense of community is gone, people are getting away like rats off a sinking ship. The “dachas”, mentioned earlier, were a different matter – they were clustered in suburbs and used by town dwellers, and they were flourishing, but in the villages there are many deserted houses to this day.
A similar thing happened in small towns. E.g., in the town of where my relatives had resided (population 15, 000), the only industrial enterprise – an assembly line for radio-transmitters – had closed; the rest of the industry (a bakery and a milk and cheese processing facility) served local needs only. IN a town such as that, the roads are better, and one can bring in things to trade – but one can only sell as much as people can purchase, and people can’t purchase much since there is no other way to make money besides the meager salaries of teachers and doctors. Again, the sense of community weakens, people begin to leave.
Those who stayed back and managed to work in the new conditions: reorganize the collective farms efficiently, run their own personal farms, organize local industries (my relatives had a small fish-smoking plant that was making good profit) and revitalized their communities through those activities, did well though.
The lesson from this is that the desire to hide out in the boondocks results from a ‘fight or flight’ emotional response to a stressful situation, and in a long run is counterproductive. Instead, a survivor should network within the community, stay just close enough to major traffic routes, keep the transportation lines are open, and have some kind of vehicle in one’s disposal. A truck is good, if there is reliable fuel available (the rising prices of oil should be considered). A horse too, if things get THAT bad. It is best to be by a river or another body of water, it is very good to live by the bridge, ferry or a dock on one’s property, and a boat.
In the 90-s Russia, a lot of people who had bleak job situation and “no marketable skills”, as we would say, got involved in transport and trade, which serves to further emphasize the importance of infrastructure for survival. These people were called “chelnoki” (“chelnok” means “a shuttle”). One could recognize them by the giant striped plastic coffers they were carrying around. In the early days, somebody could board the train, go to the Chinese border, fill the coffers with mass-made cheap flip-flops or hair scrunchies, bring the back to town and resell for profit in retail or in bulk to other traders who would take it further. Other people went to Poland, Bulgaria or Turkey. Very soon, these importing operations became more centralized. Many traders would go to the bulk warehouses in bigger cities, buy whatever they specialize in, and take it to corner markets for miles around, reselling for profit.
This is where having a vehicle really comes in handy. E.g., an acquaintance’s family, through some scheme or other, owned a truck, the size of a small U-haul. At first, the parents were selling clothes form the back of the truck in the market. Later, the father began working as hired driver for a bigger operation, and the mother no longer had to work; with all that, they were earning noticeably more than college professors with extra income, and had no need for a “dacha”, being able to buy everything they need in the market. More often though, the trading, and whatever else, were done on top of the subsistence farming.
One thing that is important to mention is that the organized crime moved in VERY quickly to control all the trade and businesses. Mafia and gangs banded together based on location and\or ethnicity. Therefore, one shouldn’t be afraid so much of people with guns who come to take your food away, but rather of people who come with guns and demand a regularly paid share of your profit or surplus. This is another downside of survival in a remote location: pathocratic organizations can only be countered with an educated and decisive community effort.
To reflect the growing instability, in Russia, personal and corporate security grew as an industry. Many ex-army officers and military conflict veteran got involved into the security business. Self-defense items like Mace, electric shock devices, knifes were sold; martial arts and weight-lifting became popular. People were putting steel doors on deadbolts and steel bars on the windows on their apartments, not paying attention to fire safety. A lot of people got large dogs, a Rottweiler or a German shepherd (which really isn’t a good idea in small apartments), and insisted in training them to attack.
With organized crime comes, well, all kinds of vice and the surrounding industry – gambling, prostitution, drugs and human trafficking. The not-so-glamorous past of some of the top Russian fashion models goes back to those kinds of things. One should be aware of that and protect the most vulnerable in the community.
Another surprisingly counterintuitive point is directly linked to the above, or rather to the underlying general values and the self-serving aspect of the human behavior. The bare necessities were essential, for sure. But they weren’t things that were traded in the most visibly brisk way. Rather, those were the unessential items that symbolized status, from tiny trinkets like chewing gum to jeans, fox fur hats, and entertainment centers to luxuries like certain antics and such. A couple of recent studies, aiming at figuring out correlation between earnings and happiness, showed that isn’t so much the absolute income as the fact that you are earning more than your neighbor that makes people happy. Another reason may be that those things served as a measure of prosperity that made one feel that his or her hard work is paying off. Human nature, I guess. I remember in the winter of 93-94 walking around the city’s main street and going into a store – not the fanciest one either – just to stare at a bottle of liquor that cost more than 1 mln rubles. To get it into a prospective, my straight A monthly stipend was a couple of thousand rubles which could buy me a few large chocolate bars (things have gotten better since 1992 :)). Yet, there was that bottle, waiting for its buyer, and there were people in the city who could have bought it and probably eventually did. This could give us some idea as to what kinds of items may be useful in the coming economic crisis for the trade with the outside. E.g., animal breeders were doing well – and one could understand the demand for large guard dogs, but somehow even in the hardest of times there were people who would sink $100 (yes, dollars, i.e., many monthly stipends) on a rare Persian kitten. Some poor teachers or librarians were literally living off their pets, selling the litter and spinning wool out of the fur and down.
Personal survival and the survival of the family depended on a right mix of flexibility, on one hand, and staying true to oneself on the other. The more invested people were in their job-related identities and past achievements, the worse it was for them. In general, women fared better than men. The elderly were in trouble. When it came to the worldview adjustment, the middle-age men were hit hardest; too many were paralyzed with all the changes and were content to sit around in their cold and empty engineering or accounting offices, drinking tea or stronger drinks and swearing at the government. Oftentimes, it was their wives who buckled down and traveled the railroad with the striped coffers in hand. The birthrate plunged. The children who were born during that time exhibited more language delays and other learning problems (I have seen a crude estimate of 15-20% increase from early education specialists) than those born a decade before or after.
Younger men, those in their 20-s or early 30-s, took the plunge more often, going off the beaten career tracks and into either business or organized crime, or both, as it happened. Some of them were quite successful; I am not talking about oligarchs who had plenty of connections to begin with – just the average folk. Yet, presently, the life span of men in Russia is mid-fifties, 12 years lower than that of women, and there is another demographic gap among the males in their late 30-s and 40-s. A lot of the latter were simply killed off in gang wars of the 90-s; other are now succumbing from the delayed effect of stress: heart attacks and degenerative diseases.
In my community most people worked in academia or research. Those jobs were severely affected by the budget cuts and delayed salary payments. Yet, among the intelligentsia, leaving the academic career to trade goods in the market was viewed as selling one’s soul to the devil. Some people have disregarded that prejudice; and some of those who put a sincere effort in their new endeavors ended up being quite happy with their choices, not marred by their former collegues’ bitterness over their success in their less than noble pursuits.
However, those who stayed in academia approached the situation differently as well. Some just droned day in and day out, accomplishing little. Others looked for opportunities in the industry. A lot of professors and researchers were getting R&D contracts with governmental and business organizations, to help support their budgets. Still others refused to compromise and stuck to their principles of doing what you love, i.e., fundamental research, and doing it well. Those people made an effort to publish in international scientific journals, to go to conferences and make contracts there, i.e., to market their primary skills. From there, foreign grants and joint projects sprouted. It was common for a lead scientist to work most of the time overseas, and with these grants finance the research at home. Many people left and never came back, especially the young people who went to graduate schools and post-doc positions, and then to fulfilling careers abroad.
The value of education didn’t decrease. On the contrary, it increased, especially for certain professions. Often, these fads were misplaced and didn’t correspond to reality. When I was applying to college in early 90-s, many people wanted to major in business, economics or law. These degrees were considered prestigious, but had at the time limited further opportunities in academia, research or corporate work in a provincial town. In truth the most valuable major in my college ended up being geology and geophysics. It was the easiest to get into, but the graduates were snapped up by Russian and foreign corporations in the booming oil and related industry, to do the exploration of natural resources, and have on average done exceedingly well. This is an isolated example, but it does suggest that in times of economic uncertainty when trends can’t be fully unraveled, simply doing what you like best and resisting the peer and cultural pressure – in other words, trusting the process -- may be one’s best bet. And another sure bet, again, is providing infrastructure for people’s choices, whatever they may be: college prep tutors and foreign language teachers have done well for themselves, because no matter which major people choose to pursue, they still need to make the cut.
It seems that in order to survive AND THEN to live (which isn’t the same thing), sometimes you had to balance between being flexible and staying true to whatever your personal convictions are, and sometimes you had to make a hard choice between the two. The latter sometimes is the matter of changing one set of social conventions into another -- and that is a very big thing for many people -- but it can go even deeper to the very essence of the person, I think.
That choice could really go down to the bare bone when the going gets hard. Ernesto Che Guevara remembered the differences between the town dwellers and the villagers in a randomly assembled group of resistance fighters. When some things had to be abandoned, the town folk would leave behind food, but keep articles of personal hygiene, while the villagers would never do such a thing. Clearly, the town people considered the attributes of civilization more important for survival -- not only to help preserve their identity, I suspect, but also to ensure the continuity of societal order in the community via symbolic communication and sticking to their social roles and patterns of behavior.
My grandmother remembers a similar incident. She was coming of age during WWII, in a tiny remote village in the South-Asian part of the USSR. A few families were evacuated from big cities to their village. She remembers seeing them arrive and gawking at a young girl’s fancy coat and real mary janes, way too delicate for the rugged living out there. Later, that family ended up being very clumsy in their household work and seemingly unable to learn. Moreover, certain things they simply refused to do. They wouldn’t heat the house with dry cow dung (there really wasn’t anything else to do it with), saying that “it would stink up the food” (it didn’t), and preferred to sit miserably in their drafty home, cold and hungry. At the same time though, they kept their spirits up with reading, which eventually helped turn my grandmother onto learning and becoming a school teacher. My great-grandmother was barely literate and had little respect for books, but was very proud of her daughters who went to teacher’s college.
In a yet another case that I remember from a magazine article, a young Jewish woman talked about her time in a concentration camp; she was the only one in her ward to washed her stockings every day, as she was used to, no matter what. Other inmates were shrugging their shoulders at that, having abandoned any attempts to preserve hygiene to conserve energy. Yet, she was the only one in her ward to live to see freedom: almost everyone else died during a typhoid epidemic. Whether the washing of the stockings had anything to do with it is debatable, but the fact remains.
The ultimate intertwined dualism of the two choices is best expressed, I think, in the following two stories of survival. A reporter friend once had to interview an elderly woman, an Auschwitz survivor. That lady was one of the Dr. Mengele’s twins, a subject of vivisection. Her identical twin sister had died early from complications of those experiments, but that lady went on to live a fulfilling life. A reporter was amazed by her calm, quiet presence, and asked what gave her strength. The woman basically said that very early on, she looked at everything around (she was a young kid back then) and decided for herself right there that she and her sister would LIVE, and she’ll do whatever she needs to keep them alive; she decided she’d steal if she needs to steal, lie if she needs to lie, hide if she needs to hide, etc – and that’s what has helped her to endure the unendurable.
The opposite view is expressed by Solzhenitsyn in “The Gulag Archipelago”. He talks about feeling gripped by the survival instinct as soon as he got into that system, the instinct that makes one bow to the superiors or the criminal authorities and “market your skills” to them, hoping to deserve better treatment. Yet he is repulsed by this in himself, and talks with shame about having done doing that. Instead, he admires other people who kept their core dignity: professors that would have shared their knowledge with one another in prison cells between brutal beatings; people who strove to help others, neglecting their own interests, those who saw love and beauty around, despite everything, and those who attempted daring escapes against all odds. And it is almost as if, because of their effort and pure intent, sometimes these people got a lucky break -- but even if they didn’t (which I suspect still was the majority of cases), he still feels that they lives were full and meaningful. “Those who refused to survive, lived,” -- says he.
I don’t think it is possible to say which one is “right” – that would be determined by a particular situation, the moment, and the call from the Universe, if we attune ourselves to hear it.