Change! We Wait for Change!
When I applied to the Leningrad Mining Institute, the physics professor took pity on me. At the exam I could not explain Newton’s second law. He looked at my sergeant’s shoulder marks, and my badges of excellence from the border guard and said,
“Do you promise to bring your physics up to snuff before the start of the semester?”
“Okay, I’m giving you a C.”
I was really pleased, considering that I had already been given B’s in composition and math. I got in! It was a good thing that I had come dressed in uniform. Otherwise I would have ended up at Moskovsky Station waiting for a train to Leninsk-Kuznetsky—something I did not want at all. I cannot remember what that professor’s name was, but I would thank him, if I were to see him again, for offering me the chance to give life in Leningrad a shot.
Strangely enough, I did well in school. Because I had barely made it into the program, I had to promise myself that I would study hard. I sat in the first row, the best place for absorbing knowledge. I can still remember our math professor, Lobazin, and our physics professor, Mezentsev. If I could not understand something, I would come up to the teacher after class and ask him to explain further. My studies bore fruit: I was the first in my class to write my final exams and I was even one of only four students who passed physics on the first try.
At the institute I met the most cultured intellectual people. The best people in the country. The professors were the embodiment of intelligence. Their speech, their approach to the material, their love of liberty, and their ambition captivated me. It amazes me to think that such obviously anti-Soviet figures could end up teaching in a state-run university in the USSR. They criticized Soviet authority—some of them doing so indirectly, but the more courageous ones just telling it like it was. Some of them would make post-lecture announcements such as, “Remember, Nautilus Pompilius has a concert tonight.” The professors at the Mining Institute planted the seeds of nonconformism and inner freedom in me.
I do not know how things were in Moscow at that time, but in St. Petersburg everything was light and color. After its founding in 1703, the city was originally the freethinking capital of Russia. The Decembrist uprising of December 14, 1825, the workers’ revolt of January 9, 1905, and the 1917 revolution all happened there. It is not surprising that the years 1988-1990 saw an intensification of anti-Soviet sentiment in Leningrad. I just cannot understand why there has been no protest in St. Petersburg during the current stagnant period in our country.
Back then, freedom was in the air. I was really excited about all of it. I remember buying a badge reading, “Yegor, you’re wrong!” The slogan referred to Yegor Ligachev, who had interrupted one of Boris Yeltsin’s speeches, saying, “Boris, you’re wrong. It’s not just tactics that make us different now. Boris, you possess a great deal of energy, but it’s not creative energy. Rather, it’s destructive.” People decided that Yegor was wrong. We supported Yeltsin because we believed that he would save the country from communism.
Of course, it was Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev who got the ball rolling. He had the strength and courage to take down the Soviet system from the inside. Of all the leaders of the USSR and Russia in the twentieth century, I respect him the most. He was a member of the communist mafia—there’s no other way to put it—and decided to fight against it. He was a rule-breaker. He broke down the very organization of which he was a part, in order to offer us freedom.
A lot of people say that Gorbachev had no choice—that everything would have unfolded exactly as it did regardless of his involvement, but I disagree. I think he had a choice. He could have tightened the bolts, as Andropov did in 1982-1983. But this was a person who had been elected as the General Secretary of the only political party in the country—and it turned out that he held democratic and liberal views. Gorbachev is the sharpest and greatest Russian politician ever. It is not for nothing that he has garnered praise and respect in the West. The only thing that he did wrong was the alcohol reform. Without a doubt, he will go down in history as the man who put an end to communism. Yeltsin will be remembered as Russia’s first president. Lenin and Stalin will be remembered too, but with the least fondness. As for the others, my gut feeling is that their memory will be all but erased.
It is a shame that Mikhail Gorbachev is now isolated—both from political decision-making and from the media. It really is too bad that we see and hear almost nothing of Mikhail Sergeyevich. Sometimes you see him in advertisements for Louis Vuitton and Pizza Hut, but that is just silliness. A politician of his repute should not have to go to such lengths.
When he dies, we will cry. We will pay him our respects and remember what a good person he was. For now though, as long as he is still with us, I would like to express my gratitude to him for conquering the communist dragon.
Mikhail Sergeyevich, THANK YOU! My deepest respect!
We still hear the voices of those idiots that praise the Soviet Union. What is there to praise, anyway? It is unfortunate that those in power in Russia today often appeal to the USSR. Some even anticipate its restoration. But that is something that I would most certainly not want to see. I would not want to see a specific quota of mohair scarves allocated to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where the coldest it gets is plus 10. Nor would I want to see big shipments of plastic ice hockey sticks being sent to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The Soviet economy was inoperable. The system’s collapse was just a matter of time. And then there was America dragging us into the arms race. But even if that had not happened, the crash would have been inevitable.
In the last few years we have seen a governmentalization of the economy; once again, today, we see socialism baring its teeth. Half of the economy now hangs on Gazprom, along with some soccer and hockey teams. We are treading water, in spite of Gorbachev’s breakthroughs and in spite of the work that Yeltsin did towards accelerating our country’s development. We have strayed from the path. We have taken one step forward and two steps back.
I would stress that my argument must be understood from an economic standpoint. I am no political scientist or politician. I do not know how many parties there are in the country. But I am certain that there are more than one. The economy must operate in accordance with capitalist mechanisms. It is the best approach that we have thought of. Take, for example, communist China’s economic successes. They are based on market principles. In this respect, their approach has not been socialist in the least.
In the summer of 1988, before I started my studies at the Mining Institute, the nineteenth Party Conference was held. At this conference, changes were announced, changes bearing on the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It had become clear that communism was weak and could not last. The wind of change was blowing from the Baltic Sea, the Bay of Finland, and from Europe. The Scorpions would sing about the wind of change in the nineties. In Russia, the rock group Kino was already singing about it:
Change! Our hearts require it.
Change! Our eyes need it.
In our laughter and tears and in our pulsing veins:
Change! We wait for change!
Thanks to the new policy of openness, or Glasnost, we were now able to discuss politics openly. Alexander Nevzorov hosted his edgy show, 600 Seconds, and the movie Assa by Sergei Solovyov was a hit like no other. The contemporary music scene fed the fire as well, by bands like Alisa, Kino, Nautilus Pompilius, Televizor, Brigada C, and Pop-Mekhanika. I went to Kazan Cathedral, where the punks gathered. I saw Viktor Tsoi playing hacky-sack; I hung out with Boris Grebenshchikov in the street and met Sergei Kuryokhin on Nevsky Prospect.
During my very first semester at the institute, our trigonometry professor told us about Anatoly Sobchak, a teacher at a nearby university. Sobchak’s star was only starting to rise. He was fighting for the most basic of western values: democracy, individual liberty, and private property.
At the end of the 1980s, we believed that everything would change and we would be the ones to make it happen. There is a reason why university students are considered key to revolutions. In spring 1989, a miracle happened: we elected Anatoly Alexandrovich Sobchak to the USSR parliament, representing the Vasilievsky Island District 47. I am glad that my vote played a part in that victory. Sobchak could not win in the first round, even though he had a majority of votes. But in the second round his win was unequivocal. One of the voting stations was in our dormitory in Building 5, Shkipersky Stream.
I fell in love with St. Petersburg. Vasilievsky Island, the buses full of foreigners, the imported goods, the colored lights, the wide prospects, the steamships—it was a country boy’s dream come true, especially after I had come so close to becoming a warrant officer. I just went crazy. I was in awe of the wealth of knowledge available at the mining institute, the statues by the entrance, the huge staircase leading down to the Neva River, the neighboring Baltic factory, where a reconstruction of the icebreaker Lenin was on display. I had only ever seen such things on TV. I would call my state upon arrival in Leningrad euphoric. It was as though I was high all time.
Ever since, I have had my own special relationship with the city. It was in this great, beautiful city that I grew up and became the person and the businessman I am today. It is disappointing to have to say it, but I am not a native Leningrader. And yet I am probably more of a patriot than many who were born there. Of course I consider myself Siberian, but after thirteen happy years in St. Petersburg, I am a most genuine Petersburger.
I went to university in this city, I met my future wife there, and this is where I started nearly all of my businesses. No city in the world has given me anything remotely like what this city has.
So I’ll quote Iosif Brodskoi:
There’s no country or graveyard,
Which I would prefer.
It’s on Vasilievsky Island
That I’ll be interred.
I associate the Leningrad of the late nineteen-eighties with the rock band Kino and its lead singer Viktor Tsoi.
In December 1988, I went to Nikolsky Church to be baptized. The priest asked me,
“Do you know the Lord’s Prayer?”
“Then I can’t baptize you. Go learn it.”
I memorized the prayer on the plane on one of my trips to Siberia. I still remember it:
“Our father, who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.”
On December 25, 1988—my birthday—the priest baptized me.