Saturday, August 27, 2016

Grim Thoughts for a Cloudless Day by Patrick Fermor

[Patrick Fermor hiked the length of the Danube when he was 17 in1934. The first of his memoirs of this journey was published in 1977]

A falcon, beating its  wings above an unwary heron half way up the northern bend, would command the same view of the river as mine.*  I had climbed to the ruins of Aggstein unnecessarily  steeply, as I had strayed from the marked pathway- and halted among the battlements of the keep to get my breath back. This gap-toothed hold of the Kunringers teems with horrible tales; but I scrambled up there for a different reason. The polymath's talk,  two nights before, had made me long to look down this particular reach.

There is nothing more absorbing than maps of tribal wanderings. How vaguely and slowly nations float about! Lonely as clouds, overlapping and changing places, they waltz and reverse round each other at a pace so slow as to be almost stationary or work their expanding way across the map as imperceptibly as damp or mildew. What a relief it is when some outside event, with an actual date attached to it, jerks the whole sluggishly creeping osmotic complex into action!

As I mentioned earlier  that we- or rather, the polymath - had talked about the Marcomanni and the Quadi** who had lived north of the river here about. The habitat of the Marcommani lay a little further west; the Quadi dwelt exactly where we were sitting. "Yes." he had said, "things were more or less static for a while. .  ." He illustrated this with a pencil-stub on the back of the Neuse Freie Presse.  A long sweep represented the Danube; a row of buns indicated  the races that had settled along the banks; then he filled in the outlines of eastern Europe. " .  .  . and suddenly, at last", he said, "something happens!" An enormous arrow enters the picture on the right, and bore down on the riverside buns. "The Huns arrive! Everything starts changing place at full speed!" His pencil leaped feverishly into action. The buns put forth their own arrows of migration and began coiling sinuously about the paper till Mitteleuropea and the Balkans were alive with demon's tails. "Chaos! The Visigoths take shelter south of the lower Danube, and defeat the Emperor Valens at Adrianople, here!", he twisted the lead on the paper - "in 476. Then - in only a couple of decades" - a great  loop of pencil swept round the tip of the Adriatic and  descended a swiftly-outlined Italy - the pace of his delivery reminded me of a sports commentator  - "we get Alaric! Rome is captured!  The Empire splits in two -" West totters on for half a century or so. But the Visigoths are headed westward," an arrow curved to the left and looped into France, which rapidly took shape, followed by the Iberian peninsula. "Go West, young Goth!, " he murmured as his pencil threw off the  Visigoth kingdoms across France and Spain at dizzy speed, "There we are!" he said; then, as an afterthought, he absentmindedly penciled in an oval across northern Portugal and Galicia, and I asked him what it was.  "The Suevi, same as the Swabians, more or less: part of the whole movement. But now," he went on, "here go the Vandals!"  A few vague lines from what looked like Slovakia ad Hungary joined together and then swept west in a broad bar that mounted the Danube and advanced into Germany.. "Over the Rhine in 406; then clean across Gaul - " here the speed of his pencil tore a ragged furrow across the paper "- through the Pyrenees three years later - here they come! then down into Andalusia - hence the name - and hop! -" the pencil skipped the imaginary straits of Gibraltar and began rippling eastwards again "- along the north African coast to" - he improvised the coast as he went, then stopped with a large black blob - "Carthage! And all in thirty-three years from start to finish!"

His pencil got busy again,  I asked him the meaning of all the dotted lines he had started sending out from Carthage into the Mediterranean. "Those are Genseric's fleets, making a nuisance of themselves. Here he goes, sacking Rome in 455! There was lots of sea activity  just about then." Swooping to the top of the sheet, he drew a coast, a river's mouth and a peninsula: "That's the Elbe, there's Jutland." Then, right away in the left hand corner, an acute angle appeared, and above it, a curve like an ample rump; Kent and East Anglia, I was told. In a moment, from the Elbe's mouth, showers of dots were curving down on them. "- and there go your ancestors, the first Angles and Saxons, pouring into Britain only a couple of years before Genseric sacked Rome." Close to the Saxon shore, he inserted two tadpole figures among the invading dots: What were they? Hengist and Horsa," he said, and refilled our glasses.

This was the way to be taught history! It was just about now that a second bottle of Langenlois appeared. His survey had only taken about five minutes; but we had left the Marcommani and the Quadi far behind.  .  . The polymath laughed. "I forgot about them in the excitement! There's no problem about the Marcommani," he said. "They crossed the river and became Bayuvars - and the Bayuvars are the Bavarians - I've got a Markoman grandmother. But the Quadi! There are plenty of mentions of them in Roman history. Then, all of a sudden - none! They vanished just  .  .  ."about the time Vandals drive westward.  .  ." They probably went along with them too, he explained, as part of the slipstream . .  . "A whole nation shimmering upstream like elvers -not that there are any eels in the Danube," he interrupted himself parenthetically, on a different note. "Not native ones, unfortunately: only visitors - suddenly, the forests are empty. But, as nature hates a vacuum, not for long. A new swarm takes their place. Enter the Rugii, all the way from southern Sweden!" There was no room on the Neue Freie Presse, so he shifted a glass and drew the tip of Scandinavia on the scrubbed table top. "This is the Baltic Sea, and here they come." A diagram like the descent of a jellyfish illustrated their itinerary. By the middle the fifth century they were  all settled along the left bank of the Middle Danube  - if 'settled' is the word - they were all such fidgets. I'd never heard of the Rugii. "But  expect you've heard of Odoaker? He was a Rugian." The name, pronounced in the German way, did suggest something. There were hints of historical twilight in the syllables, something momentous and gloomy .  .  . but what? Inklings began to flicker.

Hence my ascent to this ruin. For it was Odoacer, the first barbarian king after the eclipse of the last Roman Emperor. ("Romulus Augustulus!" the polymath said.  What a name! Poor chap, he was very good looking, it seems, and only sixteen." )

Behind the little town of Aggsbach Markt on the other bank, the woods which had once teemed with Rugians rippled away in a fleece of tree-tops. Odoacer came from a point on the north bank only ten miles downstream. He dressed in skins, but he may have been a chieftain's son, even a king's son. He enlisted as a legionary, and at the age of forty-two he was at the head of a winning immigrant clique in control of the Empire's ruins, and finally King. After the preceding imperial phantoms, his fourteen years' reign seemed - humiliating to the Romans - an improvement.  It was not a sudden night at all, but an afterglow, rather, of  a faintly lighter hue and lit with glimmers of good government and even of justice. When Theodoric replaced him (by slicing him in half with a broadsword from the collar-bone to the loins at a banquet in Ravenna) it was still not absolutely the end of Roman civilization. Not quite; for the great Ostrogoth was the patron of Cassiodorus and of Boethius, "the last of the Romans whom Cato or Tully could have acknowledged for their countryman." But he slew them both and then died of remorse; and the Dark Ages has come, with nothing but candles and plainsong left to lighten the shadows. "Back to the start," as the polymath had put it "and lose ten centuries."

Grim thoughts for a cloudless morning.

*the Danube just above Vienna
 **Those long-haired Wottan-worshippers, who peered for centuries between the tree-boles, while legionaries drilled  and formed tortoise on the other bank.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Tax Reform in the Reign of Louis XIV by Saint-Simon


Vauban, surnamed Le Prestre, was a gentleman , of Burgundy, no more, but perhaps the most honorable and upright man of his day. What is more, although he had a reputation for being more skilled and learned in the art of siege-warfare than any other engineer, he was the simplest, truest, and most modest of men. He was medium tall, somewhat stocky in build, very soldierly in his bearing, but with a loutish, not to say coarse and brutal appearance that totally belied his character, for there never was a man better natured, gentler, nor more obliging.  He was courteous without servility, almost  miserly with the lives of his soldiers, and possessed the kind of valor that beats every burden and lets others enjoy the credit. When, in 1703, the King informed him of his intention to make him Marechal of France, Vauban begged him first to reflect that that honor was never intended for men of his condition who could not command the King's army. [1] It might be embarrassing, he said, if the marshal in command at a siege were found to be his junior in rank. This generous objection, supported with such manifestly unselfish arguments, only increased the King's desire to advance him.  At that time Vauban had already laid fifty-three sieges, twenty of them in the King's presence, and thus King Louis could feel that after a fashion he was making a marshal of himself and gilding his own laurels. Vauban received the rank with a modesty equal to his previous unselfishness, and one and all acclaimed a most signal honor to which no other man of his condition was ever raised before or since. Such was he when he was elevated to be a Marechal de France. You shall see now how he was brought broken-hearted to his grave for the very qualities that had earned him his laurels, and that, in any country but France, would won for him honors of every other kind.

A patriot in the true  sense, [2] he had always been moved by the suffering of the peasants under the disproportionate burden of taxation.[3] His professional experience had taught him the need for government spending and the little likelihood that the King would consent to retrench in his pleasures or his pomps. He therefore despaired of their being any alleviation of their ever-increasing afflictions. With such considerations in mind he never made a journey (and he continually crossed and re-crossed the country from end to end) without making precise records of the values and yield of the lands, the trades and industries in the various provinces and towns, the nature of the taxes and the methods of collections. Not only that, he sent secret agents travelling throughout the entire kingdom so as to compare their assessments with his own. He devoted at least twenty years to that research and spent on it large sums from his own purse.  In the process he gradually became convinced that the only sure source of wealth was the land, and accordingly began to evolve an entirely new system of taxation. When his work was already far advanced  there appeared several booklets under the authorship of Boisguibert, the military governor of Rouen, who had been working on the same idea for some years. Vauban read these with interest and resolved to support the author by revising and correcting his work for him and adding some final touches of his own.  The two men were in complete agreement in principle, but not in every detail; for example, Boisguibert was chiefly anxious to remove the most onerous taxes and above all the huge charges levied by the collectors which sums did not enter the King's coffers but impoverished the peasants solely for the enrichment of the tax-farmers and their agents, who made vast fortunes in that way, even as they do today.

Vauban, on the other hand, attacked the system itself. He proposed abolishing levies of every kind and substituting in their place a single tax, divided into two parts, the first part to be on the ownership of land rated at one-tenth of its yield; the second, at a somewhat lower rate, on commerce and industry, which he thought should be encouraged, and certainly not hindered. This single tax he wished to call the King's tithe. At the same time he suggested certain just and simple rules for its collection, based on the value of each parcel of land and the number of the local population ( so far as that could be estimated with any accuracy). Vauban's book when it finally appeared  was everywhere acclaimed, and those best able to understand his calculations expressed admiration for its soundness and clarity. But the plan had one incurable defect. It produced more wealth for the King than he had received by the older methods; it relieved the peasants from ruin and oppression, and left them richer by all that did not go to him; but at the same time it destroyed the army of financiers, agents, and petty officials of many different kinds, obliging them to live by their own labors and not at public expense, and sapping the very foundation of those vast fortunes which we have seen amassed with such incredible rapidity.

That in itself was enough to condemn the book; but Vauban's real offense was that his plan attacked the authority of the controller-general himself, his influence, wealth, and immense power, together with an army of intendants, secretaries, agents, and underlings, leaving them incapable of favoring or harming anyone. It is scarcely to be wondered at that with the interests of so many powerful individuals involved there should have arisen a conspiracy to defeat a new system, however beneficial to the State, the King, and the people.  Moreover the whole legal profession rose up in revolt, for it is the magistrates who administer taxes by means of their agents in every department of government.** No doubt it was family loyalty that roused the Dukes of Chevreuse and Beauvilliers to protest, for they were the sons-in-law of M. Colbert, whose motives and methods were far removed from those advocated by Vauban. They were further misled by Desmaretz's clever, specious arguments, and Chamillart, so kind-hearted, so anxious for the public good, also fell beneath his spell. As for the Chancellor, remembering a time when he, too, had controlled the finances, he flew into a rage. In short, only those who were without influence or private interests supported Vauban, and by those I mean the Church and the nobility, for the people themselves, who stood to gain so much, never realized how close they had come to deliverance which only good citizens lamented.

Thus it came as no surprise when the King, sheltered and prejudiced as he was, gave the marachel a frigid reception on accepting his book; you may well imagine that the ministers were no better pleased when they received their copies.  From that moment onwards Vauban's past services, his military genius, his virtues, and the King's regard counted as nothing, and thenceforward he was viewed as being no better than a lunatic lover of the peasantry, a scoundrel bent on undermining the power of the ministers and consequently the authority of the King himself. King Louis said as much to his face, and he did not mince his words Those words were echoed by all that part of the nation who had thought themselves attacked and wished to be revenged, and the unhappy Vauban, who was loved by all right-thinking Frenchmen, did not long survive the loss of his master's favor. He died in solitude a few months later, wasted by grief and in distress of mind to which King Louis appeared solely insensible, even to the point of seeming unmoved by the death of one by the death of one who had been a distinguished and most useful servant. Vauban's fame,  however, had spread throughout Europe, even the enemy revered his name, and in France itself he was sincerely mourned by all those who were neither tax-farmers nor their agents.

To do Chamillart justice, despite his disapproval of Vauban, he was willing to give his system a trial, but most unfortunately he chose for that purpose a district near Chartres in the intendancy of Orleans, where Bouville, who married Desmaretz's daughter, was in charge. She had friends who owned estates in that neighborhood and procured tax-relief for their farmers, which was enough to wreck the whole experiment, depending as it did on fair and accurate assessments. Thus all Chamillart's good intentions turned sour and gave fresh ammunition to the enemies of the new system.

Vauban's entire work was accordingly condemned; but the proposal for a King's tithe was not forgotten, and some years later it was levied, not as a new and comprehensive tax, according to Vauban's plan, but on all kinds of possessions, over and above the existing taxes. It has been renewed whenever there has been a war, and even in peace-time the King always retains it on all appointments, salaries, and pensions. That is why in France one must beware of even the wisest and most salutary intentions, and why all the nation's sources of wealth are running dry. Yet who could have warned the Marechal de Vauban that his great efforts to relieve all the inhabitants of France would serve only to add to their burden a new and supplementary tax, more permanent, harsher, and more costly than all the rest put together?  Such a terrible lesson is enough to discourage the wisest proposals in the field of taxation and finance.

[1] He was not of noble rank, but apart from that, he had no experience of commanding troops in battle.

[2] Saint-Simon is supposed to have invented the word patriot.

[3] The peasants and the very poor paid the full amount of the taxes. Nobles, landowners, clergy, and the officials of all the kinds had dispensations and reliefs on various pretexts.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Interviews on Red Square in December 1991 by Svetlana Alexievich

[August 1991: A group of eight high-ranking officials led by Gorbachev's vice president, Gennady Yanayev, form the General Committee on the State Emergency, the GKChP, and stage an attempted coup of the government. It becomes known as "the putsch." The GKChP issues an emergency decree suspending all political  activity, banning most newspapers, and putting Gorbachev, who is on hold in Foros, Crimea, under house arrest.

Thousands of protestors came out to stand against putsch in front of the White House, the Russian Federation's parliament and office Boris Yeltsin, building barricades to protect their position. Yeltsin famously addresses the crowd from atop a tank. The Army forces dispatched  by the GKChP ultimately refuse to storm the barricades and side with the protestors. After three days, the putsch collapses. On August 24, Gorbachev dissolves the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and resigns as its general secretary.

January 1992: The liberalization of prices leads to massive, destabilizing inflation, from 200 percent initially to high of 2600. .  .]

I'm a construction worker.  .  .

Before August 1991, we lived in one country, and afterward, we lived in another. Before that August, my country was called the USSR.

Who am I? I am one of those idiots who defended Yeltsin. I stood in front of the White House, ready to lie down in front of a tank. People went out on the streets on the crest of a wave, on a surge. But they were out there to die for freedom, not capitalism. I consider myself a person who has been deceived. I don't need this capitalism we've been led to . . . that they slipped us. . . Not in any form, neither the American model nor the Swedish. I didn't start a revolution to get my hands on someone else's dough. We shouted "Russia!" instead of "USSR!". I'm sorry that they didn't disperse us with water cannons or roll a couple of machine guns into the square. They should have arrested two or three hundred people and the rest would have gone into hiding. Where are the people who called us out into the square today? "Down with the Kremlin mafia!" "Freedom tomorrow!" They have nothing to say to us. They ran off to the West, now they are over there badmouthing socialism. sitting around in Chicago laboratories. While we sit here. . .

Russia .  .  . they've wiped their feet with it. Anyone who wants to can smack her in the face. They turned it into a Western junkyard full of worn-out rags and expired machines. Garbage! [Obscenities.] A trough full of raw materials, a natural gas tap.  .  . The Soviet regime? It wasn't ideal, but it was better than we have today. Worthier. Overall, I was satisfied with socialism . No one was excessively rich or poor,   there were no bums or abandoned children . . . Old  people could live on their pensions, they didn't have to collect bottles and food scraps off the street. They wouldn't look at you with searching eyes, standing there with outstretched palms .  .   .   We've yet to count how many people were killed by perestroika. Our former life has been smashed to smithereens, not a single stone was left standing. Pretty soon, I won't have anything to talk about with my son. "Papa, Pavlik Morozov is a moron. Marat Kazei (Soviet heroes) is a freak," my son says to me, when he comes home from school. "But you taught me .  .  ."  I taught him the same things I had been taught, the right things. "That horrible Soviet upbringing .  .  ." That "horrible Soviet upbringing" taught me to think about people other than myself. About the weak and suffering. Nikolai Gastello (first suicide pilot) was my hero, not those magenta sports coats with their philosophy of only looking out for themselves - their own skin, their own wallets. "And please, Papa, don't start in with that spirit stuff, that humanism mumbo jumbo." Where did he pick that up? People are different now .  .  . Capitalists .  .  . You have to understand, that's what he learns from the world, he's twelve years old. I'm not an example for him anymore.

Why did I defend Yeltsin? He won a million supporters just for saying that the nomenklatura's special privileges should be revoked. I was ready to pickup a machine gun and shoot at the communists. I  was convinced.  .  . We didn't understand what they were preparing for us in its place. What they were slipping us. An enormous lie! Yeltsin spoke out against the Reds and signed up with the Whites. It was a calamity .  .  . The question: What did we want? Gentle socialism, humane socialism .  .  .And what did we get? On the streets, its blood-thirsty capitalism. Shooting. Showdowns. People figuring out who runs the kiosk and who own the factory. The gangsters have risen to the top . . . Black marketeers and money changers have taken power.  .  . Enemies and predators all around. Jackals!

I can't forget .  .  . I can't forget how we stood in front of the White House .  .  .Whose chestnuts were we pulling from the fire? [Obscenities.] My father was a real communist. A righteous man. He was a Party organizer at a big factory. Fought in the war. I said to him, "Freedom here! We're going to be a normal, civilized country.  .  ." And he replied, "Your children will be servants. Is that what you really want?" I was young and dumb .  .  . I laughed at him. We were terribly naive. I don't know why things turned out like this. I really don't. It's not what we wanted. We had something completely different in mind. Perestroika .  .  . there was something epic about it. A year later, they shut down our design bureau, and my wife and I ended up out on the street. How did we survive? First we took all our valuables to the market. The crystal, the Soviet old, and our most precious books. For weeks on end, we'd eat nothing but mashed potatoes. Then I went into "business". I started selling cigarette butts. A liter jar of butts .  .  . or a three-liter jar of butts .  .  . My wife's parents (college professors) collected them off the street, and I would sell them. And people would buy them! Smoke them. I smoked them myself. My wife cleaned offices. At a certain point, she sold pelmeni for some Tajik. We paid dearly for our naivete.  All of us .  .  . Now, my wife and I raise chickens, and she never stops weeping. If we could only turn back time .  .  . And don't give me a hard time for saying that .  .  . This isn't some nostalgia for gray salami for two rubles and twenty kopecks . . .

'The market became our university. .  .'

I went to the university . . . At that point, Chubais was lobbying for privatization vouchers, promising one voucher would buy you two Volgas when in reality, these days, it's worth about two kopecks. What an exciting time! I handed out flyers in the subway .  .  . Everyone dreamed of a new life .  .  . Dreams .  .  . People dreamt that tons of salami would appear at the stores at Soviet prices and members of the Politburo would stand in line with the rest of us. Salami is the benchmark of our existence. Our love of salami is existential.  .  .Twilight of the idols! The factories to the workers! The soil to the peasants! The rivers to the beavers! The dens to the bears! Mexican soap operas were the perfect replacement for Soviet parades and live broadcasts of the First Congress of People's Deputies. I stayed in college for two years and then dropped out. I feel sorry for my parents because they were told flat out that they were pathetic sovoks* whose lives had been wasted for less than a sniff of tobacco, that everything was their fault, beginning with Noah's Ark, and that now, no one needed them anymore. Imagine working that hard, your whole life, only to end up with nothing. All of it shook the ground from underneath them, their world was shattered; they still haven't recovered, they couldn't assimilate into the drastically new reality. My younger brother would wash cars after class, selling chewing gum and other junk in the subway, and he made more money than our father - our father who was a scientist. A PhD! The Soviet elite! When they started selling salami at the privately owned stores, all of us ran over to ogle it. And that was when we saw the prices! This was how capitalism came into our lives.

I got a job as a freight handler. Real happiness! My friend and I would unload a truck of sugar and get paid in cash plus a sack of sugar each. What was a sack of sugar in the nineties? An entire subsistence! Money! Money!. The beginning of capitalism .  .  . You could become a millionaire overnight or get a bullet to the head. When they talk about it today, they try to frighten you: There could have been a civil war, we were teetered on the edge of ruin! It didn't feel like that to me. I remember when the streets emptied out and there was nobody left on the barricades. People stopped subscribing to  or even reading the newspapers. The men hanging out in the courtyard berated Gorbachev and the Yeltsin for hiking up the vodka prices.  They'd gone after the golden calf! Wild, inexplicable avarice took hold of everyone. The smell of money filled the air. Big money. And absolute freedom - no Party, no government. Everyone wanted to make some dough, and those who didn't  know how envied those who did. Some sold, others bought .  .  . Some "covered," others "protected". When I made my first "big bucks," I took my friends out to a restaurant. We ordered Martini vermouth and Grand Piano vodka - the creme de la creme! I wanted to feel the weight of the glass in my hand, imagine that I was one of the beautiful people. We lit up Marlboros. Everything was just like we'd read about in Remarque. For a longtime, we modeled ourselves after those images. New stores, new restaurants .  .  . They were like stage sets from a different life .  .   .

.  .  . I sold fried hot dogs. Those brought in crazy money .  .  .

.  .  . I shipped vodka to Turkmenistan .  .  . I spent a whole week in a sealed freight car with my business partner.  We had our axes ready, plus a crowbar. If they found out what we were bringing into the country they would have killed us! On the way back, we carted a shipment of terrycloth towels.  .  .

I  sold toys. One time I sold off an entire lot wholesale for a truckload of carbonated beverages, traded that for a shipping container of sunflower seeds, and then, at a butter plant, traded it all in for butter, sold half of the butter, and traded the other half for frying pans and irons .  .  .

Now I have a flower business. I learned how to 'salt' roses: you put heat-treated salt at the bottom of a cardboard box - you need a layer at least a centimeter thick - and then you put half-blossomed flowers into it and pour some more salt on top of them. You put a lid on the box and put it all in a big plastic bag. Tie it up tight. Then, a month or a year later, you take them out, wash them off .  .  . Come by any day. Here's my card .  .  .

The market became our university .  .  . Maybe it's going too far to call it a university, but an elementary school for life, definitely. People  would visit like they were going to a museum. Or to the library. Boys and girl stumbled around with crazed expressions, like zombies among the stalls .  .  . A couple stops in front of some Chinese epilators, and she explains the importance of epilation : "Don't you want that? For me to be like .  .  ." I don't remember the name of the actress  .  .  . Say Marina Vlasy or Catherine Deneuve. Millions of little boxes and jars. People who bring them home as though they were sacred texts, and, after using their contents, they wouldn't throw them out, they'd display them in the a place of honor on their bookshelves, or put them in their china cabinets behind glass.  People read the first glossy magazines as though they were classics, with the reverent faith that behind the cover, directly under the packaging, you'd find the beautiful life. There were kilometer-long queues outside the first McDonald's, stories about it in the news. Educated, intelligent adults saved boxes and napkins from there and would proudly show them off to guests.

I have this good friend . . . His wife slaves away at two jobs, while he has too much pride to work: "I'm a poet. I am not about you go out and sell pots and pans. It's gross." Back in the day, he and I, like everyone else, would walk about chanting, "Democracy! Democracy!" We had no idea what all that would lead to. No one was itching to sell pots and pans. And now, there's no choice: You either feed your family or you hang on to your sovok ideals. You either/or, no other options .  .  . You can write poems, strum the guitar, and people will pat you on the shoulder: "Well, go on! Go On! But your pockets are empty. The people who left? They sell pots and pans and deliver pizza, but in other countries .  .  . Assemble boxes at cardboard factories .  .  . That kind of thing is not considered shameful like it is here.

Did you understand what I've trying to tell you? I've been talking about Igor  .  .  . About our lost generation - a communist upbringing and a capitalist life. I hate guitars! You can have mine if you want.

*sovoks: a widely used pejorative term for one who adheres to Soviet values, attitudes and behaviors. The word can refer to the Soviet Union itself. It is a pun on the word for "dustpan."

Notes From An Everywoman

What's there to remember? I live the same way as everyone else. Perestroika.  .  . Gorbachev  .  .  . The postmistress opened the gate: "Did you hear? The Communists are out." "What do you mean?" "They shut down the Party." No shots fired, nothing. These days they say we used to have a mighty fortress and then we lost it. But what have I really lost? I've always lived in the same little house without any amenities - no running water, no plumbing, no gas - and I still do today. My whole life, I've done honest work. I toiled and toiled, got used to backbreaking labor. And only earned kopecks. All I had to eat was macaroni and potatoes, and that's all I eat today. I'm still going around in my Soviet fur - and you should see the snows out here!

The best thing I can remember is getting married. We were in love. I remember walking home from the marriage  registration bureau, the lilacs in bloom. The lilacs! If you an believe it, there were nightingales singing in their branches .  .  . That's how I remember it .  .  . We lived happily for a few years, we had a daughter .  .  . Then Vadik started drinking, and the vodka ended up killing him. He died young, he was only forty-two. Ever since, I've lived alone. My daughter is all grown up, she got married and moved away.

In the winter, we always get snowed in, the whole village is blanketed in snow the houses and the cars. Sometimes, the buses won't run for weeks on end. What's going on out there in the capital?   It's a thousand kilometers from here to Moscow. We watched Moscow life unfold on TV like it's a movie. I've heard of Putin and Alla Pugacheva .  .  . The rest, I know nothing about.  Rallies, demonstrators .  .  . Out here, we live the same way we've always lived. Whether it's socialism or capitalism. Who's Red, who's White - it makes no difference. The important thing is to make it to spring. Plant potatoes .  .  . I'm sixty years old .  .  . I don't go to church, but I do need someone to talk to. To talk about other things .  .  . about how I don't feel like getting old, I have no desire to get old at all. I'll be too bad when it comes time to die. Have you seen my lilacs? I go out at night to look at them - they glow. I'll just stand there admiring them. Here, let me cut you a bouquet .  .  .

Secondhand Time; The Last of the Soviets, by Svetlana Alexievich; Random House, 2016