The Breakfast Table

Revolution Alert

The northern-supplies story is the perennial miracle. In Soviet times, the conquest of the Far North was the pride of the country. The annual campaign to deliver goods and food to the North–especially those gold-mining regions that can only be reached by water a couple of months out of the year–actually resulted in a higher standard of living for the people there: The stores were stocked, the prices were the same as in the rest of the country, while the salaries were twice as big. A big reason to move to the gold-mining and diamond-mining regions was the opportunity to save up for an early retirement on the mainland. Now the situation is reversed: Salaries are lower, if they are paid at all, food prices triple those on the mainland, and there is no way to get out. Last year on Chukotka I saw an ad posted on a lamp post: “Will trade two-room apartment for one-way ticket to Moscow.” Every year officials abort the launch of the Northern delivery campaign, and every year, miraculously, people survive. Shuttle traders bring food from Moscow, Japan or Alaska in their luggage–hence the incredibly inflated prices. Anyway, this year, if the Far North really goes to hell, it’s likely no one in the capital will find out: Moscow journalists certainly won’t have the money to travel to the story.

I agree, there is nothing quite so heart-breaking as the tragedy that doesn’t make a sound. This is how the railroad sit-in was pioneered here, by the way. About a year and a half ago, a group of miners in the Siberian region of Kemerovo protested the non-payment of salaries by refusing to come out of the mine. This meant work at the mine stopped–a new shift can’t go on until the last one has left–and the miners were living underground with minimal sustenance. After two weeks, no one had paid attention. The miners started discussing turning their strike into a hunger strike–still underground–and this was veering close to a group suicide. Then a local representative of Zhirinovsky’s party came down and talked them into going to block the railroad. They finally agreed, and a few hours later received their pay right there on the tracks. This past summer, this railroad-blocking action was copied by miners around the country. Government ministers traveled to the protests, signed agreements, failed to carry through–and, more important, failed to communicate with the miners again. More than 97 years into this century, the Russian government still can’t fathom that it is the failure to communicate–with the citizens or, say, the creditors–that leads to uprisings and revolutions. We are stuck in the endless Marxian loop of tragedy and farce.

Well, I wanted to make sure I got all of that in before I sign off. It’s been therapeutic. Enjoy your Emma Gerstein memoirs: It sounds like, just like me, you find them equally repulsive and irresistible. Maybe we could dissect them for Slate’s book-reading dialogues one of these days; then again, maybe something better-known out of the dark Russian past would be better.