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By John Helmer, Moscow
  @bears_with

Harry Lime, the Third Man, was the character invented by British novelist and one-time intelligence officer Graham Greene, who understood how investment bankers operate when the breakdown of government makes the black market the only source of supply, trade, and profit. Lime’s racket in post-war 1948 Vienna, then occupied by the allied armies, was to steal penicillin from military hospitals; adulterate it by half; then sell it back at double the official price.

In the famous Ferris wheel conversation, high above the Vienna fairground, Lime is asked by his American journalist friend about the morality of making a profit this way. Pointing to people on the ground, Lime responds: “Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stops moving — forever? If I offered you twenty thousand for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax. The only way you can save money nowadays.”

Down on the ground in Moscow,  in the ruins of the country led by Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, who cared if the dots stopped moving? And in the moral order created then by the US and British governments and their media, acting prime minister Yegor Gaidar and privatization chief Anatoly Chubais, what loss was there to the future of Russia when, like dots,  about ten million people and about twenty million animals stopped moving?

That’s the count of the Russians who would have survived to the average life expectancy of the Soviet welfare state, if Yeltsin and his associates hadn’t destroyed the health care system, their bank savings, employment wages, pensions, and food supplies. It’s also the count of farm livestock slaughtered when the costs of operating collective agriculture outstripped the state budget to pay them, and cattle were killed for immediate cash in the market place.

Robert Stephenson’s newly published book of photographs are of Moscow during the revolution between 1991, when Yeltsin took power from Mikhail Gorbachev, and 1996, when Yeltsin rigged his re-election as president. It’s a combination of bird’s eye view, Graham Greene and Harry Lime-style, with close-ups of the dots. That’s to say, the destruction and the casualties.

Stephenson (right) was head of IT strategy at the British Government’s Employment Service in 1992 when he was sent to Moscow to provide his expertise in the establishment of the new Russian government agency for dealing with unemployment; then it was called the Federal Employment Service. Stephenson acknowledges that on his British civil service salary he was well off in the conditions to which most Muscovites had been reduced. He stayed five years, 1972 to 1997; midway he married a Russian.

There were many British and American experts inside the Russian government at the time; they were either intelligence agents or Harry Lime types, usually both at the same time.  Their orders  were to demolish the Soviet system as swiftly as possible; their motive was to transfer the profits to their governments and themselves. The cases of the British operatives aren’t well-known; American agents Andrei Shleifer, Nancy Zimmerman and Jonathan Hay have been better investigated  here and  here

Stephenson wasn’t one of those.   “Fascinated by the changes happening around me,” he writes in his preface, “I made a point of walking daily around the streets of the capital, camera always in hand…recording how the city and the life within it was being transformed…But looking back through them a quarter of a century later they already portray a different epoch, like a telescopic snapshot of a new planet forming.”

The title Stephenson has given to his book, “We Are Building Capitalism!”,  has been adapted  from the wall mural he photographed at 2 Zhitnaya Street: “We are building Communism!” The publisher is Glagoslav, a unique establishment based in London and Tilburg (Netherlands) which aims to publish “works that are uniquely Slavic in nature and facilitate a dialogue between East and West.” For Stephenson’s book, click to buy and read.  For Glagoslav and its catalogue, click here


Left, the mural at 2, Zhitnaya Street, before it was covered over with advertising; this has now been removed. Right, Stephenson’s book; for more about the author photographer,  follow his website: https://bobstephensonphoto.com/

Stephenson has organized his photographs in ten chapters with brief texts of his retrospective reflections. He records the major Soviet monuments (Stalin, Lenin, Sverdlov, Dzerzhinsky, Kalinin, Khrushchev) which were taken down and dumped, some in pieces,  in the park beside the Central House of Artists (TsDKh).  He also reports they have been repaired now and restored to their plinths.

(He doesn’t know how carefully, if secretly, they were guarded in those years from foreign art dealers and political fanciers. Asked once by Malcolm Turnbull, a banker then and more recently an unsuccessful prime minister of Australia, if I could buy for him a fallen statue of one of the Soviet greats, I reported that no fallen Moscow city monument was legally available for foreign sale or export. Turnbull had wanted the monument to install in the paddock of his hobby farm. Instead, I gave him a desk-size Lenin head, finely and naturalistically carved in wood; and a large memorial medallion of Dzerzhinsky. Turnbull didn’t say where he has displayed them.)  

Stephenson is neutral towards Chubais; positive towards small businesses like the restaurant Kropotkinskaya 36 and the Lavash Bakery, near the Peking Hotel; negative towards the “time when all of life’s certainties disappeared and an often modest but stable Soviet existence was suddenly replaced by the spectre of poverty, rising crime and violence.”  There are illustrations of “Inflation, Speculation and Accumulation”, including a shot of street touts for the MMM pyramid racket. He depicts many street demonstrations and translates protester placards he spotted, like the one a babushka had tied to her back, “No! To Capitalism, Zionism and Yeltsinism”; and another held by an elderly war veteran with a picture of Stalin and the inscription, “Thanks for saving the USSR and the Jews from fascism”. 

For those like me, who preferred the great city swimming pool to the church which preceded and followed it, Stephenson provides a winter shot, without water. Here it is in spring once upon a time – count the dots.

As Stephenson remembers and reproduces Moscow, it was a spacious city, unusually empty of both pedestrians and cars. Even in the disrepair and decay which he shows in the photographs,  those spaces were free of the new junk which he has also reproduced — the many,  too many sculptures of Zurab Tsereteli, for example: he was a minor talent of the Soviet era whom his friend, ex-Mayor Yury Luzhkov, made a very rich man with commissions; they await another revolution and another vacant park for their removal.

Stephenson also remembers the grace of public entertainments, such as dances to pre-war tunes played by rotunda bands in city parks during summer; they were eliminated by the deaths of the dancers, the decline of the radio, and the importation of commercial pop. In Stephenson’s pictures, the dancers are all over the age of 50.  He is discreet in describing, without illustration,  “Night Flight”, which he calls a popular nightclub.

He didn’t miss, though, the gathering of the young at the wall for Victor Tsoi, off Arbat. If you remember Tsoi’s concerts with Kino, and their songs these days, you aren’t alone or even elderly. To follow and listen to the revival of taste in Russian pop music, click on this

If you are nostalgic for the Zhiguli car, the common city get-about at the start of the revolution, Stephenson’s street shots show them in all colours. Mine, a 1986 model, was orange (right). In those days it was excellent camouflage for investigative journalists: it deterred traffic policemen from batoning it down for the usual bribe to find a foreigner driving. Mine was vandalized – the upholstery of the back seat slashed to ribbons — by teenagers on a bender. A colleague’s was trashed after Bill Browder had warned us off asking questions he didn’t want to answer; he still doesn’t.

It is a virtue of Stephenson’s book that, as he says at the end, “I have avoided the temptation in this book to compare the old with the new.” Thus has he avoided propaganda, and also cheap nostalgia. Ergo, this is a book is for all Muscovites who lived through that terrible time. It’s a  reminder of the duty those who survived owe to those who didn’t.  

NOTE: the lead photograph is of Russian President Vladimir Putin entertaining US  President George W. Bush for a ride in Putin's restored 1956 Volga, outside Moscow in May 2005.

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