Issue #04/59, February 25 - March 10, 1999  smlogo.gif

Feature Story

In This Issue
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Moscow Babylon
Book Review

Renting an Apartment
Crime & Punishment in Las Vegas
Sports Clichés
Negro Comix


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by Matt Taibbi

Somewhere today in a Western country-let's say Mainz, Germany, for the sake of argument-some unsuspecting citizen of the supercivilized Western world will drive his 5 year-old Mercedes 6-series car (amazing, the way those cars stay preserved in Germany) into a gas station, open up his tank, and fill his car with petroleum made from Baskhiri raw crude oil.

Of course, Bashkortostan isn't the only place that gas could have come from. There's domestic American oil, Middle Eastern oil, Nigerian oil--a pretty wide base of places to choose from, for purchasers of raw crude and petroleum products. But some of it comes from Bashkortostan, a small republic in central Russia, just east of Boris Yeltsin's hometown of Yekaterinburg, an area that considers itself part-Siberia, part Ural Mountain area. There isn't a lot in Bashkortostan, but one thing it does have is oil. And a good $2 billion dollars worth per year is exported out of the former Soviet Union--to Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany, even the United States. The oil usually travels by pipeline to Odessa, then, from there, gets loaded into tankers, and finally makes its way to various places, including to our friend in Mainz.

The petroleum or petroleum products the German consumer bought, if they came
Rustam, the baby-faced veteran who hasn't been paid in cash in his entire three years on the job.
from Bashkiria, might have come from the capital city of Ufa, from one of the big refineries, like Bashneft. Or it might have come from some other other regional refineries, like, for instance, SalovatNeftiOrgSyntez. This is a huge, smoke-and-gas spewing complex about an hour and a half away from the capital of Ufa, just a stone's throw from a tiny provincial city called Meleyuz, where I spent last week working as a bricklayer. After being turned down for jobs at local oil refineries by the local FSB--the old KGB--I'd joined a crew from MeleyuzZhilStroi, the city's biggest construction company, and set about laying bricks at a site that within a few months will be the largest shopping center in town.

ZhilStroi's client was a person who, on pain of my life, I am only allowed to describe here as "a businessman". He is the richest person in Meleyuz, a grim, crumbling city with a population of 65,000. Assured that I would be beaten--to death--if I ever mentioned his name in print, I'm obliged to call Zhilstroi's client, and by extension my boss for that week, Dr. No. On the outskirts of town, far from the weatherbeaten dyevatetazhki (Soviet-era nine story buildings) where virtually everyone else in Meleyuz lives, Dr. No has already built himself a palace, a multilevel brick mansion with a billiard parlor and an indoor swimming pool. The place is surrounded by brick walls and guarded by pit bulls. And now he wants to build a shopping center, complete with Nike shops, a restaurant, and whatever else comes to mind, to replace the old-style Meleyuz market, where migrant traders have been sifting in and out for years to sell cheap Chinese shirts, Baltika beer, rice, flour, and other junk. Ominously, the new shopping center is being built directly above the old market, high above it, and the normal business of the market is now interrupted constantly by the sounds of cranes swinging and bricks being pounded into place.

Dr. No is a trader in oil products. According to local legend, he has bribed some local refineries, including SalaovatNeftiOrgSyntez, to sell him oil for export at domestic oil sale prices. When that oil headed for Germany whooshes down the pipeline to Odessa or to other places, some of it is Dr. No's. And the cash he gets from those proceeds goes either into his pocket or into local "economic development"--into projects like the building of the new shopping center.

The problem is, economic development is kind of a strange word to describe this process, at least the way it occurs in Meleyuz. The workers who are building his shopping center aren't workers in the traditional sense. They're more like slaves. Or, in the best case, indentured servants. They work for free. And the working conditions, as I myself can now report, are not exactly conducive to the preservation of their lives. Believe me--when you put that forty marks of gas in your car before you get back on the autobahn, you're not buying safety helmets for workers. You're buying billiard balls, vodka, supplies for a drunken weekend of bear hunting, Western 4wd vehicles--and, most importantly, funding the elevation of a common thief to the status of a bonafide feudal lord.

Any practiced professional, even a guy who lays bricks, looks like a concert pianist when he's doing his job, especially if you're trying to imitate him. Worker Anur Abdulov, who'd been assigned by my foreman Alexander Kondratev to keep me useful on the site, was becoming frustrated trying to teach me to build a level, solid brick wall--I hadn't laid a brick since my last basketball game. First, he told me, you have to take a shovelful of rastvor, the cement mix, and dump it on a row of bricks. Then you carefully press one brick at a time down on the row of rastvor. Every time you press down a brick to put it into place, an excess amount of mixture spills out from the bottom, and you have to take your masterok, your hand-spade, and wipe it off. This is called "cleaning the snot". Once the snot is wiped, you're supposed to wing it over in one, smooth motion, and splatter it along the vertical edge of that same brick you just laid. When done just right, it lands with a pleasant splat in an ovular shape on the outside edge of the brick--the outside is more important to the inside, because holes between bricks will only show on the outside.

Even at this simple operation, I was failing miserably. I'd scrape off the
On-the-job safety at MeleyuzZhilstroi. Author Taibbi standing at far right, pointlessly waving his hand in a vain attempt to send the tonload of bricks above in a direction away from his head. Note that all workers present are helmetless-- this was the norm on the site-- and that the bricks themselves are not secured in any way. "Bricks fall, sure," said one co-worker. "But no one's died lately."
snot and then find that my hand was turned the wrong way, that I had to flip my masterok over to prepare to chuck the snot at the next brick, and in the process all that snot would fall squarely on my fancy, obviously-out-of-place New Balance boots, giving everybody in the more appropriately-dressed crew a good laugh. I was working so intently at one point to get this simple operation right that I didn't notice when, all of the sudden, a shadow passed across my back and darkened my row of bricks. I turned around to look up...

"Holy shit!" I cried, running for cover. Above me, no less then two meters beyond my head, was a giant, swaying pile of bricks--a pile that weighed exactly one ton, I later learned. A ton of bricks. Over my head. And the worst thing was, the bricks had not been secured in any way. They'd just been stacked on a pine board, attached with metal loops to the crane hooks, and sent swinging up to the work sites. They weren't tied down, wrapped in plastic, nothing. Just dangling out there. I imagined my own gravestone: Here Lies Matt Taibbi. 1970-1999. Correspondent. Hit By a Ton of Bricks.

The crew, all eighteen of them, burst out laughing when they saw me running away from the brick pile. I swore back at them in Russian. "You people are out of your fucking minds!" I shouted.

"Look at him, he's scared," said Vova, one of the quicker-tongued guys on the crew. Anur, a devout Muslim (and the only person in Meleyuz I was able to find who didn't drink), looked away sadly, apparently asking Allah to forgive my cowardice.

"But it makes sense to be afraid! You're all out here working without helmets, and there are bricks flying over your head all day long!"

"So what?" said Vova. This is a peculiar aspect of Russian male bravery which I've noticed over the years. It differs significantly from our idea of bravery, which involves the willingness to take calculated risks of varying levels. In Russia, male bravery is little more than indifference to death. If you're afraid at all of being hit by a brick, you're a coward--even if the risk could easily be removed, with a little planning.

I kept working. The nightmares on the job were myriad. For the first hour or two after that incident, I kept my eyes fixed closely on Galya, the broad-shouldered female crane operator (kranovshitsa) who sat high above with an expressionless face and an inappropriately innocuous pink sweater housing her huge motherly bosom, continuously loading up tons of bricks and half-ton tubs of steaming rastvor and sending them flying over our heads. Part of Galya's job--the biggest part, from where I stood--was to periodically hit a little buzzer up in her crane module that makes a bell ring on the outside of the crane, warning the workers that danger is on the way. Every single time I heard that bell, I'd look up to see that ton of bricks already past. She was always ten seconds too late. It didn't matter--the guys on the crew never listened to her anyway.

Just before lunchtime on my first day, a hush went over the crew. Tossing their masterki in every direction, the workers descended quickly from their scaffolds and started running around the building, peering down at the first floor, which, since the building structure was incomplete, was completely visible from the top floor. There, Dr. No himself was walking casually in a shiny fox hat, chatting with Kodratev, the foreman. After a few minutes, he was gone. Kondratev made his way up to the workers with his head hung low.

"Did he give us any money?" they all asked, in chorus almost.

"No," Kondratev said. "He said Friday, maybe."

For obvious reasons, money is the major issue on the site. The workers are all officially employees of MeleyuzZhilStroi, meaning, theoretically, that they are entitled to a salary and benefits. But, as is usually the case here these days, that's only in theory. Even in the best possible scenario, these construction workers have a terrible setup: their base salaries are just 1000 rubles per month. That's right, less than fifty dollars per month. But they never see the money. Instead, ZhilStroi, which professes to be cash poor--and on the books, as shown to me by deputy chief Anatoly Mizin, it is--pays its workers in little slips of paper, which can be redeemed for food at local food stores.

But even within this catch, there are new catches. I followed the guys to one store on a food run after work and watched the process. For one thing, and this is something that is extremely important to your average Russian working man, he is not allowed to buy alcohol with his little slips of paper. Secondly, he is losing out on the margin. With his slips of paper, he must buy the goods at the price the store decides upon. If a sack of rice at the market--a sack guys like Anur can see being sold all day long from atop their construction site-- costs ten rubles in fact, in the store it costs sixteen.

Nightmare number three: rent. Most of these guys live in a worker dormitory near the center of town. They live like college students, cramped one or two to
Foreman Alexander Kondratev worked for almost ten years as a common laborer before being promoted to foreman in 1991 without any additional training. Like most bosses who were once laborers, he spends most of his time on the job making sure no one in his crew drinks, dies or both. He was constantly berating all of us for failing to take simple steps like de-icing the stairs. But his true genius was for verbally assualting lazy workers. "International fucking diplomats!" he screamed, at anyone who took a break to talk to me. "Get away from that homo fag spy writer or I'll tear out your assholes, fuck your mother!"
a tiny room, with a common toilet. From their salaries comes another 90 rubles per month for the cost of living there. Nightmare number four: the review committee. Every month a committee from Zhilstroi comes to the site and evaluates the workers' performances. They run their fingers along the walls, note things like the presence of excess snot or unevenly-laid walls, and write down little grades in their grade books. There are three grades: good, satisfactory, and bad. If Anur only manages a satisfactory--which is to say, if only does his job competently as opposed to noticeably well--another 300 rubles is struck from his fictitious salary. If he really screws up--or if, for instance, I had hung around long enough to get a grade--he or I are out 600 rubles out of 1,000. Subtract from there the 90 for the dorm and you're already down to 310 rubles. If there are medical costs, you subtract more. In sum, these guys can work nine hours a day, with bricks flying over their heads, building luxury shopping centers for a guy with a pit-bull guarded mansion at the outskirts of town, and end up losing more than 2/3 of a theoretical salary which, in fact, they never see at all!

The situation in Meleyuz, and in places like it all over the provinces, goes beyond the simple issue of "salary delays" which miners arranged protests over all last summer. There are no "delays" in the Meleyuz salaries. They simply don't exist. Take Rustam M., another worker at the site. Rustam has a baby face and looks to be about sixteen--but in fact, he's married, has a newborn child named Yulia, and has been out of the army for three years already. He has been employed with ZhilStroi the entire time since leaving the army, that is, for three years.

I asked him: "Rustam, how many times have you actually seen money since you got out of the army?"

"How many times?" he asked.

"Right," I said.

"Never once," he said. "In three years, I've never seen real money."

If Rustam wants to party a little on the weekends, here's what he does. He takes his little slip of paper, buys a sack of rice, and trades it for a bottle. Or trades a lot of stuff for shoes. That's the way things are done in Meleyuz. State workers are said to be exempt from this lifestyle--the state, people say, always does eventually pay cash, even if there are delays--but even that's not strictly true. Guzel Davletovarova, an elementary school teacher, had a payday while I was there and showed me the result. "150 rubles," she said, holding up the money. The rest--she only makes 400 rubles a month, officially--has been struck from her salary for a driver's ed course that she has been paying off since the summer. Her husband Fanil, a local detective in the Prosecutor's department who is something of a local hero, having captured two serial killers in the last year, makes about $70 a month officially--but only about $30 of that makes it into his pocket, as he's been paying off repairs to his car, which he used, one would have assume to the overall benefit of society, on the job in pursuit of serial killers, rapists, etc. Now Fanil has no usable car; he has to call around town if he needs a ride anywhere, and even on business, patrol cars are not always available to help him track down leads.

Meleyuz is in the advanced stages of a transformation not to a market economy, but to barter feudalism. It all starts at the top, with a draconian budget policy. ZhilStroi receives a government contract to build an addition to a local school, but is never paid by the state any money for the job, even though its contract specifies that 30% of its income must be cash. Instead, they are paid by the government in debts owed the government by the local brick factory. Now Zhilstroi can at least go get itself some bricks and build something else--say, a food store. The store has no money to pay ZhilStroi, so for a small bribe to some person or persons high up in the ZhilStroi administration--again, I've been pressured not to name names about this--the store gets built. Once that store is built, both ZhilStroi and the store have a win-win situation. ZhilStroi can keep its workers alive and live up to its compensation responsibilities by giving the bricklayers receipts for food purchases at the store. The store, meanwhile, can "sell" its goods at the highest possible retail price, even though the open market next door is selling the same item for 50% less.

Of course, the store receives no money for giving workers their overpriced bags of rice. But because ZhilStroi is functionally bankrupt, and workers like those at ZhilStroi, being devoid of money, are deprived of the choice to make smart consumer decisions--all of this allows the store to barter its food products for services like construction and repairs at inflated prices. This is forcing the town quickly into a back-to-the-future situation, back to the good old days of the Soviet Union, only worse, and poorer, where there are black market prices--i.e. the real prices--and the barter-defined "retail" prices, at which the majority of people in the city are forced to buy.

Go to any store in Meleyuz and you will see, next to the cashier, a hefty notebook filled with notations. Stand around the counter for a moment and within minutes some working class guy in a knit hat and homemade tattoos on his hands will wander around, avert his eyes from things like Coca-Cola or those faux packages of Swiss chocolate you see everywhere in Moscow, and silently and ashamedly come up to the counter to ask for a tin of herring, a vobla fish, some rice, some milk, and some mayonnaise. The cashier answers: "What factory are you from?" And he answers: "KirpichZavod", i.e. the brick factory, or "KhimZavod", i.e. the chemical factory. He pulls out his passport and lays it on the counter. She flips through the notebook, finds the company and then the name, and informs him that he has enough left on the tab for everything but the mayonnaise. "Okay," he says, and then takes his stuff and clears out.

I was in Meleyuz a week and a half and I saw this literally every time I went into a store. By now, people like Fanil the detective say, it's a given that anyone who works for a private company is on the "passport" system, i.e. paid in food products. He laughs. "War Communism," he says. "It's back and better than ever."

On my third day on the job I arrived at the site late and seriously hung over after a night drinking with an oil worker from the north on leave from his job at a LukOil plant. Ravel, the LukOil guy, has a job so tough (there is a high attrition rate to frostbite) that they rotate the workers in every
Anur: "No one outside Russia cares, but they should. I mean, this is a form of slavery. That's outrageous, right?"
month--a guy works one month, takes a month off, comes back for another month, and so on. He makes $300 cash a month for his job, so he was relatively loaded when he arrived. In the course of one night, he slept with four different women. I don't even remember where they came from, or how they got there. Fanil and I, already exhausted from a heavy week of russkoye zastoliye--sitting around the table drinking--were collapsed in the corner drinking cloudy beer and clumsily exchanging invitations to our respective homelands. And all the time this Ravel, hands still black from the oil, kept bringing girls in and out. His tastes were not very discriminating. He hadn't seen a woman for a month.

Fanil pushed me out the door the next day and I showed up on the job looking like hell. The guys there, particularly Rustam, were quick to help me out--they told me to run across the way to the market, buy myself a beer, and pokhmelitsa, to burn your hangover out with a burst of beer. I did so and ran back feeling better. The guys were still there in the trailer--no sign of the foreman Kondratev. With a mouth full of gold teeth and a startlingly diverse vocabulary of the foulest possible slang expressions, Kondratev is a good guy, a quality site boss. He knows the system doesn't give him much room to do much--he himself is paid on the "passport" system-- but he tries to give his guys a break as much as he can, and also tries his best to keep them alive. He is strict about drinking on the job, which is important with work like this: I never once saw anyone drink near the site. And though he lives right around the corner from the site, he always arrives a little late, giving the guys some time to sit in the warm trailer, shoot the shit and play dominoes.

I was pulling on my work clothes and being decimated in a game of dominoes when I decided to ask the guys a question.

"Why don't you guys strike?" I asked.

They all shrugged. "Others would replace us," said Rustam finally. "And the unions wouldn't help. They're all bought off."

I'd suspected this was true; the local union rep had refused to grant me an interview while I was there, and besides, Russian unions don't differ much from place to place. They generally take money from the companies who employ their workers, and most take the so-called worker benefits--trips to the Black Sea, use of the union resorts--for themselves. It's been a while since any worker in Meleyuz has seen a vacation of that sort.

"Right," I said. "But if you all stopped working, if it was organized, then nobody would make any money, not even the rich guys, and things would have to change."

"Yeah, well," said another guy in the crew. "You need a leader for that. Someone to organize. And once he pops his head up, he's dead. Guaranteed. Someone will get him."

"We can't even turn to the prosecutor's office," said Rustam. "If we were to go there, it'd get right back to the wrong people, and then we might even lose what little we have here. Lose our jobs, I mean. It's all one gang up there. Stay in line, or no rice."

"No 16-ruble rice!" someone else shouted. And everybody laughed.

I'd lost the domino game by then.

"Shit, we thought you Americans were smart," said Rustam. "You can't even play a game as easy as dominoes."

"I fucking hate dominoes," I said, laughing. "All civilized people do." Just then Kondratev walked in.

"Nobody is allowed to swear on this job but me, you bastards," he shouted. "Get your asses up there. And you, Yankee, cut that shit about dominoes. What are you, an aristocrat? You're a guest here, remember. Play dominoes, lay bricks, and shut the fuck up."

We went back out on the job. On the way another guy, Igor, told me a story. Four years ago, he'd bought an apartment on credit, through Zhilstroi. Like the other workers, his payments on his living space are deducted every month from his salary. The only catch is, he can't get out of it. He can't quit until he's paid off the apartment. And he can't sell the apartment back to ZhilStroi. He calculates he'll be on the dole another seven years.

"That's indentured servitude," I said.

He shrugged. "Yeah, well..."

We went out and started laying a new wall. The guys had warned me that today was going to be tougher than the previous days, because, ironically, it was warmer. Bricklayers generally work in conditions down to -25 celsius, which is the temperature at which rastvor freezes and is too immaleable to shape around bricks. The previous days had been normal winter days, -10, -12, but today it was only about -4. The problem with temperatures like this is that it is so warm that neither the rastvor nor the snow that has accumulated on the bricks overnight stays cold enough to avoid being absorbed into the gloves.

The mittens we were all wearing weren't waterproof, but simple cloth mittens. Within about an hour they're soaking wet from snow and cement, and your hands start to freeze. About half the guys went the macho route and discarded their gloves altogether and just laid the bricks with their bare hands. I tried to be cool about it and kept on my gloves, pretending not to be cold--but the instant the work day was over, I raced to the trailer and wrapped my hands around the hot-water pipe. They guys laughed. As it was my last day on the job, they gave me a brick for a souvenir and made me promise to come back. "There's always room for one more loser," Kodratev cracked.

A day later I was describing what I'd been through to Alexander Yavorsky, a photographer for the city's only paper, the mostly apolitical October's Path.

"We have an old saying in Russian," he said. "'Fish rots from the head, but for some reason you clean it from the tail.' Somebody in Moscow is robbing one part of the budget; somebody in Ufa another, and the big shots at the oil companies are robbing their own workers, and somebody's making money on the inflated margins in the stores. But the loser in all of this is the guy at the bottom. You clean from the tail. Those guys you were working with, they're good guys. But they're no better than slaves. And it's probably not going to change."

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