Where's All the Weird News?

A few years ago, Astrakhan police received an anonymous telephone call from a man who claimed to have hidden a bomb in a downtown department store. They immediately raced over to the store and ordered its evacuation. But the customers simply refused to leave -- they'd lose their places in line, they said. So the police were forced to search the store with a huge audience of shoppers.

Trouble was, they couldn't find anything: not under the counters nor on the shelves; nor in the windows, the lavatories, the sales-rooms or the stock-rooms. As a last resort, then, they desperately began hammering holes in the walls. They didn't find any bomb, but they did find the best stuff the store had ever had on offer, hidden in the walls by the staff.

A secret store within a store! With the staff as customers! I used to love stories like this, with its strange and wonderful inside-out logic. And I'd collect them whenever and wherever I could. Stories about UFOs disappearing from the skies around Voronezh after reports in the newspapers had announced regular sightings -- which only went to prove, said a commentator, that the little green men were extremely canny: They'd been reading the papers and had decided to cover their tracks.

Or stories about how Germany was full of streets named after Gorbachev because he'd fulfilled Hitler's plan of destroying the Soviet Union and handing it over to the West. The proof of this particular pudding, said a columnist, was that Hitler and Gorbachev began with the same letter. (Well so they do, if you're Russian. Remember the sad fate of Gamlet of Elsinore and his old pal, Goratio.)

Or this, say: The Moscow television healer, Alan Chumak, used to use a period of intense silent concentration to infuse with healing energy the bottles of water which his viewers placed near their television sets. But then he reportedly decided to go into business for himself: to infuse the water directly, and sell it on the streets at 50 cents a pop. So he organized a huge vat of tap water at the Moskovsky Brewery and sent round a tape machine to be laid at its foot. What did it play to the tap water? Yes, that's right: a recording -- turned up high -- of his very own brand of "concentrated" silence.

They don't produce stories like these any more. The mafia have long ago given up reading "The Godfather" for tips on criminal deportment. And hoods fighting street battles no longer break up promptly at the same time every evening, so that they can all go home to watch their favorite Mexican soap opera. In the markets, they no longer sell empty cans of Japanese or German beer for prestige home decoration. (Look what I've been drinking!) And you hardly ever see anywhere -- my favorite of them all -- broken light bulbs for sale.

Broken light bulbs? Yes. What you used to do was buy a broken light-bulb and then take it to work. Then you'd unscrew the bulb you had over your desk, put the broken one in and call the management. They'd bring in a replacement which you'd immediately pocket, then you'd put the old (working) one back in the light. Result: a new light bulb at a fraction of the price.

Well, as I say, they don't do these things any more -- and they don't produce the fine old stories. All we have these days is everybody endlessly speculating about things they don't know. Does Lebed have the authority to conclude a peace agreement with the Chechens or doesn't he? What's Chernomyrdin's reaction? What orders is the Interior Ministry giving? Where's Yeltsin? What the hell's going on?

A case in point: Two or three weeks ago, I wrote about a Russian-American called Tristan Del, who signed a contract to exploit in the West Ostankino's huge and astonishing classical-music archive. Problem is, there's now a rumor running around that the Russian government has now required Del -- by law -- to get the written permission of every single artist (or his or her heirs) whose tapes he has passed on for release by Telstar Records in London. (They're supposed to be coming out in the West this month.)

The result is that the heirs of a number of these artists have now started bombarding Telstar Records with long-distance faxes, saying that they've certainly never given permission, and won't. So what on earth is poor Telstar to do now? Is it a law or isn't it? Or is the whole thing just a piece of mischief-making? I tried calling the Culture Ministry to get an answer but couldn't even get a reply. Then I called a ministry official at home. He said, "Oh, you won't get through to the ministry. It hasn't paid its telephone bill." Some things in Russia -- thank the Lord -- never change.