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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'80s Chosen Now Forgotten

My friend Volodya is sick. He's lost an enormous amount of weight, and he's sunk into a torpor from which he can barely shake himself. The doctors say he's suffering from clinical depression. But I think he's just given up.


Volodya is -- was, I should say -- a scientist. In the early days of perestroika, he used to travel abroad; he gave lectures; he wrote articles. And with the money he earned, he began to buy Western goods: some computers, a fax machine, a photocopier or two -- anything he thought would sell well back home. With the proceeds, he was able to buy a new car; he redecorated his apartment. And with the help of a scientific grant from the West, he even started his own learned journal.


All of these doings of his rather terrified his wife. Not that they were in any way illegal, of course. It was just that they made Volodya seem almost too self-confident, too happy. She was afraid that his new life-style was calling attention to itself -- and afraid too that she'd lose him somehow to the smiling rich Westerners who came to visit them, and whom Volodya then traveled abroad to see.


Volodya did what he could to calm her. He brought her presents from abroad; he sometimes even took her with him -- though that meant spending much of the money he could have otherwise brought back. After a while, however, he simply gave up paying attention. Things were going too well. He was helping Westerners set up in the city. There were commissions. There were more grants. And he was finally able to do with them what he had always dreamed of: to give his beloved daughter Natasha an education in the West. Through his contacts, he found scholarships for her, first in Britain, then in Germany. And he started to spend much of the money he was earning on her fares and living expenses.


For a while, this was fine; all went well -- Natasha came back for her vacations from her university secure and happy, sparkling with new knowledge. Volodya felt proud. Then, though, things started to go wrong for him and for his relations with Western scientists; slowly at first, but then with gathering speed.


First, the scientists didn't seem to come to Moscow so much any more. And then their invitations to lecture and write abroad began to dry up. With the passing of Gorbachev, Russia had lost much of its attractiveness, its immediacy. And besides, Russian scientists had by now decamped in droves to Western universities, something Volodya -- largely at his frightened wife's insistence -- had staunchly refused to do. Now, well ... who needed him? It would take years to sort through what the younger Russian scientists had brought -- ready-packaged, with no need for traveling -- to the West's own front door.


Little by little, Volodya's grants, too, disappeared, and his journal was finally forced into closure. He tried to go into business; he wrote articles on spec for Western magazines. But he could never make enough money to keep up or to stem the (by now) great tide of his wife's recriminations. He sold the things he'd accumulated in order to keep Natasha in the West; he used his car as a taxi. But each night he'd come back to his apartment, only to find his wife so increasingly bitter, depressed and worried about their situation that she finally lost her job.


The burden at this point fell on Volodya with a vengeance. Unable now to send money to Natasha in Germany, he watched from a distance as she was forced to fall back on a rich boyfriend's resources. Ashamed, desperate, he scrabbled for money anywhere he could find it. But he was not a businessman; he and his arcane, theoretical knowledge were of not the slightest interest to the mafia who, one way or another, by now ran the country.


So now, I think, Volodya has simply caved in on himself. He survives on a small salary; he punishes himself by not eating. He sits most of the day in his apartment, pent up with a wife who's by now half-mad and totally unable to help him. Natasha calls me from Germany from time to time to ask me what she should do: Should she stay and finish her degree or come back to try to rescue her parents? So far I've advised her to stay away. Coming back, I think, would probably in the end destroy her.


Volodya and his wife are not special cases. There are hundreds of thousands -- perhaps millions -- of members of the old Soviet intelligentsia who are in exactly the same boat. To ask them how they'll vote in the coming election is, frankly, to insult them. They probably -- like Volodya -- won't even get out of bed.