Stories behind my books: Farewell
by Vadim Babenko
The Yeltsin-Gaidar economic reform, which impoverished the entire Russian nation and created a small group of super-rich oligarchs, began in January 1992. I was working then at the Institute of Molecular Genetics of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Right after New Year’s vacation we were told that financing for the Academy had been cut off. All academic institutes were advised to survive on their own. Thus began the collapse of the fundamental science system of the former USSR – created many decades prior and considered one of the strongest in the world.
Our institute was engaged in new approaches to microbiology problems. Serious scientists, who were regularly published worldwide, worked for us. As soon as it became clear our salaries would no longer be paid, a mass exodus of employees ensued – to the USA, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, France… Within two months the Institute was emptied by two-thirds. The only ones who didn’t leave were those bound to Russia by personal reasons. I too remained.
No, I had neither sick relatives nor thorny domestic problems. I simply didn’t want to leave the Russian language environment. Knowing already that my future was in literature despite my scientific successes, I decided it was time for me to write prose, my first big novel. And I believed to write in Russian I had to be surrounded by it on a day-to-day basis.
However, I needed to live on something – at the Institute they didn’t pay at all. In the Russia of that time it was possible to earn money only by reselling something brought from abroad – discounting plainly criminal jobs. Trade in consumer products was not for me; I chose the most abstract of goods – money. I began to collaborate with a firm that was profiting from currency speculation.
What we were doing wasn’t illegal – in the law of the new Russia there was simply a gaping hole about the issue. I formed a small team of some of my former scientist colleagues – all of them had excellent educations, doctorate degrees, and families with nothing to eat. The first five months everything went OK, but then we caught the eye of professional swindlers. They took notice and – quite easily and gracefully – set us up by slipping us some funny C-notes instead of real money. As a result, I ended up owing my “employers” an amount unattainable for those times: nearly five thousand dollars.
There was nowhere at all for me to get this money. However, my employers treated me well. They didn’t send tough guys after me with baseball bats, but suggested I work off the debt – by collecting weekly payments from the kiosks that they “protected” on Arbat Street. This I could not do and, persuading them to wait one month, I began seeking the path to my salvation.
Strangely enough, a path was found: in the US I located a partner who was interested in the technology I had been developing over the last two years. We decided to open a joint venture and, with a Herculean effort, I convinced him to send me money as an advance on my future share. This sum made up nearly ten percent of our “capital” at that time, which my partner had acquired from his friends. Nevertheless, he took a risk; it turned out to be the best decision of his life.
And now, having repaid my debts and wrapped up my Russian affairs, I stood in line for customs inspection in the departure wing of Moscow Sheremetevo Airport. November 1992 was passing. I was completely disappointed, both in Russia and in my abandoned novel. Actually, it was still too early for me to write something serious. And the country was quickly becoming a violent, disgusting place. All the worst of humanity had bubbled to the surface and run amok. Those who found it unpleasant could only get the hell out of there.
The customs officer, young and impudent, carelessly set to rummaging in my bag. Suddenly he lighted upon something, and his eyes twinkled. In his hands was a pack of diskettes that contained everything: all my computer programs, calculations, presentations, and so on. “This is restricted!” he announced with a sneer. “It’s not allowed to leave the country! We’re confiscating this.”
I knew he was lying to extort a bribe, but I was helpless – his supervisors were far away, and the plane wasn’t going to wait. Besides, the customs administration would most likely take issue with something else to insure I wouldn’t press my rights. I had heard many stories about this practice, and I had no illusions.
The customs official and I stepped to the side. He forced me to empty my pockets, then reached into my wallet and took all my cash, leaving only some loose change for coffee.
On the escalator as I ascended toward my gate I resolved that never again – NEVER! – would I return to this country.
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Genre – Literary Fiction
Rating – PG13