Cultural Treasure

Literature and art are precious commodities to Soviet citizens

One of the articles in USSR/USA (IC#15)
Originally published in Winter 1987 on page 22
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

Carlos Alcala is a member of the National Alliance of Third World Journalists and writes for El Tecolote, a community newspaper in San Francisco where he lives. He is a student of the Russian language and has been to the Soviet Union twice, once to study Russian and once to participate in the World Festival of Youth and Students. Here he shares with us an experience from his first trip. This was first printed in the Bernal Journal, and is reprinted with permission.

Boris was one of the few men I met and talked much with in Moscow. He is probably in his early ’40s, though he looks much younger. He’s an instructor in one of Moscow’s many institutes and has the appearance of some kind of beatnik: longish hair (for a Russian) with a mustache and large goatee.

I met him because his wife Tania had told me that he was interested in getting some books from the beriozka bookshop where purchases must be made in dollars, pounds, or other "hard currencies." Shopping is generally limited to non-Soviets. Though I was not interested in any illegal or quasi-illegal activities, I was eager to do a favor for the people who had been so kind to me.

So I arranged to meet Tania one evening by the Pushkin monument (Pushkin is like a Russian Shakespeare, only more so) and walked through the snow to where Boris was waiting in his car. I had been uncertain as to whether I would recognize Tania since people look a lot alike when covered up with gloves, heavy coats,and hoods or fur caps. However, I knew I would be easy to pick out. A six-foot-tall brown man with a beard wearing a purple down parka is not a common sight in Moscow.

We got into Boris’ car (the only private auto I rode in while in the U.S.S.R.), which reminded me of the old Volkswagen "Thing"– a bare-essentials type of vehicle. Fortunately, it had a working heater. Boris had me put the seat belt across me but told me I didn’t need to buckle it. I guess the law says you are supposed to wear a belt, but many Soviets aren’t any more enthusiastic about it than many Americans.

Now, I expected to go with Boris and Tania to the store while they picked out a few books. I also wanted them to advise me on what, of the Russian literature, would be good and not too hard for me to read. Then I would pay for the books. I expected he would offer me rubles for the ones he picked, and I would magnanimously refuse, saying "It’s my pleasure." But it didn’t work out that way.

Boris asked how much I was willing to spend. I said it didn’t really matter; I had plenty of money. We drove on through the city, and I began to lose track of where we were. He stopped the car somewhere on a side street and hopped out, saying he’d be right back. Tania and I stayed in the car.

The reason Soviets are interested in books from the beriozka is not that there are books that the government doesn’t want the average citizen to read. All the books are regular publications: children’s books, literary, political, and technical works, and art books.

The problem is that, though many books are published in the Soviet Union (more titles per year than in the U.S.), books are put out in small runs, between 20,000 and 300,000 copies. This is not enough in a large, very literate society. As a result, editions sell out quickly in the regular stores. The beriozkas, however, have a slower turnover and consequently have some things available that are difficult to find elsewhere.

There is a book black market as well. Tania told me that a number of years back, a book Boris wanted, Master and Margarita by Bulgakov, was not being published. Tania had bought it on the black market for 60 rubles (about $80). The Russians are as serious about their literature as Americans are about football. At the beriozka, the price was about 3 rubles.

Boris opened the car door and got back in. "Will this do?" He handed me three crisp $50 bills. "Sure," I answered uncertainly and stuck the money in my pocket. Boris also handed me a large book of color photos of Kremlin Palace. "This is for you."

We got to the beriozka, a store with curtains on the windows so you can’t see in, and entered. I was pretty uncomfortable with the situation, but Boris and Tania seemed at ease, and none of the store’s workers bothered us. I suspect that there are a fair number of Russian shoppers in these stores.

Because I had been to Leningrad but had not seen the Hermitage Art Museum, Boris and Tania insisted that I pick out one of the many books about the Museum. Since I already suspected that they were going to pay for the other books I had picked out, I chose the smallest one I could find.

We ended up getting over $100 worth of books, mostly literature and art. At Soviet prices, that bought between 26 and 30 books, all hard cover.

We went back to Tania’s apartment and sorted the books out, and, as I expected, they wouldn’t take any money for the books I had chosen. All the Russians I met were comparably generous. It often made me sad that the situation is such that I will not likely get a chance to return their hospitality and have them as guests in my home.

A love of their literary and cultural heritage was another common characteristic of the Russians I met. They were generous in that way, too, lending me books and talking to me about their poetry, movies, theater, and other arts.

The cultural consciousness and generosity of the Soviets I met were two of the most striking things about my trip and two of the reasons I hope I can visit the Soviet Union again soon.

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