By Justin Lifflander
This article appears in the December 2016 edition of The Foreign Service Journal, dedicated to analyses and comment on the 25th anniversary of the breakup of the USSR. The journal is the flagship publication of the American Foreign Service Association – the professional association and labor union for America’s diplomats. The journal has a circulation of 18,000 and goes to diplomats, foreign embassies and key offices on Capitol Hill.
At first it seemed to me as if he was wearing X-ray glasses. Having purchased a fur hat from Sasha, the teenage fartsovshik (black marketeer) working the Oktyabrskaya subway station in Moscow that day in 1986, I earned the right to chat with him in my broken Russian.
As he scanned the passersby in search of potential clientele, I couldn’t figure out how he was able to spot the foreigners. “Look carefully,” he explained. “The facial features, the shoes, the wrist watches, the eye glasses. …” I began to understand how he chose to whom to offerhis znachki (pins) or money changing services.
Thirty years later my fartsovhik is probably a successful oligarch. He and his countrymen no longer think they are “covered in chocolate” – a phrase going back to the Soviet era meaning “fortunate, lucky, living well” – as they build the socialist paradise while the West rots on the garbage heap of history.
Living and working in Russia for the past three decades, I’ve become acquainted with people from a broad range of social strata—from government ministers to migrant workers. I turned to them to collect and distill their insights on how Russian thinking has changed since the end of the USSR.